Oberlin Blogs

First Impressions: Across the Pond

March 10, 2016

Brendan Nuse ’17 and Frances Casey ’17


This semester, I'm taking a break from Oberlin, and taking on a new country: The Netherlands. I'm about six weeks into my stay here, and the experience has been intense, rewarding, beautiful, scary, and perplexing--sometimes all at the same time. I have attempted to articulate some of my first impressions of this city and my life here:

Living in the city of Amsterdam:

As somebody who cares a lot about the beauty of their environment, for whatever reason, Amsterdam's #aesthetic has been pleasing to me. I live in what is basically the most picture-perfect location ever: the Jordaan, a neighborhood west of the city center that is full of beautiful canal houses and houseboats, cafes and bakeries, and hip bars that have perhaps slightly fewer tourists than the heart of the city center. While my bougie surroundings make me feel like I'm constantly walking through an Instagram-filtered world of European idealism, my apartment building is pretty typical of student housing, anywhere in the world: crushed Solo cups in the hallway, a slightly flooded laundry room, and shoddy internet. I have gone through a fraught transition from using Harkness's giant kitchen to cook my meals, then eat them with a hundred other people at 12:20 and 6:20 exactly, to using a two-burner hotplate on a twelve-inch wide counter in my kitchenette to cook a meal that I eat by myself, often while doing my homework. As a student attempting to be thrifty, restaurant meals are few and far between.

I've never lived in a big city before, so living in the center of Amsterdam took some getting used to. It's certainly a world away from Oberlin. At Oberlin, I'm used to a ten-minute maximum walk between destinations on campus--here, it's a fifteen-minute bike ride to the campus where I take my classes, or a longer tram ride if I'm feeling lazy. Speaking of biking--let me tell you, it's a miracle I've survived long enough to write this post. It's crazy how the native Dutch can flawlessly navigate around cars, busses, trams, and clueless tourist pedestrians to get from Point A to Point B. Yes, there are bike lanes almost everywhere, but they still don't make riding around the city a completely peaceful endeavor. The Dutch are also able to waltz into class after their bike ride looking #flawless, whereas I generally look like I just ran a marathon. The only time I feel truly confident riding my bike is at night, when the public transportation has stopped running, there are fewer cars on the road, and there are no people around to judge me when I accidentally ride on the sidewalk.

Bikes locked to a fence over a river
My neighborhood at night.

Taking classes at the Universiteit van Amsterdam:

The semester at my university is divided into two "blocks," kind of like a module at Oberlin. Right now, it's still the first block, and I'm taking Dutch Public Health, Beginning Dutch, and a history course called Dutch Identity: Images of Dutch Society Through Time. When the second block starts, I'll be adding another course: Anthropology of Afro-Europe. Obviously, I've been learning a lot about Dutch culture since I've arrived.

Not being the best learner of languages (#tbt to my one semester of Spanish I took at Oberlin), I was a little nervous about taking Dutch. My main reason for signing up for the class was my desire to not be the typical American traveler who doesn't bother to really get to know the area where they are living--though the roots I'm putting down here are short-lived, I want to make an effort to learn the language here. My class has been manageable so far, but it's been hard to actually practice my Dutch in a city where everyone speaks English.

My Dutch Public Health class was something I was really looking forward to before starting this semester. I've always had an interest in public health, but Oberlin hasn't offered any classes in the discipline in my time there. When I saw the course was one of my options, I jumped at the opportunity to finally take such a class. The course is taught by a former General Practitioner, who now spends most of her time teaching Dutch medical students. The healthcare system here is very different from the United States, in a myriad of ways I won't get into here, but it's been an interesting course so far.

My Dutch history class is the only course within my major that I'm taking here. So far, I haven't exactly been enamored with it, because we've been focusing on Early Modern Dutch history that mostly revolves around naval battles and various members of powerful dynasties inheriting things. It's not really my historical cup of tea, but I'm hoping the material will be more interesting to me once we get past the seventeenth century.

One of the things that has struck me as surprising about my professors in Amsterdam is the expectation that students will take their professor's word as the absolute truth, basically without question. At Oberlin, I've become used to an academic culture where questioning is encouraged. In the history department, especially, my professors have generally presented the facts, then guided students to forming their own conclusions. Here, my professors like to present their own interpretation of the facts, and their own analysis of how history has developed, and do not want to hear students question that, or provide their own views. This has been frustrating for me, to say the least.

Dutch food:

I couldn't call this post complete without even a mention of Dutch food! Since I've been here, I haven't had a lot of "traditional" Dutch food, mostly because everyone I've met has warned me against it. What I have tried has been...interesting, to say the least. What I have really enjoyed has been very stereotypical-- the fries, purchased in paper cones, covered in mayonnaise (which tastes better than it does in the States). I've also had Stroopwafel, two thin waffles held together by caramel syrup, and waffles in many other forms. The chocolate I got in Belgium was wonderful (and disappeared quickly). One thing I've been missing is regular black coffee, which is not widely available nor very palatable here. I suppose I'll have to settle for lattes for now...

