Visiting Paris as a broke student

I’ll admit that blog posts are much easier to write once I’ve put on my adventure hat on and started the reconnaissance mission for my next trip. The last few weeks have been an endless series of trains and sights, beginning from Kingsday in Amsterdam and Leiden. I was lucky enough to have a friend on exchange to Leiden who let me couchsurf for a few days while we cycled Dutch style (where she would pedal at the front of the bike and I would try and hang on at the back with all the bags and try and help keep it all balanced, pretending that I was helping even though I’m not the one that has to propel at least 90kgs of weight) around the quaint student city of Leiden. A place with such historical and cultural value sure merits a visit, especially since it is close to the Keukenhof. However, I’m sure there will be plenty of information about Kingsday from other bloggers so I’ll limit my words on that event.

Some tips:

  • Sleep during the day of Kingsnight even if you don’t feel tired
  • Research which parties to go to during Kingsnight or you will end up like us and be sitting in Maccas furiously soaking up their wifi to look for one closeby
  • Dress orange and head towards Amstel around 11 on Kingsday to catch the boats
  • Research and dress for the weather

 

Paris

So about a week later I met the same friend in Paris, France. I caught a bus from Maastricht which set me back 17 euros one way – the ESN card gives discounts to Flixbus which helped. During the 6 hour trip I amused myself with all the French movies I downloaded the night before. Bringing a laptop or tablet on these trips is definitely worth the extra weight, since most buses have a power outlet so you can charge it. My hostel was the cheapest one I found in Hostelworld.com, but in hindsight I should have researched a little better – there was only one powerpoint and one key for the dorm, hot water wasn’t guaranteed, I’ve still got bed bug bites, and it’s the first hostel I’ve been in that charges for wifi. I’ve stayed in $4 hotels in Burma that felt more luxurious. Nevertheless, my first night in Paris I spent solo, grabbing a meal at the nearby brasserie. All the locals in the restaurant was eating solo too, so I never felt out of place, and I searched through the menu trying to find the Frenchest thing I can order. I ended up getting a raclette, which is a dish of potatoes, cold chicken and baguette slices served with a cheese melting device. I was too proud to ask where I should put the cheese when I melted it so I had the cheesiest potatoes of all of France. I would have stayed longer just to have that meal again; here’s hoping there’s one in Maastricht or Melbourne. For dessert (and it is so nice to finally find a country that appreciates dessert as much as I do) I had my first – and not last – creme caramel. It felt like Paris was 80% cafes and brasseries so foodies will not have trouble trying to get some authentic cuisine.

The next morning we planned to meet at a designated subway station, which we discovered to be right behind the Louvre. Deciding that the line was too long, and that we would spend a decent amount of time in the Louvre anyway, we tried to go to Notre Dame and the Ile de la Cite. We found a rental bike service called Velib and used that most of the day. This presented many opportunities, but also a few challenges. Renting a bike would suit a tourist if they had a consistent internet connection and didn’t like the confines of public transport, and if Paris was not too crowded.

We tried looking the Seine up on a paper map, ended up going the wrong way, came back, hit the Louvre again, and finally biked South to magnificent views of the island and the river. We made the rookie mistake of trying to get food right next to the Notre Dame. EU students are able to go to the tower for free. We got sick of the scenery after a while and went South to the nearby Latin Quarter, where we were able to experience the bohemian atmosphere of the Shakespeare and Co bookshop.

We rode to the Champs Elysees, getting lost and passing the Louvre twice to get there. Feeling a little too civilised, we hit up a bagel diner and then Starbucks, by which point I was ready to find a quiet place to have a nap. The Eiffel Tower was supposed to be our last destination for the day, where we would see the sun set under the grand silhouette. But after getting supplies (wine, cheese, hummus, strawberries and cream, bread, macaroons, and more) from Carrefour, we made a beeline for the park and ended up picnicing under its shadow for many hours, trying to avoid people selling souvenirs and beer. Not just an over-rated gimmick, the Eiffel Tower is a must for every first-time visitor to Paris.

