Bringing It All Back Home

Two days ago, my classes at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen ended. In approximately ten working days I will get my grades and will be arranging to have my transcript sent back to the College of Charleston, my home university in the United States. As my semester abroad is drawing to a close, I have found that there are still some things I’d like to share with you that I’ve learned while abroad.

One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that you should seek out new experiences, especially while abroad. After all, that’s why you decided to study abroad in the first place. Talk to people you never would even expect to like; let them tell you their story and share their experiences with you. It’s okay if you don’t forge lasting friendships with people from far-flung countries. The goal is to open your mind to new perspectives, whether or not you ultimately share the same views. In fact, it might be more refreshing if you don’t share the same opinion: take this as an opportunity to grow, to be a little kinder, a little more forgiving, a little more curious. Don’t be afraid to be honest, as long as you practice tact and stay humble. If you sense a misconception, whether in your mind or someone else’s, don’t be afraid to address it. Cultural exchanges are not just an opportunity to learn about others; they are also an opportunity to learn about yourself. Challenge yourself and your viewpoint. Ask yourself why you think the way you do. Take a step outside of yourself and your culture. The results could blow your mind.

Fun in Amsterdam with my partner-in-crime Madi!
Fun in Amsterdam with my partner-in-crime Madi!

Remember that life abroad is still life. It’s okay if you feel sad sometimes. It’s okay to have a bad day–even when you’re studying abroad and allegedly supposed to be having the time of your life. What most people won’t tell you before you go abroad is that you are still studying and taking exams, you still get caught in the rain sometimes, you still have days where you feel like staying in your room all day. Your everyday life abroad will be surprisingly similar to your everyday life at your home university. There is nothing wrong with that. You don’t have to go out every night or travel somewhere new every weekend or spend thousands of dollars if you don’t want to. The common factor in your life at home and your life abroad is that you are still the one living it, and you get to decide what would make you happy. As long as you remember to take care of yourself, to challenge yourself, and to be kind to others, there are no limits to what you can discover and achieve while abroad.

Remember those that made this experience possible for you. Take the time to thank those who have loved and supported you, both from home and abroad. They are the ones that have made home a place worth coming back to. Lastly, remember to think back fondly on the country and city which you called home for a semester or two. Know that it will be there for you even after you leave–steadfast, comforting, ready to welcome you home.

I Amsterdam :)
I Amsterdam 🙂

Orange You Amused By This Cheesy Pun: Koningsdag in the Netherlands

The Dutch flag and an orange flag on Koningsdag.

For the uninitiated, Koningsdag, or King’s Day, is a national holiday in the Netherlands which celebrates the birthday of the Dutch king, currently King Willem-Alexander. The Dutch national color is orange, as the royal family is the House of Oranje-Nassau. On King’s Day (27 April), the entirety of the Netherlands decks out in their finest orange tuxedos and feather boas and takes to the streets to celebrate. It is the most quintessential Dutch holiday of them all. Therefore, if you ever find yourself in the Netherlands in late April, be sure to join the party. The city of Groningen already started the festivities the day before King’s Day, known as King’s Night, with the Nacht van Oranje (Night of Orange) party. There were food trucks selling drinks and snacks, several stages set up in the city center with various live bands performing, and public restrooms set up in one of the main squares of the city. Traffic was rerouted or closed off in many areas of town for safety reasons. King’s Night was incredibly crowded and, personally, was not worth the effort to me. I met up with some friends downtown, but we basically just ended up standing around and talking, which we could have done any day of the week. Koningsdag, however, is very different; unlike King’s Night, Koningsdag is when the families come out. The atmosphere is casual and festive. This is the only day of the year when Dutch people are permitted to have yard sales (albeit in certain designated streets), so it’s nice to shop around the “vrijmarkt” or free market. I went into town with one of my friends and we ended up wandering around a little before stopping to have lunch at a casual restaurant. Fortunately, the weather was nice, so we stopped for ice cream a little while later before heading back. All in all, King’s Day (and King’s Night) can be a great experience, as long as you keep a few things in mind:

1. Don’t feel pressured to wear orange. Most non-Dutch people do not have orange in their wardrobes, and even so, half the people I saw were either not wearing orange or were wearing their coats, so you couldn’t see their orange outfits anyway. If you don’t want to spend the money on a new orange outfit, don’t worry too much about it!

