Monday, September 20, 2010


Nope. Still not pronouncing it right, even after being on it for a week and asking every Dutch person in the field station to say it for me. Multiple times. I swear they all said it differently! And when asked what it actually means, I learned that monnik means monk and oog means eye... That was as far as the explanation ever got.

Oh well! The island with the above unpronounceable name is beautiful. It is located in the Wadden Sea, which is a tidal area running from the Netherlands across Germany to Denmark. Schiermonnikoog is conveniently located an hour bus ride and 45 minute ferry ride from Groningen.

We arrived Monday afternoon and immediately rented bikes to begin our island tour. Monday was, we would later learn, the only sunny day all week. But that allowed the island to make a great first impression! The island has one village and some associated farms, but the rest of it is a national park. The inhabited part of the island is surrounded by a high dyke to keep the sea out. Sheep are often put to graze on the dyke, which is of course quite picturesque. I didn't manage to get any sheep pictures (the whole biking with no hands thing just hasn't come to me yet) but here is the general idea of the bike paths around the island.

Those are the salt marshes to the right and the dyke to the left. Nice, right?

We spent a lot of Monday afternoon riding around getting bird and plant lectures from the professors. We also visited the village, in which several of the oldest houses had their year of construction on the front in wrought iron numbers. Oldest one? 1724. Impressive. It's a cute village with lots of outdoor restaurants. Would be very nice for a weekend getaway.

From Tuesday through Thursday, each day revolved around a mini project. Morning was data collection, afternoon/evening was for analysis, and the late evening was for a research presentation of the project. Tuesday we worked on the mud flats (a large enough system that you can walk to the mainland, 12 km away, at low tide!), Wednesday was in the marsh looking at cattle-induced vegetative patchiness, and Thursday was plant physiology in several different places on the island. None of the projects spoke to me, but I really enjoyed the work, even though most days were rainy, windy, and cold. I particularly liked the mud flat work, which was by far the messiest. Water is definitely my element. My classmates could tell I was really happy just being on the ferry heading to the island!

The projects were tough. It was particularly hard to get the data analyzed fast enough to make a coherent presentation that same evening!

We had fun though. After the presentation we usually had a few beers and then crashed into bed. The last night, we had some champagne that a classmate had been given by the program coordinator in apology for the horrible way they had handled her application (apparently several times telling her that she had both gotten and not gotten the scholarship)! The champagne was a great way to end a tough week.

We're now back in Groningen and most of the class is sick. I believe I've avoided the bug, but I have to say that a weekend of catching up on my sleep was fantastic!

Friday, September 10, 2010

My early times in Groningen

Hi! Sorry I've been slow to update. Starting the semester has been a bit crazy! We're hearing lectures from all the different units within the Center for Ecological and Evolutionary Studies to see what's going on and to pick a mentor. Lectures from 9-5 every day! I'm totally worn out (this may also have something to do with the fact that my ONE WAY commute to class is a 45 minute bike ride). Some of the lectures were very interesting, but of course depending on individual interests, a morning spent hearing lectures on plant physiology or microbial ecology can get quite long.  Next week though, we're going to Schiermonnikoog, a research island in the Wadden Sea. We'll be doing daily mini-projects on the mud flats and in the salt marsh, so it should be interesting, although we've been warned of very cold, wet weather and 6 AM starts to catch the tides... I'll let you know how it goes! And yeah, I can sort of say the name of the island, although my production of the hacking sound is not up to par. And yes, it's a sound, not a noise, as I was told quite pointedly by some Dutch people when I made the mistake.

