Wednesday, September 25, 2013

I'm Back...

There I was; sitting in a café/bar listening to Sinatra when it dawned on me… Sure, I had been planning this for months but it finally hit me a week after touching down in the city of Auckland… I AM IN NEW ZEALAND!

I guess it just took a while for my brain to comprehend the amazing journey that recently transpired. (More on that at a later date).

My name is Justin. I am currently living in New Zealand with my partner Erin who will be in many of the adventures I write about.

This blog was set up over two years ago before my first trip abroad to inform my friends and family about my travels as well as provoke the idea of stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Hopefully this blog will entertain and amuse a few while keeping you up to date on my adventures.

Here I will write about what I think makes life more awesome.

Please enjoy

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Trip to Sicily

My trip to Sicily was one of the most interesting vacations I’ve ever been on. This could be partially due the amazing group of people I traveled with or partially due to the severe lack of planning and coordination amongst international students. The trip was planned about a month and a half ago and started out small with just a few students. Through word of mouth and the influence of extremely cheap flights, our group had accumulated to 20 international students flying in and out of the country at different times.

Let me give you a rundown of our “pre departure meeting” that took place in our residence the day before we left. I got an email stating “hey guys, we need everyone to look for hostels because we leave tomorrow and don’t have anywhere to stay.” I usually don’t fret over minute details like accommodation. But this time was different; we were going to a country where very few people speak English and laws are more or less suggestions.

For those of you, who know me; know that I’m not exactly the planning type. I’m more of the hop-on-the-bandwagon-with-someone-who-is-good-at-planning type.

Our meeting consisted of 6 people sitting in a very small kitchen for four hours looking for hostels and only coming up with one hostel which could accommodate twelve people for the first two nights (we had sixteen people in our group for the first two nights). We had a few problems but for some odd reason we didn’t worry too much and decided we would find something once we got there.

At the time, I was still a little worried but figured everything would work itself out… My mind kept wandering while I was supposed to be searching for hostels. My exact thought were… “Beach… Sand… Crystal clear water… Italian girls… Mojitos… Pizza… Pasta… Beach… Italian girls… White wine… Talking with a funny accent while quoting The Godfather… Italian girls…” Needless to say I was very little help and so, sixteen of us left the Netherlands with high spirits and lack of accommodation.

Arriving in Trapani, Sicily was a lot like arriving in Florida for spring break; the weather was warm, the sky was blue, the sun was shining and there were fifteen of my buddies ready to enjoy a week away from reality.

I would go through my trip step by step but it would be severely tedious and I wouldn’t want to put any of you through that. So, here is a small synopsis follow by some highlights.

I flew into Trapani but didn’t actually see the city because we decided to check out the cities of Palermo and Catania. My days were spent on the beach (5 beaches in all) with a few short city tours (Palermo, Trapani, Cefalu, Catania and Taormina). My nights were spent eating delicious meals followed by a Sicilian night club or restaurant street terrace. The hostel situation was overcome by doubling up in single beds, sleeping on the floor, getting kicked out of one hostel, staying in a hotel one night and finally finding a great hostel for the final two nights in Catania.

I’ve always thought of Italy being a romantic place where lonely travelers go to fall in love. Come to find out lonely travelers usually go to Rome, Florence or Venice. Sicily is another story. To me, it seemed more like a North African Country than what I had pictured Italy to be. (Granted, I’ve never actually been to a North African city I’ve only seen photos).

Once I got past the fact that I wasn’t in Rome, I started to notice the beauty of Sicilian cities with their narrow cobble stone streets, Baroque style buildings and ridiculously crazy drivers. The drivers in Sicily are some of the worst (or craziest) drivers I have ever seen. It is a no holds bar race from stoplight to stoplight and that’s if they actually stop for a red light.

The cities were fun to walk around and take photos of but what I was interested in was the beach. Almost every day in Sicily was spent lying on a beach drinking a cocktail, playing beach tennis or just simply swimming in the, not so warm, Mediterranean water.

Mondello beach was the first beach stop of our trip. The water was quite cold so a few friends and I decided it would be best to relax by drinking some whiskey (which we bargained for in a small Asian grocery store) and Italian beer. After a few short hours we had warmed up in the Hot Sicilian sun and conjured up enough courage to make the plunge. The rest of the day was nice mix of Frisbee on the beach, Frisbee in the water, football (soccer), beach tennis, attempting to body surf and napping. It was everything and more than I had hoped for.

