“Glowing Embers Lie Across The Sky”

With all my classes now over and only two exams left, I thought I would write a post about this last term and my year abroad so far.

Everyone around me is currently studying very hard, which makes it even more odd that this is my most freest time of the semester. I’m glad to say that this semester has been easier – but not by much as there was still reading and other work to do every day so I again haven’t done that much. I have no idea how other exchanges manage to go on trips all the time – for instance, Tina’s roommate Amy is often away at the weekend doing some awesome trip, as well as all the people in my Dutch class (which is only for exchange people). In this respect I feel that my time here has not been used to the fullest as when I look back I will probably not remember the huge work load I had and just think “why didn’t I ever go anywhere?”

However, I do think Tina and I have made up for this during the breaks, and my (non-existent) “places visited in Europe map” has come on leaps and bounds. Before I had only visited Western Europe and now I have far out-reached that, going to Central and also Eastern Europe – even making it as far as GMT+2! I’m sure this isn’t as exciting compared to some globetrotters, but I think it’s quite reasonable when your family has only been outside the UK to visit the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Plus visiting 13 countries (Belgium, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Sweden) isn’t bad!

Saying this I also haven’t visited that much of the Netherlands, which I hope to change soon. I did the most travelling to Gronigen, Leeuwarden and the Keukenhof while my dad was visiting. You see, the Dutch may be hospitable and invite you to your house but they then don’t get round to actually taking you – unless you invite yourself over (minus Gerrianne!).

My list of Dutch places I have been to includes Amsterdam (not the first time, but the first Queens Day), Rotterdam, Breda and Alphen an der Rijn. However, in the academic void (or the break between spring and summer term), I have managed to organise a trip round the Netherlands which includes staying at people’s houses along the way. The advantage of knowing locals! So after that I can add Texal, Apledoorn and Aalten to the list. In other words, as I have mentioned before, if you plan to go travelling on your year abroad don’t choose the best University College of the best University in a country that has the 4th best higher education in the world, as you won’t be doing a lot of it!

Many of the little differences between the nations I have now got over or around, and now actually find it quite hard to remember what they were. The problem of not taking my bank cards is okay as I know people with Euro accounts who I can give cash too and I just generally live a cash life, except you forget sometimes and then have to make a long walk from the place you are at to get cash. The reading of these ‘text book’ things I have got used to, and I am more on top of it than most people, hence why I can write this even though it’s Finals Week. The bike riding is obviously fine as I used to bike to school except everyone else’s bikes are now falling apart leaving mine the only one working in my unit, even though it now only has one brake thanks to Tina. At least it now looks awesome though:p

For this term Tina and my plan of cooking every Friday went astray after four weeks. It was good while it lasted though she insisted that all the food I made was incredibly unhealthy even when it was mostly vegetables and she also specifically stated that pasta was unhealthy :/ This, I think, helped towards the demise of our plans. I believe we have gone to the bar and parties just as much as before, but the waiting around for everyone to be done and working to ‘Linda and Tina time’ means we don’t get many pre-drinks in. Myrte will have some even more dull Friday evening’s when I am not around. Sofie made a big step the other day, and we are all very proud, as she danced in the bar on a party night! She says that this time was enough for a year, but we hope to see her again there soon.

For my courses, Discovering the Dutch was interesting and I enjoyed taking it as it was easy, but also dull at points when the classes were on medieval Utrecht and Golden Age art. However it’s opened my eyes up to things in the Netherlands I wouldn’t have learned otherwise – such as their schooling system is the same as our old Grammar school one, which I only realised from the class even though we’ve had many discussions about it as friends.

Psycholinguistics was fun and mostly like cognitive psychology with a bit of clinical as we learned about people with language disorders. It was the closest to psychology out of my four courses so I was happy with it.

Evolution, Culture and Human Nature was also good, and despite being a level 3, was also relatively easy as when you’re taking something from an interdisciplinary perspective details are going to be simpler. I am very proud of my essay on Emotion vs Rationality for this class as rationality really interests me and I made some insights I hadn’t thought of before, like emotions are a signal for you to make a decision (see my paper for more details, Birch, 2012). I am also happy with the whole class presentation we had to give on it as I got told I was a good presenter. I am very pleased with this as I had never done a presentation before coming here and now I have done many I feel a lot easier with them, though I am still not relaxed about it.

Sociology is the big disappointment of the semester. I do not advise people to take it. I do not believe what these great minds are telling me about society is true and anything I think is reasonable they have just taken from psychology and then renamed everything and pretended it’s their own – such as the analogy that everyone is on a stage and has many different front stages that they use depending on who is in the audience and therefore not many people know their back stage. This sounds a lot like ingroups, outgroups, group norms and group behaviour to me. Essentially if it is not psychology then it is philosophy as even though they say they’d like their work to be scientific it often isn’t based on anything empirical and this annoys me a lot. Sociology is no ‘queen of the sciences’ and certainly wasn’t the easy subject that I hoped it would be.