2. Bring cash. Due to the sheer amount of customers, many restaurants and vendors will only take cash and will not allow you to use your debit or credit card.

3. Know that it will be extremely crowded. Koningsdag in big cities like Groningen will definitely be very busy. Clubs, restaurants, and bars may also be hard to get into due to the sheer amount of people.

The crowd on Koningsdag.
The crowd on Koningsdag.

4. It will be difficult to find restrooms. If you think you may need to use the restroom in the near future, it may be a good idea to go ahead and use the public restrooms, since the odds of finding a restroom to use later may be slim, especially on King’s Night when many of the restaurants will already be closed.

5. It may not be worth it to go to Amsterdam for King’s Day. A lot of the exchange students I talked to seemed to be under the impression that Amsterdam was the best and the only place to go to celebrate King’s Day, but many cities in the Netherlands, certainly including Groningen, have great events planned as well. In general, unless you’re looking to go to the Rijksmuseum or the Anne Frank House, other cities in the Netherlands have exactly the same things Amsterdam has, just on a smaller scale. Traveling to Amsterdam can be very expensive on King’s Day, as the discounted group train tickets don’t apply on King’s Day, and neither do the heavily discounted day cards you may be lucky enough to get. These train discounts don’t apply because they don’t want to encourage people to travel on King’s Day, since crowd control is already difficult during King’s Day celebrations. These are just some things you may want to take into consideration when deciding where to spend your King’s Night and King’s Day.

No matter where you go and what you decide to do, a little bit of planning can go a long way, especially when it comes to such a major holiday as this! All in all, I had a great Koningsdag, and I wish the same to anyone who is fortunate enough to be in the Netherlands in April. Until next time!

Up, Up, and Away: Budget travel in Europe

This week, on Wednesday, March 25, I will be flying to Belfast to visit a friend who is studying abroad through College of Charleston’s exchange program with Queen’s University. It took some puzzling to figure it out, so I’d like to share some tips with you regarding travel throughout Europe. For those studying abroad at the University of Groningen, there is a three week period between the first block of the semester and the second block of the semester during which you have no classes, only (midterm) exams. After quadruple checking your exam dates, take advantage of this period to travel as much as you can afford! The University of Groningen does not have a spring break, so this is really the only time to travel for more than a few days without missing class.

A sunny day in Groningen!
A sunny day in Groningen!

I purchased my flight to Belfast from EasyJet.com; EasyJet is a budget flight website that offers some of the lowest fares in the business. Be aware of the flight restrictions: your luggage must be under a certain size in order to avoid being charged extra for checking your bag. I will be bringing a (relatively small) duffel bag. As long as you pack efficiently (roll your clothes! Pack only a few sweaters that you can re-wear with a clean t-shirt under it!), the luggage restrictions should not be an issue. As always, be aware of the restrictions on liquids as well. Travel sized toiletries can be purchased at most drugstores in the Netherlands, such as Kruidvat, Trekpleister, and Etos. Since I will be staying in my friend’s dorm for the week, I did not have to worry about booking accommodations, but if you’re traveling on a budget, hostels are usually a good option. Nothing fancy, but good if you just need a clean place to stay–make sure you bring shower shoes.

Another thing to remember when traveling is to check what the local currency is. Although most countries in Europe use the Euro, there are several that don’t, such as Northern Ireland, which uses the British Pound. (The Republic of Ireland, however, does use the Euro.) Try to avoid exchanging money at the airport, since they will likely give you a worse exchange rate. If you can manage, find a local bank instead once you get to the city. Until then, try to use your credit or debit card if possible–MasterCard is most definitely preferred throughout Europe.