After a long day at the beach there is nothing better than some delicious Italian food. On every street corner and down every ally way there were small canteens serving scrumptious snacks which I had a very difficult time pronouncing but was a pro at eating. Or if we felt like dining in we could get a 3 course meal including a drink for around 10 Euro (about 14 USD).

Here are my top three snacks in Sicily

· Pizza (obviously) – The pizza in Sicily didn’t knock my socks off like I was expecting but it was among the best I’ve ever tasted. The tomatoes were by far the tastiest I’ve had and the mozzarella was perfectly melted-ooey-gooey and delicious.

· Aranchino – Which is a breaded rice ball commonly filled with mozzarella, some sort of meat, tomato sauce or a combination of the three then deep fried to perfection.

· Some sort of pastry that I never learned the name of – This was a pastry filled with fresh mozzarella and ham. I know it sounds simple but it was so good I ate at least two per day (which also could have contributed to the weight gained during the trip)

Being college students on a budgeted beach vacation we ate out a lot but did manage to sit down for a proper dinner one night. Finding a restaurant for 16 people is a story in itself so I won’t get into that. We agreed on a small restaurant with a neon flashing “Pizza” sign outside and were seated upstairs in what looked like a special event room (away from all the other customers).

There were two basic “menus” you could choose from that consisted of a few different appetizer choices, about ten entrée choices and the choice of either beer or wine. All of which was included in the 9 euro price. This price also included tax and tip, so you literally paid 9 euro. All of us ate, drank and laughed for the three and a half hours that we sat at the dinner table.

Our last night was spent at the exact same restaurant and we did the exact same thing; ate, drank and laughed for three and a half hours. The only difference being, we didn’t book a place to sleep because our flight left at 6:00am and the shuttle for the airport left at 3:00am from Palermo to Trapani. So, there was only one option after dinner… We found a small bar with a nice ally way terrace and 3 Euro long islands. The rest of the night was filled with cake stealing-karaoke singing-“I love you, man”, shenanigans.

Taking everything into account, I had the trip of a lifetime. It was a rollercoaster of emotion going from pristine beaches to walking the streets of Palermo with all of our luggage and no place to stay but like everything else good in this life, in the end it all worked out.

And so, the motley crew of international students hopped back on the place to Holland as the sun rose over the Italian countryside. I’ll never forget this experience and look forward to picking up the phone ten years from now, calling an old friend and saying “Do you remember that one time in Sicily when we…”

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Day In the Life of an International Student

Hello followers, I must apologize for the lack of postings this past month. I could make up a slew of excuses for not writing anything but, put simply; I’ve been busy having the time of my life! This post goes out to Dr. Wagner of Western Michigan University. He brought it to my attention that I haven’t been posting about the most important part of my exchange… Class.

I’ll run you through a typical day of class and shenanigans. My day starts no earlier than 10:00am, due to my awesome ability to schedule classes, with a quick shower and some breakfast. While I have to wake up at the 10:00, my Lithuanian roommate, Bronius, likes to sleep in a little later than that. So, I creep around the room stumbling into random objects trying to gather my belongings then I’m off to class.

(If you remember from previous posts, I get around by my kick ass 7 speed Euro bike). I hop on my bike and head east towards the University. Along the way I travel under railways, over canals, passed the local soccer stadium and through campus, which is littered with modern works of architecture and design. The bike ride can be accomplished in a mere twenty minutes but it takes me around thirty because, number one, I am slightly lazy when it comes to physical activity and, number two, I don’t want to sweat through three layers of clothing before I even arrive.

The architecture on campus is Amazing. As I ride down the main bike path, which is more like a two lane road, the first building I see is a high rise that seems to be resting on stilts and is spotted with all the colors of the rainbow. Continuing on I pass a long, slender, glass building with the Letters HU in bright blue and red. Across from the HU building there is an establishment which serves refreshing beverages titled “The Basket” and on its rood holds a fully enclosed basketball court.

Following this building there is yet another mirrored building with a giant concave entryway and at the very edge of campus there is an apartment structure in the shape of a giant inverted “U”. Nestled directly under the student accommodations is a student run bar that is surrounded partly by a small body of water.

The sights on campus are something to marvel at, but I have to remember why I rode my bike there; Class… So I park my awesome bike among the hundreds of others and make my way into the FEM (Faculty of Economics and Management) department of the HU building.

I usually spot a fellow classmate or two and mingle for a few minutes before heading off to my lecture. The building is set up like a rat maze; there are only 3 levels to the building but few of them are “level”. Many of the halls are on a slight incline so it is like walking around on a giant enclosed wheelchair ramp which to me is pretty amusing. Once I get over the fact that I am either walking uphill or downhill, I find my class and take a seat amongst the crowd of internationals.

