Oktoberfest!

Prior to my arrival in the Netherlands, I knew next to nothing about the cultural phenomenon that is Oktoberfest. I assumed it must take place in October, and I knew that beer was involved. Other than that, nothing. When my friends and I learned about a local student organization that was leading student trips there, however, we quickly pounced on the opportunity to attend. The student organization (Way2Go) planned everything: the bus ride there and back, our lodging (a giant circus tent in the middle of nowhere, but we’ll get to that later), breakfast, and perhaps most importantly, the knowledge of do’s and don’ts in the world of Oktoberfest.

But first, I’ll give some background facts about Oktoberfest, all of which I learned on the bus ride there. Oktoberfest began in 1810, when Crown Prince Ludwig was married to Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in Munich. A horse racing event was held in honor of the marriage. The horse races and the festivities that accompanied them (beer-drinking) continued up until 1960, when the horse racing was dropped and only the festival came to be dominated by beer. 

After reading the informational pamphlet put together by the program, my friends and I settled back in our seats, shared a bottle of red wine that we for some reason decided was necessary to help us sleep through the 9 hour bus ride, and fell asleep to the sound of Russell Brand’s absurd performance as Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. We were awakened several hours later, at 5:30am, and were told that we had stopped at a gas station to change into out Oktoberfest costumes. Dazed and excited, we tumbled out of the bus, into the rain, and ran to the gas station bathrooms, were the girls donned their dirndls and the boys struggled into their lederhosen. After two more hours on the bus, were were in Munich.

Our bus dropped us at the train station and we left all of our belongings on board to be dropped off at our campsite. After reading online that purses well ill-advised, I had nothing on me but my phone, some money, and my umbrella. The whole group of us, two busloads worth of students, began to march through the cold, damp, early morning streets of Munich, munching on soggy sandwiches and following the trusted navigation of our group leader’s iphone towards the fair grounds. At first I felt ridiculous, dressed the way I was, but it quickly became evident that we were hardly the only people on our was to the festivities. Though the streets were not yet crowded, the increasing number of people clad in dirndls and lederhosen made it clear that we were nearing the grounds. When they finally appeared before us, I was completely taken aback.

I knew that Oktoberfest had beer. What I didn’t know was that it also has roller-coasters, a Ferris Wheel, and countless other carnival rides. Never have I been to a place where childhood and adult ideas of “a good time” come together in such a way; except perhaps in Las Vegas. We immediately made our way towards a tent, where a large crowd of people had already began to form a “line”. People were jostling one another, trying to get close to the entrance, and I made futile efforts not to jab strangers with my umbrella. As I observed the crowd around me, I discovered that dirndls and lederhosen were in no way the only acceptable Oktoberfest attire. People were sporting everything from sports jerseys to giant baby costumes. And then, the doors were open.

The beer tents at Oktoberfest operate on a first come first serve basis. The only way to order a beer is to sit at a table, and the only way to sit at a table is to get there and sit down (or stand) on it before anyone else does. The moment the doors opened, the entire crowd surged forward. People clambered over tables, pushed one another, and shouted in German, Spanish, Dutch, English, and what seemed like a million other languages. As I ran through the entrance a security guard snatched my umbrella from my hands. I stared at him in bewilderment for a few seconds before running onward to avoid being separated from my friends. Miraculously, we were able to secure a table. At 8:30am, breathless and ready for our beer, we were informed that no beer would be served until noon. We passed the time playing cards and chatting with the Australians who were sharing our table. I contemplated trying to take a nap on the table, but decided that the chances of actually getting any sleep were highly unlikely.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, noon rolled around. A marching band began to play and everyone began singing in German. My friends and I yelled along with the tune, making random sounds and smiling. And then, after nabbing the attention of one of the bar maids, we were served our beer! Beer at Oktoberfest is not served in bottles. It comes in steins, which are each 1 liter. I literally could not hold a full stein with one hand, and after “only” one I was feeling quite good.

Delft Blue

     On Friday, August 17th, my fellow UC students and I took a day trip to the quaint old town of Delft. We had spent the previous two days in Amsterdam, partaking in various cultural activities. We visited museums such as the Rijksmuseum, the Vertzetsmuseum, and the Anne Frank museum. We also enjoyed a boat tour around the city and paid an obligatory (albeit brief) visit to the Red Light District. Our hotel was located in Rembrant Square, home to many of the city’s clubs. This location, though convenient, did not allow for much peace and quiet, so Delft’s calm, picturesque environment was a welcome break from the constant action.
After an informative lecture on water management in the Netherlands and a quick lunch in the market square, our bus took us to the Delft Blue Museum. Having already visited several museums since my arrival in the Netherlands, I was a bit reluctant at first. However, the Delft Blue exceeded my expectations. Unlike many museums, Delft Blue offered us an engaging, interactive experience. Upon our arrival at the museum, our group was served pie, coffee, and tea in a private room overlooking the courtyard of the museum. We were then led by a knowledgeable and energetic tour guide through the history of Delft Blue.
We walked through several rooms where we were shown movies that took us on a virtual journey through the history of Delft Blue. We learned that the unique blue and white style that is so commonly associated with Dutch culture actually originated in China, and that the paint contains a secret ingredient known only to the manufacturers of Delft Blue. We then got to see the pottery itself, in all of its intricate detail. The best part of the visit was saved for the end, however, when we were all given our own tile to paint! I don’t consider myself a particularly talented artist, but we had the option of using one of several stencils, so I opted to do that. Many of my fellow UC students chose to paint original designs, however, and when our finished tiles arrived in Maastricht weeks later, it was wonderful to see all of the different results.

