Tag Archives: University College Utrecht

“Glowing Embers Lie Across The Sky”

11 May

With all my classes now over. and only two exams left, I thought I would write a post about this last term and my year abroad so far.

Everyone around me is currently studying their arses off, which makes it even more odd that this is my most freest time of the semester. I’m glad to say that this semester has been easier – but not by much as there was still reading and other work to do everyday so I again haven’t done that much. I have no idea how other exchanges manage to go on trips all the time – for instance, Tina’s roommate Amy is often away at the weekend doing some awesome trip, as well as all the people in my Dutch class (which is only for exchange people). In this respect I feel that my time here has not been used to the fullest as when I look back I will probably not remember the huge work load I had and just think “why didn’t I ever go anywhere?”

However, I do think Tina and I have made up for this during the breaks, and my (non-existent) “places visited in Europe map” has come on leaps and bounds. Before I had only visited Western Europe and now I have far out-reached that, going to Central and also Eastern Europe – even making it as far as GMT+2! I’m sure this isn’t as exciting compared to some globetrotters, but I think it’s quite reasonable when your family has only been outside the UK to visit the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Plus visiting 13 countries (Belgium, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia, Bulgaria and Sweden) isn’t bad 🙂

Saying this I also haven’t visited that much of the Netherlands, which I hope to change soon. I did the most travelling to Gronigen, Leeuwarden and the Keukenhof while my dad was visiting :/ You see, the Dutch may be hospitable and invite you to your house but they then don’t get round to actually taking you – unless you invite yourself over (minus Gerrianne :P)!

My list of Dutch places I have been to includes Amsterdam (not the first time, but the first Queens Day), Rotterdam, Breda and Alphen an der Rijn. However, in the academic void (or the break between spring and summer term), I have managed to organise a trip round the Netherlands which includes staying at people’s houses along the way. Yay for knowing locals! So after that I can add Texal, Apledoorn and Aalten to the list. In other words, as I have mentioned before, if you plan to go travelling on your year abroad don’t choose the best University College of the best University in a country that has the 4th best higher education in the world, as you won’t be doing a lot of it!

Many of the little differences between the nations I have now got over or around, and now actually find it quite hard to remember what they were. The problem of not taking my bank cards is okay as I know people with Euro accounts who I can give cash too and I just generally live a cash life, except you forget sometimes and then have to make a long walk from the place you are at to get cash. The reading of these ‘text book’ things I have got used to, and am more on top of it then most people, hence why I can write this even though it’s Finals Week. The bike riding is obviously fine as I used to bike to school except everyone else’s bikes are now falling apart leaving mine the only one working in my unit, even though it now only has one brake thanks to Tina. At least it now looks awesome though:p

For this term Tina and my plan of cooking every Friday went astray after four weeks. It was good while it lasted though she insisted that all the food I made was incredibly unhealthy even when it was mostly vegetables and she also specifically stated that pasta was unhealthy :/ This, I think, helped towards the demise of our plans. I believe we have gone to the bar and parties just as much as before, but the waiting around for everyone to be done and working to ‘Linda and Tina time’ means we don’t get many pre-drinks in. Myrte will have some even more dull Friday evening’s when I am not around. Sofie made a big step the other day, and we are all very proud, as she danced in the bar on a party night! She says that this time was enough for a year, but we hope to see her again there soon.

For my courses, Discovering the Dutch was interesting and I enjoyed taking it as it was easy, but also dull at points when the classes were on medieval Utrecht and Golden Age art. However it’s opened my eyes up to things in the Netherlands I wouldn’t have learned otherwise – such as their schooling system is the same as our old Grammar school one, which I only realised from the class even though we’ve had many discussions about it as friends.

Psycholinguistics was fun and mostly like cognitive psychology with a bit of clinical as we learned about people with language disorders. It was the closest to psychology out of my four courses so I was happy with it.

Evolution, Culture and Human Nature was also good, and despite being a level 3, was also relatively easy as when you’re taking something from an interdisciplinary perspective details are going to be simpler. I am very proud of my essay on Emotion vs Rationality for this class as rationality really interests me and I made some insights I hadn’t thought of before, like emotions are a signal for you to make a decision (see my paper for more details, Birch, 2012). I am also happy with the whole class presentation we had to give on it as I got told I was a good presenter. I am very pleased with this as I had never done a presentation before coming here and now I have done many I feel a lot easier with them, though I am still not relaxed about it.

Sociology is the big disappointment of the semester. I do not advise people to take it. I do not believe what these great minds are telling me about society is true and anything I think is reasonable they have just taken from psychology and then renamed everything and pretended it’s their own – such as the analogy that everyone is on a stage and has many different front stages that they use depending on who is in the audience and therefore not many people know their back stage. This sounds a lot like ingroups, outgroups, group norms and group behaviour to me. Essentially if it is not psychology then it is philosophy as even though they say they’d like their work to be scientific it often isn’t based on anything empirical and this annoys me a lot. Sociology is no ‘queen of the sciences’ and certainly wasn’t the easy subject that I hoped it would be.

I don’t really know how I can go back to Exeter at this stage as it is hard to even recall that I went to somewhere so totally different in size, ethos and attitude. Especially as when I go back I won’t really know anyone as all the third years I was with will have graduated. I have set up some things for my return though – I will be a global buddy (helping international students find their way around and adapting to university in Exeter), a student life mentor (helping first years with all their daily life issues living in halls and with general university), SSAGO rep (Student Scouts And Guides Organisation) and Scout Rep for SAGE ( Scouts And Guides Exeter), as well as helping out with 10th Exeter Scout troop, who I was with the year before this. It sounds a bit hectic when I put it like this, perhaps I will be the new Tina and run off my feet all the time with constant committee meetings. We will see.

