Amster-DAMN!

Moving In

It has been two and a bit weeks now since I moved into my studio apartment in Nieuw West Amsterdam in a building called Maassluisstraat which is part of the DeKey housing company. Prior to moving in I was very concerned about living by myself in a studio after having got used to living in an 8 bed house in Fallowfield and always having someone around for company. I am actually surprised at how much I am enjoying living in my studio here and having my own space, I also think it has probably pushed me out of my comfort zone a bit as you don’t have the comfort of ‘flat mates’ to fall back on and has probably contributed to me meeting more people than I initially thought I would. I was also worried that living in a studio would be quite isolating and lonely but I’ve had neighbours knock on my door to say hello etc when they moved in and my accommodation also had a social event early on which helped create a really warm and welcoming atmosphere straight away.

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Surviving Copenhagen on a student budget

Alice Logan, University of Copenhagen, English Literature and American Studies

Firstly, as a disclaimer we all know that Copenhagen is an insanely expensive city to live in, however having spent five months there I did find some handy ways to save some pennies for summer travelling ☀️

 

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The harbour at Nyhavn 

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Two Weeks in Copenhagen

Alice Logan, English Literature and American Studies, Univeristy of Copenhagen

After just two weeks in Copenhagen, I already feel at home in this beautiful city and am slowly acclimatising to the depths of Danish winter.   I defy anyone to not have positive first impressions of this incredible city.  Copenhagen boasts beautiful architecture, both modern and Renaissance, canals to rival Amsterdam, a multitude of ornate gardens and the most beautiful harbour that’s so colourful it can cheer you up even when the sky is grey (which it is 90% of the time).

 

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Candid Nyhavn photo as modelled by my parents

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My post-Brazil, pre-Berlin (positive!) post-mortem

By Mitch Mainstone, English Literature (Freie Universitaet Berlin, Germany)

So. Berlin is now a thing in my life. A big, leafy, musical, beautiful thing that up until a week ago I’ll admit I had no real conception of. I think that if I write that I feel that same way about myself, but reflecting back on myself as I am at the moment, in some future ‘conclusion of study abroad’ blog, then I think this year will have been a successful one!

I’ll start this by saying that both my uni-home of Manchester and my home-home city of Bristol have an incredible amount to learn from Berlin’s public transport system. Study in Berlin and you get an ID ticket that lets you use all systems of transport – Magic Buses seem almost barbaric in comparison, never mind the flaky monstrosities that pass for bus schedules in Bristol. I already love that if you want to get somewhere in the city as a student, the only thing you will really have to pay with is time. And, fortunately, that is something I have a lot of at the moment! When I met my new flatmates, because of this, I could actually get to know them instead of passing through the flat like some sort of crazed Erasmus orientation alien, which resulted in finding out that one of them is Brazilian! To others, this might seem pretty interesting, but to me, having up until three weeks ago spent six weeks volunteering there with AIESEC this summer, I CAN ACTUALLY USE PORTUGUESE AGAIN! I couldn’t really express how happy I was at that, because it was like I was combining a place that is already special to me (Brazil) with a place that I’ve newly started to call home (Berlin). The fact that he speaks almost no English, but amazing German, only helps the situation, as do my other wonderful flatmates who are brilliant, and from three other countries themselves.

That’s also one of the reasons I wanted to leave my first blog a little later, until I was half-way between being at home, and being fully immersed in FU Berlin student life, as Berlin has two weeks of orientation that are really not-quite-university but not-quite-home. That, as well as having all but a few days between getting back from Brazil, into the UK, and being in Berlin left basically no time for anything other than spending time out with my family! I feel like I’ve been doing the things that people talk about doing: the travelling, learning new languages and being freaked out a little by new cultural norms, and yet, here I am, relatively settled, happy, and wiser for it. This is where I’m at now: I haven’t completely left home in my mind yet, but I am most definitely in the thick of studying abroad, having paid my rent for this month, gone shopping, and gotten fully enrolled. My head felt like it was going to burst with how new all the sounds, sights and norms seemed to be here, and culture shock has proven itself to really be a thing, having been shouted at by one of the administrative staff, having signed my rental contract late! Anyone thinking of coming to Germany… get everything signed and sealed on time if you can!  But despite that cultural faux-pa, I’m trying to keep it in perspective as all a part of the learning curve of my year abroad fun, really.