The next morning I ordered a croissant and a coffee from a brasserie to start the day. The agenda was Versailles, and no one was more excited than my inner war historian to find out why the peasants decided to kill the aristocrats and the royal family. The train ride from Invalides, packed with tourists, was an omen for things to come. In the day I had lined up for the chateau, the toilet, the overpriced food, information and a map, etc. Even though everything was worth the wait, it was a bonus that we did not have to pay an entrance fee because we were students. The gardens were 7 euro due to a fountain light and music show so we were content to peek through the bars at the gates like the peasants we are. The long hike to the Grand Trianon and Marie-Antoinette’s estate only made the grounds look more spectacular, and removed any guilt about eating McDonald’s for dinner. We noticed that Versailles itself, the town outside the castle, was a destination itself.

We finished the day back at the Eiffel, where we continued our peasant-themed day by buying student tickets to the lower floors without the comfort of a elevator. We joined some adventurous couples who don’t mind breaking a few sweats on their honeymoon and groups of kids to climb the 500-odd steps to reach the second floor. We watched the dusk darken into night while taking in the Parisian skyline on our third (and last) night in France. Before I knew it, we had finished lunch in a cafe on an intersection where you can see both the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, and were about to board our separate buses.

I learnt a few things on this trip. Firstly that Paris is not prohibitively expensive, especially for uni students, and especially if you are doing your exchange here in Maastricht. We spent our money almost exclusively on food, trains and board. Even the rented bikes were free if you organised your timing well enough. Secondly, spend more than 4 days in Paris. It simply isn’t enough. Maybe 5 months also wouldn’t be enough. But it was a shame that we didn’t have the time to go to Sacre Cour or Moulin Rouge, or make dank memes from the paintings inside the Louvre. That being said, it’s much better to miss out on something than to cram a packed itinerary. You don’t want to end up like Selena Gomez in Monte Carlo.

 

Looking forward to my next trip, and, to a lesser extent, my fast approaching exam.

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Starting fresh

Period 4 break

While other business kids were on holidays to Budapest and Iceland and Poland I decided to be super lazy and stay in. After the whole semester last year in Asia and the few weekends this semester abroad, the prospect of planning for a trip – packing, finding accommodation, looking up things to do, researching on hours at a time to get the best deal on flights/trains/buses, frantically eating all the food in the fridge before you go so it doesn’t go off, and budgeting the whole ordeal – sounded more tiresome as exams loomed. I had good intentions! I thought of going back to England catching the Eurostar from Paris, so I’d get a couple of days in France, but my holidays didn’t match up well with my friends, and I couldn’t be bothered organising around them. So that’s how I was able to return to a productive daily routine where I actually woke up energised and excited for early Period 5 preparations, exercise, and the sunrise. I learnt from last period that if you don’t have any background in what you’re about to study, it helps to do reading before classes. I had forgotten most of the core concepts of calculus, having no need of it since high school. It turns out that maths is useful for things!

Anzac Day

This Sunday is the 24th of April, what we Australians like to call Anzac Day, which commemorates the birth of the Australian spirit by marking the date that Allied troops tried (and failed) to take over a section of a Turkish beach in the first world war. It was strange learning about this iconic siege as it seemed like the whole campaign had been a disaster. The landing, which was on the wrong beach, meant that soldiers had to cross up pretty steep terrain with bullets hailing from the Turkish forces above them. Many Australians died, but many more Turkish soldiers died defending their home. And in the end, they won. The most successful part of the Gallipoli campaign was the Allies’ withdrawal. In Australia, the logistics of this origin is mostly unknown. The beginning of a campaign in a war you only fought in because you have some sense of loyalty to the empire that labelled you as a prison, where thousands of young Australian men and women died or came back with lingering health problems, against a country that hadn’t even decided whether it was against the Allies or not, and which ultimately was a crushing defeat, would not have been my choice of a public holiday. But then again, Australia Day marks the arrival of the First Fleet, the beginnings of hundreds of years of discrimination, undocumented war, and great loss of life and culture. On the bright side, it gives us an excuse to play Goon of Fortune. And I’m not going to stop commemorating the Australian upbringing I’ve been fortunate enough to have and the soldiers who fought for the sake of the nation just because a certain date has some negative connotations.

Future plans

Next Wednesday (the 27th of April) is King’s Day in the Netherlands. ISN have provided a great deal on spending King’s night (the night before King’s Day) and King’s Day in Amsterdam, floating on a canal and drinking heaps of Prins Pils. I was fortunate to come across a few tickets to see Armin van Buuren in Leiden, so I am looking forward to seeing him live, as well as participating in the Dutch tradition of wearing orange and heading off to Amsterdam. As well as this holiday next week to Amsterdam (which might as well be in a different country), I’m excited to go to Paris with a friend I met on my previous exchange, along with a day trip to Switzerland. The ESN card gave me a discount on bus tickets if I booked through Flixbus so I was able to save 3 euros on what was already a cheap trip – 38 euros return from Maastricht to Paris. One of the great things about living in Limburg is that it does act as a crossroads of countries – day trips to Belgium and Germany are commonplace, and easy on the wallet.

