And a word on academics

31 12 2012

Oh wait, before you go off thinking that I spent the entirely of my exchange travelling and engaging in various social activities, let me say a few words about AUC and my courses. 

Amsterdam University College (AUC) is a joint institution created by the University of Amsterdam and VU University, providing an interdisciplinary liberal arts and sciences curriculum. It was founded in 2009 and has about 700 students. Aside from having almost double our population, AUC is fairly comparable to Quest – core curriculum, interdisciplinary, small classes (25 students in this case), residential campus and a highly international student body. A main difference is its location in the “global city” of Amsterdam, which has a population of nearly a million people, whereas Squamish is only about 15,000. With the city center only 15 minutes away by bike, Amsterdam was very accessible, and I would go to the center almost daily for errands or to meet friends at a café. 

Additionally, in contrast to Quest’s block program, AUC operates on a regular semester system, meaning students take four (but in my case, five) courses at once. Overall, based on my experience in the social sciences (this might differ for different faculties), I felt that the academic rigour was less intense than Quest’s, even during midterms and finals. Also, there seemed to be a lower level of student engagement, which I think is in part due to the semester system; it is difficult to fully immerse yourself in one class when you have three or four other classes on your mind. Further, although it varies by class, there was less emphasis on classroom participation.

However, I did appreciate having a life outside of school. At AUC, I felt that I had more personal time for social activities, volunteering and an outside job. But, perhaps this speaks partially to my goals and priorities for my exchange – to have a cultural experience in addition to an academic one. 

Here’s a bit of a review on my individual courses:

1. Basic Research Methods and Statistics – Fairly standard and textbook orientated, but sometimes fun in the way that math sometimes is, especially when you haven’t done it in a while. Excel can also be fun, or at least make you feel all powerful. This course also re-introduced me to the concept of the exam, something that has been wonderfully absent from my life for most of my undergraduate career. At Quest, assessment mostly consists of papers and presentations. 

2. Intro to Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the bane of my Wednesday mornings, as I would sit for 3 to 4 hours in front of not one, but two monitors, baffled by the intricacies of impossible software. While my subjective memory portrays this experience as me banging my head against the keyboard, I did learn a few things and certainly an appreciation for the power of GIS technology. Further, I also completed a cool final project on the deforestation occurring on the unceded territory of the Algonquin Nation in the Parc de la Verendrye Wildlife Reserve in Quebec. 

3. History of National Civil Rights Movements – Truly a great course, taught by an incredible Venezulan anthropologist. We started with the American Civil Rights Movement, then proceeded to learn about social movement theory (resource mobilization, collective identity, framing, and political processes and opportunities). In the final phase of the course, we looked at gay liberation, feminism, and alter-globalization. For this class, I wrote my final paper on collective identity of the transnational peasants’ movement and La Via Campesina. 

4. Community and Society in a Globalized World – Finally, a long-overdue anthropology course. We spent the first half of the course discussing globalization and how it influences people’s lifeworlds – specifically, in terms of migration and transnational life, global circulation of goods and cultural globalization. But the fun really began in the second part when we conducted our own fieldwork. Together with a Catalan exchange student, I studied the role of a particular Catalan restaurant/bar on the Catalan community in Amsterdam. Specifically, we looked at how the bar owners facilitated migrant clustering and the development of migrant social networks. This topic was particularly relevant in light of Catalonia’s recent mass protests and election in favour of independence from Spain. And the Catalan cuisine that we had on our numerous field visits was a nice bonus!

5. And last, but not least, my wild card course – From Dada to Hell’s Kitchen. What was that about? A little bit crazy and kooky, best described by “the weirder the better”. It centred around the theme of performance art, but really there were few boundaries. Sophia created a comfortable and relaxed atmosphere where we could get to know each other and allow creativity to flourish. Lots of fun classroom activities and a series of live performance that I could have never imagined doing. 


4 months of Amsterdam in review

29 12 2012

Sitting at the airport in Paris, on a layover between Amsterdam and Toronto, I thought it might be a prime time to reflect on the past four months.

I arrived in Amsterdam on August 19. August was filled with orientation activities (both the International Students’ Network and AUC), getting lost while cycling around the city and meeting dozens and dozens of new people. The first couple weeks were certainly intense, but they also involved a lot of laying in the sunshine and picnics in the park with new friends.


In September, school started all too quickly, and I began to settle into a routine. As I began to learn my way around the city, I also began getting lost less and less. Thank goodness! I stumbled upon a job working as a bartender at De Doos, which was completely unexpected, and picked up some volunteer shifts at Joe’s Garage, a nearby squat that serves vegan meals a couple nights a week. Both at the Doos and Joe’s, I became acquainted with the plethora of Belgian brews.


