… of inexplicability, Sinterklaas and Espana

There’s nothing like a bit of complete inexplicability to remind you that you’re in a foreign country that you don’t really understand. Today’s- I walked into the supermarket, and in neat rows of shelving on one wall were hundreds of odd children’s shoes. No explanation, except something saying something about ‘Sinterklaas’ – the Dutch Santa Claus (who comes from Madrid, for some reason, and brings masses of very un-PC black servants with him. Still can’t work out how they get away with that one)- who is arriving on December 5th. I stood staring at them for a while, before giving up and resolving to ask one of my Dutch acquaintances next time I find one who isn’t stressing about presentations (a general theme at the moment).

I’ve not been keeping up with the blog so well lately, through a combination including, but not limited to, exams, essays, presentations, tackling the Dutch healthcare system, a new man in my life and the terrible TERRIBLE weather. Though I drafted this entry shortly before all the crazy snow started in Edinburgh, so… suddenly the weather here doesn’t look quite as bad. But still. Not a fan.

I’m officially 1/4 of the way through my exchange now, having now completed (and passed rather nicely) two of my courses. Exams are ridiculously casual compared to Edinburgh- I had one in a lecture theatre. None of this ‘leave your bag at the back, matric cards face-up on the table, nothing except water and pens at your desk’ business. I saw several people chomping on sandwiches as they wrote, a girl using her iPhone clock and just a paper register handed around to tick your name off. My cockiness of ‘I’ve covered all this already. I know it inside out’ came back to haunt me when I sat my syntax exam and saw the really nasty questions which twisted everything in such a way that I had very little idea what was going on. But it’s ok. All’s well that ends well.

My Dutch is improving about as fast as a tortoise with a limp, in that I’m learning new words every day but don’t really know how to string it together. I’ve made a decision though- in February I’m beginning to study Dutch properly rather than half-heartedly flickin through my workbook every now and again when I feel guilty enough and getting excited when people actually reply to me in Dutch (normally they hear my foreign accent and immediately switch to English). My highest point this month has been a 30-second long conversation with the train guard about how good it is, “very more good than Starbucks.” He got the gist.

What with the Netherlands being such a cycling-orientated country, I hadn’t really stopped to consider what would happen when the weather took a turn for the worse. Last week we had the worst wind, rain and thunderstorms I’ve seen in my life. The wind was so strong I could barely turn my bike, and when I did I was working so hard to go forwards but barely moving at all. A little girl in front of me on the cycle path actually came to a complete standstill and would’ve started rolling backwards if she hadn’t leapt off during one particularly strong gust. Scary business. I gave up on my bike for a couple of days; I was bored of arriving places looking like I jumped in one of the many canals on the way, or arriving sweaty and out of breath from all the extra exertion. Today, I had my first experience with snow and ice and bikes. Snow in the morning, ice by the evening. Once I got going I had no choice but to keep going- if I’d braked I would’ve skidded, if I’d jumped off, my stylish-but-not-very-sensible boots would’ve sent me flying. A lose-lose scenario. I must’ve looked crazy, cycling along singing to myself in a slightly frenzied manner, occasionally admonishing myself for “thinking about it” and trying to keep going calmly but with a panicked look on my face.

Other things that have been happening- I’ve done the Erasmus thing and begun with my visiting other people on Erasmus marathon! First stop: Salamanca, Spain. I was at least hoping for a little Spanish sunshine to counteract the cold, damp windiness that had been the Netherlands for quite some time, but I had to settle for some rather chilly sunshine, though rather less wind which is always a plus. I spent essentially all the trip pretty sleep-deprived – my flight to Madrid was unfortunately from Eindhoven in the South of the Netherlands (Schiphol is too stuck up and full of itself to believe in Ryanair) so I had to leave at 4.30am to make my 9am flight. By the time I’d reached my friend Laura’s house in Salamanca I had cycled, walked, caught two trains, caught a bus, had a two hour plane journey, caught another giant coach (forgot my headphones and couldn’t watch the movie they were showing; did my best to work out what was going on through visual only, between naps and glaring at the man in front of me who kept staring at me from between the seats) and then more walking. All I needed was a boat and that would’ve been pretty much every form of transport covered. It took 12 hours from my door in Oegstgeeest to Laura’s door in Salamanca. Tiring! But Salamanca is so beautiful, it was definitely worth it. I totally enjoyed my few days there.

This weekend, I’m heading for Cologne, Germany to check out the Christmas markets with some other exchange students. Despite it not going to be above -3 the entire time, I’m really looking forward to it! It’s only a few hours on the train from here, which is a huge novelty. I’ve got way too used to living in the North of Scotland where even Edinburgh is 3,5 hours away. In 3,5 hours from here, I could be in a choice of 3 different countries. Love it.

Categories: Leiden, Netherlands

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