I don’t really know how I can go back to Exeter at this stage as it is hard to even recall that I went to somewhere so totally different in size, ethos and attitude. Especially as when I go back I won’t really know anyone as all the third years I was with will have graduated. I have set up some things for my return though – I will be a global buddy (helping international students find their way around and adapting to university in Exeter), a student life mentor (helping first years with all their daily life issues living in halls and with general university), SSAGO rep (Student Scouts And Guides Organisation) and Scout Rep for SAGE ( Scouts And Guides Exeter), as well as helping out with 10th Exeter Scout troop, who I was with the year before this. It sounds a bit hectic when I put it like this, perhaps I will be the new Tina and run off my feet all the time with constant committee meetings. We will see.

The sad part about University College is that I have not really joined any societies/committees. With the college being small it doesn’t offer the more quirky societies that I am a member of in Exeter such as Frisbee, Surfing, Aerobics, Amnesty International, Scouts and Guides etc. and has the more mundane football, hockey, newspaper, dancing, drama that I am not that intrigued about. I would also not be able to fit it around my studies and have no idea how anyone else manages to do any committee work as well as get good grades. I couldn’t. However what these committees do manage to do is amazing – with us winning the trophy an inter-UC – and I enjoyed very much the open mic night, the musical (Rent), the dance show, improv and Super Sticky Surfaces (the college’s soap drama which is really funny – Exeter should think about making one). There certainly are very many talented people at UC.

At Exeter, as it is so big (16,000 students versus UCU’s 600), I feel like I do not get to see everything Exeter has to offer, such as the drama and sports groups. Exeter is a lot more cliquey and closed and does not have the same community that it does here. I hope to change this next year and attend a lot more on-campus events as I really enjoyed seeing them here. This might be easier than previous years as I will be living on campus next year for the first time! It’s still 20 minutes from central campus though, which UCUers would not understand. In fact they really don’t understand, often saying “why don’t you bike?”  Hello! Exeter University is one big hill! A hard thing for a Dutch mind to contemplate!

However we can hold those tears back for a while as even though my studies are over it is not the end of year abroad as I will be staying around for the summer courses (which I am not taking) and so won’t be leaving till the end of June (with a short intermission to Lancaster for the Queen’s Jubilee weekend)! Yet I know this is not going to be the same as there will be no dining hall, so we’ll have to cook for ourselves (we’ll see how much they complain about dining hall after this) and I guess the Dutchies, in their confusing way, will be at home a lot. Hence I think this term will be a lot of highs of doing fun stuff as I don’t have work and others are free, and lows of severe boredom while those that do have courses are studying hard (but I can try to sneak home with those that leave, so all is not lost). I can’t contemplate what the weeks after this term will be like, but I will use them to the fullest as my time in Utrecht is nearly up. T -50 days and counting 😦

The inspiration for the title and the anthem for the rest of my time at UCU – Lostprophets – Last Summer

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Belgrade – What’s Serbian For “Don’t Cut My Fringe”?

Being woken at 4am by a police officer is not a good start to the day, but it is expected when you are taking a sleeper train. After a second wake-up call from the Serbian as well as the Croatian police we arrived in Belgrade at 6.10am. If I’m honest the view from Belgrade station was nowhere near as nice as Zagreb – a block of buildings covered in adverts with a busy road separating us from them. However, when we turned around to look at the station, it was actually a really beautiful building.

We didn’t know what to do in Belgrade so we tried to find the tourist information. It was closed, but would be opening soon so we grabbed a cheap pastry from the bakery and ate it whilst watching the pigeons. We went back as it was supposed to be open, but it wasn’t so we waited some more. Typical Serbians (apparently). When it had opened we received a map with a suggested walking route. We dropped off our bags for the cost of €2 and headed in the designated direction.

It was quiet in the city as it was early in the morning and the shops hadn’t even opened yet. This wasn’t doing much for my opinion of the city as it just appeared grey and lifeless (this changed later in the day when more people and atmosphere arrived). We walked past a clock counting down to the Olympics and a poster that intrigued us as it was of a politician but he was anti-EU. Klementina had said how all the Balkan countries were trying to get into the EU which made me think that the UK, with UKIP, was the only country with real anti-EU sentiments. Klementina just explained it was for an opposing party and we moved on.

Our route was taking us towards Belgrade Fortress and as it came into view it was really charming. The stall holders that lined the path were just setting up and we had a look at one lady’s who had a lot of postcards. All of her merchandise was old such as postcards of Yugoslavia. Some even had messages on where someone had posted it before. She also had a lot of old bank notes from the former Bank of Yugoslavia and told us how they had the record for the largest printed bank-note at 500,000,000,000 dinar. Klementina bought one of these and I bought a collection of notes with Nikola Tesla on the back. Klementina explained how there is a lot of dispute amongst the Balkans about which country he belongs too. He is a big name in science in this area and this was reinforced recently when  I had asked for the name of a famous scientist. Klementina immediately said Tesla where as to my mind Einstein and Newton are at the forefront. Tesla to me is just someone who has something to do with magnets, as a Tesla is the unit for measuring magnetic flux density. Otherwise I don’t really know what he did. Naive? Probably.

We reached the fortress and walked to the edge where we occupied a bench for a long time. In front of us was where the  Danube and the Sava met and here we considered it to be the right time and place to eat the rest of our Speculoous spread  (it wouldn’t be allowed on the plane later anyway). We enjoyed the sun and moved on a little to sit on a wall, where Klementina had a little kip. I was enjoying the scenery and after a little persuasion Klementina joined me to see what the rest of the city had to offer.

