Den Haag

On Friday, the entire class took a fiiiiiiieeeeellllld trip! To the Hague!

While Amsterdam is the most populous city of the Netherlands and the capital of the entire Kingdom, many people do not realize that nearly all of the actual government buildings and happenings are a city a short train ride to the south-west of Amsterdam– the Hague, or, in Dutch, Den Haag.  So, at a blissful 8:30AM, the entire contingent of UC students (about 50 in total, 30 at Utrecht University and 20 at the smaller Utrecht College University) clamored onto a bus and began the trip from Utrecht to Den Haag.  It’s not a particularly long trip, at least by Californian standards.

Soon we arrived in the Netherlands’ third largest city (a step up from the fourth largest!).  My first stop was to the Mauritshuis, a museum established in 1822 that hosts the Royal Cabinet of Paintings.  Hosting a wide variety of art from the Dutch Golden Age (the 17th century), it was quite a treat seeing art from Rembrandt and Vermeer.  Our guide was, of course, from Massachusetts.  The 17th century building hosts over 831 paintings, but the building itself is rather small, and I feel that I was able to see almost everything.  It was incredible seeing all of the Dutch Golden Age masters– I found that I’m a big fan of the details and understanding of texture, lighting, and surfaces that the Dutch masters were big on.  I learned that the Dutch were also the ones who invented the landscape apparently.  A lot of great paintings!  The museum was full of exquisite Rembrandts (most notably “The Anatomy Lesson”) and Vermeers, of course, the most famous being the “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”

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Following the Mauritshuis, we hopped next door to the Binnenhof, the government center.  We walked past the “Little Tower” (left in picture, Mauritshuis on the right) where the Prime Minister works, and into the main government square.  The most incredible thing– no security checkpoint.  Beyond one all black Mercedes that had four fully armed guards in it, there was absolutely no security checkpoints, not noticeable police.  Police have been very minimal here, I think across three cities and two weeks I have seen two police officers.

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Our first stop at the Binnenhof was the Hall of Knights, which is by far the coolest name for a government building.  We started in the basement, constructed in the 12th century (iirc), and moved up to the main hall.  Once a year, the King and the rest of the royal gang meet up with all the government in the HALL OF KNIGHTS to give the Dutch equivalent of the State of the Union.  It is a big deal and very ceremonious, and is basically the only thing the king… does.  And he doesn’t even write the speech.  It was a pretty impressive building, and the oldest building in the Hague.  Originally a hunting lodge for the Count of the Netherlands, it grew and grew until it became the capital of the emerging province.  It has quite the history, changing hands as the country was conquered by various empires, even being a gym under Napoleon.

Next up was a visit to the senate chamber.  The Netherlands has two houses, one equivalent to the House of Representatives and one equivalent to our Senate.  We went to the small senate chamber, that seats 75 members when Parliament is in session.  It’s a beautiful room, with big green seats, covered in paintings from the floor to the ceiling.  I have been to the U.S. Senate Building, and let me tell you, this one takes the cake.  It was very cool getting an inside look in how the Dutch government lives, especially after attending a lecture on the Dutch parliamentary system.

We then had lunch at a lovely little restaurant near the Binnenhof, a spacious place with a cool vibe, completely decked with Cuban flags and symbology.  Having gone to Cuba a couple summers ago, I was excited to eat some more delicious Cuban food.  So imagine my surprise when they served us tomato soup, gouda and gread, and deep-fried ragout filled balls with a crunchy layer of very fine bread-crumbs ad mustard, because, the Netherlands.  A very typically Dutch lunch.

After several hours with the UC groups our organized time in den Haag (which, by the way, is an old Dutch word for “the forest”) came to an end.  Me and two of my friends, Ryan and Payam, decided to stay for the rest of the day and go back to Utrecht by ourselves.

The first stop on our trip was to an awesome museum that mainly houses the Panorama Mesdag, a huge 360 degrees painting of a beachside Dutch town by  Hendrik Willem Mesdag.  Included were other Mesdag paintings, which I really liked, which were almost exclusively of scenes from Scheveningen, the beautiful beach by the Hague.  Then we walked up the road to the Peace Palace, a beautiful building near the International Hall and Court of Justice.  To our dismay, they weren’t offering tours that day, so we could only see the outside.  We then walked all through the Hague looking for a place to eat.  We settled on a nice steakhouse that was offering a dinner special, and so we tied up the day with kangaroo steak and a bottle of the house wine.  They charged us for the water.  This country hates hydration.

