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By Beatrice Mount

Finals week is here, and I think I’ve mastered the intersections of procrastinating and study abroad. While my peers are in Maastricht (like responsible adults), I’m back in Italy, avoiding my final papers and snacking on Panettone! Call it irresponsibility or just plain crazy, but if I’ve learned anything in the past few months it’s that you CAN travel around and still pass your classes!

That being said, it’s difficult knowing that in a month I’ll be leaving all of this — the spontaneous travel, the amazing food, and Maastricht— behind. I miss GWU, and I miss D.C., but I’m not really ready for the impending judgmental looks when I ask for mayo on my fries.

Study abroad is a lot of things. It’s putting yourself in a whole new, unfamiliar environment, oftentimes where people don’t speak the language or don’t know your culture. It’s experiencing new flavors, meeting new faces, and trying things you never thought you’d try before. It’s oftentimes lonely, oftentimes sad, and oftentimes exciting and happy. There are moments where you sit in your room, wondering why you came here and wishing you were back at Crepeaway. But there are also moments where you look out across the river and think, “By God, I’m actually here.”

The most amazing part of this experience, though, has been my own personal growth. With so much time by myself, I had to become more comfortable and assured in my own body. Over these past four months, I had a lot of time to think about my past, my future, and how that affects my present. I’m much more confident, much more able, and much less willing to deal with things I don’t find of value. Maybe the Dutch bluntness rubbed off on me, or maybe traveling alone just caused this. But I doubt I’ll have trouble speaking up in class, or voicing my opinions to my friends come second semester.

I’m lucky because I have another month left in my apartment. I still have time to visit Eindhoven, Groningen, the Hague, Rotterdam, Berlin, and all the places I wanted to go but didn’t have the time in the beginning. But I can’t say that I’m not ready to go back. It’s been a fun experiment, but I miss the ole U.S. of A. Of course, I’m sure I’ll feel that way about Maastricht in four months.

By Beatrice Mount

Around this time of year, my parents normally send me one simple text message for the holiday season: “email me what you want for christmas so I can order it on time.” It’s rather straightforward, and indeed a little bit abnormal, but provides the best representation for how my family views the holiday season. Specifically: we’ve never really been big fans. It’s not that we don’t celebrate chirstmas, but the only holiday tradition that avoided falling to the wayside was our visit to a family friend’s christmas party. OF course, that fell apart this year, when my parents traded out California’s great, smokey sunsets for the slightly less smokey sunsets of Oregon. We just don’t “do” christmas well.

In contrast, the minute mid-November hits, the Dutch enter a holiday frenzy. The streets are decorated with intricate, twinkling lights that illuminate the cobblestone and symbolise the welcoming of the new season. Beginning in mid-November and lasting through the first week of January, Dutch city centers and squares are transformed into Christmas markets. Each town has their own unique array of edible goods and non-edible gifts, ranging from scarves to rubber ducks to kettlekorn to loempia. Maastricht even has it’s own ice rink and Ferris wheel!

While the Christmas markets bring together the dutch, in recent years, the holiday season has been marked by a debate regarding one controversial holiday figure: Zwarte Piet. For those of you who don’t know, Zwarte Piet, or “Black Pete," is, explained in simplified terms, the dutch’s racist answer to Santa’s little helper. In more detailed terms, the Dutch Christmas holiday focuses not on Santa, but on Sinterklaas, or Saint Nicholas. Instead of having multiple “elves" who help him deliver presents, he has multiple helpers, who undeniably look a lot like racist caricatures of black people. Piet has an afro, a black (literally black) face, and large, red lips. Beyond that, Piet also wears “moorish” dress, based off of 16th-century noble attire, and a single earring. Zwarte Piet originally was portrayed as an unintelligent helper, however, since the 19th-century origins, he’s now grown into just a lovable, absent-minded character.

And oh boy, do the Dutch love him. Zwarte Piet is inescapable. He’s there, staring at you while you walk from class to class, peering out of the windows of hairdressers, children’s toy stores, and coffee shops. Furthermore, people love to dress up as Zwarte Piet for part of the holiday—donning wigs and drawing on big, red lips on top of blackened faces.

As an American, this holiday tradition scares me. It’s made me feel lucky to live in a country where the work of black civil rights leaders have changed the norm so blackface is, for the most part, unacceptable. You, for the most part, won’t get egged for calling some frat boys interpretation of Kanye West racist—rather, it’s more likely that that frat boy will be fired from his job.

