Thursday, June 23, 2011

Finals and Turkey

The past few weeks have been pretty intense. I went through my last round of finals, turned in my thesis, had an amazing time in Turkey with a bunch of friends I've made here, and, unfortunately, have started to say goodbye to friends returning home already.
After finishing and turning in my last paper for Maastricht University, I went to snowworld with my favorite North Americans here in Maastricht, Chris from Canada and Larissa from California/Breda Netherlands. I hadn't made it to the Alps or Pyrenees to snowboard, but I made it to Snowworld in Landgraaf the Netherlands in June to snowboard! While it was a very small place to hit the slopes, it was still a lot of fun. Never before had I taken a bus in shorts/short sleeves to go snowboarding or been able to see people outside picnicking, so it was an interesting experience to say the least. It was also a fun way to say goodbye to Larissa who left for summer break with her parents in California. After my fun day in Snowworld, I worked to finish up my thesis before leaving for Turkey.

Again, I was lucky to be able to catch a cheap return flight, this time on Pegasus airlines though, not Ryanair. I left for Turkey on Saturday June 11, right after the last day of finals week. I turned in my thesis the day before leaving and so was able to relax and have fun the entire time we were there. The first stop was, predictably, Istanbul. We had 4 real days in Istanbul before heading to Izmir, the second largest city in Turkey, to visit our friend from Maastricht University who lives there.

Istanbul immediately hit me as a city of contrasts. Of course, it's the only city to span two continents, but I really did not realize how diverse it could be. Parts of the city look like any modern skyscraper ridden downtown I've seen in the US or Europe, while others reminded me of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Not only were the buildings, architecture, and urban design diverse, but the people and atmosphere was also vibrant and changing. Here, it was difficult to tell who was a tourist and who was a native because of the great diversity in not only appearance but also behaviors. What was most impressive, though, was the atmosphere of the city. All day and night people would be out in the streets enjoying life. Even late at night you'd see older men sitting around drinking Cay (tea) and playing Backgammon or Chess and presumably discussing politics (since the elections happened while we were there). Along side them, in a bar or restaurant, you would see young people having a few drinks and listening to music. The entire city was always alive. Not to mention the wonderful food we were able to eat everyday. Although, after awhile I was ready to get away from eating so much meat.

Aside from the way the city felt, it was of course amazing to see some of the more amazing monuments left behind in the city. On the first day we took a Bosphorus cruise to get an idea of the city. This cruise gave us an idea of how vast the city was, and also some of the differences between the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. Further, it helped us see some historical monuments that otherwise would have been almost impossible to reach. This day we also checked out the New Mosque, near the take off point for the cruise.
The next day we checked out some of the more famous sites, the Grand Bazaar, The Spice Bazaar, the Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque. The Grand Bazaar was much less interesting than the Spice Bazaar and the streets between the two, because it was just too touristy. In the streets between the two Bazaars and the Spice Bazaar you could find places where there were actual locals shopping and negotiating. That made it much more interesting to wander around and explore.

They Hagia Sophia was both impressive and unassuming at the same time. The history of the building itself was amazing, from being a church to being destroyed and rebuilt to being converted to a mosque. I am fairly certain it's the only place in the world where you can see a mosaic of the Virgin Mary between the Arabic Calligraphy for Allah and Mohamed. At the same time, the inside of the building seemed a bit desolate and empty. In this way it was unassuming, with so much empty space both inside and on the walls. It also made you wonder what it had looked like before being converted into a Mosque and having all of the Eastern Orthodox ornamentation taken down or covered up.
The Blue Mosque was very impressive with both it's size and the intricacy of the tiles inside as well as the beauty of the park surrounding the building. It was also interesting to be inside an active mosque, unlike Hagia Sophia which is basically a museum now.
The last day in Istanbul we split up, some of us went out to check the old Roman walls while others went shopping. The Roman walls were interesting due to the fact that they were so old and surrounded the entirety of the city 2000 years ago, but were also sad because you realized how poorly the Turkish Government has preserved some of it's historical monuments. The walls and areas surrounding it obviously weren't preserved at all. They were surrounded/covered by trash and seemed to have a vagrant camp set up inside, with nobody seeming to care.
From here, we went to what, to me, were the two most impressive monuments in the Basilica Cistern and Topkapi Palace.The Basilica Cistern was, even though it is technically just a place where water was meant to be held, an impressive look into the Roman era. The cistern was built with amazing precision, with each column exactly as far from each other column and each line of columns, whether straight or diagonal, in a perfect line. Further, it was interesting to just try and figure out where each column came from, as each was obviously plundered from other temples and buildings spanning the Roman (and possibly Greek/Hellenistic?) empires. The cistern was really an unexpected surprise.