These first two weeks are FU Berlin’s way of registering who is where, doing what, and when. The pressure to get yourself organised academically-speaking, and in terms of accommodation has more than replaced the pressure to go out in the first week at Manchester… a pretty different kind of “re-freshers” week, I’ll be honest! After this fun but paperwork-heavy bit, I have a boat-trip around Berlin organised by my university (bizarre, wonderful, costing only 5EUR), and, currently, nothing else.  There is this gulf of time this week where I want to do things, but don’t really have any clear idea what I could do. I already feel like study abroad goes at such a breakneck pace, so I want to at least make a big list of things that I can do, see, and get involved in, to feel like I have some influence over the feeling of displacement that I myself have gotten, and expect to get again, as my own personal facet of culture shock. But, I imagine, this blog will definitely help, as will making an effort to truly ‘live’ my year abroad, with all the difficulties and triumphs that are undoubtedly coming my way.

Zwarte Piet/ Black Pete

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By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

Hi, so I’ve written a short journalistic styled opinion article on a hot topic in the Netherlands. The issue is around a tradition which involves white people black facing. Any comments or feedback is more than welcome, let me know what you think.

Over the last few decades there has been the rise in what can be described as unintentional racism and even ‘hipster racism’. Unintentional racism is exactly that, racism that is both unintentionally racist and unintended to cause offence. Hipster racism is the idea that we are so far past blatant outbursts of racism and racist attitudes, that we can now use it again as a means of satire. You know when an British-Asian comedian does a rib-tickling impression of a typical Asian accent, that’s hipster racism. In my opinion neither should really be accepted in today’s society and we should strive to eradicate both, yet both are omnipresent in Western Europe.

So what is the problem? Hipster racism is often ‘just a joke’. Aside from this it actually reinforces the negative stereo-types associated with racism. I mean who can really suggest that hipster racist anecdotes are always interpreted as satirical, there will undoubtedly be some recognition of negative differences between race consciously or not. In addition laughing about how we, the then white supremacy ‘used’ to be racist, while still these hierarchies exist, is detrimental to the minority.

A more complex issue to overcome in my mind is unintentional or accidental racism. How do you stop something from happening that was not meant? The first step in my mind is acknowledgement. Take the Dutch example of ‘Zwarte Piet’ or ‘Black Pete’. Zwarte Piet is part of the traditional Christmas celebration, started Centuries ago, where Saint Nicholas is accompanied by black faced helpers. It is supposed that the helpers face became blackened by the soot coming through the chimney to deliver presents and that Zwarte Piet’s skin was all ready quite dark as he originated from Spain. Despite this likeable fairy tale, Zwarte Piet is presented as having a black face and large red lips, big gold earrings and curly black hair. It is therefore hard to deny that Zwarte Piet is actually a descendant of Europe’s colonial past in the slavery of black Africans. Additionally Zwarte Piet is traditionally foolish and silly, unmistakably tying in with white perception of the barbaric and simple Africans who were colonised.

Since the millennium Zwarte Piet has been met with much more protest and controversy. White Dutch in large parts seem to want to neglect the idea that it is racist. Many as kids enjoyed the celebration and never considered racist; something typical of neo-racism and of course unintentional racism. They think that by banning the tradition they are admitting it is racist and that they are racist. However I would like to point out that you are not necessarily a racist for having committed a racist act and that the two should be viewed separately from one another.

Other support for the tradition comes from those who feel a ban is a threat to their own culture and tradition. If these native dutch (mostly white) feel their culture is under threat from non native (black people) who disagree with Zwarte Piet, then there naivety is beyond me. It is not an attempt to destroy tradition, only to alleviate and prevent the reminder of a colonial order and white supremacy which conversely is being carried on in the reinforced in the tradition and in the whites majority to neglect the desires (the banning of the black face) of the minority. This essence of white dominance, is what comedian Russell Brand tarnished “a colonial hangover”, and is particularly evident in the recent court ruling of the discussion of ‘Black Pete’. An Amsterdam judge in 2014 ruled that Zwarte Piet “is a negative stereotype of black people and the city must rethink its involvement in holiday celebrations involving him.” However the festivity continues, as does the black-facing.

