“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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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!