In our ramblings we ended up at The Residence of Princess Ljubica which is a museum that is furnished how it was when the Princess lived there. It was a nice house and it was good to do something cultural. However other things were more pressing at the time – we needed a haircut. Serbia was the cheapest country we were visiting on our travels and as we weren’t prepared to pay the expensive prices of Dutch hairdressers we thought we should get it done here. After a semi-wild goose chase trying to find a hairdressers we eventually found two. They were much more expensive than Klementina was expecting, but it was still cheaper than in the Netherlands, so we went for it.

Klementina went first and looked as if she was enjoying her head message whilst she was being shampooed. I, on the other hand, had a very different experience from the man doing my hair. He was very forceful and I was quite glad when he was done. Klementina later said that he was pleading to the other hairdressers to let him wash my hair and they in the end reluctantly gave in. Now was the tricky part, trying to explain how you want your haircut when you know they might not fully understand what you are saying, as English is not their first language. This problem was strengthened by the shop giving me the hairdresser who knew the least English and had to be translated what I wanted. In the end it went quite well, but not perfectly as they didn’t quite understand what I wanted when I said I wanted a side fringe and tried to give me a full fringe instead. Luckily I stopped her before it went too far and now I will just have to wait for this little short piece of fringe on my left to grow out..

As we walked back to the station we were to caught up in chat and had walked to far. However here Klementina had seen signs for the Temple of Saint Sava (Serbia’s largest Orthodox temple). Before when we were going to the Fortress it was too far away, but as we had now walked in the opposite direction and past the train station, it no longer seemed that far on the map. It turned out to be much further and I was getting annoyed as my idealised time schedule for catching the flight to Stockholm was starting to not be adhered to. This was made worse, as once we had got there we did not know the direction to get back to the station as what we were seeing, the map and what people were telling us wasn’t matching up. In the end we power walked back to the station to collect our luggage and catch the bus to the airport.

After some confusion on which station exit to use and which bus to take we were on the more expensive but faster mini-bus to the airport. This didn’t matter though as we were going to catch the plane. Klemetina and I had a dispute, that we still don’t know the real answer to today. I said we didn’t have to go to the desk as we were hand-luggage only, but Klementina insisted she had to, perhaps because she is not an EU member – we are not sure. Whilst I held our place in the queue she went to the front and asked if this was the case. She then came back for the passports and returned saying I needed to go show mine. However when I went to the desks I was not sure who she had talked to and so stood awkwardly next to the queue. A lady then asked me what I was doing to which I replied my friend said I needed to show my passport as I was hand luggage. The lady then confirmed that I didn’t need to and could go straight through to security, in the process she did not enquire about my nationality. Who knows?

Belgrade became one of our favourite airports as we moved through security and passport control easily, the waiting room was comfy and the plane left on time with no hassle. It was amazing.

Late in the evening we arrived at Stockholm Skavsta and surprisingly we didn’t have to go through passport control. This didn’t make sense as we had just come from Serbia which was a non-Schengen country so they should have been checking. I asked Klemetina if we should go back as she would need an in stamp in her passport, otherwise we might have trouble when we tried to leave on Sunday. In the end we decided not too and instead decided to have problems with the ATM in the airport deciding to not work. This meant we had to pay for the bus to Stockholm with the more expensive option of Euros and not Krona.

The bus to Stockholm was a ridiculous two hours and on here we learnt what had happened with passport control. Apparently someone had forgotten to close a door which meant we were able to walk straight out. Others who were waiting for their luggage had been called back, but as we only had hand luggage we were long gone by the time they noticed. I thought this was quite amusing as this story would definitely have been in the newspapers if this had happened in the UK. On the bus we killed time by discussing our mid-university crisis and what we were going to do with the rest of our lives.

Arriving in the city we had a problem as we hadn’t decided which of our two hosts to go to as we hadn’t received information on how to get to either of their homes. I wanted to stay at Tobias’ the first night as we would be going boating on the archipelago with him the next day and then Jonas on the second night. However Jonas came through with how to get there first so we decided to go with him. We navigated the Stockholm T-bahn and met Jonas by the flower shop at Telefonplan station near where he lives. Jonas was full of information and told us how the area was called Telefoneplan because it was where the Ericson headquarters was and also there was a tall building there which the company used to stretch wires. His house was also an old workers house.

At his house he gave us the very important Swedish house tour which every Swede apparently will give you when you visit. This is because Swedes are very house proud – especially because there is a cultural difference that Swedes tend to socialize more in each other homes than in bars. Some other facts we learned that night include; Sweden and Finland used to be the same country and hence they share a similar taste for food, but oddly a completely separate language – not even with the same root. There are more Swedes in the USA than Sweden as lots of people moved there to make more money during a depression and these people have obviously had a lot of children since then. Anyone in Sweden can afford a house with a basic salary, such as a bus driver. The degree that you get will be related to the job you get afterwards, where as in England it is much more flexible and you can get most postgraduate jobs with any degree. Of course we also learned that Scandinavia is not a term that encompass Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland but actually the correct term for this is Nordic countries.

