They say a dream is only real as long as it lasts, but couldn’t you say the same thing about life?

Hey guys!  I can’t believe we’re just a few days from the final exams of the first block period. Seems everything went to fast. But can you believe what I did since I last talked to you, probably not, but that’s okay, because that’s another thing awesome about an exchange semester abroad, you come here with some expectations, but you don’t know everything you’ll end up doing ahead of time.

So with exams almost knocking at my doorstep, I can’t help but think I’ve successfully survived the first period. Let’s tackle the old age question shall we? What on earth is the PBL system (problem based learning). To be honest, I came here without knowing exactly what it would be, and it turns out to be really fun. Okay. Don’t let the fancy words scare you. Of course, if you’re used to be in class with a reasonably high number of students where a teacher mostly lectures for the entire time, then you will find this experience different, but mostly enjoyable.

Let’s make a quick summary of the process!

1) Classes are usually consisted of a dozen people. The room is small and everyone sits around a table like the Knights of the Round Table (except the table is rectangular haha).

2) The teacher (actually here you call them tutors) doesn’t lecture anyone. He is present to assist, correct and guide the discussion in the right direction, if he feels it is needed. From my experience, the tutor spoke for about 5% of the classes.

3) Everyone has to read the class material on its own outside class, and then come prepared to the tutorial to discuss about what you’ve read. Often, the tutor will assign a student as a discussion leader prior to the tutorial, and this student will have to guide the class discussion. But most importantly, it is the students who talk, exchange information and discuss.

Now the big question. It’s all good and fun and all, but how hard is it? Well honestly, it’s not as hard as you might think. Of course, you will have to prepare for tutorials. If you don’t read your material ahead of classes, you will not be able to participate in the group discussion.

Did I mention you were also graded on your participation during the tutorial? Oh yes. Therefore, you can’t just sit quietly for the whole class like you probably do back at your home university. But once you read your material, then its just a question of courage. Don’t be shy to share your thoughts with your classmates. No one is judging anything, and there are no bad answers, since the whole purpose of this discussion is for it to be a learning process.

Assuming most of you can read decently and have conversations, it really shouldn’t be a problem! If you’re not used to read in english, then it might be a good idea to grab yourself an english novel before coming here and start practicing (just to get you in the mood, so to speak haha).

Okay so enough about school work. What has been going on around here? Well in Maastricht in the beginning of February,  we experienced the madness of the Carnival. If you are coming here for the Spring semester, you are in luck my friends. Carnival is definitely something to experience by yourself. I could tell you how the whole town dresses up like they got a really late memo for a Halloween party, but it doesn’t describe the energy surrounding this event. I was lucky to travel to Cologne (Germany) for one of these days, where Carnival is also celebrated quite intensively.

Where else have I been you  might want to know. Turns out 3 days weekend are practical to travel. (Read Eugene’s post about choosing courses to get a good timetable). On the first weekend I went by train to Bruges. Some people do not spend a lot of time in Bruges, but I think it’s a mistake, especially if you are a history maniac like me (^_^). Bruges is  in my opinion the gem of Belgium. It’s an open-air museum, since almost the whole city is still preserved from the Medieval times. We went on the first weekend of the block period, so it was still cold, that that was great. Cold weather scares tourists away and leave this magical city for yourself.

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One of Bruge’s frozen canals.
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Bruge’s main square.
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Bruge’s scenic spot, with the Belfry behind.

Then, during the long week of break after Carnival, I had the awesome chance to travel to Istanbul for 6 days! Again, I can’t describe enough how marvelous it was to walk in the steps of the sultans, rulers of Constantinople, the old name of Istanbul. Maybe you would think this is an unusual trip for someone studying in Europe, but I would respond, why not? Especially if you come from far away like me, flying to Istanbul from Europe was really cheap. Grand Bazaar, Galata Tower, Blue Mosque, Hagia Sofia, and Topkapi Palace are must sees.

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Inside the maze that constitute the alleys of the Grand Bazar.
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A view from Eminü. The Galata tower rises on the hill.
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The Blue Mosque at twilight.
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Sultan Ahmet square and Hagia Sophia glowing in the background.
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Inside a courtyard of Topkapi Palace.

Later, I flew to Munich for a weekend. It was really great! If you go, you can easily spend a long weekend there. We were short on time because we almost used a whole day to go see Neushwanstein  castle, but it was totally worth it. I had dreamed for a long time of seeing that castle, and I was contemplating his majestic, fairy-tale like architecture, I felt like in a dream (it’s currently my wallpaper haha). If you have an obsession with old cars like me, the BMW museum is really neat. You can also visit the palace of the Bavarian monarchy. If you’re not into history as much as me, I’d recommend going to Munich anyway just for the sake of the good beer, that you can order in a one liter mug!

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Vintage BMW cars, in the BMW Museum.
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Neushwanstein Castle, in all its glory.
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A view of the Frauenkirche and the New City Hall, from the tower of St-Peter’s church.
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A luxurious room in the Bavarian palace.

Lastly, I went by train to Luxembourg. Only two and half hours away from Maastricht, Luxembourg City can easily be seen on a weekend journey. The setting of this city is incredible. The center is build on a hill, surrounded with a deep valley, and fortified cliffs all around. When you get there, you understand why Luxembourg was able to remain an independent power for so long in history. The landscape literally makes it hard to invade.

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Old walls and watchtower.
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A view down in the valley fro the “casemates”.
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A view from down the valley looking up.

