One Year Ago: Lessons and Experiences of Travelling

A great deal of quotes about travel exists but none quite captures the essence of this article than the quote by the playwright Euripides. The Greek scholar once opined that “experience and travel are education in themselves”. I couldn’t agree more. Many will also agree that travelling and the experiences that accrue from this often termed “hobby” are undeniably numerous and truly cannot be over emphasized. One year ago, my own personal journey of discovery began with my quest to study abroad for a master’s degree. It is with this notion that I have decided to pen down my travels of the last one year and experiences of living in a land away from home.

Back home many people erroneously believe life abroad is rosy and devoid of problems. Think again. I also had this perception before leaving home but I have now come to realize that is not true. In the last one year living in the Netherlands, also called Holland, I have come to learn, live with and understand the Dutch way of life. It has been a bumpy ride in some respects but I also have some nice stories. In the course of this essay I will mention a few that I have found intriguing, inspiring, amazing, frustrating and some downright annoying.

Without ado I will start with the Dutch craze (make that obsession) for organization. The people are very particular about planning. Everything from a stroll in the park, meeting friends for coffee at a café, hanging out at a pub (bar) or a formal meeting is planned to the last detail. To make sure all these activities (and believe me they are many) go ahead as planned everyone carries around a small diary which the Dutch call an “agenda”. Each day’s activity is entered into it and the time noted down. Some events are planned months ahead which explains why even a small 15 minutes meeting with a professor has to be arranged days and sometimes months before. It is considered rude to just badge in without an appointment or simply show up at a lunch meeting or gathering. This may at face value appear as commonsense but to the Dutch is it culture. Initially, I found this very annoying and couldn’t understand why I had to carry around a diary all the time and pen down notes and information meetings. But as time passed and the days turned into months I realized that with the magnitude of appointments, deadlines, meetings, seminars, and projects I had to keep up with, an agenda was absolutely necessary to keep up with the engagements. More so because the Dutch are perpetually in hurry, it is for them to refer to others unable to “catch-up” as lazy. This will appear but it is strange but true.

The Dutch can also be very modest people. They abhor titles and have no airs about their achievements and possessions. It is common to see a renowned professor or Nobel laureate at my university riding his bicycle to his office. Even the Rector (Vice Chancellor, Physicist, Prof. Jacob Fokkema) of my university rides a bicycle to work. On my first meeting with Professor I was thought a hard lesson about the Dutch way of life. On sighting the professor I got out of my seat to greet him and addressed him by his title. The gentleman asked me to address him instead by his first name, Ulf, and made his point very strongly with a stern eyed warning. When the meeting was over, I made to leave, and said, “thank you sir” before leaving his office. He called me back sat me down and rebuked me again for calling him “sir”. As the months passed I had the same “reprimand” from a few many other professors at my university. They are simple, friendly and approachable even outside class. It is a common sight to see them conversing with students and colleagues in the university Aula cafeteria, calling each by name. In spite of this simple structure, there still exists a boundary if respect between the students and the academics. The distance to power between student and professor, unlike in Nigeria, is very small. Students are welcome to (expected) to criticize the professor and ask questions. A certain sustainability professor once told me that one of the main ideals of universities is to imbibe in students the propensity “challenge the status quo” to question whatever we are taught, hence the motto of my university- Challenge the Future.

In spite of this, many term the Dutch as rude and too direct. This is true depending on how you look at it. Their very nature requires that they are direct and this may often viewed in certain cultures as impolite. It took me some time to get used to it. They have a certain, often annoying tenacity for airing their opinions and will speak up irrespective of whose ox is gored. Criticism is encouraged especially in the academic world and from the moment one ventures into the Netherlands it becomes imperative that you “integrate” and accept things the way they are. Fellow students will criticize your ideas and input in group work, assignments and projects. In the beginning this may all seem all too much to bear and appear like you may lose sight of things but in the end everything balances out. The antidote is to listen and take correction while arming one’s self with the right armory to also thoroughly criticize when called upon. I remember a certain course I had in the second semester which is meant particularly for academic criticism.

The directness and predisposition of the Dutch to criticism could explain why they often appear rigid and unyielding. The society strongly discourages what we may term “sharpness” or “sharp sharp” in Nigeria. People are willing to wait their turn and protest strongly when someone tries to jump the cue. This is due in part to the fact that the Dutch always appear to be in a hurry ala Lagosian style. Time wasting and lateness to meetings and appointments is generally frowned at. However, arriving fifteen minutes before or after the prescribed time is not considered late.

In generally I have learnt a lot living in the Netherlands. My Dutch may be lacking (and may be for a while) but I have come to understand that the people are hardworking, rigid, very blunt, appear unfriendly but in a whole nice people. However, this is not to say everything about them is nice. Many who live here often complain about the sheer number of rules, regulations and laws this country possesses. There exists a great deal of laws and rules for everything. Trust me “everything” has a rule, the law is clear, and be sure you will be fined accordingly, if you fail to comply. There is no “abeg” as we say in Nigeria; neither can you give the police “egunje” to get off a crime. Once I was on a tram (a small inside the town kind of train) and this gentleman next to me was fined for forgetting to “control” (stamp it) his ticket. As a result he was made part with €35.00 sad but true. Though the Dutch like to pride themselves as tolerant and open minded people; it is not uncommon to hear of racism and discrimination, though this is not as common as in some European countries. But I have come to accept issues as racism as one of the many obstacles to life abroad especially in Europe. Racism, like the culture of the people I now live with, is something I am gradually beginning to accept. I have told myself, I will live with it than let it weigh me down, because it is everywhere and no one can deny it.

In summary, it has been a thoroughly worthwhile experience. Meeting and interacting with students and people from a diverse mix of cultures has thought me a great about life- more than an infinite number of books and journals will ever do. The last one year has taught me to be patient, tolerant, objective, very hardworking, corky in polite way, blunt and unyielding, critical yet accommodating of others opinions, and most importantly; in

my opinion, to live life fully making the right decisions and making the best of the opportunities available. Someday I return home to share my experiences and hope that I will be for the good of me, my family and my country. This is what I can say of my one year in the Netherlands. Dank u wel

Written by
Bemgba Nyakuma
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