The sad part about University College is that I have not really joined any societies/committees. With the college being small it doesn’t offer the more quirky societies that I am a member of in Exeter such as Frisbee, Surfing, Aerobics, Amnesty International, Scouts and Guides etc. and has the more mundane football, hockey, newspaper, dancing, drama that I am not that intrigued about. I would also not be able to fit it around my studies and have no idea how anyone else manages to do any committee work as well as get good grades. I couldn’t. However what these committees do manage to do is amazing – with us winning the trophy an inter-UC – and I enjoyed very much the open mic night, the musical (Rent), the dance show, improv and Super Sticky Surfaces (the college’s soap drama which is really funny – Exeter should think about making one). There certainly are very many talented people at UC.

At Exeter, as it is so big (16,000 students versus UCU’s 600), I feel like I do not get to see everything Exeter has to offer, such as the drama and sports groups. Exeter is a lot more cliquey and closed and does not have the same community that it does here. I hope to change this next year and attend a lot more on-campus events as I really enjoyed seeing them here. This might be easier than previous years as I will be living on campus next year for the first time! It’s still 20 minutes from central campus though, which UCUers would not understand. In fact they really don’t understand, often saying “why don’t you bike?”  Hello! Exeter University is one big hill! A hard thing for a Dutch mind to contemplate!

However we can hold those tears back for a while as even though my studies are over it is not the end of year abroad as I will be staying around for the summer courses (which I am not taking) and so won’t be leaving till the end of June (with a short intermission to Lancaster for the Queen’s Jubilee weekend)! Yet I know this is not going to be the same as there will be no dining hall, so we’ll have to cook for ourselves (we’ll see how much they complain about dinning hall after this) and I guess the Dutchies, in their confusing way, will be at home a lot. Hence I think this term will be a lot of highs of doing fun stuff as I don’t have work and others are free, and lows of severe boredom while those that do have courses are studying hard (but I can try to sneak home with those that leave, so all is not lost). I can’t contemplate what the weeks after this term will be like, but I will use them to the fullest as my time in Utrecht is nearly up. T -50 days and counting 😦

The inspiration for the title and the anthem for the rest of my time at UCU – Lostprophets – Last Summer



18 Mar


As the next team arrive we have an exchange of confusion as they were not the team who was second on the text. They must still be in Verona. Turned out this couple, the organisers, had been stuck in Innsbruck (we were even more happy we went to Ljubljana then). We also had an awkward moment with the hostel owner as we had been waiting there for hours and using their internet, but hadn’t actually planned to stay with them. We’d used the internet to find a couch surfer, David. He wasn’t very impressed with our plans telling us it was illegal to use the internet without staying there? I’m sure it’s not.

We left as we were about to meet up with Paolo, at St. Marco Square, who had stayed over in Tina’s room for a MUN thing. The magic of the internet. We found him in the crowded square and explained we had to also go meet our couch surfer near the Academia bridge. We didn’t know where that was and with only a google map from Paolo we had fun trying to find it. David was also hosting some other couch surfers so it was a little more challenging as they were moving around too. We found David sitting on a well outside the Gallerie dell’ Accademia where the other couch surfers had gone to look at the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition. Tina said we must go there tomorrow, I said I don’t like fine art.

[On the boat to St. Marco]

Tina spotted “Grom Gelato” which she was very excited about, and as I said we needed to buy ice cream when we got there, we did exactly that. The other couch surfers, who were French, eventually emerged and we all had our greetings, including the kisses which you know exist, but forget about and are a little shocked as you think they are going in for a hug.

[The combination of our two hitchhikes – The San Sebastian Hotel in Venice]

We walk around the confusing streets enjoying the sun and chatting. We stop at a little cafe and get Spritzers which are a traditional Venetian drink. It consists of white wine and a mixer such as campari or aperol. I wasn’t that taken as it tasted of wine, but Tina enjoyed it more. We chilled out by the canal and had a chat with everyone. 48 hours ago we were in Utrecht worrying about exams.


[David’s friend, David, Paolo, Me]

Paolo had to get the train home so after a stop at another bar to wait for the French to catch up we negotiated the winding street following the signs “Ferrovia” (train station). Paolo also enlightened us of an interesting linguistic fact. Venetian, is actually more similar to Spanish than Italian. Which is odd when Venice is on the other side of Italy to Spain. Who knows?

We hugged (and kissed) goodbye. Paolo was a really nice guy and I generally liked him a lot. He said we could stay with him next time we are in Venice instead of with some random people. This was really nice and, as Tina says, there are often cheap flights to Venice it wasn’t so implausible that she could be back. I’m glad that we met up.

After a hunt round the station for David we eventually found each other and got the train and bus back to his place. As we got off the bus we had an awkward conversation where the French wanted to buy food from a supermarket (and one was particularly adamant about it), even though David said he had food at his house we could help ourselves too. We said we were fine with what David had to offer and in the end so were the French.

When we got back David had to rush back to Venice as he had to go back to the bar, which left us to cook. Annoying when he said he would cook for us! Oh well I guess it would be up to me. He had pasta and some veg and so my student eyes could easily see a meal out of that. I raided the cupboards too that people had missed and also found some tinned sweetcorn and garlic. I did the usual frying everything in one pan and then put it on the pasta. It went well and everyone complemented me, including David who would have his helping the next day. This is a little odd to me as this kind of ‘recipe’ is just a way to get rid of all the veg you have in your fridge. Or I have some kind of awesome cooking skill I’m not fully aware of 😉

Tina and I then had a much-needed shower and promptly collapsed on the floor as when hitchhiking you do not get that much sleep. Especially with Tina only having had the one hour.


We awake in the morning and have breakfast of cereal and chocolate spread. We try to impress the French with our Specaloos spread but turns out they have it in France and it’s a French company. My ideas of the Netherlands are shattered! The French are leaving today and so we head back into the city. Our plan was to get a late train that day from Venice to Ljubljana so we left our bags at the station for the day.  We got some pastries from Bar Pasticeria Rio Marin. I get a mini Pizza thing it was very tasty.

