Help – My Bike Doesn’t Have Windshield Wipers!

Two weeks! It’s still hard to believe that we are living in Europe and it certainly doesn’t feel like we have been here for two weeks. To be honest, it feels like we have been here longer. Perhaps it’s just the whirlwind of moving and all the newness of the situation. Perhaps we have just haven’t really settled in yet. Whatever it is, it feels as if we have been in Groningen for a while now. Regardless, I feel we are starting to settle into a bit of a routine. We shopped at the market again this week, this time buying all the meats/veggies/nuts/spices/eggs while there (no butcher shop this week). It was even better than last time. We got a full week’s worth of food for less than we spent while living in Pittsburgh (we typically spend a lot as we buy fresh meat and veggies to have every day). To top it off, we even found a stand that had what we would consider normal bacon! Our bacon experience up to this point had been very disappointing, amounting to nothing more than salty paper. In case you haven’t noticed, food/shopping is paramount to our happiness and daily lives. Without bacon, all that happiness crumbles…

Outside of the market, we have been doing our best to get to know the city. We have both been pleasantly surprised at how nice it is to jump on the bikes and just ride. It really makes you wonder why biking isn’t more commonly used in the United States. Since Monday was yet another holiday (I’m really getting spoiled by these 4-day work weeks), we decided to check out a local lake I was told about at work (more on work in a bit). The lake is a 20-minute bike ride from our apartment and was surprisingly nice. While we saw only a small portion of it, it seems it’s the place to be on nice days. Lots of sailboats, paddle boarding, and swimming with numerous walking and biking paths going all around the lake. On warmer days, I can certainly see us spending time out there. For now, the 70-degree (and windy) days just aren’t conducive to swimming in the lake, although the Dutch don’t seem to mind. I guess we just have a different idea of proper swimming weather.

As I mentioned previously, I finally started work last week. To be honest, I didn’t know what to expect going into it. Ever since we decided to move, the whole focus has been on the fact that we were moving to The Netherlands and we were going to be living in Europe for the next four years. Although everyone was very persistent remind me of it, I guess I had really overlooked the fact that I had come here to do a PhD. There were too many other things in the way; too many other responsibilities to take care of. The idea of a PhD and starting my own research project was pushed to the back of my mind. However, that reality hit me pretty hard on my way to work Tuesday. As is the case with any new position, the beginning was a whirlwind. Everything from the building, to the people, to the aquarium housing my fish, to simply commuting back and forth each day, it’s a lot. Despite all of this, I made the right decision. It’s hard to explain but it was almost a relief to be back in an academic setting, knowing that it was for my own project. The European system of graduate school is significantly different from the American system. Here, we work in groups and everyone is very involved with each other. I am in the Behavioural Biology Group (note the European spelling of ‘behavior’), consisting of multiple PI’s and their graduate students. Research varies from work with fruit flies, to birds, to fish, and even humans. Despite these differences, everyone is interested in and research very similar topics and therefore compose one group. Whereas the American system can keep you from interacting with other labs, the European system encourages it. I’m a fan of this. Another exciting story from my first week at work: I’m going to Africa! An opportunity has arisen for me to accompany some other researchers from Switzerland as they complete fieldwork at Lake Victoria in Africa (where my cichlid fish come from). Plans have not been finalized yet but all indications are that I will go in July or August, for at least a few weeks. Obviously this is not an ideal situation since we just moved here and I’m not a fan of leaving Whitney so early, but then again, it’s not something I can pass up. How often do you get asked on your first day of work if you want to go to Africa? I’ll update later as plans are finalized.

Had my first experience biking in the rain. Notice the wet-dry line extending down my leg. Waterproof biking pants will be a necessary investment.

In related news, Whitney had her first few interviews and has one more scheduled for this week. She has gotten very good indications so far but I’ll let her share details of how they went in another post. We are keeping our fingers crossed something works out! In the meantime, we’ll continue with our efforts to learn Dutch. A couple weeks in and we’ve picked up some basic phrases such as please, thank you, good morning, and so on.  Hopefully, we can take some formal classes soon to help things along.  Dutch (much like German) is just a completely different way of speaking and forming words/sounds. All part of the experience I guess!