Whilst we were learning all this we were enjoying a true Scandinavian meal. It was pasta with some butter melted over it. “So what do you two think of your first Swedish meal?”. It obviously wasn’t that Swedish.

When a natural pause came in conversation we realised it was really late and we had to get up early to make it to the boating tomorrow.  With Jonas’ help we set up an air mattress on the floor and did a final check of all the information for the trip. We were very excited for the next day, especially as in Croatia we had seen that the Stockholm archipelago was one of the top 500 things to see in the world.

The Mad World of Dutch Banks and Credit Cards

There’s something you’ll realise when you first come to the Netherlands that you would never have thought of. Suddenly all your bank cards don’t work. Sure you see all the Dutch happily put their cards into the chip and pin machines and – yes – their card is accepted. Something is up? What? You don’t accept Visa? The biggest credit card company in the world and this small land has decided it’s having none of it?

Unfortunately if all your cards are Visa you’re going to have to go back to the old school days where you carry cash all the time. Or you could get a Dutch bank account.

That sounds easy right, I mean if you live here how hard can it be?

Previously me and my dad learnt that it can be quite hard. It appears the global banking network is a fallacy and no country is actually connected to another. You call up your home bank and say “Hi, I’m going to study abroad for a year what do you recommend I do with my bank account? If I keep the current one I’ll be charged all the time for changing money into Euros” Turns out they have no clue and they can’t make you a bank account in Euros.

What about ING? They are a Dutch bank that also exists in the UK, can they help? “We don’t talk to our Dutch branches.” WHAT? How ridiculous, what do business men do when they have to travel the world? People move to different countries constantly and live there for only a short amount of time. The outgoing and influx of exchange students into the UK alone must be enough for the banks to consider a solution.

No.

For people going on a year abroad there are some things you can get to help. Norwich and Peterborugh do a debit card which doesn’t charge for withdrawing money and Halifax does a credit card with the same thing. However, it took all summer asking banks what they can do with no response – and then asking someone else coming to UC what they were doing to find them. Thanks Ben! Slight problem is these are both Visa cards – so it still can’t help you with buying things in shops.

Now to that Dutch bank account. You now live in the country so it must be easy. Wrong. First you have to fill out an online form. This is all fine of course. However you have to wait a month until you’ve visited the municipality to officially register yourself with the city, and then wait another week for the letter saying you have done so, to arrive through the post.

The bank now send you an email saying you have to go see them in person with ID. Previously I had learned (by having to bike to and from the post office twice) that other countries do not like the ID that we would consider to be OK (as in your driving licence). This is very annoying as your only other identification is your passport (as the UK doesn’t want ID cards) and this is a lot more valuable than the driving license. Anyway easy lesson, when they want ID bring your passport. What is more you’d think you could go into any building that said “Rabobank” on the side (which there are quite a lot) and sort it out there. No – you have to go all the way across the city to a slightly scummy Turkish area to sort it out. You get lost on the way but eventually find the place. You sign some forms and your PIN will be with you in a week.

It’s now two months since you’ve arrived, but at least everything is looking up and you’ve dealt with the banking bureaucracy. By this time, though, you’ve been living on cash and so you think, “why change? The account will close when you leave at the end of the year and you get a bonus of a Rabobank souvenir.”

Too bad when in December you get an angry email saying how they tried to take €15 out of your bank for opening it, but there wasn’t anything in there so could you kindly put €15 in there so they could have it. Why do I have to pay these people to open an account? Surely they are in competition with the other banks for my money and slapping some price tag on the account makes me want to use them less. If I can open one for free at home, plus it only takes an hour to chat with a lady to do so, then why can’t they? They also want to look after my money too so they can invest it!

Also, as you haven’t been using the card, you don’t know how to put money into the account. But you figure you can just go to the far away bank again and give them the €15 in cash over the counter and that’ll be done with. You eventually find time in your busy schedule to go there. You wait in a queue and after a while get to talk to someone, but they are about to tell you some shocking news.”We don’t deal with cash here”. You are a bank! How can you not deal with cash, that’s why you exist?! However there is some good in the system, and as you are not using the bank account and can’t remember the PIN he can just close the account and you won’t have to pay. Plus – added bonus – you can keep the card. Win! But if you’ve opened the account and shut it for free then, why did you try to make me pay in the first place?

So you emerge triumphant – but there are minor problems you have to overcome when you don’t have a Dutch bank account;

  1. You can’t get a phone contract so looks like you’ll be on pay-as-you-go
  2. All the printers in academic buildings use ‘chipknip*’ in order to pay for them
  3. The snack machines also use this
  4. You can’t buy train tickets from the machine at the station, which means you have to pay an extra €0.50 to buy one from a person at the desk (which is also always on the other side of the station to the one you are on)

*Chipknip is another stupid Dutch system, as the Dutch agree. Mostly it’s how you pay for parking, but UC also uses it. I’ll explain.

Like other bank cards, Dutch ones have a chip, but this chip also doubles as your “Chipknip”. What this means is you need to go to a machine where you can take money from your account and then put some of it onto the Chipknip. Only then can you use the chip to pay for things. This does not make sense, as it would be easier just to deduct money from your main account and not some weird second account thing. Plus the chip is the same chip you use for paying in the shop. Just take out this silly step, its pointless!