[David and Tina – waiting for the French guys who are taking forever to buy a sandwich]

We walk around but it starts to rain so we dive into a chocolate shop for shelter. The French’s train is coming soon so they have to leave and we say our goodbyes. Whilst there we see a way not to stack fruit and I get myself another pizza thing. We wander around a bit more and see Rialto bridge and also get a gondola ride for €0.50. Local knowledge.

http://www.facebook.com/v/10151571518140696 – The lady with her fruit

[Chocolate shop]

[You wouldn’t know, but Tina is discovering her fear of Gondolas]

[David and I on the Gondola]

David appears to know everyone in the city. We see a smoothie place where he knows the people working there and decide we will have a smoothie as their tasters are so nice. We actually get a way bigger serving then we were supposed too 🙂 We also grab a few more gelatos along the way, I get Smurf flavour and Tina gets Pino Pinguino. They are amazing. David says he feels very touristy.

We also see a young art exhibition in a window, which had an egg made out of kinder surprise toys. We go in and look at all the art it was really cool. I get a bit disappointed by the descriptions as it is about the negatives of consumerism where as I would prefer it to be about being childish or something.

We need to go to the station to collect our bags and look at trains. It turns out no trains or buses go to Ljubljana at all so we have to get one tomorrow, €5 wasted on bag storage. This seems ridiculous when Ljubljana is a capital city and they are so close on the map. We discuss our options of trains, buses and hitchhiking. We talk to the train directors and we decide we will get the first train to Trieste in the morning, which is on the Italian Slovenian border and then get a bus from there. Our host for Ljubljana has also contacted us so everything is set for tomorrow.

This evening we are supposed to meet the other hitchhikers for dinner but haven’t heard from them yet. We are nearly on the train back to David’s when we get a message from them. They say to meet them in St. Margherita Square. David knows how to get there and has to pick some forms up from his old job on the way. He also tells us a story of how he hopes we aren’t going to a particular bar as the person there wanted to kill him. He was very vague. We didn’t ask questions.

We met the UCUers and went for dinner which was subsidised by €10 from the UCSA. Even for David!  We got told a tragic story of Mischa who had decided to hitch alone and without a map. It sounded very foolish and in the end he had to get a train to Venice. We exchanged lots more stories and we felt a little guilty that ours had gone so well. In hitchhiking competitions you either win or get stories and we had won so we had very little to say about this hitchhike. Our common response was “yeah last semester…”. They had all had problems with Innsbruck and now they all disliked it. I wasn’t pleased for this as I really enjoyed it when I went with the Explorer Scouts. Oh well hitchhiking makes your opinions, we now love Germany and hate France, it’s just how it goes.

David gets a call during dinner and coincidently it is the bartender he has history with. He wants to chat and David thinks he can sort things out with him so he goes off. He returns saying everything is fine and when we are done we can go over. It turns out to be a really cool bar with UV lights and signs from universities that have visited before. Tina and Eva get to making a UCU sign. I finish off the rest of the Bellini which was our prize for winning. We are glad to have David around as he gets us cheaper prices for all the drink, yay!

Now the unforgettable event of the trip comes along. The bar has a sign that says they play beer pong and we want to have a go. Gael and the bartender win over Sam and Keir (obviously), but then some Americans enter who want a match. Maggie is on the American side with her boyfriend and has the most annoying American stereotypical voice ever and all the mannerisms to go with it. They yell funny things at each other like “I’m thirsty, give me a drink”, which is funny at first but the Americans don’t seem to get that a joke does get old after you say it about 50 times. As beer pong was invented by the US and as the bartender owns the bar you’d think it would be a short match but it dragged on forever especially when they were down to one cup each. They argued insistently about the rules, with the bartender also being stereotypically Italian, punching the wall and swearing on his mother’s life that was how it was. This was a very visual thing, so is hard to describe, but essential it was a day you were happy to be European.

After this we said our goodbyes to the UCUers as we were leaving the next day and went back to David’s. On the bus David asked if we would remain friends with them when we got back to Utrecht, to which we replied “No”. Perhaps we would now smile at them when we see them but that is probably it. With hindsight we were too optimistic with this. There is no smiling – it is actually more awkward than before as you know these people, but you don’t say anything to them. It’s really silly. I think if TripCo has socials like they do at Exeter where everyone just meets up for a night then maybe our friendship could’ve continued.

David had a good night though and said it was the most fun he’d had in Venice in a while. He was moving to Malta soon to work at a youth hostel. We were jealous of his life, just moving where he wanted to and where the jobs were. Although he didn’t seem happy and he later blurted out why while Tina was in the bathroom.  He missed his ex so much. It was a little awkward as at the time I was just talking about getting the train tomorrow..

This night we got to sleep on the bed and not the floor, which was a plus. We had decided to get the second train of the day though and so at 7am we were off to Trieste. We had left David some Dutch biscuits as a present.

Utrecht to Venice? 16 hours? Hitchhiking? No problem.

17 Mar

I have been snowed under with crazy amounts of work so this is why there’s been nothing for a month, but hopefully this will keep you all satisfied with Tina and my grand hitchhiking spring break!


9am and similar to the last hitchhike (http://sansebastianhitchhike.wordpress.com/) I had to wake Klementina as we had to go buy all our snacks from town. Before we’d both had a busy midterms and so had no time to prepare anything. But it was ok we were professionals now.

However the 10am plan to leave for town as usual went out the window as Tina still had two laundries to do as well as email people and pack! At least I had done that.

10.30 am and with Tina having put a load of laundry on we were in town grabbing some sandwiches for lunch. It was open day on campus which means we got a packed lunch rather than the usual brunch. Thus we decided to have lunch in town and take brunch with us for dinner. Genius.

