reflections on studying abroad: amsterdam

by Charlotte Stevenson

Earlier this year in March, just after the daffodils were gone, I received an email saying that my application to study abroad for a semester had been approved and that I would officially be a student of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam as of September 2017. That day was a good day and, in the time since then, so much has happened. Being back home in England now, I can’t help but look back over all of the amazing experiences I was lucky enough to have during my time away and be excited for my return to literary life at York St John during the second semester in 2018. Here’s a little of what life was like in the Netherlands.

By the Prinsengracht
(Image copyright C. Stevenson 2017)

Arriving in Schipol airport that first day, I remember me and my mum trying (and failing) to get to grips with the transport system. Eventually we managed to figure out the metro and ticket barriers, arriving at Uilenstede campus where I lived during my studies. Coming from a relatively small university, the sheer size of both the living quarters and the university itself took some real adapting to for me. But whilst it was much easier to get lost, I really enjoyed being part of something that combined a myriad of students from different backgrounds with a theatre, a student led gym and plenty of societies to get involved with. As a literature student, the library spread out over five floors and the roof top terrace became favourite hang-out spots and I spent a lot of time working in the wonderful stillness that always existed there. In a week where much of my time was spent socialising and in class, being able to get away from it all was something I was always grateful to do for a few minutes each day.

Study-wise, I was working on five classes: Further Grammar, The Personal is Political (a biographical history class), Dutch History 1400 – 2017, Jewish Studies 1500 – 2017, and The Heart of Capitalism: London, New York, Amsterdam. As well as being in a country to experience a new culture I also wanted to use the opportunity to gain further knowledge on new areas I didn’t know much about. For this reason, I was virtually a History undergraduate student (as opposed to a Literature student) during my time there, learning how to incorporate the skills I’d already mastered to fit different areas. This was easier in Further Grammar, where I got to write analytical essays on gender and survival, by comparison with History of Capitalism, where I was learning about stocks and shares in the present sense as much as I was in the past. The work pace was very different to what I know in the UK, with 100 pages of reading per class per week as well as 2 assignments on top of this (and final deadlines) which was perfectly normal. It meant that time management really came in handy in the long run as I organised my time to keep up. However, because of all the work, there were also regular excursions to understand the knowledge taught on my courses in relation to the city around me; particularly with Jewish studies, I got to visit so many incredible synagogues and to really think about how space is something which evolves in and of itself. For example, the Old Jewish quarter is no longer a predominantly Jewish area, meaning all experiences of it are subjective. Are they really experiences of Jewish life and culture in Amsterdam? Or are they imagined experiences evolved from our own observations and conceptions?

Zevenlandenhuizen, cacti + books in 5 languages
(Image copyright C. Stevenson 2017)

My favourite class was The Personal is Political, in which we routinely visited archives and produced content about our own ancestry. For our final assignment we had to write a 5000-word biographical paper on a subject of our choice, so naturally I chose J. K. Rowling. It was fiendishly difficult to write as I kept attempting to unite analysis of Harry Potter with the research I had on Rowling. In the end I managed to play this to my strengths and made the main thesis of my project into one emphasising that Rowling’s life should be studied alongside Potter due to how autobiographical a work of fiction it is. I wrote substantially about her writing process before showing how the two continue to have an impact together on the world today. One interesting article I came across discussed the ethnicity of Hermione with certain authors claiming her skin colour is never mentioned in the books and they had always identified her as a black character prior to the movie releases, another discussing the similarities between Potter and the Holocaust. This really added a lot of insight into my thoughts on this author and her work, revealing to me that children’s fiction is so much more than just little books for ‘little people’. As Stephen Fry said in a 2001 documentary, these books show the protagonists growing up in real time and deal with themes such as grief, death, and identity; they are interesting for adult readers and children alike. To celebrate completing this one (and getting 90/100!) I booked tickets to the new British Library exhibition in January which I am very excited for.

