Maastricht exchange survival tips

Moving to a new city is always a daunting prospect and even more so if it is in another country. If you are an exchange student who has recently heard that your new home for the next couple of months is going to be Maastricht, fear not. Maastricht is an excellent location to be based if you are planning to be travel in your time abroad. Drielandenpunt, a location where Netherlands, Germany and Belgium meet, is located a mere 30 km from Maastricht. The University of Maastricht is located in one of the oldest towns in the Netherlands, but its teaching philosophy could not be more different to that description. My opinion is based on the School of Business and Economics (SBE), but I have heard that the other faculties are very similar. Problem Based Learning (PBL) is a teaching philosophy that enables (forces) students to be actively involved in all the teaching that takes place. Depending on your course, you will mostly be required do a combination of some of the following: facilitate a discussion in a tutorial, present a project or report, prepare literature for a class or tutorial, and take part in various group projects. These techniques differ vastly from the traditional way of learning where you sit in a lecture trying to memorise as much as possible to repeat it like a parrot in an exam. The PBL approach is truly a refreshing change and if you are lucky enough to be placed at Maastricht, you are in for a great ride! However, there are always things that can help you to make any journey more pleasant. Below is a very incomplete list of tips which could help make the transition a little bit easier.

VISA:

If you have received a visa that is shorter than your intended stay, do not fear. Once you have arrived in Maastricht you will be issued a residence card. This means that you will be a resident of Maastricht for the time of your studies. This is really convenient as it allows you to travel through all of the European Union countries by just using the residence card (no passport required).

SHOPS:

Depending on your nationality, you might be familiar with some of the shops in the Netherlands, but as a South African I had no idea which shops were good for adults and which shops were good for students. The old quality versus price debate…and I’m yet to meet a student who thinks that price is not the winner. Aldi is a shop which is located about 500m from the UM Guesthouse and as far as I know it is the cheapest. Don’t expect 10 different brands of each product, but it is very good for all your basic needs if you’re not too fussy. I would definitely recommend that your first big shopping outing should start at Aldi. Brusselsepoort is a type of shopping mall which is also about 700m from the UM Guesthouse, but in the other direction. Most of the things that I couldn’t find at Aldi I was able to find at Jumbo, A regular supermarket. I think Albert Heijn (AH) is probably the most expensive supermarket that I have seen, but they have a wide variety for brand conscious/loyal shoppers. There is also an AH “Bonuskaart” (discount card) which really does save you quite a bit of money if you target the products on special (marked with an orange label) – just ask for it at reception. AH also has a 1kg packs of pasta for 80c and pasta sauce for about €1 for when you have spent your food money on social events. If, by some miracle, there is some money to have a nice meal at a restaurant I would recommend popping into Kiwi – a restaurant close to the inner city library with really good prices (and beer on tap of course).

TRANSPORT:

The Netherlands is known for having an extraordinary number of bikes and you only have to walk out of the Maastricht train station to see that it is not a myth. One struggles to fine a lamp post in Maastricht that hasn’t got a bike chained to it…well maybe it’s not that bad, but you get the picture. If you don’t know how to ride a bike, you are quite lucky. Lucky because you know what you need to do in the days counting down to your exchange: learn to ride a bike! Although I have friends who don’t own bikes (some never bought bikes and others didn’t have strong enough locks), I can’t imagine having to walk to the Maas River in the Maastricht winter, but maybe that’s just me. If you are interested in a bike or if you need to get something fixed, James is an English guy who fixes and sells bikes on the side and is really helpful and quite cheap compared to some other bike shops. He repairs bikes in a small warehouse and can be reached on maasbike@outlook.com . I really would recommend him if you’re looking for a bike. Oh yes, and always stay on the right hand size of the road. If there is only a bike lane on the left it most likely means that it is a one-way street and that you should ride in the big lane (the bike lane on the left is for oncoming bikes).

