WORLDVIEW: A country of celebration
Rebecca Klein '12 finds a festive culture with intercultural understanding while in Maastricht
It is currently 11:14 p.m. on a Monday night in Maastricht in the Netherlands. With my door slightly ajar, I see an Irish man wearing a lady's dress and heels, and I can hear my Spanish-speaking neighbors walking down the hall after just having finished their dinner, making out words in their conversation like musica and fiesta as the smell of cheap beer floats in and out of my room. It is the night of a cross-dressing party at the Highlander, a local bar, and as per usual, all of my fellow exchange students in my dorm are finding reasons to celebrate despite a weekend spent traveling and an 8:30 a.m. class tomorrow.Two themes have defined my time in the Netherlands thus far: intercultural understanding and celebration. The Netherlands are well known for tolerant policies and the people's open-minded global outlook-it seems as though everyone knows at least three languages, making me feel grossly inadequate.
In fact, the university I attend here, Maastricht University, sells itself on being a "global" university, and I have never had more than a few Dutch students in any one of my classes. My comparative government class allows me to debate the benefits and drawbacks of various governmental structures with German, Belgian and Australian students.
I have never encountered a Dutch citizen who resented me for my lack of fluency in his or her language, and throughout this small country most things come with translations for English, French and German speakers.
As far as celebration goes, the Dutch have broadened my understanding of what it means to party. In the weeks leading up to Carnival, the festival before the Christian season of Lent, there are parades with brass bands and costume-clad children every few days. A particularly Catholic city, Maastricht is a popular destination for the 3-day festival, during which all students have off from school.
The bars stay open for 24 hours during Carnival, and everyone from infants to grandparents dance in the streets from dusk till dawn. In fact, what strikes me about partying in Maastricht in particular is its lack of age discrimination. In this student-filled town, it is the middle-aged and older people who monopolize the bar scene, as I see most bars swarming with parents at every hour of every day.
It often feels as though my dormitory, aptly named "the Guesthouse" as it is solely filled with exchange students, has taken on those characteristics unique to the region, acting as a microcosm of the Netherlands as a whole. I live side-by-side with four other Americans, five Spaniards, three Australians, two Italians, two Indians, one Mexican, one French person and one Colombian.
By sharing a communal kitchen, I have been enlightened regarding how to make a Spanish omelet, why authentic Mexican tacos really are supreme and why vegemite isn't so bad. At dinnertime, with the Americans eating the earliest and Spaniards eating the latest, the smells of authentic Italian pasta, Indian curry and simple American-style sandwiches share one small, common space.
In our corridor of 20, we have each needed to confront the preconceived notions our neighbors had of us based on our respective nationalities. "Just because I'm Spanish does not mean I'm lazy." "Just because I'm American does not mean that I am messy." I have also been reminded of what it feels like to be a minority, a feeling I so often forgot existed as a Jewish student at Brandeis. Here, I have been greeted with looks of shock when I mention my religion: "We don't have those in Europe, although I did used to watch that American show The O.C., and they were Jewish," I heard one day. But on the whole, people don't refer to or ask about the vast differences in each other's lives caused by the oceans between us. We are all students, we share a dorm, we respect each other, and we are friends.
Drawing from the relaxed, jubilant atmosphere of Maastricht, the Guesthouse has become a place of constant celebrations. Here, even the little things can be reason for festivities. On days where it is particularly sunny or warm, the world stops as everyone gathers on the lawn outside our dorm. Music blasts. People dance. Why? Because it is a nice day. Why not?
There isn't a night that goes by when I am not awakened by the sounds of students walking back in the middle of the night and into the morning. What strikes me the most is that they are constantly singing. How often in America do you hear students singing out loud for the pure and simple joy of it? And most of all, there is no excuse here not to be celebrating. So many times I have engaged in the same conversation with Spanish, Australian and Latin American students as I list excuses for why I cannot go out on any given night. They tell me, "You have an early class? You have homework? No. You are in Maastricht, you will have fun."
Editor's note: Rebecca Klein '12 is a former Features editor for the Justice.