October came and brought with it more frequent rainy days, but I was too busy to make too much of a fuss about the weather. On Thanksgiving weekend, 6 of us took the train Breda, in the south of the Netherlands, bringing our bikes along with us, then cycled about 20 km to campsite in the “wild”. The Dutch definition of “wild” doesn’t quite match the Canadian one, but it was beautiful nonetheless.


I also roasted my first turkey…two, in fact! About 30 international friends came over for a Thanksgiving potluck, many of which had never celebrated Thanksgiving before. Gluttony ensued.


The next week I had a joint birthday party at the Doos, with two other Doosies, and together packed the place out.


And towards the end of the month, Net, Mattie and I enjoyed a show by Canadian singer-songwriter Peter Katz, who I am in fact listening to as I write this. A nice intimate, acoustic show at Paradiso, followed by milkshakes!

In November, Pedro and I embarked on a hitchhiking adventure to the south of Belgium, as part of a competition with about 30 or 40 other exchange students. We arrived in the middle of the pack, not first, but also not last. Our 8-hour journey consisted of about 12 rides, covering about 400 kms. Our drivers were Dutch, Flemish and French, so some of our communications were more successful than others.


Towards the end of the month, Breanna made the the trek across the pond for a two-weekvisit. Together, we travelled to Prague and Budapest. Lots of different modes of travel, walking tours, beautiful panoramic vistas, and rich, but delicious cuisine. Then, we returned to Amsterdam and did some touring there, most memorably while riding a tandem! We also snatched a conifer branch from nearby Flevopark, and transformed it into a lovely little Christmas tree.


Then, far too quickly, December was upon us. I tried dearly to avoid the stress imposed by the impending doom of final assignments, and I was reasonably successful. I hosted another evening of gluttony, a Christmas cookie swap, and had my final shift at the Doos. As finals wrapped up, it also meant saying goodbye to many friends. For some, it seemed as though we had known each other much longer than four months, while for others, it felt as though time was cut short.


On Christmas eve, I went to Barcelona. I spent a day or so in the city – Parc Guell, Sangrada Familia, midnight mass at the cathedral (incomprehensible since it was in Catalan, yet beautiful), and Barcelonetta Beach. I spent the rest of the time visiting friends ine Calders, Girona and Amer. Practiced a bit of my Spanish, and learned about the Catalan Christmas traditions, and of course, sampled Catalan cuisine – tapas, pa amb tomàquet, octopus and torró. A “bon fatal” indeed!Image

And there you have it, just scratching the surface of four jam-packed months on exchange in Amsterdam. What a whirlwind! One chapter ending to allow another to begin! I better be off – boarding time!

Another Dada assignment…

11 10 2012

Another assignment for our “From Dada to Hell’s Kitchen” performance art class…to perform a monologue that was written collectively by the class. Each of us started a monologue and after a couple minutes, the piece of paper rotated to the next person. True artistic collaboration. One catch, the piece of paper was folded, so the next author could only read the last line of the former monologue. And from this my Exquisite Corpse was born. A bit non-sensical, but entertaining nonetheless.

Here, it is performed at the Apple Store at Leidseplein. Luckily, they did not kick us out.

My first public performance

5 10 2012

This was the assignment:

Dear Class,

I would like to clarify what I expect as your assignment for Tuesday.

1. Please re-work, re-write your manifestos and have the in typed form and send them to me by email before class.

2. Along with your manifesto – please type up to 3 exercises similar to those we performed in class that best define your manifesto

3. Each of you please compose a musical anthem to be SUNG by those who will be following your Manifesto

4. Bring Props – objects – material – color pencils – crayons – paints – clay – etc that you wish to build a group art structure which will best define your Manifesto.


5. Identify a PUBLIC location in Amsterdam where you would like to perform your manifesto.

See you all on Tuesday!

Have fun!


This is what I came up with:

I performed my manifesto last Thursday, September 27 at the World Trade Center in Zuidas, Amsterdam’s business district. I didn’t attract a big crowd, but it was a learning experience and it generated lots of ideas for the other public performances I’ll have to do this semester.

As typical Amsterdam weather would have it, it was cool and windy with patches of rain. As such, the audio quality isn’t top notch. So, here is the version I performed here:

The streets are busy. Filled with people, bicycles, cars. All moving about. Moving quickly. Too quickly for any interaction, except market-based interactions, of course.  