TRAVELLING:

The European transport system really is as great as everyone says. Every city has got some combination of trains, busses and trams. This makes travelling a dream as you always know that you won’t have to walk further than the nearest bus stop to get somewhere (anywhere). However, getting back to my statement that students often want to make use of the cheapest option possible, I recommend that you look for lifts on BlaBlaCar.com (there is also an app) when travelling to other cities or countries. BlaBlaCar is a ridesharing platform that is extremely easy to use and has saved me up to 70% on travelling costs on some of my travels.

When looking for accommodation I also recommend the use of Airbnb.com. Airbnb is a platform where people rent out rooms in their houses or sometimes even whole apartments for as much as 50% less than some hostels and next to nothing compared to hotels.

CHURCH:

If you are looking for an international church in Maastricht, you needn’t look any further than Damascus Road International Church. They have services on Sundays from 11h00-13h00 at the StayOkay hostel next to the Maas River. There is also a student get-together on Wednesday nights called DR:UM (Damascus Road: University Maastricht). They also have connect groups during the week where people come together and share a meal while talking about God. I have to admit that Damascus Road has been one of the highlights of Maastricht for me and has helped me to meet a lot of people and to feel more at home.

SOME ESSENTIALS:

  • Gloves for when you ride your bike (November – February).
  • A backpack for when you go shopping.
  • Earphones for when you’re travelling or studying in the library.
  • A waterproof jacket.
  • Spices for when you’re cooking and missing home.
  • “Point it Traveller’s language book” – (Google it).
  • Döner kebabs when travelling – the best value for money meals that I’ve encountered.

The tips above are all from my personal experiences and I’m sure that there is a lot missing, but they should simplify your first couple of weeks in this old, yet great city of Maastricht!

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Why Europeans need to exchange to (South) Africa

I am writing this piece while sitting behind my desk in shorts and a T-shirt while it is raining outside with a cold breeze accompanying it. The difference between the conditions outside and inside makes it seem like two different seasons. However, this is accepted as the norm in (Western) Europe and it made me realise that Europe and South Africa, my home, are two very different places. In the next couple of paragraphs I will give my opinion on why South Africa should be on every European’s to-do list – albeit a somewhat biased opinion.

The first reason is to appreciate the things that make Europe a first world country. A very popular term in South Africa is “Africa time”. In South Africa the trains aren’t nearly as clean, well maintained or on time as in most European countries. Please note that a train is only classified as being late if it is more than 20-30 minutes late…not two minutes like in Europe. Heck, if a train is only two minutes late in South Africa that also counts as it being early.

Although the South African government tries its best, the service delivery is not even comparable to that which is found in Europe. I recently got told that the German railway service was planning a strike of 100 hours, which was later reduced to 50 hours and then to 25 hours. Although I have not read the facts, apparently plans were also put in place to reduce the effect of the strike so that the rest of Germany could function without too much of a disturbance. In sharp contrast to this, unplanned strikes are very common in South Africa and a permanent hindrance to quality foreign investment. In the past two years there have been massive strikes in the mining and agricultural industries and at the time of writing this piece the four month long post office strike is said to be in the final stages of getting resolved.

I realise that I sound very pessimistic about the rainbow nation at the southern tip of Africa, but I would just like to point out that there are things in Europe which people take for granted and sometimes one can only notice it when spending time abroad (and no, travelling to a neighbouring country in Europe does not count). I have come to this conclusion as my short three months in Netherlands so far have made me realise things that we take for granted in South Africa.

The definition of space in Europe and space in South Africa is not the same. Not by a long way. If you look at an average middle class house in Netherlands and you compare it to an average middle class house in South Africa there are some interesting differences. Very few houses in NL have got parking garages or even parking whereas in South Africa it is almost a given to have two or at least one. It is rather uncommon for a house in Netherlands to be smaller than its plot size as it is normally a two or three story house covering about 80-100% of the plot. Houses in SA have either got one story or perhaps two stories, but most of the time there is space for a dog outside with a swimming pool and perhaps even some space to play a game of French-cricket on a warm day. There is no need to take your kids to parks to get some physical exercise as they can get rid of their extra energy playing outside the house. And if you need a cup of sugar it is more than a 10 meter walk to your neighbour’s door.

