Freya: Last Post!

It’s been two weeks since I said my goodbyes to Amsterdam, and I’m already starting to feel all the experiences solidifying in my memories. And looking back, I can picture so many great times, but also quite a few times of stress and worry. There’s this idealised image of university exchanges that I think needs a couple of disclaimers added to it, and so that’s what I’m going to attempt to do here.  

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Going into the exchange, people painted the picture of international student life to be a whirlwind of new friends and new experiences. All the other exchange students you meet are coming into this new city with the same intentions as you: to experience life in a new city, and meet likeminded people of different nationalities. And because of this, it’s very easy to make new friends and make lots of plans with all your new friends. But over a six month period there are going to be ups and downs. There were quite a few times when I felt that I wasn’t making enough friends, or that I wasn’t spending enough time with the friends i was making. Or that I wasn’t going out and seeing the city as much as I should be. These concerns would be a great worry to me on days when university or life in general had me feeling extra stressed. When you have to turn down trips away or even just a night out because of university work, there’s a real feeling that you’re not only missing out on the experience, but also the opportunity to make or solidify these new friendships that are such a crucial part of the exchange experience. 

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But it’s important to remember that it is a university exchange, and so you will be expected to study. And, if you’re someone like me, you won’t want to to put in anything less than your best effort into your overseas studies. I thoroughly enjoyed most of my courses in Amsterdam, but they were hard. And I spent many days and nights working on my coursework while my friends were out partying or traveling. But the fact is most of the friends I made were in the same situation, it was just that their workloads are simply distributed differently. I had a very full on first half of the semester, during which I had a much higher courseload than the people I knew. And this was a burdensome source of stress, as I felt that I was going to end the semester not having ever being caught up in this fun and exciting whirlwind. But looking back now, my fears were unfounded. Whenever I was capable, I was out doing things. And on the days all my friends were stuck studying, I still had a whole city to explore and many more people to meet. And looking back I truly feel   like I made the most of my exchange, even though I didn’t make the most out of every day. Some days were spent mindlessly trudging through assignments, some were spent lazing about inside my room. But this was the case for many of my friends too. It is a long-term trip away, and so there are going tohave to be downtime days every so often.

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Out exploring Vienna with me, myself and I because no one else was free that week

So I think the important message I’d like to share on my reflections on my time in Amsterdam is to have fun, make the most of the time you have, but also don’t feel the need to force anything or compare your experiences with those of others. The image you may have of your time away may not pair up to reality, but as long as you are doing what’s best for you, the exchange as a whole will tremendous.

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Freya: Markets of Amsterdam

On the lead up to my exchange I was researching plenty about Amsterdam on all the big blogs and travel sites. And many provided useful tips about where to go and what to do, but one aspect about Amsterdam that no site really touched on was the markets. And for me, these ended up being one of the best surprises of the city. There are a plethora of markets throughout the city, and over my semester I managed to visit most of them, and would return to several of the recurring or daily markets often. Even if you’re not looking to buy anything, they’re lots of fun to meander through. So for anyone heading over to Amsterdam, here is my guide to the best of the Mokum markets.

Waterlooplein

One of the oldest markets in the city is Waterlooplein, located very close to Oudemanhuispoort, the largest central city university campus. It’s open everyday except Sunday, and if you’re a good bargain hunter, this is the flea market to visit. There are several super cheap clothes stalls with literally piles of clothes for you to search through. And if you decide the bargain piles aren’t for you, there are two great vintage clothes shops bordering the market, Episode (a big franchise in Amsterdam) and the Kilo Store. Certainly not as cheap but both are crammed with the coolest gear.  

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It’s also the place my RA recommended that I buy my bike from. According to her (please note this is her advice, not mine) the bike sellers in Waterlooplein are all peddling stolen bikes, which means that you can get a decent bike for €50. Apparently in Amsterdam most of the bikes are stolen at some point, so it’s okay to buy a stolen bike because your bike will most likely be stolen again at some point anyway. I don’t know if they are dealing in stolen bikes, but I will note that on one visit to Waterlooplein I saw one seller out the back of his stall rather suspiciously spray painting a bunch of bikes black. Personally I would recommend buying a bike on the Facebook bike buy and sell pages, but if you know what to look for in a bike you can find a pretty good deal at this market.