 

Thanks for reading if you got this far, and hope you’re having a great April wherever you are.

Kim

My experience of Teaching Period 4

 

It’s the 6th week into the first teaching period I’ve experienced in Maastricht, which means it’s almost halfway through the exchange. Since last time I posted, five weeks of classes have occurred.

School work

My uni in Australia has a different approach to study than here – I was used to having four subjects simultaneously over 12 months, whereas in Maastricht, I have a couple of units at a time, where I will sit exams before moving on. There are certainly benefits to both styles of teaching. There are fewer hours of classes in Maastricht per week, which means longer weekends and time if you wanted to participate in any extra-curricular activities or work part-time, which some exchange students here certainly do. However, because of the short and focused nature of the semesters, there are greater consequences for missing classes or failing to prepare for tutorials. In that way, it is constrictive to travel. I know people back home who would start the semester in week 5, it’s probably not possible to do that here. But, once I did adjust to the amount of work needed for preparation and within class work, I found that I feel way more prepared for exams than I did back home.

Travel

I did get to travel some places in the weekends though. I was able to visit a friend in Leiden, so went to the Hague and saw the Girl in the Pearl Earring. It was actually easier for me to get to Brussels than Amsterdam / the Hague by train, but I’ve heard that buses are way cheaper and direct. Also was able to spend a weekend in Copenhagen, including a day in Malmö, Sweden, a visit to enough palaces to last a lifetime, and discovering many hidden Danish treasures. The edgy vibe there reminded me a lot of Melbourne. As well as that, I took a day trip to Aachen and the three borders of Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. It was easy to get to from the nearby town Vaals, and was a lovely walk through a nature reserve, especially when we went, because it was snowing! I found heaps of German, Belgian and Dutch tourists taking pictures in three different countries at once. I had gotten used to the lack of border control between countries – sometimes there were less signs that you crossed a country border in Europe than there were in when you crossed a state in Australia! It was interesting living in Limburg as it seemed like a foreign country compared to the rest of the Netherlands. Last semester I talked to a Dutch girl studying in Utrecht and she said the Maastricht accent is distinct from the Holland district, despite the country being so small (The drive from Maastricht to Amsterdam would be the same distance as my home town to my university). But if I am in Melbourne and meet people from Brisbane or Perth, I would not be able to tell.

The bike culture

Something to get used to here is the road rules, specifically regarding bikes. When I bought my bike, I did not realise how much of an investment that 40 euros was. In my previous post I mentioned it was very handy. I now see it as a huge part of my life. This is how I imagine I would have seen my car if I had not spent all my cash on a European semester exchange. It was one thing to get used to the left-hand drive (even though Europe will never convince me that it’s better, or even as good, as right-hand drive. Firstly, most dominant eyes are right, so wouldn’t it be better to have that eye focused on the road, where most of the danger is going to be? Also, the pedals go from left in the order, clutch, brake, accelerator. Gears start from the left and have sixth gear on the right. It’s completely backward for highways to have fast lanes on the left since cars are programmed for the right to have most power and speed.) A few months in and I see the logic in all the roads, when to follow pedestrian rules and traffic rules, when it would be appropriate to give way and when you can scoot in front. Watching the locals glide through serious turns gives you great confidence.

Brussels, England, Maastricht

Hi readers! If you are reading this, then maybe you are thinking of, or in the process of planning, an exchange to Maastricht University. I can verify that it is a worthwhile experience, even if you have to smooth out a few issues before you leave. My name is Kim, and I’m a third year student from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. Hopefully I can give some good information about what to expect if and when you start your exchange here.