While in Europe I have also learned to appreciate and admire the optimism in my country. There are people who have to walk 30 minutes to get to the nearest train, bus or taxi to get to work, but yet they see it as an opportunity to improve their lives and to take care of their families. Children who do not own anything else than the clothes they are wearing are able to spend a whole day laughing and playing with their friends in the streets. I miss standing in queues as supermarkets and hearing people engaging in small talk.

Out of everything, I would have to say that I miss the landscape and the variety of places the most. Some of the most beautiful beaches, mountains, vineyards, deserts and bushveld (go google it) can all be found in South Africa. Of course you cannot forget the game lodges and the wild animals. All of this coupled with the rising sun makes me wonder if all the powerful nations in the world could choose a country again whether they would not have a second look at Africa before they picked one.

Some might argue that I have not addressed the crime that is so often parasitized on by the South African media, but I’d like to think that our exchange rate and great food could have been used to counter that argument.

Next time you think about what country to visit next, please make sure that South Africa is on your top three list.

So close, yet so foreign…

After about five weeks of experiencing the Problem Based Learning system in Maastricht, I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to travel a little bit. A few classes had to be missed, but in the end I was able to free up about 12 days to explore Belgium and France.

My girlfriend (Tania) arrived on Sunday the 28th of September and we spent the first two days in Maastricht as I had to attend one last class on the Monday night before we could leave. We had booked accommodation at all of the destinations, but decided to figure out the transportation arrangements as needed. We visited the train station in Maastricht and asked the lady behind the counter what the cheapest way was to get to Ghent (Belgium). I appreciated her sense of humour as she casually replied: “Walking”. The cheapest train ticket turned out to be €21 pp. She advised us to book online as it could be cheaper. We ended up buying tickets to Vise (the first Belgian city across the border) for €3.40 and tickets to Ghent from Vise for €6. Amazing what a bit of googling can accomplish…

We spent the Tuesday afternoon and evening in Ghent, soaking up the culture and all of the beer we could get our lips on (and afford). Before my departure for Europe, my mother told me that she had visited Bruges when she was younger and that it was a must-see. We decided to leave for Bruges early on the Wednesday and I have to admit that it didn’t disappoint. Tania and I spent some time at a market in the city centre before taking a tour of Bruges on a boat in the canals (definitely one of my top three experiences of the trip). Having spent quite a bit of money earlier the day buying a Go Pass 10 ticket (10 train rides between any two cities in Belgium for €51), we decided to get a typical student lunch at a super market – chips on bread. Being in Belgium, we decided to get a beer to go with our bread and chips and this is where we met Jupiler who became an instant friend of ours. Jupiler is by no way the best beer in the world, but going at a rate of €1.40 for a 75cl (750ml) bottle we certainly weren’t going to complain. We visited a couple of Beer houses and headed back to Ghent. The next day was spent in Antwerp, which was very modern in comparison to Bruges and with massive screens against the buildings in the main street, it seemed more like New York than a city in Belgium.

On Friday morning we packed our backpacks and headed to Dampoort station where we caught a Eurolines bus to Paris. The trip was about three and a half hours long. We were actually headed towards Tours (a town in France) so upon our arrival in Paris we took the underground (I don’t understand why every city in the world doesn’t have this) to a certain station where we would meet our lift to Tours. We found a lift using BlaBlaCar – an app (and website) that puts you in touch with people driving between a ‘From’ city and a ‘To’ city. Using BlaBlaCar to Tours and back actually saved Tania and me about €200 in total when compared to the TGV. We lived in a very cute little house next to the La Loire River. Tania and I decided to go for dinner at a spot suggested to us by our host. We saw pizzeria and decided that it would be a safe bet and we sat down. The menus handed to us were in French and we asked for English menus. They looked at us with a certain disbelief and said (gestured) that there weren’t any. We could figure out that one of the items on the menu was a plate with an assortment of cheeses and we decided to go for that and a pizza. The cheese platter arrived and it was accompanied by a basket of bread. We asked for butter and got one of the most confused looks I have ever received. After using hand gestures and different pronunciations for about 2 minutes we gave up. Biting on the dry piece of bread made me realise something that lead to the title of this blog post.

