With seven consecutive consonants in the middle, it’s about as difficult to pronounce herfststrom as it is to ride your bike in one. Many international students who had classes in town ended up taking the bus instead. The autumn storm this year had some of the worst winds in years. It’s over now, but just a few days ago we had 40+ kph winds. Even for Dutch weather, this was not typical.
The Rhijnauwen is the forested area behind the university campus, complete with cows, sheep, and a gorgeous pancake house in the center. It used to be a castle and fiefdom, but now it’s a public park. A lot of families and old couples like to spend their mornings and afternoons here on a sunny day.
It’s also a fun place for beer bicycling at night.
Every week, the Erasmus Student Network (ESN) arranges a different activity for the international students, and this week was the time for bierfietsen. Most events take a few days to fill up with people, but this one sold out within a few hours. The promise of unlimited beer probably helped with that.
The beer bike is like a modified open-air food truck, except instead of being powered by a gas engine it’s powered by ten pairs of feet. Five people sit on each side, with each seat having its own bike pedals. There’s one sober driver, and at least one person serving out the beer. Neon blue lights, loud sound system, and a bell to ring when a stranger passes by — the beer bicycle is just screaming for a good time.
We spent about one and a half hours riding around the forest and the school campus. You could see cows resting, and parents biking back home with children riding on the back. Some people avert their eyes and pretend nothing is happening, but the older people passing by tend to cheer us on.
Many of the paved roads in the forest are only wide enough for one-way traffic, so every car that had the misfortune of encountering us had the glorious view of drunken international students until the next turn came up. Walking is three times faster than the beer bicycle even with ten people pedaling, so this meant we could spend some quality time with each other.
Every so often the beer bicycle would make a stop so people could pee behind the trees. And every time there was a bump or pothole in the road, the coordinators would should shout hold onto your beers! One lady even fell off before one of the turns.
So why go on a beer bicycle in the forest? Apart from the good exercise, wouldn’t it just be easier to go to the student Cambridgebar downstairs for cheap alcohol? (We actually went inside for more drinks afterward, but that’s beside the point).
Experiencing the same locations in novel contexts is one way to create and reinforce lasting memories.
Any time there’s a sunny day I run around the forest. It’s a familiar routine and I’ve done it enough times that I have mental notes on where each trail goes, and where the coziest benches along the river are for picnics and kissing. But beer bicycling on these same routes? Now that’s unfamiliar and exciting. And it’s left such an impression on me that every time I run, the beer bike creeps into my mind, even if I’m not in the mood for beer.
The Cambridgebar below where I live in Cambridgelaan is run by student volunteers, and is the only bar in Utrecht under Heineken’s “Star Serve” program. That means that every bartender in the Cambridgebar should know the proper way to serve a Heineken beer. People who work at Heineken organize training sessions, and every once in a while a secret customer will come in to see if everybody is getting the “Star Serve” experience.
So, what is the proper way to serve a Heineken beer?
Being away on exchange makes it easy to forget the studying part of “studying” abroad. Not to sound cheeky, but I feel relieved when I have a lecture during the day. Living in a college town like Utrecht comes with a paralyzing number of opportunities to explore and have fun. At least during lectures you can focus on a single goal, like listening to the professor and trying to understand what he is saying.
I have class with both Dutch and international students, but mostly with the Dutch. The classes I take are in English, but if no international students are present, then Dutch will be the language of instruction. And just like in San Diego, it’s mandatory for students to participate in experiments if they study something related to psychology. Foreign students are exempt from this since the instructions are all in Dutch. No worries there, because that means I get to take a nice hour-long coffee break in one of the open-air cares around town.
For the most part, the university trusts the students to handle the work by themselves. There’s no hand-holding, guidance, or even much support here — the older students will criticize that at times. Support for international students will often come from the student community and not from the university administration.
The Dutch use numbers instead of letters to evaluate student performance. Grades go from 1-10 with single decimal points in-between instead of an A-F scale like in the United States. The scale goes as follows:
10 is for God.
9 is for the Professor.
8 is for the Student.
10’s are extremely rare. Getting a 10 on anything other than a multiple-choice exam means absolute perfection, and well, most people know that is unattainable.
