Hello Maastricht!

First of all, my name is Linley Houwen and I am from the University of Western Australia which is located in Perth so I am quite a while away from home. Travelling to Maastricht took me roughly 30 hours so I was definitely happy when I finally arrived into my accommodation. I arrived here on the Tuesday and didn’t begin induction until Thursday so had a few days to get things sorted before I started.

The very first thing I noticed about Maastricht when stepping off the train from Amsterdam was the cold, immediately my uncovered hands and poorly covered feet (only in van sneakers and thin socks) were freezing and I realised I might have underestimated the cold. I waited at the train station for a short while before I met an ESN (the Erasmus Student Network) representative who drove me and several other new exchange students to the main guesthouse as part of their free pick up service. This was my first drive through Maastricht and I noticed straight away how much older and grand all the buildings were compared to Australia which is fairly new in comparison. However I did keep thinking we were going to run into a car as here you drive on the right side of the road whereas at home it is the left, I will have to get used to this!

My first gimpse of Maastricht!
My first gimpse of Maastricht!

Once at the main guesthouse I was able to quickly pick up my keys for my temporary accommodation (my room isn’t available until Saturday) in Reinaartsingel. I also purchased a linen package from the Maastricht Housing desk which contained a pillow cover, duvet and duvet cover for 40 euros. I would personally recommend buying this as it saves  you the hassle of having to go and collect it all yourself before your first night. I then got dropped off at my accommodation by the free van service offered by Maastricht Housing and met my first roommate, Giampaola from Italy. I was so tired from all my travels that when I arrived I said hello and then fell asleep for 15 hours until 5am the next morning!

I woke up the next morning feeling refreshed and ready to take on Maastricht! Giampaola had previously studied in Maastricht over the summer so knew her way around which was lucky for me as I was completely lost! The first thing we did was go to the supermarket and the first thing I noticed was that as soon you enter any building you suddenly get very hot as everywhere has central heating and already I feel like I have taken my jacket on and off a hundred times! After this we made our way to an ING bank to set up a student bank account which was really easy as long as you bring your passport and confirmation of enrolment.

Our next stop was the main guesthouse to buy an ESN card (to get you discounts to events and on food etc) and some tickets to ESN welcome events. After this we made our way through the streets to the main area and markets, the more I walked through Maastricht the more I fell in love with this small beautiful city.

Walking around Maastricht
Walking around Maastricht
2014-01-29 13.35.50
Waking around Maastricht

We walked all through town and ended up at the Maas, it was so beautiful and the bridges crossing it was such a pretty sight. We stopped nearby here for my first meal since the plane (was so hungry) and I enjoyed my first Dutch beer with lunch (I had to try it ;))

The Maas
The Maas
First lunch and Dutch beer
First lunch and Dutch beer

We then walked to the main station and met my buddy Linda. The buddy program is run by SBE and it involved you getting allocated a regular student at SBE to help you settle in. I would highly recommend getting involved as Linda has helped me so much in my months before arriving and on my first day here. The first thing Linda said when she saw me was that I need better shoes, haha. We went to the shops and I bought my very first pair of boots which are leather and covered inside with wool to make sure my feet don’t freeze anymore. Linda then showed me and Giampaola around and we visited the two main squares, SBE, the library and where my new accommodation will be when I move on Saturday.

I got home at about 6:30pm that night from walking all over the city all day so was pretty happy to see my bed but before that I had to eat dinner and what luck I  had pasta cooked for me by two Italians! I ended up getting into bed just before 11pm after a tiring but exciting day and am looking forward to induction!

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Where it all began

I love Christmas – everything from the cheesy carols to the pretty lights and over-the-top decorations. Over the first few weeks of December, Maastricht started to transform in to a ‘winter wonderland’ – one mysteriously appearing fairy light at a time. Every time I biked to the Vrythof there would be another row of trees lit up or wreathes strung up across the street. It wasn’t until the girls and I were biking home late after a movie that we discovered all the people hard at work lighting up the city while the rest of Maastricht was sleeping. Not so sneaky were the three mucho men attacking the Christmas trees in the foyer of the SBE. Armed with tool belts stuffed with fairy lights and boxes full of red and gold Christmas balls, they decorated those trees with such precision and speed I could hardly believe my eyes. Though it was just routine, the way everyone embraced the Christmas spirit made it impossible not to be excited for Christmas.

