About julienne.lottering@utoronto.ca

When my family emigrated from South Africa to Canada it was 1991 and I was eight years old. From an early age it was clear to me that my roots had a contentious history. Immigration shaped me by making me more skeptical of my roots and a more trusting of my wings. Travel has never just been travel for me; it has been a way to make order out of the world. In the context of my life, travel is a stratosphere of transformative experiences. For that reason I am now living in the Netherlands with the mission to find cultural subtleties, unexpected beauty and what wild diverse experiences this exchange has to offer!

Times up! Time to go back home

 

These slippers featuring anatomy are an item that I passed every day on my walk home from school. Something I know that would not be part of my world in Toronto.

Goodbye salacious slippers. Goodbye canals and cookies with coffee. Goodbye Amsterdam and Utrecht. 

The last day I spent in Holland it snowed and the place I have grown to love became even more beautiful. A swan’s song to end my exchange. It was pathetic fallacy to the max, an internal and external changing of the seasons. Rather than go into details of goodbyes, I think a valuable and understated part of exchange are the realizations one receives upon the completion of an exchange. Re-adjustment or re-entry as some would call it.

Re-adjusting to life back home is like stepping into the ocean. You can feel the tension between where you want to step and where the movement of the water forces you to step. But, this tension only exists because your body isn’t immersed yet. Yet, soon enough, it will be.

Words can’t always capture this feeling of changing waters, so I made a small painting that might!

One of the difficulties of coming home is that you look exactly the same, even though you don’t always feel the same. I wish there was a way of taking a before and after picture of one’s emotional state. Would my exercised of social adaptability have whipped my emotions into shape? Have I lost pounds of routine and flattened my belly with cultural acuity?

Unfortunately, there is no magic camera that will help illustrate the difference between pre-exchange Julienne and post-exchange Julienne—- there are only words. Words, I might add, that have some very heavy lifting to do! Post-exchange involves taking trying to stuff the content of four months, a multitude of experiences and the magnification of self into words that feel like pocket sized suitcases.

So if I were to sum up my exchange like a movie trailer this would be it:

A graduate student moves in with a sailor, spark detective and ornithologist only to find that the she is allergic to the room she lives in. After struggles to understand the philosophy homework assigned to her she has a breakthrough. Her academic epiphanies are portrayed by a long montage of an air balloon adventure in Turkey and a night spent in the desert with a nomad in Morocco. She comes home  to realize the importance of sharing whimsy, joy and time with the people in her life.

Maybe she comes home and that is not all she realizes. Every day realizations are popping up. My head feels like Mary Poppins, continually pulling more emotions and thoughts out from what seems like a bottomless purse.

Love how political Toronto is! In Holland, even with the national elections, there were no signs of an election taking place. Amsterdam may be political, but it wasn’t out into the open like it is in Toronto. Just an interesting difference.

Sensory Experience back in Toronto:  I totally feel like I became a country mouse in Utrecht. I’ve never really lived in a small town and after getting used to it my sensory experience in Toronto was altered. First, I couldn’t believe how LOUD the city was! Second, how many strangers faces I was exposed to— that’s a weird way of saying it. I mean, how many people you can visible see in a day and how many different demographics there are here. Also, it stunned me that even in cold weather you could see people wearing shorts, t-shirts or sandals.

Other things I learned on my exchange?

  • My favourite  Dutch word is the word for a dustpan is  “kruimeltjes dief”, which literally translates to crumb thief. Amazing!
  • For many years I have been plagued by the crisis of art that was identified by Danto (my academic hero). I admired him so much that I did not question his writing and developed a lot of disciplinary baggage by his ‘end of art.’ The philosophers introduced to me by the course I took in Amsterdam, Jacques Ranciere and Jean-Luc Nancy have renewed my sense for the future of art, pertinent to me as an artist and art historian.
  • Although I had an amazing adventure in the Netherlands I am also amazed by the life I have in Toronto. First the first time I feel like I can live in Toronto with conviction. I’ve lived abroad in Italy and France and I always thought the best version of myself was there. Now for the first time, I realize that my best-self is also in Toronto.
This time abroad has been outstanding and challenging. Exchange holds a magnifying glass to life and exposes details that would otherwise unnoticed.

 

 

Nomadic adventures and cultural foibles

 

I am  nearing the end of my exchange, but before I say goodbye I am trying to squeeze every last bit of strange, amazing and cultural experiences out that I can! On this week’s roster:

  • Morocco—-
  • Is Zwarte Piet  Racism?
  • Economics of traveling abroad
  • Oliebollen

Morocco—-

Every once in a while you get to settle debts with yourself, pay yourself the opportunity for something you dared yourself to do. For a long time I have wanted to travel to Morocco and traverse the dunes of the Sahara. For this trip that I had to save and plan carefully—especially as a woman traveling alone. For those interested, I’ve attached a few tips for women below this section.

The best part of my journey in Morocco was traveling to the Sahara, Erg Chebbi where I was lead by a nomad into the desert to sleep under the stars. I will admit, it was a strange and vulnerable sensation to walk into the desert, without any of my belongings and without knowing where I was going. However, about 5 minutes after climbing onto the camel I was laughing with joy and total exhilaration.

My favourite moment was resting with the nomad, “Bassu”, watching the sunset over the dunes while speaking in French. He was telling me a little bit about his life and in turn I shared some of mine. I was trying to explain to him how I have travelled a lot, often looking for my roots or a sense of home. And he stopped me and said, “Home? What do you mean?”

So I continued to explain saying that home is a sense of place. And he said, “Like a house?” I tried once more to say a place that you feel like you belong. And he said, “Like a room?”

I realized I was trying to explain the concept of home to a nomad and was failing miserably, which was actually very appropriate. It also made me realize what a lark my quixotic notion of being a nomad was because searching for roots or a sense of place is very un-nomadic, a nomad doesn’t even understand the concept of home!

In the morning I woke up to watch the sunrise over the desert— one of the most quiet and spectacular experiences I have ever had in my life. I have trouble putting into words because it was something so out of the realm of my everyday experiences that it didn’t feel like life at it, it felt like the secret to living well. That is to say, that leaving what you know behind, even for a day, can help you re-connect with something as ordinary as a sunrise.