 

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I Pretend to Be an Adult: Multilingual Edition

Or, Coffee for Ants

My father once told me a story about some of his earlier days in the US.  When he first ordered an espresso at a coffee shop (which, since you were wondering, is incredibly different from the Dutch “coffeeshop”) he was befuddled by what the barista handed him– so small, so tiny, what is this, a coffee for ants?  Where was the drink?  This was $3?

Hearing this story growing up, I’ve been familiar with the concept of an espresso for maybe as long as I can remember.  Yet this was not enough to save me from my own bewilderment as, knowingly purchasing an espresso from the university, I was surprised to be handed such a small cup!  I was expecting a cup with only a bit of liquid in it, not a full cup that looked like it was made for some very lethargic toddlers.

This is just one example of me pretending to adult.  Much to my mother’s… dismay, one might say I need to develop in certain adult skills.  Having lived in the dorms the past two years with my food coming chiefly from the dining hall, my independent skills needed a little refinement.  Only just recently did I make my first dentist appointment, all by myself.  My mother drove me to the office.

So here I am– living on my own, no dining hall, have to buy my own groceries, have to budget– but all in a different language.  I have to pretend to be an adult pretending to know Dutch.

Now to be clear, nearly everyone here has a pretty good grasp of English.  It is not quite the English that people speak in the US.  The Dutch learn their English from the British, and then add their own Nederlandse twist to it.  This has resulted in some miscommunications and the need for plenty of clarifying.  All signs, instructions, and labels are in Dutch, of course, and so I’ve had to lean on my background knowledge of English, Spanish, and German to determine if something is 1,5 Euro, or 1,5 Euro per KILOGRAM.  I went to the phone store to buy my SIM card.  It took 30 minutes.  Going to the phone store is already confusing and complicated when both of you share a native language as it is.

The last two days (16th and 17th) I have also started my Dutch language courses, 1.5 hours a day.  This later class was good– I learned how to introduce myself and talk about myself and where I’m from, you’re typical first level language class things.  My German knowledge has transferred over very nicely, and the linguistic skills I gained from quarters of German class need only minimal adjustment to make coherent Dutch.

My first class, however, was a completely other story.  The instructor came 15 minutes late, apparently he had thought the class was to be in a different building.  We then spent 45 minutes introducing ourselves (there are ten of us), answering many questions including “what do you find is the value of learning a second language?”  After a break, teacher then divulgded into an entire linguistics lesson, discussing how languages can be related and the Proto-Indo-European language (that is, the theoretical language linguists thing most languages in Europe and India originate from).  This metalinguistics discussion is what I live for as a linguistics major, but, as most of us aren’t so interested in historical linguistics, probably wasn’t the most helpful.

Next we translated a poem from Old Dutch into Modern English.  I’m not kidding.  He wrote a four line stanza in Old Dutch and we had to translate it based on our knowledge of English and other languages.  It was doable.  I like these kind of puzzles, I had fun, but it was definitely not what my peers wanted.  They just wanted to learn enough Dutch to survive for a semester or two.  We ended our first language class without uttering a single Dutch word.

The following two days we had a sub, who, to our surprise, taught us Dutch. We learned how to introduce ourselves, ask basic questions, and order from a restaurant.  We learned the basics of asking Dutch questions.  We received course material, homework.  What a time to acquire language!  Luckily the German has been proving very helpful.  Nearly all the grammatical ideas in Dutch are present, or even more complex, in German, and a large part of the vocabulary shares roots with German, which makes it fairly easy to guess what a Dutch word might be.  This doesn’t work every time– Dutch has a substantially larger Latin influence than German does, and, being much closer to English than German is, a lot of guess don’t work.  It has already been tricky keeping them separated in my mind– even just a couple language classes in, it is very easy to recall some Dutch constructions and phrases that I suddenly have a much more difficult time recalling the German equivalent.  On Thursday I had my first Dutch-German slip up: accidently saying “funf” instead of the Dutch “vijf” (which sounds very similar to “five”).

