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Travel Scholarship Review: A European Experience

Posted by: Tohei Doi - 21 June 2024 - èAV London - Read time: 5 minutes

Antwerp: ‘Among them was a Japanese doll, which made me deeply moved, as I felt that it was proof that people from my country had crossed the sea to visit here in the past.’

My name is Tohei Doi and I am from Japan and I was lucky enough to win a travel scholarship from èAV London.  I have been studying the science pathway for the NCUK foundation course this year and will be going to the University of Bristol next academic year. At university, I plan to study environmental science, with a particular interest in flood control, maritime affairs and hydrology. I also enjoy learning about buildings, landscapes and their history.  I would like to share some of my diary extracts with you so that you may be inspired to plan your own trip one day and experience the challenges and opportunities that travelling on your own can bring.

Over the Easter holidays, I visited three countries and six cities in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg over 6 nights.  Here are some extracts from my diary:

On the first day, 27 March, I overslept a bit but could not restrain my excitement and headed for the airport at 6am. An hour after I departed from London Gatwick Airport, I arrived at Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands at around 10am. In Japan, it would often take an hour to fly, even within the country, so the travel time was very short, and I was surprised that the European countries were located close to each other. I moved from the airport to Amsterdam Central Station by National Rail. The station was immediately in front of a canal with ferry traffic, which made me realise that I was in a city of water. My first stop was the Amsterdam Maritime Museum. Here, I learnt how the Dutch maritime industry played a major role in the country’s diplomacy with other countries, and how the Netherlands were heavily influenced by this. They also learnt that the Mercator system, which is still used in maps today, was introduced during this period to make navigation to foreign countries more comfortable; a strategy in history that continues to the present day. I also found it interesting that different countries have different perspectives on the same history. From the 1600s until the 1800s, Japan adopted a policy of isolation, completely cutting off relations with other countries. The Netherlands, the only country allowed to conduct diplomacy at this time, sent emissaries to Japan to trade through the East India Company. At the time, Japan feared the spread of Western Christianity in the country, and they were only allowed to live in a man-made island called Dejima in Nagasaki. The museum told of the harsh life they were forced to lead on an area the size of a football court. The history I had learnt in my country was from the perspective of the Japanese government at the time, interaction with them was the only way for Japan to know about world affairs, so it was new to learn about history from the Dutch perspective. After leaving the museum, I took a 40-minute bus ride to the windmill village of Zaanseerskans, looking at the canals of the city. When I tried to buy a bus ticket, I didn’t know how to buy it, so I bought a one-hour ticket, which was a different company from the bus I was supposed to take, wasting €3.5. I was glad I did not buy a one-day ticket easily. There were many tourists in the area with beautiful windmills and canal views. The sunny weather made the windmills so beautiful that I felt like I could watch them forever. On the other hand, I also found some negative effects of the area’s transformation into a tourist destination. Some tourists blocked the road to take photos or went into areas that were off-limits, and some bad-mannered tourists seemed to cause trouble for the local people. The bustling part of Zaansezkans was specifically to attract tourism, but the surrounding area was a quiet residential area, which was hard to believe that we were only 40 minutes away from one of the world’s leading metropolises. Each house was surrounded by waterways, and transport by boat seemed to be a usual activity. The city centre also had a free ferry that cruised between the canals as a means of public transport open to citizens.

Unfortunately, it rained on the second day, and my plans changed completely on this day. Originally, I had planned to visit Anne Frank’s House and Keukenhof Park, and I could not get tickets for either due to the dates and budget because of my lack of research. However, I had a list of places I wanted to visit beforehand, so I was not at all confused about where to go instead. First, I headed to the Royal Palace Amsterdam, and although the expense of the tour fee was a bit of a loss; it was worth it. The ceiling murals were beautiful.  I heard things that contradicted this beauty, for example the royal family who used to live here could not open their windows because of the smell of sewage flowing into the canals surrounding the palace. In the afternoon, after a walk-through Amsterdam’s various parks, we went to the University of Amsterdam. At this time of the year, it was testing period in the Netherlands, so a lot of students came out of nowhere all at once at around 3pm. The bus on the way back was full of students. Everyone was discussing about their tests all the time. After having dinner, I went out to the streets of Amsterdam at night.  Many adults were in the pubs drinking beer. It was sunny in the evening, so it seemed pleasant to drink on the terrace while looking at the canal. On the way back to the hotel, there was a flower stall selling tulips. Remembering that the Netherlands was famous for its tulips, I was tempted to buy some tulips with their bright colours, but as I still had a long way to go, I could not.

There were other guests besides me in the shared dormitory where I stayed: on the first day, I shared a room with an Irishman who had come to the Netherlands looking for work; on the second day, I shared with a Chinese student who was doing a PhD in materials engineering in Zurich, Switzerland. He was a very nice guy and we had a conversation about each other’s studies. I enjoyed our discussions very much, perhaps because we are from similar backgrounds.

On the morning of the third day, I travelled by express bus for about an hour and arrived at Rotterdam Central Station. On arrival, I bought a day ticket for the train and bus and took the bus to Delft. Delft was a calm city with many good old brick buildings, beautiful churches and canals. The weather was fine and the stained-glass windows of the churches shone beautifully. After returning to Rotterdam, I met a friend who was studying in the city. He showed me around the city for a while and we had dinner. We talked a lot about our lives and studies in Rotterdam. This once again motivated me.