Both these objections to the ban of the tradition are typical with neo-racist ideologies and the Dutch who are known for tolerance and relatively liberalism in Western Europe,are not exemplified from this form of racism on an institutional and regional level. In my mind it is about time we put and end to Zwarte Piet, not by removing the holiday all together but by changing it so that perhaps none of Saint Nicholas helpers are white people pretending to be black. This should hopefully pave the way towards a post neo-racist era.

The example of Zwarte Piet a hard example to compare with. There are few instances if any in Western Europe, where apparent racial stereotyping, is embedded in such an old tradition. Therefore when we look at solving the problem you may think that a particularly complex solution is needed. However like many slurs of untended racism or hipster jokes, the solution is quite simple. Realise that what is being done or is being said is in itself a racist act. This does not mean you are a racist, but what you are doing is reinforcing negative stereotypes. This is turn will help to reduce those who are offended by accidental racism and help to bring equality for minorities in an social environment where white privilege is dominant.

I will conclude by reiterating what has just been said. Like the Dutch with the case of Zwarte Piet we need to look at our society and the more subtle forms of racism, intended or not. Initially by realising how our actions can affect minorities and how they can reinforce negative stereotypes can we hope to achieve a society with less racist actions and of course a less ethnically segregated society.

Assessment and teaching style at the UvA

By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

In general, assessment at the University of Amsterdam is more constant with midterms and then finals with the ability to do a compensation exam. A compensation exam is like a retake of the course, but includes everything from the course; something you want to avoid. Having exams more frequently but less intense is, of course, beneficial in the sense that there is less to prepare for. However, it also means that you have to cope with having a lot on your plate more often, which can be stressful. At Manchester there is a more gradual build-up to the intense stress of exams, where as here it seems to come around the corner every 4/5 weeks, without much time for preparation. Similarly, because midterms are often worth 50% of the course, you put yourself under as much stress as you would the final exams.

A more specific criticism of the University of Amsterdam is that each individual lecturer chooses how the class is assessed. Whilst for the majority this means a varied form of assessment ranging from opinion style articles which encourage a journalistic style and creativeness, that make for an exciting break from the academic rhetoric, to the ever tedious group project and presentation. There is one particular assessment format I detest, this is the ‘take home exam’. The format is that between a certain a time you have anywhere between two and twelve hours in the comfort of your own home to answer several questions once they appear online. The problem is you never nearly have enough time, and because you are ‘at home’ you are expected to answer the questions as though you were writing an essay with proper referencing and complex structure. However, under the timed pressure, this for me and many others who I have spoken to, is sometimes quite impossible.

All of this is not to say I don’t like the assessment at the UvA, and being a student I could probably find holes in any assessment format. There have been some that I have liked, such as the opinion articles and essays that are pretty much identical to the Manchester ones, but there have been ones I don’t, particularly the take home exams, much like I how I don’t particularly like Manchester handwritten exams, when I only write by hand for these occasions. However, both at the UvA and Manchester, the exams in my mind justify the means.

Something I have really enjoyed is the teaching style. For me I have been lucky that all my classes have been in classrooms. No more hiding away in large lecture halls. Classrooms for me have meant that concentrating for three hours is a lot easier, not just because you feel less distant from the teacher, but also because classrooms breed more discussions, making it easier to ask questions, and I have found that debates break out between students much more. This could also be part of the Dutch mentality or due to the teachers I have been fortunate enough to have, but debate in class and discussion-based learning is for me much more engaging. I would point out that there have been one or two classes where this doesn’t exist and lecturers talk at you for three hours, in a far less engaging manner.

This brings me onto my next point, lecture length. Here at the UvA most of my lectures are three hours long and some extend to four. These of course can test concentration, but if you have an interesting lecturer then in some ways it is beneficial to have all your teaching at one point in the week, leaving you with the freedom of deciding when you want to work outside of these hours.

