I Amsterdam, But Not for Long — Coming to Terms with Time Running Out

Betsy Barthelemy
November 15, 2019
Sunset Over an Old Bridge

All of a sudden, I have five weeks left in Amsterdam.

It’s beginning to sink in. As I sit here writing this, I barely have five full weeks until my plane arrives at O’Hare International Airport; five weeks until I won’t know the next time I’ll walk across a canal, take a ferry across the river, order my coffee in Dutch, or have trouble deciding which museum to visit during my class break. In six weeks, I’ll be reacquainting myself with Chicago’s frigid weather, playing with my dogs, celebrating Christmas with my family, and reconnecting with friends from my hometown — not unlike how I’ve spent my days these past two late Decembers upon returning to Evanston from St. Paul, Minnesota, where I go to school. It’ll be almost routine.

Except, it shouldn’t be. I’ve never had a semester like this one. I’ve come to call Amsterdam home very quickly — I can’t even say I called St. Paul the same thing after an entire semester there, and yet Amsterdam earned that title in a matter of weeks. As much as I love my home, my family, my friends, and my ‘normal’ life more than words can say, it feels wrong to go back and live the same life as before. It feels wrong to return to Macalester in January and introduce myself as “returning from a semester abroad in Amsterdam, the Netherlands,” instead of “returning from a semester studying, travelling, almost falling into canals, taking thousands of photos, meeting incredible people, eating too many stroopwafels, living independently for the first time, taking busses across international borders, waterproofing everything I own, getting lost, discovering parts of myself I didn’t know existed…”

… the list goes on. I’m going to want to talk about this semester for hours with every person I come across; I’m sure I’m not alone among my peers in that regard. This city and my experiences inside and outside of it are continuing to define parts of who I am. To reflect, here are a few ways that I define Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is: The City of Canals

My first weekend here, I did the absolute most essential tourist activity (in my opinion) in Amsterdam: I took a boat tour. The kind driver told us as we rode down the Prinsengracht to the Amstel river that Amsterdam is often called the “Venice of the North,” which prompted some laughs from European passengers. Having never been to Venice, I can’t confirm or deny: but to speak of Amsterdam without its canals is to do the city an injustice.

The oldest part of the city, the Centrum, is a collection of tiny islands formed by man-made canals. As you get farther out to the Oost, Zuid, and West, you run into less and less of them, but their presence always looms over the city’s history. When the sun is out, people take out their boats and drive down the long stretches of water, some playing music as they drive. In the especially crowded areas of the center, cars parallel park right on the edges of the canals with a precision and degree of bravery I could never replicate. The water rarely freezes, so boat tours host tourists and locals alike throughout the year, rain or shine. I’ve lived here for three months, and I still find myself taking photos on almost every bridge I cross—these views, somehow as common here as Caribou Coffees in Minnesota, continue to take my breath away.

I grew up within walking distance of Lake Michigan and go to school in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” But living in Amsterdam is another level of living ‘near water.’ I have a feeling I’ll be seeking out the (frozen) beach once I’m back home—the canals have faded a bit into normalcy, but their abrupt departure from my life is going to be one of the most jarring changes once I land back in the States.

Amsterdam is: The City of Museums

The internet tells me there are around 75 museums in Amsterdam; I don’t know exactly how many I’ve visited (a fair few, but not nearly that many), but I’ve yet to run into one I haven’t liked. Their subjects vary from local history (such as the Amsterdam Museum and the Anne Frank House), to art (such as the Rijksmuseum, Van Gogh Museum, Stedelijk Museum, and Moco Museum), media (such as the Eye Filmmuseum and FOAM Photography Museum), and some niche oddities (the Museum of Bags and Purses, Museum of the Canals, and Houseboat Museum, for example). They make Amsterdam an incredible environment to truly study abroad because even when I’m not in class, I’m learning.

IES Abroad graciously provided all of us with the Museumkaart, a pass that gets us into almost every museum in the city for free. Because of this, I’ve become someone who goes to museums fairly often. Some, like the Van Gogh, have become favorite places of mine. Those that are set up in canal houses, like the Huis Marseilles Museum of Photography, are particularly special to the city; journeying up and down the narrow staircases into sloping rooms where photographs are carefully displayed is itself a unique experience, not to mention the incredible art you witness while there.

There are museums throughout the places that I call home in the States, but most aren’t free (at least, not every day) and aren’t as accessible by public transit. I definitely won’t be the frequent museum-goer that I am here after December 21. For something I didn’t anticipate being such a city staple, museums will absolutely be spaces I miss.

