High Living in the Low Country: Studying Abroad in Holland

By Tom Shroder
Sunday, November 2, 2008

The academic highlight of my junior year abroad was an end-of-term paper for environmental sciences, titled "Domestic Animal Waste Disposal in an Urban Social Context." It was a 40-page study of dog poo in the streets of Utrecht, the city in the Netherlands where I lived and "studied" during the 1973-1974 school year. From the carefully crafted title to the absurdist footnotes (many of which had their own footnotes), the paper, written in collaboration with my three flatmates, was an energetic parody of academic bloviation. Based on the speaking style of the study-abroad program director (PhD, pomposity), we developed a list of principles for writing our thesis that we prosecuted mercilessly:

"1.) Why use three adjectives when you can use four? 2.) Multiple adverbs are even better than multiple adjectives. 3.) Never state a fact without qualifying it at least twice, preferably in ways that contradict the original point. 4.) Quote Goethe whenever possible, and at least once when it is not at all possible."

And so on.

We got an A-plus.

The only other class I can remember attending in Holland was European history. Possibly 18th century. I found the reading unexpectedly interesting, though I haven't the slightest memory of the subject. Something about Europe. And history.

I did take the Dutch language from a guy named Toby, but it was a beginner course. The one sentence I remember learning was: "Ik heb een reis maken naar grote gele bananenland." Perhaps I was hallucinating, but I remember Toby saying it meant, "I have traveled to the land of big, yellow bananas."

The fact that I learned very little Dutch didn't matter because the program was set up to allow us to study in an English bubble. All the courses we were required to take were supplied by the three American professors who came with our group to Holland. Theoretically, we had access to the resources of the University of Utrecht, but my fellow American students and I rarely set foot there, except to visit the university rathskeller, where we discovered large quantities of very cheap, remarkably good local beer. "Beer, please," was the other sentence I learned to say in Dutch.

To sum up: During my junior year abroad, the academics were, literally, a joke; the study of language was lax and doomed to futility; and many of our cultural encounters revolved around the conspicuous consumption of fermented malt beverages. Talk about a "liberal" education.

And yet, 35 years later, the part of my college career that I remember as the most personally enriching: those nine months I lived in Europe. And why not? That was one terrific vacation. Give anyone a year off from serious responsibility, and it will invariably be remembered fondly. In fact, maybe we could do worse than creating a space for young adults to have one wild, carefree adventure before they pick up a burden they won't be able to put down until they're eligible for Social Security and Medicare.

But in the end, didn't that year offer more than just a good time? My gut tells me it did.

At 19, I had landed in a foreign place alone, with no prearrangements. All I had was a backpack and the address of the program director, a second-floor apartment on a quiet street opposite a park. He let me and two other students, who would become my best friends and co-conspirators, sleep on the floor of his small living room for a few days. While other exchange students landed rooms in sterile dorms on a commuter campus a few miles away, instinct led us to roam the city, checking in on a list of apartments for rent, until we managed to negotiate a lease on a four-room flat over a bakery in a 350-year-old building.

It was there, I realize, where I began to learn my first lesson, one that shaped me both personally and professionally: When in an unfamiliar situation, don't stay on the fringe; immerse yourself. It paid off richly, and part of the dividend was in fresh pastry; a trap door in the apartment's tiny kitchen led down a ladderlike stair to the bakery's back room, where the baker left unsold goods out for us at night. We had no refrigerator, but for the long winter (consistently cold but not frigid), I stored my perishables in the rain gutter outside my dormer window.

Next was lesson two: There is always a way around scarce resources. This was Europe, not Burma, but even Europe made American materialistic excess clear by comparison -- especially back then, during the first oil crisis, when Sunday streets were emptied of cars and the whole city came out to celebrate the slower pace.

To get around, we purchased dented old bikes for less than $10 and pedaled everywhere. Like most of the Dutch students we met, we had almost no money; yet we traveled at the drop of a hat. A $3 train ride to the American Express office in Amsterdam and $40 got us a one-way, not-exactly-legal ride to Barcelona, hidden and freezing in the back of a Mercedes truck. From Barcelona, we purchased steerage-class passage on the lower deck of a ferry to the fantasy island of Ibiza. We couldn't afford hotels, so we brought sheets of plastic for shelter and hiked from one Mediterranean coast to the other. We slept in our makeshift tent, buffered from the wind by low shrubs that grew just above the tide and warmed by driftwood that burned till dawn. For breakfast, lunch and dinner, we ate chickpeas or peanut butter with coarse brown bread. For dessert, we plucked pods from the wild carob trees. So that was lesson three: Life's pleasures aren't synonymous with its luxuries.

Even when we returned to the "routine" of our homely base camp in Utrecht, every day felt unlike every other -- intense, saturated with texture. Wherever I was that year, it was where I wanted to be.

And that's the lesson I've struggled to hold onto ever since, even as it flits away and dodges around one dark corner or another, even when deadlines and bills multiply and there are no still-warm butter cookies waiting at the bottom of the stair. Maybe it's so hard because the lesson is so simple: Each moment contains the world.

Tom Shroder, the Magazine's editor, studied abroad while a student at the University of Florida. He can be reached at shrodert@washpost.com.

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