public service announcement: you should go on exchange

“I miss being a student,” a 27 year old Dutch guy told me at a party a few months ago. “When you’re a student, if you have to go to the dentist, that’s the thing you do that day. You can go to the dentist and when people ask you what you did that day, you can say that you went to the dentist and that’s accepted as an accomplished day! Now that I am not a student, if I have to go to the dentist, I have to fit it in on my break and still work from 9-5. Man, I miss being a student.”

This conversation was early into my exchange to the Netherlands, so I didn’t entirely relate to him. Back home in Calgary, I’m used to volunteering 5-15 hours a week, waitressing 10-20 hours a week, and studying with practically all the time I had in between. When I first got here, I felt a sense of guilt when all I did in a day was read some articles and go to the supermarket.

But now, after 5 months of living in Amsterdam, I can understand what that Dutch guy meant. I think it’s a bit of a cultural thing – Europeans seem much better at chilling out and enjoying life than us North Americans. The Dutch work fewer hours than any other EU country, with an average of 30 hours a week. They are also ranked as some of the most productive in the EU, which suggests something about their mindset about working is, well, working. The Dutch have a pretty good work-life balance, with perhaps more of an emphasis on the life part.

This can be frustrating at times, such as when you’re waiting to be served and end up waiting over half an hour for a coffee. But this doesn’t happen often, and it tends to not bother me when it does, as I am happy to spend hours in a cafe. I have no job, six weeks off from school, and feel no need to really do anything that I don’t want to do.

It’s pretty ridiculous.

Today I went to a cafe and read a book. The day before I went to a museum and watched American Beauty. Tomorrow, I think I’m going to do laundry. And I’d say that it’s been a pretty successful week.

I am learning in all sorts of ways that can come from being able to do whatever I want with almost every day. Today I learned heaps bout the history of Istanbul and read far too much about bike lanes in different cities. On Friday I learned all about Keith Harring’s artwork and that a McDonald’s in Rotterdam has won an architectural award as the “worlds fanciest McDonalds.” I’m also getting pretty good at creating delicious chickpea curries. 

It’s going to be hard to go back to the responsibilities of work and school and all that lame stressful time consuming stuff back home, but luckily I still have 7 months to live like a Dutch student and perfect the beautiful art of doing a little less while enjoying a lot more. 

 

new years resolutions

I love New Years Eve. Sure, there is too much pressure for the party to be perfect and people tend to overdo it with the glitter, but I love it. We all made it hopefully unscathed from 2015 and who knows what 2016 holds for all of us. I like to think great things. I always like to focus on at least one new years resolution, and the resolution doesn’t necessarily last past January, but I’d say its still worth trying. So here is a list of things I am hoping to maintain/start doing in 2016:

  1. Have no expectations: This having no expectations thing is I think one of the most important mindsets I’ve developed since I’ve arrived in Amsterdam. From the start, I would say yes to any event or get together as the only way to meet more people and see more of the city. I’ve ended up in a lot of random situations that are maybe not the most fun but we always leave thinking it was a good night, because we didn’t expect anything in particular from it. I hope I’ll keep it up for the next semester in Amsterdam and when I’m back in Calgary.
  2. Make every day count: I’ve managed to spend entire days here doing absolutely nothing, which I really don’t like. I only have a limited number of days in Amsterdam, and above that, none of us know how many days we have left on this precious little earth. And anything can happen in one day. So I’ve been trying, and will continue to try, to be productive or do something noteworthy everyday. Days full of nothing are good too, as long as you can find something to be grateful for what happened that day.
  3. Stop wasting your life away on the internet: Yeah so this is a hard one. I really want to unplug. It scares me how many hours can go by staring into the screen of my laptop. Sure, a lot of the time I’m doing pretty productive and useful things, but we weren’t put on this earth to stare into screens and lose our lives in the vortex of the internet. One of the little ways I plan to unplug is by:
  4. Reading more books: It’s pretty pathetic how few books I read. But I want to change that so I plan on going out and buying some books for me to read today! If you have any suggestions of good reads, let me know.
  5. Eat more vegetables: This was my resolution last year, and I figure might as well keep it on the list for 2016. We could all use a little more broccoli and carrots in our lives.
  6. Keep stepping outside your comfort zone: I think I’ve developed a comfort zone here in Amsterdam, but I hope that I can keep expanding past what’s comfortable. I hope in 2016 I’ll continue meeting new people, going to new events, and asking new questions.
  7. Don’t say negative shit: I think it’s good for all of us to check in once in awhile to see if we are spreading negativity. And if we are, we might as well stop and switch it up for something more positive. I know it’s not always that easy, but it’s worth a shot.