Until next time,

Shane

The first few days…

Well, it’s been a few days now and I think we have started to get the hang of the Groningen/Dutch lifestyle. To keep things a little more straightforward, I’ll just break it up into days. This may turn out to be a long post, as we have a fair amount to share.

*Warning: Don’t expect posts of this length for the entire 4 years we will be here. We’ll stick to big adventures and stories as time goes. I’ll pick up where Whitney left off:

Thursday:

Ascension Day, the 40th day of Easter. This means that everything in the city is closed. Although our apartment did come fully furnished, there were still numerous things we needed (mostly for personal comfort). So knowing that everyone is home from work today, we made the smart decision to go to IKEA. Although only a 15-minute walk from our apartment, IKEA was a bad idea. The entire population of Groningen had the same idea that we did and they were in no hurry to move through the store. These two, fast-paced Americans are certainly going to have to adjust to a slower paced lifestyle. Aside from the mass of slow-moving humanity, IKEA was interesting for other reasons. First off, as most of you that have visited an IKEA know, all of the product names are in Swedish and therefore a little complicated to read. Try adding Dutch descriptions to those Swedish names and things get really interesting. As with everything else thus far, we shopped by pictures and looks. The other interesting IKEA factor here? We don’t have a car. Therefore, everything you buy has to be carried 1.3km home. The solution to this problem? Rent a bakfiets (bike with giant basket/cart on the front) or pay to have it delivered. We chose the second option.

Following IKEA, we met briefly with my new P.I. and chatted about life in Groningen (for clarity: P.I. means principal investigator and I will likely use it frequently in future posts. It’s typically how graduate students refer to their boss, at least in the US. I’ll have to figure out how it is here).

Friday:

Today was a big day in our Dutch lives! We bought bikes! Not having a bike in Groningen is like not having a car in the United States. Walking is not an issue at all, as most places are only 10-15 minutes from us. However, once you jump on a bike and make that same 15-minute trip in 5, you gain a new perspective. The bike buying process was fairly easy (I think we had both secretly dreaded taking that step as we didn’t really know what to expect). There is a bike shop a few minutes from our apartment so on one of our many trips into the city center; we decided to just go for it. Half an hour later, we walked out with two used bikes. Whitney was able to get a very nice bike, complete with lights and a bell (both of which are required here or you get a sizeable fine, ~80 euros). Mine is a little more ‘used’ but it was cheaper and still works fine. I have a bit more bike riding experience than Whitney so we figured it better for her to have a good one so she can focus on the riding part. Bike theft here is a big issue, so we each had to get heavy-duty chain locks. Basically, from what we have been told, if you leave your bike unattended and unlocked, it will certainly get stolen. Those chain locks will get plenty of use…

After getting our bikes, we made the trip out to IKEA again (because you never get everything you need in one trip) and it was a breeze. I have to admit, I spent most of the ride laughing at Whitney but we made it with no issues. Let’s just saying that she is improving every time we ride.

One final story for the day: As Whitney mentioned in her last post, we live above a flower shop. The owner of the flower shop is our landlord so we stopped in to meet him. His name is Wally and he is very cool. He told us about the Chevrolet trucks that he and his son drive and how he recently made a trip to Pennsylvania, complete with trips to the junkyard for parts. We certainly made an impression on him. I say this because as we were leaving, Whitney (ever graceful) stepped in a puddle of water, slipped, and nearly took out an entire wall of flowers. As we went out the door, we heard Wally and his daughter saying “oh….”.

‘Welcome to Groningen’ flowers from Wally

Saturday:

For those of you that know us, food & cooking are a major part of our lives. You have probably even heard us tell stores about our butcher in Pittsburgh and how Saturday mornings were our ‘butchin’ days. Well being that it is Saturday, we had to find a way to butch!

We started out by heading to a local, organic butcher shop. It’s about 5 minutes from our apartment and it wasn’t bad. Ordering cuts of meat, like everything else, is an adventure. First off, we can’t read the signs so we just have to go by looks. Secondly, we use the metric system here (thanks America for being different) so we have to order by grams/kilograms. This will take some getting used too.