On the second day in Rotterdam, I visited the Rotterdam Maritime Museum in the morning. Unlike the one in Amsterdam, this museum was mainly designed as a hands-on learning experience for children. I felt that being able to see how shipping and the development of the city were linked in this way was very effective in getting local children interested in the history of their city. In the afternoon, a friend recommended a visit to the Kinderdijk windmills, a World Heritage Site. The trip took about 30-40 minutes by ferry. The weather was unfortunately pouring, but the windmills were still beautiful. The canal that passes in front of the windmill was a great fishing spot for people who live nearby, and it was an interesting sight to see old men and boys fishing at the World Heritage Site in the background, but it is not strangely uncomfortable. I had decided to have dinner at the market in the landmark building of Market Hall Rotterdam. I had herring in salt harling, a traditional Dutch food. It had a slightly fishy smell, but when eaten as a sandwich, it was salty and excellent.

On the fifth day of the trip, we travelled by bus from Rotterdam to Brussels in the morning. The day was the first day of summertime. I didn’t sleep well to be honest. I fell asleep on the bus and the moment I crossed the border was in my dreams. My first stop was the Sewerage Museum. The reason I came to Brussels before Antwerp, which is closer to the Netherlands, was to coincide with the opening day of this museum. I was able to see the Chaussée de Mons catchment sewers, which are still in use today. The exhibition showed how Brussels’ sewage system was developed. I could actually go down to the road along the sewers and see the sewage flow up close. However, honestly, the smell was very strong and it was not a place where we could stay for a long time. The museum exhibition was very interesting and I was able to learn about the construction of the sewers and the structure of the sewers themselves, which we are not usually exposed to, and were amazed at the wisdom and skill of the engineers. I also visited the Parc du Cinquantenaire and the E U headquarters. Furthermore, I went to the medieval part of the city. My main goal in Brussels was to try a Brussels waffle! There were huge queues at all the shops, but I finally managed to get in line at one shop. This time I ordered a plain waffle and a hot chocolate. The plain waffle was sticky and not too sweet, which went very well with the sweetness of the hot chocolate. The longed-for time was only fleeting.

On the sixth day, we boarded the train to Antwerp. As soon as I got off the train at Antwerp station, I was impressed by the beautiful station building; a national heritage site.  Antwerp was my most favourite city of the trip. The city is divided into an old town and a new town. The old town has an immediate view of the river and the view in the evening was fantastic. In this city, I visited the Museum aan de Stroom, a museum with a characteristic design. That had an observation deck on the roof, which offered a panoramic view of the city. The weather was clear and the format very beautiful. The museum exhibited treasures and antiques from the port of Antwerp, which flourished as a trading port. Among them was a Japanese doll, which made me deeply moved, as I felt that it was proof that people from my country had crossed the sea to visit here in the past. I also felt the flow of history as I realised that the journey to foreign countries, which used to be a long and dangerous journey, but it is now so easy and safe thanks to the development of technology. In the evening and at night, I strolled around the old town. The illuminated Antwerp City Hall, Grote Market Square and the Cathedral of Our Lady were breathtaking and stood out from the rest of the medieval cityscape. When the sun had completely set and it was dark, I saw an old man singing with his guitar in the old town. I couldn’t understand what he was singing because the song was language I didn’t know, but the atmosphere was indescribably good, and several people around me were listening in. I didn’t know why, but it almost made me cry.

On the last day, we got on the bus again and set off for Luxembourg. But perhaps due to traffic jams, I hadn’t even crossed the border by the time I was due to arrive. My heart was impatient, but I decided to sleep, because even if I was in a hurry, I would not get there earlier. I arrived an hour and a half late. I had about 4-5 hours left before I had to leave for the airport. It seemed a little short, but I set off to do some sightseeing. The city of Luxembourg is sandwiched between two rivers, the Alzette and the Petrus. Moreover, it is situated at a high elevation from the river, with important institutions such as the Royal Palace and the cliff forts and river fortifications may have given Luxembourg an advantage in the war, but they were very tough for tourists. After sightseeing, it was a tough road as my legs were screaming. In Luxembourg, I really wanted to eat a Pate au Riesling, one of Luxembourg’s famous meat wraps. During my short stay in the city, I scrambled to find this pie. I had found it once in a bakery near the first bus stop I got off at, but did not eat it, thinking it would be available again in the city centre. Needless to say, I regretted this decision later. The shop by the river, which looked like a café for locals, did not carry it. Next, I went to several shops in the city centre, but all of them only had overpriced versions or were sold out. However, I managed to find a shop that sold them at a reasonable price. Although it was just before the end of opening hours, I was finally able to have a Pate au Riesling! The crispy pie and the minced meat stuffing inside, which tasted like sausage, were so delicious! I then made it safely to the airport and I was satisfied with our short stay. Luxembourg airport was very small despite being the capital’s airport. As a landlocked country, I considered that goods are generally transported by land.

Throughout the whole trip, despite being Asian, I was often spoken to in the local language. I considered that this may be due to the increasing internationalisation and the increasing number of students who study in these countries, who use the official language of their respective countries daily, regardless of their race. I felt again that I am one of them, even though I am studying in a different country. This was my first trip alone since I came to the UK. At first, I came here with the intention of doing research on water-related towns, as I had planned. However, as I walked around the city, I was drawn to more and more intriguing discoveries and experienced many things that were not in my plan. Each time I changed my plans, I often had to rearrange my schedule and manage myself by calculating time and budget.  In this way, I realised that, after all, travelling is full of interesting new discoveries and helps me to grow as a person.