A hitchhikers guide to Berlin

By Frazer Randalls (Universiteit van Amsterdam, The Netherlands)

This isn’t so much as a guide but an interesting story for me nevertheless.

Our journey (me and my flatmate) to Berlin started at a bleak 6am by Amsterdam South Station. Here we met with the organisers (International Student Network) whose instructions consisted of the direction of Berlin and a mere “Good luck”…

Boycotting our initial attempts to get picked up in the pitch-black, we took to the train in order to make some headway. Not getting very far, the hitch-hiking began.

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This is Zwarte Piet, a Dutch Christmas tradition. Zwarte Piet or Black Pete, is a helper of Santa Claus, but is swarmed in racial controversy, with many but not the majority protesting against it.

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Suffice it to say, hitch hiking is no easy feat and darkness had again crept up on us by the time we finally got to Germany. It had taken a train, two cars and a lorry to get here, and when we arrived we were dropped by petrol station stocked with all your essentials; knives, air guns, CS spray, axes… you get the idea. It wasn’t until 11pm that we arrived in Berlin, thanks to array of strangers.

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Berlin is an amazing city, both for street art and, of course, history. We were guided around some of West Berlin (the former Soviet side) where independent shops now rule the roost and corporate companies struggle. On our tour, we saw much of the famous illegal street art as well as the commissioned work on the Berlin Wall.

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Of course, Berlin is famous for its nightlife as well, and we didn’t pass up the opportunity to experience it. Initially having being rejected for being English by some rather pretentious Berliners, we moved to another spot, quickly forgetting the earlier rejection.

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Not in the best of shapes the next morning we took to the streets again and visited the Brandenburg Gate and Holocaust Memorial, completing an amazing 48 hours in a must-see city.

First Impressions

By Hannah Langan (Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain).

The University – Universitat Autonòma de Barcelona

This uni accepted me as an erasmus student on the 10th of May this year and I hadn’t heard a word since. So after a couple of weeks I was beginning to worry something had gone wrong. Based on what I could find on the internet, term started on the 2nd Sept but when I eventually got some information (by going to the international welcome point at uni) I discovered my course didn’t start until the 16th. Don’t get me wrong, those extra days of freedom were bliss but I would say this university is much more casual than UoM.

I think Barcelona has more universities than Manchester! My friends are from various universities within the city. I am lucky enough to be at UAB, a recognised institution in spain that is located a scenic 35 minute train ride outside of the city in the mountains. Most of the local Catalan students live close by in Sabadell but most of the Erasmus students choose to live in the centre of Barcelona as it is perfectly accessible to the university, so you can still enjoy the life and buzz of the city.

My first day at UAB was the scariest I’ve had since arriving. Everyone around me was brunette, tanned and speaking Catalan. I’m white, blonde and obviously foreign. I looked around me and for the first time in my life felt like I didn’t belong, I felt different and completely alone. My friends don’t go to my uni, the lucky rascals are all at universities in the city or doing internships so it was like starting all over again in terms of settling in. It wasn’t until an italian student began speaking to me in English that my overwhelming anxiety diminished and I was at last able to speak. A little Spanish gets you by in Barcelona, a city thriving with people from all over the world but here, a little outside of the city, the students are all very much Catalan and it was my first true exposure to the Catalan culture. The people are lovely and do of course speak Spanish too, but all the signs are in Catalan so initial orientation was a little difficult. I feel like my erasmus life in the city and my academic life are two entirely separate parts of my life and I’m trying to find a balance between them.

 

The City

I can’t believe I live here, I really can’t. I have found a great international flat in the Gothic Quarter – the very centre of Barcelona. The streets are thin, winding and romantic, I have completely fallen in love. The sun shines every day and there is always a buzzing atmosphere that feeds the vibrancy and life of the city. From the live music in the metro to the people dancing in the streets, Barcelona is alive, the people here love life and embrace every day. It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you leave your flat and walk into the streets you are almost certain to stumble across something entertaining that will brighten your day. I constantly find myself saying ‘I love Barcelona!’ (to the point where it’s annoying), somehow there is always something going on and I’m yet to experience a dull moment. I’ve made sure to be a top tourist before uni begins as I have so much free time.