An 8 is considered an exceptional grade, and a 7 is enough reason for celebration. According to the grade conversion chart offered by my home university, an 8 is just an A-. Tell this to the average over-achiever in the University of California system and they’ll be sure to have a panic attack. If preserving your GPA is your main priority, perhaps a Dutch university is not the best choice.
Keeping in line with Dutch transparency, grades are publicly posted with your student I.D., so everybody can see what everyone else got. Foreign ID numbers have one less number than the Dutch IDs, and there’s a stark difference in the average grades between the two. But it’s almost expected (and dare I say, encouraged) to have grades drop during an exchange year. You didn’t travel so far away just to camp in the library and grind your nose into the books, as gorgeous as the library is. And it seems that the professors are sympathetic to that, although some more than others.
My favorite part about the lectures is that there is a ten-minute coffee break halfway through each ninety minute period, just before your attention starts to wane. Other than that, the lecture format is similar to the public universities in the U.S., with the teacher speaking uninterrupted to a distracted audience. I have yet to see a class size exceed 100.
But lectures are not the main focus at the university here — small group discussions, tutorials, and practicals are. These discussions are usually more interesting than the actual lecture itself. Tutorials and practicals are scheduled for up to three hours, and often involve the students giving presentations and leading discussions. Some classes even have students responsible for leading a two-hour lecture.
The Dutch emphasis on group work takes time to get used to. Here, even written reports are done in your werkgroep. Presentations and projects are all done in groups, and thus, are graded as a group. It’s much different from the American emphasis on individual work, but if you have a lovely partner, then the group work is very enjoyable.
Professors and assistants introduce themselves by their first name, and the students address them by their first name. Just two days ago, after noticing that half the class was absent during the small-group discussion, I asked the professor:
Kasper, did you skip classes when you were younger?
Oh, yes. I skipped gym and would go to the arcade with my friends. I thought it was completely normal until I went out.
The emphasis on public discussion and collaboration while studying is bound to put you out of your comfort zone if you are used to the American public school system. After years of being told that written reports must be your work and yours alone, the Dutch system takes a while to get used to.
Still, California would do well to borrow some of these practices. At the very least, we would have fewer students falling asleep at their desks.
I just joined the speed-skating team here at the university — USSV (Utrechtse Studenten Schaats Vereniging) Softijs. Nevermind that I just learned to stop hugging the wall.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of camping with the beautiful people of USSV Softijs in the small seaside town of Monster. The beaches here are different from those in San Diego. The sand is a lot whiter, and you won’t see people hopping around in flip-flops and shorts. But of course, there are always exceptions.
There’s a tradition in the speed-skating team to take a dip in the North Sea with only your underwear on at midnight. And as a new member, I was obliged to do the same. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived in California for all my life, but I don’t think I was ever as cold as I was when I came out of the water. Frozen balls make better memories though, so long as there is the certainty of warmth some time soon after, and so long as there are other people who (willingly) put themselves in such a situation.
There’s no actual ice skating involved in the introductory camp — it was more of a getting-to-know-one-another and lots of bier kind of camp. I was the only non-Dutch person there, which was both cool and intimidating at the same time. When you’re speaking one-on-one with people, everything is fine. It’s the group conversations that can feel a bit isolating, since group conversations are usually in Dutch. At least when you’re speaking with only one other person you can ask for clarification or translation without breaking the rhythm.
At camp, we played some traditional Dutch games. There’s one that has you stuff whole tomatoes in your mouth to gather “raw materials” to build imaginary cities against other teams. There’s another game that lines up two teams across from each other, and one person in the middle. Depending on who won or lost the last round, you’ll either be trying to kiss the person in the center, or doing anything you can to prevent that from happening. Usually this means a lot of wrestling on the floor.
During the last night, a rival team from the city of Delft, Els (Effe Lekker Schaatsen), came by for a surprise visit.
Note: “lekker” means tasty or delicious in its usual context.
They put team colors (green) on everything they could, placing stickers on the urinals and on people’s backs. We pretend to hate each other, but it’s hard to do that when you dive in the North Sea together in only your underwear.
Practice is every Wednesday at 10 PM. At a time like that, you can’t help but wonder what they’ve got planned afterwards.