Paris: A Reflection

Before my exchange in Europe, it was difficult to envision being in a potentially life-threatening situation. Yet that was exactly what occurred as I travelled to Paris for a weekend that was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Although this is a sensitive topic, I wanted to about it to get it off my chest and reiterate that these are my personal experiences.

First, some context for my visit.

As a football fan, I had always hoped to see a game of international football. Having narrowly missed out on tickets to the Belgium v Spain match, I booked tickets to the next best match on that weekend – France v Germany. One of my friends was on exchange in Paris, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to catch up with her as well.

Having finished class early on Friday, I took the train to Brussels, where a bus would take me to Paris. Although the train ran smoothly, the bus wasn’t so punctual. Rather than arriving at the e.t.a. of 6:50pm, the bus arrived at 8:10pm. This was the first factor that I was fortunate for. However, at the time, stuck in a kilometre-long tunnel for over one hour, I was growing increasingly frustrated because I was unable to contact my friend who I was supposed to meet at the game.

Upon arrival, I immediately took the metro and checked-in at my hostel, as I feared it would be too late to check-in after the game. As a consequence, I left for the game later than expected and knew that I would arrive late. The second factor that I was fortunate for was that Google Maps gave me the directions to the Parc de Princes stadium, rather than Stade de France. This meant that I had to travel another 50 minutes to get to the game.

A culmination of all these factors meant that I arrived at the game at around 10pm. If one or two of these things had changed, I might not be here to share with you today. Running hurriedly to the stadium, I was met by the intimidating presence of two heavily armed policemen who were guarding the entrance to the stadium. They wouldn’t let me in. After 8 hours of travel to watch a football game, they wouldn’t let me in! Even the fact that the policemen were heavily armed did not alarm me as to what had happened; in Australia, it was typical for several highly armed policemen to patrol the area for the general safety of the public. At the time, I was very angry. Of course, these feelings would change over the course of the night as i became aware of the events.

I watched the rest of the game at the Novotel, blissfully unaware of what had happened outside stadium or in the rest of Paris. As the game concluded, the news suddenly broadcast the dreadful news of a bomb blast near the area of the stadium. At first, I still thought there was nothing wrong. It was only when my friend in Maastricht messaged me about the death toll that I realised the monstrosity of the events.

I am eternally grateful that I was able to make it to the hostel safely that night. I would later find out that many of my friends were confronted with closed metro lines and were forced to stay with others for the night. I found out through Facebook’s safety feature that they, too, were unharmed. This is one of the ways technology can be used in the future to respond to emergency crises and it was helpful in letting friends and family know that I was safe.

On that dreaded night, the city of Paris stood still, shocked. On the day after, a quiet Saturday, the windy, overcast weather was mourning with the city. There weren’t many people out on the streets and all of Paris was still in shock.

On Sunday, I was fortunate enough to meet up with my friend at a popular café. The fact that it was open so soon after the tragedy was a strong show of defiance against the instigators who had tried to pull the city apart. Life felt the same. But it wasn’t. As my friend and I walked through La Republique to see the vigils and flowers that people had placed near the Bataclan, the number of people that had come out to show support amazed us. The city had come together to show strength through unity. Although this was only my fourth short-term visit to the city, I felt like part of the community. As I placed my flowers done near the Bataclan, I cried. It could have been any of us.

Paris walked on.

Living in Australia, most of the tragedies that occur overseas seem remote. Too often, it’s easy to dismiss the loss of innocent lives as another statistic being replayed over the nightly news. Being in Paris that night made me realise how real they were. This experience taught me to appreciate life and realise how lucky we are to have our loved ones around us.

To the families of the departed, I give you my deepest condolences and stand with you in this difficult time.

Andrew

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5 Places You Must Visit (Bruges & Gent)

Welcome to Part 2 of the ‘5 Places You Must Visit’ series!

Bruges

Seeing is believing. After seeing Bruges, it’s easy to believe that fairy-tales are real. The picturesque buildings and the gently swaying idyllic trees overlooking a calm canal all create a magical experience.

How to get there?

Bruges is an hour from Brussels by train. Therefore I would recommend spending one weekend in Belgium visiting both Bruges and Brussels (as well as Ghent if you have a long weekend).

Things to do

The first thing you’ll notice about Bruges are the stylish medieval buildings. Unlike many cities which just have one ‘historical quarter’, these buildings are all around the city and create a surreal experience, as if you have stepped back in time 400 years.

The canal tour was the highlight of my visit. Beginning near the city centre, we twisted and turned around the serene waterways. It was such a unique way to explore the city and the tour guide provided useful commentary into the history of the city.

Gent by sea
Gent by sea

The Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk is known for housing Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. It is famously the only Michelangelo work to leave Italy during his lifetime. Unfortunately it’s become such a big attraction that the church now charges a small fee to see it but having travelled such a long way, I thought it would be silly to miss it.

Walking into the city centre (the Markt), you’ll find streets lined on both sides with chocolate and novelty shops. Once you reach the Markt, you’ll find a beautiful square with buildings such as the Belfry Tower and the Provincial Court.

