First Week in Utrecht

Hello whomever is reading this!

I recently wrapped up graduate school in Rochester, New York. After seven years in Rochester, I have my PhD. Oof. And now, my next adventure is taking on a postdoc position at the Utrecht University in Utrecht, Netherlands!

So, after defending my thesis on June 23rd, moving my stuff to Buffalo June 25th, then moving myself there June 30th, I had a month of downtime with my family, with lots of time for some last visits with my friends. Then, August 3rd, I started the travel, arriving early/mid-afternoon on August 4th. Flew JetBlue/Icelandair to Boston, Reykjavic, then Amsterdam. From Amsterdam, I took a train to Utrecht, then a bus to the place where I’m staying this month.

For the month of August, I’m staying in somebody’s apartment that I found through Airbnb until I move in to campus housing on September 1st. Now, leaving Buffalo around 450pm on the 3rd, and arriving at what was around 7 or 8am Buffalo time the next day, I was tired. I don’t generally sleep very well in comfortable beds, let alone cramped planes.

Now, having been to the Netherlands before, just the traveling bit already made me nervous. The last time I was here, I took the wrong train and got quite lost. This time, I was dragging three ridiculously heavy suitcases and a backpack. This is not conducive to changing course easily, in the event I get lost again. Thanks to the miracle that is GoogleMaps, along with clear instructions from Riwfka (my host for August), and some kind strangers who validated my train choices, I got as far as Utrecht without any trouble.

Well, I say without any trouble. What I mean is, my idiot brain was making bad choices and other people were just really nice and helped me before they became problems. Taking a train with three suitcases and backpack is not generally a problem. When I decided to drag them into an area where I could sit down, that was the problem. Dutch trains are divided into an upstairs and downstairs. Downstairs door was broken, so I went up. Found out that hard way that the doors are barely wide enough to let my widest suitcase through. (I had another suitcase strapped to it for easier carrying, so turning it sideways wasn’t really an option.) Cranky Dutch man guffawed at all my shit. Rightfully so, I guess, but I’m moving here for two years, so boo. Nice Dutch woman asked me where I was going, then when we were approaching Utrecht station, she helped me drag my cases down stairs so I could be ready upon arrival.

Get off the train at Utrecht Centraal. First thing I see is an escalator. Sleepless me doesn’t consider looking for an elevator. I drag my three suitcases to the up-escalator, and almost immediately, my heavier suitcase rolls back, knocking me backwards, and I am on my back, feet up in the air, trying fruitlessly to regain my balance and get up, but everything is moving, my bags are everywhere, there’s nothing to hold on to in my reach. Suddenly, I’m being pulled up by a stranger, and the escalator stops. I’m on my feet, trying to keep composure, and the man helps me drag all of my heavy suitcases to the top of the stairs. He says “this all is way too heavy for a young woman”. I know.

After some confusion on the main level, I find where I need to go for the bus. (To ride the transportation, you have a card that you use to check in and out. There are check-in ports like at the NYC subway, except they’re not gated off. Convenient for suitcases. Perplexing if you have no idea what the hell you’re doing. They exist for the people taking trains. They’re not gated because if you’re taking a bus, you check in on the bus.) So I hop on the bus, pay the fair, sit.

I finally make it to Riwfka’s place. Walking there though, the sidewalks are a bit confusing. There are clear bike lanes that you treat like LAVA. DO NOT ENTER THE BIKE LANES. Though, sometimes there aren’t pedestrian lanes. At this point in my journey, I was like, fuck it. I can’t find the pedestrian lanes. I don’t care.

I message Riwfka, cos I’m not 100% sure I’m going the right way, she walks outside, and I’m nearly there. So, I get to Riwfka’s place. Finally. Where I proceed to have some water, Skype home, and go to bed. Or try to. Riwfka is dog-sitting for a friend for a few days. I’m in my room, and I hear this howling, crying. It’s annoying, but I understand it. Poor dog. She’s homesick. I get it. For a while, sleep-deprived, grumpy me, I bemoan to myself, ugh, shut up. I’m away from home in a strange place, missing home too, and I’m not howling about it. I realize that what I have just done is exactly howling about it, just without an external audience.

