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

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.

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.

evanescent days

The streets in this city have a sense of ordered chaos, with perhaps more chaos than order. Any traffic rules appear to really just be guidelines, with mopeds speeding in the bike lanes, the bicyclers leisurely criss-crossing paths at the uncontrolled intersections, and tourists stopping dead in the middle of the street to check their map, or maybe use their selfie-stick for a group photo on a picturesque canal bridge.

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The pubs and café’s are filled with all sorts of people enjoying the final August moments of sun and relaxation, with a Juliper in one hand and a rolled cigarette, or maybe an Amsterdam guide book, in the other. Colourful flower baskets hang from windowsills and families have picnics while floating down the canals on their small, wood finished boats.
On an almost daily basis for the past two weeks, I’ve seen Dutch frat boys with their combed hair and coordinated navy blue blazers and khaki pants participate in initiation fraternity rituals throughout the centre of the city – drinking beer in the morning, yelling chants, struggling to transport couches in shopping carts to who knows where and setting off flares in the wee hours of the night.

As many say, the streets are the arteries of the city, and Amsterdam’s streets are surely pumping with energy. Even the quieter streets have a gentle, charming buzz, with young girls perched on the side of the canal eating lunch, and even younger boys biking home over the uneven cobblestone road, causing their bike bells to softly jingle.

There is something special about the fleeting days of summer in any place, but here, in the lively mixed streets of Amsterdam, the end of August seems to be particularly wonderful.

-J

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