A Master’s Degree Abroad: A Study in Complacency II

‘Oh shit, things are a little different here’

The ‘second language’ English is perhaps the most difficult things to come to terms with. Not with regards to day to day life, but within the University itself. There is a common conception that everyone in the Netherlands speaks phenomenal English. Largely, they do, but it does differ from time to time, and make life a little problematic. Sitting in my tutorials, I frequently have to look past grammatical errors which misconstrue meanings, tenses which convey an entirely different meaning and so on, which ultimately affects my ability to learn and actually, understand what is going on. Adjectives and conjunctives in interesting places require much more concentration than I previously appreciated.

Without meaning any disrespect to my colleagues, it makes learning an extremely challenging experience. However, this is the way of life, the way of the world and the way of business. I must be more open minded. I for instance, speak no second language. For some of my counterparts, English isn’t their second language, but third or fourth. It’s an amazing achievement, to be undertaking a degree in a language other than their own. It just so happens, that English is an extremely popular second language and the language of international business – 70% of Germans speak English as a second language, which equates to two thirds of the whole population of Great Britain. I wish to reiterate, I need to be more open minded.

This does not make up for how difficult it can be. Without the natural fluency one possesses from being a native, even Great British sarcasm doesn’t fair too well, neither does speaking quickly, or colloquially. You observe this in every country when speaking a non-native language. But coming from a university and a country which all too often takes for granted its ease in communications, possessing a native language which dominates the world stage, it has been difficult to adapt.

Though, having said that, I’ve begun to understand how important the English language is, ironically, for completing one of the main premises of the European Union – social integration. Europe is a phenomenal concept, something which I increasingly love, being able to hop from one country to another, only using the local bus services. The dynamism is held together by the English language. I feel therefore, somewhat disappointed in myself that I expect full fluency and for them to make themselves easier to understand for my own benefit. My conscious reflection, continually looking at the ways I perceive things as a result of this year is something which I will take from my international experience, if anything. Increasing open-minded-ness, however difficult it has been to start with.

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A Master’s Degree Abroad: A Study in Complacency I

Where to start?

As I sit with a ‘very English’ cup of Earl Grey, with milk, I contemplate how my life has gone astray this year, at least, compared to how I thought it was going to go. I currently study European Studies at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, essentially European Politics. Strange for a Brit, right? (I’m not going to get into that…). I am currently half way through the year, about to embark on a stressful and difficult semester starting my research thesis until the end of June.

Coming out of Swansea University with a reasonably strong degree, a circle of friends and having had a great few years etc. etc. I felt ready for anything and in search for a new challenge. A new challenge for me, meant a completely new environment.  I was riding on a whole load of confidence, which was of course, about to be wiped away with one clean swoosh of the Flag of Europe; never have I ever been so ready to become part of the Brexit Camp. No, that’s not true.

Though, it does speak an element of truth, my opinions and perspectives about Europe haven’t been embedded further, rather, subverted and challenged at every opportunity. No longer do I ride the wave of English youthful, graduate complacency (that I have basically completed a climb of Mount Everest blindfolded) but I no longer feel so confident in my abilities of an above average, reasonably hard working student. It’s cliché, but it’s a rather large world out there. We truly are an insular, unintegrated nation, sailing on driftwood in our pseudo ex-colonial sense of self-importance, being left behind by the rest of the continent. I never appreciated this until I moved here.

Admittedly, I cannot speak for all those undertaking bachelor’s and master’s degrees across Europe, as of course, universities hugely differ in administrative and teaching style, but, from a British student of politics’ perspective, I am keen to offer some insights into my time abroad thus far. In a series of blog posts, I’ll dissect my time in Maastricht, and hopefully offer you some interesting, first-hand experiences which will either enlighten you, inform you further, or make you think what a total load of shit.

Goodbye

Cliché surrounds making yourself happy: the ‘do it because you’re the only person that matters’ type ethic is used to fill blank walls with similar sounding quotes, and appears meaningless and almost laughable that somebody needs a daily reminder to make themselves happy. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? The pursuit of happiness. That’s what counts, and what matters. Whichever method you find tranquillity in pursuing this ongoing journey towards finding fulfilment, satisfaction and contentedness, you physically cannot let anybody tell you otherwise. If you do, it ceases to be an individual journey, and ruins the ethic entirely, however cliché, it must be individual.