So, I go out to give the dog some company since Riwfka is out dancing, and I have some salad Riwfka left for me. While I’m out, another guest at the apartment, a Belgian (Flemish) girl, Laura joins. We chat, keep the dog company. While I was sleeping, the dog escaped out the door. This dog opens doors. I was tired enough to sleep through quite a ruckus, apparently. But later on, Laura goes to bed, I go to get ready for bed, then go to the living room to check on the dog before calling it a night, and she isn’t responding. I look out the window, and she’s in the courtyard! I have no idea how she could have gotten there — the door is locked, I don’t have a key! Come to find out, she opened the door to Riwfka’s room (closed but unlocked) and climbed out her window. I knock on my wall and ask Laura if she can unlock the door to bring the dog in. (Laura has a key — she has to go through the courtyard to get to her room.) We can’t lock Riwfka’s door without a key, and don’t want to enter her room to mess with the window, she we barricade the door as best as we can with EVERY chair we can move. I leave a note for Riwfka and her boyfriend Hernan, explaining the chair arrangement.

The next morning at 1030am (my body thinks it’s 430am), I have an intake meeting with the ISD. International Student Desk. I take the bus. Same line as yesterday. The buses here are nice. Always on time. Usually a digital board giving ETAs of the various routes. I ask a Dutch woman also waiting for the bus how much fair usually is. Bus fair is calculated depending on how far you travel. Also, you have to flag down the buses, or they won’t stop. When I get on the bus, my fair is the same as yesterday’s even though I’m traveling less far. I guess if you are paying cash, they just charge you the whole route. Only if you have a card will they charge per distance.

At this meeting with the ISD, they tell me I have appointments to attend in the next days, have some things to sign, then they give me a messenger bag with a transportation card (OV chipkaart), and lots of information. She tells me that the following Saturday, someone will be by to drop off a few groceries as part of my welcome package.

Leaving this meeting, I try to take the same bus back, but with construction on campus, the location of the bus stop isn’t clear. It’s nice out, so I walk in the general direction. I’m getting hungry. Haven’t really eaten since I’ve arrived apart from some stroopwafels and the salad, both from Riwfka. But almost halfway back to the apartment, I see signs for Restaurant het Oude Tolhuys. I have it marked on my GoogleMaps, so I must have been interested in it at some point. I decide to go there.

At this point, I realize my ignorance of the Dutch language is going to create some interesting situations. The waitress offers me a menu, but since we’ve been communicating in English, she realizes, I probably won’t be able to read the Dutch menu. She starts to read it to me! I appreciate this, but want to make this easier, so I ask, is there anything vegetarian? She mentions tomato soup, omelets, salads… Ok. I’ll have a small cup of tomato soup and a cheese omelet please. And a water. Tap is fine. (I knew this beforehand, but automatic and constantly refilled water is not a thing here.)

I don’t want to detail every meal I eat here cos that will get boring really fast, but this tomato soup was really original. She brings out a big bowl with nothing in it but some diced fresh tomatoes, oregano paste, and what I guess was some kind of soft cheese. She pours hot tomato soup from a glass pitcher into the bowl. Wow. Fancy. And delicious.

So, ok, I find a bus stop, use my new OV chipkaart to take it home.

The next day, a Saturday, I stay in my room late partially cos I slept late, and also because I can hear Riwfka and Hernan SCREAMING at each other. Avoid, avoid, avoid. (Though it was kind of interesting to listen to — they were going back in forth between Dutch and Spanish, sometimes combining the two. Danish? no, would have to be Sputch.)

Later on, I make my way on foot to a grocery store called Lidl. It’s a lot like Aldi’s — discount things, bring your own bag, cash only (or debit card, no credit). It takes me a while to find eggs because I’m looking in the refrigerated sections. Dutch don’t refrigerate their eggs, apparently. There’s also quite a lot of unrefrigerated butter, and I can’t read Dutch, so I don’t know what the differences are. In the check-out line, I ask a lady if this is butter what I have. Yes, but not baking, it’s butter for your bread. Ok, that’ll do.

