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By glaveym

By the time May has rolled around in DC, the last of the cherry blossoms have fallen and students are hard at work studying for finals. In Maastricht, we do things a little bit differently. Semesters are broken up into three "periods," with six periods total for the academic year. For those of you who are math inclined, yes, this means six rounds of finals versus the conventional two. I cannot lie, this is a daunting, although not unsurmountable, academic endeavor. However, this is something I have really come to appreciate about the Dutch system. In these periods, we only take two classes versus five. We spend significantly more time learning the material and content, and the class-based discussions truly make a difference in my retention of the curriculum. This has its trade offs, as having taken four finals at this point, and two to go, and all the stress that comes along with that, has definitely made me miss the semester, two final system. Many of these finals consist of take-home exams, something I wasn't expecting coming from GW. The professors trust you with the knowledge and resources available outside the exam room, and from that, the standards of excellence are significantly heightened. By allowing for take-home exams and papers, the professors certainly expect a very high level of work to be turned in. All of the hard work isn't for nothing, however, as UCM allows for a class-free "reflection week" following finals, meant to allow students to decompress, travel, or enjoy Maastricht without academic obligations. Many choose to do service-learning trips during this time, or find community volunteering opportunities during this break. After reflection week, it's right back to starting new classes with new subject matter, obligations, people, and teachers. The rotation almost makes it feel like every seven to eight weeks is a new experience, with new opportunities to explore an academic subject, meet new people, befriend a professor. I can't say I'll be too sad when I say goodbye to the period system, having finals twice a year seems just find to me.

By glaveym

  1. BIKE. Biking in The Netherlands is as commonplace to Dutch culture as our reliance on cars in the U.S. It is not only the main mode of transportation, it a social phenomenon for university-age students. As a GW student might walk to class, split a cab, or rent a zip-car, with a friend, biking is always better when done with your friends. It has a special novelty here in Maastricht, as the border with Belgium is a brisk ten minutes by bike. The Netherlands is a country with bike paths that equal in length to freeways, and a country with a population of over 16 million, but over 18 million bikes.
  2. VISIT THE REPURPOSED CHURCHES. Dutch culture, throughout its long history, has always placed a particular emphasis on religion. However, in more modern times, the country has increasingly moved more and more towards a society of complete secularism. Not a people to waste, the Dutch, and citizens of Maastricht, have done a wonderful job of repurposing no longer used churches to fit a variety of purposes. Boekhandel Dominican, an over 1000 year-old church in the center of town, now functions as a book-store, with modernist architecture and thousands of titles for any variation of book-enthusiast. Even more impressive is the Kruisherenhotel Maastricht, a design hotel that just happens to find itself in a church dating from the 15th Not only is its architecture regal, it has been known to house the Dutch Royal Family on their many visits to Maastricht.
  3. GO TO SCHOOL. University College Maastricht has been a truly pivotal part of my study abroad experience. A small community of liberal arts students, coming from all over the world to study or study abroad, it truly feels like an oasis in the hustle and bustle of exchange life. The classes are formatted to be twenty students or less, and the range of class offerings offer a truly multi-disciplinary academic experience. Being involved enough was a concern of mine coming into my study abroad experience, but UCM has facilitated my transition nicely, and the countless extra-curricular offerings and nightly events quench my thirst for learning outside the classroom.
  4. STUDY ON THE WALL. UCM is located just along the old Roman city wall of Maastricht, which foundations were laid when Maastricht was established as one of the oldest towns in The Netherlands, in approximately 500 BC. The wall, although dauntingly tall, provides a wide enough ledge to sit on and look over the city, and on especially sunny, clear days, a place to study, listen to music, or enjoy the company of friends.
  5. EAT DELCIOUS DUTCH TREATS. Although The Netherlands may be known for its tulips, water, and cheese, an often-overlooked aspect of Dutch living is the delicious food. As I live in the very south of the country, in a province known as Limburg, my experience comes with a whole host of delicious delicacies unique to Limburg. One of my personal favorites has to be vlaai, a crossover between a pie and a tart, served with a variety of different fresh fruits and fillings. It is always freshly made daily across the city, and if you’re lucky enough, you can catch a smell as you bike by the bakkerij, or bakery.

By glaveym

I was warned. My mother’s best friend spent her exchange in Maastricht in the 1980s. Upon inquiring her for advice regarding customs or cultural idiosyncrasies, she promptly cut me off with a swift “watch out- for Dutch people, honesty truly is the best policy.” How could this be a point worth noting? The phrase is common in the US, and most are raised to hold honesty, and being honest, in the highest esteem. What made the Dutch so special?

I quickly learned that one could equate honesty to directness. The Dutch rarely have an “off-color moment”- they are buttoned-up, mature, and expressive of exactly what they are thinking. My Dutch friend says it begins the moment they are born, when parents allow their children to act on not only their impulses, but also voice exactly what’s on their mind. Maybe this is the reason for the United Nation’s declaring the children of The Netherlands to be the happiest in the world. From childhood, the expressiveness only grows stronger, as I learned whilst trying to explain my way out of a bike collision with a Dutch teenager (it is worth nothing that the Dutch have an incredible grasp of the English language- even as he yelled at me I was impressed with his breadth of vocabulary). The Dutch may occasionally ask you “What do you think you are doing?” when your American tendencies to be loud and boisterous prove to be too out of the ordinary for them.

At first, I found the Dutch directness to be insulting. What gives you the right to insult me and my character quirks or my sense of humor? No one in US would have the audacity to tell me that my point is moot. But as I became more accustomed with biking, stroopwafels (a delicious Dutch cookie), and occasional windmill, I came to appreciate the honesty that the Dutch pride themselves on. It is refreshing to be with those who don’t “beat around the bush” and simply speak to the reality of the situation. As I begin this semester living in a house with a Dutch housemate, I am enthralled to learn from a culture that empowers individuals to speak their minds and express their opinions. I would love to see Americans speak their mind (within reason) to a greater extent, whilst simultaneously valuing what others have to say. My Dutch friends congratulate my progress from shy, reserved American to engaging and questioning international student. I can only hope that upon my return across the pond that Americans can join me on my path to more honesty and open communication. It’s refreshing to speak one’s mind.

The Dutch have a special phrase for this, what they might say in response to some of my “American” moments. Doe maar normal, dan doe je al gek genoeg. Just be normal, then you’re already crazy enough. Although I would never give up my funny quirks, the Dutch certainly keep me on my toes.