In South Africa (and the rest of Africa I would presume), Europe is synonymous with western civilisation. Since Great Britain forms part of the European continent, the general feeling is that English comes from Europe. Although I am very aware of languages like French, German, Spanish, etc., I thought that those languages are similar to Xhosa and Afrikaans in South Africa. In South Africa, we have 11 official languages which all come from different tribes that make up the so called “Rainbow Nation”. However, the majority of South Africans can have a conversation in English (albeit a bit broken at times). Coming to Europe, I expected the same. I thought that conversations between different nationalities would take place in English and that local conversations would take place in the official language of that country. I soon came to realise that almost all countries in Europe have got their own language. Netherlands has got Dutch, Germany has got German, France has got French, Italy has got Italian, Spain has got Spanish, and the list continues. Every single country in Europe, irrespective of how small, has got its own identity and pride. If you take they train for one day, you could probably experience 5 different countries with 5 different cultures. Sure, some of the infrastructure might be similar, but the diet and the culture of all of those 5 countries would be extremely different and unique. This also explains why most of the European students that I have met are so well travelled. Every time they cross a boarder, it’s as if they experience a new continent. I’m getting side tracked…

After our dining experience with a pinch of Pictionary, Tania and I decided to download the offline French language package which turned out to be one of the most helpful things on the planet. The next day we took the train to Chinon – a MUST if you are ever in that part of the France. The landscape is breath-taking and we visited an old castle which was more fun than you would expect. Our last day in Tours was spent bicycling to Villandry on bikes that we rented. It was definitely a highlight of the trip (the second experience to make it into my top three). They trip was about 40 km in total (20 there and 20 back) and the path was next to a beautiful river the whole way. That evening we left for Paris (using BlaBlaCar again) and arrived just after 20h00.

The first day in Paris was referred to as our recon mission. There are many things to see in Paris and many ways to get to them so we needed to plan our next two days. We visited the Eiffel tower for some pictures and to find out how to get tickets. We also looked at various options to decide what the best way would be to see all the sites the next day. We went to bed with a clear strategy for the next day: Get BatoBus tickets (the hop on hop off boats on the river) and then just follow their route. Everything went according to plan for the first 3 hours, but then I realised that I had made the biggest mistake a tourist could make – I didn’t charge my camera’s battery…and what made it worse is that we had just put our lock on the Love Lock Bridge and we took about 5 pictures when the battery died. We rushed back to the house to charge it for about half an hour and to grab a bite. Unfortunately this meant that there wouldn’t be enough time to go to the Eiffel tower so we decided to postpone that to our last day. Luckily we could still see the Louvre and the highlight of the day (and maybe even the trip) was the Arc de Triomphe. By the way, you can visit the Arc de Triomphe for free if you show your Dutch residence permit. We got there just after sunset and the view was breathtaking!

The next day we decided to see what Notre Dame looks like from the inside and decided to go have a look at Moulin Rouge (not that impressive). We finally got to visit the Eiffel tower – which was way higher than I ever expected! On our way back we went for a drink in Belleville and prepared for our journey to Brussels – the last stop.

We enjoyed the time in Brussels, although it was a bit overshadowed by the fact that it was to be the last two days that Tania and I were together before the last stretch of 11 weeks. We went to the market place (VERY beautiful) and spent quite some time at “The Big Game” – a pub with a ‘happy hour’ from 11h00-24h00. The last hiccup was getting to the airport and not being able to find the right bus stop (did I forget to mention that Brussels is also French). As we sat on the bus Tania and I reflected on our trip and it was undeniably an unforgettable experience and definitely worth missing a couple of classes for.