Gender specifics for Morocco:

I had a guide while I was in Morocco. Typically I don’t do this because I like to travel alone, but the things I wanted to see could not be reached by bus. In the end this was a gift because my guide and I extensively discussed issues like gender roles, LGBTQ issues and safety in Morocco. Before coming here I had heard that Morocco has a reputation of being aggressive in their pursuit of woman. From an outsiders perspective one might think that this could be because of our Western style of clothing might be more revealing or the fact that our hair is no covered. But my guide spoke about it in a totally different way. He said that when he works with people from other cultures and has a very difficult time discerning what are signals or messages from western women.

For instance, he was working with a mother and daughter who were comparatively close in age and at the end of the trip they both gave him their email addresses. He was completely dumbstruck about who to contact or the conflict it would create if he contacted one before the other. For him the exchange of an email was a message, but to receive it from both a mother or daughter, or two girls who are friends was very confusing. Another example was that the last Sex in the City movie was filmed in Morocco and a few women mentioned it to him. He said, “Why did they tell me this? What were they trying to say by bringing up these words?” These are things we may consider quite innocent, giving an email address to keep in touch, or mentioning a movie title with explicit words, but they could have a much larger signification than we would intend to imply.

 

Here are a few tips for women thinking about traveling to Morocco:

  • Avoid clothing that could be considered tight and revealing
  • Wear a ring on your wedding finger if you want to avoid some attention from men (but if you wear a ring and flirt or pursue something with a man, remember that it can create false impressions of western women’s’ ‘values’)
  • Avoid speaking about things that may be considered personal (although family can be considered a safe subject)
  • Giving your email address or phone number to someone can be considered sending a romantic message
  • Referring to anatomy or sex is considered a signal

 

Is Zwarte Piet is Racism?

I’m going to level with you—this is going to be a bit of a controversial post. It would be easier to avoid this issue then to address it, but part of this blog is to unveil a variety aspects cultural experiences. As a precursor, let me say that many traditions exist that we do not question, have a troublesome past, or at the very least are so disconnected from the stories that originated them that they have taken on a life of their own. I mean, the easter bunny, I have no way to explain that.

Sooooo… the Dutch celebrate Sinterklass and if you are like me, you may know this, but don’t know the details. Here are the details:

Sinterklaas comes on a boat to the Netherlands with Zwarte Piet who is a ‘servant’ that he freed, Zwarte Piet was so thankful for this freedom that he stuck around to help Sinterklaas. Sinterklass looks like Santa Claus and Zwarte Piet is of moorish decent, but the more politically correct say that his face is black from the soot of the chimneys. If you think Sinterklaas is a jolly guy, think again. If you did not behave during the year not only do you not get presents, but he throws you in a burlap bag and takes you away with him to Spain. (Just as a sidenote, I feel like Sinterklaas picked a waaaaay better place to spend his vacation. North pole? Man, give me a beach and sangria any day. Sinterklass 1, Santa 0, but this is just about the only point I will award Sinterklaas)

This is my friend Selena who was greeted by a troop of Zwarte Piets.

But, in terms of Sinterklaas, what is troublesome is obviously this Zwarte Piet character. A few things counting against his political correctness: he is a former slave, still behaves like a slave to Sinterklaas and many of the advertisements or manifestations of Zwarte Piet today include people dressing up as him using black make-up on their faces. For these reasons, I suspect, there is graffiti around town stating that Zwarte Piet is racism.

 I asked some of the (caucasian) Dutch locals about all this Sinterklaas business and interestingly enough, the general response was, “It isn’t racism, it is just tradition.” My friend Lief (a Canadian I met here) had one of the best responses to this. He said, “You don’t get to decide.”

 

I will say that one year Zwarte Piet was turned into ‘rainbow coloured Piet,’ which was meant to address some of the aforementioned concerns. The people I have asked haven’t really explain to me why this amendment didn’t persist, but hopefully the change itself represents a start in questioning traditions that may seem benign, but could be harmful. This is a bit of reflection we could all probably do in our cultural frameworks.

 

Economics of traveling abroad

Want to know what the secret is to traveling cheaply? I’d love to say it is one website, or one trick, but that would be a lie. In actuality, the secret to traveling cheaply is pretty predictable— take time to research, be patient with things that will are less convenient. But since that isn’t very helpful,  here are some website and the pros and cons of trying to skimp on the top three things that eat your budget: transportation, accommodation and food.

 

Transportation: For flights to from Canada to your exchange location you can use skycanner or hipmunk to compare prices. To travel within Europe you want to look into cheaper airlines like Ryanair, Easyjet and Wizzair. These are super cheap, but the cons are that these small airlines may not be close to the city centre, may charge extra for checking in luggage and do not offer food in the price of the ticket. As a result, when you calculate your train ticket, travel times and food costs, it may be worth it to go with a more expensive airline since it could come out in the wash.

 

Accommodation: Hotels are too expensive and hostels can be unsafe or unpleasant.

Here’s an option– airbnb: this is a website that allows people with room in their homes to rent them out. It’s cool because you get to feel like a local, survey more options of price and locations.

 

Couchsurfing: You may have heard of it, you stay on people’s couches or guest rooms for free. It is free, but it is not a hotel, there are social obligations involved, which could be great or not so great. Sometimes I have felt like I made a new friend and they showed me a part of the city I would never have expected to see. Other times I have felt that I was not connecting with the host or that the room I was staying in was not clean or comfortable. I’ve done this a few times and recommend meeting your host in a public place to suss the person out and have at least a few hostel’s addresses written down in case you feel uncomfortable.

 

Food: This one is easy! Buy at least 2 meals from a grocery store a day and you should be square. If you are going out to eat, check to see if there is a tip already included or any extra costs that you may not be aware of. For instance in Portugal they bring a bunch of appetizers to your table that seem for free, and unless you say no, you are being charged for them.  In Morocco they distinguish between the ‘menu’ and the ‘carte’. Typically they give foreigners the carte which just shows options of pre-fixed 3 course meals, whereas the menu lets you order things individually.