The Topkapi Palace had the most incredibly views of Istanbul from atop a hill whereby you could see Europe and Asia and the entire city. The building itself was impressive, but the views were breathtaking. It is an impressive example of the strength and wealth of the Ottoman Empire.

After these few tiring but fun-filled days in Istanbul, we took the night bus to Izmir. The bus was pretty awesome, with personal TV's (although everything was in Turkish) and free food/drink service. Although it took over 8 hours to cover basically the same distance as St. Louis to Chicago. Once we arrived though it was fun to see our friend and experience a much less touristic city.

I was surprised first that Izmir seemed actually less conservative than Istanbul. I thought it would have been the other way around, but Izmir seemed more "western" than Istanbul did. It also had an impressive waterscape and was another massive sprawling city. It did not seem to have as many beautiful buildings as Istanbul but had just as much exuberant life. Unfortunately, they did not plan the waterfront very well, and almost the entire coastal area is surrounded by 5 story cement buildings, which takes away from the beauty of the bay. Either way, it was still a nice city to wander around, especially with friends.

The last big adventure we made was to Ephesus. I have to say, for me this was the highlight of the trip. First, just how huge the city had actually been was impressive. Walking through the old Roman streets, but seeing both Latin and Greek inscriptions as the city had been an important point for both groups at different times was impressive. Walking down the streets I wished I could go back and see the city when it was thriving. It must have been breathtaking to see the then port city in full function. Also, it was impressive to see the church where the Third Ecumenical Council as held, the city where Cleopatra and Marc Anthony spent a year, where her sister died, where St. John and St. Paul lived and possibly wrote their Gospels. I mean the history in this place was amazing. I still am not sure I fully grasp how important that city had been, but I am glad to have been able to go and see what's left of it.

After returning from Turkey I took a few days to relax, tie up some lose ends with my thesis, and hang out with friends before they take off. Yesterday was another friend's going away party and there are a few more this weekend. Now I am lucky enough to only have to worry about what to do with my remaining time here in Europe.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


The past few weeks have not been the most interesting, until the last weekend. The past weeks have basically spent been working on my thesis. It has been going well as I turned in a rough draft last week, and have been revising it. I only have one more day at the community bookshop where I've been volunteering, before they close for a short summer break and also finished my last class in Maastricht on Monday . To celebrate I am meeting with friends tonight for a Portuguese dinner party, but also to celebrate I took a trip to Heidelberg Germany last weekend when my friend offered me a ride.

The first day we drove to Darmstadt, where my friend Silvio went to college, because they were having a huge music festival. It was free to get in and had 6 stages with all different types of music. Some terrible German rap was there when we arrived, but then we moved to one of the smaller stages and listened to some bluegrass music, with artists from Kansas City and Memphis, which was pretty funny. After listening to there set while eating some wonderful German festival food and having a nice cold beer, we moved back to the large stage where a Spanish ska/reggae band was playing. We listened to them until the festival closed, headed back to another friends place and crashed for the night.

On Saturday we woke up early, grabbed some breakfast and coffee, and drove down to Heidelberg. It is an absolutely beautiful town, nestled in a valley on the Rhine, and basically untouched by the wars that have gone on. So we explored the old city, went up to the castle and had a Heidelberger beer, walked the "Philosopher's walk" and then found a place to have some dinner and watch the Champion's League final. I was a bit amazed how important and excited people get about a big soccer match, even when neither of the teams involved have any connection to Germany. But, then I realized it's basically like the super bowl of soccer, so it's just a fun, festive atmosphere. After the game we found a nice student bar with live music where we stayed until heading in for the night.

Sunday we went through a few other towns, one of the most memorable was Speyer, which has a huge castle and also a town center that literally looks like it hasn't changed for 100 years. After grabbing some lunch it was time for me to catch the train back to Maastricht. I opted to take the EC train which basically followed the Rhine all the way to Köln through all the small river towns. Then I had what will likely be my last German meal, some Hachen and Wurst before returning to Maastricht. This weekend is a holiday weekend, and the weather is shaping up great, so tonight is Portuguese dinner, tomorrow or Saturday BBQ, and all weekend probably hanging outside and enjoying the city, since everyone here is starting to leave soon with the semester ending.