It starts with a ‘lightbulb’ type epiphany: you’re sitting in a car doing 140mph on the German-autobahn and somebody in the seat next to you tells you that they don’t care about a life changing decision you’ve made, or you’re wandering through a field and stepping over a small brook, and the wind which rushes through you shifts your mentality, or you’re deep in the metropolis, surrounded by people following a similar pursuit (however many of those metropolis dwellers confuse money for happiness) and you look up at the skyscrapers and realise it’s futile. It does not matter where you are when you gain this certain light, but what matters is that it usually occurs at a critical juncture in your life, at a crossroads when you’re looking around and observing, trying to make a snap decision which exact route to take.

Scarily, it is individual, so intimate and personal that you fail quite to put into words just how this scene or scenario has made you feel and changed your entire outlook as a result. It’s been a long time coming but hits you as a wave of rushing cold water, soothing and refreshing, but cold nonetheless. You realise there are certain aspects of your current life that you have to change and other avenues that you have to pursue, deciding in an impromptu fashion to take a small cobbled street to the left of you in the hope that it’s quicker to get where you’re heading.

As you pierce the shell of an egg with your two thumbs in order to crack it, you don’t think about the shell being torn apart and ripped in two. Instead, you think about the bright yellow yolk inside, moulded into the white about to trickle into your pan of melting butter. Indeed, as you slowly start to cook your egg, and grind some peppercorns on top, place the bread in the toaster, you realise that the splitting of the shell was necessary to accomplish this. Similarly, coming to a realisation that there may be certain people or things in your life which at the moment seem vital to who you are, but to get where you want to be, may become a hindrance is a difficult thing to comprehend. It cracks your outer skin slightly, and slowly makes its way down to your core, perhaps even influencing your important decisions.

This is the danger with an individual pursuit like happiness; you must, to a certain extent, dwell on the equal amount of loss and sadness before you experience any type of meaningful gain, and it remains an impossible task, to know what’s right. Putting into words such an intimate walk of life risks being so wrong, so far away from the reality of it, and what is happening in another person’s soul. That is the beautiful intricacy of the human spectrum, there is as much Individual struggle as collective struggle. Perhaps that is the reason why many people choose to laugh at a constant reminder that you have to do something to make yourself happy; seeing such words which have been unexperienced cracks their shell slightly, only insignificantly, it is a mere dent on their exterior, nothing has quite penetrated their being yet. Without realisation and comprehension, however difficult, what hope can there be of action?

All Of The People

There’s a monotony to the trudging, simultaneous marching that echoes throughout rush hour. Everybody seems the same, affected by the very same problem that confronts us all. Time. The name rush hour is given quite appropriately, but it should not only reflects the feeling of an hour and a half when people are leaving work, but the very nature of city life itself.

Every part of the day, every minute and insignificant detail of city life is a barrage to be first, be slightly better, gain something that somebody else doesn’t have. The subtly smug and satisfied eyes of a businessman as the doors close on the underground train you needed to catch, as you’re left waiting on the platform, the piercing into your eyes stays with you for a minute of two. You think to yourself, was that look really necessary? Probably not. But, on further reflection, you realise that the businessman probably needed greater levels of subtle satisfaction than yourself, he will get to his connection on time, and be able to travel for an hour to spend just another hour with his family before a similar state of affairs occurs the next day. And the next, and the next.

It’s as isolating as it is interesting and fun, and the rush does manage to seduce you, not with its glamour, because it’s far from glamourous. It manages to addict you with a few simple things, the adrenaline and the longing for more, once you’ve moved into a busy life of routine, of pushing, few acts of politeness and selflessness. It evolves into something wholly self-centred, a rush and a period of your life which ingrains negativity into your being, a cynicism and pessimism that you justify as realism. You often hear, ‘yes, I know how the world works’. Perhaps, it would be more appropriate to rephrase and suggest that you know how a world works.