Walking down the main street
Walking down the main street
Just magic
Just magic
City of lights
City of lights

Not only did the city look beautiful but the smell of waffles and gluhwein (warm, spiced wine) coming from the Christmas markets was just heaven. The weekend the markets opened, a group of us went down to check it out – taking full advantage of all the free samples! The Ferris wheel had an awesome view of the city and the ice-rink looked beautiful among all the Christmas lights. The market stalls sold a whole lot of traditional foods like roasted chestnuts and Dutch pastries as well as various barbecued meats and deep-fried delicacies. One stall sold life-size tools made completely out of chocolate – the nuts and bolts even screwed together! Others sold winter hats and scarves and there were plenty of beautiful Christmas ornaments for sale.

Lit up stalls
Christmas market
View from the ferris wheel
View from the Ferris wheel
Chocolate tools!
Chocolate tools!
Just another family outing
Just another family outing

We wanted to make sure to get plenty of family photos in before everyone left so after one of our routine family dinners we took heaps which – despite being painfully cheesy – I loved.

Family photos
Family photos

The week before exams ESN threw a Grand Finale party to say good bye to all the exchangers. The party was at a music hall across the river and featured some semi-famous dj’s (all of which I’d never heard of but played some pretty decent music). It was a great night of dancing, hugging and plenty of “I love yooouu guuuys”’s (you can just imagine). The only downfall was the ‘white’ theme which equalled a lot of stain removal the next day and they charged 1 euro to pee!! (double the German highway rate…)

'Yellow claw' - whoever that is...
‘Yellow claw’ – whoever that is…

The following night (in amongst all the study, obviously…) my apartment building threw a ‘Secret Santa’ party with our very own Bavarian Sinterklaas (thanks for volunteering Ralf). Everyone came together with small gifts (or rather, a lot of chocolate!) and plenty of beer to celebrate one last time before exams. It was awesome to have everyone together – especially those who lived in my building but I’d somehow never met before – crazy how that always happens!

Being merry
Being merry
Bavarian Santa
Bavarian Santa
The whole clan!
The whole crew!

The partying didn’t stop there. Saturday was Katy’s birthday so after a lovely breakfast at the Vrythof, a little nap and maybe a just a touch of study (for a change), we had yet another party (pyjama themed) in Sarah’s room – dragging all our mattresses together for a 5-person sleepover. We ate way too much Chinese and for dessert there was ice-cream, popcorn, rainbow strips (Fiona insisted) chocolate and a special screening of Love Actually (who doesn’t love that movie??). Oh and my onesie was there (always a good time when the onesie is present). I fell asleep during the movie, but that’s to be expected.

Shleepover!!
Shleepover!!

Saying goodbye to people is never fun – especially when you’ve basically spent the last 5 months joined at the hip. As their exams were all done and dusted (before mine had even started!!) my family members Bridget, Katy and Fiona were already leaving for home or further travels. The tactic I chose to employ was denial, though a roll of toilet paper was still required. This was just the start of a long chain of sad goodbyes and pretty soon I’d be packing my bags too – something that would be bitter-sweet for the excitement of seeing my family and the sadness of leaving behind another.

For the tears
For the tears

Setting up camp in Ben’s room (quite literally moving my mattress and the dining table in there) was one way to deal with the sadness of everyone leaving – best not to be alone for too long I figured. As people from the Guesthouse were coming around to inspect our rooms and make sure nothing was missing, it was pretty funny to see the inspectors reaction when he realised the kitchen table was gone. Sebastian had to prove to him it hadn’t been stolen by opening Ben’s door to reveal me (in my onsie…) sitting there studying – he just looked at me puzzled while I awkwardly waved.

The best study space!
The best study space!

