Thursday, 6 March 2014

Will you hire me?

Jordaan - Amsterdam

The academic year is slowly but surely coming to its end. I should be relishing my last couple of months in the Netherlands but instead I am worrying about my future. The constant worry of what I’m going to do during my long summer holiday has sort of taken the wind out of my sails. Like most students, my number one priority is to use the abundance of time I will have to gain some professional exposure. The overused “you must get as much work experience as possible – that’s what’ll make you stand out!” statement resounds in my head. The problem is I have no idea what I want to do later and in what industry I am aiming to “stand out”. While some people believe it to be a blessing because I can apply for internships in many fields and therefore will have better luck getting one, I find it makes the whole process painfully intimidating. The big bad world of employment is not inviting. Sipping cocktails and letting the sun bronze my skin is.   

Alas I have begun, stroopwafel and tea in hand, the gruelling process of job applications. I’m trying to sell myself to prospective employers who have most definitely heard it all before. Strong interpersonal skills, many extracurricular activities, charity work – not exactly stand-out-from-the-crowd material in this day and age. However I did feel a sense of pride when adding my Erasmus exchange in the Netherlands to my CV. After all, I did move to a foreign country for a year where I didn’t speak the language and to a city I had never been to before. That’s (fingers crossed) bound to make me stand out.

I am sometimes graced with condescending comments from friends doing their third year in industry. Yes it’s invaluable for your CV and you are getting the precious work experience employers are banging on about but there’s something about living in a foreign country that makes you extremely adaptable, open-minded and interesting. The entertaining stories up your sleeve, the confidence to talk to anyone you cross paths with make you far better company than someone who spent nine months sat at a desk in a large corporate firm.

Reckless behaviour

Those who believe that visiting and living in a country are comparable are sorely mistaken. You cannot get out of a holiday what you get from settling into another country. Granted, you cannot put ‘experience with opening a foreign bank account’ down as a qualification but the skills you pick up from living elsewhere will come in handy one day when you will be left to think on your feet. In most job interviews I have had, the interviewer has been far more interested in my language skills and the fact that I have lived in three countries than any of my (not to be subdued) previous job positions. And that says a lot.

If, however, you were lucky enough to get a job or an internship in a foreign country for your third year out then you are on the fast track to success. You also make the rest of us look either boring for staying close to home or unprofessional for prancing about at another university for a year. Thanks.

Monday, 10 February 2014

I missed the Netherlands

Good morning Utrecht!

I have just returned to the Netherlands after a five-week break. I ate a lot of festive foods and caught up with friends but spent a disturbingly large amount of time hanging around my cat Daisy telling her my secrets and imagining her replies.

I live in the South of France. It was fifteen degrees when I was there, I was sauntering about in a t-shirt and I loved it. I don’t, however, love the French. It continuously baffles me how they can be so miserable when they live in such a ridiculously beautiful part of the world. But I’m used to them, they’ve been pissing me off for years.

What surprised me was how much I wanted to be back in Utrecht. I missed feeling short next to other humans. The French are so petite that they could fit in a Dutchman’s pocket. I craved the thrill of adventure that comes with exploring a new city and its hidden gems. I even missed riding my bike amongst a herd of Dutch commuters. But above all I could not wait to be reunited with my friends and rejoice in their foreign banter.

Before returning to Dutch turf I spent a week in the French Alps on my university’s ski trip. Ninety of us packed into one bus for a fourteen-hour journey all the way down to a land where gods and goddesses effortlessly glide down the slopes under the beaming sun. It was a fantastic week of eating overpriced Panini’s on the slopes, slipping on black ice, après-ski with Swedish men and light bonding with the Dutch (yay it’s happening!).

At high altitudes in Val Thorens

I’m now back on campus and ready to take the new semester by storm. By that I mean making the absolute most of the time I have left in this country and ignoring most of my work commitments (bar my Dutch language homework, of course). I feel well and truly integrated into Dutch-land and will probably refuse to leave by padlocking myself to a bike rack. But I’ll cross that tragic bridge when I get to it.

It’s pouring with rain outside, I can hear the familiar Dutch twang in my friends’ chatter and I’m once again faced with revolting canteen food. This place is just how I left it and it’s wonderful to be back.