Whether it is flights that arrive late at night, accommodation that is sketchy or buying food from the cheapest food vendor that will make you sick— taking the most economic road means increased risk. So go for it, but have back-up plans and an emergency fund just in case.

 

Oliebollen

 

I know Oliebollen sounds like a name of a cartoon dog on a foreign tv channel, but this is no pooch! This is like the ‘timbits’ bigger brother. Oliebollen are goose-egg-sized-dough-balls that are fried and dipped in icing sugar…and they are amazing. Typically, you can get them from these adorable pop up stalls that have bright lights and cotton candy coloured counters. Often they sell Oliebollen, waffles and other sweet things that make you want to smack your lips. They are the closest thing to a donut that I have seen in the Netherlands, so if you are every hankering for a bit of home, this is the way to go.

Finances, Dutch small talk and poetry

Goethe said, “Art and love amplify the small things in life.” I’ve always thought that Goethe missed one thing in that thought— that is travel. I believe that art, love and travel amplify the small things in life. This week, I’m putting  a magnifying glass to:

  • #1: The economics of living abroad— it can be affordable.
  • #2: Cultural Differences: Is it small talk or is it a dig?
  • #3: Food adventures part 4: Gouda, I camembert anything else.
  • #4: Why riding the train is the best

#1: The economics of living abroad— it can be affordable.

Finances are a big issue for those who want to live or travel abroad, I always hear people saying they can’t travel because it costs too much. This blog topic is going to be a 2-parter because living abroad finances and financial tips for traveling abroad are two different beasts. This week’s blog will look into the economics of living abroad, how to do it cheaply, and the vices and virtues that come with budgets.

The top reason students don’t go on exchange is because of finances. I would like to dispel this myth, but admit that there is the risk of things getting expensive. Here are 3 reasons why things can get expensive:

Everything is a once in a lifetime opportunity. We love justifying instant gratification. Sometimes I find myself thinking, “if you don’t do this, future Julie will regret that I didn’t do this!!!” But trust me, you can bankrupt yourself if you say ‘yes’ every time. Seizing the day is important, but is it affordable to do every day?

You can start to forget about the exchange rate. I’m no expert, but something tells me that if you start to roll your estimates down, by like 20-50% that your budgeting is going to be a mess. But this is remarkably easy to do! This is how it happens. First you think, “ This is almost $20 dollars, maybe $5 more…” Then, “20 euro and $20 Canadian are practically the same…” Then, “Exchange rate? What exchange rate?” Boom, just like that, the ghost of budgets past is on your doorstep.

 

You don’t have enough information to know what a good financial decision would look like. If you don’t do your research you may get ripped off as a tourist or just be wasting oodles of money without realizing there are cheaper options. Do your research. Nuff said.

The good thing is, if you know these three pitfalls you can pull yourself out of a financial nosedive, but all this may still sound kind of risky. Here are some decisions I made which I can show the financial impact of and other consequences that were part and parcel.

Rather than living in the dorms at the University of Amsterdam, I sought independent housing. It can often take months to find housing in Holland, my situation happened to work out because I had a friend who offered me a room. But this one decision is saving me about 500 Euro a month! So if you can find alternative housing, you may be able to save a lot, but if it will make it more difficult to meet people. So you have to decide if the economic benefits outweigh the possible social sacrifices.

It’s tempting to go out for coffee, drinks and dinner all the time, but this dramatically increases your cost of living. I try to stay in for meals during the week and allow myself to go out on weekends. The caveat here is that you do not restrict your budget so much that you are just buying the european equivalent of  kraft dinner every night. This will make you very disgruntled, as it should.

Other quick tips for making living abroad affordable:

  • Many countries allow you to work a 10-20 hours a week without a visa and Universities often offer international students jobs on campus
  • If you are looking for independent housing, you can use airbnb.com to book a room for a week while you are looking
  • See if there are any free communal spaces for people to work in, these often have free coffee/tea and food. The one to look for in the Netherlands is seats2meet.

Cultural Differences: Is this small talk or is it a dig?

Treading new cultural waters can be difficult

Whenever I get to a place I try to figure out what the small talk is in the area. This way I can avoid offending people with questions that make them uncomfortable or topics that fall flat. I remember learning in Lyon that I should ask people about a topical issue rather than something personal. In Italy, it was wise to talk about someone’s family or ask where they were originally from. In the Netherlands, the small talk is similar to Canada, in that you ask, “What do you do?” as one of the first questions. But in the Netherlands there is a certain bluntness or directness that is threaded into the conversation. People will often just point things out in a matter of fact way, which if you are used to less direct communication (as we often are in Canada) it can catch you off-guard. Sometimes I don’t know if something is small talk or if it a negative observation made with motives I clearly don’t understand. (I’m calling it a dig, like when someone digs into you about something)

Here is an example:

I’m in line at the grocery store after the gym, so I still have my kicks on and my basket is full of healthy things like yogurt, muesli, bananas and the not so healthy stroopwaffles. The man behind me looks at me, the things in my basket and points out that everything is healthy except for the stroopwaffles, which he claimed, I had hidden under the bananas.

 Is this small talk or is it a dig? What would the right reply be?

I laughed and said something to the effect that I wasn’t hiding it, but that we all had our vices. But he didn’t laugh. Nor say anything else after. This may seem like a one off, but I’ve noticed that the way I react to direct comments made to me still has not felt smooth. In any case, I’m working on uncovering the mystery and will report back after some more detective work.

Food Adventures Part 4: Gouda, I camembert anything else.

So far I have not seen a strong sense of nationalism in the Netherlands, but I know it exists. On Queen’s day in April everyone dresses in orange and floods the street. Unfortunately, my exchange will end months before I can experience this, but there is one thing that reveals Dutch pride…that is the cheese store. If I were to say, “ I’m going to visit the speciality cheese shop,” you may envision a store with a variety of different cheeses and other procurements to go with them. But, in the Netherlands, you’d be mistaken. Most of the time the cheese shop stays close to its grammar, it is not the cheeses shop, it is the cheese shop—it sells Gouda and only Gouda.

