Bidding Adieu

Ten months ago, when I selected Maastricht University in my exchange application, I could scarcely have imagined how the journey would turn out. I had expected Maastricht would be just another modern town, with a stale old university campus, students running around like in any other institute of learning, boring lectures and endless assignments.

I did not for one second know of the beauty of this little town. How the sun would sparkle on the Maas at dusk and dawn and transform the area into a scene straight out of Eden. How even the humblest of university buildings or train stations would have stunning, kaleidoscopic stained-glass windows that would leave an unprepared visitor awestruck.

I did not know that here, students and mentors stood together almost as equals, each guiding the other to be better, do better. Where the act of learning was not a transfer from one party to another, but a self-powering cycle

I was unaware of how neither lectures nor assignments would be boring, but (for the most part), challenging and stimulating and would force me to broaden my perspectives. I had no idea that I’d be sitting in a room of 15 people from 12 different countries, each with a perspectives so completely unlike any that I could have conceived of.

I did not know that we, a gaggle of guests spending barely a semester with you, would be greeted with such warmth. That parties would be held in our honor, that we’d be folded into the daily life of the University as family, and that we’d be given gifts on your festivals.

But my stay here has been a reminder of how surprises are not always unpleasant, lectures not always boring, cities not always loud and crowded, universities not always grey and daunting.

Thank you for the welcome and the hospitality, Maastricht. It is with regret that I must bid you adieu, and it is with certainty that I say I will be back, for your stroopwaffels and your beer if nothing else 🙂

There is a quote on farewells in my language, that I leave here with its translation-:

“Alvida nahi kehte, kehte hain phir milenge.”

For we do not say goodbye, we say rather that we will meet again.

 

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The Travelbug

An important part of exchange is, of course, travelling. If you’re in Maastricht, you’re luckily in a very central location – cities like Brussels, Paris, Frankfurt, Cologne, Stuttgart, and of course Amsterdam are all within half a day’s train journey at best. Berlin, Zurich, Munich, and Hamburg are just a few hours more.
Exchange classes in Maastricht are pretty forgiving to travel plans. Since you can only take up to two classes per academic period as an exchange student, if you’re smart about it it leaves you with 5 days of the week free (relatively speaking) to travel. If you’re creative (aka crazy) you can take overnight trains to maximize your travel time.
From the perspective of an Indian who’s out of his country for the first time, I would sincerely recommend the following places that are both wonderful, and close to Maastricht-:
Brussels: the capital of Belgium, and the capital of the EU. Take a train from Maastricht to Liege-Guillemins, and on to Brussels in just a matter of about 3 hours. If you love beer, chocolates, waffles, then Brussels is a must visit. If you have the time, go on to the city of Brugges, another 40 mins by train, to see one of the most beautiful cities in Belgium.
Frankfurt: German architecture, wurst, the iron bridge, the cathedral. Frankfurt is a beautiful sample of Germany’s balance between modernity and natural beauty. Not quite 4 hours from Maastricht.
Cologne: Cologne’s cathedral is famous across Europe, and it’s close enough that you can do a quick day trip and hop on back.
Paris: makes for a nice weekend getaway if you’ve had a rough week, just make sure you book the Thalys in advance.
Amsterdam: no comments needed, I’m sure 😉

Make sure you maximize your exchange experience by travelling as much as your calendar, and of course your budget, allows.

The Maastricht University experience

In my last blog, I promised to dedicate my next post to the university experience, and here it follows. In one way, Maastricht University is unlike any other educational institution I have seen: there is no real, central campus. The university is spread out throughout the city, in little pockets of varying sizes. The pockets range from the School of Business and Economics on Tongersestraat to a small building next to a canal and a deer reserve, to (what I think is) the music building perched on a bridge over another little canal. Traversing what is essentially a university town, one cannot help but be aware of the sense of vitality in the place. As I mentioned in my previous post, the Dutch are generally a happy bunch of people. Throw in a few thousand students milling around the city, and Maastricht becomes the place to be, whether morning, evening or night.
The University follows the PBL or Problem Based Learning method. Essentially, each class is divided into small groups of about 15 people that are presided over by a mentor. There is a pre-discussion for each topic, where the students set their learning goals, and then the post-discussion, in which we come prepared after going over the prescribed readings. The system does great credit to the fundamentals of agenda setting, time management, independent thought, and rational discussion. The mentor simply guides the discussion and course corrects on occasion, leaving the lion’s share of talking to the students. While I am familiar with a similar system from my home university, the PBL system is more intimate and allows for deeper discussions. Some of my best learnings here so far have been not from the readings themselves, but from the perspectives that my classmates bring.
On the topic of classmates, Maastricht University is one of the most internationalized places I have seen. My own class has German, Swedish, Dutch, Peruvian, Spanish, and Australian students. Naturally, the varied backgrounds and cultural perspectives they bring to the discussion are thought provoking to say the least. This diverse mix is, in the words of their Rector, one of the greatest aspects of the university, and truly, for an international student it is a wonderful experience to meet people from all over the world and discuss topics of common interest with them.
To any exchange student, the experience of Maastricht University is the perfect combination of stimulating and peaceful: start with walking the cobblestone streets of Vrithof Square in the morning to college. Enter one of the university buildings with their stained glass painted windows, airy halls, and little garden squares. Attend a PBL session with people from across the globe, and let the ideas flow. After class, go to one of the squares with their outdoor seating cafes, or the street market and its food stalls. Visit one of the numerous pubs in the city, and chill with the other students. At night, walk along the banks of the Maas and enjoy the view, before shutting your door to the sounds of laughter in the city.

