Review of the Exchange

One week to go! That’s all! Although I’ll be spending about a month before I go home. It’s the end of the official semester with a final exam on 4th June for me.

I’m going to use this blog to compare my expectations with the reality of my exchange program and throw in some random pictures that I’ll look back fondly upon

 

When I signed up for it, all my peers who had been on an exchange themselves told me “expect a great time during the six months and you will have a hard time coming back.” CHECK. Although I am not going back home for another month, the sadness that I will be leaving Maastricht is starting to sink in. Knowing that I am a month away from home is a tiny bit depressing. Maastricht has very much become home. And it happened before I knew it. The city has a great aura around it making students comfortable and welcomed. And this should be expected from a city where a fifth of its population are students.

Opera Garnier

In my visit to Paris I decided to tour a 17th Century Opera House. If you’re remotely a theatre fan, then the Opera Garnier in Paris will knock you dead with it’s crazy architecture and gold gilded grand foyers. It is absolutely astonishing.

 

“Exchange can be difficult while you settle in.” Not so much really. I did expect it to be hard in the beginning. A new place with a new language and a new culture. But it just wasn’t. The excitement of living in a new place was much greater than its fear. And I think that helped me a lot. So, if settling in a new place is something that you fear, in my experience it’s not all that bad. It’s one of those things that sound harder than they actually are. Special thanks to the guesthouse in this case, since you’re grouped in with people having similar problems and worries, it becomes easy to work around it. I would highly recommend staying in the guesthouse therefore.

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Versailles

Known for being the Royal Palace of the past Kings of France and its luxuries, it’s a little town that’s also very peaceful once you get away from the crowds that usually stick to the palace. Walk about a bit and get to know the rest of city.

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“The Dutch are crazy with their bikes.” Amazingly, bikes are respected as much as cars in the Netherlands. Not so much in the rest of Europe though. Having a sturdy bike is all you need to get around the city- for all the obvious reasons like health, parking worries and such, but also for the simplicity and joy that it brings. Having been driving for two years every day to and from university, these six months brought a great change of pace.

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Maastricht

It took a tour of Spain & Portugal to remind me how beautiful the city of Maastricht is. It’s not something you can glance by. It is actually one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. And two months into it I had forgotten that, but when I came back from a trip to Spain & Portugal, I was astonished. This might be one of the most beautiful cities I ever see.

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It has been a great experience to come so far away from home and live in the little town of Maastricht. And it’s bound to be one of the experiences that won’t be forgetting!

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Nomadic Travels

Maastricht has tons of things that appeal to students all across the world. I was really interested in Problem Based Learning system for one. Those from big cities come for the experience of living in a smaller and a calmer place. It’s a great change. But this blog is all about the opportunity it provides to travel across the continent. Living in the center of Europe has great advantages – travel is cheap and quick.

 

Once done with Period 4 here at Maastricht, I and a couple of friends planned a trip to the far west of Europe- Portugal & Spain. This is my first time in Europe so I was all up for it, not knowing what to expect from this trip. And I’m happy to report it was absolutely thrilling. The culture, the food, the sights and the experiences were absolutely fantastic!

 

My trip started on a Friday night when I had to get to Brussels Charleroi Airport and catch a 6AM flight to the first destination- the city of Porto. But first, let me get the one and only bump on the journey out of the way. Don’t let the name of the airport fool you- the airport is as far away from Brussels as it could possibly be. A 6AM flight meant I had to leave the previous night and spend a good part of the night loitering around a deserted town…in the cold. So by the time I made to the flight, I was really exhausted but had a great book to keep me company (thanks Anton). Obviously, I slept like a baby on the entire flight. After touchdown, I was eager to get to my hostel and just lie down on a comfortable bed. But that plan changed as soon as I climbed up the stairs from the subway station and found myself in beauty and hustle of Porto’s city center.

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In a tenth of a second, my tired mind received a jolt of energy and all of sudden I seemed to have forgotten about the long tiresome journey of an entire night. All I wanted to do was walk the streets and take the sights in. I don’t know what it was. It didn’t have the tallest buildings or the richest neighborhoods- quite the opposite actually. But it was still beautiful in some way that I still can’t describe. And after a long debate with myself – I must declare that Porto is the most beautiful city I have been to.

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And the hilliest city I have been to. I don’t know how the residents in Porto do it. But every street is either an uphill challenge or a downhill tumble. But every street is beautiful nonetheless. And Alive! Maybe that’s why it’s had such an impact on me. Interestingly, the city is branded a UNESCO World Heritage site- and for good reason. I spent a day and a half in the city and it was adequate. The city isn’t too big and by sunset on the first day I had already walked in a circle around it.