There is a vast difference between understanding and being involved in a certain society thriving on individual and collective gain, to be the best that you can be, encouraged by advertising and peers alike, and being involved with something that makes you truly happy; a job or a path in life you have chosen not for money but for wellbeing. This attracts you in a different way, but a better way. Being involved with somebody’s experience so intimately due to your job or career and affecting their life positively, and most importantly unknowingly, is something that is invaluable, something that stock brokers and financiers cannot hope to put a price on. The way in which you share a smile with the businessman who glares at you infuriates him even more; you’ve chosen a wholly different life, where an underground ride is not a necessity but an experience. It’s okay, wait for the next train, inhale the dirt and grime and the experience, the array of emotion, ironically amongst the motionless and lifeless people of the city.

You wait with a smile which the businessman doesn’t understand, a calm and collected smirk, relaxed and carefree. A smile that only reveals itself when you have an empathy; you don’t care for two simple minutes, one hundred and twenty seconds, you’ll have plenty more of them. The smile is indeed a sadness for the businessman. His piercing glance haunts you slightly, the ice-cold emotion; an inhibition amongst the selfish people driven by a fear of time, and a lust for ruffling notes of paper with a number on them. It’s ironic, that his smug glance was a reflection of his jealousy towards you, that you’re more than happy to wait a little longer, that you fully understand there is little point in chasing something unchatchable, a virtual object you can never lay your hands on; it becomes the smaller and more insignificant details in this overwhelmingly detailed life which matter the most, the looks that people share with you and the laughter, rather than generalised, subjective manmade concepts you can’t place a hand on, and can’t feel deeply, swooping through your bones.

The Light, The Dark.

Upon reflection, there’s a beauty about being anonymous, and lost in a city, even though there’s a similar amount of inner crisis that ensues observing people moving so freely and knowingly. It is quite the paradox, and difficult to explain, but something that must be felt.

First and foremost, being totally alone and overwhelmed provides myself at least, with the opportunity to be precisely who I am. By this, I mean instances and occasions of human interaction, where your innermost personality can be shown by the way in which you deal with such a situation. For example, you’re late to work, marginally. Five minutes at the most, and you’re panicking. On the platform of the Underground, noticing the yellow writing on the display boards tick down.

Two minutes.

One minute.

Due.

Boarding the train ordinarily, you’re suddenly consumed by that subliminal yet constant ‘what am I actually doing here? No, really, what is it that I’m contributing, to myself (how is this helping me?) and to the world. In the great scheme of things, how is my journey going to change anything?’ The tube is a coffin of thoughts. You’re buried alive, with no phone signal, with only your thoughts for company unless you’re a lucky one. So, you’re bound to think of these types of questions, about what it is you’re doing. It’s a simple and almost meaningless question, perhaps even impossible to answer, but thinking about it isn’t necessarily going to change anything, but it may open up a few options.

Underpinning the journey is the grime. The subtle dirt around you that you’re aware of, which gets under your fingernails from the escalator and the almost fluorescent yellow handlebars as you hurtle down the pitch-black tubes filled with rats, and the feint hum of electricity. It’s somewhat surreal, that dirt and blackness can get under your skin, just as complex thoughts can be so intrusive into your body. You shrug it off. Wash your hands and your face at the toilet. Shit. Another thirty seconds to the journey time, and thirty pence to keep a cleaner in a job. Supposing that thirty pence hand-wash does indeed keep somebody’s job, it’s a worthwhile investment.

(What am I doing here?)

Trudging up the steps is a daily routine, the suited and booted rushing past you with their over exaggerated sense of self-importance. They’re earning themselves a lot of money, an incomprehensible amount. I suppose that’s what matters to them, and that’s good, isn’t it? But who knows, some of them could be on their way to a job interview, a meagre manager of a restaurant or hotel. You simply never know. The whole affair is anonymous. That’s what’s daunting about this type of place: the hidden millionaires, the hidden poor, the kind, religious, the hideous, murderers. They’re out there, but hidden. Then, there’s yourself. You’re simply earning a living, innocently comparing hand washing to the questions of life. How simple it is. C’est la vie.

