Saturday, December 26, 2009

Because Simone Duval Gives the Best Pep Talks Ever

Oh man. Where to begin. It's been around a week since I last updated. I'd say a lot has happened, but I think the majority is all in my head. I'll start with the story of it all and talk some more in a sec. Ok - so the snow decided it'd be a fun idea to stick around, giving Dutch and South American exchange students alike a blissfully white mid-December. For the kid who grew up in Syracuse, New York and Cleveland, Ohio - blissful wouldn't be the term I'd use. Either way seeing as the Dutch were so illfully prepared for such weather I was essentially barricaded in the house (dramatization but whatever) for 3 whole days. Doing nothing. I sure know how to take advantage of foreign exchange don't I? Actually in those three days I left the house to go "sledding" for an hour. I put that in quotation marks because I feel bad for the Dutch when it comes to this activity. As a child blessed by Central New York winters, sledding was not just an activity - it was a way of life (sky top, anyone?). Either way I'm pretty positive what we used as an incline looked like my front yard in Shaker (that's not saying much in sledding terms). Guess it got me out of the house.

Wednesday I decided I had had enough of myself and went into Eindhoven where I decided I'd get on a train (seeing as someone at the Dutch rails decided to start doing their job and running timely trains) and hang out with Agustina in Breda. During a cold, brisk afternoon we wandered once again around the old streets of Breda, basically eating our way through town. Pizza for lunch, ollibollen for a snack, something else as a snack, a bottle of cheap apple-y champagne in the park, and chocolate milk and fries for dinner. It's a wonder I was able to hold myself up by the time I left. Either way it was a nice reprieve from what had turned into quite a dull winter vacation.

The next day was Christmas Eve. That was a rough one. I'm still up in the air about the emotions I was feeling on that day, whether they were holiday induced or in fact, how I feel here. See the thing is when you're away from home on a holiday like Christmas, it's like nothing you've ever experienced before. I can't even describe the longing for home I've been going through the past couple days and I'm far from afraid to admit that it's been taking a heavy toll on me. Luckily my host mother, Birgit, has been a major rock in this entire ordeal of my roller coaster emotions and I have found that I appreciate here enormously throughout this exchange. We had a really nice fondue dinner that evening and then on Christmas morning we left for Eric's parent's house. I found that it was somewhat comforting to be in a "grandparent's" home for Christmas, it's what I'm used to, and one of the things I was missing most. The food was great, his parents were super nice, and I just read a book all day so as not to get lost in my thoughts of what I was (what some may say "was not") missing.

To say this experience thus far has been a roller coaster is an understatement. I have not faced such large challenges in my life ever. The hardest part of this all is that I have grown to realize that the challenge is, in fact, myself. That is, to overcome the boundaries I have set up in my head and break into a world that isn't as forgiving as the one I come from. By that I don't wish to infer anything about the Dutch people, I simply am trying to say that when you're on exchange, living with essentially new people...there isn't as much room run away with good excuse. Going upstairs to do homework and leaving the house don't exactly equate to the same thing here for me. When they are used as excuses here, in reality, it's me that's pulling back into my own world, and not going off to take care of the aforementioned chore. Get it? Maybe.

This past week time has slowed for me infinitesimally. As I approach what very well be my half way point of exchange (I won't go into details, but I may end the program in June instead of July for, like I said, reasons I'll explain if I do take this measure) I see things in such a different light. The students from the Southern Hemisphere are leaving. We are the old group now. In 2 months more students will come, even fresher and newer than us although I still feel so green and unskilled at surviving in this country. I don't want to mince words with the future me that reads this blog or whoever else decides I'm interesting: I think about going home all the time. But I think the main thing that speaks to me personally as reason to stay (although I could list off all the reasons I feel that I don't fit) is that I haven't gone yet. There's something in me that won't give up this bizarre, altered stretch of time I have here, even though some days I have great doubts in myself.

