one month in Utrecht

2013-09-04 16.36.39 2013-08-14 16.38.51

Left: The Dom Tower in the city center. It’s the tallest landmark in the city, and makes for a good meeting place if you ever get lost.
Right: The Neude is a square full of open-air bars and cafes. Especially popular in the afternoon and night.

I’ve been living in Utrecht for over a month now, but it’s only been a week since actual school has started. It’s fascinating living in a city that’s three times as old as your entire home country, with all the old architecture, canals, and culture. Definitely a good change of pace from the concrete buildings of UCSD.

Out of the 300,000+ people who live here, more than 60,000 of them are students. Word has it that the male-female ratio is 3:7, which doesn’t hurt. Most of the international students I’m studying with are in their early twenties and well into their Masters program. A large majority of the international students I’ve met are studying international law. As an 18 year old bachelor’s student, there does feel like a bit of an age gap, although the older students don’t seem to mind.

You can’t say you’ve experienced the Netherlands until you’ve actually rode a bike. The city of Utrecht has been master planned around the bike, with bikes having their own dedicated lanes — not just a couple white lines on the main road like in California. Sometimes it seems as if there are more bikes than people, and it’s adorable watching parents put their children in wooden carts attached to the front, or in high-chairs strapped to the back. When it comes to crime, all that really happens here is bike theft. The local junkies usually hang around the train station and sell stolen bikes for 10-15 euros versus 70+ euros at the secondhand store, and it’s well-known that students go to the junkies for cheap bikes. It’s not unheard of to spend as much money on the lock as on the bike, and getting your bike stolen is almost like a rite of passage here.

Still, traveling back home at night feels safe. A lot of the female students noted that they get a sense of security here that they don’t get at home, and it’s one of those things that I may be “aware” of as a straight male, but will never truly understand. And since we’re on gender, the city has placed public urinals in select areas around the parks, so drunk men can pee in plastic containers rather than on the street. It’s a nice set-up, but there’s no female equivalent.

The weather is constantly changing. The key here would be to layer your clothes. We’ve enjoyed sunshine and warmth for the past couple weeks, but now autumn is coming and the chill is starting to settle in. Umbrellas are useful, although I haven’t learned how to balance an umbrella and the bike at the same time during stormy winds.

This seems like a European thing, but I adore the open-air cafes they have here. You can just relax, enjoy a cup of coffee outside, and just watch people pass by for an entire afternoon. If you’re going to take a coffee break at a cafe, set aside at least an hour. Dutch service is famous for being slow and indifferent, but at the same time they let you mind your own business.

Businesses close a lot earlier here, many as early as around 6 o’clock. The important exceptions are the grocery store (the local Albert Heijn, which is the Dutch equivalent of Safeway, Ralphs, or Albertsons) which closes at 10 o’clock, and the bars, clubs, and Turkish restaurants which are open until the wee hours of the night. The Turkish restaurants get especially interesting after midnight, when all the drunk people stumble in after a night’s worth of partying for some kebabs or fries.

And it is true — the Dutch are very friendly. Ask a stranger a question and more likely than not, they’ll go out of their way to help you. This doesn’t mean that every Dutch person is peaches and cream, and I’ve already experienced my fair share of wagging fingers from random strangers, but it’s good to know that people won’t be trying to screw you over at every possible turn. People trust each other, and it allows for smoother social interactions.

I’m making huge generalizations right now, but I’ll be able to go into more detail as the year passes. For now, I’m having an amazing time.


Station 7B, or regret

“I think that’s your train over there.”

Station 7B was not where we were supposed to be. Station 14 was. So there we were, watching the train in Station 14 go off in its merry way. It was 3:17 AM and the next train from Amsterdam to Utrecht would come in an hour. And while we had friets with mayonnaise and tartar sauce to keep us company, there’s no doubt that this kinda sucked.


“Are you lost?”