DSC_0368
Endless rows of beer

If drinking is your thing, you’ll be pleased to hear that Bruges takes its beers very seriously. The bars hold large varieties of beers and provided you aren’t in the city centre, they are reasonably priced. We decided to try something different and opt for the fruit beers, which were just as good as they sound.

Overall, Bruges is a beautiful medieval city that is busy yet quiet enough to enjoy. Bruges very much reminded me of Amsterdam but has its own Belgian appeal.


Gent

How to get there?

Gent is only half an hour from Bruges by train! Take the train to Gent – St Pieters station.

Things to do

Similar to Bruges, Gent is famous for its medieval architecture and a canal. Despite these similarities, it feels very different. For one, it feels a lot more expansive compared to the tight-knit community of Bruges. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as I found that there was more to explore in Gent. Secondly, Gent has a castle! It may simply be something I’ve carried from childhood but whenever I see a castle, I still get giddy with excitement. More about that later.

Graslei
Graslei

The city centre is where it all happens in Gent.

The Belfry (the tower) provides wonderful views of the entire city. Nearby, you will find the Graslei harbour which features striking medieval buildings along the Leie river. It is a perfect place to begin a stroll around the city. From there, you can also board a river tour and the multiple bridges are a great vantage point to observe the sea.

Gravensteen Castle
Gravensteen Castle

As mentioned before, one of Gent’s attractions is the Gravensteen castle. Bear in mind this is not the same as a royal palace but rather a place used as a fortress and later as a courthouse and prison. Inside you’ll find a museum about Gent’s history of torture, which is not for those with a weak stomach. The best part is the view from the top, allowing you to oversee Gent’s city centre.

In the Saint Bavo Cathedral is one of the most impressive paintings I’ve ever seen. The “Adoration of the Mystic Lambs” by Jan van Eyck is an enormous yet incredibly detailed twelve-panel painting dating back to 1432. Famously, two of the twelve panels were stolen in 1934, never to be recovered.

Gent by night
Gent by night

One of the great initiatives that Gent is a night lighting plan specially designed to bring out the facades and accents of the buildings. I took a night stroll through a path recommended by the Gent tourism board and discovered a completely different beauty to the city. There are no safety issues as the paths are always well-lit and there are plenty of people out late at night.

Graffiti lane
Graffiti lane

One of the unique things I stumbled upon was a graffiti lane. Although I’d seen one in Australia before, it was pleasantly surprising to find one in Europe. Those that associate graffiti exclusively with vandalism should visit this lane to appreciate its artistry and detail. The graffiti lane is not only a city attraction, but also a great way to allow young people to express themselves creatively without breaking the law.

If you’re a football fan, you could consider watching Gent FC. They are the current Belgian league champions and participated in the Champions League this year for the first time in club history.

If you have any suggestions on which cities you’d like to me to write about, please comment below.

Stay tuned for the next instalment.

Andrew

5 Places You Must Visit (Brussels)

Hey! 🙂

You’ve probably heard the expression that travel broadens the mind. One of the reasons why Maastricht is such a popular choice for exchange students is that it’s an excellent base for travel. Without further ado, I present the first of five places you must visit.

Brussels

Loving this Tintin wall
Loving this Tintin wall

Waffles! Fries! With the delicious food that Brussels has to offer, you can almost smell Brussels before you can see it. However, the attraction of Brussels doesn’t end there. Brussels is home to many beautiful examples of architecture as well as many of the famous comics that we’ve grown up with (shoutout to Tintin and the Smurfs).

How to get there

Brussels is easily accessible via bus or train. I travelled by bus, and having the company of three others made it a pleasant 2-hour journey. We travelled with Flixbus, one of the many bus companies operating throughout Europe. One of the advantages of Flixbus is that it departs from Maastricht, making it convenient for early morning departures. It also offers routes to cities as far as Paris and Geneva. I recommend travelling by bus as a cheaper, more scenic alternative to the train.

Things to do

Commonly described as “the famous peeing boy”, Manneken Pis is where you’ll find most of the tourists in Brussels posing for shameless selfies. I am admittedly guilty of said act but I can justify this by pointing to the entertaining legends behind the creation of the statue. My favourite one involves Brussels under siege in the early 14th century, when foreign forces had placed explosive charges around the city walls. Legend has it that a young boy caught them preparing and urinated on the burning fuse, thus saving the city.

The Royal Palace of Brussels was our next stop. Although it wasn’t as extravagant as other royal palaces (Schönbrunn and Versailles), it’s still quite remarkable for a residence located within the city centre. As an Australian, I am continually amazed by the grandeur of European castles and palaces and this was no exception. Entrance was free – another plus.

Atomium at Night
Atomium at Night

The Atomium is probably the most famous attraction in Brussels. As the name suggests, the Atomium is designed like a magnified atom. Built for the 1958 World Fair and standing at 102m tall, there’s nothing quite like it in Europe. As we went at night, we weren’t able to go inside but saw an Atomium illuminated with lights. If you have the chance to go inside, the Atomium hosts exhibitions and has a beautiful panoramic view of Brussels.