One beer, please. Here is your change. Would you like a bag? Would you like your receipt. Thank you. Polite, yet empty interactions. Buying, spending. Always buying more. Must buy more. Have more. Always inadequate. Must look better. Be better. 

Scurrying about like machines. Stop. Go. Stop. Go. We are nearly as mechanized as the machines we carry in our pockets – cell phones, smart phones, iPhones, iPads. Responding to every text message, iMessage, notification or email the moment we receive it. It is like another language.

By night, more of the same. Get drunk. Go to the club. A big party with hundreds of people. All strangers, except for a few friends. More drinks. Tequila shots. Music is playing. It’s loud. Suddenly, dancing with one stranger. A boy. Everything starts moving even faster. Kissing. Touching. And inevitably, sex. Small talk, no real conversation. The most intimate of human interaction, now commonplace. Sexuality defined by a sea of drunken experiences. Moving at the speed of sound. No time for romance. No time to think. No time to process.

Amidst the flurry of noise and speed, there’s loneliness. Far too often, depression. So many crowds, so much contact, but no connection. So occupied with trivial actions of daily life that any sight of who we are is lost. 

Who are we?

We are social beings. Our identity is a mosaic of the people we meet. The selection of each piece is influenced by our conversations. Listen and observe, and be transformed.

I am calling for a ruralization of the city. Slow down and create time and space to have these conversations that are in accordance with our social nature. 

We will reject mechanization. Refuse to be a machine. Use our portable electronic devices. But never let them use us. We won’t necessarily respond to every message right away. Instead, we will prioritize the friends who are with us right now.

We will seek smallness and community wherever we are. 

We will smile at the people we pass in the street, greet the people we ride with in the elevator, and learn the names of the people we meet. We will remember details they share with us and every once and awhile, ask them how their parents are doing. 

We will create meaningful friendships. Choose quality, over quantity. We will build a diverse social network. Not just virtual one, but a living one.  Make friends with people who we wouldn’t normally be friends with, and likely learn something new as a result.

We recognize social capital as real capital. And as such, we will appreciate its worth and invest in it extensively. 

Rediscover the beauty of post and write a letter to an old friend. 

Call our grandmother and listen to her stories of days gone by. 

We will never pass up a potluck. Eating alone doesn’t make much sense. 

We will embrace opportunities for group work, because collaboration is a gift. We will listen to our peers until they feel that they have been understood. 

 Yet, amidst this eruption of social interactions, we will also make time to have conversations with ourselves, to find our own quiet, calm space, and to relish these moments of solitude because they allow us time to contemplate and process our exchanges with others. 

We will engage in work that feels like play. Work that allows you to exercise our own unique creative faculties, work that we are passionate about, work that is meaningful to us.

Let us take back the streets.

Let us reclaim our identity as social beings.

Let us create connection where only contact existed before. 

I just stole something…

23 09 2012

…Or at least it feels like it. I just got home from IJ Hallen, the largest flea market in the Netherlands. It was located in Amsterdam-Noord, so we took the FREE ferry (take note, B.C.) across the IJ, the lake (formerly bay that is easily mistaken for a river) that makes up Amsterdam’s main waterfront. The market has about 500 stalls! I was there for two hours and didn’t even make it inside before I spent all my money. I brought 40 euros, minus 4 euros to get in. Anyway, I got a lots of cool stuff, mostly clothes and almost everything was less than 5 euros.

All the purchases I made at IJ Hallen laid out on my bed


Here’s the breakdown:

  • 3 dresses (incl. a purple American Apparel spandex dress!)
  • cozy mohair/wool/acrylic sweater
  • a couple skirts and a pair of shorts
  • a Rubik’s cube
  • loose, black, pleated trousers
  • a t-shirt
  • a John Denver cd & Tracey Chapman cd – 2 euros each, both long overdue
  • a pair of white Keds-style sneakers – 1.40 (I now realize they are two different shoes, but more or less look the same)

And my last and favourite purchases of the day…

Guitar and leather boots

  • a little guitar – needs new strings, but only 11 euros (I’ve been really missing my guitar at home)
  • a pair of tall, brown leather boots – 4 euros

Nothing like good ol’ consumerism! I’m still running on the post-shopping high! I think it is a relatively ethical/socially conscious form of consumerism, though, because it is all pre-loved goods that might otherwise end up in a landfill and it prevents people from buying new things that use valuable resources! And besides, the happiness that I’ll get from John Denver alone is priceless.

Now, it is time for homework. Happy Sunday!