To be fair, there are different varieties of Gouda, but you would still walk into the store and say, “Hmm…Gouda, gouda or gouda?” I told this to my French friends and they thought it was hilarious, they simply couldn’t wrap their minds around it. They’d say, “What do you mean there is only one kind of cheese?” and then they would burst out laughing.

What would astound them, more than the fact that the store only sells Gouda is how many different kinds of Gouda there are! There are aged goudas, pesto flavoured gouda, herb infused goudas and baby goudas. If you haven’t had Gouda, I can describe it like this: it is like the kid in class that is a bit quiet, but likeable, particularly because he/she does not have too strong a personality. Gouda is agreeable. And if I were to pick a diplomatic cheese to represent my country, I think Gouda is a fine choice!

 

 

Why riding the train is the best:

Since I live in Utrecht, I commute to Amsterdam by train which isn’t far, only about 20 minutes. For the majority of this train ride we are passing by soft green fields with canals that reflect the sky and a peppering of grazing sheep or cows. It never ceases to amaze me that the Dutch have the countryside right on their doorstep. More amazingly, that the way the land is cultivated has a history of hundreds of years. Sometimes I think that the way the canal splits the land is like the spine of an old book, holding together the landscape that would sink otherwise.

Studying in Holland has introduced me to a lot of writers that I would never have found in Toronto. I’ve attached a poem below of a Dutch writer Hendrik Marsman describing the landscape. When I read this, I felt like he did a beautiful job at summarizing the sensation that I get when watching the landscape from the train.

Memory of Holland

Thinking of Holland
I picture broad rivers
meandering through
unending lowland:
rows or incredibly
lanky poplars, huge
plumes That linger
at the edge of the world;
in the astounding
distance small-holdings
That recede into space
Throughout the country;
clumps of trees, town-lands,
stumpy towers, churches
and elms That Contribute
to the grand design;
a low sky, and the sun
smothering slowly in mists, pearl-gray,
mother-of-pearl;
and in every county
the water ‘s warning
or more catastrophes
heard and heeded.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How very scary fish almost destroyed my holiday.

 

Travel puts things into perspective… especially in olive groves in Southern Italy

 

This week:

  • Food adventures: Bitterballen
  • Cinderella Syndrome
  • If only hindsight were a friend that you could meet up with for drinks before things go bad

#1-Food Adventures Part 3: Bitterballen

Soooo, bitterballen! I know, I know, the name deserves a smirk, but don’t feel embarrassed to order these bad boys, they are a delight! This was one of my first culinary discoveries in the Netherlands and remains one of the best.

Bitterballen are little croquettes that break open to reveal a soft mess of potato, meat and mushrooms. They are served with some dijon mustard and accompany a cold beverage very well. The best part of bitterballen is that they are everywhere. If there was an iphone app to alert you when you were in less than 10 ft of bitterballen, your GPS would be beeping all.the.time. Sometimes I wonder how many bitterballen must be consumed in Holland every day and an ocean-liner filled with them comes to mind. I bet if there was a zombie apocolypse and people had to choose between being stranded in a building with no bitterballen OR run across a zombie infested road to get to the bitterballen, my money is on the Dutch population risking the zombie road.

The only thing is that I lied about the whole potato, mushroom thing. Bitterballen are actually actually mostly made out of meat goo. Eww.. I know, not the most appetizing thought, but I can try to make it okay for two reasons:

1) If it wasn’t made out of meat goo, you or I would probably try to make them and knowing how to make them would lead to eating them all… at once…all the time.

2) Although you now know the truth about bitterballen, it is in moments like these that you can thank your brain for having the ability to forget and blissfully order more bitterballen.

 

 

#2- Cinderella Syndrome

One of the things that the deconstruction and reconstruction of your life reveals to you is how you treat yourself from one place to another. For instance, in Toronto my life is organized like the perfect ikea space saving closet. With a plethora of responsibilities to juggle, my time is spent very deliberately and often, even moments of ‘down time’ or ‘spontaneity’ are scheduled.

But coming abroad when everything that regularly structures your life is removed, it incites the question, is that how I want my life? Is it my nature to be so busy and not have a lot of time for myself?

What I realized is this. In Toronto I often treat my alone time, like the evil step mother treated Cinderella. Only after I have finished my school work, put in some hours to earn money for travel, bought groceries, run administrative errands, made sure my friends felt loved and called my parents that if I can have time alone. But that sucks! I don’t want to live that way.

Camus said, “Freedom is a chance to be better.”

Being abroad has helped me realize how I want to treat myself, no matter what country I am in. Maybe life abroad can seem better sometimes because you are forced to slow down, which in turn can make you kinder to yourself and your process. The notion of prioritizing time for reflection and exploration are values that I want to bring home with me after my exchange.

 

#3- If only hindsight were a friend that you could meet up with for drinks before things go bad.

This is in Sintra, Portugal. One of the most amazing castles I’ve ever seen in my life.

Imagine this: Walking along the wall of an old moorish castle that looks like the spine of a dragon. You are right in on top of a mountain ridge and the mist is starting to swoop in over the castle walls. You totally feel like you should have bows and arrows, a cloak and know a wizard. Amazing right?

If you ever want to experience how your body reacts to evil, eat these guys and get find out!

Now: Imagine all this with food poisoning. I don’t know what did it exactly, but I might throw a wild guess at these guys! Scariest fish in the market ever. I didn’t know that was going to be on the fish platter… I didn’t know…

 

 

I will say one thing, food poisoning sure does let you know where you exits are! So there are a few lessons I wish our dear friend hindsight would have reminded me of:

Sometimes your body goes into emergency mode, note the exits.

1) Life is full of minor differences, such as seeing beautiful sites vs seeing beautiful sites with food poisoning. Don’t force yourself to do amazing things your healthy self would do when you are your sickie self.

2) Always bring anti-nausea medication with you. Trying to figure out labels in a language you don’t understand while Edward Scissorhands is tossing pizza dough in your stomach is not fun.

 

Self-discovery and irrational fears

 

 

After nearly 2 months, much light has been shed on my life in Toronto, who I am and what it means to be here.