Monday, May 2, 2011


We are now entering both a beautiful and holiday filled part Spring here in the Netherlands. I have been pushing along with my thesis, which is going fairly well, and trying to enjoy the sun here in Maastricht, while also getting out for the celebrations.

Two weekends ago (April 23/24) was Easter. I was saddened to hear the alarming news of tornadoes going through St. Louis, but I was relieved to hear that miraculously nobody was injured. Here in the Netherlands we saw much less excitement on the weather front, but it was great weekend as I went up to Doetinchem to visit family and celebrate.

I went up on Saturday afternoon to visit, we basically just sat back in the garden, had a few beers, and caught up. I was able to meet my cousin's new girlfriend and then go out exploring a bit of the Acterhoek with them. We went to Stroombroek, where there is a man made lake, to take Motte out for a walk. Then, it was about dinner time, and so we went out to a Mexican restaurant. I had mentioned to my cousin that I thought it would be a better idea to go somewhere else, because I thought it would be disappointing, but he was adamant in defending it's quality. And, to be honest, if it hadn't been called "Mexican Food" it was good. But I wouldn't consider it Mexican, Tex-Mex, American-Mexican, at all. It was very Dutch/American style food, but still enjoyable and a good time.

The next morning I woke up early and went out on a bike tour of the Acterhoek.

It was a lot of fun to see the area from which my family originated. We saw a few castles, a lot of farmland, and some nice windmills as well. After that, we went to Nijmegen to see the other part of the family, and Ebbe, who just celebrated his first birthday.

It was pretty amazing to see how different he is since I last saw him over Christmas. He has become a very happy little guy and seemed to enjoy listening to English. I also was able to go to the Liberation Museum (even though it was a bit early, because Liberation Day is May 5) but I was able to learn more about the occupation of the Netherlands and the way in which it was liberated by the Canadians, British, and Americans. It again hit me to think how, not that long ago, this country was in a completely different, and somewhat precarious, position with wars running through Europe almost as a common occurrence.

After the Easter celebrations, it was back to work for the week. But, this past weekend was Queen's Day. I looked it up and was surprised to find out that it's actually celebrated on the last Queen's birthday. I asked some friends, why, and basically they said because the end of April is a great time to celebrate, so they didn't want to move the celebration to another time when the weather might not be as nice.

Either way, we went up to Amsterdam, the heart of the celebrations. My friends Pedro, Chris, and I took the train, where we met up with Lauren (my friend from Mizzou) and Gabi (Pedro's girlfriend). We basically went out in the morning on Saturday to experience the vrijmarkt. This is the official day where anyone in the Netherlands can sell basically anything they want in the streets. It makes it into a city wide garage sale. Some people were selling really awesome stuff, a lot of people whatever junk they found in their house. I was thinking there must be some really awesome deals in there, but we didn't really have the time/patience to look through it all. We then went to the Vondelpark where people were playing music, dancing, playing frisbee, and generally having fun. We went through the canals, where there was basically a water parade going on, with anyone who could find anything that floated and could support an engine partying in the water, making it interesting for us spectators as well. We then went to Dam Squre, where basically a carnival was going on, and heard some marching bands going through. After a long day, we went back to the dorm, had some food, and hung out until getting some sleep.

Sunday was much more low key, with all the partying over, so I showed Lauren around Amsterdam, where we spent a lot of time just sitting around, drinking coffee, and enjoying the nice weather. After that it was back home to Maastricht and a catch up on homework. For this weekend, we have Liberation Day (3 weekends, 3 festivals!), but I'm not exactly sure what goes on with that. I think there will probably be live music in Maastricht, so I'll stay here and enjoy that!

Monday, April 18, 2011


The past two weeks have been almost at extreme opposites of one another. I spent a week in Croatia (thanks to a ridiculously cheap 22 euro ryanair flight!) and spent the other week working non-stop on my thesis (which is coming along! I'm starting to look at dates for flying home.) Obviously, the more interesting/fun of these two was the week in Croatia.

My Quebecois friend, Chris, and I booked the cheap flight to Croatia almost as an insurance policy. We both had a lot of work to do, but since it was so ridiculously cheap, we decided we might as well buy it and then if we hadn't finished our work, it would only cost us 22 euros. Neither of us knew much about Croatia, except that it was not that long ago that the country was in the midst of war after the fallout of Yugoslavia, and that it was supposed to be a beautiful place. So, we packed our bags and hopped over to Zadar.