Plate of pastries covered in powdered sugar
Poffertjes, tiny pancakes covered in butter and powdered sugar, that I ate in Delft.

I still have twelve weeks left on this continent, and I'm going to try to make the most of it. In a couple of weeks, I'll be visiting Prague, and I'll probably try to make it to France at some point, as well. Some of my classmates are trying to fit as many weekend trips in as possible while they're here, but I think I'm going to try to spend more time here in the Netherlands. I may have more opportunities to visit Europe in my life, but this is probably the only time I'll be able to live here for an extended period of time.


Returning to Oberlin after being abroad was sort of like coming to Oberlin for the first time. I had to formulate my own impressions of Oberlin based off of what I had experienced before it-- the difference was that now I have been comparing Oberlin to my time in China rather than high school. My impression of Oberlin is definitely different now than it was last year, so I would like to share some of my first impressions of my semester (it feels kind of strange to talk about first impressions a month into the semester, but I guess that's just how we roll...). Anyway, here are some of my impressions:

1. Oberlin is not China.

This is super obvious, but still kind of caught me off guard. After a semester of speaking Chinese 24/7 and having all of my classes be Chinese classes, it seems strange to only have 2.5 hours of Chinese class a week. Although I've been taking advantage of some other opportunities to speak Chinese on campus, like attending the weekly Chinese table (probably my single favorite thing to do at Oberlin because I'm me) and attending Chinese department events, it is still somewhat jarring to not have Chinese around me at all times. One of the first days of classes, I heard people speaking Chinese and my head whipped around faster than I thought it could. Clearly this is a void in my life that needs to be filled.

2. People at Oberlin are super busy.

This isn't to say I wasn't busy in China-- I would say that my workload in China was probably more challenging and just generally more work than any semester I have had at Oberlin. However, beyond studying, there wasn't really that much else that I was required to do. I participated in one calligraphy extracurricular activity, wrote blog posts, talked to my friends, and traveled. This is not really comparable to the average student's life at Oberlin.

This is probably the first semester that I have lived this typical "Oberlin student busy" life. I did plenty of things in past semesters, but since I am obsessed with school, I've always kept myself in check so that I didn't overwhelm myself to the point that it would negatively impact my work in my classes. Therefore, I was surprised when a few weeks into the semester I found that I felt like I had spent more time sending emails than I had spent doing homework. Between my classes, research, teaching an ExCo, working 4 (or 5? I can't keep track) jobs, having a position and sitting on a committee in my co-op, hosting a radio show, and participating in a few student groups, I have a lot more commitments than I did in China. This has its upsides and downsides. I don't like feeling like I can't commit enough time to my classes, but I like how this experience has made me feel a lot more capable in other ways. I've discovered that there are some practical things I can do! Maybe I won't have to stay in school forever (though that would still be ideal).

Since I've been reading the Oberlin blogs since 2010, I am a big fan of tropes that I've noticed in the posts. That's why I convince Frances that we need a classes blog post every semester. One trope that I've never participated in is the "post a screenshot of your Google Calendar." I've never done this partially because I don't use Google Calendar, and partially because I think it's sort of obnoxious and I sort of hate that lots of Oberlin students like to pretend they're better than everyone because they're busy and get no sleep. However, this time I'm going to indulge myself. Look at me, everybody! I'm so busy! Bask in the glory of my business! I can't imagine that any of you possibly do anything other than sleep and eat! (Yes, I made this calendar specifically so I could put a screenshot in this blog post.)

A very full google calendar
A very full google calendar
I should not have spent so much time on this...

3. There's still a lot of fun stuff to do here!

I know I was just sort of complaining about being busy, but I have a lot of fun here (even outside of class). This semester, I've started going to Slow Train trivia, which is super fun! Anyone who knows me can tell you that I am hyper-competitive, so I get really into it, and I've found some friends to go with who are just as excited about it as I am. I've also enjoyed going to lectures here, which was something I only got to do once in China, as I usually would not have been able to understand what was going on. Of course, nothing is more fun than classes!

4. It is COLD.

I feel weird writing this now when it is in the 60s, but this was certainly one of my first impressions. Kunming is known as the "spring city," so the winter of Oberlin was not so welcoming.

5. It's still Oberlin!

This post has probably sounded pretty negative. I can't say I'm not feeling some post-abroad blues, but overall I'm having a pretty good time. This is Oberlin, after all! I enjoy knowing where I'm going at all times and seeing all of the great sights of Oberlin-- Tappan Square, Wilder bowl, etc.-- during the changing seasons. As much as I obsess over the language pledge I had last semester, it is convenient not to have to worry about accidentally speaking English. I get to see my friends I've made over the past two years, and I've made new ones since getting back, too. While every day is sort of the same, every day also brings something new. That's something I can always count on Oberlin for.

Well, those are my first impressions! I probably spent more time making that Google Calendar than I did writing the rest of this post-- which speaks to my experience this semester, my flawed priorities, and why I don't use Google Calendar.

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