I had just come home from a semester in Malaysia, and had about 2 weeks of living in my home country before my flight. I flew to Brussels, stopping over in Doha for a while, which amounted to around twenty hours of sitting (never on the window seat) squashed in Economy Class. While in transit, I never got a chance to see Qatar outside the airport, but a country that charges people $15 for a coffee and a biscuit is not on the top of my bucket list. (But in all seriousness the Middle East is definitely a place I would like to visit.) I spent three days in Brussels. I met a friend of mine in the airport and immediately realised that I underdressed. It was my first time in Europe, and I was not used to the negative temperature. Australian winters are rarely so cold, and because of my trip to Asia I had not put on a jacket since winter 2014. From the airport we caught the train to Bruxelles Nord, and because of our luggage we caught a taxi to our hostel. But public transport here – trains, buses and trams – covers most of the city centre. We checked in quite late, but was able to get a frites burger from a street vendor for dinner for 3 euros, of which we finished half. We called the leftovers breakfast the next morning.

I did experience jet lag, as most people would. However, this seems to have worked in a positive way for me. For the first week I had no trouble falling asleep at 8 and waking up at 5. The lack of sunlight helped also. The fact that I’m currently writing this post at 1AM is a sign that my circadian rhythm has indeed adjusted.

Over the next two days we ate mainly mussels and chocolate, and visited a few attractions. The Grand Place, which is a good place to have a bite and a fancy pint, but the museums have entrance fees. The Manneken Pis, which we would have missed if it wasn’t for the huge crowd around it. We were able to watch the national treasure from an olde pub across the road next to a roaring fire. And last, but not least, we headed to Sablon, a little out of the city but worth it if you’re visiting on the weekend because of the flea market. We found all sorts of antiques from World War finds (being on the Western Front) to picture slides to relics from their colonial days.

I caught the ICE from Brussels to Maastricht; I could buy a direct ticket from the station on the day, which is 7.50 euros if you’re under 25. I had to ask the information desk on which train to catch since there wasn’t any information provided on the ticket, but basically I needed to catch any train going to Liege-Guillemins, and from there there are trains that terminate at Maastricht. I arrived a little too early for the pick-up service but the guesthouse was a quick taxi ride away from the station.

Life in the UM Guesthouse offers a sense of security and community that I would recommend. The International Support Network and the business school host many events that will help you integrate into student life here, including organising dinners and trips, and helping you get adjusted to the city. Who can say no to a free SIM card? But since I arrived a few weeks early, I thought I’d better skip town for a while and so I headed to England for a semi-solo trip. And so I spent a week and a bit in the country that kicked out some of my convict ancestors. And then became bitter because the prisoners had the better deal all along. I caught the Eurostar from Brussels, so the journey between leaving the guesthouse and arriving in St Pancras in London took less than 5 hours. I went up to Oxford for a couple of days, then Coventry to meet up with a friend studying in Warwick, then saw the sights in London. It was an interesting few days in London because every street to me was iconic, from Baker Street to Pudding Lane, the West End and Soho; it was exciting to see in person these places that I had so much exposure to in media. I flew back using Ryanair to Cologne and caught trains and buses back to Maastricht, because it ended up being the cheapest option. However I would avoid flying again. Often the cheapest deal departs at awkward times – mine left Stansted airport at 7 AM, which meant I had to sleep over at the airport alongside a few other people, trying to hunt for the best square foot to set camp. (Although I did get to meet other solo travellers and listen to their stories abroad, 3 AM was not the best time for me to make friends).

My first couple of weeks of class have been a challenge, but mostly because I had chosen subjects that I had little experience with. The Problem Based Learning (PBL) system here was definitely something to get used to, but I quickly saw the benefits. There’s a lot more preparation needed for tutorials than I was used to, but I found we were able to discuss concepts more in depth. So far, I found classes to be really engaging, even though they are two hours long.

A few tips if you are planning to exchange here:

  • If you are going somewhere, organise transport first. Accommodation and food are easily arranged, but flights and trains, especially the Eurostar, hike their prices up if it’s last minute. At the same time, it’s quite easy to buy tickets for any journeys that don’t cross borders.
  • The best choice for exchange students here is to stay in the guesthouse, but I have talked to many people who don’t live in the guesthouse who are still able to participate in student life because of ISN activities.
  • Get on the MyBuddy program, which introduces you to established students and organises social events
  • Buy a bike. It’s by far the most malleable mode of transport. There is an oystercard-like system for buses, known as the ov chipkaart, which I have used as a backup sometimes if it’s too rainy to ride. You could use this card for intercity travel as well, if you don’t leave the Netherlands.
  • Lots of people set up a bank account with ING, which is super easy because Maastricht has a partnership with the bank. But I’ve managed to survive so far just using my international debit card from home, which doesn’t charge any fees for transactions or currency conversions.

Thanks for reading!