Where’s my Tim Hortons? A Canadian’s Take on Life in Maastricht, The Netherlands

For those who don’t know, Tim Hortons is Canada’s largest fast food service chain, with over 3000 restaurants worldwide . Although known for its coffee and donuts, Tim Hortons is much more than simply the sum of its parts – it’s part of Canadian culture. It’s where hockey families reconvene after the game; it’s where high school students take shelter from frigid winter weather on Friday night gatherings; it’s where children know they will find their beloved Timbit (a small, bite-sized donut) in practically any flavour they desire.

I’m Canadian, but currently I’m an exchange student at the School of Business and Economics at the University of Maastricht in Maastricht, Netherlands. And unfortunately, the great Canadian Tim Hortons has yet to enter the Dutch market. Alas, this is one of many cultural cornerstones I have said goodbye to upon leaving Toronto, Canada in August 2012… but I haven’t looked back since.

Just outside of University College Maastricht (UCM) in Maastricht, the Netherlands

As an exchange student, no matter where you come from, you can expect to leave behind some creature comforts of home. For some, this can provoke some anxiety. “How will I survive without nonna’s cooking??” was a deep concern for my former Italian roommate. But a magnificent thing occurs for most exchange students: we learn to adapt. Personal growth begins in the form of widened perspective, appreciation for diversity, and flexible thinking patterns. It may not be your nonna’s, but the Albert Heijn supermarket still carries your spaghetti.

If you are about to embark on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, be open to such differences. If you expect everyone to speak your language and share your perspective, you are setting yourself up for disappointment. The many benefits of an exchange lie in the differences, and contentment will follow once you appreciate them. After all, where else than in The Netherlands is it acceptable to eat chocolate sprinkles for breakfast?! Not in Canada, that’s for sure.

I wrote a blog post last September entitled “Celebrating our one month anniversary” – “our” meaning Maastricht and I – which discussed some of the more noteworthy differences I had discovered since my cross-continental move. Some of my fellow non-exchange classmates told me they found one point particularly humorous:

You also can’t buy 1 litre pints in Canada! Photo taken in Munich, Germany at Oktoberfest

“Pedestrian walk signals are not automatic. You have to press a button to garner a “walk” signal, otherwise, you will be waiting for ever… and ever… until strangers begin to look at you as though you were born with an unfortunate condition…”
So for all of you non-European (as I’m told this is standard in Europe) incoming exchange students, there’s a piece of advice. Don’t just stand at the crosswalk as I did, wondering when you will ever be able to walk across the road – press the button!

I also wrote a post on the differences between the Problem-Based Learning (PBL) system in Maastricht, and the lecture-based learning style I had grown accustomed to at home. PBL is unique to Maastricht, so I’m sure many students were in the same boat as I was. On the topic of noteworthy differences, here lies another. Expect the unexpected; be prepared to push your comfort zone and contribute regularly to in-class discussion. If you do, you may find yourself becoming comfortable speaking in front of an audience, thereby developing practical public speaking skills for the future.

But it’s not all work and no play. The city of Maastricht certainly has lots to offer once the daily work comes to an end. The number of restaurants and bars outnumber the number of free evenings you’ll have, and if dancing is your desire, then De Alla’s doors will await you until 5 am!

If you eventually tire of the city and are looking for a change of scenery, there are countless opportunities waiting beyond Maastricht’s (and the country’s) borders. Whether you visit for a day or for a week, your time will be well spent in Amsterdam, the dynamic capital of The Netherlands. Known for its liberal political landscape, this city is bursting with activity for anyone. The art enthusiast should stop at the Van Gogh museum; a devout Heineken drinker might be interested in a visit to the brewery; the partygoer has an endless number of nightclubs to choose from or “coffee shops” to enjoy.

I took a trip to Amsterdam last September. What I expected was something straight out of Eurotrip: a non-stop party where everyone is intoxicated. Although our evening ended with a nightclub, I was blown away by the depth of the culture. In my opinion, the best word to sum up this city is sophisticated. I could have spent all day simply staring at the surrounding architecture, but my favourite stop was probably visiting the Anne Frank house. So rich in historical significance, the Anne Frank house is a must-do for any visitor.

Inside the “d” of the famous “IAMsterdam” letters

Maastricht‘s location on the southern border of The Netherlands is certainly conducive to out-of-country travel. Within an hour you may find yourself in Germany or Belgium. During the holiday season I visited a Christmas market in Aachen, Germany. The trip was less than one hour each way via bus, and all for less than 10 Canadian dollars (7 euro)! Travelling in Europe can be affordable if you plan accordingly. Sometimes a plane ticket is cheaper than the train, and buying your tickets online is typically slightly less expensive.

Going into the second and final semester of my year-long exchange, I hope to continue to gain appreciation for the diversity in life. As most of my semester-long exchange friends have gone back to their homeland, I am eager to meet the incoming students. I expect to continue my travels abroad, but am challenging myself to experience some of it alone. Through my writing, I will capture cultural differences that I may never have the opportunity to experience elsewhere in my lifetime… even if that means forgoing Tim Hortons coffee and donuts for the time being.

Although I did bring my mug with me…


By Emma Harris

Emma Harris documents her travel experiences, marathon training, kitchen mishaps, and otherwise strange adventures at www.culturecopia.wordpress.com

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