 

Maastricht––the old and the new

8/13/12I’ve been in the Netherlands for four days now and I frequently find myself looking up everyone’s nose. The people here are TALL, but not as predominantly blonde as I had expected. In fact, the famous Dutch height is the only stereotype that has held up so far; that, and the abundance of cheese. Clogs, tulips, and windmills all seem to be in scarcity here in Maastricht. However, every grocery store I’ve been in showcases shelves stocked with massive wheels of gouda, swiss, and inestimable unfamiliar types of cheese. One store was offering samples, and my roommate and I were quick to buy a block of the stuff.
Beyond cheese shopping, The DLC (Dutch Culture and Language) program has kept us all busy with daily tours of the city and nightly trips to the bars. Our Dutch tour guides––whom are also our fellow students––have offered a diverse experience of the city. With their guidance, we’ve explored the Roman-built walls of the old city, visited a bookstore inside a cathedral, and danced until the wee hours of the morning at Alla, the club that opens when everywhere else has already closed. Such a variety of activities exemplifies the way in which the old and the new flow seamlessly together in Maastricht. Ancient buildings house modern clubs, and the ancient cobblestone streets teem with shiny new mopeds, bicycles, and cars.
Our rigorous schedule doesn’t leave much time for sleep, but I’ve managed to fit in a much needed nap everyday, and I seem to have finally recovered from my jet lag. There will be less time for rest in the coming weeks, however. On Wednesday, we will head to Amsterdam, and from there on to Delft, for a few days of sightseeing. It’s not always easy to absorb such a constant influx of excitement and new surroundings, and I’ve found that it’s easiest to simply relax and think in the moment. Trying to wrap my mind around the numerous trips and events that are planned for the next few weeks is overwhelming, but taking each day at a time is easily manageable and, even better, thoroughly enjoyable.

“Why the Netherlands?”

     That’s a question I’m often asked when I tell people where I’ll be spending the next year of my life. This question is never asked in a disdainful, judgmental manner, or, if it is, the person asking manages to disguise it as genuine curiosity. I prefer to think they really are interested. The first few times someone asked me this I found that I actually had no idea how to answer him or her. I considered simply shrugging my shoulders and saying “I don’t know,” but I was worried that would make me seem boring and disinterested, which is the opposite of how I really feel about studying abroad. I’ll talk to almost anyone who’ll listen (and some who are less willing) about my upcoming year abroad. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have never been more excited for anything in my entire life, and I frequently find myself trying to quell this excitement, for fear that my expectations are too high. But why am I so excited, why the Netherlands? Back to that initial question.
     It’s not that I don’t have any reasons, they just aren’t especially fantastic. They don’t even come close to expressing the rush of adrenalin I feel when I picture myself living in Maastricht, learning Dutch, and taking the speed train to Paris. My reasons are more mundane. I want to go somewhere in Europe, but somewhere I’ve never been before. I want to go somewhere that everyone speaks English, but not England. I like bikes. None of these reasons properly answer the question at hand; they just supplement a larger, more meaningful answer.
     My true answer is difficult to articulate; it sounds cheesy and a bit contrived. But, in all honesty, the Netherlands just feels right. From the first time I browsed the Netherlands page in the UCEAP pamphlet I’ve felt a magnetic pull towards the place. As cliché as this may sound: I can see myself living there. This vision is one of the elements of my excitement that I often try to dispel, because what if I don’t assimilate as envisioned? No amount of willpower can dampen the passion I already feel towards the Netherlands, towards Maastricht and UCM in particular. The notion of going to a University where the classes are small and discussion based is thrilling in itself. The opportunity to engage in an interactive learning environment is extremely important to me. And living in a culturally diverse, historical city like Maastricht is a frequent traveler’s dream come true. I think I’m finally beginning to find my answer.
     At this point in my rambling, somewhat disjointed explanation, the person I’m speaking to has likely zoned out and/or forgotten what the question was in the first place. Or, perhaps they were listening the entire time, and are now thinking how naive my answer is. They do have a point; I am basing an entire year of my life on instinct. I don’t speak a word of Dutch, the only person I’ve ever met from the Netherlands was my English teacher in High School, and I frequently complain about cold weather. It is details like these that ground me and remind me that my experience will not be perfect. I will miss home, I will feel lonely, I may experience culture shock, and I may be miserable in the snow. I am not unaware of these realities. In fact, it is truths like these that allow me to realize just how much I am ready to go study abroad. Because, despite any negative aspects, I want nothing more than to be in Maastricht. I am ready to get lost in Europe, to fumble my way through a foreign language, and to meet people who are nothing like me. These things will be difficult, but they will also be wonderful. It is experiences like these that will make my journey wholly real and will have a strong impact on my life. This is why I want to go to the Netherlands.
     What I love the most about when people ask me, “why the Netherlands?” however, is how they respond to my answer. I’ve had friends gush about how perfectly I’ll fit in there, how much I’ll love it, and I’ve had strangers express to me just how friendly and fun the Dutch people are. Sure, the Dutch are known to be tall and blonde, and I’m short and with black hair, but it isn’t these physical characteristics that are important. I feel a concurrence with the Dutch spirit of happiness and adventure. And, perhaps most crucially, I expect change. In fact, I fully expect that everything that I have just written, any predictions I have made about my study abroad experience, will change during my stay in Maastricht. I am ready to be proven wrong.