Rant nearly over. Maybe if you are Dutch you don’t notice these things and it’s all roses for you? Not true. Ingeniously Dutch bank cards don’t have a CVC number on the back. This means, unless internet shops use the ‘Ideal’ system, you can’t buy anything. This includes plane tickets on Wizz Air, which means you have to set up a complicated bank transfer, or get your foreign friend to do it. Yay for foreign friends!

Intocht Sinterklaas

Today Sinterklaas (St. Nicholas) officially arrived! Hence, even though I had an overbearing amount of work to do, I felt it was something I couldn’t miss.

Sinterklaas is the Netherlands equivalent of  Father Christmas/Santa Claus. However he is a little different, he arrives in November – which is what today is about – and on the 5th December the Dutch children receive their presents. Traditionally this includes a surprise (“surpreesa”) and a poem. A surprise is the vessel that contains the present, it is handmade and should be relevant to the present receiver. My neighbour Sofie is organising this among our friendship group for the 5th so that will be really fun. The children get really excited for this and there is a news program every day after today until the 5th telling the Netherlands about what Sinterklaas has been up to. Hence “it’s the most important Holiday in Holland”.

So Linda, Giselle and I headed to town at 12.30. We didn’t quite know where we were going, but I assumed it would be somewhere near the canal, as Sinterklaas would arrive by boat.  Helped by a lady, this turned out to be true.

We arrived at 12.55 and Sinterklaas was due at 13.00. I had to be given a “backy” to town as two weeks ago Klementina had lent the use of my bike to her coach surfer but the chain had fallen off in town so it had been left there. We took our spots in front of the water and waited to see boats arriving under the bridge.

The turnout was a little disappointing, but as the ‘real’ Sinterklaas was arriving in Dordrecht I thought this might be the reason why. To all my Dutch friends even the Sinterklaas in Doredrecht isn’t the real one. Turns out it is the same person every year (an amazing job!), but last year their one retired along with his horse. This makes Sinterklaas a little less exciting.

Sinterklaas is unlike Father Christmas, who can be anyone (including my grandpa) and the children don’t mind at all. Father Christmas, also, does not have a grand arrival in all the major cities in the country. Sinterklaas visits everyone at school and comes round to your house to give you presents on the actual day. Plus you can leave your shoes outside where you can find sweets from him the next morning. It is also the place you leave your wish list to him. Father Christmas should be this active!

After ten minutes we saw some waving hands on the other side of the bridge, the “Zwarte Pieten” (Sinterklaas’ helpers – who are only similar to elves in the respect that they help). 40 blacked up adults waving at small children, to a foreigner, seems a little weird and the kind of thing they told you became socially unacceptable years ago. However for the Dutch it is perfectly normal. When they were children they didn’t give a second thought to the slavery background, that the spectacle throws up to adult eyes.   

This is forgotten, however, as I had been enlightened on the somewhat ridiculous and apparent racist story of Sinterklaas a month ago. We wave to the colourfully dressed Zwarte Pieten, which includes an entire brass band of them. I thought it would just be one boat but three come through, with the last one pointing backwards and shouting “Sinterklaas” to the dressed up children on the side. The main man himself was soon to arrive. He looked very stunning in his red robe and gave us all a wave.

After he went past we saw people walking along the canal, so we decided to follow the procession. As we did the streets got a little more crowded with tons of children in Zwarte Pieten costumes, plus a few “Sinterlaases”. The main show was obviously up here. Linda was pleased he had a bigger turnout. However a bigger turnout brings its own problems. Mainly, now we can’t see anything. We continue walking turning left and right hoping to find a gap further on, but there wasn’t one.

Eventually the crowd lessened a bit – this must be where he gets off the boat. Some children are standing on a few of the sound system boxes and we can see a little. Linda tries to put me on her shoulders but this doesn’t work. I can fit on the boxes I decided. There was room for two so Giselle also comes up. “Can you make room for me?”, asks Linda and we do.

Sinterklaas arrives and we can see the odd glimpse of him. The children around us are very excited. Something about ‘bumble piet’ gets said over the speakers, of course we don’t understand, it’s in Dutch. Music plays but we don’t see anything exciting going on. People are leaving but I’m confused why. This does mean however that the kids who were on the boxes had moved, we could get a better look!

It’s not that much better but we see some bigger boxes behind so we climb them. “I don’t see what they’re looking at”, says Linda. “Oh there in the middle”, I point. A Piet is doing acrobatics on two pieces of cloth. It’s impressive but goes on a bit too long. Especially when they’re trying to entertain children who have the attention span of the dog from Up!

It is announced Sinterklaas will be heading to the Dom so we decide to leave, but everyone is going in the opposite direction so we choose to stay. “I want to see his horse”, says Linda. We see a walkway being made through the crowd but a security guard stands in front of us – charming. The Zwarte Piet are coming and give out sweets to the kids (which turned out to be “peppernoten”, not sweets – a biscuit type thing that only come out for the Sinterklaas season, a bit like cream eggs do). They give us some and then the big guy himself walks by, I get to shake his hand – task complete for the day.

