It’s been exactly one week since I arrived in the Netherlands. Although that might seem like a short amount of time, I’ve already noticed a lot of cultural differences. The classes are very different here. None of my teachers have no electronics policies, unlike my UVa professors. And it’s not considered rude to talk during an entire lecture or use your phone, unlike it is at UVa. Outside of campus, I’ve noticed other cultural differences. Big-box stores aren’t really a thing here. You have to go to five different mom-and-pop stores to get what you need in the way of groceries as opposed to making one trip to Target or Walmart. People don’t buy their groceries in bulk here but rather make many small trips throughout the week.
I hope you are excited to embark on your journey to Rotterdam! Studying abroad in the Netherlands is going to be an amazing experience, just make sure you still find some time to study. In order for you to make the most out of your experience it is important to set goals and gather your thoughts prior to departure, which I will discuss with you in this letter.
It’s truly remarkable to think about how much knowledge I’ve gained from my short semester abroad. From traveling, learning languages, taking courses and gaining friendships – the experience was well worth its cost. Although I miss Europe, it’s refreshing to be back home and have life be a bit simpler for awhile. I no longer have to think about different currencies, language barriers, international banking fees, etc. Shortly after landing at JFK airport, I bought a snack at the airport and I was literally calculating the math in my head to figure out the Euro to USD conversion until I realized that my transaction was already in USD and should remain that way for awhile. So, the simplicity factor is what I’m most happy about returning to, however, traveling throughout Europe at free will is going to be something I’ll miss until I return back to it.
Being back home in America is almost surreal. Everything is the same and completely different all at once. It’s almost like I’m experiencing what it’s like to live in America and be an American citizen all over again. That is not to say that I wasn’t an American while I was in the Netherlands, because I most assuredly stood out as one on lots of occasions. What I mean to suggest is that the lens through which I view my own life and the culture of America has shifted because I now have this expanded understanding of America from the European perspective as well. I see the U.S. being in a more unstable place politically now than I saw it before I went abroad because I’ve looked in the eyes of so many wide-eyed internationals and have seen their complete lack of belief at the things that are happening here. However, in classes, the USA is still the benchmark against which all countries seem to continue to compare themselves. Taken together, this could be indicative that we are still the leaders in the dream for a better, freer world but that our leadership is faltering and our message is becoming clouded and misaligned with the values we once held so strongly.
As my semester abroad nears it end, I’m becoming more grateful for my experiences while also having mixed feelings. It’s as though I’m leaving one home to return to another. Of course it’ll be great to be home in New York, however, I must admit that I wish that Rotterdam were much closer to the states. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ll return to Rotterdam in the future, but since traveling there isn’t very convenient it’ll have to be less often than I’d like. For now, I’ll settle with having my second home being 3,635 miles away.
With only a few days left here in Rotterdam, I have begun to reflect on my experience as a whole, wondering what things I will have to declare to customs on my return flight. Literally, I think my declarations form will have some notes about some Gouda cheese I’m planning to bring back as souvenirs for friends and family. On a more symbolic level, I’m declaring a lot more than just cheese. I’ve had so many new experiences and have learned so much about this place and myself in the process. I do declare that I am changed for the better as a result!
As I near the end of my stay in the Netherlands, I’ve started to reflect on what I’ve learned here, what I want to take back with me, and a few little things I’ll be happy to live without for a while.
Even though I’ve been in Rotterdam for a while now, invariably, there are moments where I feel completely out of place and outright American. One of those moments happened recently when I ventured to try some Dutch cuisine called “bitterballen.” They came to me on a platter, looking harmless. In fact, they did not taste completely repulsive when I bit into one. However, I experienced that unpleasant scenario where someone interrupts a new food experience to inform you exactly what it is you’re eating. When a food is named something in a different language, I tend not to think as much about what it actually means or the ingredients involved. In that moment, I learned that bitterballen is one of those foods that tastes alright until you learn what it is.
Although Rotterdam has now been my home for three months, I’ve been comfortable here since the one month mark. This city offers a bit of everything – downtown is filled with skyscrapers and plenty of busy streets while the serene streets of Kralingen near Erasmus University offer the exact opposite environment. What I love most about Rotterdam is how easy it is to get around, the city’s energy and it’s prime location is Europe. A train south for 2hrs will get you to Paris & east will get you to Germany. A neat fun fact on traveling here: a plane to London will take you -5 minutes if you account for the time zone differences. And when it comes to local transportation, the Dutch have arguably the best system in the world. One card, the OV-chipkaart, is all you need to get around in the Netherlands. It’s a prepaid reloadable card that can be used for bus, tram, metro and train – efficiency at it’s finest. When you scan your card to get onto a vehicle, the screen even tells you how much you have left on your balance. We’d definitely benefit from having a similar system engendered in the States.
Although I reside in Rotterdam, I’ve decided to focus this post on Malta – which is now my favorite European country. Malta is a small island country nestled between northern Africa and the southern coast of Italy. From it’s lovely weather, beautiful location, friendly people, historic cities and breathtaking ocean bays; Malta does not disappoint. Last summer, I spent tons of time reading articles about top travel destinations and I was immediately intrigued with Malta. Little did I know at the time, that I would be spending 5 days in this country only half a year later.