Guess where I went last weekend? Nowhere actually. Warm weather is setting in for good in Maastricht, and my friends and I had a great time exploring Maastricht as a tourist (for the second time), but in a warm weather. Seems like spring gives Maastricht a wind of life. During the weekends, the streets are filled of people, strolling around the streets, eating at restaurant’s terrasses, etc. The first spring flowers are covering the ground. I also tasted a local dish from the Limburg province (Maastricht is the capital of that province) called “Zuurvlees”, some kind of beef stew (the sauce was filled with a sour spice I couldn’t put my finger on…)  Once again, the old town of Maastricht is a delight for the eyes.

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Zuurvlees

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Allright, if I had you in front of me, I could probably tell you more, but I think you get a good overview. Now I’m off to study my finals. Until next time, let me know what you would really like to see if you came studying in Maastricht. Do you have a list, or will you improvise?

Take care and dare to dream. It might come true sooner than you think. Ciao! 😀

Mathieu

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Plan Ahead, Travel More. (and Other Tips)

So I guess everyone who comes on exchange just wants to study 24/7. If only that were the case… Well the reality is, almost everyone whom I have talked to (and are on exchange) seems to have travel as one of their foremost priorities during their exchange semester. So this blog post will be all about travelling and nothing else!

Part I: Planning your Timetables

Let’s first start off with how planning your modules (or courses as they call it here) will allow you to have more time to travel. Maastricht University releases schedules for the year’s courses in advance, before the deadlines for the course selection are due. IMPORTANT:  Check http://code.unimaas.nl/FormMain.aspx so that you can arrange your courses in such a way that there are long weekends and such.

That being said, most year 1 courses have a combination of lectures and tutorials and it may be slightly more difficult to obtain your ideal schedule. However, with the year 2 and 3 courses, most mainly are made up of 2 tutorials a week, either on Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday. So you see, if you are able to get 2 courses who have classes on Monday and Thursday, you have the weekend free!

Apart from this, most courses at Maastricht have a policy of allowing students to miss a maximum of 3 classes (but some require full attendance). Well, I don’t encourage doing this too often since you may not be able to catch up with the curriculum since studying in Maastricht requires a lot and I mean A LOT of independent study. And besides, apart from planning the days your classes fall on, you also have to take into account when your presentations and project submissions are. And at Maastricht, presentations are ever ever so often. I’ve for the most part, been having presentations on almost every week. You do not want to return from a holiday on the night before a presentation or project submission. It is just pure suicide! Besides, you wouldn’t want to be labelled as the exchange student who did nothing to contribute to the group projects and presentations. I mean, you do not want to be on the receiving end when you are back at your home university and you have an exchange student who keeps disappearing all the time. Honestly, I’d be pissed if it happened to me.

Also, there are A LOT of holidays in Europe. So you may not even see the need to even skip a lesson!

Part II: Getting to the Airports

As I’ve mentioned in the previous post, Maastricht is located at an awesome location. Near to many airports which the various budget airlines base their operations from. So I’ll now start by listing the airports and the pros and cons associated with each one.

Brussels Charleroi Airport, Belgium
Ryanair operates a hub here so you can get to a lot of places.However, it is located qutie a distance away. You have to take a train from Maastricht to Liege and transfer trains from Liege to Brussels Midi. The journey takes about 1hr50min thereabout. At Brussels Midi, you’ll then have to take an airport city shuttle which costs about 15EUR one way. Takes slightly less than an hour.

Amsterdam Schiphol International, Netherlands
Easyjet and a few other budget airlines operate from Schiphol. Also, it is quite easy to get to, with a direct train (or maybe a change at Amsterdam Centraal) Which takes about 2hr50min thereabout. Does not cost that much too. Especially good for travellers who are lazy to keep switching transportation modes (like myself).

Weeze Airport, Germany
Otherwise known as Düsseldorf-Weeze or Niederrhein (Lower Rhine in German), this is also a Ryanair hub. However, this airport is in the middle of nowhere and is quite difficult to get to. The easiest way (not the fastest) and the cheapest is to get to Aachen Hbf (via Bus 50 from Maastricht)and take a train up Kevelaer (changing trains at Krefeld Hbf) and then taking the airport shuttle. It will put you back about 34EUR in total thereabout. But it will take almost 3hr40min to get there. Another way is to take a train from Maastricht to Venlo or Nijmegen and then take the shuttle there but this trip requires about 3 changes of trains on average and costs slightly more (you may have to call the shuttle bus company to confirm the ferrying schedules). But it is faster.

Cologne-Bonn Airport, Germany
I have not personally flown from this airport but from what I have found out, there are direct trains right into the airport which is always something I’d welcome. 🙂 The airport is located about 3 hours away (Bus 50 to Aachen Hbf and then train to Köln Flughafen) There may be other ways through the Netherlands but I have yet to check that out. Germanwings has its operations centered here.

Maastricht-Aachen Airport, The Netherlands
Yes, Maastricht does have its own tiny little airport! Obviously the nearest but sadly, the places where the planes fly to are quite limited. Ryanair provides some flights from the airport to Spain and Portugal and Germanwings flies to Berlin from there.

Eindhoven Airport, The Netherlands
Relatively near to Maastricht (1 hour by train to Eindhoven Station and 30minutes by bus to the airport). Ryanair, Wizzair, Transavia fly from Eindhoven. It is also relatively cheap to get there and you can use your OV-Chipkaart on the bus. Oh yeah, about the OV-Chipkaart. Before coming to the Netherlands, remember to bring extra passport photos to get your personalised card! You get discounts on the trains and buses throughout the Netherlands!

Wow! That was a lot of information. I think I should change my major into tourism and hospitality management or something. Anyway, hope it was useful to everyone who intends to travel during their semester abroad! Do feel free to ask me anything by leaving comments or adding me on facebook (search for eugenelauyj)!