Nearly immediately following each language class we attended a lecture.  Topics varied, from Dutch-American relations to Gold Age Dutch art.  The days are long, full of class and note-taking in preparation for two exams at the end of the two weeks.  Following class, I spent each day walking around Utrecht, exploring more and more of the city and beginning to develop some sort of intuition of where things are in the city.  I’ve never been one to really quickly acquire a mental layout of the city I’m living in, or one for a knack for directional awareness (on the contrary, I definitely have a gift of getting lost), but perhaps with the amount of walking I have to do I’ll be able to develop a good sense of the city’s map by the time I leave.

I also took care of several errands while out and about, one of the most crucial for a millennial of course was acquiring a SIM card for my phone.  Thankfully the man working at Vodaphone had very good English, otherwise I don’t think I would have been able to buy my SIM card.  It’s such a confusing process, even when you share the same language.  But now I have a Dutch phone number, and feel more and more like I am becoming a resident of the city rather than a tourist.

Purchasing groceries has also been adventure.  I do most of my shopping at a nearby chain, Jumbo, who claims to have the lowest prices in all of the Netherlands.  They offer free WiFi so they already have my vote.  Between German and English, I’ve been able to get by with the Dutch labels on food.  Nearly everything here in Utrecht is done and written in Dutch (unlike, as I found out later, Amsterdam, where everything is built around English speaking tourists).  Here I found my first language barrier.  While looking at breads (of which there is a HUGE variety.  The Dutch like their nice breads!)  I came across a label I couldn’t figure out, and Google Translate gave me a literal translation that didn’t make any sense.  I found the first worker I could find and asked “spreek u engels.”  She gave me a so-so handgesture, and I asked what the word meant.  She shook her head and left to get another worker.  I should the bread to the next worker, who started to mentally search for an English equivalent.  The worker finally shook their head, and left to get yet another worker, who, after attempting to circumlocate the language gap by describing the process through which they make the bread, gave up and left.  They returned with the manager of the entire store who, after looking at the label for a couple seconds, turned to me and said,

“Wholegrain.”

My First Day of Class

Flashback, six years ago– first day of high school.

Wake up early, make a PB & J sandwich to take to class.

Fill my backpack with way too many school supplies I can’t possibly use.

Try to stay awake through the syllabus talk about 5 more hours of lecture.

A lunch break where I pretend like I know everyone, but in reality know nobody.

Oh hey!  Deja vu, today was the first day of high school all over again.

Today was the first day of my 2 week long Dutch Culture and Language class, and it was a lonnnng day.  We spent the beginning of the day going over the course, getting all of our free goodies (like a binder and a mug!), and then two back-to-back lectures– Introduction to the Netherlands, and Surviving the Netherlands.  Most of the lecture was discussing the iconography of the Netherlands– tulips, tolerance, windmills, etc– and how true those were, and how they’ve shaped international perspectives of the Netherlands.  Pretty interesting stuff.

Trying not to fall asleep (not due to the course, but due to jetlag and having to wake up early), the day progressed after a brief lunch break into another lecture: World War Two and the Netherlands.  Admittedly something I hadn’t thought much about nor knew much about (save for some Dutch WWII movies I watched on Netflix before I left) the Netherlands in WWII.  What came was an interesting delve into the effects WWII still has on debates in Dutch culture– on free speech, immigration and refugees, internationalism, etc. etc.– and the delicate questions the Dutch education system works with in how best to teach Dutch students about the role the Netherlands played in assisting the Nazis.  My impression from the lecturer was that the Dutch feel very responsible for the atrocities of the Holocaust, and that’s why they’re such big supporters of intranational organizations (like NATO) that they believe will help prevent that from happening again.

Later we took a walking tour of Utrecht.  It was very difficult to hear our guide over the ringing of bicycle bells, but it was nice to wander around.  We heard a little more about the ancient history, and even stood inside where the Roman walls used to stand.  When Utrecht was founded.  By the Romans.  In 200 A.D.

I also saw my first Dutch windmill!  Wow, what a blessing.  I feel taller already.

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After the walking tour, we went to a restaurant down by the canal-level to enjoy some traditional Dutch pancakes.  I had mine with raisins.  It was very good– somewhere between a crepe and a pancake.

