Anxious doesn’t even begin to grasp how I felt on the 17th day of August; my last day in America. My mom cried about a billion times that day, as any mother would; her only child embarking on the adventure of a lifetime and all. This would be the longest distance I’d ever traveled alone, and as I was preparing myself to board my 8 hour flight to Amsterdam, it dawned on me that I absolutely loathe flying. To be completely honest, I almost halted the entire operation before we even left for the airport. I was ready to back out. Being in a new country, completely alone, was beyond terrifying to me.
I’ve always been used to having the support of the ones around me; living in a comfortable bubble of friends and family, and now I was about to travel to an unknown land where English isn’t the official language and all they do is ride bikes. When was the last time I even rode a bike? Would I still remember how? Do they even know English? I wouldn’t have data on my phone and I didn’t know how to read a map, surely I’d be lost within a day, never to be found. As you can imagine, the drive from small-town Mount Horeb, Wisconsin to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport was less than thrilling. In fact, I spent about 90% of it in the backseat sweating and anxiously going over all of the things that could possibly go wrong over the next four months. Like I said, to say that I was anxious is a complete understatement.
I was only four days into my trip when it dawned on me that I could not leave this beautiful country in December, I had to stay the entire school year. There was just no possible way; I’d completely and utterly fallen in love with the Netherlands. It was a complete whirlwind of emotions. While the stereotypes of Amsterdam do exist, they are in no way what make this city so breathtaking. I could have done without the two straight weeks of rain, but I was quick to learn that this is just typical Dutch weather, and there’s nothing the Dutch love to complain about more than the weather.
Imagine it’s dusk; the weather is just cool enough for a light sweater. The breeze comes at the perfect tipping point, the precipice of comfort and just a little too warm. You’re biking along Prinsengracht, one of Amsterdam’s most beautiful canals. You stop over a bridge and just take in the view, the sun, hanging low in the sky, dances off the water and the city lights up. There’s music in the distance, children around the age of five laughing with their parents as they bike past you. Purple and yellow irises adorn the length of the bridge, still looking magnificent considering the last three days of rain. The city around you is bustling with life and energy, and you’re entirely sated with the world around you.
That was the exact moment, on August 22nd, when I realized I couldn’t fathom ever leaving this place.
Now, over a month later, the changes I’ve seen in myself are substantial. The self-assurance that I have gained on my own in a new country is astounding. I had never realized how heavily I relied on those around me, and more, how often I used technology as a crutch. The first few weeks were far from easy, and I’m still learning, but no longer do I rely on Google Maps to get me somewhere; I had to learn how to read a map, I had to learn how to master the art of honing in on your internal compass. I have gotten lost countless times, but I’ve also learned that in getting lost, you have to rely on yourself to find your way back.
Just prior to my trip, I felt lost. Not in the sense that my life was spiraling out of control, but in the sense that I would literally lose myself in this city, that I would be too afraid to do things on my own; too afraid to go to a café and have lunch on my own, too afraid to go for a bike ride without a map on my own, too afraid to go to a museum on my own. But by distancing myself from these crutches that I’ve held onto so vigilantly, by stepping from my own comfortable bubble, bypassing my comfort zone, and heading straight into a panic zone, I realized just how strong and self-sufficient I actually am. I have a deeper appreciation for everything around me. Rather than living my life through the lens of a camera, or through the screen of my iPhone, I’m really seeing things, really experiencing them.
I came to Amsterdam with the intent of continuing my Anthropology and Sociology degree, and instead, I gained a completely new perspective on life. I see things from an entirely different point of view. In the movie, Dead Poets Society, Robin Williams inspires his students with the line, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.” In a way, coming to Amsterdam is my metaphorical desk to stand on; being here constantly reminds me to look at things in a different way.
CIEE Amsterdam, The Netherlands