The Netherlands is something else, completely. As of 2018, 88% of the Dutch public did not perceive Zwarte Piet as racist or associate him with slavery. While interpretations of Zwarte Piet now include just rubbing coal on your face, the fact that the character is so widely accepted represents a larger issue with Dutch society. It’s something I’ve noticed while living here, especially when visiting museums or talking to other university students about problems within American society.

While racism and sexism are something that people in America openly talk about, Dutch people just don’t really do that. The reason for this boils down to how we view multiculturalism in our construction of nationalism. In America, multiculturalism is relatively good. We’re the melting pot; our differences boil together to make the cheesy, artificial goo that is America. In a way, this recognition of multiculturalism allows us to talk about our differences. We’re not perfect, and we have a lot of problems, but we do have a large, multi-varied, and constant discourse regarding these problems.

Europe in general views multiculturalism as "niet zo goed." The concept of sameness is intrinsically linked to the concept of equality — you become equal by being the same. But that emphasis on sameness doesn’t create equality—it just tries to pave over the impavable, and by doing so ultimately reinforces problematic power structures and denies social progress. SO, although some of the Dutch I’ve met have claimed they “don’t have racism, unlike America,” my response has always been “you do, but you don’t talk about it.”

One of the easiest ways to see this, outside of but connected to Zwarte Piet, is through how various museums address colonization. While the Dutch may not have dealt with the civil war, the Dutch have had a long history of colonization and enslavement. They were heavily involved in the slave trade, shipping kidnapped African people to Spanish colonies in Brazil. They colonized South Africa and the East Indies, murdering indigenous persons and forcing enslaved Africans and Pacific Islanders to the same horrific treatments that Black Slaves in America had to deal with. And Zwarte Piet is undeniably connected to this history—he is, no matter how the culture tries to gloss over it—Santa's slave, not helper.

My interaction with the Dutch education system is limited. But based off of what I know from visiting museums,  the history of colonization is portrayed as a “G” rated joke. Stolen objects and dioramas of apartheid settlements and Indonesian sugar farms are encased in glass, next to descriptions that avoid addressing the kind of orientalization and dehumanization that accompanied the actions. Importantly, Black and indigenous perspectives are missing from these narratives—rather the narrative acknowledges some bad stuff happened, but it’s ok because that was a while ago. Tackling this history means avoiding the white-washed, G-rating. And effectively tackling gives everyone the basis to have an easier discussion on Zwarte Piet.

There are a plethora of other issues Zwarte Piet symbolizes, importantly including the removal of voices of color from Dutch discourse. And, indeed, it’s by centering these voices of color and acknowledging difference that the Dutch can actually begin this process. That might start with museums, or it might start with the education system—as some Dutch teachers are already doing. But either way, white Dutch people need to listen to the people of color who’ve been angry with Piet for decades. The racism needs to be addressed, and Zwarte Piet needs to go, soon.

By Beatrice Mount

I am constantly surprised by how quiet it is here. That, on my walks to class or get groceries, all I hear sometimes is the sounds of the wind and the seagulls flocking near the boats. At first, it was odd--the absence of sound was foreign to me. After two years in D.C., I think I forgot what quiet sounded like. There's always an ambulance, a group of tourists, or politicians taking phone calls to interrupt the silence. D.C., while it can be peaceful, can never be quiet. It, like all American cities, has too much to say.

To some extent, the loud buzz of city buildings and Ubers jetting off to their next destination had become a type of comfort to me. Silence, especially in the dead of night, was ominous. It served as a kind of warning--that you were alone, so tread carefully. It was the absence of peace.

For women, this warning is extremely prevalent. It undercuts why my friends don't run after certain hours, or why we travel in groups from event to event, or why we'll hold keys in our hands if we do wind up alone in the dark. D.C. is less menacing than some cities--less chaotic and more friendly than Los Angeles or San Francisco--but that ominous warning is still present.