Lastly, although this may seem like a given, make sure you know how you’re going to get from the airport to your accommodations and back again, as well as around the city (or country) you are visiting. Many European countries have a great public transportation system, so take advantage of that as much as possible. Of course, you can often also walk from place to place.

Wherever you decide to go, a little preparation goes a long way. Above all, have a great time!

With A Little Help From My Friends: ESN Introduction Week

For those considering studying abroad, one major concern that might make you decide not to go is the idea of having to make new friends all over again. It’s a daunting thought that vaults you back to freshman year, and all the insecurities that came along with the new (social) environment. But the main purpose of studying abroad is to broaden your horizons by challenging yourself–and to become more confident and competent in the process. To this end, and to make the transition to a new country and culture just a tad bit smoother, I urge everyone studying abroad at the University of Groningen to join Erasmus Student Network, or ESN. With branches throughout Europe, ESN is a student organization geared towards helping international students make friends and acclimate to the culture of the country in which they are studying. ESN Groningen is one of the branches of this organization. For the relatively inexpensive initial fee of thirty euro, you are given a welcome package and are assigned to a group of approximately ten students (all international), with two assigned group leaders who are also students. ESN Introduction Week is a full itinerary of social and cultural events that you participate in with your group.

I have no pictures from ESN Introduction Week, so here's me next to the canal near my dorm!
I have very few pictures from ESN Introduction Week, so here’s me next to the canal near my dorm!

To be honest, when I first heard about ESN from other students who had studied abroad here, I didn’t think it was something for me. I’m an introvert by nature, and am not necessarily a fan of partying all the time. ESN seemed to be merely a party organization, and I doubted that I would make any friends by joining. I only joined at the urging of my extroverted sister and sensible parents. Admittedly, I was wrong: although ESN does throw a lot of parties, the other activities, particularly the cultural day during Introduction Week, helped me bond with my group members, all of whom I still hang out with on a regular basis now that I’m more settled in Groningen. Although I have made several other friends that were not connected to ESN, I definitely met most of my friends and acquaintances here through ESN. They also organize trips and events throughout the year, so you always have something to do and somewhere to meet new people and experience new things. I would highly encourage everyone studying abroad in Groningen to join ESN. Thirty euro may not be able to buy you happiness, but it will make finding friends in Groningen a heck of a lot easier, and that is priceless.

The view from the Martinitoren in Groningen, which I climbed with my ESN group on the cultural day.
The view from the Martinitoren in Groningen, which I climbed with my ESN group on the cultural day.

Helter-Skelter, woah

Well, I’ve been in the Netherlands for four and a half days now and it’s already been quite the adventure! The journey from Charlotte to Amsterdam was smooth, albeit long. I ended up having the entire row of seats on the flight across the Atlantic to myself, which made it much easier to stretch out and try to get some sleep! For the past few days, my grandparents and I have been shopping for bedding and kitchenware for my dorm room. In case you’re also looking, the Action is a great place in the Netherlands to shop for just about everything you need for your dorm.

First snow of 2015 for me! Taken on the morning of Saturday, January 24th.
First snow of 2015 for me! Taken on the morning of Saturday, January 24th.

One very important tip for exchange students from College of Charleston to the University of Groningen: make sure you have a list of backup classes. You don’t necessarily need to get them approved already, but have a good understanding of what you can take and what you have to take for your major while you’re abroad. As always, Degree Works is an incredibly useful tool for this, as well as the major roadmaps on the CofC website. (Sorry, is my peer facilitator showing?) I had a couple of extra classes approved while still in Charleston, but I just found out a week before class starts that three out of six courses I had requested to take are full. With the extra constraints on course availability, such as major requirements and the fact that the courses have to fit into my schedule, finding replacement courses has been a challenge. My best advice is to expect something like this to happen no matter where you decide to study abroad, and to be as prepared as possible when it does happen. Another thing to note is that WhatsApp is a very popular free messaging service in the Netherlands, which many Dutch people now use instead of text messaging. Not only will this make it easier to exchange messages with people you meet in the Netherlands, but you can also send messages to family and friends in your home country as well.