 Aside from the flea market stalls Waterlooplein is a pretty touristy market, with plenty of pricey stalls selling overpriced cheese and souvenirs, but it’s a nice mid-sized market if you have an hour or so to kill. However, if you want to go full-tourist, Albert Cuypmarkt is a good place to check out.

 Albert Cuypmarkt 

Albert Cuyp a massive establishment in the De Pijp district, and sprawls on down the road for a decent couple of kilometres. Most of the stalls are cheap clothes and souvenirs, but if you’re looking for a Dutch food tour, you can find all the popular snacks here There’s freshly made stroopwafels, poffertjes, waffles, harring, frites, cheese, and plenty more. There’s also a few random stalls that will come and go. I had the best corn on the cob I’ve ever had in Albert Cuyp, but alas the stall was never to be found again. 

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Google hyped this market as the biggest and best market in Amsterdam. And it probably is the biggest. In my opinion is definitely isn’t the best, but it is great for a snack if you’re passing through.

 Noordermarkt

The winner of the title of best market in Amsterdam is hands-down Noordermarkt. Located in the Jordaan and only open on Saturdays, this market has everything. It combines the best features of all the markets listed above, and then some. It starts off as a farmers market in the square outside the Noorder church, but then you go around the corner to Lindengracht and there are lines of stalls stretching the full length of the street. There are plenty of cheese stalls, including some beautiful artisan stores, and, because this is Amsterdam, you can sample nearly all the cheeses as you walk past. So, while the cheese prices are pretty cheap, if you’re living the poor student life you can treat yourself to a free lunch of cheeses by strolling down Noordermarkt. There are also fantastic fruit and vege stands, bakeries, butchers, fishmongers, vintage clothes stalls, cheap art and jewellery, and great food and coffee stands. I have spent many Saturdays wandering down the marketplace, and it’s always one of my top recommendations for anyone traveling to Amsterdam.  

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In my previous post I sung the praises of Ten Katemarkt, which is the best place to get the cheapest fruit and vege. Other markets to check out are the beautiful antique book stalls inside the entrance to Oudemanhuispoort, and IJ-Hallen, the Netherlands’ biggest flea market held on the first Sunday of the month. But also half the fun in Amsterdam markets is stumbling onto them by chance, so take my guide for what it’s worth, but let me know if you find any other hotspots in the city! 

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Olivier: Travel

One of the key reasons that I went on exchange was to travel around the world. I based myself in Amsterdam not only because I was very interested in Dutch culture and the university had an excellent reputation, but also because I thought it was a great place to base myself to go travelling around Europe.

Boy was this a good decision. I have just returned home and I am looking back on my travels. In seven months I went to 16 countries, took 23 flights and had an amazing time right around the world. I decided to travel via the USA on the way to Amsterdam and spent 31 days there in December before the January start. On the way home, I spent a few days in Iceland and a week in Canada. It was not more expensive to stop in these countries as a layover, so it is a perfect time to explore North America.

In Europe, there are cheap flights all over the continent. Often flights are as cheap as 100 euros return, and it is easy with the uni workload to go travelling for 4-5 day long weekends and get a feel for the continent. I went on 5 trips during my studies (about a trip once a fortnight) and travelled between and after my studies finished too. Personally, I found the workload less than in Auckland, and was able to travel with people from around the world. I feel that you will never get another chance to travel as much as I did when on exchange, so I am glad I made the most of my opportunity.

I leave you with a series of photos from my trips around the world as inspiration for your future trips overseas!

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Olivier: Food, Glorious Food

A Dutch food day timeline:

7am: Breakfast is chocolate sprinkles on bread – a classic Dutch sweet treat. The Dutch love sugar, can’t get enough of the stuff.

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10am: Morning tea – time for stroopwafels, the great Dutch treat which is famous worldwide. Best type is not the supermarket ones, but the ones that are made fresh and warm. Much less sweet but just amazing.

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12pm: Lunch. Time for some typical salty food – Frites! Basically these are chips, but they are always served with Dutch mayonnaise, never with tomato sauce. The Dutch are particularly proud of this mayonnaise, not my favourite – but boy you cannot tell them that! Alternatively, you can have curry sauce on the chips, which I do prefer.