I hope these worries fade as more time passes because like I said, I'm almost half-way done. And doesn't that attest to something? I titled this entry so because I have discussed how I feel here with so many people, and none have made it click and seem the way it did other than Simone. The frank part of it is, people give me encouragement, tell me I can stick it out and all, but it's so different for me to here it all plus some from someone who is going through this experience on the opposite side of the world. Someone I consider to be smart and (usually) rational making you realize you have done something helps. At this point I'm rambling because I barely am sure if all these makes completely sense but thank you Simone Duval for saying some of the best stuff I've heard all year. And my American parents and host parents for watching me be a spaz and sticking by my side through it. Wanna hear the good news? You've got 5 more months of it!

Saturday, December 19, 2009

What A Decent Emergency Snow Plan Could Do for this Country

After what started off as a slow week, Saturday has finally arrived. The bummer is I am not in Belgium as a planned to be, unfortunately.

Tuesday afternoon I picked up my bud Peggy, exchanger in Belgium, from the train station. Family problems and a 5 hour trek left her slightly frazzled - it's all good. I tried my best to show her some interesting stuff in her time here. We only walked around Eindhoven for about 30 minutes if that then she got on a bus to Waalre and I biked home. That night I got pretty sick which carried into Wednesday, disprupting our plans to go to 'S-Hartogenbosch for the day. What else happened that day? I received a package from home! It was spectacular to feel like I was holding something that came directly from Shaker Heights, Ohio and hasn't been languishing in the harsh winds of Northern Europe. We learned (my family and I) that we will never be communicating via UPS again ($190 on their side and €56 on mine? nah thanks). Even so it had some warm clothes and nice pictures from home which I stuck up in my room to add some color finally.

It also snowed! Now let me tell you, this whole snow subject works as a great segway from Wednesday to Thursday. Wednesday we were stuck inside feeling sick and watching Sister Act 2 (bare with me) and then it was snowing. woo. Now Thursday it was still snowing when we decided to head out on our day trip (instead of Den Bosch we decided to go to Utrecht). It was obviously a warning I did not heed when it took 90 minutes to get a train to Utrecht (unheard of)! When we finally did get on the measly 50 minute direct train (funny story - we had to listen the entire day to the loud speaker in the train station alerting people of changes and cancellations to trains. When they announced our train got switched from platform 5 to 4 (in Dutch, naturally) everyone ran like the tracks were on fire. Funny part? Peggy, living in French Belgium, obviously didn't catch it and was sorta left in the lurch when I took off with the crazed hoard of Dutchmen. Just made me feel slightly...Dutch) and arrived in Utrecht we were both surprised at how pleasant it was. There was of course the feeling that it was a typical Dutch city a la Leiden and Amsterdam, but at the same time it felt very managable while still being filled with stuff to do. The snow also did put a nice little mute on the world, adding something to the canals and bridges that I really enjoyed.

We checked out a church, did some shopping, and observed some really dumb Americans givin' our country a good name by flaunting their marijuana in the street. When all of this kinda dried up and stores began to close we headed back to the train station. Arriving at about 4:40 pm there was something fishy with the situation immediately. Why are all these people walking towards us? It's awfully crowded. Well, I of course looked right away to the giant ticker that sits at the center of the ginourmous Utrecht main hall and guess what? It was empty. The huge station was packed with people. Why? Because of barely 2 inches of snow. We stood with hundreds of other impatient travelers for around 90 minutes. Albert Heijn handed out free pastries and it was somewhat amusing yet at the same time frustrating to watch the same train going to Rotterdam Central switch from Platform 10 to 12 to 11 then back to 12 over the course of 20 minutes. Trains were mayhem. We talked to people that said they had been waiting for 3 hours! Utrecht appeared coveniently to be the center of the Dutch train problem of Thursday. Lucky us. It was only after our third go-round in the station's Albert Heijn did we walk out and see - BY GEORGE - a train to Eindhoven! Happy days!