Zadar is an older city in Croatia. We found a hostel in the center of old town, which was on a small peninsula between a bay and the sea. On the one side was a massive city wall left over from Roman times, and the other side was an open view onto the sea and surrounding islands. Zadar was really a beautiful place, although we found the individuals from Zadar to not be the most friendly. For example, we heard a bunch of people singing and playing instruments at a bar, but as soon as we approached to sit and have a drink and listen to their music, they stopped playing and stared at us. When we turned around to go, they started playing and laughing again. We're not sure why, but it was a bit discomforting. Besides that, Zadar was excellent.

We took a day out to the island of Ugljan and were the first people to rent the new mountain bikes they had purchased for the upcoming tourist season. We spent the entire day biking around the island. We were given a map, and tried to follow it, but found that the signs on the island were pretty poorly placed and designed, and that "bike train" really meant anything that was larger than 1 foot wide. We rode down steep rocky hills, through bike trails, and under fallen trees. It was an excellent day, but not something that we had been warned of while renting the bikes. Either way, we spent the entire day hardly seeing another soul (except for a few locals walking their dogs) and saw some stunning beaches and beauty. We also found an incredibly eerie church, St. Jerolim, which seemed abandoned, but strangely was not vandalized at all. When we opened the door, someone had assembled what seemed to be a small gremlin out of what we think were sticks and leaves, but we didn't want to get too close. Either way, it was an interesting find on the island.

After the Island, it was back to Zadar and then Dubrovnik.

From Zadar we took the night bus to Dubrovnik, which took us through parts of Bosnia, and down a large stretch of the Croatian coast.

It was really a beautiful drive, albeit 8.5 hours long, and upon arriving in Dubrovnik, was well worth it. Dubrovnik was absolutely gorgeous, but unfortunately felt a bit "fake." It was weird, because in the old city we could see that there were a lot of locals and a fully functioning city, not one just set up for tourists, but it seemed almost impossible to find any of these people during the day. Everything seemed to be set up for tourism, kind of like going to a historical theme park. That did not take away from the beauty of the city, as walking around the city wall was one of the best sights I've experienced in Europe.

We also were able to find a "blues bar" which, while expensive, did have a quality live guitarist and very intimate setting.

Further, at our hostel we made some good Australian friends who were traveling around the world for 9 months. Lucky for us, they were also heading to Split on the same day we were, so we were able to catch the bus with them.

Split was very different from both Zadar and Dubrovnik. As the second largest city in Croatia, it felt like a real city, not just set up for tourists. It also had an incredible old town, but this one seemed much more like old ruins that had been around for a long time. Walking around the city streets, you could envision Roman soldiers walking around the same stone streets and looking at the same (albeit now partially destroyed) buildings that made up the old town. Just outside of old town, was the beautiful port area, some great parks, and the rest of the city. It made for a great two days of exploring and getting to know our new Australian friends as we took in the sights.

After Split, we had to make the bus trip back to Zadar, then catch the flight back to Brussels (Charleroi). Unfortunately, due to poor planning on our part, we had to spend the night in the Charleroi airport because our plane landed about 5 minutes after the last train back to Maastricht left. It was not a friendly airport for sleeping, as the security guards forcefully awoke everyone in the airport at about 4 am, but after that, it felt good to get back to Maastricht. Upon return, I spent a lot of time catching up on my thesis, and today I've started my last class which will end in June, hopefully around the time my thesis is finished as well.

Thursday, March 31, 2011


Just a few thoughts off the top of my head:
1. Happy Opening Day for Major League Baseball. The Honkbal Hoofdklasse has nothing on the MLB (and doesn't open for another week)
2. Fake Doritos from Albert Heijn are not very good, better just pony up the extra 15 cents and get the real ones.
3. I do not understand why time changes in the USA two weeks earlier than it does in Europe.
4. I'm sorry that MU did not get Matt Painter, but I hold out hope that we will get a great coach.

The past few weeks have seen some great Spring weather. It's been warming up (slowly) still staying around freezing at night though. Generally, it's been fairly sunny with periods of rain running through town.

The latest crazy Maastricht festival also ran into town was a big one the TEFAF:
However, given the price of entry at 55 euros a day, I missed out on this one. I was lucky enough to see the never ending stream of Bentleys, Rolls, Maseratis, and Aston Martins as they pulled up to the VIP parking and were led into the incredibly expensive art fair. Maybe some day I'll have to come back for the celebration.

Besides that, things are moving forward with my thesis. I have nearly finished the literature review and will start collecting data next week. Things are looking positive for finishing in June and being home in July (maybe in time for the 4th!)