Though it is a bit of a readjustment, so far I feel as if not much has changed since I was last here nine years ago–but I’ll let you know if that changes! When I get to Groningen I will take (and post) more pictures. It’s been a bit helter-skelter thus far!

The Good, the Bad, and the Bland: Transportation and handling finances in the Netherlands

Hello again, and happy new year (or gelukkig nieuw jaar, as they say in the Netherlands)! I thought I’d use this blog post to discuss some apps that I will be using to travel in the Netherlands, and also mention some other useful tips about the Dutch transportation system.

Firstly, Dutch society is highly modernized, and therefore a mobile phone is essential when traveling to and throughout the Netherlands. You have several options when choosing a mobile phone to use when studying abroad there: you can choose to take a cell phone purchased in your home country and simply purchase a new Dutch SIM card, to be inserted into your phone in place of the original SIM card, or you can purchase an entirely new Dutch cell phone once you get to the Netherlands. I have elected to take my American cell phone with me and buy a Dutch SIM card, but both are good options to consider. It is important to note that, since the European cell phone system is different from the American cell phone system, you will need a certain type of cell phone called a GSM (Global Service for Mobile) cell phone. This acronym refers to the type of system used in much of the world, including Europe. U.S. providers of this type of phone include T-Mobile and Cingular. Here’s a link that addresses the topic in greater detail: http://www.studyabroad.com/pages/sitecontent/parent_guide_cell.aspx.

Zijkant_trein_met_logo_NS
This is what an NS train looks like. The NS logo is visible on the side.

Whichever option you choose, having a cell phone that works while traveling and studying abroad is not only important for general safety and communication, but also for effective use of the Dutch transportation system. In Dutch train stations, physical signs showing arrival and departure times and stations are being phased out in favor of digital updates. These can be accessed on the NS Reisplanner app, a free app available from the Dutch national train system (NS stands for Nederlandse Spoorwegen, meaning Dutch Railways). This app is essential if you are considering traveling by train at any point during your stay in the Netherlands. You should also be aware that the Netherlands no longer uses paper train tickets; instead, they use a card called an OV Chipkaart, which looks similar to a debit card. It is somewhat similar to an Oyster Card, if you are familiar with the London Underground transportation system. More information about the OV Chipkaart can be found on the NS website: http://www.ns.nl/en/travellers/ov-chipkaart. Even Dutch people living in the Netherlands find their train system to be confusing, so try to be as prepared as possible!

Besides train travel, bus travel is also a relatively inexpensive way to travel when abroad. Megabus is one provider that serves many countries in Europe. If you are looking for a relatively inexpensive way to travel throughout Europe while studying abroad, Megabus is a good option: http://uk.megabus.com/#. If you would like to read the website in English and are looking to travel in Europe, I would suggest using the UK version of the site instead of the US version, as Megabus will otherwise automatically limit its search engine to locations within the United States. Busabout is also another good option, with a more flexible hop on/hop off system: http://www.busabout.com/.

Lastly, when studying abroad in the Netherlands, you have several options regarding finances. One option is to open a Dutch bank account, which is what I’ve elected to do. One thing worth noting is that much of Europe, including the Netherlands, uses cash more often than countries such as the United States. When traveling in Europe and living in the Netherlands you should always make sure you have cash on hand. Moreover, in the Netherlands, debit and credit cards have chips in them, so instead of swiping the card, you insert it into the machine. Many stores in the Netherlands do not accept credit cards at all. You can use your American cards in the Netherlands as long as they have chip cards in them–just make sure to notify your bank/provider that you will be traveling abroad, and where exactly you will be traveling. If you will be based in the Netherlands and plan to visit Germany and France, for instance, tell your bank that you will be visiting the Netherlands, Germany, and France. If your plans change and you add other countries to your itinerary, be sure to inform your bank of this; otherwise, they may (and likely will) shut down your card once they perceive potentially unauthorized activity (i.e., they believe someone must have stolen your information). Also, call your bank and ask them what the ATM fee will be for use abroad, and what the daily maximum withdrawal is from the ATM.