Later that day, I’m being lazy, and Riwfka comes in to apologize for the noise earlier. She asks me if everything is ok, I say yes. Then I ask her if everything is ok with her? Except I phrase it as “everything is ok with you?”. I don’t think she heard the question in my tone, and only noted the order of my words, because she replied “ok”, as if I’ve commanded her to be ok. Oops. But then she asks if I’m bored. I am a little, but also still tired. She offers to take me around town. At this point, my exploring has been minimal. She takes me to city center, and gives me a whirlwind tour of loads of cool and beautiful parts of town. So this is where all the people are! I see Domtoren, which is a really picturesque place I must properly visit at some point. City center looks like something out of a fairytale. Cobblestone streets, big windows, canals. Beautiful.

When we get back, Hernan mentions that it is pride weekend in Amsterdam — Europe’s biggest pride celebration. SHIT! I missed it?! The next morning, I search online for any remaining vestiges of pride weekend — particularly drag shows. I find one at Lellebel, and I message a friend (met in Rochester, who lives in Amsterdam), Gosia, if she would be interested. I take the correct train to Amsterdam! We meet at the Starbucks in Amsterdam Centraal, and wander around the city a bit, making our way to Lellebel, which turns out to be a tiny bar. They’re singing a bit of karaoke in Dutch. Crap, are the drag queens here going to be performing in Dutch?

No drag queens this trip, only the brief karaoke, but maybe next trip.

Gosia and I walk around the city some more, until we start to get hungry and stop for dinner. At this point, evening on a Sunday, places are starting to close. I’m a bit confused; for the Netherlands being such a not-religious country, it’s odd so many places still observe Sunday. Gosia (also an expat, from Poland) explains it’s less for religion, and more because the Dutch culture is one that values time off. I also tell her about the misunderstanding with Riwfka the day before, and she points out that Dutch is also a culture that’s not particularly touchy-feely. It may not have been so much a misinterpretation of my question “everything is ok with you?”, but more an unpreparedness to respond to something to do with feelings. Interesting. After dinner, Gosia goes home, and I take the train back to town. Decide to walk home from the station.

Monday, I go to the Immigration something something (IND) office to have my biometric data taken (fingerprints, picture, signature). This is necessary for my residence permit, which the ISD has made an appointment two days later on Wednesday for me to pick up, along with my BSN number (Dutch social security number). After my data is taken on Monday, I find out my residence permit will be ready in approximately five business days! Uh, what? I’m supposed to pick it up Wednesday. To add insult to injury, I get an email from the ISD — they made the appointment for the wrong day. In order to get my BSN same-day, I have to go in on a Tuesday and go through the expat center; my appointment is Wednesday. Soooo, what is this appointment for exactly if I can’t pick up either thing I’m supposed to?

Tuesday I was just a rainy, lazy in bed all day, so skipping to Wednesday’s appointment, the clerk there asks why I’m even there — I can’t get a BSN number then. I have to make an appointment on a Tuesday. And I need a long-term mailing address — my Airbnb August home won’t do. UGH. The ISD has been horrendous about answering my emails since I was offered the job. So instead of trying to email, I go to the office. At first, my liaison keeps saying “I’m sorry you misunderstood”. No. I did not misunderstand, they messed up. I explain what happened, explain what I need. I mean, I can’t get a bank account or get paid until this BSN business is settled. I sit with the woman as she remakes my appointments right there. Then she apologizes for the trouble.

(Side note, the Dutch word for citizen is “burger” — that’s the B in BSN. A few days prior, I was looking online at menu for a hamburger place, Meneer Smakers. When I translated the menu page, all the hamburgers are described as “citizens” instead of “burgers” lol.)

Later, I go back to campus for a meeting with HR. This woman has been substantially more helpful, even when the particular need is not her job to resolve. I sign some papers, she reads some papers to me. I go home.