Classes are set up very similar to the classes back home. There is a lecturer, usually with a Power Point presentation, at the head of class relating theories to real life situations. While students sit in either a lecture hall or classroom diligently taking notes, pretending to take notes or chatting about what their plans are for the weekend.

The professors here are fairly informal and down to earth. They introduce themselves by their first name but don’t mind if you call them mister SoandSo or Dr. Whoever. The Dutch Profs are very direct and explicit when it comes to assignments and deadlines so there isn’t really any troubling questions as to what needs to be turned in and when. Also, when it comes to their English skills, most Dutch people speak nearly impeccable English. So, I never have to worry about attempting to translate a sentence or statement.

After class, which tends to last anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours, I find someplace to hang out while waiting for my next class. Over the past two months I have narrowed it down to my three favorite places to chill while waiting for class to begin.

  • · One of the three on campus pubs (Yes, I count that as one option)
  • · The lounge area in our faculty which contains a big screen, couches, beanbags and foosball tables
  • · On the grass just outside the building where I often find people enjoying a fresh crescent or cold Heineken.

The decision is sometimes difficult to make, seeing as all three options are very tempting. Pending on the weather and my mood, I choose a location and relax for a while. The hour or two that I have in between classes always seems to fly by (probably because I am having such a great time even while on campus).

My second class goes much like the first and I’m finally done with class for the day (Yes, I only have a max of two classes per day this block but that will change once the fourth quarter starts). Often, lectures are followed by after class group meeting. Groups are typically comprised of multiple nationalities. The professors do this in order to promote multicultural learning and diversity, which is no problem for be because most all of the students are cool to hang out with.

Groups in Utrecht are much like any other group I’ve been in; some people work hard, others don’t. Some people show up on time and some don’t. Sometimes productivity is accomplished and sometimes we sit and ponder the meaning of “We’re in the ‘talking’ stage of our relationship”. Even so, the work eventually gets done and we all celebrate in the standard fashion.

After a long (6 hour) day on campus it’s time to either head home or ride to the center to relax with a few friends and possibly even grab a cone of chips (thick cut fries served in a paper cone) or a warm stroop waffle (the greatest thing known to Man).

Life is good here in the Netherlands. Granted, there are the long shitty nights stuck in the library working on flowcharts and the Globalization Efforts of Transnational Corporations. But, it makes it all worthwhile when I realize that tomorrow I will wake up and still be studying abroad; still having the time of my life.

Monday, February 28, 2011


As a kid, I always had a distant dream of being a surfer. I imagined relaxing on a beach all day with my friends, catching waves, and finishing the evening next to beautiful beach babe. I am (arguably) not a kid any more, rarely relax on the beach for an entire day, am yet to learn how to surf and never end up getting a beach babe. Luckily for me I learned another style of surfing, Couch Surfing.

Couch surfing requires no physical coordination and there is no tanning required. It is the act of sleeping on someone’s couch for a night, then moving to another the next night. Much like surfing a wave then paddling out again to find another.

I heard about couch surfing through a friend of mine who studied abroad in Melbourne, Australia a year ago. He told me what it was but I found it hard to believe that people actually participated in this crazy sport. Much to my surprise, people do participate; a lot of people.

Recently three friends and I took a four day trip to Belgium. Our trip to Belgium was one of the most unplanned trips I have ever been on. The planning was done in the kitchen on the 1st floor of Beneluxlaan while all four of us were extremely “under the weather”.

With little planning and high hopes we hopped on a bus to Antwerp, Belgium. We arrived around 5:30 in the evening. Stepping off the bus was like waking up after long night of partying with some good friends. We didn’t really know why we were there, how we planned it and what we were going to do now that we were in Antwerp. But, like true international college students we trekked on.

After sightseeing for a few hours and doing normal tourist stuff (such as; climbing on statues, pointing at random buildings, and taking the infamous everyone-jump-into-the-air-at-the-same-time photo) it was time to find a place to sleep. We had a few failed attempts at finding a hostel and just as we were about to lose hope, our friend Recep shouted “I have 5 missed calls”.

Standing outside a vacant hostel, Recep informed us that he had send out 14 messages to 14 different hosts in Antwerp asking if we could crash on their couch for the night. I had completely forgotten that he had spoken about “couch surfing” the previous night. The five missed calls were from a host that responded to his request via is a networking tool used by travelers to find a cheap place to sleep for the night. A user simply has to create a profile with some basic information then start asking to crash on a couch.