This weeks (mis)adventures:

  • Isn’t it nice when your life resembles a fairytale?
  • Adventures in class: How book learning can make you sound intoxicated
  • If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger…except for Dutch staircases, those will take you out of the game.

 

Isn’t it nice when your life resembles a fairytale?

One of the surprising things about living abroad is how quickly you can adapt to your surroundings. Rather than constantly looking at the architecture and thinking, “Holy cow, I actually live here,” you simply just begin to live there. This is good for obvious reasons, you can’t have your mind blown every minute of every day—it would be exhausting. Thus, in an attempt to establish your sense of place your brains tries to make the unfamiliar familiar. This means that you may start to take the exact same route home each day and keep going to the same places to hang out so that you get the comforting sensation of the prosaic.

To throw my fist up in the air against being desensitized, I try to discover something new  every week. It doesn’t have to be big, but it could be a new street, a new detail above a door or a new cafe. This way I am not totally exhausted from exploring all the time and stumbling around with my mind blown like a zombie-bot. In other words, for my mental health, I have manufactured moments of familiar and unfamiliar.

This week in my discoveries I found something fit for a fairytale. If you bike across town, through a large park, past the University of Utrecht, you will find a forest.

Animals!

The forest is lined with grazing animals, white cows and fluffy sheep, but do not stop and pet them (well you could), but you have to keep biking. At the very end of the forest there is a little red house with white windowsills and the smell of caramel billowing from its doorway. This is the panekoek huis or crepe house that is so lovely that when I entered, I felt like the Grinch when his heart grew three sizes in a day!

Aside from the chefs wearing pouffy hats (aaawesome) and the sitting on the edge of the Dutch countryside, the crepes are twice the size of dinner plates! I saw Hansel and Gretel leaving the building and I thought, man this is too good to be true. As the rain began to fall in concert with the leaves, I had that, “this is what living is” moment. I thought of all the people I love and all the things that they are doing and that no one could guess

where I was in that moment—and this is the instance when life becomes more your own, a secret that you share only with yourself.

Obviously it is not entirely secret because I am writing about it here, but the sensation in that moment is something that is only mine. Perhaps this is why people feel more confident or like they know themselves better after travelling. Well, now that I am thinking about it, it could be one of two things.

Maybe travelling doesn’t let us now ourselves better at all, but it does allow us to collect more ineffable experiences, which when we compare how others know us and how we know ourselves, gives the sensation that we must know ourselves better. The second option is that travelling makes you feel like you know yourself better because you have created these experiences, found them and encountered them. We can’t help but take credit for the beauty we find and thus we become more confident in our ability to create and encounter beauty. An ability that we do not always exercise or know about ourselves.

 

 

Adventures in class: How book learning can make you sound intoxicated

He is totally feeling it, intoxicated by books, I knew it!

Let me start by saying that I love what I am studying here. Love it. It totally melts my butter. I basically get to spend all day thinking about beauty, art and philosophy. But I will admit, this aesthetics class I am taking has the adverse effect of making me come across like a intoxicated person trying to sound sophisticated.  This focus for the first part of the semester has been to read Jacques Ranciere’s philosophy about the relationship of aesthetics and politics. When I try to talk about what I am studying I just hear myself and wince: I sound like the teachers from Charlie Brown. Here is a passage, not an inordinately difficult or obtuse passage, just a regular snippet from Ranciere:

Ranciere links art and politics in a revolutionary and very confuuuusing way.

“The forms of aesthetic experience and the modes of fiction thereby create an unprecedented landscape of the visible, new forms of individualities and of connections, different rhythms of  apprehension of the given, new scales. They do not do this in the specific manner of political activity, which creates forms of we, forms of collective enunciation. But they form the dissensual fabric from which are cut out the forms of object construction and the possibilities of subjective enunciation proper to the action of political collectives.”

You see what I mean…ahem. Rubik’s cube gibberish…nuff said.

So I am faced with writing an essay about this which is not impossible, but talking about this philosophy has made me accrue a new fear. This is it: (this is real)

Hiding behind the fear and risk of loving philosophy

There is an insane asylum down the street from me and sometimes these guys are let out to wander around and buy their own groceries. I know this because we buy groceries from the same place. Every now and then when they have wandered too far or taken too long, men dressed in white will come to collect them. Now I know it is crazy, but I feel like when I am wondering about Ranciere and thinking out loud, it is possible that my ramblings could have me mistaken and collected. It could happen. Sure, med students run the risk of hurting people, but landing in a mental health clinic, these are the dangers of studying art and philosophy. Totally underestimated.

 

 

#3: If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger…except for Dutch staircases, those will take you out of the game.

Smiling because I am super stoked I haven’t fallen into a canal…yet

After nearly 2 months of being abroad, I’ve adjusted to some of the obstacles in the Holland. You might think I mean obstacles metaphorically, but I don’t. For someone as uncoordinated and clumsy as I am, there are many things that are a death trap that I’ve had to learn to avoid. Here is the shortlist:

1) Despite being the country credited for having the tallest people (the average height is 5″8), their stairs are made for people who wear a size 4 shoe. Every time I go down the stairs I try not to imagine falling to my death. Since I don’t like appearing nervous, I try to cover up my fear of death-by-stairs by talking more incessantly with whomever I’m with, which perpetuates my anxiety because my concentration is broken, which circles back to making me think about falling down the stairs.

2) Here is a business idea— (I thought this was a given, but) Dutch bathrooms do not have tilted tiles in the bathroom. As a result, after a shower the water has spilled all over the floor and stays there as a danger puddle until you squeegee it into the drain. Solution from death by slippage? Tilted tiles.

I’m too positive to just talk about death stuff. So here are a few reasons why the Netherlands are the best:

1) Mail on SATURDAYS!!! Let’s face it, mail on any day is awesome, but mail on a Saturday feels like a gift from the Gods. You pick up that mail, embrace it, twirl around with it because in Canada, Saturday means you have to wait 48 hours or more to get mail.

