Thursday, August 31, 2006

Starting 'school' (abridged)

Woke up this morning a little before 7, and it was the earliest I’ve woken up in months. A laid-back life of being a bum gets you…laid back. Didn’t get too much sleep last night, since, well, ‘worry me’ lay in bed and had thoughts running around like crazy trying to picture what’s going to happen today.

Showered, got dressed, got beautiful, and got out the door. Sat in the train with a bunch of commuters trying to get a shut-eye, or open their eyes into through papers. It’s been over two years since I felt I was part of a community—a community of commuters with a purpose and a destination. Though by the looks of some people’s haggered faces and sad expressions, some may feel less like they have a purpose in life, let alone at work.

Arrived at the place where we were supposed to gather, only to be intimated by a crowd of around 100 people standing around, surrounding by a slight drizzle and the background noise of general chatter. They were doling out tea and coffee, so I got myself one, to keep warm, and keep my hands from fidgeting from nervousness. I don’t function well in crowds. Glanced around, looking for a place I can ‘butt in’, but everyone seemed so engaged in their little groups and conversations already. There were a couple of others who hadn’t managed to mingle yet, like me, and I wondered if they were as nervous as I was. Stood around a bit, thinking what a great way to start.

Then we got divided into smaller groups, according to our studies. Phew, I thought. Much better, since you know then the people walking around with you are going to be your classmates. One thing you have in common, one common topic to break the ice. Once that ice is broken, I guess the conversation just rolls from there…where are you from, what were you doing before, where, smile, why, how, when, smile, listen, talk, relate, answer, ask, smile.

The tour itself was alright, though our group was a little left out. You see, I’m going to be doing a Masters in Public International Law (LLM), and at this uni there are two courses of that: there’s one which is so-called ‘advanced’ LLM, because it offers more choice and better facilities and services, and then there’s the ‘normal’ LLM—the one I’ll be doing. The difference between the two? Oh, only around €10,000, give or take. No surprise why I’m doing the ‘normal’ one.

And from the moment go the differences in treatment were clearly visible. The ‘advanced’ people were taken away for an exclusive meet-and-greet with staff over coffee and a choice between apple pie, chocolate cake and cookies. We were told to hang around and wait to be picked up. There was coffee to be fair, but no pie, or given the choice, chocolate cake.

I guess the time we were ‘abandoned’ to wander the corridors of our new faculty was a welcome opportunity to mingle, meet and greet more people. And I guess it went pretty well. There are lots of Americans and Brits on the course, and all the rest are from the rest of Europe. We basically just talked and exchanged one another’s lives and experiences, and that’s plenty of material to cover. Another topic of common interest was how disorganised the whole course is, since courses start next week and almost everyone I met had no clue when and where the classes are going to be. Complaining, another ice-breaker.

All the new people had a welcome address from the Rector Magnificus (Latin for ‘head rectum rector’). Whenever that name was said a bunch of people burst out laughing. Not too much exciting news there, the usual why-this-university-is-so-great, how-privileged-you-all-are-to-be-the-select-few, and well-wishing for our future studies, because frankly we might not even get to see him again. Then this academic coordinator came up and started going through the list of (almost) all the countries in the world. The point of the ‘game’ was whenever a country is mentioned, people from that country should stand up, and he’ll try his best to say ‘hello’ in that country’s language. The first, being ‘G’day’ (Australia)…half an hour later Zimbabwe. We all sighed with relief that that was the end.

But it wasn’t the end. We were treated to a ‘movie’, made probably more than a decade ago, about Holland. Witty, amusing and revealing, but sometimes left me wondering why I need to know that the highest point in the country is 322,20m, and the lowest is 7m below sea level, or that Amsterdam, with 725,000 inhabitants, is the world’s smallest metropolis. All the facts, figures, need-to-knows, national dish (buttered bread and cheese), national flower (tulip), national sport (football) etc, etc. People cheered when the picture of a cannabis leaf appeared on the screen (cannabis is ‘legal’ in this country).

And that wasn’t the end either. Another lady came up and gave us a lecture on ‘culture shock’. Generalisations of course, but having lived here for years and years a lot of these things I can relate to:

  • While visiting someone in their home, when offered a biscuit, take only one. Take two and you won’t be invited again. (Dutch stinginess)
  • Complain, curse, whine, lament about the weather (Dutch national topic of discussion)
  • Guys will not pay for dinner on a date (heard of ‘Go Dutch’?)
  • Men do not hold doors open for women (Dutch sexual equality)

As we left the lecture hall and walked passed town hall, a lesbian wedding was in progress (Dutch sexual orientation equality)—Congratulations to Ilse and Roos!


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