Not. In my excited state I pushed my way through all the people (I had been waiting for this opportunity to push through the crowds to a train to Eindhoven much like everyone had done to be the past 90 minutes) and sprinted down the stairs and - WOO triumph! - hopped onto the first train I saw. We went to the second, floor didn't even care we were so happy and went right into first class for some reason. Then I read a sign that made my stomach sink.

"'Scuse me sir, where is this train going?"
"Den Haag Central"
pfffffsss train doors slide close. train begins to move. Peggy and Patrick exchange shocked glances as we watch the train to Eindhoven pull up on the opposite side of the platform

Let me just say. That moment was the beginning of one of those what-the-hell nights. The kind man in first class assured us that we could catch a direct from Den Haag straight to Eindhoven. I agreed, having done that trip myself a couple times, that we should be fine. During the 45 minute ride there I chuckled a little to myself, thinking what a funny mistake that was. HAH. Not too long later we arrived in Den Haag Centraal. I ran to the schedule to see that all the trains going anywhere near Eindhoven were not running. Asked the information who directed us to a train to Rotterdam. We ran (it was a running evening, folks) to this train and just got it. Happy happy because we'd be able to get one there. Wrong again. We were told there to get on a train to Breda. We went back we were to just wait when a train worker was yelling that this train heading to Dordrecht would also go to Breda. Yes. We met a nice guy on the train who was talking to us about what a horrible day this was and all the trains he'd been on (boy could I relate). Unfortunately, the train did not continue to Breda. It ended in Dordrecht.

There we waited for a train to Breda. Which was "coming" from about 3 different platforms. Finally it settled on one and we waited there. Too bad it was delayed. Like everything else. We got to Breda. Checked the board. YES! A train to Eindhoven! We went right over there and began to wait. People came and came and soon you could tell Eindhoven was the hot-spot of the evening, the unreachable destination. We chatted it up with people coming from Schipol, a girl trying to get to Eindhoven herself, a girl trying to get all the way down past Maastricht (if you need geographical help during this post pull up a map, you'll be amazed at this journey), and an old guy or two who seemed to be in charge of a group of...other old people. Too bad that train to Eindhoven fell out too. And the one after it. Instead of rolling the dice one more time to get directly to Eindhoven. This mass of people decided we'd better ourselves to just get as close as possible, and hop on the first train to Tilburg. Did it! In Tilburg it finally came, bringing with it a shining light of all that represented hope and love in the world to me at that very moment. The sign on the train read - Eindhoven. Glory be! My sore legs and cold hands finally had an end in sight! Oh wait, the train to Eindhoven from Tilburg was coming at 11:15 pm. Remember when we started this? 4:40 pm. Now the question was - are we going to get a bus home? We got to Eindhoven, which had never felt so amazing. And yes - one more bus would run! We made it home, frazzled, to say the least, at 1 am. I begrudgingly woke up the next morning at 6:55 to bike to school.

and THAT, folks, is why I don't like it when it snows in the Netherlands.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Yeah We Ridin' Through the Forest & We All up on Our Bikes..

Just thought I'd break everyone off a little piece of Patrick Matthews and David Henry's rap skills. Since I last posted in here I finished Sinterklaas, which was a really cozy, nice day. As surprises I got a chocolate P, €10 for my cell phone, and a commemorative coin of Eindhoven! Cool. I stayed in that evening and probably just got my chill on - I don't really remember. Sunday was of course uneventful. School this week ended up feeling kinda long but it passed so who cares. I think part of it was I was having stomach issues (which I've kinda had since I arrived here, they just got worse recently), and I was really trying to figure out what the problem was. In the course of this I have cut diksap out of my diet entirely, which is probably a good thing (both for my body and...well the fact that I'm 18 and drinking the equivalent of Juicy Juice all day).