While we're on the subject, Dutch is a crazy language. I'm usually pretty good with languages but am absolutely baffled by this one. I can see something written down and not even come CLOSE to pronouncing it right. And then I can hear it pronounced and not be able to reproduce the word 30 seconds later. It just makes no sense to me at all yet. I had hoped that when I trying to learn it from a book in the States that it would be a lot easier once I arrived here, but no. I hope we get our Dutch lessons sorted out soon. When I was coming here, everyone said "Oh, all Dutch people speak English, you won't have any trouble." Not the case. While most people speak at least some English, they assume you speak Dutch and often seem uncomfortable with speaking English. And sometimes a bit peeved being asked to do so. Which I understand-I'm in their country asking them to speak my language. It's just weird I was told several times that it wasn't an issue. Oh, and ALL signs are in Dutch.

As for adjusting--hmm. I think in some respects I'm getting there, although there's certainly a LONG way to go. The most immediately important thing is biking everywhere. In traffic. Groningen is apparently the biking capital of Europe, with something like 57% of people using a bike as their primary transportation. It's nice to be able to get places, but also really scary to see a bus flying towards you on a narrow street... Especially when you have only a vague handle on what the road signs mean. Yikes. Bikes are allowed on most streets, even going against one-way traffic, and there are bike lanes almost everywhere, so it's really nicely set up for biking, it's just odd to go from not having ridden a bike in probably 10 years to suddenly riding one everywhere.

As for the food, I'll save that update for later. No scholarship money yet and no time has led to eating lots of sandwiches. I have eaten from the vending machine walls though. You can get a hamburger, kroket (a fried tube of "you don't want to know what's in there" delicious meaty spicy maybe mashed potato goodness) and various other things from these walls, which are columns of individual doors. with the food in them. Awesome. Picture to follow.

I've also found the Belgian bar, De Pintelier. Amazing. I've only been once, but that will change tomorrow. They have a huge list of Belgian beers of all types. And Belgians are some of my favorites. The one below is called Kwak, which comes from the noise the special glass makes when you reach the bell at the bottom (which is rounded, hence the stand).

We had the international student intro week as well. it was fun! Nice to meet a different group of people than my classmates. I got really lucky and had a group I liked a lot. Some of the people are in the background of the above beer picture. Totally random: the guy in the middle spent part of this past summer in Athens! He did a study abroad in Spain at the same university as some UGA students and came to Athens to visit. Small world, as always. Intro week activities included a pub crawl, during which we visited several good bars, as well as an Orange party (the Dutch wear orange as their national color due to the historical ruling by the House of Orange), and a sports day, which was funny because several of the girls mentioned that they didn't have workout clothes, but I clearly didn't understand the magnitude of what they were saying until they showed up to play sports in dresses and heeled boots.

Living situation. Holy cow, I'm living in a dorm again. In case any of you don't know, I'm a person who absolutely requires time and space to myself in order to avoid insanity or harm to others. So far, I'm ok. We'll see how this goes! I'm on the 8th floor and so have a nice view-city to the right, cows to the left. So strange having to get dressed to go to the bathroom or kitchen though. And my building is apparently one of three recommended by the Chinese student underground (yes, I swear), which is very obvious in my floor's makeup. It's a bit unfortunate in that I am not part of the group and so have a tough time getting most of my floormates to talk to me. Oh, and strangest thing? We have separate elevators for the odd and even numbered floors... And they're such ghetto old elevators. The actual box you stand in is only closed on 3 sides--the side that opens is, so you watch the wall in front of you move as the elevator moves. There is a metal door on each floor that you have to push open when you get there. And close again, or the elevator won't move, which sucks since I'm in this building with clueless/careless undergraduates who leave it open frequently. But overall, my room is clean, nicely sized and fine for me. One thing I like is that based on all the rooms I've seen, the Dutch are big on shelves running under windows. Nice in a dorm room with limited furniture.

Shops here are never open! On normal nights, they close at 6, so since I'm way south for class until at least 5, I can barely get anywhere. The only night they're open (and only until 9) is Thursday. Random. The stores are then all closed on Sunday and until at least 1pm on Monday. It's impossible!

Ok, this is a huge post. Last thing. The packaged cookies and store-bakery goods here are delicious. So many types, many involving good chocolate...