Dutch architecture
(Image copyright C. Stevenson 2017)

In my free time, I would play tourist with friends and head somewhere new. The metro I mentioned earlier, as well as bicycle, allowed quick access to pretty much all areas of Amsterdam and the Netherlands in general; everything is packed together and intrinsically interlinked as a result. On sunny Sundays, we would head into the city centre and wander along the cobbled streets. There was always something new to discover, between the numerous independent businesses on the Jordaan to the museums which are spread across the area. One afternoon in the summer I came across books in 5 languages, a botanical dream in the form of a cactus filled garden store and Zevenlandenhuizen (houses of 7 different countries on one street). The cheese museum was a bit much for me (the smell was far too strong) but returning to the Anne Frank huis just before I left was an incredibly moving experience in that I knew so much more historically than I did on my previous visit. In fact, I used this visit when talking about personal reactions and the impact of memorial culture around the Shoah for my final project in Jewish Studies. Other museums I visited included the Van Gogh Gallery, which was amazing to re-visit as I adore Impressionism. I spent a lot of time sketching popular Dutch artwork and gained a lot of satisfaction from the peace that came with sitting in the Rijk museum gardens with just a sketch book.

Fun fact: the architecture of the Rijk Museum has substantial French influence and possesses an ecclesiastical feel due to the designer’s (Cuyper) faith. Despite religious tolerance being something Amsterdam is renowned for, throughout the past 500 years the popular Catholicism of Spanish rule has been more predominant in the South than in the Protestant West.

(drawings and image copyright C. Stevenson 2017)

Alongside the wonderment of studying and adaptation to the faster pace, there were other challenges involved in settling into my life in Amsterdam. The culture shock was quite difficult to grasp in certain regards, most specifically (though it might sound absurd) when it came to grocery shopping. Whilst I managed to pick up some Dutch quite quickly, this was not initially advanced enough to translate all of the ingredients on packaging which usually did not have English information. I suffer from a severe anaphylactic nut allergy, meaning that I can go into a life-threatening reaction just from the smell of someone eating food with nut traces up to 2 metres away from me. At first it was stressful, but this is where coming from a home with multiple languages is incredibly useful: I would check in French, German and Dutch every time to make sure food was safe, though eventually French was just enough. Peculiar how this study abroad meant improving three languages opposed to just one! Dutch is very similar to German but sometimes it can be confusing because of the slight differences, mainly the use of the ‘–ij’ sound which is pronounced like the ‘y’ in ‘eye’. If you want some basic Dutch to help you with a trip to the Netherlands, here are the most commonly used phrases:

  • Hoi! – Hello
  • Hoe gaat het met u? – How are you
  • Dank je wel (or) Dank u wel – Thanks!
  • Goedendag – Good day
  • Doei – bye
  • Tot ziens – see you later
  • Alstublieft – Please or you’re welcome (kind of like German Genau)

Also, some other things I learnt quickly about the Dutch language: there are certain things that just don’t really translate or at least, aren’t put to use in other countries. An example being that people swear in illnesses. So, let’s say you anger a cyclist, they’ll wish the plague or typhus upon you! Another is that liquorice is so popular it has a street name: ‘Drop’. It was a relief to find out the latter as someone saying ‘do you want some drop’ can sound a bit suspicious if you don’t know what it means…

A surprise funfair
(Image copyright C. Stevenson 2017)

On my last few days before returning home, I did some Christmas shopping and encountered a random fun fair in the middle of Dam square where the government building/palace is. It was such a treat to celebrate the end of exams and deadlines with candyfloss! But it was also extremely sad, to know that this would be my last time in Amsterdam for the foreseeable future. As I am now, I thought back over the amazing opportunities from my months living there. Getting to know a new culture as though it were my own, making friends from all over the world, practicing languages and opening up my literary studies to encompass a more historical perspective as well as focusing more on translated texts. Whilst I am glad to be home and happy to be amongst the familiar all-English packaging aesthetic of UK supermarkets, I do miss Vrije and all I encountered there. It has been an incredible adventure that it is difficult to leave behind, but I know it’s not forever – not really. There is a famous Jewish saying about the Netherlands:

When I am in Amsterdam my heart sings ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem!’
But when I am in Jerusalem, my heart sings ‘Amsterdam, Amsterdam’

That dual sense of home is something I will always carry with me and it leaves me with a more open mind set as a result to know that home is more about feeling and community than it is place. This is the most vital thing I learnt as an international student and something I encourage you to welcome on your own journey if this is a path you choose to take: head confidently into the unknown and be open to challenges and change. Diversity, warmth and storytelling were the factors which made Amsterdam home for me and which will be connected to my sense of home evermore.

Near to the Bloemenmarkt
(Image copyright C. Stevenson 2017)