A few additional things I should probably work on are drinking less cappuccinos (and beer), eating less stroopwaffles, and being more careful with my money. But, I’m on exchange and don’t fancy stopping any of those things, so those personal improvements can wait until 2017.

Happy new year kids! May there be champagne and friends and glitter for you all!

xx j

cinque terre

“Welcome to family,” Francesco said as our small glasses of wine clinked together on our first night in Cinque Terre.

After 24 hours in Milan, where pizza was eaten in excess and even the little kids were more fashionable than I will ever be (yes I’m talking about you, little Italian girl in sparkly Doc Martens), my friend Dilara and I hopped on a train to Cinque Terre and arrived at Francesco’s hostel.

5terrebackpackers is in Corvara, a twenty-minute twisty drive up the mountains from Monterosso, the northernmost village of Cinque Terre. We arrived in Monterosso with enough time for seafood spaghetti, white wine and a seaside view before catching the shuttle up to 5terrebackpackers. After Francesco showed us around, we quickly found ourselves swapping stories with fellow travellers on the deck. I’m not sure if it was intentional, or if it is just a weak Wifi connection, but the Internet only worked in the communal outdoor living room. Forcing all of us, and our iPhones into the same room resulted in some serious interaction, which was pretty cool. It didn’t take long to start reminiscing with a few American girls about hand-clap-songs from our childhood (stella, ella, hola, tap, tap, tap) and playing each other our favourite John Oliver videos.

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The next morning, Dilara and I had a grand old time exploring Cinque Terre. A set of five coastal fishing villages, Cinque Terre is on the east coast of Italy between Genoa and La Spezia. One of Rick Steve’s favourite spots, the area attracts heaps of Americans and was bustlin’ with tourists even in late October.* There are beautiful hiking trails that link the five towns, so you can hike from one place to the next, working up your appetite for gelato/focaccia/ pasta/more gelato. Which is exactly what we did. We started off in Monterosso, the northernmost town and hiked a couple of hours on the main trail to Vernazza, where focaccia was on our menu. After another two hour hike, we arrived in Corgnilia, where it was time for gelato. In Manarola, we drank white wine in the sun. Back to Monterosso, we swam and (of course) ate pasta. In the evening when we arrived back at Francesco’s hostel, there was more pasta waiting for us, which really isn’t surprising, because Italy is a dream world. After dinner, Francesco popped into the dining room in his red apron to ask us how everything was. The homemade wine, strudel and pasta was all to die for, we told him. It’s pretty evident that Francesco has put his heart and soul into getting 5terrebackpackers up and running. The place closes down in the winter, and he’s looking forward to it. He needs a break, he said, “to sleep, to take care of his body, to travel, to drink a beer with his friend – those kind of normal things like that.”

After working as a lifeguard and bartender for twelve years in Monterosso, Francesco decided it was time to start his own business. He tried to buy property in Monterosso, but at 10, 000 euros per square metre, he decided to look elsewhere. The building that Franscesco did decide to buy is over 300 years old, and renovations took longer than expected. But he salvaged as much as he could, giving the renovated building a contemporary and rustic feel. 5terrebackpackers opened last year, and it looks like things have gone pretty well. Just check out all of the online reviews. Staying somewhere with scheduled shuttle bus rides (two in the morning and two in the evening) may not be ideal for everyone, as it can limit your time in bars and things like that. “This hostel is more for the traveller than the tourist, I think,” Francesco said. I’d have to agree with him, and for Dilara and I, our stay in Cinque Terre was perfetto, as they say.

-J

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*I don’t know much about it, but Cinque Terre seems to have suffered quite a bit from the consequences of mass tourism. I could definitely sense that the region was catered almost entirely to tourists and that the locals weren’t necessarily happy about it (for rightful reason). I plan to learn more and write more about the problem with mass tourism in the future, so stay posted.

on: CYCLING CITIES

With a spring in his step, a smile on his face, and his bicycle by his side, Alderman Paul de Rook welcomes us to Groningen. Within moments, you can tell how proud he is of the small and lively student city of 200,000 that he calls home.