Happy bunny back by the canals

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Unfriend him now

   Break-ups are horrible. There are unstoppable tears, empty Ben & Jerry pots lined up in the kitchen, lengthy discussions on what went wrong, topped by the fear that we’ll never be able to love someone else again. It’s a shit time for anyone.

But the heartbreaks of previous generations were in no way as severe as ours for one reason: the birth of the World Wide Web. Or Internet, as others like to call it. Once we’ve eventually overcome the first post-break up stage (denial) and accepted that we will not be able to just “be friends”, we then have to decide what to do with our ex-significant other on every social media platform we’re both on.

While our hearts are telling us not to delete them for the purposes of mass stalking, our heads urge us to click the unfollow button. Why is he retweeting her? Who is that posting on their wall? And how will you cope when their new relationship status pops up on your news feed? Whip out the tissue box for round two of the sob-athon.

With such easy access to information about your ex it’s hard not to become a stalker with a skill set rivaling that of an MI5 employee. So this begs the question: how are we ever supposed to get over someone when we are constantly bombarded with ambiguous and hurtful information about their life?

To be brutally honest, we won’t. I firmly believe that time heals all wounds but social media acts as red lights on our road to a mended heart. We all know some tragic cases where people will do everything in their power to make their ex jealous over facebook or instagram. Most of the time this backfires, other times they may end up getting back together only to break up a second time.

     My advice to you if you’ve recognized yourself in any of the above-mentioned behaviours and feel it’s high time you moved on: proceed to delete your ex now. To the others: keep trawling for the plenty of fish in the ever-growing facebook sea. 

A column I wrote for my journalism class.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Does time pass? #Philosophicalissue

Wilhelmina Park: ridden through on my way into town

U M G it's November already. To be honest I don't like how the number 2013 sounds anyway so I'm fine with letting it go. I've been here just under 3 months and the novelty of being on my year abroad is semi waring off. I still have to write essays, deal with the cold/rain/wind, stop myself from eating too much crappy food, fix punctured bike tires, etc.; the mundane aspects of life that follow you wherever you go. Some juicy updates however:

  1. I have not yet mastered the biking with no hands on the handle bar. I tried once and nearly gave myself a heart attack as the bike began to steer itself towards a car parked on the side of the road. That would have been beyond embarrassing. I haven't given it another try yet because there are too many judgmental Dutch people around waiting for me to fail miserably at it. I know this because I have a fifth sense about these things.

  2. The boy I went on a date with kind of became the guy I was seeing and then kind of not. Err am I not making sense? I'm a pretty laid back person but this guy was playing hot and cold and I didn't feel like singing the Katy Perry song so I just got bored. Many of the boys here know very well how good looking they are and are definitely making the most of being young, selfish and free. Good on them but I yawned and moved on.

    Brief interlude: Cat & Coffee combo found in many Dutch cafés

  3. Last night I saw the John Lewis Christmas advert for the first time and that bunny rabbit has a strange power over me. It's ears going up and down depending on its emotion make me swoon every time. I am starting to miss England because there's really no better place to be around Christmas time (except maybe in the Caribbean getting drunk on the beach but that's by the by). However, the Netherlands does succeed at creating a festive atmosphere and have some weird and wonderful traditions, so so weird.
  4. My Dutch language skills have come a long way since I've been here. Sometimes I go to the supermarket just so I can showcase my new talent at the checkout (ha that's not entirely true I also go for chocolate). Most times I triumph in them thinking I am a true Dutch gal but other times if they say anything unexpected I am forced to admit that I am just a lousy English girl trying to be Dutch. Oh the pain!

  5. Ronald Plasterk, the old Dutch Minister of Education, once called this school “nothing but a day-care centre for rich kids”. Bit harsh Ronald. Students here are noticeably wealthier though and going to the cinema isn't the treat of the month like it is for some students in Leeds. This makes my world a happier place because people will join me on random escapades (that I plan regularly all in the name of my year abroad) without having to check their online balance first. I mean they're not exactly spreading caviar on toast and popping Moët bottles here but they do like to treat themselves to some of the fancier things in life like going to restaurants and movies (and purchasing drugs).

Actually I have changed my mind throughout the writing of this article, it is still a novelty to be living and studying in the Netherlands - must remember not to become blasé. 

I shall leave you with a good ol' Dutch prank

Monday, 4 November 2013

Salsa in the Netherlands?! Hell to the yes

I was recently asked by the editor of GAPBRAVE to write an article about somewhere specific in Utrecht. GAPBRAVE is the first bilingual global travel guide supporting local cultures worldwide. It's targeted at a young audience that want to travel or live a unique experience abroad, getting to know the local customs of their destination. 

