Max Blum can pinpoint the exact day that he grew up. ‘I was ten years old, and I was on the playground at recess. I remember seeing a fighter jet fly overhead, and everyone looking up and thinking that it was so cool’, he says. In his hometown of Westfield, New Jersey, the fighter jet that Blum and his young classmates saw was screeching toward New York City, scrambling in the skies after two planes crashed into the World Trade Center on September 11th.
Westfield is about 45 minutes away from New York City, but Blum didn’t learn exactly what had happened until he got home that afternoon. Throughout the rest of the school day, he remembers feeling that something had changed. ‘When you looked at the lunch ladies in the school cafeteria, they just had this look of death on their faces.’
Blum, now 23 years old and doing an international relations pre-master at the RUG, thinks that September 11th and its disastrous aftermath shaped his decision to study the subject. ‘I didn’t really understand the social or political aspect of the attack until President Bush decided to invade Iraq. At first, because I was still a kid, I thought “cool, it’s a war!” A year later though, I was thinking, “this doesn’t seem right”. That’s when I started to develop a hatred for the guy.’
He hated Bush
He may have hated Bush, but he still has optimism about Obama’s role in global politics, despite his uncannily similar defense policy. ‘I think Bush kind of destroyed the world and Obama took over with this big mess on his hands that’s impossible to clean up in 8 years. It’s easy to destroy in 8 years, but it’s impossible to clean up in that time.’
Witnessing such a negative time in American politics turned out to be good motivation. ‘I definitely think it influenced my decision to get into international relations. I realized that going abroad for my master’s would give me a much better perspective than staying in the United States. That’s already proven to be true.’
Blum knows he’s far from home now. Living in a foreign country can mean feeling left out on your own national holidays, but when his dad came over for a visit in November – ‘the first time he’s been abroad this millennium’, Blum says – they found a little bit of America in Groningen on Thanksgiving: ‘We went to Pappa Joe’s, the burger place, for Thanksgiving dinner. I’ve been there probably 20 times since I’ve been living here, it’s just too good!’
Pappa Joe’s for Thanksgiving
So, that’s one stereotype covered: the American guy loves burgers. Blum is also pretty typically American in his love of sports. He was on the varsity swim team of his high school– they were county and state champs, he makes sure to note – and also swam in college, but now he swims for the Golfbreker team here in the city. ‘I can’t speak Dutch, so they usually read out my times in English’, he says.
While he loves participating, he’s also a big fan in the stands. ‘My teams are the Yankees [baseball], the Devils [ice hockey], and the Giants [American football].’ It’s tough to keep up with how his teams are doing from afar, but he’s found some ways. ‘One of my friends here is a big basketball fan, so we start watching multiple games at 6 in the evening with a couple of beers and two computers in front of us.’
How about his take on Dutch stereotypes? He laughs. ‘When I told my friends that I was coming to the Netherlands, they all asked me, ‘oh, are you just gonna go and smoke weed all the time?’ I don’t smoke pot at all, but I thought it would be really big here.’
New Jersey is one of many states in the U.S. where marijuana is still illegal, and Blum says the casualness of it here still surprises him. ‘It’s interesting in Amsterdam to see these delivery vans just pulling up and delivering it and then casually driving off to the next shop – it’s this bustling economy here.’
As for the red light district, Blum says that takes some getting used to, but it’s easy enough to avoid. ‘They have their own street and they’re behind closed doors with a glass window, so they’re not approaching you, but I’ve still never seen anything like it.’
Real eye opener
While the most exotic parts of Dutch life don’t particularly appeal to him, partying is a more or less mandatory part of studying abroad. But so is studying – and hard. ‘The education system here caught me by surprise. When I got here, the first exam was a real eye opener. If you barely pass something, it’s still reason to celebrate.’
The private university where he got his bachelor’s degree in America – Franklin & Marshall College – was still a tough school, but it was tiny: his graduating class had about 600 students, and in one of his lectures this year, there were 300. The size of his classes may have changed, but the college town atmosphere around Franklin & Marshall made for an easy transition. ‘Groningen kind of reminds me that: you may not know everybody, but you know somebody who knows somebody that you know.’
Many of the people that Blum knows are members of SIB, the official Dutch student association of the United Nations. Joining the group led Blum and his fellow members to Brussels, the heart of European diplomacy, in December. ‘We went to the European Parliament and NATO – I had never imagined I’d get to see NATO in my life. It was really intimidating being there. You realize this is the real deal, you’re surrounded by diplomats and military officials from all around the world.’
‘There were signs everywhere we went that said, ‘Please refrain from classified discussion in this area’, so you kind of knew that you didn’t want to do anything stupid.’ He felt simultaneously inspired and overwhelmed, but found one place to be reassuringly familiar: the cafeteria. ‘It was almost like high school. All the Americans, Canadians and British were sitting together in the middle, and all the other countries were over in the corner.’
But for international relations, Blum understands that it’s about everyone finding a place at the same table, even if they’re not one of the cool kids. In the end, inspiration wins out over fear: ‘I’d like to work in an embassy maybe, or become a diplomat myself.’ Before any of that, he has to get into the master’s programme, but being a stranger in a strange land is Blum’s way of doing it.