No trip to Brussels would be complete without waffles, fries and chocolate!

Les Frites

We ate ‘les frites’ at Les Friteries du Café Georgette, a small establishment near the city centre. I had been patiently waiting, keeping my stomach empty so that I could savour the first meal of the day. It lived up to the promise! The fries were made fresh from potato (not frozen) and the sauces complemented the flavour of the fries very well.

Delicious waffle
Delicious waffle

On the same street as Manneken Pis, many of the waffle shops sell plain waffles for €1, with toppings such as Nutella and cream costing extra. We ate at The Waffle Factory, where they created the waffles fresh in front of you. The waffles were the fluffiest I’d ever tried but I don’t think that you can go wrong with any of the stores along that street.

Mussels in Brussels!
Mussels in Brussels!

Continuing with the culinary theme, we ate mussels in Brussels! Yes, you read that right. Mussels are a popular delicacy in Brussels and it was only right that we saved the best meal for last. On a crowded tourist strip, we chose one of the many restaurants offering mussels as part of a ‘menu’ (3 course meal). After a long day, I can definitely say it was worth it. The serving size was huge! Our mussels were presented in a large bowl and were full of flavour.

Brussels is the perfect city to explore your cultural and culinary passions. I recommend it to any exchange student looking to visit a nearby city.

If you have any suggestions on what you’d like to me to write about, please comment below.

Thank you for reading!

Andrew

Hello Maastricht!

Hello! 🙂

My name is Andrew and I am a student from the University of New South Wales in Australia. During my semester on exchange, I will be sharing thoughts and experiences on student life, travel, and all things Maastricht.

This exchange has been a long time in the making. Almost one year ago I sat at a desk not dissimilar to the one I am sitting at now, and made the decision that would change my life forever. After 335 days, on the other side of the world, I am very satisfied that exchange has come to fruition.

Getting to Maastricht University

Welcome to Maastricht! Happy to be greeted by a blue sky and warm weather
Welcome to Maastricht! Happy to be greeted by a blue sky and warm weather

Buy your airplane tickets early! This is particularly important if your exchange begins in Semester 1 as it coincides with the peak season that is summer. I booked tickets late and regret not planning earlier and using the saved funds for more travel.

On a cold, raining morning in Paris, I embarked on a journey across three countries that concluded in Maastricht. From my stopover in Amsterdam Central, Maastricht was 2.5 hours by train. I will definitely be making the trip to the nation’s capital countless times for football games and events such as Amsterdam Dance Festival.

ESN offers a pickup service from Maastricht Central station that I highly recommend. After a full day of travel, it was a relief to know that a friendly face was waiting at the station, ready to drive straight to the guesthouse. For those arriving in Brussels or other airports, the Maastricht University website offers directions.

Accommodation

It is refreshing to finally settle down after a month of non-stop travelling. After weeks of moving in and out of various hostels in a state of perpetual vagrancy, I appreciate the spacious single room that I will call home for half a year. Although I stayed in a dorm during London summer school, this is my first true long-term college experience.

First impressions of the accommodation are great. It is less than five minutes walk to two supermarkets (Jumbo and Albert Heijn) and just a short bicycle ride away from a third (Aldi). For the aspiring Federers and Kobes, the guesthouse has two tennis courts and a basketball court. It should be noted that C, M and P-guesthouses are located in the same area.

As a resident of the C-gebouw (read C-guesthouse), I have been bestowed the honour of upholding its reputation as the ‘party guesthouse’. In the lead up to the arrival week parties, the guesthouse had a lively atmosphere and the pre-party festivities were a great opportunity to meet my neighbours for the next six months.

Arrival week

To use a football analogy, my first week at Maastricht has very much been a pre-season with a new team. I have been getting back into swing of things after a month without studying, and getting acquainted with a different environment. This includes buying a bicycle (to get anywhere in the city within 10 minutes), textbooks and groceries.

An awesome water wheel that we passed during the city tour
An awesome water wheel that we passed during the city tour

During arrival week, ESN organises activities including dinners, city tours and parties. My advice? Go to as many as possible! These events are a great way to meet new people from all backgrounds and discover the hidden gems of Maastricht. In particular, it is a wonderful chance to soak in some of the nightlife that Maastricht has to offer. The highlight was definitely the Summer Memories party hosted in the Muziekgieterij, a hip music venue. Ears ringing, staggering home at 5am in the isolated streets of Maastricht was an unforgettable experience.

On Thursday and Friday of arrival week, SBE exchange students had orientation. We were introduced to Dutch culture, the Problem-Based Learning system (more on that in a later post) and given a brief rundown on life at Maastricht University. It was exciting to finally get my hands on an eye-catching orange bag that I had seen people walking around with.

To continue with the football analogy, the pre-season friendlies are over. Tomorrow marks the beginning of a new season and all the twists and turns that come with it. Although I am slightly nervous, I look forward to the challenges that lie ahead and am excited to make the most of this opportunity.

If you have any questions or topics that you would like me to post about, please feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear your feedback and promise to reply to you all.

Catch you later!

Andrew