After exams were over (hallelujah) a big group of us (as in 40 people) decided to celebrate by returning to the place where it all began. Recall one of my first posts where on the first night I was taken out to dinner with a group of complete strangers (whom I now call family) to a student bar called ‘Kiwi’. At the time it was pretty sentimental with the name representing home, but the second time round was even more nostalgic having one of our last dinners at the place where we first met. We all ordered one of Kiwi’s famous burgers which were huge and set us up well for the nights activities ending in De Alla (where else?).

Group dinner at Kiwi!
Kiwi: Where it all began
Where it's at...
And where it always ends…

In the last days I said goodbye to a lot of my wonderful friends over coffee and last minute shopping trips. After looking at a few tulips and windmill charms to represent my exchange, I managed to find the perfect one which from the second I saw it brought tears to my eyes – the charm for family. I won’t even go in to the soppy detail of how much it means to me.

Maastricht = Family
Maastricht = Family
Last coffee date in Maastricht :-(
Last coffee date in Maastricht 😦

We wanted to make the most of our last few days of freedom, so the boys and I planned a day trip to Rotterdam. We booked train tickets (which I almost missed from sleeping in too long) and made the two hour trip. Travelling with only boys was a whole new experience – so chilled and easy!! (sorry girls ;-)). The city was really modern and had heaps of quirky architecture from its rebuild after WW2. There were crazy looking ‘cube houses’ and many of the skyscrapers were built at such strange angles they looked like building blocks stacked on top of one another.

Cube houses
Cube houses
Chillin' with the boys
Chillin’ with the boys
Building block skyscrappers
Building blocks

On our last night we visited Aachen’s famous Christmas market in Germany – just a half hour bus ride away. There were heaps of people there, all speaking German which I was excited to find I could understand pretty well (thanks to all the practise over the semester). While we wondered around we drank cups of hot chocolate and wine, ate roasted chestnuts and nutella covered almonds and found Sarah some socks to cover her freezing toes. For dinner (because everything we do revolves around eating) we found a Mexican restaurant which served oversized burgers and yum wraps.

Mexican dinner
The last supper

Racing around like a mad thing – packing up my room, returning overdue library books and trying to fit everything in my suitcase – my last day was a little stressful and a lot sad. Up until the last couple of hours I’d done a pretty good job of keeping the tears at bay, but seeing my three boys standing on the platform making little hearts with their hands and running after the train to wave a final goodbye, I couldn’t hold it in and once the tears started, they didn’t stop. Luckily Sarah was joining me to Amsterdam so she and I sobbed together and apologised to the other passengers who were looking at us strangely.

Saying bye to my boys :-(
Saying bye to my boys 😦

Arriving at our hotel – without a hitch I might add (about time), we checked in and decided to just chill. We went to the hotel restaurant and ate ridiculously expensive pizza and a salad which consisted of 4 tomatos and a piece of lettuce – not that either of us were feeling particularly hungry anyway. Having Sarah there with me made my last night much nicer as I had someone to laugh and cry with about all the crazy things we had gotten up to on our exchange – as we put it “the good, the bad, and the straight out ugly”. Ordering a wakeup call for 4:30am (kill me) we didn’t get much sleep and due to a shortage of space in the shuttle, I was forced to say a quick, heart-breaking goodbye to Sarah just outside the hotel. I know it’s not goodbye forever but unfortunately that didn’t make it any less sucky. The plane trip to Vancouver went by faster than expected (I guess I had a lot of sleep to catch up on after an amazing but exhausting week) and before long I was arriving in a new country for the next adventure.

Warm welcome to a new adventure!
Warm welcome to a new adventure!
Change of scenery
Change of scenery

Now I’m in Vancouver, Canada – the land of snowy mountains, misty forests and epic wildlife – oh and cloud, a lot of cloud! I’m staying here with family for 3 weeks before I return to a hot summer (and reality) in Kiwiland. It’s pretty cold which hopefully means plenty of snow for skiing – can’t wait! I don’t know when my next blog will be but for the mean time it has been a pleasure and an absolute blast reliving and sharing the moments from what has been the most awesome 6 months of my life! I apologise in advance for everyone who’s gonna have to deal with my “In Europe…” stories when I get back. Merry Christmas everyone and Happy New Year – sending you warm fuzzies (wherever you are in the world) and I hope to see ya’ll soon ❤