See you at the Doos, or Joe’s

20 09 2012

So, I guess I’m now a bartender in Amsterdam. Back track…a couple weeks ago, I went to a cheap, student bar that a couple friends work at. Apparently they were looking for some new staff and I thought, why not! A week later, I went to a meeting and came out liking this place even more. Last night, I survived my first training shift. All went well. So well, I wasn’t home until 7 AM! Then had to get up at 11 to finish a group project, so I was a bit of a zombie today. But the 20-minute bike ride home just as the sun was coming up was starting to come up was kind of nice.

But De Doos, or “The Box” in Dutch, isn’t just one of the 1500 cafes in Amsterdam. It comes with a bit of a backstory. It’s located in the corner of a student residence building for the UvA (University of Amsterdam – not Amsterdam University College where I am studying). This residence was in fact the first student residence in the Netherlands, built in the 60s (if I’m remembering the dates correctly) and so the Doos has been there since around the same time. Because of its long-standing history, every once and a while people drop in who came to the Doos as a student, say 40 years ago, and stop by just to see if it is still there. Talk about a monument!

Another point of distinction is the fact that the Doos isn’t officially a bar, but rather a “creative space” for the tenants of the building and their friends. Because of its unique status, it is exempt from all the usual rules and regulations, including minimum prices. That said, because it’s so cheap, I won’t get rich. And students don’t tend to tip all that well. But that’s the beauty of it –  the staff is there because they love the Doos and its patrons, not for the money. And 100% of the slim profit goes back into keeping the Doos alive.

Yes, it’s pretty dark and a bit grimy, but that’s part of the charm. You can be guaranteed that the beer and Jagger (our “house wine”) will be cheap and cold, and the company will be warm and friendly.

Also warm and friendly is Joe’s Garage. My second bar shift of the week! Joe’s is a social political center located in a squat. They serve vegan meals twice a week – Wednesdays and Mondays. And it is all operating on the backs of volunteers. At the bar, we collect donations for the meals (only 4 euros!) and sell about 20 different brews and organic juices, too. As with most volunteer work, I felt like I gained a lot more than I gave. In exchange for three hours of my time, I got a free meal, some nice, hoppy Belgian beer and I met some really down-to-earth people. I’m planning to volunteer here about once a week, or sometimes every other week. I’m also getting involved with a community garden project at another squat in Amsterdam Oost, called Valreep. I am going to a work party there this Saturday.

Anyway, time to make up for last night’s lack of sleep.

See you at the Doos, or Joe’s.

Excellence and diversity in a global city

3 09 2012

Right now, I am sitting in a cafe (not a bar, but a cafe in the North American sense – I would say coffee shop, but I’m afraid that too has other connotations in these parts), doing some readings for a class called ‘Community and Society in a Globalized World’. Yes, even though I don’t have any classes until tomorrow, I’m afraid my summer has been cut short by 50 pages of reading. After an hour or so of reading and about only 10 pages in (yes, my brain is clearly still in summer mode), my mind begins to wander, not completely off topic, but wander nonetheless…

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been fortunate enough to meet other students from around the world. It is rather interesting to discuss cultural differences and find common ground. Particularly at Amsterdam University College, where I am currently studying, I have found the students to be very diverse, just as the AUC motto suggests (see title). Not only is the student population diverse, but the individuals are quite multifaceted and diverse. For example, I have met many students who have lived in a handful of different countries, speak an equal number of languages, even dual citizenship is rather commonplace. This certainly isn’t high school. I can’t help but think that AUC’s selection of these students was intentional. And for good reason. Like Quest, the classes are small – about 20 or 25 students, and from experience I know how much richer class discussions are when you have a variety of cultural perspectives. My experiences with the wonderfully diverse students of AUC seems to be just another example of our age of globalization.

But, I can’t help but to be mildly troubled by this sense of rootlessness, or as a friend referred to a “culture of transients” when she was presenting her undergraduate thesis. How can we really know a place when we are constantly moving about? How can we observe the discrete changes in the ecosystem if we ourselves are moving across the landscape at such a fast pace? How can we form a broad web of social connections and really create community? How can we give back to our community?

So, here I am. Caught at this crossroads, searching for reconciliation.

Then, I realize, for me, I will continue to seize every travel opportunity that presents itself, especially at this point in time. I will journey forth with a nomadic spirit and explore with my eyes wide open. Yet, I still know where home is. And who home is. I know where my roots are, and what they are so I can carry them with me wherever I go. And when it’s right, I will return to them.

As for my peers, I will be grateful for their diversity. Just as we need the specialists and the generalists, we also need the rooted and the transients. It is more interesting that way.