These are in fact considered a breakfast topping..amazing

2) It is not uncommon to see business men dressed with a bow tie, sitting down with a piece of toast dusted with chocolate sprinkles and a juice box. A tiny juice box. The kind where the man has to change his man-grip into  dainty-grip because his regular grip might crush the juice box creating a volcanic eruption of purple drink. The Dutch men are so not about being macho, it’s awesome.

 

3) Most warm beverages come with a little cookie or chocolate on the side. If you tell a local that this is not the norm in Canada, they’ll say, “But that’s the best part.” Indeed. I’ll miss this every time I order a warm beverage in Canada now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Air ballooning, feelings of the infinite and licorice that makes you wince

Find a new home or different ways that a home can be a home

Living abroad increases the intensity and density of life. Your life goes from normal to being scattered like breadcrumbs shaken off of a tablecloth and then back to some semblance of order. In a month I have figured out the academic climate, started to make great friends, dealt with health issues and visited places I only dreamt of before. On this weeks roster of (mis)adventures :

  • #1: Turkey for Thanksgiving: the country, not the food
  • #2: Food adventures part 2: Drop, the under lord of Dutch culinary talents
  • #3: A typical day while living in Utrecht

Turkey for Thanksgiving: the country, not the food

One of the beautiful things of living abroad is that you feel like Christopher Columbus— far lands suddenly seem in reach. Turkey is a country I’ve wanted to go to for the last 10 years, specifically because as an art history student, it would be wild to see the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.

The construction of the Hagia Sofia started in 360 ad/ce and inspired the San Marco cathedral in Venice and many other buildings, especially the architecture of many mosques to follow. Unfortunately, because the Hagia Sophia inspired the visual tradition of so many mosques, actually locating the Hagia Sofia was an unexpected challenge.

It’s the one on the…right. No left. Umm (times this by 5)

For a building that is so famous that I can date and recognize it in any book, I was perplexed and humbled when I was inept at pointing it out on the horizon or even within a few hundred meters of where it was on the map. That’s when I took my ego folded it in half and shoved it in my pocket. Travel makes you humble, but it is worth it when you can see so many beautiful things.

 

In concert with seeing the Hagia Sophia, a life goal of mine was to go air ballooning in Capadoccia, a land that looks like fairies built it. Capadoccia has a myriad of different rock formations, all of were realized by 3 volcanos erupting simultaneously for 5 million years. The volcanic rock, also known as tufa, is quite soft, so the Hittites and early Christians dug into the strobile, mushroom and chimney shaped rocks to make homes, castles and mausoleums. This is where I wanted to gallivant, play and air balloon.

 

 

The author Alain de Button said that there exists “perspective giving nature” and that ruins are representatives of infinite time and vast landscapes are representatives of infinite space. When we find ourselves in the presence of these landscapes or ruins, the differences between people seems inconsequential. The natural phenomena are so large with so many variations that the differences between people are mockingly small. Thus, the awe for things older and larger than us has a peculiar way of opening the possibilities of togetherness with one another. I realized that this is why going abroad and exploring new landscapes is so important.

Food adventures part 2: Drop, the under lord of Dutch culinary talents

 

Drop is what Dutch licorice is called and I have a hunch that a foreigner named them ‘drop’ because their taste makes you want to drop them on the floor and run far far away. Like stroopwaffles, drop takes up an entire aisle in the grocery store with varieties of soft, hard, salty, sweet, mint and salmiak (the flavour of dusty spices). The Dutch are crazy about drop and I want to emphasize the crazy part in liking drop. In the train station there is a booth with varieties of drop with a consistent line-up.  I will say this: There are some things that are incredibly tasty, but only when you were introduced to them as a child… when your opinion about food was given to you by your parents.

Drop is to the Dutch as marmite is to the English. Or nato to the Japanese. Or spiciness to the Thai…

Even though I at my body weight in stroopwaffles, I’ve had no problem resisting eating all the licorice while spelling out its name for this photo. For a few reasons, 1) even the ‘soft’ licorice is fairly hard so you give someone a piece of drop and say, “I’ll talk to you in an hour” because they are going to be working to chew through it for that long! You need mouth armor for these bad boys. So even if I did have a piece of drop while creating this word art, it would last me for an exam period before I would be ready for the next one. Also, there is this  amazing (not amazing) thing that happens, which is that the strong flavour triggers your salivary glands and your mouth is filled with salivia that unexpectedly becomes dangerous! If you aren’t careful the licorice strangeness drips down your throat like a river of burning inducing a coughing fit.

What is genuinely amazing is that drop gave me goosebumps, but it may have been because my body was rejecting it—- I never knew a food could do that! All this made me think that drop is a great food-booby-trap! Especially handy when you have a camera in your hand and want to record the facial affliction and contortions your victim will go through while eating it.

 

#3: A typical day while living in Utrecht

Activity #1: Go for a jog by the canal and love its curves despite how it foils your sense of direction

 Activity # 2: See what random objects my roommates have brought into the apartment. It could be a broken soundboard, an inflatable kayak (inflated) or many zucchinis ranging from baseball bat size to forearm size.
Activity #3: Find a new spot to sit and read. For example a garden on the grounds of the Domkerk (Utrecht’s most famous church)

 

 

 

Activity #4: Go to a cafe to finish reading. Order scones with jam and whipped cream and pretend to be a 70 year old grandma thinking about all the wonderful memories you have.

 

 

 

Activity #5: Bike around town and find details you have missed. Sometimes the jet streams looks like the gods are making drawings in the sky.

Fear and Loathing (myself for all the cookies I ate) in the Netherlands

the “orange” light. Also, why does my hand look like a giant lobster claw in this photo? GIANT JUUuuuLIEnnNNe

My roommates have an orange light they turn on in the living room, not to be mistaken with the red lights that are common in Amsterdam, cause it looks totally different (not at all). As you can imagine, I try not to stand near the window during these times… I’ve spent the last week fixing my eyes so I am not Julie-pumpkin-face and getting myself out into the world. So here is the inside scoop on my recent (mis)adventures:

  1. How to dance like you saw a double rainbow
  2. A Culinary Tour: Stroopwaffles or as I like to call them, “shamecakes”
  3. AmsterDAMAGE: How the Netherlands broke my sense of direction
  4. Sun showers and self-reflection: follow me into metaphor-land

 

#1. How to dance like you saw a double rainbow:

Find a great cafe and you can feel at home right away

Think of how amazing your friends are and the wide variety of circumstances that it took for you to find them. Now, imagine yourself in a new country for 4 months, how are you going to find good company? That’s the challenge. Even though I am a very friendly girl, making friends here has been more difficult that I expected because I don’t live in Amsterdam where my classes are and Utrecht-ians keep a bit to themselves. As a result, I’ve used couchsurfing (a site for travelers) to meet people in the area and ask them to show me their favourite cafe in town.

