How an exchange program exceeded all expectations

Maxim Gubarev, a 4th year student of ‘Economics and Statistics’ programme of the Faculty of Economic Sciences shares his experience on the exchange semester in Maastricht, Netherlands. The trip was enabled by the Endowment Fund of Higher School of Economics.

When I left for an exchange programme in a small town in the south of Netherlands I thought I’d have a pretty difficult and boring time there. Yet, from the very first days my expectations were far from reality.

The most interesting facts about the town: Tap water here is considered to be very clean (one of the best in Europe), so you can hardly find a water cooler at uni or dorms. Everyone drinks tap water. The main means of transport is bikes. You are most likely to see a bike rather than a car traffic jam. The town has a huge market for second-hand bikes, also several companies offer to rent one for 9-15€ a month. However, they are often stolen even though everyone uses 2(!) instead of 1 security chains. Some say there is a gang stealing bikes in one town and reselling them in another. One can find a wide variety of beer in the town’s shops and restaurants. What’s the stantard bottle size in Russia? 0.5L, right? I was surprised to see how different it is there: many shops and restaurants sell only small bottles: 0.25 and 0.3L. Why, why?..

 Netherlands is all about repurposing:

While the IT-giants of the Silicon Valley widely practice repurposing in application to their digital products, Dutch architects use the same concept to give a second life to their abandoned churches. For example, a former Dominican Church (Dominicanenkerk) now hosts a bookstore (Dominicanen). According to a CNN rating of the world’s 18 best bookstores, Dominicanen takes the 7th position. It is also interesting that you can end up in church on a Sunday morning not because you are religious but because Saturday parties end well after midnight.

 Moscow is for running and Maastricht for strolling:

Do you enjoy every moment of your life? I can say that Maastricht residents surely do. And it doesn’t matter whether you are a local or an exchange student, you will have to get used to the town’s leisurely pace of life. The first couple of days my friends told me I was walking too fast. That’s a Moscow habit, what can I do? And after a week I was much, much slower. Are you always in a rush? Then think how much time it takes you to get to uni/work/movies. Then divide it by 5-10 times. All Maastricht people devote that saved time to relaxing and enjoying their every moment.

 Maastricht and study:

 I would also like to share some info on the subjects I studied (and very successfully studied) during the 5 months there.

1. Time Series Modelling

If you know nothing about a stationary process, VAR-models or Eviews, that’s the subject for you, my dear econometrists. We started analyzing our self-collected data already in the second class and at the end of the course defended a research work. My friend and I created a forecast regarding car sales for the next couple of years. Were we right? We’ll see.

2. Crisis Management in Organizations

What do you know about a Volkswagen scandal? Chernobyl disaster? Hurricane Katrina or New Orleans? We analyzed multiple case studies, harm mitigation strategies, mistakes that had been made and possible ways of preventing them in future. No subject saw such hot discussion as Crisis Management.

3. Global Business

Would you like to become an expat in an international company? Do you need a new market strategy? Then this subject is for you (I thought so too and was right). Professors are competent specialists that unpacked a whole course book for us in 10 classes. The final course assignment is a project on creating a new market access for a certain company. Hey, when is Kerry Group coming to Argentina? It’s high time to!

4.  Behavioral Economics

I always wanted not just study economics, sociology or a game theory but delve into how they are interconnected. And here it is. Surprisingly maths can often explain our behavior and decisions in difficult situations. So when do we go to the movies if super busy? Today? Tomorrow? Never?

5. Presentation Skills

That’s my favorite subject. So satisfying. Only there I realized I had made millions of mistakes while presenting something. Only there I learnt about intonation, tempo and much more. Sell your product in a minute without presentation!  Go through hell while prepping for PechaKucha informal conference! And what if all the above is to be done in English?

Aachen trip – 40 minutes by bus:

German city of Aachen is located 30km from Maastricht and is very close to the intersection of Belgium, Netherlands and Germany. Its population is around 250 thousand people (2 times more than Maastricht).The architecture is pretty typical: narrow streets full of locals on weekends, lots of cafes (even 2 Starbucks), numerous old buildings that are absolutely breathtaking. We arrived when the city celebrated the Day of the Open Monument as a part of European Heritage days in Germany. The event offered access (usually limited on normal days) to cathedrals, fortresses and other historic locations. The main square (Markt) was full of joy, live music and dancing people.But we didn’t feel lost because of all that. We visited one of the highest spots of the city  Langer Turm (Langer Tower) that offers a picturesque view of the city. The unusual thing is that the tower is a home to students who pay reduced rent in return for maintaining the historic monument in a good condition. Usually it is closed for visitors but during our visit we could climb a spiral staircase and get to the roof.

Generally the city is worth visiting but nor for more than one day, nothing much to see there.

Liege trip – 2 hour bike ride:

Are you craving for an adventure? Then go to Liege! That’s what I told my friends and we decided to go by bike. Why not?

Belgian Liege is also 30km from Maastricht. The population hardly reaches 190 thousand people (still more than Maastricht). A bike lane is stretched along the river that flows from Maastricht. Amazing views! You’d probably think 60km by bike in one day is hard, but no. The thing is that almost all the roads not only in Netherlands but Belgium as well are absolutely flat. So during the trip you just enjoy the views of Belgian villages and weird botels.

Now about the drawbacks. Firstly, the city’s infrastructure totally prevents you from using a bike. We had to leave ours in the centre and walk around on foot. Secondly, the streets are very dirty. After a Sunday fair the whole embankment and the adjacent streets were covered by rubbish. Thirdly, no one speaks English. Seriously, Je parle français is the only answer you’ll get.

The main advantage is a myriad of fabulous cathedrals. There is a lookout on the outskirts (of course I couldn’t miss it) that opens a wonderful view of the city and its surroundings. Unlike in Maastricht with lots of students, there are just a few tourists in Liege. When you visit the remote areas of Belgium you feel an absolutely different atmosphere.

In a nutshell, I had mixed feelings about Liege. But you have a bike and a day to spare definitely go.

And that was only a small part of my impressions from my studies, life in Maastricht and endless trips! That exchange programme was one of the best decisions of my life!