Tuesday, November 16, 2010

American enough?

Before coming to Europe, I hoped I would be able to avoid any ugly American moments and that I could maybe help remove (or at least soften) some stereotypes of Americans in my classmates or other people around me. I really shouldn't have worried though-almost no one can tell my nationality. I've had one instance of "Uh, duh, of course you're American," which was apparently based on "the way [I] talk" and another when a guy on the train knew because I had my Nalgene bottle, and "all Americans have those." Other than that though, people can't seem to figure it out. I don't have any of the American accents they've heard on TV or in movies and my behavior doesn't give me away either.  If anyone does venture a guess, which is rare, they usually go with British. And almost everyone seems surprised when I'm American. It's interesting. I did give myself away to a guy on my floor by mentioning Halloween--that did it immediately.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Hague

I've recently decided that while school is important, I've got to stop letting it keep me from other things I want to do, like travel. So last Wednesday, instead of running to Zwolle and running home to do the piles of work I had, I enjoyed the town. And I signed up for the ESN excursion to The Hague. I believe ESN is the international student organization for Europe, with ESN=Erasmus Student Network, and most of the international students here are other Europeans doing their Erasmus, which is a semester or year abroad. I think it's government funded... Anyway, they organize parties and international dinners and excursions, etc. And last Saturday was the excursion to The Hague. 

I had actually been to the Hague when I was here six years ago. I came with a friend who had lived here, and we stayed in Scheveningen, a beach town just outside the Hague. But we had mainly visited with her friends instead of seeing the city, and it had been a while, and I wanted out of Groningen, so I found myself waiting in the dark at 7AM on Saturday for a bus to take me and 50 of my closest friends to the Hague (I did go with a few friends from  my program).

Once on the bus I feel asleep immediately, waking up sporadically to either sunshine or torrential downpour. Each time, I hoped it wouldn't rain on us and feel back asleep. Three hours later, we arrived in the Hague. It was cold and grey, but not raining.

First was a city tour, given by an awesome skinny guy in a big leather biker jacket. We walked through the Binnenhof, and awesome castle-like compound where the Dutch parliament meets. It's also where the prime minister hosts the queen on Fridays (American giggle). 
 The place was a castle...
...with a church and some large meeting halls. Very cool.

After the Binnenhof, we walked through the city a bit, including going down a few big beautiful avenues I liked. 

We then went to the Queen's working palace. Of course she has separate working and living palaces--don't you??  I'm now done being amused by royalty, at least for this post, I swear.

After the tour was my favorite part of the day--the M.C. Escher museum! I had no idea he was Dutch, but he was, and the museum was awesome! It had a broad range of his work, including some early, more representational work I had no idea he'd done, as well as some of the famous tessellations. There was also a crazy but interesting exhibit of chandeliers by someone whose name escapes me. But there were everything from dolphins to bombs to a skull and crossbones hanging from the ceiling in the exhibit rooms. Very cool.

After the museum there was free/lunch time. On the cold day (it was now also drizzling) a friend and I decided to try something warm and exotic and stumbled into an amazing Indonesian restaurant. At least I think it was amazing. I haven't ever had Indonesian before, but we walked in, started at the menu for a while, and then the owner came and told us that since we had no idea what we were doing, he was going to give us a good intro. And did he. We apparently got one of the daily specials and some spare rice. But what came out was unbelievable. Small bowls of beef, bamboo shoots, green beans, soup, eggs, and all kinds of other things in great and various sauces/spices. Even the starches were amazing. One was a fried rice that was quite spicy and had lots of minced meat in it, and the other was friend noodles, which weren't really hard, but were just interesting and delicious. Definitely recommend Indonesian food if you come across it.

After that amazing lunch, we met the bus and headed to Madurodam, probably the cheesiest thing all day (you can decide after you read about the Binky Bear). Madurodam is a tourist attraction where they have miniature models of famous and representative (of time period, style, etc) buildings from Holland and they form a city and a harbor and a country area, etc. It's kind of interesting to see places you've been and maybe pick a few other things you want to go see, but it's really goofy. And they gave us 2 hours in this place, the longest we were anywhere all day. It's not big at all, and we really could have done FINE with about 45 minutes. Oh well, they had a cafe. By this point (5pm) I needed coffee.

After our extensive exploration of miniature Holland, it was time to head to Scheveningen and the beach. Only wait, it was now dark outside. And pouring. Why they planned the beach part of the trip last, and in the dark, I cannot understand. But anyway. As there was no need for the planned "free time at the beach," we headed straight to the restaurant. Which was called Binky Bear. When I saw that in the itinerary, I couldn't decide if we were eating in a strip club or a Chuck-E-Cheese. Really, I could have seen it going either way. Turns out there is a chain of restaurants in south Holland all named "something that starts with a B" Bear, as in Bella Bear, Bruno Bear, etc. We just happened to get the Binky Bear. Binky is a pirate. You know, seashore and all, it makes sense... The place turned out to be a kids restaurant. The decorations though, were so odd. The inside of the restaurant made me think it had been a ship-themed place before--thick wooden beams all over the roof and huge wooden columns. But now? Now there are teddy bears ALL OVER the walls. Hundreds of bears of different sizes all (nailed?) on the walls. And then weird creepy plastic chandeliers. I didn't get it at all. Either the decorations or why a group of college kids walked past several hundred yards of normal restaurants to eat there.

Odd, but great. It was an awesome day and trip! The Hague seems pretty cool, and I would be interested in wandering around there again.

But before I start going back to places, I'm going to see different ones! This weekend should be great--I'm heading to Brussels to see a friend and meet her family (husband and kids, all new since I saw her last)! Very excited. And I'm going to a concert in a few hours! Finally, the weekend (almost) arrives! I needed a break.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


On Tuesday, I got an email that my residence permit was ready and that I had to go to Zwolle, about an hour away by train, to pick it up. Conveniently, Wednesday was our first day off! I slept late and enjoyed a bit of a lazy SUNNY morning, then headed to the train station. There, I ran into the other North American girls (one from the US, one from Canada) who also had to get their permits. We hopped on the train and were off.  It's a straight ride to Zwolle, so we relaxed until the ticket checker came and we discovered that the Canadian girl's ticket had absolutely vanished. We checked everywhere! The ticket later mysteriously showed up in the Zwolle station all on its own...But the ticket guy didn't come back around before we got to Zwolle, so all was well. We had to go to a boring industrial area near the station to grab the permits, but now I'm officially a resident of the Netherlands!

I had checked the map and decided that the rest of Zwolle might be fun to explore for the rest of the nice sunny afternoon, so we (just the other US girl and me-Canada had to go) headed into town. So glad we did! It was a really cute town in a classically European way-small windy streets with cute buildings and nice squares and churches.  We had a nice outdoor lunch in a shopping district and then wandered all over town. We also stopped for olliebollen, which are basically large balls of fried dough covered in powdered sugar, very much in the funnel cake style. Delicious!

I really loved Zwolle. It felt very different from Groningen, which I think has decided it wants to be a big city (since it is the largest one in the area) and so doesn't really feel cute and small and European the way Zwolle did. I do, however, need to explore more of Groningen before I can pass final judgment on it. I just need some free afternoons! This whole going to school in Europe thing is really getting in the way of my ability to just be in Europe.