Whilst cycling around we were very happy to see the first emerging daffodils and other flowers. Spring was on its way and we were very glad of it too. We did the usual UCU thing of breaking unspoken language barriers and discussed the English names for flowers, snow drop (Tina’s favourite), daisy, bluebells and daffodils (with the extra fun factoid of being the national flower of Wales – so international!)

We got some things in Hema and I had to go to the V&D to get some super cool sunglasses that I had wanted to get for the prom but then they were an impulse buy and now, as I’d been thinking about them since then, it wasn’t. They will feature heavily in the upcoming photos. Realising we might miss the end of brunch, which dinning hall are insanely mean about if you do i.e. no food for you if you’re one minute late, we had to rush through Albert Heijn. We made it. Dinning hall guy locking the door when it was time to close so you couldn’t get in even if you wanted too. Meanies.

At 1pm, departure time, we were all ready to go. No. Obviously not. Tina still had lots to do so we met for the group photo and got our destination, but unfortunately it would be 2pm before we left. Our chances were high as we set off on the hitchhiking competition an hour behind everyone else…

Our plan was to go to Bunnik and walk to a service station on the A12 near there towards Koln. This was an adventure in itself as I had no idea where this place was and only information from google maps and hitckwiki to go on. It was especially difficult when the bus driver gets confused when you ask him if he was going near a petrol station. Luckily a kind lady on the bus understood we were planning to hitchhike and told the bus driver where to drop us and how to get to the highway. It was a bit of a trek but we eventually made it to the Texaco petrol station. We had to cross a train track on the way which was a little dangerous but we survived. Now to start the hitchhike. We prepared ourselves and approached the first car.

Tina did most of the talking and then suggested I should have a go too. “Hi, are you..”, I started to say. “We’re going to Arnhem, do you want to come?” he said. A little stunned by not having to negotiate, I said of course and called Tina over. Lifts secured Nichola: 1 Tina:0. Lift 1 – 3 Dutch Guys, Shooters (as Tina put them in our book, but I think they’d prefer to be cameramen). They were really cool and were filming an advert for some Dutch construction company. It was in the style of kids say the darndest things which sounds really fun to film. We gave them the website for this so hopefully they will read this sometime – hey guys, thanks for lift, read on to see how we did ;). They dropped us outside Arnhem and on a road towards Germany. Confusing the sign to Koln also pointed to Utrecht, but this was because there was a roundabout ahead.

There were fewer people at this station, but we had the advantage of knowing which cars were German by their license plates. We decided to split, me with the Koln sign out by the road and Tina talking to the people who stopped. It didn’t take that long, probably 15 minutes. Tina called me over. She had found Lift 2 – German old couple who could take us to Koln. Nichola: 1 Tina: 1.

Here Tina decided to prove her excellent German skills she was raving about when we went to San Sebastian. Unfortunately her Spanish on the French/ Spain border was better. We weren’t that skilled at German and even couldn’t remember useful words like petrol station, as learning from previous mistakes, people have to drop you off at one before the town you’re getting to. After a fumble of language exchange we had been told Tankstelle and our message was clear.

[Our lovely German driver]

Ariving we were in for a surprise. A fellow UCUer who told us the grand news that this was a terrible petrol station and people had been stuck here before us for all of 30 minutes! Tina and I realised he was new to this – 30 minutes is nothing – you should try 6 hours whilst having to try and sleep in the freezing cold on a roundabout while you are only 10km from your destination, that is “stuck”!  We weren’t pessimistic though. The UCUer had already secured their lift and so it was just us and the station. I asked someone if they’re going to Frankfurt? No. I saw a guy who looked a bit dodgy, but I thought I would ask anyway as he’d probably say No. Oh dear, he’s not saying no. But he’s not saying yes either? What is he saying? I eventually say its okay as I am understanding he can take us, I just don’t understand the finer details. I call Tina over. Are we really going with this guy? Apparently we are. We get in the car and he comes back with two drinks for us. Are they poison? We say “thank you” and start to talk map to him. Map is an international language everyone understands. He says he is going to Limburg which is a city between Koln and Frankfurt. That’s fine and we set off. Lift 3 – Rap Loving Nice Guy, Nichola:2 Tina:1. 

[After this I was told not to take any more sneaky pictures of drivers as I could tell he was a bit annoyed]

He does love the rap, and he also loves to drive a bit fast, but we are not fussed. We’re a little concerned about the juice, but when we see him drink his we are reassured and it’s good. I feel bad for thinking he was dodgy, but Tina enlightens me she thought similar so I don’t feel so bad. We get to Limburg and start trying to find our next lift to Frankfurt. We are happy as we know we are not an hour behind everyone anymore. We’re doing well. We ask a few people going into the shop, then Tina approaches some guys in broken German: “Entchuldigung, fahren sie vieleicht nach Frankfurt?”. They look confused and say something to each other in not-German. Tina perks up and switches languages. Turns out they said they didn’t speak German in Bosnian, but now they understand her. She persuades them with her Balkan charm to take us to Frankfurt. Lift 4 – epic Bosnian Guys. Nichola: 2 Tina:2.

Unfortunately I am not blessed with a Slavic tongue so do not follow what was being said, but I did know we were progressing well through Germany.  Tina talked to them and learned they were working in Germany and were now headed to Frankfurt to have fun on their day-off. They knew lots of people driving home to Bosnia for the weekend who could easily drop us off in Innsbruck – unfotunately they had all gone on Friday and not Saturday. Ah well, Frankfurt is not bad wither. We get out at Frankfurt and survey the area. I consider using the toilet when another surprise happens. The people who left before us at Koln were just arriving. We’re awesome. “How long have you been here?”. “5 minutes” we reply. We ask them where they were heading. Munich they say. We were heading to Wurzburg. I ask a lady filling up her car. She speaks to me in English, yay we can converse. She says she’s going that way but is not sure if it’s good for us so Tina brings over the map. They chat for a while. “Shall I ask these other people?” I ask Tina. There’s no reply so I go for it anyway. “Entschuldigung, fahren Sie nach Wurzburg?”, “Ja”. “Tina she’s going to Wurzburg!”. We thank the other lady and say our commiseration to the others. “It’s fine”, they say, “we have a better chance when you’re gone”.