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de rook and his bike

Groningen is known as the “Cycling City” and de Rook tells us about the public spaces and bike routes that help make the city a wonderful place to be. Parking lots and busy roads have been transformed into fish markets, pedestrian shopping streets, and public parks. The city centre, says de Rook, isn’t a commercial district. People come to the city centre “to be,” and to have fun with their friends and fellow people in the city. While they’re there, if they need to, people shop. But shopping isn’t what brought them there. It makes sense that people come to the city centre of Groningen just to be among the hustle and bustle of the day. People like being around people, after all.

This idea that people actually choose to be around others may seem strange to some, considering the isolating design and way of life in many North American cities. In Calgary, for example, one can go an entire day without even really interacting with a stranger. You leave your house and enter your attached garage, get into your car and turn on the radio. You drive down the freeway into the city centre, and park your car in the parking garage. You enter the Plus 15* and walk to your office where you start your day of work. For lunch, you go grab some food in the office building, where fellow office-workers are having lunch, and then you head back to work. Once work is finished, you go back to the parking garage and get in your car, and drive home.

Here, in a city like Groningen or Amsterdam, it would be near impossible to not interact with people on your daily commute. You hop on your bike and instead of obeying traffic signs you make eye contact with each other to decide who has right of way. You bike past people sitting on their windowsill eating breakfast, and slow down for a mom who is riding her two kids to school in a carriage on the front of the bike (a “Dutch-minivan” as my mom likes to call it). As you bike along the bumpy cobblestone streets, an older woman bikes up next to you and says she really likes your dress! You say thank you, and she bikes ahead. You lock your bike to a canal bridge and head to work, or school, or whatever it is you do. A tourist asks you for directions and after pointing them in the right direction, you go inside to start your workday.

De Rook walks us through the city and tells us stories about different historical buildings, canals and shops. We walk down one of the roads where he hopes to banish buses to create even more public space for pedestrians which will, he tells me, help the city breathe.

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While talking to de Rook, I couldn’t help but think of Enrique Penolosa, a past Colombian mayor that revolutionized the crime induced and automobile oriented city of Bogota. Although I haven’t met Penolosa, I have read a lot about him and have seen some films,** and both of these municipal politicians possess an inspiring amount of enthusiasm for their city. They emphasize the importance of designing a city that is happy, and is built for people as opposed to cars. De Rook didn’t focus on the economic strengths of Groningen, but instead spent the entire night talking about public spaces, bike routes, and the overall happiness of Groningeners. During his election campaign, Penalosa’s assurance to the people of Bogota wasn’t to make them richer, but was to make them happier. He did this by adjusting the infrastructure of the city so that everybody could use it. Concentrating on the development of bus routes and bike lanes as opposed to freeways and parkades can do wonders for a city’s overall well being.

I could go on all day about why cities that focus on pedestrian use versus automobile use enhance the public life, safety, energy, and overall happiness of cities, but I have to head out on my bike now. There are things to do and places to be. Maybe someone will even tell me they like my outfit on my way.

-j

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*The Plus 15 network in Calgary is an extensive pedestrian skyway system, connecting over sixty buildings downtown with bridges that are about fifteen feet above ground. Although the system is usually praised, the quasi-public space has resulted in a number of unintended consequences, such as a lack of vibrant street life.

**If any of this urban studies stuff interests you, I suggest watching Urbanized (it’s on Netflix) and reading Happy City, if you haven’t already.

impressions about canada, from around the world.

I haven’t met any fellow Canadians since I’ve arrived in Amsterdam. I have, however, met heaps** of people from all other corners of the world. As a result, the weather is no longer the go-to topic of small talk when you first meet someone, and instead, conversation seems to concentrate on where we are all from. The most common responses when I tell them I am from Canada seem to be: “Are you from Vancouver?” or “Do you speak French?” To these people’s disappointment, neither are the cases for me. The second most popular questions are if I ski or “ice” skate, and I tell them I am a poor representative of my country, because I am not particularly talented at either.

Two different people asked me in one night if we are like the head-bobbing animated Canadians in South Park. I’ve also been told at least three times that I am like Robin Sparks from How I Met Your Mother. I’m tall and Canadian, and so is she, so, I can understand the connection, I guessml5ocjttfoabsivkjs2n.