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I’m trying to keep this short since I’m so exhausted.  It’s time to go to bed– the first language class starts tomorrow!! Very excited to get my Nederlands on.

Finding an Outlet in an Outletless World

Or, I have Become Julian, Destroyer of Sandwiches

Now, many of you who know me and have talked to me have, at one point or another, had the dreaded “sandwich talk,” wherein we discuss the semantic and pragmatic information carried in the word “sandwich.”  If you are joining this blog from somewhere in the Weird/Left Facebook world, certainly you are familiar with the battles raging in @Is It a Sandwhih?, and yes, this stems from that.

You see, this conversation started with the age old concept of signs and semiotics—that is, what is the relationship between the signal (the world “sandwich”) and the signified (an actual, physical sandwich)?  When I say the word “sandwich,” you and I are certainly not thinking of exactly the same thing.  So what kind of information does a word really entail?  The answer, of course, lies in what is the norm in society.  For a lot of people, the signifying word, “sandwich,” refers to some entity made up of two slices of bread with some foodstuffs in the middle.  But what about an open faced sandwich?  A pita pocket?  Are they sandwiches?  What limits does the word place on what “can” or “cannot” be a sandwich?  What is a salad?  What is a soup?

Personally, I think I’m pretty radical on what the word “sandwich” can refer to.  I think (perhaps jokingly) that the word can refer to any Western food that is conveyed on a carbohydrate base—so yeah, an open-faced sandwich is a sandwich, and so is pizza, a baked potato with sour cream, toast with butter, etc. etc.

That leaves us today, where my ideology was shocked to its core.

Following yesterday’s success of typing up my blogpost at an outside café, and motivated by the fact that I had yet to buy food, I decided to go eat breakfast at a local café and write.  This proved particularly hard today, Sunday the 13th of August.  Despite being generally areligious here in the Netherlands, Utrecht, which was historically the religious center of the country, most stores close up on Sunday, or open late and close early.  Walking along a street close by to Kruisstraat was relatively fruitless—stores were either closed, didn’t have WiFi, or didn’t seem to have an outlet I could use (which I desperately needed).

Since Europe was invented in a time before electricity and good ideas,  finding an outlet has been fairly difficult.  The US, and LA, of course, were planned and created far after this ancient city, and most importantly in a time where electricity was, well, a thing.  As a result, many more buildings were planned with outlets and accessibility in mind.  Here it seems that outlets, wifi, lights—y’know, modern life essentials—were slapped on in an afterthought, carefully relegated to spaces that would do the least damage to their 16th century wallpaper.  Public outlets have been extremely hard to find.

I finally found a place to eat that, despite not having WiFi, had outlets I could use.  Café Gys it was called.  I didn’t read the signs, but later, looking at the menu, I realized this was a place for biologisch eten en drinken—organic food.

I sat down at a high table near an outlet and started typing.  The server came with a glass of water.  It was the tiniest glass of water I had ever seen.

Now I have been to Europe before, and my mom and most people I’ve talked to who have been to Europe before always comment on the differences between American drinks and European drinks.  And it’s 100% accurate—drinks here are in smaller portion sizes (not necessarily a bad thing, of course) yet are far costlier.  Nothing here comes with ice, though that’s how I prefer it.  And I’m from California, and have lived quite a bit of my formative years in an extreme draught.  I understand the attractiveness and perhaps practicality of saving water.

But come on people.  This is a country that borders the ocean, and, had they not set up so many canals, dams, and dikes, would be mostly under the ocean!  This is a country that clearly understands water—how to sail around the world before many other nations, how to fish on the seas and give the world pickled herring, how to use water defensively, and how to use water to shape the land they inhabit.  It rains all the time here, there is not draught.  What gives?

A few minutes later, the server came to ask me for anything else.  Still looking at the menu, I asked for a coffee, forgetting for a second the egregious prices for coffee and how being in an organic café would raise general prices.  I could hear the coffee being grounded specifically for my cup, hear the press whine.  It was a pretty good cup of coffee, but came in the exact same cup and serving size as the water!  I realize this same thing probably happens to touring Americans everywhere in Europe, and is an American stereotype to need big servings, but if I’m going to pay 2.5 euros for a couple of coffee, no matter how organic it is, I would appreciate more than 3 fluid ounces of it.