Maastricht – First Impressions

As a child, I was always fond of going on long drives. My parents were both happy to oblige, especially my father, who loved driving. One of my favourite memories from the dim recesses of childhood is of my father parking the car near the runway of the IGI Airport in Delhi, right under the route of international flights taking off and landing. I remember the thunderous roar of the engines, and dreaming of flying to a magical foreign land, with strange people and odd languages and exotic food.

Fast forward some twenty odd years, and I finally got the chance to fulfil that dream – as an exchange student at Maastricht University, Maastricht, Netherlands. It’s decidedly ironic that I only felt the intensity of my excitement at a long-awaited trip to Europe only twice while in India – once when I got selected for the exchange, and next when I reached the airport and headed towards check-in. My mom was far more hyperactive and almost overbearing, rushing around trying to help me ensure that I’d have everything I need. We strong independent young men like to pretend we have everything sorted, but the truth is this: thanks mom, we’re still a bit stupid, and you’ll probably always be right in the end. Bear with us please.

So, I’m travelling with four other people from my college, all of them pretty chilled out people. Nikhil and I had our flight from Delhi to Doha, where the others joined us, and we travelled together to Amsterdam. My first glimpse of a foreign land is something I will never forget: it was night, and the plane was flying over Qatar, not long before landing. I looked out of the window, and below me was the darkness of a desert, but interspersed with flows of molten gold between glowing oases of light. It was the cities and highways of Qatar, and the beauty of that sight had me in awe, staring out the window long after my neck started to ache from the strain of holding it at an odd angle. I hope, and I believe, I will see other sights equally majestic in my three and a half months in Europe, but this is one that will stay with me.

The flight to Amsterdam was long, boring and tiring, unfortunately. But Amsterdam airport itself seemed to me a melting pot of cultures: I heard people speaking Dutch, German, Russian, Arabic, French, English and who knows which other languages. I saw people of all sorts of skin tones and facial structures and body types. I used to think Delhi airport was a busy place, but it seemed a quaint little town to Amsterdam’s megapolis. This is when the real adventure began.

Europe’s train network is extremely well-connected, and we, smart tech-savvy guys that we are, had installed the Eurail Planner app to understand which trains to take at what times. Of course, there is such a thing as being too smart: case in point, Sahil’s idea that a train labelled a “Sprinter” would get us to our next change-over destination faster than the one specified in the app, which led to us wasting about 40 minutes for basically no reason. Upon reaching Maastricht, we set out on foot, lugging around about 40+ kg each on average, for the only room we had for the night, which was 3 people, not 5. It was afternoon, and we already had a long evening of house-hunting to look forward to.

Here, I’d like to tell my readers about my first impressions of Maastricht: it’s a wonderfully scenic little town. Cobbled roads, graceful architecture, pleasantly cool weather, smiling and helpful people. It felt GOOD to be walking there – you felt welcome just looking at the people, who’d smile at you and greet you, warmly and genuinely, if you met their eyes for a few seconds. There’s an aura of peace to the whole place; you don’t see anyone madly rushing anywhere, just people calmly cycling along down the roads, politely stopping a few meters before they see a pedestrian crossing the road, and in general looking as if they are content with life. I can understand the sentiment – it’s hard not to feel content when you’re enjoying the breeze while looking over the river Maas, and listening to a violinist or pianist performing on the bridge for a few coins. For my first time away from my country, I doubt I could have been lucky enough to find a better place to be in.

The Netherlands itself is a very beautiful country, from what I saw from the trains. Rolling plains that gently curve as far as one can see, with large farms overlooking them. And absolutely enormous horses and cows. Yes, this is a very stereotypical Indian thing to do – we notice cows, it’s just one of those things. You live with cows substituting for traffic lights long enough, you tend to notice them. Dutch cows are freaking huge, I have no idea what they eat. Probably small children, or maybe small horses.

Anyhow, fast forward past all the huffing and puffing and bowed backs and aching shoulders, we plonked our luggage down in the apartment, and set off for a little hamlet near Maastricht by the name of Houthem St. Gerlach, where we had our only lead for housing, courtesy Sahil’s relentless online apartment hunting for the last month and a half. I don’t think we walked anything less than 8-9 km, most of it hauling around our luggage, and all of us had been travelling for nearly 24 hours. It was quite an adventurous start to our journey, to put it lightly. To cut a long story short, a very polite and friendly (par for the course so far, in this country) gave us very amicable terms and our stay was miraculously finalized. Houthem St. Gerlach is a tiny little place, mostly built around one main road and railway line, and is arguably the quietest place I have ever seen. It completely shuts down at nightfall, except for the station, and is even more peaceful than Maastricht. It’s an extremely odd phenomenon to witness for someone from a large, bustling, crowded city like Delhi.

After almost three weeks of stay at Maastricht, I have lots to say about the classes, the ambience, the students, the professors, the mentors and the culture of the university, but that deserves its own post I believe. Until then, adios!