It’s 3:15 AM, and in comes a Dutch man named Flip – old-fashioned for Philip, he says. Like Goedhart, all we had to do was make eye contact before he posed the question. He would spend the next half hour giving us tips and advice around the best places in Amsterdam and Den Haag. Disco clubs, ethnic restaurants, book recommendations, and wise advice like how herring is good for hangovers. He wasn’t even going on the same train as us.

The conversation had been going well, so I thought I’d ask him this question:

“Is there anything you’d wish you’d have done our age?”

No regrets, he says – although he does wish that he studied abroad during his college years. He had an amazing time at university, and I get the impression that he’s travelled all around the world – but living in a foreign country as a student is much different than visiting as a tourist or living as an expat. But this is only in hindsight — something he didn’t think of until after he graduated. There was no emotional baggage from this, just the sense of “what if?”

But then he turned the question to me. What about you? People don’t ask other people (let alone someone they’ve met for less than an hour) these kinds of things unless they have some regrets themselves.

If five other people went up and asked the same question, I could have different answers for all of them. But that night I told him one.


Regret is good in that it forces you to reflect on your past so you don’t make the same mistakes in the future. And while I do wish I made some different decisions in life, I’m rather happy with how things have turned out — even if it meant missing the train and walking home in the pouring rain until 6. At least it was memorable.

Burning what you touch, or self-pity

I could see brown rice porridge in the pot. I wasn’t trying to make porridge, and I don’t remember using brown rice. It tasted like sludge, and there wasn’t enough community Sriracha hot sauce left over to mask the flavor. Rookie mistake, sure – but at the moment I thought it was unforgivable because it wasn’t my rice to burn.

“I’ll still eat it,” say the unfortunate souls who agreed to let me cook dinner. I would eat it too of course, but this was embarrassing. I promised two new friends that I would cook for them, eager to show off what I had learned after hovering over their shoulders as they made stir-fry the past couple days. “Are you sure about cooking dinner?” “Oh, absolutely!” Two hours later they were greeted with so many apologies that the word “sorry” lost its meaning. It was a simple pot of rice, and yet, I still took it personally.

“Wesley, don’t be sad. We weren’t expecting much anyway, and I’m happy that you made us dinner.”

Blunt truth and gentle encouragement – more comforting than sugar-coated compliments and forced “mmmm”s and nods of approval will ever be.

They weren’t even that focused on whatever I was cooking anyway – they had more pressing concerns, like not being homeless for the year after realizing that the landlord had tried to scam them by advertising apartments already filled. And yet, for all that time (or at least for that hour I was cooking), I had felt that the whole world revolved around me, what I felt, and whatever I burned inside that pot. Me, me, me. Now that’s embarrassing.

This example is a tad melodramatic, but you get the point.


Say a loved one cooked something shitty, and everybody in the room knows it. Saying it isn’t bad won’t make the food taste any better, and it won’t preserve their precious ego either.

So the best thing you can do in a situation like this? Tell them to cook again the next day.

Free Drinks

The instructors for our Dutch Culture & Language program have been very kind. Along with teaching us about Dutch culture, they’ve been treating us out to drinks nearly every other day, especially when we go out on field trips to big cities. Drinks after visiting the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Drinks after touring the Parliament in Den Haag. Drinks in Café Broers in Utrecht to start off orientation, and drinks once again to end orientation.

I’m not saying that they’re turning us into alcoholics, or that I’ve learned more about a country’s beer more than the actual country, but the professor’s gesture of paying for his students’ drinks is always appreciated. Order a fancy five-euro cocktail though and you’re on your own – gotta be reasonable, y’know.


There is a nine-day break between the end of the Dutch Culture & Language orientation and the actual start of the school year, and the landlord has just kicked us out of the temporary housing to make room for incoming students. Up until this point, only students from the UC campuses were living in the dorms – the other international and Dutch students hadn’t moved in yet.

Getting kicked out isn’t too bad. At least it gives us the excuse to travel and have sleepovers in other people’s rooms. Even the common living room is full of stranded students.