A woman crying. She stops you dead in your tracks, forgetting all sense of time and awareness for everything going on around you; it’s as if Moses has parted the sea of people between you and the lady, and so you feel compelled to intervene; how you react and respond to this scenario. That is who you are. That is the important thing about being alone in a sea of people, an ocean of personality, love and lust, selfishness and selflessness.

Option one. Indeed, you’re unaware of this woman’s story, who she is, what series of events has brought her into your path, and too, what has made her tear. But, that does not stop you from going over, noticing her shiver and so handing over your coat entirely selflessly, draping the wool over her slender and pale shoulders. You demand to go for coffee, to make sure this woman that has been identified to you in an almost unworldly type of way is in control and okay. A somewhat bizarre surge of courage and uncertainty possesses your body. You’re unaware of whether you’ll be able to survive skipping a shift at work, but making sure another, fellow and normal human is surviving is surely more important?

Option two. You arrive for work on time, and the image of her tears caressing her face stay to haunt you for a little while, as if it’s a nightmare that you cannot do anything about. That’s the point. You haven’t helped her. You have been selfish, and so you must pay. An old cliché, what goes around comes around. You cannot live so fruitfully that you become disenfranchised with the humanness of people, with the raw emotion that death and sadness, happiness and birth provoke.

And so day to day, reaching the same spot, the top of the stairs with the slight whiff of real air and natural light, where you witnessed one of the most innate human actions which impacted you so profoundly, you can be reminded that is who you are. You choose not to act, when you could have. How you react to events independently signals who you are, in whichever scenario. It is not with friends, as you’ve grown accustomed to them, and a new type of normal has been created. It is entirely independently and individually that a type of meaning can be established.

An Aura

An aura consumes you, it takes over your soul. It isn’t negative, it’s simply overwhelming and all-encompassing. Certain notes of the piano which just seem to ‘hit the spot’. A sequence of words in a completely illogical order that transpire into a profound, and deeply meaningful sentence. You stare out over a calm sea, standing on the edge of a headland, and all you can see is a small sailboat, gliding, being taken by the wind. The sudden sense of quiet you feel whilst trudging through untouched snow in the middle of the forest.

I cannot hope to explain to you what all of these scenes have in common, not precisely however. What I can tell you is this, they are all auras, the touch you cannot quite put a hand on, a feeling which you can’t shake off, not easily anyhow. Something which forces you to stop completely in your tracks and take a whole step back, sit on the floor, or stand in utter silence with outstretched arms, in awe of the whole scene. These are the moments which matter, and one’s which you must take hold of.

Putting these feelings into words is as difficult as holding air in the palm of your hands, trying to capture miniscule figments of dust and air particles in your hand. It’s impossible. Nevertheless, it’s a wave of feeling you must ride and embrace. Of course, it is extremely difficult to let the sudden sense of serenity take you surrounded by people. It’s not fitting. You must be entirely alone.

The sense I’m talking about isn’t as simple as bliss, or beauty. They are things which you can create, and easily observe. Simply go into an art gallery, you will see beauty around you, before you. Go out to dinner, somewhere nicer than usual. Your overindulgence will grant you a simple sense of bliss, but nothing more than that. Momentary sensations of sweetness, richness, smoothness, sharpness, all hit your taste buds at once. It lasts a matter of seconds, just like the sense you crave.  And still, despite the different flavours, the exquisite company and the overall wonder of the evening, there’s that sense of something missing, a sensation that you long for.

It’s peculiar, because it can be obtained in a form which is almost anti-climatic. You can certainly obtain this feeling materialistically, but, really, what good would it do? What would it achieve to say you’ve ‘made it’ because of the four-figure Rolex too heavy for your dainty wrist? Instead, it can be obtained almost spiritually, an internal harmony that becomes present as a result of various mechanisms of happiness…

The sunset you see before you will be the only sunset like that of its kind, just like every snow flake that gently lays itself upon your thinly woven, grandma-knitted gloves is individual. The contrast of romantic reds with the slightly obscure and deep oranges with the sea as you look on over the bay manages to induce the feeling that you crave, but in the most unusual fashion. The colours manage to seduce you to a point of despair. You reside yourself to the fact that nothing can get more beautiful than the way the pink sky is bound with the deep blue of the ocean. There it is. It overcomes you. Not as a caress that you deliver to a cat, it’s fur stroking in between your fingers, but it’s a sudden barrage, a tsunami, being hit by the full force of an atomic bomb.