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3pm: Time to have some poffertjies for afternoon tea, more sweet food! Not exactly the healthiest food, Dutch food, but this is certainly a favourite! Basically they are fluffy little pikelets coated in icing sugar – mmm. I feel my blood vessels just clogging up thinking about them.

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6pm: Dinner is a quick snack at FEBO – and I mean a quick snack. FEBO is a crazy form of fast food where instead of ordering burgers or frikandels (a type of sausage), the servers make the food in advance and put it in a little box where you can pick it up. Hot food within 30 seconds! Quality may not be high, but boy does it taste good.

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Food, glorious food: Freya

Food! Cuisine is at heart of any culture, and often how we best identify a nation. The Netherlands, much like New Zealand, does not really have a distinctively ‘Dutch’ food tradition. Instead, as the centre of a former colonial empire, Amsterdam has drawn its food culture from the influences of its former colonies and its widely multicultural immigrant population. The diversity in the restaurant scene is massive – from Ethiopian to Catalan, Brazilian to Belgian. The most common eateries are from from the colonies; Surinamese, Indonesian and Vietnamese eateries on every block in the city centre. But despite the density of food joints in the area, the overall quality is somewhat lacking (at least in my experience). The city centre of Amsterdam is very touristy, and often the food is either very tasty and very expensive, or moderately priced and rather average. The Asian cuisines to which the Netherlands has a historical connection to are often unauthentic, catering to a Dutch palette. This means that any Vietnamese or Indonesian snacks on offer are almost always fried and very mild.

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FEBO is an Amsterdam institution operates like a vending machine for tasty fried snacks

If there is any distinctly Dutch cuisine, fried and mild is by far the distinctive characteristic. Dutch snacks include bitterballen (fried balls of breaded ragu), croquettes (fried rolls of breaded ragu), cheese soufflé (fried cheese wrapped in pastry), and most importantly, fries. Belgian chips (Vlaams frites) are everywhere, and given that I am cursed with the dreaded 21st century inability to consume gluten, fries are really my only entry point into Dutch food culture. Not that this is any hardship. The Dutch know how to do chips well. The most common way to receive chips is in a paper cone smothered in mayonnaise, but other common toppings are curry sauce, satay sauce, or my favourite, oorlog: half mayonaise, half satay sauce topped with diced raw onions. Don’t judge it until you’ve tried it. The city centre is dotted with hole-in-the-wall chip shops claiming to offer the best fries in Amsterdam, but it’s all false advertising. The best chips by far are found in Grillroom “Twins” in the Jordaan district. The chips are ‘verse’ (fresh), and the sauces are top notch.

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Patats oorlog courtesy of Grillroom “Twins”

Given that eating out is either hard on the wallet or the waistline, it’s no surprise that Dutch students most frequently cook at home. ‘Dammers get most of their daily nutrition at the popular supermarket chain, Albert Heijn. After the bikes, I’d say it’s one of the key aspects of Amsterdam life that the locals are most proud of. And it’s easy to see why. Albert Heijn is no ordinary supermarket. Every store contains around three  different cheese sections, surpassing any variety you’ll find in the hyper-touristy ‘cheese shops’. There will also always be a DIY fresh orange juice press present, as well as an impressive selection of cured meats and spreads. And the gluten free section is better than even New Zealand! Price-wise, Amsterdam is typically a bit cheaper than Auckland, but not by a significant margin.

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A trick I’ve picked up to further cut down on costs is to buy all my fresh produce at one of the various local markets. My favourite, the Ten Kate market, is a 10 minute bike ride from home and I can get all my fruit, vege and eggs for the week for under €6, or 9 NZD! And if you feel like treating yourself, there are always beautiful fresh cheese stalls, or Turkish stalls selling a wide variety of hummus and other spreads, or any other fresh and authentic offerings to indulge in.

