March 7, 2017

Adhering to Structure / Embracing Spontaneity

Sally Rifkin

When I meet locals in Amsterdam, they ask me whether I am studying at the University of Amsterdam or VU, the two main institutions here. I start to explain that my program is unaffiliated with either university, that it is small and consists only of 25 American students. The School for International Training (SIT) runs these types of programs all over the world, all of which emphasize field work and experiential learning. I chose SIT Netherlands first and foremost because I wanted to study in Amsterdam. The program’s focus—International Perspectives in Gender and Sexuality—also fits nicely with my major at WashU, which is Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

It’s hard to explain what a typical day is like with SIT because every day is entirely different. We often have guest lecturers who give presentations with titles like “Sex as a Commodity,” “Colonial and Migration History of the Netherlands,” or “Non-Monogamy.” One consistency is Dutch Class, which we attend at a nearby Dutch Language school for five hours a week.We take a lot of field trips and excursions; last week, we spend took a train to Utrecht on Tuesday morning, and on Thursday, we toured the De Wallen neighborhood in Amsterdam, otherwise known as the Red Light District. If our programming ends at 3:30, I feel light and free. Usually this is not the case. Often our schedules last until 5 PM; sometimes we’re not finished until 7 or 8 PM. Adhering to the rigid schedule can be mentally and physically exhausting. It’s hard to believe that I’ve been in Amsterdam a month and there’s still so much of the city I have yet to see. There’s just not enough time in the day for 6-plus hours of class, biking to and from my homestay, and taking in the culture of Amsterdam.

But there are silver linings to the program’s rigor. Because I spend so much time with my classmates, we are growing close. They come from all over the United States and are inquisitive, argumentative, and accomplished. Sometimes we get into heated discussions in public places and make heads turn—exposed as the stereotypical loud Americans that we are. The teachers and guest lecturers are people with a wide range of expertise—they are oral historians, activists, sex educators, artists, and archivists. And the structure of the program makes me notice and appreciate rare moments of spontaneity. Here are some unexpected things that happened to me this week:

  1. Last Saturday night, I went with some friends to Paradiso, a club that used to be a church. Out of nowhere, D.R.A.M., a popular American singer and rapper, showed up and took the stage! He sang “Broccoli” and all was right with the world.
  2. On Monday, I went to get some work done in a quiet, brightly lit cooperative café in my neighborhood. As I was packing up to leave, my host sister Nathalie and her mom, Annet—my host dad’s ex-wife—walked in. We chatted for a while and then she invited me over to their house to have coffee and chat. She ended up offering me a babysitting gig. Cool! 
  3. I left my bike in the eastern part of the city over the weekend and was reluctant to go back and get it because Amsterdam has been experiencing some nasty wind and rain storms this week. During a brief sunny interlude and a break from class on Thursday, my friend Luis offered (read: relented after I begged him) to taxi me on the back of his bike to the place where my bike was parked. It should have been a 10-minute ride but took a little longer because of the extra cargo. And that is the story about how I had a lazy, free, open-air travel experience through Amsterdam while Luis got the calf workout of his life.

Today (Saturday), we embark on an excursion to Morocco, where we will study gender and sexuality through the lens of migration (Dutch Moroccans are one of the largest ethnic groups in Amsterdam). It will be quite the whirlwind; over two weeks, we will visit Casablanca, Rabat, Fez, and Marrakech. As we navigate a series of foreign environments, a rigid schedule will be necessary to make the most out of our time in each city. But it’s impossible to plan for everything. I’m excited to see what surprises await me in Morocco.