On a Saturday night I was invited by a Dutch local named Judith, a well referenced couchsurfer, to have dinner at her house and then to go to an alternative dance party. If you are wondering what an alternative dance party is, the only information I had to go on was, that people dance barefoot… and there are smoothies.

In the spirit of being abroad and saying ‘yes’ to new things, I agreed and showed up to her house, sunflowers in hand. She lives in a trailer on the yard of an anti-squatting plot. In other words, she lives on the edge of the edge of society. But she is great and her trailer looks like a little girl’s jewellery box— the tin trailer incasing panther print blankets and christmas lights. After a dinner of quinoa, sprouts and homemade hummus we biked over to the venue

Let me set the scene— we walk into this huge house where every floor is dedicated to a different kind of alternative atmosphere. For instance, we passed a room where people drew with crayons and laid down on beds of nails, a ‘re-assuring’ sign that whatever I was about to get into would be unexpected. So we get to the top floor and our ‘class’ before the dance party begins. First activity, pick a partner and dance with only your shoulders together. Second activity, pick a partner and dance with only your feet together. Third activity, pick a partner and dance with your middle fingers together! Interesting…ahem.

After this warm up, the most rigorous part of the ‘class’ begins. Here, 1/2 the class had to be a reed in the water while the other 1/2 of the class was the wind that pushes the reed. And I suppose what we should learn is how to be ‘free’ and move how you move and not how you think you are supposed to move. Amazing lesson, but if manifests in a very particular way. That is, the people who were most ‘free’ dance crazy… like really crazy… like they saw a double rainbow crazy. This was definitely a bit out of my comfort zone, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t smiling the entire time. However, I did leave when people started getting their faces painted like cats and hula-hooping. That’s when I cashed in my chips and thought, “I’m good— I think that’s enough strange for me tonight.”

 

# 2: A Culinary Tour: Stroopwaffles or as I like to call them, “shamecakes” 

Each blog post I hope to investigate a particular kind of Dutch food, this week is Stroopwaffles. These are cookies with multiple layers of waffles and syrup pressed together (delicious), however, they have the adverse affect of turning me into a raptor from Jurassic park. Rather than eating like a human, I devour not just one little stroopwaffle, but all of its friends. In fact, this post was supposed to have a picture spelling out the word “Stroopwaffles” with stroopwaffles, but after 2 failed attempts from simply eating the cookies, I gave up. But, I digress… Stroopwaffles are a good culinary places to start because they represent one of the largest sections in the grocery store.

This is the size of the shamecake section in a SMALL grocery store.

Here are some quick facts about shamecakes, I mean stroopwaffles:

  • How much do they cost? 1-5 euro depending on quality and quantity (shamefully afffordable)
  • When do people eat them? All. The. Time. They are also an excellent ‘waiting for the train’ food.
  • How much does quality matter? You can definitely taste the difference between a cheap stroopwaffle because they are more brittle, whereas ‘high quality’ break-your-teeth-with-sweetness is a soft experience where the caramel strands are endless.
  • Extra tip: Eat them in a social situation as a way to induce self control

 # 3: AmsterDAMAGE: How the Netherlands broke my sense of direction

Every place has small details that you know right then and there that you will miss. Like every day I see about 6 or 8 people who just bought flowers. Amazing. Buying flowers is kind of a special event in Toronto.

Here, even the most dreary cafes have fresh flowers on the table… these are small details I will miss. Or the fact that when you bike here, you don’t feel like you are going to die, again small details. What I will not miss however, is the city planning. In the Netherlands the city is built in relation to the canals, often creating concentric circles in the city plan. What I can’t get my head around is the fact that the street names will change 4 times in 100 meters. Everyone probably has a street named after them, it’s probably not even a special thing anymore.

There are some people who have amazing inner ears and brag about how great they are with directions and this is NOT me. Actually the only time I’ve been good at directions was in Italy where most of the city planning resembles a plate of spaghetti that fell on the floor—somehow that particular type of chaos spoke to me. Also, because of this concentric circle thing, the streets curve slightly. Tricky, right? So rather than going west, all of a sudden you find yourself going south. I think the french invaded the Netherlands, but they probably had to do it like 5 times because the streets kept curving them back to France.

 

# 4: Sun showers and self-reflection: follow me into metaphor-land

As can be expected, being abroad comes with its fair share of ups and downs. This is not just because you struggle with things like language differences or having to resist their sweet sweet cookies. Rather, it is because everything that defines you is temporarily taken away. Things like, where you live, your friends, what your apartment looks like— all the things that tell someone something about you, without you having to…

Yesterday I was walking back from class and it started to rain while the sun was shining. Not just for a split second, but for several minutes. It occurred to me that thisthis is what I was feeling. It is both loss and liberation of one’s life and of one’s sense of self. What comes out of the experience is knowing what stays the same within you, despite everything else that has been shaken. And that is profound. How often is it that you can see your shadow holding an umbrella? Rare, right? Living abroad let’s you see that. You can witness yourself struggle, cope and blossom.

During this process, I can watch my own coping mechanisms, develop them and fine tune them. For instance, one day I was feeling a bit down because I was like, “The only place in Holland that is mine, I am allergic to…” and so I decided that I was going to bake something. Something that would make me feel like a successful and capable human and that I can share with others because so much of my experience here is solitary. So I baked a cake in the shape of a heart and BOOM, feeling of superhero-ness restored. It is such a simple thing, but you need small wins.

 

The Netherlands: Not for the faint of heart

Hello World!

