What's your story?

Fulbright orientation was scheduled for Thursday, four days after my arrival in Amsterdam. After a week filled with the logistics of moving to a new country, I was excited to learn more about the education system and dive into my project.

My alarm went off at 7:20, which allowed plenty of time to make it to Den Haag (The Hague) by 10. I checked 9292, the Dutch transportation app, grabbed a granola bar and headed off to the bus station. As I walked briskly to train station, the wind started to blow my knee length raincoat behind me like a sail. A quick scan of the surroundings showed several scooters and bikes laying horizontally in the streets.

After boarding the train, and passing through the original Breukelen and Gouda (pronounced How-Duh), I arrived at Den Haag Central Station. I tried walking directly across the street to the Ministry of Education. However, the intensity of the wind had picked up significantly since I left Amsterdam and I felt my body swaying from its strength. Sitting inside the ministry foyer, I watched in disbelief as people were blown over and bikes moved unassisted across the street. People outside were helping others cross the street and move into the Ministry to seek refuge from the wind. Later, I would learn that the storm was one of the top 10 in the past 100 years in The Netherlands.

Orientation day was already blowing me away…

The Fulbright Center staff greeted us in the foyer, and noted how something bizarre always seems to happen on orientation day. Nevertheless, there were too many important things to discuss, so we went upstairs to begin. The morning was packed with information covering practical issues: health insurance, emergencies, etc. Then we headed to lunch with officers from the United States Embassy.

I can’t help but think of Harry Potter when I say I went to the Ministry of Education, and let me tell you (aside from the hurricane strength winds) the day was just as magical (bad joke? nah)

By the time lunch was over, the wind had died down and we made our way to Mauritshuis. A curator met us for a quick tour of the museum’s most impressive highlights. As we walked through the museum she had an intricate story about each piece.

Fulbright Distinguished Teachers (Adrienne, Martin, Ashley and Amber) Can you guess who is who?

She explained how The Anatomy Lesson by Rembrandt shows Dr. Nicolaes Tulip dissecting a criminal who had been hanged for theft. Rembrandt initially painted the criminal missing a hand that had been chopped off, but found it too distracting and later added the hand. Like what? When would I ever be able to learn such minute random facts about a 17th century masterpiece? We also learned that the earring in the famous Vermeer Girl with the pearl painting is actually much too large to be pearl, but is most likely cut glass.

I will always Rembrandt this moment...(photo credit Ashley Holden)

The ceiling was painted in the 1980’s and I can’t figure out if it contrasts/compliments the 17th century pieces. Either way it is an incredible story

The Dutch obsession with the font Avenir is not limited to Amsterdam

After touring the museum, passing through two secure doors, and climbing four sets of wooden spiral stairs, the curator brought us up to a workspace. In the attic far above the Mauritshuis, curators research masterpieces. A fellow Fulbrighter has been working at the museum over the past few months learning to restore paintings. She showed us how she utilizes cotton swabs to delicately remove the finish from 17th century paintings to learn more about the paint pigment. Researchers from all over the world come to the Mauritshuis to use their equipment to discover more about the works of art.

Transfixed by the complexities of restoring a 17th century piece, my jaw nearly hit the floor. It is astounding to think that people become so intensely specialized in their fields that entire careers are built on creating a deep understanding of Rembrandt’s use of light. We headed back to the ministry for another story: how the Dutch education system works.

Just a little different from the US…

Needless to say, schooling in The Netherlands is complex. In short, school is required for all students 5-18. Different 0-5 childcare options are provided, and unlike the US, all are free of charge. After primary school (8 years), students are assigned tracks that align to different educational routes and professions. If you want to read more about the nitty gritty Dutch details, I will be publishing a more in-depth post later this week.

Following borrel (drinks and small bites), we started our trip home. Central Station at Den Haag was shut down because the morning winds stripped tiles from the roof. Sharing an uber with some other Fulbrighters, we headed north. As we drove, Marcel, a Fulbright staffer, had a story for every part of the ride; he told us about a tunnel that had been built by the wealthy Dutch to avoid traffic, and the development of the neighborhoods in Noord.

Orientation brought a mosaic of stories that are helping me slowly weave together a deeper understanding of Dutch society. As I craft my own stories of my time in The Netherlands, I am starting to consider how much storytelling itself illuminates the idiosyncrasies of culture.

What are some stories that have helped you learn more about a culture? Are there particular stories that define your culture?

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