Midpoint in Maastricht–Looking back, looking forward.

Today, I started my 10th week living abroad in Maastricht. By now, it feels routine to pass the “Entering Belgium” sign on runs, to walk confidently through the aisles of Albert Heijn to get groceries, and to ride bikes everywhere throughout the city.  Yesterday, I am certain that I was just saying goodbye to my parents at LAX airport.  It’s hard to believe that I am in my final week of instruction for Period 1, and next week we will be wrapping up our classes with final exams and shortly starting fresh with two new classes and a completely different schedule. Everyone seems to be noticing that the studying they were going to start “next week” hasn’t been done yet. “Next week” is certainly here. The library is filling up fast each day. Before I too launch into study-mode, I will use this as a study break to update on my life as an exchange student. Much has happened since my last blog post. Here are 5 highlights of what has happened here in Maastricht and elsewhere since mid-September, and I encourage others to do the same during any exchange semester .

1) Bikes should not just be used for commuting to school.  The opportunity came when a group of us wanted to take advantage of a sunny Saturday and do something a bit more active. With a little bit of research, we found that just across the Belgium border was Hoge Kempen National Park.  After a manual optimization of Google maps (which is clicking and dragging the cursor around, zooming in and out of the map) to determine a route with the least amount of turns, and thus probability of getting lost, the six of us set out with printed directions and sack lunches on our bikes from the Guesthouse to Belgium. We found a lake at the south entrance of the forest to have lunch and relax, and spent the afternoon exploring the paths beneath the tall trees, often seeing others on horseback, biking, or hiking, and even the occasional deer. Roundtrip the ride turned out to be 20km. The spontaneity of the trip made our short adventure made it certainly a memorable day. It’s easy to travel close and feel like you are very far.

2) Consider alternative forms of transportation when traveling. Trains and buses often seem to be first thing to check when making travel arrangements to other countries. Ryanair flights are a close second, or even best alternative, when looking further in advance and traveling further. Our destination on a three-day weekend was Prague, Czech Republic, and a group of 5 of us chose to do a road trip. With some insight from one of us, we found out that a car could easily be rented in Aachen, Germany (about 45 min bus ride away) and from there we could make it to our destination in 7 hours on Autobahn. The traveling part of the weekend turned out to be a highlight of the entire trip. Seeing the countryside and passing through large and small German and Czech cities by car allowed for a unique perspective our typical train-plane traveling arrangements. Not to mention, by splitting the cost of rental and gas, it turned out to be the cheapest and fastest way we found to get to Prague. Big thanks to the drivers–Ben and Tomas!

3) Take advantage of school sponsored trips. During the first two weeks of my semester abroad in Maastricht, I took a Dutch Language and Culture course with other students from the University of California through Maastricht’s Center for European Studies (CES). CES organized for its students this past weekend to attend the Holland v. Hungary World Cup Qualifying football match. On Friday after classes, we headed out on bus to Amsterdam to watch the Dutch national team play at the Ajax Stadium. With Netherlands 8-1 victory over Hungary, my first match as a spectator turned out to be quite an exciting and memorable one. The stadium was filled with pure energy. My advice–don’t miss out on opportunities like these!

4) Participate to a huge city-wide event. It was a cold and rainy Sunday morning. I was in a t-shirt, shorts, and running shoes and on a train with others headed to Eindhoven to run in the annual Eindhoven Half Marathon through the city. With little sleep from a typical Saturday out with friends, morale was low for the three of us who were about to run as we looked at the conditions outside the window. When we stepped out of the train station and left to the registration tent, all attention from the turbulent weather turned to the thousands and thousands of runners and crowd that flooded the street. Within 15 minutes of walking and seeing the anticipation and enthusiasm of runners from all over Europe and beyond prepare for the race, we were immersed in the sea of people ready for the event. And before we knew it (well, perhaps not during the race, but in retrospect), we were at the finish line! The last 3 km of the race were the most memorable–the streets were packed with friends and family of participants cheering on with the same intensity as the football match we attended two days before. Accompanied by other friends of our own from the Guesthouse Maastricht, we all had a great time in Eindhoven.

5) Keep in touch with friends and family from back home. With Skype and FaceTime, it’s perhaps more simple to connect with others thousands of miles than it is to drive 5 miles in LA traffic. Besides the tricky part of coordinating with the 9-hour time difference between here and California, I have looked forward to talking with my mom, dad, brother, and friends back home.  I think it has been an important time set aside during the week as well. It’s not just a time to share mutual updates, but a time to reflect and relive the experiences I have had here abroad.

Looking forward–especially past next Thursday at 3pm when I finish my last final exam–I am excited to start off Period 2 with the new insights I’ve gained in Period 1. The weather may be slightly getting more inclement, but I predict that the semester will continue to be full of experiences and fun times ahead. Until, my next post, I’ll check back in with the latest news.

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