 

Next stop- Lisbon! Only a 3-hour bus ride away is the capital. A train would be quicker but as students we operate on a tight budget. The opposite of small is Lisbon. I believe if we had spent an entire week here, we would still find new things to enjoy every day. But we only stayed here for half that time. Lisbon is huge (but thankfully not as hilly) and filled with loads of things to do. It’s loaded with cafes, culture and what I imagine is a shopper’s paradise. Our first day started with a bit of rainfall but quickly became sunny by mid-day. We had a formula for every city we went to which was that we begin with a free walking tour to get to know the city before exploring on our own. The way these tours work is that you start the tour without any upfront fee and tip the guide at the end of the tour. I assume the minimum must be 7 to 10 euros depending on the city.

 

 

Lisbon is full of landmarks and beautiful castles and churches. But hidden away at about an hour’s worth of train journey is the town of Sintra. Visiting this place is an absolute must for everyone and you simply cannot leave without it. It’s a little town in a mountainous region thats got castles and palaces everywhere. They look astonishing and I imagine only the very fortunate must be living there. We spent over an hour climbing the mountains and then what seemed like an eternity when climbing down in the dark after sunset, scared for our lives. All in all, Sintra is a gem far away from the liveliness in Lisbon.

Third Stop- Seville. Instead of a taking a bus between cities, this time we had a break from it and booked a car that would takes us 5 hours away to the city of Seville in Spain. Again, an absolute beauty of a city. Seville is the kind of place that I think is ideal to live in. It’s not busy and crowded like Lisbon, but it’s also not too small like Porto. It’s a great balance with its own culture, cuisines and appeal. The weather was grim, rainy and cold for the most part but that meant that we could enjoy the cafes and ice cream parlors instead. It’s the only city that we didn’t do a walking tour in. And that’s because we witnessed a little storm drag outdoor tables and chairs down a street as we were lucky enough to have been eating in a café at the time. Here, we split and left a friend behind in Seville as we headed to the next stop (Missed you Kata :c ).

 

 

Final Stop- Madrid! An anguishing 6-hour bus ride from Seville. I thought Lisbon was huge, but that was before I got to Madrid. Just like any other metropolitan city- but different. It had the obvious hustle of a big city but this time with beautifully maintained heritage throughout its historical city center. The buildings, streets and their architecture kept my eyes glued to them. Apparently, small studio apartments in the center sell for millions of euros and all they have is the appeal of being right in the center of the historical district of the city. The city was sprawling especially in the shopping district. The King’s palace and the Cathedral were built with some great craftsmanship. I also had the pleasure of visiting the Real Madrid FC’s stadium which is any football fan’s dream.

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And after 10 great days of travelling like a nomad it was finally time to go home.  We took a flight from Madrid to Eindhoven and then a train to Maastricht.  Strangely enough, on the walk from the train station to home, I couldn’t help but notice how beautiful Maastricht is even compared to all those cities. It really made me appreciate this city. A random stranger asked us if we were still friends after all the traveling together.  I’d like to think we are 🙂 I’ll have only one more blog after this. And I hope to write about some more great experiences then!

Exploring the new world

Two months in and Maastricht still keeps exciting!

There’s something amazing about moving to a new place. It brings a different kind of excitement into your life. Exploring new places, being surprised by what you find, keeping on your toes, away from a routine for too long is a great feeling. I’ll use up most of this post to talk about two of my trips this month. The first being Rotterdam up North in the Netherlands and the second – Liège in Belgium.

Early on in the month, the ISN organized a trip for us exchange student around the northern parts of The Netherlands. The trip was to 3-4 places and for a price that was real value for money. The tickets, as they do, sold out before I could get a chance to buy them. So, a bunch us friends from the M-Building made our own plan and followed them to the city of Rotterdam. We couldn’t follow them on the other parts of the tour because it wasn’t economically viable. One of the benefits of going with an organized tour is that the trip turns out to be great value for money.

Rotterdam

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Since we travelled in a large group, we took advantage of the group tickets offered by the railways. It’s astonishingly cheaper than buying single tickets which cost 25 Euros from Maastricht to Rotterdam. In comparison, the group tickets cost about 6 euros per person. It’s insane! The train was about two and a half hours with great views to look out for.

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The city of Rotterdam is the exact opposite of Maastricht. Instead of small buildings clubbed closely together leaving narrow streets, Rotterdam is made up of skyscrapers and wide streets. The buildings and their architecture is really great with almost every building having it’s own unique design – and in a lot of aspects it reminded me of a mini Chicago. My understanding is that most of the city demolished in the second world war and that’s why it’s architecture is a lot more modern than other metropolitan cities in The Netherlands

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In other aspects, it was a typical Dutch city with friendly people and cyclist all over and an early to bed lifestyle (except for bars & clubs). Finding open shops late in the evening in this sprawling city was as hard as it is in a small town like Maastricht. There are only very few. This is something that surprises me but I come from a completely different country in terms of culture.