The server came back to ask what I would like to eat.  Everything on the menu sounded so good!  I finally settled on a sandwich with minced lamb, bell pepper, herbs, and a nice creamy sauce (I’ve forgotten what kind), and writing the previous blogpost.  This resulted in weird looks—again, I think the idea of someone going to a Starbucks/café and writing is not such a cultural/societal norm as it is in the States.

The sandwich arrived—heaping lamb meatballs smothered in a delicious sauce atop a pile of fresh peppers, veggies, lettuce, and herbs.  The taste was phenomenal and worth enduring tiny cups for, but let’s get one thing straight:

That was not a sandwich.

It was impossible to eat.  Everything was just floating on top of a thick piece of bread.  I stared at it for a long time.  How was I supposed to eat this?  I tried picking it up and eating it like a slice of pizza, which immediately resulted in balls flying everywhere and my hands getting lathered in sauce.  I looked around sheepishly, trying to find some hints as to the Dutch way of eating sandwiches.  Nothings.  So I just ate it like a slice of pizza, making a huge mess and requiring a pile of napkins to hold together whatever was left of my dignity.  I could almost hear the chef laughing in the kitchen—look at this fool American, can’t even eat a sandwich without becoming a slob.  Or maybe it was a practical joke—this American actually thinks we make sandwiches this impossible to eat!

Whichever the reason, I hold now that sandwiches must have a second qualifier—easy of use.  Sandwiches were invented, after all, to be eat with one hand while playing cards.  Sandwiches should be made to be eaten easily.  Otherwise, they’re just bad.  Might as well have just been a salad.

I Make Friends?

Or, Americans in Utrecht

Shortly after finishing up the previous blog post (August 12th), I headed over to the side of the old Janskerk, a large church that has fallen out of use as a church but not as a beautiful city landmark.  There I waited in the rain to go inside, because “if any more come in, it will be too crowded,” the Dutch man who was working inside told me.  I suspect this comes from decades of being the Tallest People in the World, and, having yet to grow accustom to us short Americans, feared that filling up the room with too many people would force the roofs to explode outward.  And so I patiently waited for my turn to enter, until I was finally able to receive my keys.  I am to stay for the next two weeks in an apartment building on Kruisstraat, which is actually the building (but different room) where I will be staying for the entire year after the summer session is over. The kicker: this building is more or less across from the hostel I stayed at the night before—my trek across the city with the Death-Bags was all for naught.

I found myself inside, at a small round standing table, with three fellow Americans and a Dutch guide.  The Dutch guide gave us sheet upon sheet of rapid fire information.  The three Americans, who will hopefully become my friends unless they find this blog, were from UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara.  One of them, Zach, is my roommate for these two weeks.  After receiving our keys, our papers, and our free #swag (a sheet, pillow case, duvet cover, lanyard, and tote bag), we headed off to walk from the Janskerk to Kruisstraat.  Having just come from there, I made the mistake of telling my new American pals that I vaguely remembered where we should go.

In a true Julian fashion, I made a solid first impression and got us lost.

Sometime later we arrived at Kruisstraat, which is really more akin to a dorm building than an apartment.  The building is broken up into halls of about 6 2-person rooms, that between themselves share several bathrooms and showers and a communal kitchen with a table.  It is fully appliance and furnished.  Zach and my room was huge, at least 19m squared (whatever that means), with two bunks and an empty loft, big desks with swivel chairs, lamps, full dressers and full bookshelves, and a sink.  It really put the UC to shame.  We spent a little time exploring the building with Zach’s friend from UC Davis, and chilled out in our lounge.  This place is pretty magnificent.  Zach’s UCD friend Micaela, is perchance staying in the room I will be in for the year, so I checked it out.  Not as big as the room I am currently in, but certainly far nicer than any triple at UCSC, a steal at the price point, too.

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As more and more UCEAP (the UC study abroad program) arrived, we congregated, introducing ourselves, swapping school info and homecities and majors.  The 10 or so UCEAP students we could muster sat in one of the shared kitchens and talked.  Even though I’ve only been in this country by myself for like two days, it was really nice to talk to and hear from fellow UC students who shared a lot of experiences with me.  Everyone has been really nice and seem genuinely invested in the program.  Having one more shared goal and interest, that is, to have a nice time and learn about the Netherlands, makes connecting easier.