Highlights include Piknik Electronic, a free open-air festival every sunday where you can chill on Montjuic with some sangria and dance to the live DJs, who are often well known. There are beach volley-ball tournaments you can get involved in, sometimes a stage with live music will unexpectedly appear in a square, or a DJ will pop up in the bar you’re sitting in and before you know it you’re salsa dancing. Barcelona is bursting with life and I love it.

¡Hola España!

By Hannah Langan (Autonomous University of Barcelona, Spain).

2 days to go! 

So, I’m going on my year abroad. I speak un pocito Español and I certainly don’t speak Catalan. I don’t know anyone there and I’ve never been to Barcelona before, actually I haven’t spent much time in Spain at all as it goes. This is all completely unchartered waters for me and I couldn’t be more excited.

My flight is in two days. I have been waiting to go for so long but, strangely, it doesn’t feel any closer now than it did a couple of months ago, I don’t think it’s really going to sink in until I’m there! Having said that, this week has been emotionally draining at times because I’ve had lots of goodbyes. Last night I met up with all of my friends for farewell drinks, they are all very sad to see me go but so happy for me. I’m absolutely dreading saying goodbye to my family. It’s really difficult knowing that the next time I will see them all together again is Christmas. Leaving everyone behind is genuinely the toughest thing about going, but I’m leaving for Barcelona so it’s not too hard to look on the bright side (extremely clever pun: intended).

Now, I took a very helpful Manchester student’s advice to come out a week or so early to find accommodation before uni begins. Except I extended that ‘week or so’ to I think around 3 weeks, accidentally of course. This has resulted in a mindset of packing for a holiday. My suitcase is composed almost entirely of summer clothes and hawaiian tropic. I’m not really considering winter just yet as an inevitability. I’m saving space by not packing towels or bed sheets because I can buy those when I arrive! I have scoured the internet for packing advice and the message repeated everywhere is ‘pack light!’ so I am! I’m stocking up on toiletries though and I figure that I can buy whatever else I need over there. As well as sending my friends extensive lists of things to bring me from home, in return for free accommodation when they come and visit me of course.

Ok so my biggest stress is where I’m going to live. I’m pretty terrified in all honesty. Apparently the norm for Erasmus students is to just come out a week or so before uni starts, look around at some flats, explore the neighbourhoods and decide where you want to settle. It sounds pretty easy and I’m possibly the most last-minute, least-stressed, chaotic person you will ever have the pleasure to meet but booking a one way flight with only 4 nights booked in a hostel is freaking. me. out. I’ll let you know how that goes.

Arriving…

A beautiful 3am start, my parents drive me to Heathrow and we have a departing coffee before I have to go through security. I was expecting uncontrollable tears but all I could feel was pure excitement that I was at long last jetting off on my year abroad! After a well-wished goodbye I headed to my plane, making a little stop to pick up some much needed Barcelona ray-bans. Also (on an unrelated note) I find putting ‘Barcelona’ in front of any item justifies the purchase, for example: Barcelona ray-bans. The journey was extremely quick and I’ve finally landed in the city I’ve been dreaming over for the last year. It’s 31 degrees and lets just say my sunglasses are getting put to good use.

The reality of being alone in a city I don’t know with no one I know has finally hit me. Ay dios mio. I won’t take you through my journey from the airport to my hostel but if I told you I have a history of getting on the wrong train and ending up really quite far away from where I’m supposed to be (including a different city), then you can imagine the ordeal I’ve been through today. In the end though, I made it to my hostel. I did it.

Upon arriving, I spent a considerable amount of time standing on the street outside my hostel trying to get inside, speaking through the intercom with my exceptionally limited Spanish and the receptionists’ non-existent English. When I was eventually buzzed in, with no thanks owed to anyones language skills, I made it to my room, completely exhausted. I indulged in a lengthy siesta (this part bears no cultural shock for me) and I shall be spending the rest of my evening sorting out apartments to visit over the next few days! Possible homelessness pending so I’ve got to get going.

To be continued amigos.