I chose to write about the salsa hotspots in Utrecht so read up if you have itchy dancing feet!

    Now I know what you're thinking, why are the words 'salsa' and 'Netherlands' in the same sentence? But stick with me on this one and I'll sweep you off your feet.

I am currently on exchange at University College Utrecht in the Netherlands. Utrecht is an authentic Dutch city located half an hour south of Amsterdam and is overflowing with yummy restaurants and beer-laden bars, unique boutiques and students from all over the world. I am definitely enjoying being away from the tourists looking to smoke up and get crazy in Amsterdam and I encourage any one with a broader outlook to visit my new home city.

I began taking my university's salsa classes which taught me the basic steps but also introduced me to Utrecht's salsa scene. Unbeknownst to most, this city entertains one of the biggest salsa cultures in Europe. Like in every city you need to know where to go so I hereby present you with two of the salsa venues I have tried and loved.

First up: Café Maria on Mariaplaats. It's a small indoor bar located south of the city centre within walking distance of the centraal station. Just walking by you wouldn't pay much to it but it attracts a large amount of salsa-goers every week. Salsa beginners do not avert your eyes! From 21:30 a salsa teacher holds a free informal beginners class on the dance floor. With him you will learn the basic steps that can easily be evolved later on when dancing with your partner. From about 10 o'clock onwards the floor begins to fill with dancers from all levels and backgrounds. It's definitely worth going to Café Maria just for the free show! Do not worry if you are partnerless because you will quickly be scooped up by a dancer who will adapt to your level. The prices are reasonable, a glass of wine will set you back 3.50€ and a beer 3€.

  • Thursday is salsa night at Café Maria. Entrance is free.
  • It can get crowded and sweaty on the dance floor so dress accordingly and girls bring a hair tie!
  • You can order tapas until 22:00 and the atmosphere dies down at around 1 in the morning.
  • Mariaplaats is a famous square with many bars and restaurants so if you don't have access to Google maps, follow the signs scattered around the city.

Café Maria restaurant and bar

Second: Stairway to Heaven, also on Mariaplaats. This venue is a popular hang out for the locals and boasts two dance floors and an upstairs dining space. Every Tuesday there is a free salsa workshop from 20:30 and salsa regulars come pouring in around 22:00 to showcase their impressive skills. There are no rules but the lower floor is filled with more advanced dancers whereas beginners tend to stay upstairs. Treat yourself to nachos, hamburgers and other juicy meats for dinner (prices do not exceed 16€).

  • Tuesday is salsa night at Stairway to Heaven and is called “Stairway to Salsa”. Entrance is free.
  • Come here if you want to salsa but also have a drink and chat with your friends.
  • You can order food until 22:00 but the atmosphere goes on until late.

Stairway to Heaven

Whatever your level of salsa I guarantee you a fun evening at these Spanish cafés in the heart of a very Dutch city.

Getting to Utrecht:

  • Trains from Schiphol Airport to Utrecht leave every 20 minutes and cost 16.20€ return.
  • Trains from Amsterdam Central Station to Utrecht depart every 15 minutes and cost 14€ return. After midnight, trains depart every hour. 

Monday, 7 October 2013

How can I befriend these people?

As previously mentioned in last month's post, I have found the Dutch to be a little hard to decipher. They are kind and helpful people but the closer you think you are getting to being their friend, the further you actually are. Sometimes I picture myself as a small woodpecker pecking away at a tree (the typical Dutchman) and reaching a very tough bit of the tree that can no longer be pecked through.

Being half Nederlander myself, I am becoming increasingly determined to be accepted into the Dutch community. Don't get me wrong, I've made some great friends here from all over the place but I can't help feel a little envious when I cycle past bars and cafés overflowing with blond people having some terrific banter. There are a couple of obstacles I must peck my way through before being a step closer to joining these nights of laughter and beer with the locals:

Obstacle n°1: Even if you attempt to speak two words of Dutch with them they will immediately switch to English. However, if you do speak English they will ask you “how come you do not speak Dutch?” Breaking this cycle without causing offence requires the diplomatic skills of a UN negotiator. I've been told you need to reply that you are learning but finding it hard which will then give them a sense of superiority.