I had to buy a new bike! Jesus. That kinda chapped me a little. But it was a necessary evil and now I have an actually pretty nice bike that I got relatively cheap (Ok double what I paid for the last one). Turns out after I got the spokes fixed two weeks ago they broke again and the guy wanted to do a repair of all the back spokes for €50! No way jose. So I splurged and well now I'm significantly happier. I'm still working on the violin and I have a number to call someone to talk about renting I've just been lazy in general. Also, I am so satisfied with how things are going lately. I really am happy here. For the first time ever I thought that to myself in school Friday. "I'm really happy I'm doing this, I love the Netherlands." No joke. It took a while, but everything feels like it's headed in the right direction! It's still a struggle with friends and people in school to find a balance with Dutch (most don't realize I do understand stuff, I just gotta get myself to speak).

This Friday I hopped a train (typical) and went to Roosendaal, where I took a bus to Oud Gastel to spend a weekend with Agustina (Argentina!). We had a really amazing dinner with some sandwich-like thing from Argentina and I literally STUFFED myself with all the meat and fatty foods I don't eat so much here at my home (I'm alright with this, I came to the realization afterward that it would be a desperate situation if I had access to such foods). This is probably something I'd put in parenthesis but I don't know where to add it and it's not really important but I also weighed myself at Agustina's! It sounds lame but I haven't weighed myself in around 4 months (yes as of this Friday I've been gone for 4 months, crazy!?) of exchange and I was pleased to find out I actually haven't changed at all (probably a balance of biking / less snack foods combating the unalterable forces of exchange student weight gain). Either way we relaxed, had a little teensy bit of AFS chaos going on at the house I won't go into, and watched a movie which I feel asleep too so we called it a night (my girl Agustina doesn't really speak English so we speak Spanish, we were watching a movie in Spanish, needless to say after my time with her my brain was a little fried).

Yesterday we got to see Breda (I'll add pictures)! It's a really pretty, old city not too far west of Eindhoven. We just explored really, walked around a bit and shopped (none of us got anything unless you count my Olliebol). In the afternoon we parted ways and I trekked back home, hung out for a bit, then it was time to wind it up again. I had invited my friends over to meet Birgit and Eric and then we'd just chill at my house. So they got here in the evening after a little trouble and we just talked and messed around and they got to meet my host parents (which I thought was important for both sides since I talk about each to the other so often). Around midnight, after some arm twisting (Dustin didn't want to leave before his beers were finished), we headed out to the city. I can make the trip in 20 minutes by myself, but with a group of six it well, took a little longer. We had a couple pit stops (including one in the middle of an intersection in Waalre so David and Dustin could...wrestle) and my camera suffered some damages when it fell out of my pocket onto the road and I ran over it (it's fine, just now has a couple battle scars. I'd take a picture but, well, it's my camera). Eventually we got to town. Didn't really spend that much time there that night because we got there so late but it's still always something down there.

Sometimes I think it's sorta funny that I didn't expect there to be that many differences between Dutch and American culture. Reading forums on AFS groups for prospective students it's interesting seeing other student's advising others that Europe isn't such a different experience or things of that nature. When in fact that's not true at all. I really have just surfaced from culture shock and I realize that. It took me a long time to adjust to life here but it's finally all calming down. I've made a decision to take more pictures because I realize there are so many things I want to see and remember here and it'll be a shame if I can't capture them. I'm going to be hopefully taking a lot of pictures soon because this Friday started kerstvakantie for the beginning of which I'm going to spend in Belgium with Peggy (who comes to the Netherlands Tuesday!), then comes Christmas, after which is a series of AFS student planned things and new years (which I'm not sure who to go with yet - AFS to Amsterdam or Dutch friends in Eindhoven? I'm leaning towards my friends at home because I think that would be generally more rewarding in the end).

I would love to think of quirky, interesting things that make the Dutch different to put in here but when I sit and try to think about it I draw a blank. As you probably remember from earlier in my blog everything was a shock / novelty. Now, if I forgot to mention it when I discovered it, you will probably never hear about it, it's just normal to me now. From strippenkarts and sensors under the sidewalk for the bike traffic light to Albert Heijn and the Dutch rails - it's all becoming part of me. This week I picked up my Dutch ID card - I remember applying for it the 4th of September. They gave me a letter saying I'd be able to get it in a couple months and I remember thinking "wow. a couple months? what will it even be like by that time?" The answer? A lot of ups and downs but significant pace in a good direction nowadays. Having great friends, doing great things - it just makes things feel so together. I like it.

