I have been living in The Netherlands for three months now.
I can’t believe how fast time has passed. If someone had told me at the beginning of this year that 2012 would be the year
I would live abroad, I would have simply answered something like "yeah right, you’re either nuts or kidding me".
It is amazing how life can surprise you. Early in the spring I first came to hear about the Master Program Vitality and Ageing and found out there was an actual real chance that I might be a part of it. There was not much time to think about it, maybe a couple of days, some brief discussions with my family and partner, and then a hesitant "yes, I do (want to apply for the Master)". I think I went through the admission process with a little bit of skepticism. Everything went so smoothly I thought it was too good to be true. And then, one day, I was already at the International Airport of Mexico City, ready to take the plane to the greatest adventure in my life so far.
At 31 and having lived my whole life in Mexico, I did not have much idea of what to expect from living abroad. But at the same time I had lots of expectations. Of course, I had been abroad a couple of times before, but those were pleasure trips lasting no longer than four weeks at a time. This however, was the real thing. This was living abroad for nearly a year!
Of all the places in the world, it had never occurred to me to come and study in The Netherlands, least of all at Leiden University. This was the first time I had ever heard of it, the first time I knew there was such a thing as the Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing. I don’t even speak Dutch, for god’s sake! Yet somehow it all felt just appropriate and everything fell into place so I could come here. Sometimes I feel as if this was meant to happen and I am very thankful for it.
The Master on Vitality and Ageing
Looking back, these first three months have been wonderful. Certainly, the Master has proven to be a lot more work than I expected and it has also been quite more challenging, but I have loved every minute of it. Having already received training as a geriatrician, many of the topics we cover in the Master are not entirely new to me, but the academic level and the depth of knowledge I am being exposed to is an entirely new experience. Listening to lectures by researchers whose papers I have read before in high-profile medical and scientific journals has been both humbling and inspiring.
My fellow classmates have made the experience even more pleasant. We are a small group, but a nice one, for that matter. If I had to describe it with one word, I would use diversity. We come from different places, have such different life histories, think so differently, and yet we have somehow managed to get along pretty well and make up for an interesting academic community.
Almost everyone in Leiden (and The Netherlands so I have learned) speaks English. This is an absolute advantage since Dutch is a rather difficult language to learn – I should know, since I am currently trying to learn it and I find myself banging my head against the wall because of difficulties with everything, from the pronunciation to the grammar! Still, communicating with people around me has not been a problem. They even spoke Spanish to me at the open market a couple of times.
Dutch people are very interesting to be around with. I am still trying to figure them out, but so far I like them. They are certainly not as warm as Mexican people, but they are nice and well-intended. They like what they like and they stick to their own ways, which is only understandable but still very amusing to witness from an outsider’s perspective. Sometimes I think I have seen enough to understand them and then something new comes up and they completely surprise me. It seems like a never-ending game of watching and learning, which I find nothing but enjoyable.
Dutch weather on the other hand, is not such a pleasant experience. I don’t mind some cold and wet, but this is ridiculous! One of my first acquisitions when I first came here were some proper rain clothes. Being a city boy, I was used to driving my car and staying dry inside when it rained (which back home is usually a defined period from late spring to mid autumn). But living in The Netherlands as a student means traveling by bicycle or public transport under all kinds of unpredictable climate. Whether the day is bright and sunny or cold and rainy, as is usually the case, one must be prepared. Thus, proper rain clothes are a must-have in this country. And it must be noted that I have not even seen the Dutch winter yet. I can only imagine what that will be like, but I’m already looking forward to it and dreading it at the same time!
When I look back at the past three months of my life, I can only think of positive things. I am having such a good time that I have hardly felt homesick, if at all. This is turning out to be my greatest adventure so far and I am living it as intensely as possible. I can only be thankful for what I have learned so far and I am excited for what is yet to come.
February… Days are getting longer and a little bit less cold. Snow days are scarcer every week that passes by. Winter is almost over. I was afraid I might have found it a tough experience, but the truth is I loved every day of it, every day of snow, every bit of hail and every freezing evening with temperatures under zero. The best of the winter, however, were the Christmas holidays.
For as long as I can remember, Christmas has been my favorite time of the year. These last holidays were particularly special because I got to experience them from a completely different cultural context. I learned about Sinterklaas and I actually had him visit me and my fellow students at the Leyden Academy – it was a great surprise and we had quite a merry time while one of my classmates sat on his lap and sang a sinterklaasliedje. I got to experience first-hand the Christmas markets, and drank my share of hot wine, hot chocolate and all sorts of delicious seasonal treats. No wonder I put on a couple of kilo’s which I am now struggling to get rid of!
One thing that made this Christmas even more special was having part of my family visiting over the holidays and travelling around with them. We went to Paris, where we spent Christmas, then Luxembourg, Brussels and finally Amsterdam for New Year. In the picture you see my grandfather and me in Versailles, France. Later on in January I received yet another visit – a very special one – and had the loveliest time in the last few months.
Current practices of geriatric medicine
Still, all things come to an end, and now it’s back to reality and hard working at the Leyden Academy. Not that I complain, though. I am still enjoying it as much as ever, even when it can be quite challenging. For example in our last course, Multimorbidity and Geriatric Giants, we learned some revolutionary concepts that bring into question some of the current practices of geriatric medicine. For a trained geriatrician like me, this can be shocking to say the least, but I am fully convinced that the only way to make progress and improve our practices is to constantly question and rethink what we hold as true and valid. After all, science is about a continuous and renewed search for answers that allow us to pose new questions. I find this quite stimulating.
Chinese New Year
Getting along with people comes rather easily to me, and this has been a very useful skill. I have made good friends with my classmates from the Master, but also with other international students outside the master. I am not that much of an all-night-party guy anymore, but I always take pleasure in an evening out or a nice dinner and I do enjoy the occasional party. For example, just last weekend a friend from the Master who is from China invited us to celebrate Chinese New Year at her place. We had a great time! In the picture you see fellow student Tianyi Bu leading the celebration of the Year of the Snake.
Orientation meeting for students
I remember that shortly before departing from Mexico I attended an orientation meeting for students who were going to live in The Netherlands. One of the speakers told us about a process of adaptation that most students go through, which consists of three phases: a honeymoon, when everything is new and exciting, followed by a blue phase, where homesickness is the main feature, and finally a phase during which students adjust to their life abroad. At that moment, I thought this was a very useful bit of information, and I was prepared to go through these phases. I don’t know what happened, though, because I am now well adjusted but still living my honeymoon with The Netherlands and I don’t see the end of it coming at all. I have only half a year left here and I intend to make the most of it. No time for homesickness, no time for longing. Every single day that passes is beautiful, unique and will never come back. This only happens once in a lifetime and I won’t miss the chance to live it!
They say that home is where the heart is. I say that home is where one makes it. And come to that, I am pretty sure I have made myself at home in this wonderful place, the memories of which I shall treasure forever.
Raúl Hernán Medina Campos from Mexico