Emperor Caesar

Chess has been a longtime hobby of mine. Finding other chess players in college reignited my desire to play more chess. When I got to Amsterdam I wanted to keep pursuing that hobby. On a slow Tuesday with no class, I found out about the Amsterdam chess museum. Dedicated to Dutch native Max Euwe, who from 1935-1937 was world chess champion. After a quick dive into the history of Dutch chess. I went out to watch people in the square playing on the large outdoor board.

Here is where I met Caesar, the emperor of the chessboard. Messy grey hair and bright old eyes, he dressed in a style all his own; he walked around the board surveying the onlookers. It was clear this wasn’t his first afternoon spent hand-rolling cigarettes and watching chess. We discussed the clumsy maneuvering and missed opportunities of the current players. He was keen to share his story with me. Having moved to the Netherlands at a young age he watched his father hustle chess in the park and learned the game from him. 

As the current game ended Caesar and I took the board. We started with a standard slow opening. Everything developed evenly until move 15, I left a knight undefended and he jumped on it. Bolstered by the confidence of being up a piece he pressed the attack. As I worked to regain footing he joked with onlookers. He seemed to know my every move before it was played. He pushed my left flank and forced me to use my queen to defend key positions. He was relentless with his attack. All I could do was play cautiously and hope for an opening. He moved, piling pressure on my rook, moving his knight to attack. This opened up a diagonal for my queen to attack corner to corner capturing his undefended rook. Thrilled with myself for finding a crack in his armor, I couldn’t hold back a beaming smile as I took the piece ready to see his response. He looked over the board shocked. He hadn’t just left the rook undefended he left a center file open too. His king was pinned between my rook and queen with nowhere to hide.

His cronies behind him laughed as he took his shocked loss in stride. I hadn’t even realized I won until he pointed it out. I declined a second game, not trying to push my luck. Telling the story it feels surreal. Caesar was a character I will never forget. I hope to go back to that same square in several years to give Caesar his rematch.

Rembrandt square

A Change in Habits

The transition from being in Amsterdam to being home has taken some time. Having hit the 10-day mark since being back it has only now hit me that this isn’t a quick stop back home. Instead, it’s my new life. The first week was wasted on hating being inside, hating the situation and feeling bad for myself. Jumping between anything that could possibly hold my attention until it was time to go to bed. The start of this second week has seen a needed change in my behavior.

Finding a routine has been very important. Keeping myself away from video games and TV until after dinner has been a much-needed change. The first week taught me that it was far too easy to wake up with video games and spend the whole day playing them. Instead, the first thing in my morning is to go for a run or make sure I do at least 30 minutes of exercise. I know that I won’t be getting stronger while on quarantine but I want to make sure I don’t slide backward with my development.
Along those lines of working out another challenge has been a change in diet. Having a fully stocked fridge only a floor away at all times forces me to change my eating habits. Going from eating when I’m hungry to making sure I only eat at meals with family. Avoiding the snacking that will inevitably pack on the pounds.

Then there is schoolwork. With all the time in the world to do it, I have never felt less motivated to do school work. It is far too easy to put it off. Each day knowing I will have all the time in the world to dedicate to schoolwork. It makes it too easy to make today’s problems tomorrow’s problems. I have found the routine of doing something every day to be very important for my continued academic success.

Every day I look forward to the days when I can go outside and be with friends again. But until then all I can do is make the most of this downtime to improve myself and find joy where I can. I know when life gets hectic again and I feel like I don’t have a spare second I’ll look back with longing on these days of downtime.

Stupid Virus

I was surprised by COVID-19. Even when I heard that study abroads in Italy were getting canceled I was still optimistic that we would be able to stay in Amsterdam. Coronavirus was taking up more and more space in conversation and thought. Then it snowballed, it was the only thing any of us could talk about. We were less optimistic and started using humor to push off what we knew was coming.

After Trump’s address calling for the closing of borders everything changed. I woke up with half of my floor gone, packing and jumping on flights with short notice. Even then I was still optimistic that maybe there was some way that I would be able to stay for a little longer. As everyone around me booked tickets it was time for me to concede and book one too.

It felt surreal saying goodbye to the friends I made. Even as we spent our final days enjoying the city it didn’t feel like we had to leave, this was only a small bump things would go back to normal. Packing all my things up and getting ready to leave feeling like I was going for another weekend vacation instead of going home.

