Sunday, 28 October 2012

Quarter Pounder

Rather than two 16-week semesters, UU has four 10-week quarters. So, instead of four hour-ish classes that meet two or three times per week for four months, you have two classes that meet for up four hours once a week for about two months. (Some hardy souls brave a third class, which is not recommended!) The expectation is that you will put in a minimum of 20 hours or work per week for each class. There is some good news and some bad news that goes along with this system.

First, the good news is that you will take a larger variety of classes far more quickly, and graduate sooner than you will in a traditional semester system. Further, the classes are very fast-paced and challenging and thus it is nearly impossible to get bored. Ideal for those of us with a short attention span! Since the classes meet only once a week, your schedule is very flexible. This is especially important if you want to participate in externship or clinical programs. And, you will acquire excellent time-management skills since procrastination is simply not an option! Best of all, if you really don’t care for a class or a professor, it is for only two months. You can do nearly anything for only two months! The light is always there at the end of the fairly short tunnel.
The bad news is the amount of reading required is astronomical, and there is very little turn-around time for completing assignments, even complex ones (especially complex ones!). It is easy to feel overwhelmed. It can be hard to stay focused in a class that lasts four hours, and  missing class is simply not an option - no matter how lousy you may feel. There really is no catching up if you fall behind. And, there is a tendency to sacrifice depth for breadth; it is like that whirlwind tour of European capitals, you barely scratch the surface of the post card. The worst part is when, seemingly just after you started class and settled in, final exams, papers and presentations are all due within days of each other. Then the light at the end of the tunnel becomes the proverbial light of an oncoming train! Finally, the second quarter does not end with the Christmas break, as the first semester would. So much nicer to begin your holiday break with the relief of knowing there is nothing left hanging over your head!
So, which is better? For a master’s program, there is much to be said for a compact curriculum as most graduate students are not anxious to spend extra time (or money) on school. Perhaps there is room for compromise, though. Some classes might be broken into two quarters and offered consecutively so as to allow one to plumb the depths of a critical subject. International Criminal Law and Procedure springs to mind; why not a Law quarter followed by a Procedure quarter? Well, would love to ponder this further, but I am running late for a date with an oncoming train!  

Sunday, 21 October 2012


Trains, buses and trams are plentiful and incredibly on time. Even better, you can use an OV chip card anywhere in the Netherlands and avoid buying train tickets or having coins for buses or trams. You simply buy a card and load it with money, and before boarding a train, bus, or tram, you scan your card. The scanner automatically deducts money from the card; when you arrive at your destination you scan your card again and based on your destination, you are credited back the amount that exceeds the round-trip cost of travelling between your starting point and your destination. And, if you buy a personalized card, you get a 40% discount during off-peak hours.

Sounds very easy, and it is. But. You DO have to remember to scan your card both ways. That sounds easy, too, but for me, somehow it just isn’t! The first time I used my card on a bus, I forgot to scan my card when I got off. What happens? Well, you wind up paying the maximum fare no matter how short a trip you took. Which is rather painful if you forget to scan at the end of a train trip, as that is 20 euros! (Did that, too!) You do not want to forget to scan your card before boarding, either. The fine for being on a train without having paid is hefty, and getting cited by Mr. Conductor (decidedly not an affable Ringo Starr or George Carlin at the Shining Time Station!) does not look like much fun.
Recently as I waited on the platform for the train, I could not remember whether I scanned my card. My companions did not remember seeing me doing it either, so to be safe I ran back into the station, scanned my card and ran back to the platform. On the train, Mr. Conductor came to check on cards and very sternly informed me that I had not paid! I protested that indeed I had double checked, but he was not convinced. (Understandable, as I am sure these folks have heard it all!) Well, as it turns out, I HAD scanned it in the first place, and scanning again effectively checked me out. Although Mr. Conductor could see this on his scanner, he didn’t seem convinced it was not deliberate. However, he did let me get off the train at the next station to scan back in. It was a very brief stop, and he advised if I did not get back on the train before it left I would have to wait 30 minutes for the next train. As it was a chilly night I was not very keen on that possibility, but I did manage to scan in and get back in time. No fine, just a very skeptical Mr. Conductor who huffed that I still managed to save a little money by checking in at that station rather than the first one!
So, the moral of story, always remember to scan your card – and remember doing so! And, if like me, you have a spotty memory for such things, you can use your OV chip card to buy an actual ticket with the non-peak discount. Although this is supposed to be for companions, sometimes you just want to show your ticket to ride!