Saturday tradition: butcher then coffee

Following the butcher, we visited De Vismarkt (the fish market) and it was amazing! It is a huge open-air market that has everything. And when I say everything, I mean everything! All types of meat and fish, any fruit or vegetable you can imagine, nut/seeds, eggs (chicken/duck/something we couldn’t figure out), spices, bread, cheeses, and too many other things to name. The best part of it all? It was cheap! Spices were certainly the highlight of the trip as they were only 1-2 euros for a very large bag. Another highlight involved Whitney getting very excited over fresh spinach and ordering a ‘kilo’ of it. Know how much a kilogram is? 2.2 pounds. We have 2.2 pounds of spinach and only paid €1,50. I reiterate; the market is amazingly cheap. We will be shopping there from now on.

So there it is: way too much detail for our first few days in Groningen. As I said at the beginning, we won’t be doing every post like this. I just wanted to share our first couple days here since a lot of you have been asking and it has certainly been exciting for us. Work will be starting next week, along with interviews for Whitney (fingers crossed!), so things will be settling down significantly. All in all, life in Groningen is good. We have bikes, we found a place to grocery shop, and assuming we can adjust to the time/daylight (it is daylight from 5am to after 10pm here, ridiculous), we will be just fine.

Until next time,

Shane

P.S. Vegetables from the market are much larger than we are used to. Take this carrot as an example. This is 100%, unedited, straight from the market (we didn’t realize it until we got home and unpacked).  Sorry mom…..you have to admit, it’s pretty funny.

A Netherlands riddle for you

What’s black and blue and has 16 legs?

Give up?

My suitcase! …with ALL my pants. …that the airline lost.

Awesome.

Well, we are finally here! Three flights, two long layovers, and a two-hour train ride later we are finally in the city we will call home for the next four years. Considering we checked six pieces of luggage and only lost one, things aren’t so bad. The airline has already found it, and it should be delivered by Friday.

I let Shane navigate “the board”. The train schedule in Amsterdam probably wouldn’t be that complicated if we could read Dutch…
Getting all of our luggage on and off the train was the worst part (i.e. I struggled with one bag which kept getting caught on a seat while Shane managed to load the other four in the same period of time….)
Breakfast of Champions! When in Ireland…Do as the Irish do. Drink a Guinness!

Groningen (pronounced with a hard ‘H’ at the beginning, in a harsh German kind of way) greeted us with “below normal temperatures” and steady rain, but we live above the CUTEST flower shop and that makes me happy! Our apartment is about a 10 minute walk to city center which has all the shops and restaurants, and when the listing said ‘fully furnished’ they meant it. We expected the couches, desk, and coffee table, but we didn’t expect a high efficiency washer and dryer, a king sized bed, and full set of dishes/kitchen utensils. Did I mention it’s above a flower shop?

Our new home

Today, our first full day here, we took care of all the boring stuff: bank accounts, cell phones, etc. We did find a neat little breakfast place with great iced coffee! That’s one thing we will never be without here. Coffee. Strong coffee. I’m not complaining.

Tomorrow is Ascension Day (the 40th day of Easter?) so everything is closed. However, it’s supposed to be warm and sunny so we plan on just walking the city and exploring a little. City pictures to come soon!

Tot ziens! (Goodbye, in Dutch!)

Whitney

Netherlands Bound!

It’s crazy. You all always hear about this kind of thing on TV or in the movies, but we are actually doing it!

Well, it’s official: we are on our way to The Netherlands! After months of preparation and a seemingly endless string of paperwork and forms, it’s hard to believe that it’s finally happening. By this time tomorrow, we will be settling into our new apartment in Groningen. We have a pretty long trip to get there, with 4-hour layovers in both New York and Dublin. Add to that, the flights and the train ride from Amsterdam to Groningen and we are looking at about 24 hours worth of travel. Certainly not the ideal travel plan but I guess that’s what we get for moving on Memorial Day weekend…

In related news, the third member of our clan, Meatball, will not be joining us right away. We had some issues with the Vet and she will be coming next month (we’ll save that story for another post).   We know a lot of you are curious to hear how that whole process will go so we will be sure to update once she makes it over. For now, she is living the good life with Whitney’s mom.

So with that being said, we bid everyone farewell! We will certainly do our best to keep this up to date with our adventures and we hope to hear from you all. Facebook, Skype, Google +/Hangouts, iMessage, and email are all viable options to keep in touch with us. In the mean time, if you haven’t already done so, get your passports! We want EVERYONE to come visit! What’s the point of living in Europe if you can’t have friends and family to experience it with?

See you all soon!