A wave of spiritual contentedness passes through your body, swimming through your veins, filling you with a warmth that cannot be achieved by a £600,000 property in Hampshire, or a car worth a quarter of your yearly salary. You still think the same though. You’ve made it. Somehow, looking at this scene is not to dissimilar to being able to afford a wardrobe of Ralph Lauren. However, it is still oh so different. Beautifully different, challengingly introspective. No matter the clothes you wear or the business deals you manage to complete, there is a bigger picture. The entire spectrum of colour mystifies you so much so that you still have to check you’re on solid ground. The world manages to gift to you a moment of its beauty, and you have to stand, completely still and let it consume you.

The search for this type of contentedness is almost impossible on a day-to-day basis. It’s exactly that which makes it special, and so remarkable. You cannot find it, like you can find wealth and search for happiness through your significant other. Rather, this sense of beauty finds you, every once in a while, touches yourself to remind you that there is more out there than you can possibly hope to rationalise.

That’s why it flies over you in a figment, a fleeting moment of calmness. Not only would you fail to accept such constant serenity and happiness, but it would become normalised. What then, once happiness is normalised?

Hold Your Breath

You let the waves lap against your fingertips, enjoying the icy caress, noticing the softness of the water. Kneeling down opposite the waves, you gain a real sense of position. You’re tiny against this immovable force, yet it’s treating you so gently, like a father cradling its new born daughter. The waves are overwhelmingly consistent.

Digging your finger into the sand an inch does little to prevent the waves from overwhelming your finger, still finding its way onto the tips of your toes. It’s something mesmerising, terrifying and relaxing all at the same time.

The consistency is mesmerising. The consistency found in unconditional love is just as peculiar as the invisible force creating the placid nudge from the cold sea. It’s just there, and will never cease to be there. How can that be? It’s terrifying. When you no longer exist, to the extent where you’re physically unable to, your body surpasses the will of the mind, unconditional love will still be there, and gravity will still be the prevailing force in the universe, pushing and pulling, poking and gently nudging like a child getting their teacher’s attention. You can take comfort in that knowledge at some things are only temporary, even if you come under that category too. There are certain and beautiful things which will certainly outlive the darkness of people’s sin, their racism and prejudice, violence and hatred.

The water is cleansing, and so you wash your hands instinctively. Crouching. You’re closer to Earth than you have been for a long time. You let the temperature of the water cool your body to the same temperature. The temperature takes over every emotion, even if it is only for a split second before you realise that actually, the water is bloody freezing. Concentrating on your finger, you take it away, unaware of the slow encircling of the water around your feet. It happens too quickly, but you let it anyway. You laugh at your folly, and slowly make your way up.

Now, you’re at ease with the water rushing in between your toes, still gently caressing, seducing you, enticing you into its depth.

As you look out amongst the vastness, loneliness consumes you; miles and miles of outstretched emptiness. You feel sorry for the ocean, as if it’s a person inviting you into its life with every lap of the wave over your toes. It’s nervousness forces it back into itself, the same as a nervous man trying to say ‘I love you’ for the first time. It’s on the tip of his tongue. He can muster up a kiss, just as he can gently touch your face as if he is an ocean tickling your skin.

Of course you can see his anguish and embarrassment, it’s in his eyes. He smiles because he knows he loves you, he acts in the same way as the child poking and gently nudging. Finally, you decide to help put a stop to his embarrassment, and leap straight in.

Your clothes are on but you’re laughing. Your feet were wet to begin with, you have a towel in the car. So who really cares? You start running into the waves, the water jumping at you with happiness, his smile projects the same. A welcoming like you’ve never had before. It’s a real contrast. His eyes and smile are so warm, so loving, yet the caress of the waves so icy cold; both manage to make you feel warmth, a refreshing sense of real life.

Stretching out your arms is the only thing you can do in order to embrace such a meaningful offering. You keep running until you are chest deep, slowly bobbing around. This is where you decide to take the plunge.

‘I love you’.