At 5pm (or what the locals call “17,” as if that means anything to anyone) we all met up in the lobby to walk together to a local bar/restaurant, Café Broers (Brothers) for a UCEAP meet & greet.  Walking down the sidewalk in something reminiscent of a freshman pack led my room mate Zach to aptly comment “wow this is exactly like freshman year all over again.” (for those of us who haven’t been a freshman or maybe haven’t been one for a while, the freshman pack is the distinct yet universal survival tactic of first-years everywhere:  travel everywhere together in a large group and you will never be left out!)

At Café Broers we were introduced to the rest of the UCEAP students, perhaps about 20 or 25 strong, and Jasper, who was to be our teacher for the next two weeks in a DCL (Dutch Culture & Language) intensive program.  We chatted and were given two tokens to redeem two free drinks, where I had my first taste of Dutch beer, which was pretty good but a little underwhelming.  This might be because they most certainly gave us the cheapest beer they could get away with.

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Adding to our cast of friends we find Tallulah, a classical guitarist socio-cultural anthropology major from UC San Diego, Payam, an English literature scholar from UC Berkley, and Ryan, a computer science major from UC Irvine.  I had (dare I say, we?) a very nice time at the bar, discussing future busking plans (once I get a hand on a gosh darn banjo in this banjoless country), Dutch and linguistics (Ryan had started his Dutch studies quite some time before), and future travel plans.  To my knowledge, we are the only four that are staying the entire year—most other students are only staying a semester.  This is exciting, and comforting to know I will have a least a couple people I know for the whole year.

Since we hadn’t eaten practically all day, we left the bar a bit early in search of food.  Determined to get falafel, we went into the first falafel place we could find.  In his sort of magical charm, it appeared that Payam and the man working behind the counter became best friends immediately, chatting and laughing in Farsi almost from the get-go.  Finishing a brief conversation, Payam turns to us and said, “He says to not get the falafel here, but to go to Falafel City.”  Laughing at the server’s honesty and dedication to good falafel, we made the trek through winding streets and canals to the promised land, Falafel City, a shining beacon in an otherwise falafelless world.   It was some good falafel.

We meandered our way back to Kruisstraat, intentionally getting lost in an effort to explore the city.  I had walked for hours yesterday, but Utrecht still had secrets to give up, even on the surface.  We saw the concert hall and scoured the listings for a good concert (will surely attend one!), found the museum full of mechanical, self-playing instruments, and often found ourselves being the only people in an entire street.  Despite it being only 7 or 8pm, the city was quite just a few meters from the main canals.  After quite the adventure, we made our way back to our respective rooms and knocked out relatively early.  Everyone is still very tired from the long days of travel, but the reality of being in a new and exciting city, country, continent, and having so much freedom and options for adventure is really hitting.

Mijn Eerste Dag: A Tale of Two Bags

or, How My Mother was Right and I was Wrong

After my long, long day of travel (a post about which is hencecoming), I was quite relieved to finally find myself in Utrecht.  Getting absolutely, 100% lost in the Utrecht Centraal train station, I was able to make my way to the street and find the hostel where I had to spend one night on Google Maps.  A mere 1,5km (whatever that means) away, walking to the hostel seemed like a really good way to see the city.  Boy, was I wrong.

A couple of weeks before my departure, my mother and I discovered that we did not have the luggage I would require.  So, braving the LA traffic and tourist season galore, we ventured down to Hollywood Blvd to a luggage shop my mom knew.  The man working there was great and helpful, showing us the biggest bags we could buy that still fit in the airline’s dimension requirements.  It finally boiled down to two—one with traditional wheels, and one with four wheels that can pivot, allowing you to carrying the bag while it is still fully erect.  We were vacillating between the two options until the employee kindly pointed out that if I just needed them to take my clothes there and back once, paying the extra money for the deluxe, four wheel model might be unnecessary.  My mom said it was up to me, but she would be willing to spend the extra money for the nicer, more sturdy model, and recommended the four wheels.  I was impartial, and made the executive decision to spend the least amount of money possible.  The cheaper set was ours.