We hit the road with Lift 5 – German Lady (we’re not very creative with names as we couldn’t talk to them to gain any other information..). Nichola: 3 Tina:2. We have the Tankstelle conversation, but then we see that it’s only 8pm and her sat nav is saying 11pm. Wurzburg isn’t that far away. Where is she going? I recognize that the hanging doll in her car looks like what my grandma brought me from Austria – hey, she might even be going to Insbruck! We ask. “Munich”. A light bulb flashes above my head. I went to Munich on a trip round Lichtenstein and we came from Innsbruck, Austria, so it’s not that far between the two. We see the map and Tina gets the same brain wave too. “Can we go with you?”, “Ja”. Amazing. We feel a little bad as this is the exact lift the other team needed and they could have got it so easily as we we’re talking to the other lady. But it’s their loss. I try to have a little sleep, though we have been progressing at such speed through Germany that we have hardly had time to eat or go to the toilet. Part way through Tina asks if we can stop for the toilet. “5km” she says. Tina is in doubt: Did she say fünf (5), fünfzehn (15) or fünfzig (50). She sincerely hopes for the first. Turns out she actually said 50km so when we got to the McCafe Tina was bursting. We were very grateful for this stop and ate our pack lunch sandwiches as we set off again. Munchen bound.

During this time we receive the text from TripCo giving our current positions. We are winning!! We were gobsmacked, how could we be winning?! We looked at the map and saw the others must be at Nuremberg. We are quite ahead. We celebrate, but we are remain focused and with our eyes on the game keep driving along the A3.

At Munchen we are now on the lookout for Austrian plates on the way to Innsbruck. We ask a few cars and Tina asks a blonde girl. She is going in that direction, but not to Austria, but can take us to a better petrol station leading to Austria, we are happy with this and make the short trip round the Munchen ring road. Lift 6 – Blonde, Cute German Girl. Nichola:3 Tina:3. Tina comments that German girls are definitely cool. Here, this was our second woman giving us a ride – in France, we were so hardly picked up by men, let alone women.

It is now quite late, around midnight, and we consider that this petrol station will be the one we’ll be sleeping at this evening. We eat a few snacks and check out the place. It’s quite big with some petrol pumps and then a car and lorry park to the side. There isn’t much incoming traffic so I decide to go see if any of the trucks could take us. I also saw a car with Dutch plates go over there, so I go after them, but they drive away too quickly. I ask a truck driver coming back from the cafe if he can take us. “Sorry Pause” he says. So no trucks for us then, we really are going to be sleeping here.

I go back and tell Tina the bad news. We are still trying though and Tina asks a few more cars. She calls me over, very excited. “Oh my God, guess where she’s going?”, “Innsbruck?”, “Ljubljana!” . This is ironic as this is where we plan to go in Slovenia after Venice. “Is it on the way?” “She can drop us off here” (Tina points to the map, we follow her finger from Ljubljana to Venice, doesn’t look that long.), “Looks good, let’s go!”.

Lift7 – Slovenian Girl. Nichola: 3 Tina:4. They speak in English to start but eventually switch to er? One of the Balkan languages? I decided to spend most of my trip sleeping in the back, so it didn’t matter. She has had a meeting in Munchen and is now driving back home. What a journey to take, especially when she won’t be arriving back till the early hours. For this we are a little glad as we won’t be sleeping outside for this time. They talk. I sleep. Tina learned that they’re lots of amazing places in Slovenia that need to be seen. They discussed how the euro-crisis is felt in Slovenia, why doesn’t Slovenia share the same Balkan mentality as the other ex-Yugoslavian countries and so on. Eventually Tina got sleepy too, but she felt bad to fall asleep while the woman needed the conversation to keep her awake driving in the middle of the night. I am told we’ve just gone through a really long tunnel which had the border in the middle. It was really cool, apparently. I missed it. But we were in Slovenia! So amazing! We never thought we’d be anywhere close to our destination at this time. We were very happy. Near the cross roads where we stop for coffee – poor girl she needed a lot on this journey – and Tina says there is a better junction just outside Ljubljana and on the map it is the direct road to Venice. Looked good to me. Tina makes arrangements and we get another hour of not sleeping outside. The woman decides to drive for us a bit further north of Ljubljana just so that she can drop us off at a petrol station exactly at the motorway for Italy.

We arrive and get out, it was surprisingly warm, we’d be happy to sleep here a few hours till the more likely being picked up time of 6am. But there are some cars here ANDone of them has Italian plates! Our victim, an unsuspecting, chubby Italian is filling his car with gas. While still thanking the Slovenian woman, still dizzy from the trip, we slowly approach him from the side. We ask, “Skuzi, Venzia?”, “Si”, he signals to the car. Unbelievable! We hug. Its 5am. We don’t have to sleep outside this night. We have our final ride to Venice. We will be there in an hour. It had all gone so well. Lift 8 – Italian Guy. Nichola: 3 Tina: 5. (I thought she only won by one, but turns out to be two!). We are excited we enjoy the ride, I sleep and we watch the sun rising. We get into Venice at 6am. The saying of the trip “If we had organized lifts ourselves, it wouldn’t have gone that smoothly”. Average speed of the trip 90.5km/h (56mph). 16 hours.

But it wasn’t over yet we had to get to the hostel, the official end of the competition. We had to get a boat there from San Marco Square. We just had to find San Marco. We asked the driver and he pointed us in the direction. Unfortunately Venice is a lot bigger than I remember from the school trip I went on. So many streets, are we going the right way? It can’t be that far. Do I recognise anything? No. We ask a nun. She says to take a boat taxi. The guy there says its €6.50 to get to San Marco and we are better off walking there. We go back to where we asked the nun and see a sign for San Marco Square. We follow these for what seems like forever. Venice is a place you definitely need a local or a map for. We eventually get there very hot and sweaty. We don’t like San Marco.

