My pre-departure motto before arriving in the Netherlands was to make sure I never lost sight of the most important reason I’m here; to study. If you’ve heard different things about study abroad programs; some are a joke, others keep you overworked and undertraveled. Truth is, believe them both. Every program is different and the key is to investigate beforehand and ensure the program YOU choose meets your personal goals. Mine was to have a balanced classroom/global experience, and it has beyond exceeded my expectations. After all, it isn’t many times in your life that you get excited to nerd-out in class and take on-site trips that immerse you in the very things you learn.
During my six weeks here, I am taking three 2-week courses in European studies. While there are usually lectures in the morning and seminars in the afternoons, some days we break up the schedule with some excursions. Aside from the Brussels trip and Utrecht city walk, here are some of our recent expeditions:
I always thought The Hague was a building, or an institute of some sort; after all, what place is named “The ___”? Turns out, The Hague is a major city and political hub for not only The Netherlands, but all of Europe. We went there first with class #2 From Middle Ages to Modernity and saw the Binnenhof, or Dutch Royal Parliament, where the seat of government is. It was a beautiful building with rich cherry wood, and hasn’t changed much since the 17th century. We also visited the Mauritshaus, an art museum that houses several Dutch Golden Age pieces, including Vermeer’s famous Girl With the Pearl Earring. I loved both the book and the movie, so seeing it in person was almost too good to be true. Our museum guide explained to us that it is almost like the Mona Lisa in that the girl’s identity is disputed, and her expression up to interpretation. Another one of the art world’s great mysteries.
Our second time in The Hague was with class #3, The Twentieth Century in Three Wars. Since we had just finished learning about the Cold War, we paid a visit to the OPCW, Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, where a policy specialist presented on the coalition’s work. It is a non-governmental international organization that has won the Nobel Peace Prize and works closely with governments to eliminate the threat of chemical weapons. Scientific advancements are a wondrous thing – both lifesaving and lethal, and the progress the OPCW has thus far made in promoting other forms of international diplomacy are a promising stride towards the future.
We then went to the Peace Palace, which houses the International Court of Justice. We weren’t able to go inside (entry is exclusive and almost impossible to get) but got to admire the beautiful building and walk-through exhibit. Right outside in the gardens was a tree to which visitors tied notes, wishes for peace. I found some Ed Sheeran lyrics on one paper, I don’t know why, but it made me really happy. Perhaps the face that some stranger countries away spoke to a universal wish of many.
Back to Belgium, but not to Brussels. The day was a full one, but rightfully so, since we drove 3.5 hours there and another 3.5 hours back. This time, we went to Ypres (Ieper…pronounced EEEP-er), what used to be a bustling Flemish town in Medieval times and was completely destroyed in World War I. The entire city was reconstructed in traditional style, except the Old Cloth Hall, which withstood the destruction and now houses the In Flanders Field Museum. As much as I love history, the 20th century bores me to tears, so I was skeptical about this museum. And then surprised. It humanized war; housed the uniforms of soldiers, medical kits of nurses, possessions of civilians, and letters from family members. Reading those letters was the most moving part; seeing how people a century ago had the same concerns and fears but none of the contact we do today.
In the afternoon, we visited and got to walk through some of the Trenches out in the countryside. I’m pretty short myself, and had to duck, so I can’t even imagine how stealthy those soldiers had to be – especially because those trenches sometimes served as their living quarters. Highlight of the trip: Sam (UF friend) looked down at her feet and found a real metal bullet in the dirt! As in an artifact! Makes you wonder what else is hiding out there.
We then visited two cemeteries, a British one and a German one. Both were very different; the British one was a lot lighter, and in a way, hauntingly beautiful.
When evening set in, we embarked on the mandatory hunt for a Belgian waffle, but without any luck. We found pre-made waffles at some street stand, but they didn’t stand a chance to our first, hot-off-the-griddle waffle experience.
At 8pm, we watched a brief tribute ceremony to the soldiers that fought in WWI. It was outside and a marching band played patriotic tunes; this ceremony is held every single night and the always attracts a healthy crowd.
Unfortunately, the weekend excursion to Amsterdam that my UF friends and I planned was kind of a wash; we spent half the time stuck in a little tavern waiting for the hurricane outside to subside and the other half stuck in a train for 5 hours. Yes, that is Dutch weather for you. Luckily, we got to visit a few key places with our class.
Course #2 took us to the Rijksmuseum, which houses some of the most famous historical Dutch works. Highlights? Rembrandt’s Milk Maid and The Night Watch.
With Course #3, we got to visit the Anne Frank Huis, and thankfully got to skip the line which is usually 3-4 hours. As a Jew, I found it especially nice walking past the queue (as they say) to see people of all nationalities and religions lined up around the corner to see the hiding place of a Holocaust victim. It really speaks to the universality of her story.
Interestingly enough, the house itself was quite bare. Otto Frank, Anne’s father and the only surviving family member, did not want to re-furnish it for show, instead choosing to leave it as he found it when he returned from Auschwitz – empty, since the Nazis plundered all their belongings. Unlike the Holocaust museum in Washington, D.C., Anne Frank’s house was not particularly terrifying or sad; instead, it was a commemorative tribute to her strength and documented her time in hiding, not in the concentration camps. After the Huis, we had a lecture from a scholar who translated her diary into several languages, and learned that what we read is not exactly the real deal. Depending on the country of publishing, things have been censored; anti-German phrases in German, talk of her sexuality in Dutch, and not-so-nice words about her mother in English. As one of the most widely read books in the world, I have yet to add this to my reading list.
So with all of this reading, all these exams, presentations, assignments, how do we have time to possibly fit those in and still enjoy Utrecht?
Because places like these exist:
And “social programmes” sponsored by Utrecht Summer School. Before you laugh, how would you like to go canoeing the night before a final exam?
They care about work/life balance here!
Until Next Time,