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!