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As a final note, I would like to make a brief lament to my lost love: New Zealand coffee. The Auckland food scene is something I took for granted, and while I can live without weekend brunches and the occasional dinner out, the absence of decent coffee took some real adjustment. It turns out a great deal of Europe simply don’t know how to do coffee. It’s a broad statement, but as an ex-Auckland waitress and barista, I’m standing by it. Most cafes in Amsterdam only offer coffee made entirely by an automatic machine, and if it is made by hand you really have two options (regardless of how many options are displayed): weak black coffee or huge milky coffee with piles of foam. That being said, it is often cheaper than New Zealand coffee, and after converting from my regular order of flat white (very difficult to find in Amsterdam) to ‘koffie’ (Americano), I’ve become accustomed to the Dutch approach to coffee. And if coffee lovers are heading out to Amsterdam, there are certainly great places if you’re willing to hunt them out. My favourite spots to head to if I’m in need of a decent coffee are White Label, Lottie’s, Coffee Company (pretty good chain cafe), and Toki.

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Filter coffee at Lottie’s

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Accommodation Awards: Freya

The Traumatised Auckland Tenant’s Association Award for best value for location!

The advice I was given when figuring out accomodation options for Amsterdam was to not expect a central location without forking out big money. As an Auckland renter, this is a situation I am acutely aware of. The way student accomodation works for UvA is that you pick one of four options (shared room, shared facilities; single room shared facilities; double room, shared facilities; and double room, personal facilities), and UvA offers you a selection of possible rooms which you must quickly choose from in order to guarantee your place. I opted for the second cheapest option, and was extremely surprised to be offered two very central locations. For €422 a month (roughly 160 NZD a week), I have a room to myself right in the beautiful city centre. My accommodation borders Centrum, the famous and vibrant central district, and Jordaan, an extremely cool and sophisticated district full of beautiful houses and homes, and very non-touristy bars and eateries. In my room I have my own fridge, freezer, microwave and stove top. In the morning, I wake up to the sound of church bells, the same bells heard by Anne Frank during WWII. On the other side of the canal is a famous farmer’s market every Saturday, and I’m a 5-10 minute cycle to campus, the library and most museums and galleries. This is all for less than the price of my previous small, windowless room in Epsom.

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The Karl Pilkington Award for ugliest building on the street

In the classic TV series, An Idiot Abroad, host and modern-day philosopher Karl Pilkington mused on the Petra Palace of Jordan that, given the choice, he would “rather live in a cave with a view of a palace than live in a palace with a view of a cave.”

The De Key student accomodation on Prinsengracht is that cave. Prinsengracht is one of three famous canals bordering the central city of Amsterdam. Outside my bedroom window is a constant stream of canal cruises, whose passengers all marvel at the rows of quintessential Amsterdam architecture lining the banks. And amongst them, the De Key building. Instead of beautiful facades and colourful brickwork, my home is a remnant of the sixties’ love of pragmatism over personal expression. Which means that, as its inhabitant, I get a full view of all the best Prinsengracht has to offer, blissfully ignorant of its lesser offerings.

The Dutch Courage Award for best transportation

Buying a bike is an inevitable initiation into Dutch life, and cycling through Amsterdam’s roads is a very sharp learning curve. Like a baby bird leaving the nest for the first time, there’s not much you can do but pedal out onto the busy streets and hope for the best. Amsterdam cyclists have little regard for road rules. Apparently, if any car hits a cyclists, the driver is fully liable no matter the circumstances, and Dutch cyclists take full advantage of this fact. Biking around the city often feels like you’re in competition with all other cyclists as to who can take the biggest risk at intersections, or who can overtake the most riders in a single journey. However, for all the stress and confusion, it’s easy to grow fond of this way of life. There’s a real feeling of belonging to this city the first time you internally curse the tourists on the streets, or when you first successfully manage to cycle the route the clubs with your friends while already a bottle of wine into the evening. The city is designed so that it’s quicker to get from A to B by bike than by car or public transport, so it’s a quick, convenient and healthy way to get around town while at the same time getting a renewed appreciation of your own mortality.