Mom, you were right.  We should have definitely spent the extra money.  Immediately at LAX I came to understand, and begrudgingly appreciate, the point of having four wheels that pivot.  Bags with the traditional wheels can only be carried out behind you, and, having two bags, this relegated me to having to carry both bags out behind me.  I looked like Naurto, my arms flailed back.  It also required much more energy and strength to carry the bags out behind me instead of holding them by my side.  This difference might seem trivial for a short walk between airport gates, but it proved my 1,5km (?) walk a living nightmare.

There I was, proving all the American stereotypes correct within 5 minutes of my being in Europe.  Fat, brown, carrying way to many bags, always on my phone (for directions!), loud (my wheels clattering on the side walk).  I am so sorry.  Everyone and their mother were staring at me.

Because Europe was invented in a time before engineering sidewalks really got good (by which I mean, cement), all of the sidewalks are bricked, with fairly wide gaps betwixt bricks.  These side walks SHREDDED the cheap plastic wheels of the bags, and within 10 minutes of my walk, the wheels were wonky, their sides flattened.  This meant that I was essentially just pulling the bags, as the wheels were either unhelpful or actively made pulling the bags more difficult.

Did I mention that these bags weighed 50lbs?  Each?  It was the longest walk of my life.  Every muscle in my forearms screamed as I pulled 100+lbs of deadweight behind me.  By the sweetest grace of God I finally made it to the hostel, where I had to lug them up not one, not two, but three flights of stairs, made only worse by the fact that the staircases that were incredibly steep and narrow spiral staircases.

Remembering my mother’s advice of not going to sleep at 3pm due to jetlag, I decided to walk around the city for a while and try to get the lay of the land.  I visited the apartment I will ultimately be staying in, located very close to the city center, on the canal and a nice park, in a quite side street still close to a lot of shops.  It felt good to shed my 100lbs captors—nobody looked at me weirdly walking down the street.  I poked my head into a couple antique shops, but I didn’t want to visit any store or restaurant yet—there’s a whole year for that.

As expected, this city is dominated by bicycles.  I have literally never seen so many bikes before in my life, there are probably half a million bikes here among the 300,000 residents of Utrecht.  The bike lane is king of the street, and whatever sliver of cobblestone that didn’t go into street or bike lane construction was left to the maws of hungry pedestrians.  As a result, sidewalks are so tiny and narrow, which did not make my first trek any easier.  Everyone has been courteous and nice to me so far, the Dutch seem like welcoming people.  I haven’t accidently ventured into the bike lane (a lesson learnt the hard way in Munich some years ago), but I still hold that my death will come by being hit by a 70-year-old Dutch woman carrying her 9 grandchildren on her wheelbarrow of a bike someday.

Also as expected, the Dutch are TALL.  I am by no means particularly tall (5’10’’ or 5’11’’ maybe on a good day), but back in the US I remember people being… shorter than me.  Almost everyone here—man, woman, child, infant alike—are at least, if not, taller than me.  The average Dutch height is 6’1’’, and it shows.  Doorways look like they were built in a world where the giant came down from the beanstalk, set up a construction company, and created a monopoly on doorframes.

After walking around the city for about 3 hours (2 of which were me searching for an ATM.  Honestly, it’s like this city doesn’t do cash), I decided to head back to the hostel, trudge up my 3 flights of death-stairs, and go to sleep (time: 8pm).  I walked in a guy changing his shirt.  He said nothing to me, and I thought, ‘okay, that’s just how hostels are.  Go to sleep, wake up, mind your business.’  I took a shower (long overdue honestly, what a travel day!) and snuggled into bed.  This is, withholding hyperbole, the worst bed I have ever laid my sweet, weary corpse in.  The mattress was barely long enough to capture my whole body, and was the height of a pencil case.  The bedframe had a metal beam that transverse right across my lower back, and I could feel every bit of it.  But whatever, I was tired enough.