We find the boats and are confused by which to get and how to buy a ticket. We try to ask an old lady. Language barrier. We just decide to wait. A boat arrives and we get on. €6.50 for two stops, a 10 minute journey, a rip-off. We have to go though. An hour after we arrive in Venzia we are at the hostel, 7am. Is there anyone else here? Any UCUers? There isn’t. We’ve WON!!!!

We have an awkward conversation with the receptionist where we say we don’t want to pay yet and wait for the others. We actually plan to couch surf as the place is €20 a night, although we don’t have a host yet. We collapse on a table. We discuss our epic adventure. We cannot believe what just happened. Everyone around us is eating breakfast. I pull out a salad and Tina with only one hours sleep the whole journey (her plan to sleep in cars failed) has a nap on the table. We await the others. We send our morning text and wait for the reply. At 11am we receive where the others are. The next team is 126 km away. We work this out to be Verona. Not that far.

The next team doesn’t arrive till 3pm.

[Our route]

UCU Hitchhike Competition Champions Spring 2012 – Nichola and Klementina. Spongebob 2.0.

But this isn’t the end. This part of the break wasn’t very exciting, though I appear to have made a good story out of it. More is in store.


[A taster]

The Dutch Education System: A Licence To Cheat?

15 Mar

Sometimes the Dutch live up to their stereotypes and perhaps they are far too relaxed when it comes to examinations. It is currently mid-way through midterms and thankfully I had my two midterms this morning, but my workload is still hell. I may come back to this later. However, ever since a discussion at the beginning of the week about high school exams, I feel that I have to make this fact about the Dutch system more publicly known.

UCU, and it’s mother university Universiteit Utrecht, is ranked in the top 50 universities in the world. But perhaps they are not in the top 50 in the way they carry out their exam procedures. Here I will list a few points that may give the students of UCU an unfair advantage when it comes to what grades they obtain.

1. Anonymity. You’d think that this was an obvious thing to have when handling exams wouldn’t you? I mean that is the only real use for our student numbers at Exeter and we have those here too so it makes sense to use that rather then your name. It doesn’t take a genius to see (and there are many experiments that show) that markers can easily be biased when they know who’s writing a paper (even when they think they are not). They don’t even have to know you personally to be biased – and at  UCU (with maximum class size of 28) it’s pretty likely they will know everyone’s name in the class. Just knowledge of gender can influence marking. When it has even been shown that such superficial things as your handwriting can sway the mark awarded for a piece of work, openly telling an examiner who you are makes bias (intentional or unintentional) almost impossible to avoid.

2. Examination layout. When you sit your GCSEs, A levels or most exams in the UK you generally get taken to a new room that isn’t your classroom and are sat on a single desk. Yet UCU does not believe in this simple way to prevent cheating. Most of the time your exam is in the same room as your class with the seats in the same layout i.e. a horseshoe shape facing the board. This means even quite an unsubtle person can look at their neighbour to copy their notes and I’m sure most people actually do. If you are stuck on a question and the person next to you is scribbling away happily then most people will be tempted to at least try to see what they have written. I don’t see how you couldn’t.

3. Examination procedure. Now some of the things in the UK I think are a bit over the top in the examination world, such as taking the labels off of your water bottle in case there are notes on it, and the absurd (even I don’t understand why) rule about having to take you hat off while at Exeter. But being allowed to have your bag by your desk, being allowed to leave the exam room and come back, and what’s more having the teacher leave the room during the exam – making the room unsupervised – is just a little too lax. I am quite unsure why people get to leave and come back so if someone could enlighten me on this fact it would be appreciated.

My view on this point had been strengthened when people came back from their stats exam which was held in the educatorium (what a silly name for a building) off-campus at the Uithof. Here the procedure was much more like the exams at Exeter and to hear people complain about it was odd. The main complaint was on the subject of ID cards. The examiners at the Uithof expected everyone to have their ID cards on the desk when they were writting their exam. A standard procedure at Exeter. But being UCU (where most people don’t even have a picture of themselves on their student card- though strangely mine does have a picture) people hadn’t brought them. In my eyes it makes sense to do this, to make sure the person who claims to be Sarah is actually Sarah. Perhaps UCU is okay  as the class room size is so small it would be much harder for someone to write your exam for you, but it is something I had forgotten happened at home.

The deception went deeper as for the stats exam they were obviously allowed calculators. However they were allowed to use graphical calculators – something that every Dutch student has – rather than in the UK, where I’m sure most people haven’t even seen one. Basically they are big chunky things which have many functions, including being able to draw graphs – which is handy. However they also have a huge memory in which you can input all your notes for an exam. For maths at Exeter we are not allowed these – full stop. Our scientific ones have to be on a list of approved calculators and before we sit the exam we have to go to the exams office and get a little gold sticker put on it to show it is approved. However no approval of calculators was needed for this exam and even though the examiners said they would check all calculators I’m sure most can still sneak them through. Plus the graphical calculators even have a statistics mode which I’m sure people could have made great use of.

As the confessions came out over the lunch table I learned that this graphical calculator business had been going on for years with everyone confessing to having notes in there for their secondary school exams. I further learned that teachers at their schools even knew this was the case and did nothing about it. I continued learning that they all had their own elaborate schemes for telling each other the answers by hand gestures and leg placements. Shame on you Dutchies!

4. Assignments. The main problems here, not including lack of anonymity which I have already mentioned, is word count and hand-in time. The first is not true of all classes here, as in social psychology I was explicitly told that you had to put your word count on the piece of paper and were not allowed to be over it. However in most classes students do not adhere to this rule.