We head back up the canal to where we left our bikes and we notice the massive balloons that were by the water earlier had been given out. We were a little disappointed. Further along Linda sees a banner. It is only attached by one cable tie, so she tried to get it off with her key. It isn’t working. She asks an official looking man if we can have it and he tells us to ask someone in a red coat. He didn’t seem that bothered. If we couldn’t get the cable tie off we could rip the banner so we try to and it breaks the cable tie! We quickly fold up the banner and make a hasty exit.

Thankfully there is no one in a red coat coming after us. Linda kindly gives it to me as a present and I am very grateful. We get to our bikes and we see lots of children are sitting on the road side, something must be happening here too so we decide to stick around. We head into a shop to bide some time. I see some Zwarte Piet trousers, but unfortunately they were for kids and would’ve looked ridiculous on me.

When we head to pay we hear music on the street. There is a parade of Zwarte Pieten now. We find a good spot to stand and along rides Sinterklaas on his majestic white horse. It doesn’t matter he’s not the real one, it’s still fun. Here we also bump into Alizee and some other UCUers and have a chat. Then we head back to campus. Guilt tells us we can’t put off work anymore – as much as we would like too.

When I get back I decide to put the banner up. It’s a little ridiculous in size as it is as tall as my wall and I have to hammer in some drawing pins to keep it up! It looks awesome though – a very good day.

Exeter Social, Exams and Excitement

The “Exeter Social” went really well, though not as many games were played as wanted. I guess the Dutch don’t feel it so necessary a thing before going out. Apart from that we all sat around and chatted and it was pretty much like at Exeter. The Pimms went down just as well as it did when I showed my family. I’m sure Pimms could do a good deal in export as even the complicated people who don’t really like alcohol enjoy it. The next morning people complained to me how their head hurt and how they weren’t going near Amaretto again, but also how they had a really good time. It was an unquestioned success. I would defiantly like to do it again.

This was actually my last time going out as Exams were on the horizon. It is not fun and I am definitely not used to having classes whilst revising for exams. It was a hard slog as I had two exams on the Thursday (Maths and Lifespan Developmental Psychology) and on Friday, Social Psychology – the former two being straight after each other. There should be some kind of rule about not allowing exams of such different topics to be next to each other. Even I, who I guess should have had much practice at transferring between maths and psychology, cannot – in fifteen minutes – make the switch properly. Logic and numbers to factual and essays does not work.

Luckily the maths went quite well so I wasn’t too traumatized by it. However Lifespan was particularly hard and I have learnt that multiple choice is also not one of my strong points. Especially as I marked the answer on the question paper and then wrote the letter on the part to be handed in – and when I checked back, these two wouldn’t match up. I guess it’s just an extension of the schoolboy errors that drag my mathematics grades down, such as putting plus when you mean minus. At the end of the class the teacher gave out the key to the multiple choice. I got 19/30 so in Exeter this would be a 2.1. However he had set this mark as a C which is a 2.2 (i.e. a grade lower). Stupid conversions.

However the Social Psychology exam on Friday went much better and I was pretty confident with it. His multiple-choice was much nicer and far less specific. Plus there was less material in general to cover. I’m also glad linguistics was a few weeks earlier as in the winter having three exams in one day is going to be horrendous.

Klementina and I planned to go to the bar for end of exams but in the end we only went for a bit. I hadn’t packed anything for the hitchhike and my ten days away so I was doing this. This also included planning a vague route and trying to find a whiteboard in town, but failing and so using a plastic sleeve instead. This worked quite well as a whiteboard so a tip for budding hitchhikers: a plastic wallet with some white paper inside and a whiteboard pen is far cheaper and just as good as a proper whiteboard. We also bought loads of food and so when I had finally packed everything, the food bag was bigger than my actual bag.

Most of the evening was spent making a map of San Sebastian courtesy of Google maps. This was so when they announced the hostel address the next day we could run to the room and mark it. Then when we were dropped off randomly in San Sebastian we would know vaguely where to go.

We set the alarms so we still had time to go to town again, as Klementina hadn’t gone to the supermarket as she forgot she had a meeting yesterday and she needed to get money out. The big adventure was drawing near and it was starting to get a bit surreal.

The Travels Commence

Two weeks since I wrote this! Last weekend we didn’t end up going to Sofie’s house as Klementina had too much work to do so instead on Saturday I went on a canal cruise with Alizee and Carol. It was lovely as the sun was shining. This did mean that I didn’t pay a lot of attention to what the tour guide was saying but it didn’t matter. Utrecht is very nice and I learned little things, like underneath each lamppost is a different carving.

The weekend before, on the Sunday, I went to Rotterdam with Klementina which was largely disappointing and very expensive, €20 return! We had a tour of the docks, but it was a bit dull as it was mostly about the different cargo that was being brought in. Plus Rotterdam, being an industrial city, it wasn’t very pretty.

However we went to see the cube houses which were really cool, but I would quite like to know how much one would cost. Rotterdam does have amazing architecture, but it’s still not somewhere I would like to live. The pouring rain didn’t help its cause much either. We did find some cute jumpers knitted for lampposts and trees, so perhaps it is nice if you know what to look for. In hindsight if you plan a spontaneous visit to a city it’s probably worthwhile taking someone who knows their way around.