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A sign of a ‘Dammer in the making: confidently operate one’s phone to take blog photos mid-cycle
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Dutch dominos witnessed outside the university library

The BBQ Association’s Award for best backyard

The Dutch sun is quite elusive, but as the days have been heating up there has been more and more call to soak up some vitamin D. Amsterdam has many parks well worth visiting, but usually when the sun makes an appearance, all of Europe (and a great deal of America) make a collective decision to visit Amsterdam’s parks. With big groups it can make for a fun and lively atmosphere, but for days when I have wanted some sun and solitude, my own accomodation has been perfectly sufficient. Hidden behind the Prinsengracht rooms is a idyllic grassy backyard and concrete court. Surrounding it is the backs of many of the buildings on the block, providing a vastly different sight to the ornate street-side façades. It’s a vague enough setting that you could be anywhere, and residential enough that there is a constant supply of neighbourhood cats to play with. In a city as lively and active as Amsterdam, where there is always something to do and places to be, it can be nice to duck away from it all – while remaining in Wifi access. It’s also been a great setting for some social building-wide BBQ parties (during one of which a few of us were invited by our beautifully creative RA to make the vege garden sign below, which remains a source of great personal pride) and many lazy morning-after hangouts.

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My O-Week Experience: Freya

UvA had orientation week sorted. We were advised to plan our flights to arrive on Wednesday 1st February, as that would be the only day they would provide free transportation and orientation services. As soon as we landed we were able to quickly find our way to the UvA desk set up in the Amsterdam Schipol Airport, where we were greeted with a traditional dutch snack called stroopwafel, and boarded a bus to the university’s welcome-expo. Here I was able to book a meeting with the leading dutch bank, get information on certain bike-rental companies, and pick up my room key. Once we were sufficiently overwhelmed with appointments and promotional freebies, we boarded a shuttle to our various accommodations. Pretty quickly we were driving through the city, getting our first taste of the architecture and bustle of our new home.

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On my first venture out in the city I stumbled on the bizarre but beautiful floating Flower Market

My building holds just over 150 students and is run by three RAs. On our first night we all got to meet our new neighbours over drinks in the common room and received a few insider’s tips to the city from our helpful RAs. Amsterdam is a huge city, with many different districts and sights to explore. Having a local on hand to tell you where to go was so useful in that first week – I didn’t know where to begin!

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The orientation week activities were an optional extra run by the International Student Network (ISN) that we were encouraged to sign up for. For €40 (around 60 NZD) we could participate a three day program designed to help international students make friends and get to know the city. This program began the day after arrival, so there was no time for jet-lag or sleep-ins. We were divided into groups of around 15 which were each led by two Dutch university students. The first day consisted of a scavenger hunt around the city, a welcome seminar and a dinner at a local club. On the second day we all met for lunch at the university, participated in a Dutch language ‘crash-course’ and a friendship-orientated ‘speed dating’ activity. We then jumped on a canal cruise before dinner and a pub crawl. On the final day we all went ice skating in the afternoon, followed by the final ISN party.

 

All in all it was an intense but greatly rewarding experience. A common theme of the introduction week was disorganization.  Every meal was way behind schedule and our group leaders were sometimes just as lost as we were in terms of what was going on. Activities like the scavenger hunt simply ended up being a wander through the city, and  the speed dating was so loosely organised that it quickly descended into one big hangout. However, none of this affected our fun. In fact, the collective confusion was often a nice bonding exercise itself. As such it was a great experience and well worth the €40. I got to get to know the city with local guides and after only three days I was beginning to feel like a resident of Amsterdam. I was able to make connections with other international students and started university with a degree of confidence in my sense of direction.

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On our first day in Amsterdam we were told of three Dutch stereotypes we would have to quickly get accustomed to: a) Dutch people are always on time, b) Dutch people are obsessed with their bikes, and c) Dutch people can sometimes come across as rude, but are simply just direct. The first point became a recurring gag over the introduction week, but the latter two are veritable truths. The first topic of discussions with the RAs, group leaders, ISN officials and even University staff was always bikes; either asking us whether we had bought a bike, how we found cycling around the city, or when reminiscing over the times their bikes got stolen. Bikes are everywhere in Amsterdam. Every bridge is lined with bikes against the railings, and every street, road and alleyway has cyclists whizzing up and down at the peril of pedestrians. And on the last point, all the Dutch people I’ve met so far have been very friendly and keen to help me get to know the city and the Dutch language. However, many interactions had in cafes and supermarkets have made me realise New Zealand language is definitely more geared towards politeness.That’s not to say the Dutch are any less polite, and ultimately I’ve felt nothing but welcomed by Amsterdam and look forward to the rest of my exchange.

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