At 10pm the room erupted into laughter.  I opened my eyes right as the door swung open and the four most British Bros (henceforth referred to collectively as the BBs) burst through the door.  They were my age, coming to the Netherlands for the sole purpose of going to Amsterdam and having what they referred to as a ‘banger’ (a rager.  I pretty sure that entailed a trip to a ‘coffeeshop’ and a ‘club’).  I never got their names, but they certainly got mine, and as the night went on my name evolved/devolved from ‘Julian’ to ‘Jules’ to ‘Jay’ to just ‘Hollywood.’  They were hilarious, and asked me a bunch of really specific questions about California and LA life (‘Where is Mohammad Ali’s star? No, like, exactly?’).  One of the BBs added me on Snapchat, the social medium of the youth.  I had to ask them for clarification of everything they said, because, between the accents, my jetlag, and their choice of British phrasings and British lexical choices, I honestly had little to no idea what they were saying most of the time.  Regardless, we got along great, and they soon departed for Utrecht Centraal for their night out.  They came back at 4am, stoned out of their heads, offered me a loaf of bread, and went to sleep.

And that was my first day.  A lot of things are very different here.  Contrary to what people kept telling me about the Netherlands, almost everything here in Utrecht is done in Dutch.  I have yet to hear Dutch people speak English to each other or in shops (when an American group, one of who I’m pretty sure went to high school with me) past speaking English, my head spun around because it sounded so strange!), and everyone starts by speaking Dutch with me, only switching to English when I ask them to (in Dutch).  Despite being an amazing city, this is not a huge international tourist town like Amsterdam, it is foremost a college town full of college aged Dutch students.  All of the websites are in Dutch, and you have to anxious search for the little UK flag for English before you accidently download or buy something.  It has been weird travelling alone, something that only hit me as I sat eating shwarma by myself in old town Utrecht.  I don’t know anybody here, yet I still feel like I’m about to run into somebody I know on the streets.  All the signage is in Dutch and, despite my backgrounds with English and German, it can be very difficult to know what the heck is going on or what the heck I’m supposed to do.  Earlier in the day I was astounded to see just how many people sit in cafes, until the next morning I realized: there are absolutely no benches anywhere.  It was very difficult to find a bench to sit out and type this blogpost out, and people kept giving me strange looks when I finally did.  Then later I realized:  it is so gloomy and lightly drizzling all the time that nobody WANTS to sit outside on a bench.  People were giving me strange looks because they’ve probably never seen somebody sit down at a public bench with their laptop and pound out a novel.

But on the other hand, a lot of things are very familiar.  The constant church bells and the music coming from the museum for mechanical instruments coupled with bus sounds and chattering friends comes together to form the same cacophonic symphony I’ve grown all too familiar with in Los Angeles.  Street signs are written in the same 12pt found I wrote my high school essay with (this is in jest, but honestly, trying to find the street names and address numbers has been so hard it’s incredible the Dutch know where they are at any time ever).  I walked past a KFC, Subway, and a McDonald’s (probably the only in the city).  I walked past a store called “America” that sells t-shirts with state names on them.

This morning (the 12th of August) I am going to find my room I will stay in for the next 2 weeks while I complete an intensive summer program covering the Dutch language, political system, culture, and history.  I have no idea where I’ll be staying, but it surely means that in just a little while I’ll inevitably have to drag those sorry, sorry bags yet again across the city.  RIP.

And so we begin, 

or, While I Wait in LAX

By the Sweet Grace of the Freeway Deities, the 405 relinquished it’s cruel, relentless stranglehold on our lives and allowed my mother and I to go from Sherman Oaks to LAX in a blissful 30 minutes.

Unfortunately, that means all of the good planning my mother did to ensure I did not miss my flight translated to arriving at the airport with 3.5 hours to kill. After checking bags and waiting in lines to wait in lines to go through TSA, I now sit at the gate, hunkered down in the constant battle of Do I Go Pee and Lose My Seat, or Do I Just Hold It for 2 More Hours, my favorite game. This blog post is just a procrastination from peeing. And I had to have at least one post to make the blog. 

The current plan is as follows: pee,  board thisAlaska Airlines flight, fly to Portland, connect to Reykjavik, Iceland, connect to Amsterdam, then take a train the rest of the way (about 30 minutes) to Utrecht. Should be an easy, breezy day, full of laughter, stretched legs, no stress, sleep, and complimentary drinks. (Update: it was not). Here we go!