Our friend quickly called the host back and after a short conversation we had a place to sleep for the night. We met our hosts, Vincent and Elise, at the Center station in Antwerp. Vincent is a tall, blond, 19 year old, male, Flemish student studying medicine at the local university. Elise is about 5’7, dark hair, nice figure and from the west of Belgium.

Soon after meeting Vincent and Elise we found out that they too had recently signed up on and this was their first time hosting travelers. Hearing this was a relief for all of us. We had no idea what to expect but knowing we would be staying with two cool college kids was comforting. Happy to hear we had a place to stay, we hopped on a tram and headed south.

Our groups clicked very quickly. Possibly due to the fact that this was our first time or possibly because the first thing we spoke about was stopping at a liquor store and finding a good club (I guess we’ll never know). Regardless, everyone was very excited for the journey ahead.

I had an eerie feeling walking into the student’s house. The thought of Hollywood horror movies kept running through my mind. I thought… “Is this safe”, “what if they are some kind of crazy serial killers” and “this would make a great horror movie”… I snapped back to reality once the lights flickered on.

It was a standard college house; Dishes in the sink, bottles on the window sill, books laying everywhere and two Belgium students standing there with welcoming eyes asking if we would like anything to eat or drink. At this point I knew it was going to be great.

The sheer generosity of our hosts was baffling. Vincent and Elise had absolutely no idea who we were or why we were in Antwerp but they let us into their home without hesitation. They were even kind enough to let us crash at their place for two nights.

Not only did they give us a place to sleep, but they gave us a guided tour of Antwerp by day and night. We spent the next two days sightseeing and partying until the early morning. When it came time to leave Antwerp and head to Brussels, everyone had the same thought runny through their minds (“Shit, shit, shit… Where are we going to sleep?”). Then, Elise informed us that she was staying in Brussels with her parents and they would love to host us for the night. Score! We had a place to crash in Brussels.

Elise’s parents live just outside of Brussels in a town called Vilvoorde. We got to the train station and there our chariot awaited. Just outside was a red Opel minivan with a mother like figure sitting in the front seat. I felt like we were being picked up from little league practice; we were all tired, smelly, and hungry.

Again, I thought “This can’t be happening. No family on earth would host four strange travelers who randomly sent messages via” but again I was wrong. We arrived in front of a beautiful A-frame house with a small hedge and front yard.

Earlier in the trip, Elise informed me that her dad was a beer lover. Being a beer lover myself, I was more than excited walking into her home. The home was very modern and in the middle of their tiled living room floor sat two beautiful, luxurious, leather sofas. This would be our home for the night.

Within 10 minutes of entering the home, we had hors d'oeuvres and delicious Belgium beers being served to us. Elise’s father was a fountain of knowledge when it came to beer. He knew exactly what to serve, when to serve it, and how to pour it.

The night continued with dish after dish of gourmet food and, of course, delicious Belgium beer. Our night ended with a full stomach and pallet filled with sweet, hoppy, malted liquid. Who could imagine four travelers from different parts of the world coming together and enjoying the experience of a lifetime? All thanks to the generosity of a few people who reached out and opened their home to a group of curious travelers.

We left with smiles on our faces and a new found appreciation towards strangers. This is an experience that will never be forgotten and I think I speak for the whole group when I say, I feel a little safer in the world we live in.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Night on the Town

A typical night out in Utrecht has the same fundamental goals of a night out back in Michigan. Everyone involved is looking to have a good time with good people and to enjoy life. The only difference is the path one takes to get there.

The night usually starts around 7:30pm with a short walk to the local store to pick up supplies. Before I came to Utrecht, I under appreciated how convenient a “convenience” store really is. Back home, we can go to the store anytime before 1:45am to pick up supplies but here it’s another story. The reason we have to make our short jaunt at 7:30pm is because all stores (with the exception of restaurants and bars) close at 8:00pm or earlier.

Once we have our beverage of choice, we come back to the apartment building and go our separate ways for a few hours. I usually head to my room and respond to a few emails or Skype with someone. Others will sleep for a few hours, work on assignments or roam the halls of Beneluxlaan.

Around 9:30 or 10:00pm we usually head up to the 6th floor of our building to pre-party and chat with friends. The 6th floor of Beneluxlann is predominately Spanish with a few exceptions. The few exceptions have adopted some of the Spanish culture; mainly the community atmosphere and dinner time.

A typical dinner on the 6th floor starts around 9:30 or 10:00pm (which could be the reason why we congregate there). I usually sit and chat because I have already eaten dinner. It is amazing to listen to three or four different conversations in three or four different dialects. Some conversations will switch between English, Spanish and French while the participants tap their feet to a Dutch DJ, never missing a beat.