A few Brits were really excited when I said I was from Calgary, because they knew all about the Jamaican bobsled team in the ’88 Olympics. A couple of people have seemed to recognize the name of my home city, thanks to Bon Iver and his track Calgary, or from Death Cab’s I Will Follow You Into the Dark.

My Swedish friend asked if we actually eat peanut butter and jam sandwiches in North America (hell yes!). An American immediately asked if I was a Belieber (hell no!). A girl from LA got fed up with the terms toque and tobogganing and told me that she refers to Canada as “America’s Hat”. I had never heard that one before.

At an Oktoberfest party with a Calgarian friend who was visiting from London where she’s on exchange, we sat on the ground and started eating hummus and melba toast from my backpack. We had been a lot of places that day and had figured we’d save money by bringing a bunch of snacks. Two Dutch boys in lederhosen turned around and joined in on the late night picnic in the bar. We had talked about bears and beers and other random things and as I took out my 1 litre Nalgene bottle, the lederhosen boys said, “Wow, you Canadians are really resourceful.” Sam and I liked that one, and decided to roll with it. The conversation then led to us talking about how Canadians have got to always be prepared, because we’re so often out in forests and on top of mountains and other outdoorsy things like that.

The same night, a German post-grad asked me if it was true that Canada’s government is as scandalous and dishonest as he had heard it was. He said he was surprised to hear such a thing, and had always assumed that the USA would take the cake on our continent for being the politically messed up ones. After all, to some, we are just “America’s Hat.”  Who knew a hat could be so shameful and anti-democratic!  I told him about the upcoming election and that people are so incredibly fed up*** with our current leader, that things ought to change for the better after October 19.

I certainly hope they do, so we Canadians can go back to wearing our toques with pride wherever we go in the world.

-J

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**I’ve been spending a lot of time with Australians, who use the term ‘heaps’ so often that it has naturally entered my vocabulary.

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I like this one better than “America’s Hat”

***One of my favourite stories regarding the whole “anything but Harper” movement was when a woman passed away and her obituary read: “In lieu of donations, Catherine would want you to do everything you can to drive Stephen Harper from office, right out of the country, and into the deep blue sea if possible. Also, she would like you to fix the CBC.” You go, girl.

ramble

You hear from everyone that travelling and studying abroad is “the best experience of your life” and that “there’s nothing better” and “it’s life changing” and blah blah blah blah you really ought to go. You think yeah I bet it’ll be fun, sure why not? You get to go on a little adventure and see really cool cities and drink different beer, and apparently it’s the greatest thing ever, so sure, I’ll take your word for it, society. And then you arrive and you’re like “wow cool I live in Amsterdam (or Singapore or Edinburgh or wherever it is you go), this is really incredible, everything is so beautiful and amazing wow!” Then you realize that you have no friends, you don’t speak the native language, you own zero furniture so your room is depressing and your internet is broken. You’re intimidated to just go meet people and you don’t really know what to do with yourself, so you spend a lot of time reading and doodling. You’re still having fun but it is by no means the best experience of your life (yet) so you’re kind of annoyed at the people that made the experience out to be way better than it is (so far), but you keep moving forward because that’s what we ought to do. And then, at some point, things pick up and you meet people that you can have real conversations with. You meet one who likes Tame Impala as much as you do, and you meet another one that shares the same academic interests, and you meet another who reminds you so much of your friend from home that you love them automatically, and you meet another who’s fashion sense is so on point and another many who you have not much in common with but you just love being around them, and all of a sudden it feels like you have a little community here. And everyone you meet is from a different corner in the world, which is the coolest thing. And you think, ok cool, this is it, it’s starting now. And then you start to bump into people you know on the streets and you notice yourself doing things you wouldn’t have done a month ago. You strike up conversation with anyone you see in your building and you buy tickets to a music festival ten minutes after meeting the people that invited you to join them. And it’s not forced, it’s a genuine interaction and you just feel comfortable meeting anyone because a social boundary has disappeared. And it’s remarkable. And then you talk to your new friends (that you met three days ago but you already feel close to) about how cool the entire experience is shaping up to be and then some random drunk Dutch man comes by and starts to do some weird snap-clap-dance move and he sits down and he just keeps snapping and clapping and instead of making shifty eye contact with each other and thinking “we gotta get out of here,” you just snap and clap and laugh.