I have to recommend visiting the market in the city. It’s got loads of stalls that sell -as close as you can get to-authentic food from all over the world. It’s been forever since I’ve seen a manakish (typical Middle-Eastern food). Apart from this it’s got a lot of attractions to look at and move on like the cube houses and Erasmus viewpoint.

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What may be surprising to those outside the EU are the hostels. Think of it as shared hotel rooms. They can be of mixed gender or only female. I believe most accommodate 4 to 8 people but the one we stayed at in Rotterdam was a 40-bed hostel. All I can say is that it’s an experience 🙂 It’s the norm and it works. Hostels are super cheap compared to hotels and are great value for money too.

 

Liege

Liege was a trip I planned in my second week of arriving to Maastricht. I’m glad to have finally made it. I cycled with a friend to and fro adding up to 70kms and I would recommend the same. The sights are great to cycle through and you save money that you could spend on a trip further away from home. The highlights were the stairs of Mount Bueren and its city center. It’s a city that’s halfway between a small town like Maastricht and a big metropolitan city.
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A World Poles Apart

As a kid, I’ve grown up watching movies depicting Europe with beautiful cobblestone streets and remarkable architecture. A place that’s so rich in history – which I’ve only read about in textbooks. So, when I had the chance to apply for an exchange program, Maastricht seemed like the right choice for me. Coming here as an Indian National who’s been brought up in Dubai, I knew this place would be an entirely different world from what I’m used to. And that’s exactly what I got. From the moment I landed in Amsterdam, I felt like I was thrown into one of those movies. Everything was just surreal.

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I took 12-hour flight from Mumbai in India to Amsterdam, followed by a 3-hour train journey to Maastricht. After a tiring flight, I easily found my way to the Schiphol train station which is connected with the airport itself. Pretty Cool! I used Google maps to plan my way to Maastricht. It’s super useful that the airport, the train and most places in this country have free Wi-Fi. Back home I was told that the Dutch are known to be cold and upfront or rude. I can gladly say this is simply not true. As I got onto the train in at Schipol and found my way to a seat, a woman (probably on her way back from work) sitting opposite me began a conversation with me. She was very sweet and seemed really interested in where I was heading with my massive 35KG suitcase (my mom sent a rice cooker with me). It’s been just under 4 weeks that I’ve arrived here in the Netherlands and can without any hesitation vouch for the Dutch being really friendly and some of the sweetest people I have ever met.

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I reached my accommodation by evening. I had booked a single room in the M-building, governed by SSH, and although I was concerned about it in the beginning, I’m really glad to have ended up here. The popular options for housing here are the M-building and the C-building, both of which are filled with exchange students. So, everyone here is on the same boat, which I think is great. You have the same problems as your friends and you somehow bond while solving them. I’ve met some amazing friends in this building and am really grateful for that.

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The SSH even sponsors a 25 EURO dinner to be organized by each hall so you get to know your hall-mates. We used this opportunity to get to know each other and have a great dinner and even discussed common issues like cleaning schedules. I’m looking forward to spending the next 5 months with these wonderful people (shout out to my hall-mates).

We ordered a Domino’s pizza and forgot to take the receipt as proof but the SSH still agreed to reimburse us. That’s definitely worth mentioning as a testimony of how friendly the staff is.

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I’ll write briefly about academics because I believe it’s subjective and depends on the kind of student you are. I’ve taken 2 economic courses for period 4 and a skill course (1 US Credit course) that’s about managing diversity across cultures. The courses here follow a PBL system where students are expected study the material beforehand and discuss it during tutorials. Taking 2 courses here is the equivalent of taking 5 courses back home. To make efficient use of the classes you have to be prepared with the material and actively participate in class. And if it may sound scary, it’s not a bad thing. Unlike most universities, UM has a maximum of 15 student per class, turning class discussions into regular conversations. Of course, you’re not left alone with your fellow students. The tutor always makes sure you don’t go off track is always there to solve any doubts. The result is a really interactive 2-hour session where you can ask questions and discuss possibilities that you otherwise couldn’t in a lecture based system.

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What’s the best part about my exchange program? It’s definitely the city of Maastricht. It’s simply breathtaking and gorgeous. Coming from the Middle East, I’ve seen nothing like it. Bikes are the obvious mode of transport here. It’s a great change from driving every day for 30 minutes in traffic. Bikes are cheap and simple to use. I even biked to a bordering town in Belgium last week which is only 15 minutes away.

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Maastricht is right in the center of Europe making it possible to visit most of the EU on weekends. For next week, I’m planning a biking trip to the city of Liege in Belgium (35Kms from my accommodation) and another trip to Brussels the following week.

The city is filled with loads to do and lots of places to visits, from museums and historic forts to lively streets with bars and cafes. It’s really designed for a typical student life.

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It’s barely been a month but I feel like I’ve really settled in and am looking forward to writing about newer experiences next month!