On Exchanges; or Reflections on A Life Away from Home.

The snow that enveloped the city over those first few frigid weeks eventually dissipated, but not without claiming a few victims in the process. I saw one old man’s bike slip out on the ice, and he smacked ungracefully into the pavement. The Dutch are a resilient lot and before I could offer help he had dusted the snow off his blazer and was back on his way, wobbling gingerly through the cold.

Frozen canals melted and the tulip bulbs tentatively poked their heads above ground. The arrival of spring was tangible and the first few sunny days saw a marked change in the attitude of the town. The locals discarded their winter depression in celebratory fashion, thronging the cafes and bars fortunate enough to catch the evening sun.

The shift in the weather was accompanied by a myriad of other changes. I became familiar with the tiny Albert Hein aisles, the rules of the bike lane and the nuances of bar service (“Mag ik twee biertjes alstublieft?”). I went to class, most of the time, and began to form some tentative friendships with my fellow internationals.

I put the days of being lost in the snow behind me, and became familiar with Utrecht’s layout. The centre of town is a quaint collection of historical Dutch architecture, with cobbled streets that wrap around a series of canals. The buildings are predominantly a modest three stories (in comparison to the usual six in Amsterdam) with the notable exception of de Domtoren.

The ‘Dom’, as it is affectionately called, is the main landmark in Utrecht and the largest Church tower in all the Netherlands. Those who are willing to face its 465 steps will be rewarded with an expansive view of the city, provided they manage to avoid one of the drizzly days that characterise a Dutch spring. More than anything it helped to give me a sense of just how flat Holland is (really fucking flat), and in the distance I could just make out the taller buildings of Amsterdam.

Where I live is considerably less picturesque. The buildings are dull brick flats, designed by an architect with a style lobotomy (if one was involved at all). Despite the lack of aesthetic charm I am still definitely in Holland. Two doors down is a sex cinema, and round the corner is the local coffeeshop and Miranda, the largest sex store in the Netherlands. Across the road is a Domino’s Pizza, a reminder that America is everywhere and a constant temptation when the strains of cooking for one become too much.

I frequent the coffeeshop, but largely avoid the pizza and porn, content to amuse myself in the tiny kitchen I share with three others. (By cooking, that is. What else would I be talking about?)

Despite the isolation that comes from being removed from the majority of the international students I soon realise that this arrangement has its benefits too. The kitchens in the shared residences are a cacophony of filth and I am glad to not have to deal with clogged sinks and overflowing rubbish bags.

International student life as a whole is a bit of an oddity. You are thrown in with a collection of people from various nations, at various stages of their lives, and expected to play nice. The orientation week was a strange mix of sugary shots, forced interactions and clichéd photos that leave you wondering who is in charge of it all. My mirth at being forced to succumb to the degradation of a human pyramid is mistaken for having fun. It isn’t the last time I find myself laughing at the weirdness of it all.

Alcohol fills the voids in conversation and many an evening is spent in its company: playing drinking games, learning swear words in different languages and generally avoiding acknowledging that you have little in common with those generous enough to put up with your intoxicated self. This is by no means a personal affliction, and we all dance with the devil in the bottom of the bottle, together but alone.

Despite the raft of socialising there is a surprising but perhaps predictable lack of contact with the locals. The few Dutch I get to know have also been international students – so are up to speed with the program and slot right in. For all the adaptation that has occurred you remain ensconced from Dutch culture, caught in the international student bubble.

This seems to be an affliction for ex-pats everywhere. It is an intimidating task, to break down the walls of a culture on your own, and birds of a feather flock together. It’s as if there is a global international student culture that reflects the situation as much as the location.  Sure, we might eat stroopwafels instead of spaghetti and drink Heineken instead of Kronenburg, but there is much we share.

There are the instant friendships, creepy in their level of intensity, the drunken hook-ups and usual avoidance tactics. There are the ubiquitous clusters of indigenous speakers, as those with any shard of shared history rally together. It seems as if no-one is immune from this, and for every group of Spaniards there is a corresponding collection of native English speakers comparing American life with Australia or Canada or whichever country they originate from.

These patterns are accompanied by the inevitable recourse to culture difference and past travel that characterise a semester on exchange. It is odd but certainly entertaining; in the absence of these connections you have nothing and, laugh as I might at incessant group photos and Avicii, a degree of conformity is unavoidable.

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