It’s the Christmas season, the time of the year with the most people on the move either heading back home to spend the holidays with friends and family, or just going to a different place to cool off from the winding year. While many would move by air, land or sea, some others find themselves travelling only in their minds, spending Christmas where they are, but wishing they were somewhere else. Being an international student, I resolved not to be in the latter group. This is the first of maybe a series on my European adventure, with the Netherlands as my portal.
Let me start with the process of getting my Schengen area visa. Unlike the Germans who can visit over a hundred countries without requiring a visa; as a full-bodied Nigerian, I need a visa to go virtually everywhere, except maybe the toilet. With Cranfield’s reputation as a not-too-fun place on a normal day, the crystal balls were clear that to avoid death by boredom, I had to join the numerous Italians and French students to run away for Christmas. Hence, after my friends at the Delft University of Technology agreed to have me over for Christmas, I needed to get the Kingdom of the Netherlands to grant me an entry visa.
The process of getting my student visa into the United Kingdom had already made me think getting a visa into Europe would be like cutting meat with a blunt knife. As per the rules stated on the Dutch embassy’s website, I booked my two-way flight and got other required documents, then booked an appointment at the third-party visa application centre. On the stated day, I went to London, well dressed, thinking it was going to be an interview like the one I had to come into the UK. When I saw a bum-shorts-clad lady at the visa centre, I was shocked. It turned out that my appointment was just to submit my application documents, do biometrics and pay the fees. No one was going to ask me questions. After a week, the Dutch embassy emailed me requesting the biometric residence permit of my intended host. I mailed them a copy and waited for their decision. After spending almost £140 pounds for visa-related issues plus another £150 for health insurance and flight tickets, getting a “no” would have been terrible for me. My international passport finally returned to me. Yeah! Europe here I come.
The flight into Amsterdam was very interesting. With my window seat, just behind the Airbus A320’s left wing, I had a splendid view of the skies and the cities and water below. Beside me sat a British sibling-pair, also travelling for Christmas. While the boy next to me was a frequent flyer, his sister sitting next to the aisle was travelling on a plane for the first time and was terribly frightened. To calm her nerves, I had to demystify flying, explaining lift generation, how planes stay in the air, and the multiple layers of safety features to keep planes safe. The views through the window were breath-taking, including an illusion of a small rainbow having a tiny image of the cruising plane in it.
We got to the Schipol Airport around 12.15 local time. Going through immigrations was a breeze compared to Heathrow. The challenge was getting my luggage. After spending almost 30 minutes waiting at the conveyor belt nearest to the border control point, I wondered if mine would join the thousands of missing luggage at airports around the world. I then asked an airport official for help. She checked my flight number and informed me that my luggage was sent to a different baggage collection area. I quickly went to the correct conveyor belt, and there was my luggage. The next step was to catch a train to Delft.
Unfortunately, the luggage drama meant I missed the direct train in my itinerary. Since the only Dutch I know is the word “Dutch”, my friends had advised me to avoid trains that would require a change of trains enroute to Delft. Luckily, I met two gentlemen who speak English, and one helped me check the train schedule for the next direct train that would pass through Delft. Finally, I got on the correct double-decker intercity train after a short wait at the train station. My friends came to the Delft station to pick me. In line with Dutch tradition, they came riding bicycles and “put me” into a bus to meet them at a given bus stop. If nothing had surprised me at this point, seeing roads designed with cycling paths was a surprise since very few roads in the UK had special provision for bicycles.
Evening came, and we went to meet Fabian, a Dutch student at TU Delft, who Briggs introduced as a storyteller. Going to the rendezvous point to meet him, my failure to master cycling up until now meant I had to seat behind Femi as he cycled his bike, doing his best to show off with one hand, and make me feel miserable about not knowing how to cycle. For the records, there are more bicycles than human beings in the Netherlands. Fabian turned out to be a likeable guy, with lots of information about his country, and Europe in general. He would start virtually every new information block with “let me tell you the story of…” My first shocker was when he asked me the difference between the Netherlands and Holland. What!
To most persons on earth, Holland is another name for the Netherlands. Even I who foolishly claims to know a lot about many countries did not know the difference. So, Fabian proceeded to explain how the Netherlands has many provinces, with South and North Holland being two of them. However, with many businesspeople in the past being from Holland, and virtually every trade activity centred around Rotterdam and Amsterdam in Holland, the name Holland became synonymous with the Netherlands. To further complicate matters for me, I learned that the Peak milk brand, which is venerated in Nigeria, is effectively unknown in the Netherlands, its home country. Fabian has no idea about Peak milk. Apparently, Peak milk is an export product, produced by FrieslandCampina (Friesland Foods) to be consumed by the rest of the world. By the way, Friesland is one of the provinces of the Netherlands.
Fabian took us around the city centre, while recounting the history of Delft and his country as we walked from place to place. While the temperature was almost at zero Celsius, and my feet were screaming blue murder, Fabian had a way of keeping the long walk interesting. We looked at a painting by Vermeer, a Dutch painter, and a contemporary of Rembrandt and Van Gogh. We went through the only surviving gate from the old Delft, and the “new church”, which is centuries old and contains the graves of the kings and queens of the Netherlands. Starting with the seventy-year war with the Spanish empire, called the thirty-year war in the rest of Europe, Fabian explained the formation of the republic of the Netherlands as the first republic in Europe, then its conversion into a monarchy centuries later, and now a constitutional monarchy. We passed the old church, Delft’s equivalent of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, where Simon Stevin, famous Dutch scientist is claimed to have carried out the two-balls-throwing experiment attributed to Galileo. We passed through the house of Willem of Oranje, the “silent” one who led this country during its war with Spain, and whose descendants now rule as the country’s monarchs. Finally, the tour ended as Fabian had to return home.
For a day that began miles away at Cranfield in the UK, this was an awesome day. Two weeks of touring the famous cities of the Netherlands and maybe nearby European countries remains on my itinerary. However, with two assignment deadlines and an exam due two days after I return to England, it would be one eye on the fun around, and the other eye at my books. Whichever way it goes, this is already looking to be an awesome Christmas, and it’s just starting.