Being back home now it still hasn’t really hit me that I am here for at least the next six months. The process of leaving and getting on the plane was a good test for myself in how I can handle situations where I am powerless. Caught in the changing cogs of society. I did a good job of staying calm and thinking about what I needed to do from step to step to make sure that I would be able to get back home safely. Now being back it will be interesting to see what the next six months to a year hold for myself and the larger global picture. I have no regrets from my time in Amsterdam, no one is immune to misfortune. All we can do is make the most of the time that we have. I can confidently say I made the most of my time in Amsterdam and will continue to do so while in quarantine.

Peake 5 in Amsterdam

Dam Square

Featuring the striking Dutch Royal Palace, Dam square is a hive for activity in the city center. The wide-open square featuring live music, street performers and a great throng of pigeons eager to be fed. The center of Dam square features the Dutch National Monument; a massive white stone pillar memorializing the victims of World War II. While the National Monument stands in the center of the square the Royal Palace dominates the skyline behind it. The palace construction started in 1648 and finished in 1665. It has played host to King Louis, Napoleon, and most recently the Dutch Royal House. Regardless of if you want to see it, you will find yourself in Dam square as all main roads lead to it. A must-see for anyone visiting Amsterdam.

Van Gogh Museum

The most popular Dutch artist, Vincent Van Gogh is a pillar of Dutch culture. The museum is a biographical look at his life and artistic career. Starting with his childhood in the Dutch countryside, the museum curation paints the larger portrait of how Van Gogh’s personal life was intertwined with his artistic development. This use of narrative by the museum curators creates a captivating museum experience, another must-see in Amsterdam.

Canals

Not something that needs to be sought out but something to be enjoyed while in the city is the pleasant feel of being by the canals. The still water and open-air gives the city a laid back feel as the city isn’t dominated by cars. If you have the chance to go on a canal tour, the view from right on the water is mesmerizing. 

Vondel park

The largest green space in Amsterdam Vondel park is a great spot for a relaxing stroll or bike ride. During the summer there are performances in the outdoor amphitheater in the park. Statues are dotted around the park, the oldest was finished in 1867. As well as several upscale restaurants for a fancy lunch or night out. If the timing works make sure to catch a free outdoor concert here!

Biking

If you get the chance, rent a bike while in Amsterdam. Not only is it cheaper than public transport, it is also a great exercise and a great way to zip around the city. I have never been anywhere else in the world with more bike infrastructure than Amsterdam. Since the 1970s it has been the preferred form of transit and the city has responded to that, building separate bike lanes from the cars. Bikers have their own traffic lights and clearly marked lanes. Even a day riding around will immerse anyone into Dutch culture

Skills for a Changing Future

My recent classes at Umass have been on business. Especially in a major like accounting, there is a focus on the highly technical side of the job. I have felt at times lost in the weeds and fail to see how I can apply the skills I am learning. Being here I have gotten the chance to take classes outside of my major. Taking classes in political science has given me a better perspective of how I can apply my skills. I have seen a lack of crossover between political understanding, in-depth financial and accounting skills. This crossover is where I would like to find my niche.

Along with political science classes I am also in an information and data science class. This class centered around the programming language python has given me a chance to learn another very valuable skill. Within the next 20 years, many white-collar jobs based around data and information are going to get replaced. Changed due to the prevalence of artificial intelligence. Soon many of the skills that were once in high demand are going to be obsolete. As computer programs will be faster and more efficient making fewer errors than humans. This requires a pivot in learning by students coming out of college. As my generation goes to work we will need to have the skills to solve new programs and create our own AI.

The combination of political science and data science along with the accounting skills I already have made me feel prepared for work in the private or public sector. My career goals have shifted from maximizing my earnings in the private sector to wanting to positive change and impact within the public one. I credit political science classes and exposure to different perspectives for giving me the ownness of responsibility to create positive change.

My professor at the University of Amsterdam has given me a better idea of why data science and python are important. Professor Chit Amir, having grown up coding assembly language with paper and pencil before ever getting a chance to program on a computer. Is a strong advocate of the advantages of open-source programming. Citing the advantages of transparency and honesty giving dedicated users a chance to alter and improve the programs they use every day. Professor Amir has done a great job of simplifying complex programming terminology and has helped me learn a lot about python.