The train home was a nightmare as it terminated in Worden, for some unknown reason, and as we didn’t understand the Dutch announcement we sat on the train for a while till someone said there was a bus outside. So we ran, but got there just in time to see the bus pull away and the next one wasn’t for an hour. This meant we would miss dinner. So I thought if we have to stand in the car park for an hour we might as well try to hitch a lift. Luckily this pulled off and we even beat the bus back to Utrecht station. I was learning the Dutch seem much keener to pick up strangers than in the UK. Overall if we did get the tickets for Den Hague, like we were supposed to – in order to see the European courts, then the day would’ve been much better.

Unfortunately the Wednesday after that I had to go fetch my bike so I could buy some ingredients to make cakes for our family dinner. However it was stolen!* Joy. So I had a kerfuffle with the police and insurance to maybe get some money for it rather than venturing to the supermarket. This was doubly disappointing as I had just had my first presentation, so baking was going to be a celebration. Instead it was a disaster.

The presentation I think went well though. I am not sure as I don’t really know what is expected from a presentation, no one really gives you any guidelines for anything. It was a poster presentation for psychology and I at least think ours was better than some as theirs was more like a power point and ours was definitely a poster. We’ll see how it goes; I don’t need to think about it anymore.

I did manage to borrow Sofie’s bike and got the ingredients for the cakes. They turned out to be a big success. I made butterfly cakes with chocolate sponge and instead of the normal wings, I used cookies. Even “Auntie” Veerle (who wasn’t at the party) told me she’d heard much about them from my “mum”. They couldn’t stop talking about it. It was nice to have a reunion as I know some families fall apart the day after intro week. But it did feel a bit distant as if our family had a split, but I guess that is to be expected if you just throw thirteen people together in a group. I guess they can’t all be the best of friends. I wonder if we will have another again as I expected it to turn into a party after and for us all to go to the bar. However everyone pretty much left and we helped clear up.

That night was also the meeting for the hitchhike in the break. Myrte, Klementina and I went and it was pretty crowded. It sounded really fun. The day after exams everyone meets on the quad and a picture is taken. Then we are off. We are allowed to take public transport within Utrecht in order to get to the motorway, but after that it is not allowed. At set times you send a text back to the organisers who then send a reply saying which place everyone is in. The winners get a trophy and on the Monday evening everyone has a meal together. San Sebastian is the destination, which didn’t thrill me to start with as Spain isn’t that interesting. However I looked it up and it turns out to be a surfing haven. So this changed my views a little. Klementina and I teamed up and with two hitchhikes under our belts this term; we feel we can do well.

Some things in here are different to the hitchhike in Exeter which I also participated in. It was from Exeter to Amsterdam. Here we had to go in boy-girl teams or boy-boy teams only. Whereas in UCU this is not the case. You can go in groups of two or three and made up of any amount of sexes you wish. I understand why Exeter does this as there is of course a danger in Hitchhiking, which is greater if you’re a girl. However I guess this rule is not enforced as the ratio of boys to girls in UCU is quite high so it would not work and lots of people would not be able to go.

Another thing that UCU could do easily, joined with HumanitarianCo, is do it for charity. With Exeter you pay so much to go – which is donated to charity – and then if you raise that amount of money back then you get to go for free. This has two benefits. One, if you can do something for charity why not, especially when it makes you feel better. Second, if you’re wearing a charity hitchhike t-shirt then I’m pretty sure more people will pick you up. Especially as en-route people would be able to recognise you all as a collective. Hence, as we learn in social psychology, familiarity creates likability, so more lifts. A downside for Exeter, though, is the initial payment is over £100 which is quite hard to pay, so if they met somewhere in the middle, this would be the best hitchhike.

Following the former entry the “Exeter Social” is going ahead tonight which should be fun. Ali has Pimms and I’m going to try to get rid of my bag of wine left over from Pukkelpop. We hope to introduce some Exeter games such as “Fives” and “Ride the Bus”. We also hope to change this trend of calling “Ring of Fire” “King’s cup”, i.e. the American version. Myrte is coming too so I look forward to it.

I can’t think of much else that happened except the joys of studying. I had two exams today maths and linguistics and I think they went okay. I’ve also bought all my tickets for fall break now so I reckon overall it’ll cost €500. It’s expensive – but exciting and so probably worthwhile. San Sebastian – England – Budapest!

*The bike was to turn up again a week later outside the dining hall. It had not been stolen after all – I had forgotten where I had parked it one evening!

The Legendary Bartenders’ Weekend

It seems you should expect bigger distances in time between these posts..

So last weekend was Bartenders Weekend (BTW), which was pretty awesome! Except for the funny fact that only one beer was pulled by any new bartender and we weren’t even allowed behind the bar! Funny as this was supposed to be a weekend for the new bartenders in BarCo so you think a little bit more training would have been involved.

The weekend was based around team events such as team downing a pitcher (or chugging in campus talk), musical chairs, boat race and dancing on Friday night; smoothie, cocktail making and Fox Hunt on Saturday. Each event earned you points and if you got the most then your drink – as each team had a different drink as their name – was put in the bar. We were “a long comfortable slow screw up against the wall”. Both nights were heavy with the first giving me a bit of a headache in the morning (normally I am blessed with little signs of drinking).