Safety is such a small concept, one those who are privileged to have it as a guarantee take for granted. When you have something is your "natural condition," It is difficult to see the unnatural nature it holds for others. It's easy to point out to my male friends, especially since at this point most people are aware of those tropes, but to actually let them experience what I and other women experience is impossible. How do you explain the fear you have in concrete terms? Will they really understand why you avoid certain hours? Why you travel in groups? Why you clutch your keys until your knuckles turn white? It all seems like an overreaction. After all, D.C. is safe. The likelihood something will happen to you is low. Those lived experiences are so easy to toss aside. But when they are ingrained into your skin, how do you toss them aside?

While I could argue that free health care, the obsession with mayo on fries, or the blunt, friendly attitude the Dutch have is the greatest difference between here and there, that would be a lie. The greatest difference is this--the existence of peace and quiet and its effect on my own freedom.

Here, I cut through pitch-black parks knowing that no one will hurt me. I don't feel as though I have to look over my shoulder when I walk back from the library late at night. The small amounts of bikes that do whirr past me don't necessitate intense focus and feelings of dread. As I look at the fishermen reeling in their nets after a late night session, I feel safe. Calm. Happy.

By Beatrice Mount

My vacation has ended! After spending a week jetting around Rome, Florence, and Budapest, I came back to UCM on Tuesday feeling refreshed and ready for the rest of the year. Since UCM is on a quarter system, I’m tackling a whole new set of classes for the next seven weeks. This semester, I’m taking Human Atrocity Triangle, Crucial Differences in the 21st century, and Research Methods II, as well as continuing my Basic Dutch lessons. 

One of the reasons I wanted to go on exchange to UCM was because of the class options. As someone aiming for two majors and one minor, I have a mess of academic interests that can make planning my schedule extremely difficult. When those interests intersect, it not only makes my scheduling easier but also makes learning easier. As the saying ~loosely~ goes, if you’re studying what you love, it’s fun and easy. While last semester I focused on more specialized classes, this semester both of my classes intertwine with all three of my favorite subject areas: Crime, politics, and gender. 

Human Atrocity Triangle focuses on bringing a criminological understanding to Gross Human Rights violations. It seeks to define what these crimes are, the role of different actors on the macro (state) and micro (individual) level, and also look at who the victims are. Last semester at GW, I was lucky enough to get into the Human Trafficking course, and I see this class as a natural progression on this section of my academic journey. Instead of focusing on one type of atrocity, I am looking at case studies of a whole range of atrocities. After three classes, i can affirm you that it is a grim subject, but absolutely fascinating. For example, the first class focused on definitional issues — what populations did you leave out by codifying these violations? How does the legal definition allow for states to work around that definition and violate rights? Is there, or should there, be a definite line defining what is and isn’t torture? It’s always the best when you leave a class with more questions than answers. 

Crucial Differences of the 21st Century focuses more on the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Political Science aspect of my education. While the course will cover human rights violations, it’s been more theory based for the most part. We’re starting off by reading on Intersectionality, Identity, and Queer theory, as well as the general histories of the civil, gay, and women’s liberation movements. Understanding how these differences manifest today will also help us understand how to deal with the political and personal ramifications of these constructed differences. 

Research Methods is exactly what it sounds like — figuring out what methods of research are, and understanding what methods might be appropriate in which situations. It’s not too exciting, unlike my other classes. But it’s a nice break from constantly puzzling through genocide or discrimination. Or just letting my brain rest after spending 2 hours trying to figure out the right way to conjugate “gaan” or when to use “lekker.” Spoiler alert: the Dutch language is not very descriptive, and “lekker, which is essentially tasty, is also a catch-all that can describe chairs, carrots, people, and cars. 

I definitely have a full schedule for the next seven weeks, so figuring out how to balance traveling, exercising, studying, and feeding myself will surely be an interesting and chaotic game. While the last few weeks I’ve explored multiple countries, I’m probably going to spend the rest of this quarter using my Museumkaart across the Netherlands and visiting nearby Aachen. If, that is, I can survive the four 8:30 am classes I have. Seriously, you don’t really appreciate the beauty in making your own schedule until it’s gone. If there's one thing I'm looking forward to returning to when I'm back on campus, it's returning to my almost exclusively evening classes.

By Beatrice Mount

I finished my first quarter of classes! i’ll have to hand it to problem based learning— it’s definitely an effective method of teaching. If you put in the effort, you get results, and barely have to study for exams. But After all that hard work and many hours spent in the reading room, Ive never been more ready for a break! So I’m off to meet up with friends in Rome, Florence, and Budapest!

