Diary of a Master’s Student Abroad: Month 4 (December 2016)
Somehow we’re already at the end of 2016 and with it, I’ve left the Netherlands as I near the end of my first semester at university. This is the fourth of my monthly updates (here’s the first and second and third) that I’m hoping to write throughout my 2-year Master’s, partly to keep a record for myself of my experience doing this degree, to look back on in future, and partly to give you all an idea of what the life of a student abroad is like, what I’m learning on my course and what I get up to over on the continent. If you’re curious why I moved to the Netherlands or started a Master’s, find out more about that here: ‘My Next Steps: Why I’m Emigrating to Europe’.
December was all about giving presentations, celebrating 2 separate Christmases and saying goodbye to my lecturers, my classmates and friends in Groningen. Essentially, it was all about squeezing goodbyes in between a packed schedule and a lot of life admin as I tried to prepare for Christmas and my move to Sweden. Everything in Groningen came to an end far too quickly and I would rather prefer the semesters to be a bit longer. It does make me grateful to be doing a 2-year Master’s though, and not just a 1-year degree, as it’s flying by!
So here’s the fourth blog post of the series, covering December 2016: the fourth month of my 2-year Masters in European Society, Politics and Culture in a Global Context.
Where I’ve been in December
Groningen, Hampshire, Wiltshire
What I’ve been up to in December
December = Christmas! I technically had two Christmases this year, as the Dutch celebrate and give gifts on Sinterklaas (5th December), and then the rest of the month was taken up with Christmas parties, drinks, dinners, markets and shopping, and of course an English Christmas on the 25th December! Along with the festivities came an endless stream of goodbyes as I moved out of Groningen, but I also managed to see lots of uni and school friends, family and my godmother back in the UK too.
- On the studying side of things, pretty much everything happened in the final week of term (just my luck!). For my Cultural History course, I crammed a 5,000-word draft research paper (the longest thing I’ve ever written in my life) on the impact of colonialism on British identity formation into 4 days of solid writing, then had to present it to the rest of my class to get feedback, as well as peer reviewing two really interesting papers on Tsar Peter’s cultural reforms in Russia and the Dutch monarchy. For my Legal Construction course I had an assignment on EU citizenship after the Lisbon Treaty and a very interesting, but devilishly difficult, group presentation on EU law regarding the detention of asylum seekers and irregular migrants. In addition to all that, my friend Anna and I gave a presentation for Cultural Construction on representations of Europe in the European Film Awards and I also decided not apply for a semester in Japan or Mexico, which I had been musing over. Instead I want to spend that semester doing an internship somewhere in the world, and I’ll write a separate post about that. We also discussed the week we’ll all spend in Krakow next June for an Intensive Programme with the students from all 8 universities in the consortium!
- On the extracurricular side, I completed a third of the Honours Master Programme! This involved learning to lead and do military drills (Leadership in War course), interviewing a Dutch entrepreneur and analysing his innovative company called Susteq, which improves the supply of water to Kenyan communities (Creating Value & the New Economy) and giving a couple of presentations (for a course on Effective Presentation, that actually taught me nothing new). I finished off my Dutch, Russian and Photography courses, resulting in an A1 Dutch certificate! I also gave a little talk to prospective Euroculture students and I attended a really interesting talk on the role of women in South Africa during apartheid.
- On the work side, I may have officially sold my first photograph! This sunset photo taken from the top of the Martini Tower was shared on Twitter by practically all of Groningen, and I received several requests to print and sell it, which was a lovely feeling! I also succeeded in applying for a role organising a summer school on Illicit Trade in July 2017, in coordination with lecturers from the university’s International Relations department. The topic sounds incredibly interesting and I’ll be creating their Comms & PR strategy and running all their Blog and Social Media activity leading up to the summer school. It is sadly unpaid, but it does count for 5 ECTS for the Honours Master Programme and I’ll hopefully learn a lot about the secret world of smuggling and illegal activities, which sounds very juicy!
- On the travelling side, I had to cancel a weekend in Hamburg (more on that below), so I was solely in Groningen and Hampshire this month. In Groningen I played the tourist: visiting the impressive World Press Photo exhibition, a Rodin exhibition at the Groningen Museum, and going on a guided city tour by my friend Anna and her father. Back in the UK I did some last minute shopping in Romsey, went on endless country walks with my aunt’s dog Yorrie, spent the day in Salisbury with my uni housemates from Exeter and other than that there’s very little travel to report from December!
- On the blogging side of things, things went a little quiet while I focused on finishing off my work and packing up my life. I wrote a post on ‘Where is home? Where are you a local?’ and ‘Saying Goodbye to Groningen’, as well as looking back over the whole year with ‘My 2016 Travels: Goals, Decisions and Lessons Learned’. But looking back to September (when it seemed like I had so much free time), I promised so many blog posts that I never got round to writing – apologies!
December in an Instagram
Here’s the most popular photo from my Instagram this month. If you don’t already follow me, then you can find me at @vstuarttaylor.
Things I’ve Learned in December
- How to celebrate Sinterklaas. In mid-November, Sinterklaas (St Nicholas from Turkey) arrives on a boat from Spain with lots of black-faced helpers called Zwarte Piet – which all outsiders think is incredibly racist, but which the Dutch themselves don’t want to acknowledge. Then on the 5th December, Sinterklaas comes down the chimney of all children’s houses and leaves presents! In addition to these mysterious presents, everyone in the Netherlands gathers their nearest and dearest to give their own presents: a poem and a giant chocolate letter of the alphabet. I even received a handwritten poem in Dutch and a chocolate letter too!