I hope this has been helpful to you. Thanks for reading and until next time!

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself

Hello there! Since you’ve stumbled upon my blog, I may as well introduce myself. My name is Alexa, and I am a sophomore at the College of Charleston in scenic Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.A. In just five short weeks I will be jetting off to the Netherlands to spend a semester studying at the University of Groningen. This lovely blog (queue jazz hands) will be my attempt at chronicling my journey. Although studying abroad is an exciting experience for all who choose to embark on it, and will be for me as well, my circumstances are a little different. I am fortunate enough to be a dual citizen of both the United States and the Netherlands. Born in the U.S. to an American father and a Dutch mother, I lived in the Netherlands from ages five to eleven, thus spending many of my formative years there. For me, the choice to study abroad in Groningen was less about broadening my horizons–though I hope to do that as well–and more about reconnecting with one of my homes.

A little more about me: I’m nineteen years old, soon to be spending my twentieth birthday in the Netherlands! I love to read, write, and, naturally, travel. I’ve been to thirteen countries and speak two languages (Dutch and English). I am a true student of the world, as I am majoring in International Studies. My great loves include my past and present dogs, Oscar Wilde, Audrey Hepburn, anything Dickensian, hot tea, scintillating poetry, crêpes, Disney (I am a child of the nineties), and Paris. In my free time I enjoy playing board games with my friends and doing bad Jeremy Irons impressions. My goals for the future include learning to speak French fluently and watching the entirety of Gilmore Girls on Netflix.

This is me!
This is me!

As far as the logistics of my trip go: I will be flying from Charlotte, North Carolina to Amsterdam, which voyage will take approximately twelve hours, including one layover in Philadelphia. Once I arrive in Amsterdam, my Dutch family members will be there to pick me up–however, if you’re planning a similar trip, your best bet for travel throughout the Netherlands and much of Europe is usually the train. After spending a few days with my grandparents, I will be heading to Groningen for orientation. I will be living in one of the international student houses in Groningen, called Winschoterdiep, for the semester. It’s about a ten minute bike ride from the city center, where the university is located; I’m hoping for a nice sense of community and a new perspective from other international students. Some practical tips for traveling to/living in the Netherlands, speaking from a simultaneously Dutch and American perspective: firstly, get a bike. The Netherlands is the most cycle-friendly country in the world, with bicycles outnumbering people (though we have quite a few of those, too). Furthermore, the land is flat, making cycling easier, though you will often be riding against strong winds. Which brings me to the weather: when in doubt, dress warmly. The Dutch wind often comes from the North Sea or Russia and is therefore very cold. It also rains quite frequently. Basically, the same weather you hear about gracing England is the weather you can expect in the Netherlands. This means you need rainproof shoes, coats, and gloves. On the plus side, the reason the Dutch make such good cheese (Gouda, Edam) is that the rain makes for excellent grass which, in turn, leads to well-fed cows that produce high quality milk. As the Dutch football legend Johan Cruijff once said, elk nadeel heeft z’n voordeel, meaning “each downside has its upside.” Speaking of Dutch cheese, be sure to check out this great video for more information about Dutch cuisine: http://vimeo.com/110724667.

The University of Groningen, or Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in Dutch.
The University of Groningen, or Rijksuniversiteit Groningen in Dutch.

I better stop before this post turns into a one-dimensional list of travel tips. Exceedingly long story short: I’m excited for my semester in Groningen, and I hope you join me as I reconnect with my past, and hopefully make new connections for the future. Tot straks!