In psychology at Exeter I am told at least once every year the word limit, is the limit. Many students have the idea of the “10% rule”, which means you can go over the word count by 10% – but I am also being repeatedly told this is not the case. Yet here they don’t seem to mind even that much and people hand in work that is over by much greater then 10%.

For instance, my group evolution paper was meant to be 1000 words…

“By the way guys, it’s quite over the word count”
“10% rule”
“It’s more than 10%”
“It’s fine they’re lenient on word count here”.

And how lenient! My friend, who had an essay of 500 words, said one student handed in the same assignment with over 700 words. “It’s just an extra paragraph”, they said, “without that end paragraph it wouldn’t make sense”. But the task is to do it in so many words, then the challenge is to do it in so many words. It is definitely an unfair advantage to go over the word count by 40%!

Concerning hand-in time, the rule at Exeter is very precise – you have to give your work in electronically and if your work is late by one second then you get a zero for that assignment. It’s clear cut. It seems crazily unfair, but everyone knows the rule and that’s how it works. However I am astonished to hear that people are able to hand in work hours, days and sometimes weeks after the hand-in date and still have it accepted. Another part of the challenge of an essay is time management, so why should other people in your class be allowed to spend extra time on their work than you. People are even proud when they have done this “I managed to hand my work in only an hour past the deadline this time”. To my ears there should be some king of a penalty for this or the rules should be made more explicit.

So what do I think about this? Personally I am unaware that I have suffered from poorer grades because of this system, but then again I wouldn’t really know as favouritism by teachers is not likely to come out (especially as they’d be adamant they were not biased – but, as I said above, unconscious bias is possible, even probable) and when people get extensions on their work the class is not made aware of that fact, so I would not be able to compare given grades. I also haven’t received my evolution paper back to know if  it has been penalised or not for being over the word count.

However I would suggest that some people do fall foul of this system and furthermore are probably unaware of it. Maybe UCU is too trusting of it students not too cheat (I am very tempted to do this given that it appears to be so easy and the teacher doesn’t pay that much attention to the class!) and perhaps they are too trusting of their staff not to be biased?  Perhaps UCU should consider changing their ways of being laid-back and tighten up their act.

Maybe it’s the case that the Dutch are more trusting of people and the UK we are more distrusting? It might be similar to the fact that the Dutch (even big institution like UU and UCU) seem much less aware of credit card fraud and do not take the precautions we routinely do in the UK.

Do you agree?

UCU Proms in the Castle

5 Mar

Five weeks in, where does the time go?

Last week was very hectic with two tests, a presentation and an assignment. It’s busier than my midterm week! At least we had Prom at the weekend to make up for it.

Prom at UCU is an annual event where the people of UC actually put an effort in when planning a night out. Usually at the bar it is OK to go in the same clothes that you went to class, no one minds. Whilst this is refreshing from the having-to-change-to-your-evening-clothes mentality when heading out in Exeter, it’s nice to dress up sometimes. However this did mean that I was a little disappointed when I saw what others had chosen to wear. Prom has a certain style of dress, the kind you can only wear to a fancy event. These were the kind I was expecting. Yet I guess as UCUers don’t get to wear going out dresses to the bar they wear them to Prom instead. Essentially I felt a lot more shiny than others.

However everyone still looked good and it was exciting to get outside the bubble together. Unfortunately we were not the entire friendship group we would have like to have been. Most of the Dutchies (not including Linda, Myrte you’re awesome (; ) had decided not to go. For these kind of uni events I have the mentality that you should always go to them as if you don’t go you’ll just consider what it would’ve been like if you did and if you do go and it’s not good at least you experienced it and will know what it was like – in essence there is a smaller risk of regret in going than not. I hypothesized it had something to do with the much stronger home life they have as in their mind they see us uni people all the time. When really this isn’t the case and when we are a group it is often only in Dinning Hall and at these times we are thinking of other things “Oh no I have class in an hour”, “I have so much reading to do”, “I’m so tired” etc. Not time just going out and having fun, plus this will be the only UCU Prom I can go to so I am sad that now I will never go with everyone.

The theme of Prom was “Once Upon A Time”, but in typical UCU style I did not see any of this reflected in what people had chosen to wear or inside the venue. The venue did appear to fit the theme as it was in a castle, however when we arrived all we could see around us was houses and it turned out to just be in the middle of a housing estate. It was not very castle-like and actually more like a big house. We entered anyway and made our way to the dance floor. The rest of the evening consisted of toing and froing from the bar to the dance floor. We we’re interrupted a few times for the announcements of Prom Kings and Queens, which is to be expected from an Americanised system such as that of UCU. I am not really a fan of this Prom King and Queen stuff. 1. because it dented the atmosphere every time there was an announcement and 2. you had to give your vote in before the Prom, hence it was nothing but a pure popularity contest.

The waltz came on latter which for me detracted a bit too as I remained partner-less. I was hot though so I tried to go outside to cool down, but ridiculously we were being forcibly trapped there. You were not allowed out unless you pleaded with the guy on the door to go get something from your coat at which point you had to return immediately anyway. This was the most ridiculous thing of the prom.

I realise in this I am being quite negative, but that is not what I thought of Prom. It was a fun night out it was just not what you imagine a Prom to be like. It was a good party.

I have concluded since that I am not that big a fan of Prom, I enjoy the pre-Prom part but when actually there I am a little disappointed. I think I will stick to the more creative ones at Exeter such as the Adventure Ball (It is held in a children’s soft play area!).

I also had company in my room for one night this week, “named” Figaro.

Welcome one and all

22 Aug

First day of Utrecht and the room is huge! If it was in England it would at least be a twin. I initially wondered if they had just forgotten to put the second bed in, but no it was all mine.

http://www.facebook.com/v/10150770902845696 video of my room

On the way here, from the border of Belgium,the Satellite Navigation didn’t work so we had to guess the directions and then use an Utrecht road map. It was quite difficult and frustrating but we got there in the end. It’s hardly how you’d want to arrive ‘Yay we’ve made it here. Oh wait this is it start of my year abroad’.