View from 6th floor of the Amsterdam Public Library

Tall but Short

Dutch people despite their height are known for their shortness. What I would consider rude or offensive the Dutch brush off. While at first this was off-putting it is freeing hearing people say what they think. Instead of dancing around the awkwardness of what they actually think. This can be seen in restaurants when dealing with servers or on public transport. Dealing with employees who aren’t afraid to tell you frankly that you are wrong. This fits in with the Dutch idea of be normal, more than just a saying it’s a guide for interaction with others.

The directness of the Dutch people has been striking but it isn’t as prevalent as Dutch fashion. Everyone is well dressed. Everyday is an event and a chance to look the best they can. Some of the trends that I have noticed in men’s fashion have been a prevalence of tight pants, with skin showing between the cuff and the shoe. Something not seen in America. I have seen a lot of adventurous sneakers made for looks over functionality. While the influence of athleisure hasn’t escaped the Dutch there are far less casual athletic clothes here than America. People don’t go out for the day in yoga or sweatpants. Instead opting for more traditional and classic styles.

The Netherlands is on average the tallest country in the world. The average height of a Dutch male is 6 feet and the average height for women is 5’7. The World Health Organization attributes this to “quality of life and a good diet consisting of dairy and cold-water fish”. As well as being tall the Dutch are fit too, small portion sizes and the reliance on biking for transportation are key factors in this. The Dutch lifestyle is built around staying healthy. Instead of government programs advocating for fitness and proper diet the culture funnels this onto its citizens.

From my short time here so far being surrounded by tall, fit and well dressed people I feel a pressure to look and act like them. Nothing about Dutch lifestyle is forced, its all encouraged. You’re encouraged to be fit and eat well since everyone else here is. You’re encouraged to dress well and present yourself well to fit in with everyone else. All of these positive attributes of Dutch culture come naturally and holistically. This is what I appreciate most about the local culture. There is a higher standard of what is accepted as “normal”.

A Never Ending Search for Iced Coffee

I have been living on campus the past two and a half years. Class has never been more than a five minute walk away. I have gotten used to rolling out of bed 30 minutes before class taking a quick shower and being in class right on time. Being 30 minutes away from class and having to wake up an hour and a half before class has taken some adjusting. I have found the morning bike ride to class stronger than a cup of coffee.
Unlike the regulated schedule of Umass, here my classes are in different classes at different points in the week. This makes my schedule different day to day, sometimes having blocks up to seven hours between classes. This irregularity keeps me on my toes, forcing me to check my schedule frequently. As well as being at different times my classes are also in different parts of the city. While this seems like it would be an inconvenience, I have enjoyed seeing different parts of the city.
I am in two types of classes here. One is through the University of Amsterdam, a programming class with 400 students. We have lectures as a whole group with the professor then individual tutorials in groups of 20 students led by grad students. This class is mainly filled with Dutch students from what I can tell I am the only American in the class. There is a heavy emphasis on student independence and responsibility. With no homework I need to be disciplined in my studies making sure that I’m keeping up as the midterm is worth 30% of your grade and the final 70%!
My other classes are through the study abroad program. These are based on Dutch policy, taught by Dutch professors to classes of all American students. These classes of 20 students each remind me of home. The discussion heavy classes give me a chance to learn more about my classmates.
During blocks between classes I have used the time to find nice cafes and other spots to relax. There is a shortage of cafes offering iced coffee here, a staple of my diet at home. I have found one Coffeebites, that is a block away from my classes with a great iced coffee for 2 euro. The laid back feeling and abundance of cats lounging inside have made it a favorite spot to kill time.

Just Be Normal

Within two weeks of being here, it feels like home. I find that I am able to quickly adjust to my new surroundings, getting a good feel for the people and customs. While a lot is new it is all easy to learn. I have found being mindful of my surroundings has taught me how to be ‘normal’ to the Dutch. There is a common Dutch saying “doe maar gewoon dan doe je al gek genoeg”; just act normal, that’s crazy enough.

A fascinating part about Amsterdam is the bike culture. Friends and I here made a bet, who will get “dinged” the least. Getting “dinged” is when a biker rings their bell at you. There is no greater shame. Blocking or slowing down bike traffic will earn you a ding. The worst are with you’re back to the biker they ding you off the path, forcing you to jump off the path out of their way. So far I have only been “dinged” twice and plan to keep it that way.