Friday, 12 October 2012

So You Think You Can Speak Dutch

You don’t have to speak Dutch; most Dutch people speak English (and several other languages) quite fluently. In fact, it is sometimes frustrating when you actually DO want to speak Dutch but your Dutch listener automatically flips to English at the slightest hint of an accent! For those of you who wish to learn, ING offers Dutch lessons very inexpensively. But for those of you who want to just get by with English, there are few Dutch phrases it behooves you to learn:
Feitspad: “Bike path.” Important to know, as you do not want to mistake that very inviting looking path as a walkway!
Kijk uit!: “Look out!” Screamed your way when you do walk on the fietspad, or if you are on a bike and get in another biker’s way. Often accompanied by loud pinging bells.
Duewen, and Trek: Push, and Pull. You will see these signs on doors. (If you push when you should have pulled, you can always claim you don’t read Dutch!)
Gezellig: cozy, convivial, sociable, often accompanied by words with the diminutive “je” added to the end, as in “kopje koffie.” Small and cozy is the heart and soul of Dutch sociability – no matter how large and chaotic!
A.U.B.: shortened version of “alstublieft; “please.” A.U.B. is used on signs, such as “no smoking” or “no parking,” and in written instructions. However, the long form is spoken when a service is rendered or requested. The possibilities for sarcasm are endless!  
Doei or doe-doie: Bye, or bye bye. I am not sure when this entered the lexicon, but it seems to have replaced “dag,” which means “day” but is used as both a greeting and a farewell. (Similarly, “hoi” is used as hello, often accompanied by three kisses, one on each cheek and then another for good measure on the first cheek.) “Tot ziens” means see you later, and “fijne dag” means have a nice day.
Ring: As far as I can figure, this is a street sign used instead of the name of the really big street on the map that you were sure you could not possibly miss!
Proost: “Cheers!” Important to know on a gezellig night on the town!
W.C.: toilet or bathroom, also important to know on a gezellig night on the town!
getverderrie: a mild expletive used to express disgust, also shortened to “getver.” Useful when stepping in dog droppings or when getting a soaking on your bike from a car splashing through a mud puddle.
Verdorie: a mild version of verdomme (damn it).
Chipknip: a sort of electronic wallet, whereby you can move funds from your Dutch debit card onto a chipknip account and then use the same card to pay, for example, a vending machine or parking garage. You can also get a prepaid chipknip card if you lack a Dutch bank account. All the vending machines at UU require the use of chipknip, so if you desperately need that cup of coffee to get through your 4-hour class and have only coins, you are out of luck! Verdorie!  

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Survival Tools

So, what practical survival tools are necessary for a student in Utrecht? First and foremost, a bicycle! No, not a fancy racing bike, although you may be racing to keep up with the hardy Dutch, all seemingly born on a bike. Just a regular, sturdy “sit up and beg,” “beach cruiser,” or whatever you want to call your basic transportation bicycle. Mine has no gears and back pedal brakes. But it takes me everywhere I want to go, and since it is nothing fancy and thus not a theft-magnet, it is always there when I return. (Do invest in a good lock!) Biking as transportation is the norm in the Netherlands, and everyone does it. Elderly people, children, business persons in suits and heels, moms with a child seat on the handlebars, behind the seat, or even in a large cart affixed in front of the bike. No fancy biking togs required, either, just bike in whatever you are wearing – including heels, a business suit, or your party dress!

The beauty of biking in the Netherlands is the amazing bicycle infrastructure. Nearly every street has a dedicated bike lane or even an alternate bike route, and bicyclists have their own traffic signals. (Not that cyclists seems to pay them any mind!) The respect for bicyclists is incredible, cars actually stop for you and woe to the pedestrian who gets in your way! And everywhere you go, there are places to park and lock your bike, everything from bike racks to actual bike parking garages, or just a handy street pole or railing. Of course, with so many bikes piled together it can be quite difficult to find your bike or retrieve it from the nest; occasionally you will  cause an entire row of bikes to fall like so many dominos!
Second, one must invest in good rain gear. Waterproof coat, pants and boots to go over whatever you are wearing. Of course, you could, like the Dutch, learn to cycle while holding an umbrella, but this is of no avail in a brisk wind. And trust me, in such a flat country, the wind is quite brisk! Sometimes it seems it is all you can do to pedal furiously just to stand still! Also, invest in a good waterproof backpack to protect your laptop and books on the way to class, and for your bike, water repellant saddlebags.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of humor! Learn to laugh at yourself, along with the Dutch who may very well laugh as you struggle to adapt to the bicycle culture. You will feel shaky at first, learning to navigate through bike rush-hour with hoards of cyclists surrounding you within inches. Just keep doing it; soon you, too, will be cycling with no hands, while carrying a couple of sack of groceries or perhaps a large musical instrument, eating your lunch, talking on your cell phone, perhaps with a passenger on the back. Talk about multi-tasking!