We had to stand in a long queue to get our room key. Exeter was nicer for this as when I moved into Halls you got your key straight away. Plus then some nice Welcome Week people helped carry all your stuff to your room. Not so in University College Utrecht, you have to carry your own stuff! It wasn’t that big a problem really as you got to talk to your potential new friends in the queue, fortunately she also turned out to be my neighbour which was convenient. Though haven’t really seen her since…

There’s a very active Facebook group which I completely overlooked before I came. I had a very hectic summer so I hadn’t thought much about UCU except the arriving part. This seemed like a massive disadvantage  at the time as most people’s first questions were “are you on the Facebook group?” of which my first response was a confused expression. Facebook, it appears, has had its impact on many a social experience which now extends to your first day at University. You no longer can turn up having a completely fresh start and know that everyone else will be the same as you. Then not knowing anyone, a little nervous a little excited. Times have changed and the social dynamics have already been set. If you’re on the Facebook group you are top dog and already have your friends sorted and hence do not need very much those of us who forget about such things. My neighbour is already a member and there are talks of Facebook group midnight meet ups. Way to feel left out of the circle. In retrospect even if I did think about seeing if there was a group I wouldn’t have found it as I also can’t find it now!

Welcome Week for Exeter – Freshers Week for the rest of the UK – and Intro Week at UCU is a little different. During this week you join in activities with your ‘family’ which includes having ‘dads’ and ‘moms’ (which annoys me no end, I highly dislike the American spelling of mum, but this is a different point). When I read this initially I thought it sounded terribly lame and American, but I could see the beneficial side and was willing to go along with it and reserve my judgements till the end of the week (I was also subsequently told that some university’s in the UK also employ the family system).  Today we were organised into our family units and we are family 23, which was very scary as we were the last group to be called so you sit there with the room getting emptier and emptier thinking “I hope they haven’t forgotten me!” (especially when there’s someone called Nicole Burg, which to be fair is quite similar to my name, so when it came up on the board I considered it might have been me).

Anyway we went to their unit (not halls or flat) in the Wall. This is a different type of Halls to my G building and it is super nice. Apparently it is one of the least sort-after accommodation as the rooms are the smallest. However I would happily give up a big room (that I can hardly fill as I didn’t realise it was going to be so huge) for their lovely open plan living room. My previous house in Exeter had literally no living area. Well it did but it was defiantly a hallway with a sofa and small table shoved in there so the owners could say it had a living room. So I was highly appreciative of an area where all unit mates could congregate. Again in my previous house the compromise was no living area for big rooms. Which is a nice idea. However everyone ends up in their rooms instead of the communal area, so if you want to go see someone you kind of have to have a reason for doing so and I wasn’t so good at those. In essence I believe it makes your accommodation highly antisocial. Essentially the Wall is the closest to my ideal accommodation I’d seen so far.

The outside of my unit 'G' (behind the tree)

The view from the entrance to my unit

Back to the family. Obviously it was awkward to start with and to be honest for quite a while as we were forcibly made to interact with each other, but it has to be done and what better way but through the art of games. First things first you have to learn everyone’s name and with UCU being international this makes it quite hard for my English ears. I find Myrte, Anneke, Alizee, Marieke and Eugenia particularly hard to remember at first. I know them all now though thanks to some think of a word that starts with same letter to put in front of your name memory hooks. Mine was Nifty Nichola. Here I also learned that my name is hard to say outside of the island and that Nicole is the only form that exists on the continent. Thanks parents. I’ll just have to accept Nicole which is fine as they will have to accept my terrible English pronunciations of their names. We also played a game where you had to say three facts about yourself two true and one false. I am quite proud of this as don’t see myself as an excellent liar. They were; this summer I am volunteering for the London 2012 Olympics, I have never smoked and I hitchhiked from England to Amsterdam. The first one is the lie which they didn’t get, so I was happy. They saw through the middle one straight away, apparently you only need to know me a few hours to pick up on my innocent air. Therefore they thought I hadn’t hitchhiked to Amsterdam as you’d have to go over the channel and that’s impossible!

In the evening we had a Cluedo theme at the bar which was very creative. We had to find all the different characters at the Bar and interview them and hence put together the clues to see who had murdered the Dean. Exciting stuff. I don’t think we got the right person and I still don’t actually know who it was but we has a good time doing it. Before we went we sampled the student’s favourite Albert Heijn Bier (actually its the cheapest available but I don’t expect any different from students, I’m sure this is the same the world over). I don’t like beer that much so it tastes like the same yuck larger we have at home, so no problem. I think the rest of the week will be good, though I still need to meet my unit mates properly.

I also bought a bike! Now I am properly Dutch, although as I said to my (real) family when getting the bike” I’m pretty sure €60 is steep for a second-hand bike”. “No its really cheap” everyone told me. “But for Holland?” This was later confirmed but at least €60 is middle range price so it’s OK. You can buy one from a dodgy guy at the train station for €12 though..

The bikes are pretty odd when you’re used to a mountain bike with full suspension. Whereas these are bikes are like the one’s you would see the women ride in Mary Poppins, complete with flowery basket and all. I was very careful to get one with hand breaks as  when I was in Amsterdam before we hired bikes that you pedal backwards to brake. They are a nightmare especially if you emergency brake as the pedals have to stay where you left them. So if you’re in the middle or a tram lane and you need to GO! It doesn’t really work as you try to kick the pedal round to the top so you can go. But then fail to do so and try to start with it 3/4 of the way down. Which is an impossible task when you’re not used to it. So I wasn’t going to do that again. So maybe it’s not properly Dutch, but good for a wannabe!

Leaving for Dinning Hall to meet my 'Family' and start my year living in the Netherlands

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