Getting to Maastricht is harder than it looks on the pamphlet

“That’s soooooo exciting!!” is probably the most common response you get when you tell someone that you are going on exchange to Europe. You can’t blame them though, what’s not to like… The European Union makes it very easy to travel and you can experience a wide variety of cultures and traditions if you just take a train for two or three hours in any direction. You see, the problem isn’t enjoying yourself while you are here, it is everything that happens between the acceptance letter (for exchange) and sleeping in the UM Guesthouse bed the first night.

Contrary to popular belief, South Africa is very technologically advanced compared to the rest of Africa. We have internet, Wi-Fi, Facebook and surprisingly the Southern African Large Telescope (SALT). SALT is the largest single optical telescope in the southern hemisphere and among the largest in the world. So you see, receiving the acceptance letter also wasn’t the problem (no pigeons or smoke signals as people sometimes expect). It is all of the arrangements. I am an Engineering Master’s student and thus my admin skills are minimal to say the least.

The first thing that challenged my lack of admin skills was all of the paperwork that needed to be completed to get my Visa. Just about every official document that I own was scanned in and sent to the Maastricht Visa office. Without the Visa office I would have been writing this blog from South Africa… They are very helpful and sort out almost any problems as long as you provide them with the correct documentation. I just wish that they didn’t send so many documents back…or maybe even just shorter documents. Naturally, I saved all the documents that they sent me, but figured I would give them a read at a more convenient time. That was my first mistake.

After being notified that my passport/visa was ready for collection on the Thursday before my departure the following Monday, I arranged for a courier to pick it up and drop it off at our research group’s offices. Very excited to finally have this piece of crucial documentation in my hands, I opened it to look at the photo (as everyone does). It wasn’t my best photo, but the thing that really caught my eye was the date that it was valid for. 11 August 2014 – 9 November 2014…my plane ticket back to South Africa is on 23 December 2014. I freaked out and emailed every person in my inbox who matched any of the searches: “Dutch”, “Maastricht”, “Visa” or “Exchange”. About 7 people in total. The next morning I received a very concise email (or is there a better word to describe an irritated email) reading: “Dear Mauritz, Our pre-arrival information clearly states that ‘The visa is a sticker that will be attached to your passport. From this day on you have 3 months to travel to the Netherlands and collect your residence permit card.’ Kind regards.” First lesson learnt: Read documentation marked as important.

The flights from Cape Town to Dubai and then Dubai to Amsterdam were fine (although I had a 13 hour layover). Dubai seems like a nice place except for the fact that it was 38 degrees centigrade when we landed at 01h00 in the morning. I arrived in Amsterdam at 20h15 and waited just over an hour for my bags which meant that I was on a tight schedule to get to Maastricht and catch the last bus to the guesthouse at 00h15. It took me about 20 minutes to get a train ticket, only to see that the next train from Schiphol to Maastricht would only leave Schiphol at 22h35 to get me to Maastricht at 01h05. I had to take a train to Utrecht station and then get onto another train to Maastricht from there. As I walked down to the station, I saw a train about to leave for Utrecht (22h00) and figured that this might reduce my travel time. I asked one or two locals, but they couldn’t really tell me what to do and I decided to take a chance. I was feeling quite chuffed with myself for taking fate into my own hands until the conductor looked at my ticket and gave me a look which reminded me of the feeling I got when I got the irritated email from the visa office. I got off at the next station to wait for the “Sprinter”, I was on the “Intercity(IC)” previously. The IC trains go to more cities and the Sprinter trains go to fewer cities, but get you there faster.

I met two nice Dutch students on the train which made the two hours seem a bit shorter. They got off before me so it was just me and another girl on the train from there. I finally got to Maastricht station at 01h05 (it’s amazing how accurate/dependable these trains are). With no busses in sight I walked over to a hotel and the guy at the reception showed me to a taxi. 13€ (and 2.4km) later, I was dropped at Saint Annalaan. The path to reception would have been very difficult to find, but luckily three half-sober American exchange students were returning from a night out in town and were able to help me. After 35 hours of travel I was finally in Maastricht and ready for the “That’s soooooo exciting!!” part to begin.