When finished with dinner, we will head down to the ground floor (aka the former entrance to a hospital) to play music on a single loudspeaker and hang out. There are usually between 40 and 70 people on the ground floor during a pre-party. Looking around the room, one would think it is a typical college party; people talking in groups, games, and dancing but it is much more than that.

This party is filled with people from all walks of life. People talk about current political issues while their hometowns are 5,000 miles. Others will be learning new party games to play. (For example; take a standard cup coaster, place it on the edge of a table with 3/8 of it hanging over the edge, use the backs of finger tips to flip the coaster in the air and catch it before it hits the table. Do this, then stack one on top of the other and repeat. My record is 8 coaster stacked on top of eacher, but I have heard tall tales of people flipping 16 coasters. This may or may not be a so called “drinking game” but I would never do such a thing.)

All the while, the dance floor will be filled with people performing dances from their native countries. Some perform a salsa, some flamenco; others will do dances I have never seen before. I, on the other hand, stick to the classic sprinkler and running man which is loved by everyone.

The pre-party on the ground floor lasts until 12:30 or 1:00am (mind you, the bars and clubs here are open to 5:00am or later). At this time, it is off to the races. We all hop on our Euro bikes and head towards to center (again, the center is what everyone refers to as the “downtown” district of the city). The bike ride lasts about 20 minutes and is filled with thrills, spills and general debauchery.

It is quite a sight to see 15 to 20 international students coming from a pre-party riding down a bike path. It is comparable to the walk form a tailgate back home, but on bikes in a city that dates back to the first century; people laughing and giving a friendly nudge, others singing off tune and way too loud. It is a spectacle.

In Utrecht there are many small pubs similar to the small bars you see in Michigan. There are also very large clubs which everyone calls a “Discotech”. Every time I hear the term Discotech I silently recite the line from You Don’t Mess with the Zohan – “Disco! Disco!” then giggle a little. We usually go to the discotechs because we have a large group of people and most want to dance.

Walking into a standard discotech is like walking into a very large club that only plays house, techno and the occasional pop hit from 1998 mixed with the DJ’s personal beats. It is pretty awesome if you like that kind of music. Personally I love all of it, so I feel like a kid in a candy store when I walk in. The discotechs are filled with hundreds of people and the first thing you hear is the DJ sending a loud UH! Then a smoother TISSS!

Once used to the thumb of the bass, it is time to get acclimated to the styles of dancing. Finding a dance partner is as simple as tapping someone on the shoulder or whispering in someone’s ear but dancing isn’t as simple as 1-2-3.

I am familiar with three styles of dance. Those being; 1. The casual and appropriate face to face three step that you would find at a wedding or other formal occasion 2. The air guitar that accompanies Foreigner’s “Jukebox Hero” or Def Leppard’s “Photograph”, and 3. The standard bump and grind that everyone learned to love in high school.

Here, none of these are acceptable. Instead people dance to their own beat which involves a lot of head bobbing, foot shuffling and, of course, fist pumping. Dancing with a partner is very common but not what you would expect. Dancing with someone involves feeding off one another’s "beat" and reacting to something as simple as a glance or a faint hand movement. Obviously, I haven’t got the whole dancing thing down yet… But, I’m working on it.

DJ’s are usually rotated throughout the night, so the mood changed two or three times. Some DJ’s have a very smooth flow and keep the crowd in a euphoric rhythm while others are more into the high energy beat that gets people to jumping. Regardless of what the DJ plays, we have always had a great time.

After three or four hours of dancing and having our eardrums ruptured, it is time to head home. By the time we get our coats and find our bikes it is around 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning. As I said earlier, nearly everything closes in the evening. Everything except a few small eateries which they call “cafeterias” but it isn’t anything like a school cafeteria. It is a small building or stand that served deep friend and other unhealthy foods.

A good night out isn’t complete without a late night snack and since there isn’t a local Taco Bell or Menna’s Joint in town, we have to rely on the small cafeterias to fulfill our hunger. I recently discovered what may be the greatest “late night snack” of all time. It is a Turkish dish called the Kebab which consists of lamb, onions, peppers, and a delicious garlic sauce wrapped up in a thick pita. It is the perfect ending to a night out on the town.

Once satisfied with our delicious Kebab, we start our journey home. At this time it is nearly 6:30 in the morning and the sky is getting light. Our ride home is filled with the sound of birds chirping and ducks landing on one of many canals in Utrecht. It is hard to believe that this is just the beginning of our 5 month adventure in the Netherlands.