- The Netherlands is practically classless. Fair enough, my sources are all university-educated Dutch people, who may have a one-sided view of things, but I had many interesting discussions on the oddities of the class system in the UK and the virtual absence of it in the Netherlands. I was asked a question about what on earth is going on with TV shows like Downtown Abbey and Geordie Shore, at two radical extremes, and I’ve concluded that it all stems from school education. The Netherlands for example has no private schools whatsoever, and even those who study for vocational qualifications study in the same schools as those who are applying for university. There’s no division of children from an early age and the Dutch grow up with other children of all abilities and all backgrounds. As there are no superior schools available to those with money, all schools are basically the same quality and therefore all children have the same opportunities to access higher education, meaning that there’s no specific link between parents’ wealth and occupation with children’s prospects (which studies show there most definitely is in the UK). While none of these observations are huge revelations, it’s interesting to understand it for the first time from the perspective of a really well-functioning society like the Netherlands, and just imagine what Sweden will be like!
- Not everything has to be perfect. I’m a self-confessed control freak and I love it when things are perfect. But when you find yourself with 4 presentations, 3 peer reviews, an interview, a flat tyre, a broken Macbook charger, Christmas presents to buy, a flat to move out of, a train strike and a plane strike, all happening in the space of 5 days, then you need to let go and accept less-than-perfect. And that’s fine too. (Thank god that week is over!)
- EU law is complicated as hell. I am so grateful I am not a lawyer and I have newfound respect for lawyers. Why anyone would ever look at a legal text and think “Yes, I want to do that for the rest of my life” is simply beyond me!
- All good things must come to an end. If I had a whole 2 years of this Master’s in Groningen, no doubt I’d get bored and I wouldn’t appreciate all the wonderful little things about the city and the lovely community atmosphere it’s home to. With only 4 months there, I felt pressed to make the most of Groningen, to really seize every moment and to get under its skin quickly. Which is why I am sad to leave Groningen and to say goodbye to all the great people I met there, but why I also understand that the timing is right and the next adventure awaits. I can at least be grateful that I now know about Groningen and how fantastic it is, so I can go back there in future.
December’s high points
Relaxing over Christmas was the big high point for me this month – while I was kept busy with social gatherings and seeing other people, for once there were no deadlines or assignments or readings to do! I simply ate home-cooked food, gave and received presents, played games, sang carols, caught up with family and friends, went for country walks and runs, watched detective and murder mysteries on TV (my favourite genre) and I may have slightly let my brain melt… The idea of getting back to my assignments in the New Year seems impossible after a whole week of rest! Another high was seeing so many local Groningers enjoy my photo from the Martini Tower and understanding their pride in their city – Groningen really does have a sense of true community and that’s something that’s rare to find nowadays. I was also relieved to confirm my flat next semester in Uppsala, as it’s in the city centre, has a gym downstairs, looks pretty nice and is one less worry to carry into the New Year! I also got 10/10 for two essays this month which was a bit of a shock, but very welcome indeed!
December’s low points
After a big deadline was postponed by 3 days, I ended up having to lock myself in a room for 4 days to finish a paper, and doing so I annoyingly had to cancel and miss a weekend away in the German city of Hamburg, at the invitation of the tourist board. Partly my fault, I know, but I was still absolutely furious as I never, ever cancel travel plans – I can’t think of a single other occasion to be honest. 4 days of solid work on one paper was really rather grim as well… When I moved out of my flat in Groningen on the 23rd December and presented myself at Amsterdam Schipol airport, I somehow arrived at the check-in desk with 62kg worth of belongings (mostly weighed down by very heavy books). Not only was lugging my entire body’s weight of baggage to the airport on public transport hard enough, but I then faced a €240 charge for all my extra luggage! A traumatic half an hour and lots of tears later, I had bargained this down to €54 and I somehow made it onto the tiny propeller plane with all 62kg of my belongings, but my god was it a painful and stressful half an hour that I would really rather forget! That is the ugly side of moving country that no one remembers to talk about… And finally, leaving my flat in Groningen felt rubbish. My room looked so empty when I closed the door for the last time and I realised how attached I had become to my life in Groningen. I just did not want to leave yet. My studies in Groningen have come to an end altogether too quickly, and I’m still cut up about having left.
December in a Tweet
Upcoming Plans for January
Next month will be busy but less so than the last few months – phew. At weekends I’ll be up in London seeing friends, but during the week I shall be glued to my laptop down in a rural bubble in Hampshire, finishing a number of essays and a portfolio of work that I have to submit before mid-January. Then I’m spending a week skiing in the Swiss ski resort of Murren (rather worryingly pending some snow – #WhereIsTheSnow) to compete for the first time in the much-anticipated Inferno ski race, as part of the Kandahar Club that I joined last summer. After another week in Hampshire I then pack my bags anew and move to Sweden at the end of January, to start my next semester! It’s also the time of year that I post lots of my reflections on this year, my goals for next year and things all get a bit philosophical at the turn of the year, so look out for those posts.