On Exchange; or What Really Happens.

Oh la la

I’m not sure how you picture an exchange, if you’ve never been on one. I’m not even sure that I had a picture in my mind when I upped and left Auckland at the end of last year. The Exchange Office’s propaganda promised “international experiences” and “new friends;” and the walls in their office were crowded with pictures of people in exotic locales smiling maniacally for the camera.

At the final meeting there were murmurings that things mightn’t all be roses and sunshine, and that we should prepare for “culture shock” – but I paid them little heed. I’d been overseas before and knew what was to come, more or less: crazy nights, hot girls and little responsibility getting in the way.

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On Street Art; or Colouring the Concrete Crazy.

It is perhaps a cliché these days – to be young and into street art. But clichés are clichés for a reason, and there is something in the writing on the wall that speaks to the restless soul in me. Throughout my travels, away from the over crowded attractions I’d visited through a thousand postcards, I was drawn to discrete alleys and chipped walls, drawn to the transience and art of the city: the myriad of quirky and queer murals that adorn walls the world over.

Shopfront, Berlin.

Shopfront, Berlin.

From the infamous haunts of Berlin and East London to Italian underpasses and Morocco’s sandy shores, street art was everywhere – you just had to find it. It was the search that appealed, the short-term nature of graffiti combining with the human desire to capture and categorise. So search I did.

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On Mary Jane; or A Dutch Lesson in Prohibition.

There are many things that the Netherlands is well known for: gouda, windmills, dikes; being as flat as the pancakes the Dutch claim to have invented; having the tallest people in the world; canals, clogs, tulips and many other things beside. But there is really only one thing that they are infamous for, and that is their historically liberal approach to the so-called “soft drugs.”

This is particularly prevalent in Amsterdam where the heady smell of marijuana wafts above the canals, and coffeeshops lurk on every corner. Their range is impressive, and a testament to the innovation that occurs outside the shadow of prohibition. It is all here: White widow, Jack Herrerr, Bio Shiva, Lemon Haze, Santa Maria, Blue Cheese, Bubble special, Buddha Kush, AK-47, Purple Afghani – the list goes on.

The stigma against smoking must be more entrenched than I realise and it feels strange to suddenly be allowed to blaze one in public. And not just in public, in a shop specifically catering to your vice, where you can sit in relative peace in the company of strangers doing the same thing.

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Gonjasufi at Ekko: Dreadlocked Stomping and The Pain of an Early Finish.

Some of my best memories of Europe will be the gigs that I have been lucky enough to go to. This trend continued last night at Ekko, where I was blown away by the ferocity of Gonjasufi’s psychedelic hip hop.

Ekko is a great little venue not far from the centre of Utrecht. An open bar and collection of tables fill out the spacious room, with bright graffiti bringing a modern edge to this converted house. Beyond the bar is a door through to the dark stage, and as we arrive people are shuffling in.

I don’t know much about Gonjasufi: He is a yoga teacher (no idea how I know this-but wiki confirms it…); I have his first album; and am aware of his loose affiliations with Flying Lotus and the other members of the Low End Theory. This is certainly enough to get me in the door but as we stand nodding to the opening act I realise that I’m not actually sure what he looks like.

The stupidly early start-time of half-nine and Gonjasufi’s haunting vocals suggested it was going to be a fairly languid set and we had medicated accordingly. Was this guy playing now who we had come to see? He certainly looked alternative enough, with one dread hanging down the front of his face and rest of his head shaved to shiny black. Perhaps Gonjasufi had shaved his famous dreads off?

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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.

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A Wintery Introduction; or How I spent my First Day in Utrecht.

It felt like I had got off in the wrong town. It was quarter past eight on a Wednesday morning and the parking lot outside Utrecht Centraal was eerily quiet. The air was cold and grey snow huddled in the corners, seeking refuge from a brisk wind.

Perhaps it was the wintery conditions, or the fact that the station was undergoing some large-scale reconstruction, but this certainly wasn’t the Holland I had been expecting. Where were the tulips, the canals, the historical buildings?

Winter is a bleak time anywhere, and first impressions can be hard to shake.

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