In Rome and Florence, I’ll be hitting up the major tourists sites, going vintage shopping, and stuffing my face with gelato! I’ll also meet up with Jade, a GW student currently studying in Florence with a provider program. But beyond the typical tourist stuff, Italy holds a special place in my family history. My father spent a majority of his 20s in Italy cycling for a professional team. I remember sitting in his office when I was younger, listening to him spin tails about how Italian grandmothers who taught him how to make pizza, how he’d exchange champagne won from races for a place to sleep, and how difficult it was to live in a country where no one spoke his language. I never thought that I would have the chance to visit, let alone stomp around on his old grounds!

So far, I’ve spent a night in Rome, and I can see why my father fell in love with Italy. After a day of walking around the borghese gardens and the Vatican, stuffing my face with four euro pasta, I’m tired, sore, and breathless. Breathless not because of the 40,000 steps I took, but because of the scenery and art. Literally— I audibly gasped when I entered the Raphael rooms in the Vatican! The Netherlands has great art, don’t get me wrong, but there’s really no comparison to seeing the Sistine chapel and saint peters basilica, or just walking past the bright buildings littered throughout Rome. And if the art is this good in Rome, Who knows what Florence— the true birthplace of the renaissance— will have in store!

In about six days I’ll be off to Budapest to see my GW friend, Matilda. I’m not sure I want to leave Italy, but I’m excited to see a familiar face from GW. She’s currently studying at Central European university, on GW exchange! A masters university located in the heart of Budapest, CEu is one of the oldest masters programs on the continent, and boasts impressive scientific and humanities qualifications. When I told my classmates about my plans, their jaws immediately dropped, asking me how Matilda got in, how she liked it, and how the classes were. Apparently it has quite the reputation in Europe, and GW students are lucky enough to have program options there! I have no idea what Budapest will be like, but I’m hoping that, since I’m visiting hallowweekend, there will be plenty of spooky things to do. Unfortunately, I don’t think pumpkin gnocchi will be enough to satisfy my cravings for jack o lanterns.

By Beatrice Mount

Instead of semesters, UCM classes are split up into six periods, all about seven weeks long. That means that right now, I’m in the midst of finals!

So far, this rapidly paced style has been a little bit difficult to get used to. I’ll admit that GW spoiled me a bit with its semester season— especially with no clearly defined midterm period. It’s much easier to pace out your work. At UCM, everything is quick, quick, quick!

Furthermore, since UCM is an honors college focused on Problem Based Learning, the onus is really on the students to learn material. Classes are discussion based, meaning that you can’t get away with not reading. For most of the exchange students, this has meant spending 7 hours or so a day in the library.

It’s not all bad though. Like any seasoned university student, I’ve adopted a finals grind system. I grab a coffee and give myself a set period of time to work, then take a 10 minute break and then do it again. I’ve found that it’s so much easier to type out a 3,000 word essay on Yemen or Eastern Europe with an oat milk latte. That plus the breaks prevents me from going crazy in the middle of the library!

By Beatrice Mount

When I let my friends know that I was studying abroad in the Netherlands, their first response was, “Oh my god! Amsterdam will be so fun!” I didn’t know how to tell them that I was actually about a 3 hour bus ride south, closer to Brussels and Cologne than the Amsterdam canals. However, they were right! Amsterdam is extremely fun! While I’m no Amsterdam local, I’ve spent a few nights there, and I’ve gotten a pretty comprehensive list of to-go places if you’re a tourist on a budget.