However BarCo knew a way to cure this which was to play Roxanne at 10.30am before breakfast. Roxanne is a song by the Police and at the beginning of the song you squat on the floor with your drink and then every time the song says Roxanne you stand and take a drink. Take a listen of the song to see how terrible this is and not what you want to play the morning after. Even worse afterwards my thighs were agony, which lasted until Wednesday. Any use of stairs was hell, luckily I’m on the ground floor so there was minimal stair usage.

All the Exeter Streatham campus people were there which was good for some bonding. We talked a lot about how we miss cider and how the current glorious weather would have been the perfect opportunity to have one. Unfortunately Holland doesn’t do cider, and especially not the Kopperberg fruit ones I like. The bar does have cider, which apparently is rare, however it’s not the best and is most likely Strongbow.

My team in the anything but clothes challenge

 

On the Saturday night the free beer stopped at midnight (during the weekend all people doing BTW are allowed as much beer as they like, not bad for €10). Hence everyone stocked up both by ingesting and making towers of beer around the bar. I over did this a little though so went home even though there was still beers sitting on the table. My inability to resist free things had betrayed me.

However beforehand we played beer pong and I was unashamedly awesome – just as good as the American, Sam, for whom beer pong is a national sport. This included me getting the winning shot, which was a definite highlight.

Also a crazy storm happened during the Saturday (as if I hadn’t had enough of those having been at Pukkelpop this year). It had constant lightning which blew a tree down outside dining hall. Apparently the bar had to shut early at 3am, as in student style, people were trying to take the fallen tree into dining hall. Unfortunately their plan was faltered by security who came along and said everyone was too drunk, so the party was ended. True party poopers!

On Sunday we helped clean the bar at 4pm, which for me involved cleaning the brass rail around the bottom of the bar and the chairlift. This wasn’t so bad as after we had a chat in the bar as we waited for our free WHOLE pizza, which unfortunately took forever. Plus we enjoyed a few more free beers. Afterwards, full from pizza, we went to dining hall to get some fruit (if you choose not to have dinner you can still go and get four fruit instead). However I put my Xcess key to the scanner too quickly (which is how you pay). This meant that the light that shows your allowed to take the food didn’t go off between me and the person before me. Result: I wasn’t allowed any food. Good thing I did have a pizza earlier!

BTW is another instance of “there is no way any University would ever allow this in the UK” – i.e. students being allowed and basically encouraged to drink beer for two days. In  Exeter, when we’re on a committee/board we have to sign something that says were not allowed to encourage others to drink – this defiantly wouldn’t pass!

This isn’t allowed (in Exeter anyway)

But the BarCo is pretty awesome. It is set up and run entirely by students so that everyone who works a shift does it for free. Although you are allowed to have a free beer, cider or soft drink every half hour, which isn’t bad (drinking whilst bartending would also definitely be a no-no). This means that pretty much everyone can get involved and the student bar is actually fully theirs! It also allows them to make a good profit and so it is basically a small business. In essence, yeah you don’t get paid, but it’s worth it as you get a great weekend and if nothing else something to put on your CV.

Tuesday there was meant to be a party in the Kromhout (another hall) bike shed. This would’ve been great as it seems Dutch but apparently it isn’t really that Dutch but we can pretend. However the scary House Master, Marteen Diederix, got word of it and it had to be moved to a flat in G instead. It was very impressive how they could turn a normal unit into a dance club. Plus the amount of free drink provided by Primus (one of the fraternities on campus). I’m getting quite used to this free beer thing.

Wednesday the unit girls and Linda had a chill night in Klementina and Zeynep’s room, which included some African dancing round a table.

Thursday was meant to be HumCo’s Jungle party but we didn’t go and instead watched two films, I am Legend and She’s the Man. Again I was impressed I didn’t fall asleep, but I definitely nearly did many times.

Today we had to go to the municipality to register with the city, which took a good portion of the day. However now this is done I am officially a resident of Utrecht and the Netherlands! It was also Rosana’s first ride into town as she couldn’t ride a bike before coming to Holland – which is a nice thing to say you have learnt while in the land of the bicycles.

This week there was also the best rainbow I’d ever seen!

Now for Monday I have two assessments and five chapters to read and another for Tuesday. I also have to write part of the social poster for a presentation which needs to be done at 13.30, in order to meet my group and is actually due on Wednesday. Plus the obvious maths test Thursday, two chapters of social and last Tuesday’s linguistics reading, as I don’t have the book. So tomorrow and the rest of the week will be fun – don’t envy me too much! Saturday will be especially joyous, and on Sunday we are going to The Hague, so all work for next Monday has to be done by then!

On an actually more fun note a family pot luck dinner has been proposed for Thursday night and Sofie is taking me and Klementina home next weekend. Also an Exeter pre-drinks has been proposed to show the Dutch how it’s done – apparently we play a lot more drinking games then they do. For them they mostly consist of King’s Cup (Ring of Fire) and I Have Never, with no mention of such beauties such as Fives, Ride the Bus, and the Horse Racing game – to name a few. I made a Facebook group for it today. So there’s good and bad to come.