Riding my own bike through the city has been a fantastic new challenge. Growing up terrorizing pedestrians and cars alike I fit right in. The paths are large and generally set aside off the main road. Navigating traffic and intersections were intimidating at first but only took a day of riding to understand. Getting the chance to use the power of my own bike bell on pedestrians clogging up my bike lanes has made me feel more Dutch than anything else.

Cooking and shopping for my own food is the biggest challenge I face. A constant struggle between my massive appetite and my wallet. It was clear that eating out was not going to be a sustainable option for me. Having to buy and cook my own groceries has given me a greater appreciation for my parents, for all the time they sacrificed so that we could eat. That said I have taken to cooking. I have been consistently pushing myself to keep making creative and tasty meals, not getting stuck in a bland routine.

Learning to fit in and become more local in a foreign country has seemed to be a relatively easy process. I have greatly benefited from the Dutch people being open and accepting to newcomers. Making it easy for them to follow the Dutch ways. The greatest compliment I receive from a local is having them start in Dutch then switch to English, letting me know while I may not feel it at times I fit in well enough to be “normal”.

A City Without Cars

I was able to spend the first two days of my time in the city by myself fighting off jet lag and walking around the city. Amsterdam feels like a small city, the many small tight streets and bikes all around keep cars out of the city center. The small streets absent of cars allow the shops to be tighter in giving off an air of coziness. While this type of urban layout is seen in Boston it doesn’t sprawl out over the entire city like it does in Amsterdam.

A common theme I noticed was the lack of cars. While most American cities are built around infrastructure for cars, Amsterdam is not. The canals occupy the space a road normally would. Making the city more dependent on walking. Giving the city a relaxed feel as cars are not speeding by.

Another key feature of the city is its age. It is apparent everywhere, the city on a system of canals. Houses are right up to the canal and packed tightly together. Reminding tourists of its past as a former bustling hub of industry. The bright exteriors and massive windows make the houses on the canal picturesque. 

The one gripe with this incredible city is the weather. A city, known for clouds, rain and wind it lives up to its reputation. Forcing visitors to come prepared for the elements. Intermittent rain, clouds and the occasional burst of sunshine have kept me on my toes with clothing. I look forward to spring when sweatshirts and jackets aren’t needed. And a warm rainshower is welcome.

A great part about my trip is my accommodations. I am staying at The Student Hotel Amsterdam West. A 25-minute metro ride from campus/Amsterdam central. The area around it is occupied by normal Dutch people working in and around the city. Giving the area less of a tourist feel and more a local feel instead. With a full-size restaurant and bar in the main lobby, staying in the dorm feels more like a prolonged hotel stay than student accommodations. The newly renovated hotel is designed to be appealing to young people. Featuring a gym, laundry facilities, a large study area with private and group areas. Along with ping-pong, pool, foosball and a living room all in the lobby there is plenty of entertainment. Not counting the many events and programs run by the staff. They make it hard not to love.

Wheels down

During winter break I did everything I could to keep my mind off the coming semester and tried to focus on everything else I could fill my time with. A week before leaving I was forced to focus on what I would need and what I would do once I got there. After an afternoon spent organizing and packing I was ready to go. Once I was within a week of my flight I was antsy to leave, eager to start the semester and make new friends.

To pack I used one duffle bag large enough to fit jackets unfolded and a travel backpack. Compartmentalizing my clothes into smaller bags made it easy to save space and organize my clothes. Using this method I was easily able to pack all the clothes I needed for 4 months into those two bags.

Landing in The Netherlands the first thing I noticed was that everyone seemed to be organized and fast paced. Like a nest of ants; everyone was in orderly lines, moving with purpose and direction. This was at first intimidating trying to fit in, after some observation it was easy to follow the other people that all seemed to know where they were going.

Once I got my carry-on it was time for me to take the train into the city center then take the metro to my hotel. Navigating the dutch metro system and buying a ticket was at first intimidating, again though the Dutch have their systems well setup. Using google maps I was able to find the correct route and easily buy my ticket from the computer kiosk.

The whole process of getting from the airport to my hotel by myself was far easier than I expected it to be. The Dutch are well set up for international visitors.

I am ecstatic to meet the other students in my orientation group. I enjoy talking with people and getting to know people better, this will be a great time for that. Along with meeting new people I am also excited to get a better handle of the city and find my way around a foreign place. From first touching down at the airport I have a sense that am about to have the time of my life.