After this, I have a lot of the afternoon free. I decide to spend some time poking around the shops of city center looking for a rain coat. Previously, Gosia had warned me about looking for clothes in the Netherlands because everybody is so freaking tall, and I’m not. (Side note, in Riwfka’s house, I can’t see my whole face in the bathroom mirror because it’s too high.) I don’t have any luck finding a raincoat this day. They’re all too long, but not because I’m too short, rather because I have big hips. But apart from that, I poked around a fair few shops. There’s a nice stationery store that has no name outside, it’s not listed anywhere online, and they don’t give receipts. I have no idea what it’s called. But I’ve bought a lot of postcards there.

While walking around town, I bumped into Riwfka and one of her friends. The friend pointed out that I was only wearing a t-shirt and pants, while everybody else had on jackets or sweaters. It was somewhere around 66-70 F outside (~19-20 C), and quite humid. Since then, I’ve noticed more and more that when I’m comfortable in a light shirt and pants, I’m surrounded by people in jackets. I guess I’ve been conditioned by the weather of western New York. Around 70F/20C is quite perfect to me. Utrecht doesn’t generally get much warmer than that, so I was a bit surprised that everyone was cold.

At some point in these next days, I hung out with Laura (Belgian temporary housemate) a bit more around the house. Her last day in Utrecht was Friday after a six week internship. She’s taking a trip to NYC and San Francisco soon, so I made some recommendations. She gave me some recommendations in Utrecht, as well as Belgium. Where to get bubble tea in Utrecht, a place in Brussels with loads of beer choices (which is right by Jeanneke Pis, the less famous sister of Manneken Pis). I also learned that there’s a conservative party in Belgium wanting to divide the country into a few smaller countries, now largely because the northern part is much wealthier than the southern part, and these people don’t want to financially support the poorer parts. Now, considering Belgium as a whole has a population of approximately 1.4x of NYC (Belgium ~11 million, NYC ~8), this seems ridiculous to split it up, and worse when you hear the argument of why these people want to. So, most nobody takes this party very seriously, and it seems Belgium won’t be doing to itself what Brexit is doing to Britain and the EU (at least from my precursory understanding of these politics).

On her last night (Thursday), we watched the live action version of Cinderella, had some wine, and chat a bit more. I’m pretty disappointed she’s leaving already. I like Laura. But hopefully we’ll stay in touch. (I gave her my business card hoping she’d find me on facebook, but ended up leisurely poking through a bunch of Belgian Lauras until I found her, while she was making the two hour drive home to Belgium.)

Something else Laura told me though — apparently it’s a pretty Dutch thing to put chocolate sprinkles on bread with butter. Dutch call the sprinkles hagelslag (which I think also includes non-chocolate ones), but apparently the people of Belgium have another name for these — muizenstrontjes, which is a cutesy name that translates to “mice shits”. 🙂

Today, I had the house to myself with Laura gone, and Riwfka and Hernan in Belgium for a camping/salsa festival. Did some laundry, did the dishes, the “small” bag of groceries came. (This was no small bag — it was a big bucket of flowers, and a huge bag with all kinds of food and other household usables.) After that, I went to Utrecht Centraal, where there is a kind of a mall, Hoog Catharijne. Finally found a rain coat at H&M. Bought some more postcards.

That’s something else too. I’ve mailed a bunch of postcards, but today, I dropped a few in a mailbox outside the postoffice. There were four choices of mailboxes, all labelled in Dutch, and I have no idea if I picked the right one. There are a fair few obvious cognates, which help on menus. Most people speak English too. But there’s no way I will fully appreciate the Netherlands until I learn Dutch. Plus I feel like a jerky tourist.

Anyways, Todd (Rochester boss) approved my thesis corrections (then gave me some more to do -_- which I finished), so my thesis has been submitted, and all of my requirements from Rochester are finished! I am officially a PhD. 🙂

Apart from that, Riwfka and Hernan return tomorrow, and I start my postdoc on Monday. I have access to a bike that Riwfka provides with the room, but have not ridden it yet. Maybe tomorrow I will try that, then get a good sleep before I meet Celso (Utrecht boss) at 9am.


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