Agustina and I in Breda

Castle in Breda (pretty, huh?)

Street in Breda

Being counterproductive in getting to town

Essence of my life here

 ps. I can bike to school now without my hands. If exchange ended there I could live happy.

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Today is Sinterklaas! A Dutch holiday which centers around a man that resembles in most aspects Santa Claus himself. Differences? Sinterklaas comes from Spain in a boat with his Zwart Piets, little elfish guys with black faces (from coming down the chimney to deliver presents, Sinterklaas is too high class to do it himself - take that Santa). Either way when children are younger "Sinterklaas" gives them gifts and they eat candy and pepernoten and all is good in the world. Since this is the first year Sonja and Dennis don't believe in Sinterklaas (there was a mishap last year which involved Sonja recognizing Eric's hand when he threw the presents at the door, Dennis broached the topic at dinner one day, putting it quite eloquently for a nine year old "I really have some doubts about Sinterklaas." cracks me up), we are doing what they call surprises. Sort of like secret santa except on a budget.You make/buy a small present for someone and make a container which will hold the present (i.e. I drew Oma (grandma) so I decided to give her peanuts strung on a line for the birds (she asked for it!), as a container I made a bird house and hide the gift in the base). Ok so you get the idea. It's a much bigger deal than Christmas, or so I hear, so I'm really trying to enjoy the holiday festivities while they last.

In other news things have actually been going great since I last wrote in here. I have completely done a 180 and I have no one else to thank but myself. I have changed how I am viewing this experience and so much else has just fallen into place since then (I know it's only 10 days but I feel really good!) . I picked up a music class at school and, while it's still school, I do think it's cool (I have so much to relearn...)! A girl in my class is going to help me get my hands on a violin to rent and yeah it's just pretty exciting in general. I'm yet to hear back about Den Haag Model UN but hopefully word comes soon. All in all nothing revolutionary has happened but I just still feel good.

I have made plans to go to Belgium at the beginning of December to go visit ex-Camp Fitch compadre and fellow exchange student Peggy Olson! I'm so pumped for this one. We're going to see some Brussels and just do some general exploring. Very exciting. Not much to say on this, it's just cool.

Still rainy and gross here in terms of weather. One week it just rained every single day, it sucked. But I guess to an extent you get used to it (I'm not sure I'm at this point yet I'm just saying...I guess it's possible). My bike has been giving my trouble (with a capital T), trouble, trouble. I just got 3 spokes fixed this week then last night by some fateful occurrence two other spokes broke, I'm pretty sure the back tire is crooked, and possible even something with the breaks! Needless to say I won't be riding it if I go out tonight. Money pit. Birgit says unless you pay 500 Euro for a bike then this is a regular occurrence, I believe her but what a bummer.

This entry is just a conglomerate of random topics so bear with me. I am definitely making strides in Dutch. When my friends speak I really do understand somewhere around 2/3 of what is happening, then I react in English and they kinda get all 'if you understood...why did you chime in in English?' It's really hard to describe the lapse between understanding and speaking for me here. I didn't pressure myself to speak a lot in most of these previous months here so I really am just starting to get down and dirty with it. Birgit has cut English significantly in the house and while I still find it hard sometimes to follow what they're saying it will definitely help in the long run (I don't know how many people can understand this sensation, but when I'm spoken to in Dutch I get all wide eyed and uhh...yeah...mhmm....'ja' but when I am not being spoken to, just around it, I pick up an immensely larger amount of the conversation, probably because I'm relaxed and it really just flows right into my mind).

As a final part of this entry, I want to take the time to express the sadness I feel right now for Julia Clark and her family. My heart aches for Julia, Danny, and the rest of the Clarks. I hope that they can stay strong in these times and that they know they are not alone. Rest in Peace, Linda Clark - you are loved and missed.