Until then, I've been having an excellent times with the weather warming up. A group of friends have started playing soccer regularly, but we are still trying to find the right place to actually play. Besides that, we have been having numerous BBQ's, just so we can spend more time outside. I have to say, Dutch BBQ's are very disappointing when you are used to great Missouri BBQ, but it's still fun hanging out with friends and grilling out.

Aside from that, I am leaving on another wonderful Ryanair trip on Saturday to Croatia (22 euros round trip! How do they make money?!) during my exam week. This period I just have a report due, which is almost finished, so I can turn it in before leaving and take some time to relax and hopefully enjoy some beautiful nature.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


I realize it's been a long time since I have posted. From the last post until the start of Carnival, not much had happened. Cold, rainy weather. Long days working on my thesis (I've gone through four topics, until I finally found one that will work on) and trying to keep up with school. Not the most fun, but necessary.
Just before Carnival, Amy and I made our way to Weert to have another Rotary presentation. While most of our presentations have gone well, this one was so far my favorite. It was the first all men's club we have seen and one of the most intellectually curious. Not only did they ask numerous questions after we finished, but also invited us to stay along and continue discussing issues ranging from business, cultural stereotypes, and ways to grow Rotary clubs among more youthful audiences.

After our presentation in Weert, I just had one day left of class before our week long Carnival break. I had heard a number of different accounts regarding what to expect, but really none of them did the festival justice. I think for four days all of the Limburgers drop all of their inhibitions and just have all out fun. It is a combination family event, parade, cultural festival, and party. Most businesses close for Monday and Tuesday, most of the bars/restaurants board themselves up with colorfully painted plywood depicting Carnival scenes/colors. I also was able to see the Carnival Prince a few times, although I'm still not really sure what he did... But, he wore a cool hat and rode around with a posse.

I started Friday just walking around getting a feeling for the pre-festivities. That generally involved random marching bands walking through the incredibly packed streets of people just starting to celebrate and have fun. Only really the individuals in the marching bands were dressed up for the day, because I was told that Sunday is the day the locals really wear costumes, and I didn't want to look too much like a foreigner so I took their advice.

On Saturday we hit up the parade. It was very different from the Mardi Gras parade I'm used to back home. I mean, Maastricht only has 120,000 inhabitants or so, but it looked like 100,000 people were in the parade and even more watching. The parade went on for hours and had mostly smaller home made type floats and tons of individual marching bands. It was lively and friendly. Although, I think I would have gotten a bit more in to it if I could understand any of the Dutch music, but either way the atmosphere was great.

On Sunday I went all out with my makeshift costume. I went out with friends, we wandered around the city, listened to more of the bands who were around the streets and had a great time. It was a sunny day, a bit cold, but fun to be outside having drinks and seeing all the people around generally letting loose.

For the rest of the week I generally worked on my thesis/homework so that I could enjoy my time in Madrid, thanks to Ryanair and 40 euro roundtrip flights. I went with my Portuguese friend, Pedro, and we stayed with a group of his friend's near central Madrid.

The first day in Madrid was not beautiful, because the weather rainy and we were tired from our early flight, but we still made it to the famous Prado museum where we saw some incredible art from Rembrandt, Goya, Van Dyck, Caravaggio, and Raphael. It was a great way to spend a rainy day. After that, we had an amazing Spanish lunch. Then wandered around the city a little before meeting up with Pedro's friends. Luckily, I was able to meet up with some old family friends who moved back to Spain. We had dinner and caught up for awhile, and were lucky enough to go grab a ton of wonderful Spanish ham.

The next day we got up early and met up with Pedro's sister and ran to another museum, the Sofia museum, which had a number of works from Picasso and Dali, including the Guernica. We then went out to explore the city and saw the Plaza Mayor, the National Palace, and a few Cathedrals. For that evening, we attempted to go to a Real Madrid game, but unfortunately to get tickets together we would have had to pay 75 euros each, which was way out of our price range, so we ended up just watching the match at a local bar, which was still a fun experience itself.
Sunday, our last day in Madrid, we took it easy. The weather was nice so we generally just walked around a few parks and saw the city from the outside. It was a really laid back day but a lot of fun.
We had to head back early because our flight back to Maastricht left at 6 am. We made the flight and then work on my thesis and classes started again. However, the week off was a wonderful break from all the work, and the weather seems to have turned for the better. Today was about 60 outside and sunny, so after class I went to the Vrijthof (main square) to hang out with friends and enjoy our first real day of Spring. Hopefully it will be like this for the next few months... but we'll see....