This is me! I’ll tell you about the small disasters I happily experience while living abroad

Remember what it was like to make gingerbread houses over the holidays? Gingerbread cookies with white icing and lots of ornamental candy? Well, the buildings in the Netherlands makes it feel like living in a gingerbread town, which would be great, if it wasn’t making my mouth water all the time. I am spending the next semester living in the Netherlands, but I have to tell you, I’m not sure if I’m going to make it. I seem to be a magnet for a special kind of “high quality” awkwardness and (mis)adventures here. So over the next few months to emancipate myself from the awkwardness and to eschew them off of my cringe reel, I’m going to blog about them.

4 (mis)adventures in the Netherlands:

  • # 1: Am I living with characters from a Wes Anderson movie?
  • #2: How to ruin Dutch simply by speaking it.
  • # 3:  How to make a host a dinner part that no one will come to again.
  • #4: I’m sure my eyes swelling shut will go away by itself. Probably.

# 1: Am I living with characters from a Wes Anderson movie?

You know when you meet someone with a ship (not even a boat), who has a PHD in electric engineering and a coif like vidal sassoon and they invite you to live with them, hypothetically speaking…whether or not you know it, you are signing up for an adventure. Well, in my case it was not hypothetic, but before we get to that part of the story, I should tell you, I decided to live in Utrecht rather than Amsterdam this semester. Don’t get me wrong, Amsterdam is something else— the centre is a hot pot of sex, drugs and tourists biking as though their tires are on fire, which is rife for misadventures, but I like a challenge. I looked at Utrecht and thought, now that is a fairy tale kinda town that has not just anyone can find misadventures in…

They say that you are who you associate with, so I’m not sure what this time in my life says about me, but I live with three Dutch guys, Jorick, Willem and Cees (pronounced Case). Here is a quick summary of what they do:

  • Jorick: Historian/Ornithologist (the study of birds) by day & hard core rocker at night
  • Willem: Sailed around the world for 2 years recreating Darwin’s route and is now a writer for a sailing/travel magazine
  • Cees (pronounces Case): Spark Detective (that’s what I call him), he travels around the world doing the forensics behind electrical fires that occurred and coming up with betters systems
Not only are they characters, but their personalities are reflected in the decisions they’ve made around the apartment itself. Let me walk you through some of the ‘special touches’ they’ve put into the apartment.

 

The living/dining room area has a lightbulb the size of a baby, which, despite it’s size only lights up a small corner of the room. This room also has the craziest wallpaper I’ve ever seen and this is NOT something you joke about with them, they are serious about this wallpaper. If you look at if for long enough it feels like those 3-d artworks from the 90’s where you would blur your eyes to try to see the image. Except here, there is no image.

Have you ever been eating dinner and thought to yourself, “Something is missing, I really wish there was a smoke breathing tiger painting in this room,” well here, that is not a problem! Another special feature of this is just that—a painting of a tiger, with the mouth hole cut out, attached to a smoke machine.
As far as rooms with mattresses on the floor go, mine is smaller than most with a single skylight in it. I affectionately call it the man in the iron mask room and sometimes, just sometimes I reach toward the light. The good thing about a small room is that almost everything is in reach at all times and it is super easy to monitor for dangerous animals, since that is one of my primary concerns, ahem. Most sincerely, the fact that it is the size of a birdcage gives me at least one reason to be happy coming back to Canada at the end of the semester.
#2: How to ruin Dutch simply by speaking it
Sometimes I think I’m like the superman of adaptation. Like, I could pick up a language in a few months and high-five everyone in the town because I’ve become best friends with them in a week… and then reality hits.

SUPER JULIE

I figured Dutch would be a breeze because my mother tongue is Afrikaans and it happens to be a derivation of Dutch. Amazingly enough, I understand about 75% of spoken Dutch and about 85% of written vocabulary without having studied the language at all. And yet—- I have been 100% unsuccessful in being understood by a Dutch person when speaking it–even when using common phrases in pronunciation and grammar!  Imagine if no one in Canada could understand someone with a posh british accent, now multiply that by 5 and you get the ridiculous situation I’m in. Rather than a super hero I am considering it my secret spy skill to understand more than I let on.  And every once in a while I’ll say, “Is the Dutch word for ‘superficial…’ And then bam, I say the word and confuse the heck out of them! How could someone without the basic pronouns know the word for superficial?
#3: How to host a dinner part that no one will come to again.
In the Netherlands you have to register with the city and to do that you need a letter from your landlord saying you are living there. Well, Cees did this Italian girl a favour by writing her letter and letting her register with his house even though she is living with her boyfriend.  This is sort of a big deal and so he said that in exchange she should just make a fantastic italian meal. What he didn’t know was that she doesn’t cook, like at all. And that in her mind a fantastic Italian meal should consist of 4 courses minimum, so she started to panic.
Now, typically you would expect a 4 course meal to be something like, salad, soup, main, dessert, but what our dinner consisted of was, pasta #1, pasta #2, pasta #3 and pasta #4. All of the courses were super heavy pasta dishes, all of which had become gradually more and more cold because she had made them hours in advance. I stopped at course 2, I didn’t mean to be impolite, but these were not small serving being given out and I just couldn’t force myself to do it. I politely told her in Italian that I am not naturally thin and if I eat more I am going to have to run to Canada and back to stay fit. Cees, who had instigated the whole affair ate every course very politely, but I guess he made his bed and had to lie in it!
# 4: I’m sure my eyes swelling shut will go away by itself. Probably.
Shortly after starting to stay here my eyes started to get super red and it looked like I was taking drugs (not a great impression to make on your professors at 8am). Then my eyes started to swell almost entirely closed, blur my vision and become so dry I couldn’t cry. Why?
Remember that mattress on the floor in my room? Well I also think it is made out of 80% dust. Now, being the super hero/spy that I am, I am typically invincible to all things health related, which makes my face getting ruined by a little bit of dust even more painful to admit. I’ve avoided yellow fever in Ghana, all the ails that comes from traveling to India, Thailand and Indonesia… but the Netherlands—a place without a single dangerous animal or disease— takes me down with dust. DUST!!!! (to be continued…)