Obstacle n°2: The Netherlands is a small country which makes traveling around it quick and easy. The Dutch know they are never far from one another and thus reconvene most weekends either in their hometown or in the city where one of them is studying. This means that they seldom experience the alarming thought that they'll end up all by their lonesome if they don't make the effort to kindle new friendships. This all boils down to them not really needing to form new bonds with random foreigners claiming to be half Dutch, making me the woodpecker once again.

So there you have it, the two main obstacles I have encountered so far. But I am not giving up folks, come Spring I'll be writing posts about how I can't get a moment away from the Dutch.  

Despite what it sounds like, I have actually made some friends (proof above)

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

A true Dutch gal

During the time that I have been ignoring my little piece of the world wide web, I have been settling in to my new life. 

Proof that I am or soon to be a true Dutch gal:

1) I can remember and spell the main street names and places of Utrecht (it's harder than you think you arrogant beasts). I know where to find the widest variety of beer, the cool jams and the sweetest pancakes. I will reveal all soon/when I can be bothered - bare with. 

2) I have joined a gym in town where the classes are all in Dutch. Queue me copying everything the teacher does because I don't always quite understand what's going on. On one memorable occasion she started jumping up and down speaking the Dutch lingo. Naturally I copied her but looked like a complete freak show as it wasn't meant to be an exercise but just her portraying her excitement about giving a gym class. 

3) I have opened a bank account with the help of a man who looks suspiciously like Geppetto from Pinocchio. There was much confusion on his part about me having a Dutch passport and not being able to speak Dutch. Sorry Geppetto, blame it on my Papa. Opening an account in the Netherlands is essential because shops, bars, supermarkets, THE WHOLE FREAKING COUNTRY, don't take Visa but only Maestro. For this you will go through a gruelling process, some might even say that the bank will become your second home. You'll need your passport, proof of enrolment from your university, proof of address (which you'll get when registering with the city which is a period of my life I have wiped from my memory and thus won't be blogging about), a Dutch telephone number and a great set of tits teeth. 

4) I have fallen off my bike. It wasn't a casual fall either, it was scandalous. To the point where a man opened the window of his home and asked if I was alright. I was under the naive impression that pavement curbs were only a hazard when attempting to parallel park a car but they are in fact vicious all round. My ego has only remained unscathed because I've witnessed other über cool people fall. Conclusion: it happens to the best of us.

'til soon x

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Why am I here?

I came to The Netherlands in January to stay with family and by this point I knew I would be studying in Utrecht (less than 30 miles from Amsterdam) the following year. It seemed as if all was falling merrily into place but a few days later I left the country a little disheartened. The price of a wheel of gouda was extortionate, the Dutch have an abrupt manner that can easily be mistaken for disdain and I spied definite panic in the bartenders' eyes when I didn't order a beer. However, I have now been here three weeks and don't want to leave. Crisis averted. Phew.

Utrecht City Centre

Intro Week at University College Utrecht is like an American summer camp, think 'Camp Rock' minus the singing, plus a gallon of beer and handsome Dutch boys. The whole week, day and night, was planned out with fun but sometimes cringeworthy activities. There were some definite what-am-I-doing-here moments for instance during Sports Day when I was wheelbarrowed through a field as fast as I could with my boobs jiggling about the place. My bad for not wearing a sports bra.

My Intro Week Family

They have fraternities and sororities here. Yes, keep laughing. I know I still am. I had to take this information seriously when I went on a date with a graduate fraternity boy. The date went surprisingly well despite the nuances in humour (he sometimes mistook my sarcasm for extreme candidness. Oops). He did ask to see me again so maybe he finds my outspoken nature endearing. All will be revealed in due course.

Bonding with Paula

I have already formed a strong bond with my bike whom I decided to name Paula because of her being super savvy. I took her along for a “get to know your surroundings” bike ride organised by the Bicycle Club which, fear not, is at least ten times cooler than the Caravan Club. My task over the next couple of weeks is to master biking without touching the handle bars in the hope of appearing more Dutch. There is nothing they will not do by bike, it's like a circus act every time you go out.

Time for a Gorgeous Collage

Utrecht is a bustling but also very beautiful city and I feel right at home here. I'm meeting fabulous people from all over the world, learning Dutch and bonding with Paula, all the while eating krokket, a Dutch delicatessen which will eventually make me very very fat.