Photographer:Fotograaf: Stock Exchange
Italian student on her first weeks at Maastricht University
Lost in the city centre of Maastricht, searching for a parking place, and wasting hours photocopying pages and pages. Every new start has its own difficulties. Claudia Costa (26) is newly arrived in Maastricht for the master’s in Media Culture. She comes from Milan, Italy, and tells us about her experiences in the first weeks of this new academic year.
Just landed, already lost
The best way to discover a city is to get lost in it. Maastricht is no exception, and its labyrinth of cobblestone alleys is a good place to start, as I soon found out. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t find my way home, and it took me some days to realise that Maastricht has two almost identical squares located side by side in the city centre. Then everything became clear: when I thought I was at the Vrijthof I was actually in the market square. Piece of advice: don’t take the McDonald’s on the corner as your point of reference. Both squares have one, so you’ll never find your way out. If I’d been wiser, I would have bought a city map rather than a snack at the frituur shop. By the way, does anyone know what the semi-liquid brown filling of bitterballen is made of?
The first weeks in the Netherlands proved that the Dutch see many things in their own special way. Take the weather for example: observing the Dutch cycling on frozen paths or slipping on the wet cobbles on a rainy day will teach you to live in all kinds of weather without being limited by it. The concept of privacy at home is also different: it will become normal to feel a little bit ‘on display’ when sitting in your kitchen or living room, as most Dutch people don’t seem to feel the need to hang curtains on their high windows overlooking the road. I still can’t help looking into people’s windows while walking through the city: my eyes are automatically drawn into their flats as if I was looking at shop windows. I hope my Dutch neighbours don’t think of me as a stalker…
Understanding Dutch bureaucracy
Dutch bureaucracy also requires some mental flexibility. Given the country’s geographical position, I naively expected the fabled German efficiency to have crossed the border into the Netherlands. How wrong I was! I soon found out, at my own expense, that a minimum period of two weeks is standard waiting time for services like gaining internet access, registering at the municipality or opening a bank account. Although it’s not clear to me what such a long time is needed for, I didn’t dare ask for fear of hearing the all-purpose reply: “That’s just how it is in the Netherlands.”
If, like me, you’re unlucky enough to have a car, shame on you! There’s no free parking space in Maastricht’s city centre: a nightmare for new residents who first need to receive their proof of registration with the town hall before applying for a parking permit. Waiting time? Usually two weeks. Don’t bother asking the employees of the municipality for a temporary permit, as I did. I couldn't believe my ears: “In the Netherlands we have bicycles, so go by bike instead.” No problem with that, but I still had a car to park somewhere!
Surviving the first week of your master’s studies
I thought going back to being a student would mean more spare time and leisure, but this was before I realised that being a master’s student at UM is a full-time job right from the first week. Although there’s a lot of self-study to do, finding the sources I need is the most time-consuming task. As a new arrival, I had no clue of the effort required when visiting the University Library; I hadn't imagined having to deal with 20th century procedures like putting credit on my student card and waste half-hours at a time photocopying page after page. We live in the digital era, so why not use pdf files instead? Above all, not even in my worst nightmares could I have imagined that the inefficiency of the bureaucracy could spread to the university administration. Some of my course mates found themselves registered under a different nationality and were mistakenly asked for a visa (despite being EU citizens), or their UM card was sent to the country they lived in before moving to Maastricht, even after registering with the municipality. Being new to UM I was also new to the heavily advertised Problem-Based Learning approach: I don’t know why, but I was a bit sceptical of PBL from the beginning. Despite giving it the benefit of the doubt, I left the first session puzzled and wondering if tutors should not shape the discussion more to avoid students regurgitating notions read in a hurry without really elaborating on concepts. When the tutor asked me if I minded being chair of the first session I thought to myself: “Do I have any choice?” but instead I smiled and accepted, saying ironically: “I’m the lucky one!” Back at home, I grew more and more anxious about my chairing task. Setting a structure for the discussion surely helps, but the best advice is making your fellow students talk and debate in your place. The chairing wasn’t too bad in the end but it’s important to give yourself some time; after all, you have a whole year to improve your survival skills … both inside and outside class.