I’ll be out of the country for a week, but I’ve scheduled a few posts in the meantime.



Or “good heart”, the name of the man who gave us directions to Lombok, the multicultural district of Utrecht. Before I can even say hello to him, he asked how he could help — and this just through eye contact. He ended up walking with us for thirty minutes. Seventy-two and retired twice — first when he was sixty and working at a water management plant in Surinam, and second when he was seventy and moved with his wife to the Netherlands (her wish, he says). Seventy-two and no cane, and with wrinkles that almost made a permanent smile. Seventy-two and yet, looked fifty-two.

“Oh, I’m also learning Hindu now. I like world languages.”

Sometimes I wonder if people who are named after different virtues like Patience or Faith actually live up to them, or if they’re so self-conscious about whether their actions line up with their name that they either hold themselves up to superhuman standards or give up entirely. I wouldn’t know, but it seemed like Goedhart took it in stride.

The people I’ve met here in the Netherlands so far are very kind, as are many other people in the world. Being named “good heart” isn’t a requirement for being a decent human being, but it doesn’t hurt.

how to get around town

I asked the shopkeeper if he had any advice for a new bicyclist in the Netherlands. It was rush hour, and the traffic was intimidating.

“Uh, just go.”

Before this I had spent most of my time on the sidewalk, not knowing where the bike lane started or where the bike lane ended, and scurrying to the side whenever I heard a bell or someone calling. Bikes here have the right of way, and you’re expected to move the hell out, not the other way around. I’m eyeballing this, but the number of bikes on the road at once outnumber cars and other vehicles by at least 50:1 in Utrecht. Biking back in UCSD was nothing compared to this.

And as unhelpful as I thought the shopkeeper’s advice was at first, there really was no other way to learn how to bike around town, other than following the Dutch bikers and doing what they do. When to pass a cyclist, where to turn, where to stop, or even when to ignore the streetlight — although it’s a good idea to err on the side of caution for now.

The same applies for learning a new language. Sure, there are textbooks and language tutors available (and the Dutch people I have met so far are more than happy to demonstrate the correct pronunciation of the word), but the bulk of the learning will still be my responsibility.

Learning by doing is proposed as the cure-all for any sort of ignorance a person may suffer from. And while experience may be the best teacher, her lessons don’t come without a cost. I could cause a pile-up on Janskerkhof. I could feel like a fool when I ask someone hoe gaat het, or how they’re doing, and I can’t understand a single part of their response. 

But it’s better than the alternative — instead of hiding behind what is comfortable or what is known, dodging every bike and wondering what it would be like to zip along the road so graciously, you could actually find out for yourself.

The lure of a fresh start.

The fact that no one in the Netherlands will know me can have some interesting implications. There are no people to remind me of the past. Any person I’ve known in my life, friend or foe, will be living nine time zones away. This means that (if I really wanted to) I could forge a new identity. I can become whoever I want. I can be the stud I’ve always wanted to be. The man who can command the respect and attention of any room with his stories, and inspires others to live out theirs. The man who moves mountains, saves orphans from chemical fires during the day and returns home to give his momma a kiss good night.

(The Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign comes to mind).

But it’s not that simple. Character is built slowly — grown and cultivated over a long period of time. The same character and attitude that has guided me in past decisions will be there to guide me in the Netherlands. Any personal change can only come about after acknowledging, processing, and ultimately, accepting my past. Otherwise, I’ll just be in a perpetual state of running away from my problems. Then, travel, which is so often lauded as a way to discover the self, will just be another coping mechanism with which I can avoid whatever bothers me.

Being in an unfamiliar environment can accelerate this desired growth, but it’s not the magic bullet to instantly becoming the kind of person I want to be. It’ll take time, but I feel that things have a way of working out as long as I put my mind to it.

That being said, I still welcome the change of pace.

Oh, what am I saying? I’m so excited for this opportunity. I just thought it was necessary to be mindful of a potential pitfall such as this.