  1. Get pancakes @Happy Pig Pancake shop
    Dutch Pancakes may not be your mom’s fluffy Bisquick pancakes, but don’t be fooled. What these flat flapjacks lack in baking powder they make up for in flavour. At Happy Pig, which is a short walk from the Centraal Station, you can get a fresh, customizable rolled pancake for around 10 euros. You can choose from a plethora of toppings, going sweet with Nutella, whipped cream, strawberries, almonds—or going savory with cheese, ham, and some cilantro-style sauce. Happy Pig also has vegan pancakes, which is great if you’re climate conscious, or if you’re lactose intolerant like me.
  2. Get fries @Vlaam’s Fritehaus Vleminckx or Manneken Pis.
    Who owns the title of best fritehaus in Amsterdam is a contentious subject. But my two favorite fry shops in Amsterdam are Vlaam’s, which has a cult following, and Manneken Pis, which is right near Centraal Station. The stereotypical Dutch fry is covered in Mayonnaise, but before you’re grossed out—just know that it’s nothing like American mayo. Dutch Mayo is much sweeter, and it is the PERFECT compliment to fries. I like to get mine with curry ketchup or pinderkaas (or curry-flavoured ketchup and peanut sauce) plus Mayonnaise. Whatever you decide on, be prepared. Fries here are a meal, not a snack. While there are small portions available, expect a medium cone full of fries to fill you up for a solid hour.
  3. The Rijksmuseum
    Much like DC, Amsterdam is a very tourist-focused city. While the stereotype is that the city is a haven for drugs, in reality, Amsterdam is an amazing cultural centre with some of the best museums in the world. One of these museums is the Rijksmusuem, which goes over Dutch art and culture from the medieval to modern era. These include everything from Rembrandt’s famous “Night Watch” to reconstructions of model ships! It’s easy to get lost in the large expanse of the museum, so plan on going early to fully take in the intricate art and history.
  4. The Van Gogh Museum
    Five minutes down from the Rijksmuseum is one of the coolest museums in Amsterdam, the Van Gogh Museum! The Van Gogh Museum has tons of classic Van Gogh portraits, and if you’re lucky enough to visit within the next year, you’ll also get to go through an interactive exhibit about Van Gogh’s early life. Van Gogh Dreams lets you explore what the famous artist saw and felt during his time in Paris; it is a full sensory experience, and even reconstructs Van Gogh’s famous room! Book your tickets early, though. The museum is incredibly popular, and unless you have a Museumkaart or Amsterdam City Card, it can be hard to get walk-up tickets.
  5. Foodhallen
    Amsterdam is one expensive city, no lie, but you can find some pretty delicious, cheap eats if you know where to look. Foodhallen is one place with many! Amsterdam has a few of these around the city, but so far Foodhallen is my favorite. They have everything from bao to smoothies to burritos. It’s a close walk from the RIjks and Van Gogh Museums, and dishes range from 2-10 euros.

By Beatrice Mount

Homesickness isn’t something I’m used to—after all, I spent my first years on my own 5,000 miles away from my home. But It’s something relatively common for any study-abroad traveler. While a common language and spirit may unite California and Washington, D.C., when you jump over an ocean and onto a new continent, you get a whole new culture. Feelings of Isolation and innate difference become everyday hurdles, and these feelings are especially prevalent in your first week on your own.

My first week in Maastricht proved to me that I wasn’t immune to feeling homesickness. I felt out of place—I remember calling my parents and complaining that I had made the biggest mistake of my life by, me, the 158 cm, lactose-intolerant American girl who couldn’t ride a bike, moving myself for five months to a country full of tall people obsessed with cheese, and who text on their bicycle like it’s second nature. My Dad, who spent a majority of his younger years in Italy told me everything would be ok, while I shoved chocolate spread spoonfuls in between sobs, in disbelief.

Granted, it was. About two weeks into classes now, Maastricht and my exchange program are starting to feel more like home. I’m still short, still lactose intolerant, and still can’t ride a bike, but I am feeling more situated, to say the least. Once I got over the culture shock, I realized how easy it is to feel comfortable here. The Southern city of Maastricht is a relaxed and small city—quite the opposite of DC. People take their time to enjoy life, whether by picking up fresh Limburg tarts and spelt bread from the Bisschopsmollen or through a nice beer and meal on a restaurant overlooking the river Maas. People are friendly and direct, as all Dutch are, and eager to know you. Though initially quite reserved, once you get them talking, especially about US politics, sometimes you’ll even wish they’ll be quiet.

The program itself is conducive to this—UCM is a small—around 300 or so people—honours program, housed in an old nunnery. Most people spend all their day in this building, in the reading room, prepping for their tutorials, or in the common room or courtyard in-between breaks. Everyone knows each other and is eager to get you into the family, as you’ll be suffering with them soon in this intense, problem-based learning environment.

The motto of UCM is everything will be ok, plastered on the side of the courtyard wall in neon purple cursive. A motto perfect to drag the intensive motivated academic 20 year old back to earth. Calm down, take a break: everything will be ok, you’ll get through your classes. But, on another level, it’s a reminder that, for every other odd, chaotic event in life that seems to slap you across the face (see, moving across an ocean), everything will be ok.