Amsterdam is not: The City of Cars

It’s jarring to travel to other cities throughout Europe and see the streets crowded with cars and not bikes—going back to America, where many streets are still without bike lanes, is going to be a major adjustment for me, even though I rarely bike. The massive bike storage areas throughout town that make tourists’ jaws drop are so normal for me now that I barely notice them. Food delivery services like UberEats and Deliveroo use bikes, too, and there are always several on the ferries I take to the Noord (along with motorcycles and even some small cars).

Though I’m not a big biker, I am big on walking and taking public transit. Amsterdam is the most suitable city I’ve ever visited for both of those things; though it’s huge, trams stop everywhere, the metros quickly reach every corner of the limits, and the center especially is easily explored on foot. Unless I’m in a hurry or travelling especially far, I walk almost everywhere, with my raincoat enabling me to do this even in the heaviest downpours that the Netherlands throws my way. Be it my 25-minute walk east to the IES Abroad Center, 30-minute walk west to Museumplein, or 50-minute walk north to the main center, these are welcome breaks from the busyness of my days, and it always feels good to move.

Although I’m not a huge participant in the bike culture, I definitely appreciate it and recognize how deeply it impacts the city. People here are rarely worried about getting anywhere, even though they also place a large priority on being on time. Bikers rule the roads, even more than cars and trams, and aren’t afraid to angrily ring their bells at you (or even hit you) if you’re in their way; this parallels the “Dutch directness” we were told about when we first arrived here. It isn’t bad—if anything, the direct statements I’ve heard here are preferable to the United States. No time is wasted waffling, and no opinions are hidden in fear of judgment—you get (or bike) straight to the point. Compared to some American discourse, it’s refreshing.

Amsterdam is not: The Same Everyday, for Everyone

No place is boring, but Amsterdam is about as far from the idea as you can get. Something new is happening in the city every day: art and music festivals, open-air markets, concerts, dances, lectures, parades, protests, sporting events, you name it. Museums are always open, people are always walking around outside (under raincoats, with cones of fries in-hand, walking dogs, or playing music), and a huge variety of stores and eateries have their doors open if the rain really starts to pour on you. Since we’re in Sinterklaas season, twinkling lights are beginning to glow in the streets after early winter sunsets, and carts selling oliebollen (dutch doughnuts) are popping up all over the city. Though the Netherlands is no American Midwest, the locals are bundled up and ready for the progressing winter, and I doubt the usual hustle of the city streets will yield to dropping temperatures; after all, it never stops in the face of pouring rain.

Giant Bubbles Entertain Crowds at Dam Square

Even the street performers in Dam Square persist against dropping temperatures and bitter winds. Here, a man blows huge bubbles, which kids immediately chase and jump at to pop.

I found myself with more free time here than I’ve had during an academic season in years—I didn’t even have a fourth class until the end of October, none of my classes meet more than twice a week, and the amount of homework I’m assigned is less consistent and overwhelming. Unsure of what to do with myself in my first few weeks, I signed up for a ukulele class at CREA, the arts center at the University of Amsterdam. I am a musical person, and in the absence of voice lessons, I found it incredibly comforting to be behind a music stand again, while also building a new hobby I’ve been wanting to pick up for a long time.

My ukulele class ended this week—it was my first Last. This doesn’t mark the end of me playing the ukulele: I’ve come to really enjoy it, and will definitely keep up my practice. But it won’t be the same as being in that class, with fellow university students (some were also international students) and community members struggling to correctly finger a G chord alongside me. Ukulele being one of the many “new things” I’ve tried over the course of the semester—joining the elite club with pepernoten cookies, being in a class with more than 40 students, and trying to formulate the Dutch pronunciation of the letter G without sounding like I’m violently sneezing—it’s come to be central to my Amsterdam experience, though nobody would automatically associate the Hawaiian instrument to the Venice of the North.

An American man living in Iceland that I met while waiting for a bus in Frankfurt (what a sentence!) told me he’d never visited Amsterdam because he “doesn’t like drugs and doesn’t like prostitutes.” These may be things the city is (in)famous for having, but they aren’t nearly the only elements to the colorful, bustling, 744-year-old Amsterdam that I’ve come to call home. I leave the city limits, and even the country’s borders, relatively often, but have yet to find a place in Europe that I enjoy as much as this. I haven’t nearly seen all this city has to offer, and I definitely won’t in the next month. Even so, this place has made such a large impact on me in such a short amount of time, to suddenly just fly away for who-knows-how-long feels wrong.

I’m not ready to say goodbye—I have a month to come to terms with it. A month until I’m a second semester junior in the United States, with graduation somehow approaching and life carrying on. I’ll be going back to normal, but it won’t be the same: Amsterdam will always be latched onto a part of my heart, impacting my worldview and calling me back for a visit.

Here are some photos I’ve taken throughout my semester of my favorite city—it was hard to select so few!

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Betsy Barthelemy

<p>I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to briefly study abroad in Japan (several cities) and do community service work in Riobamba, Ecuador, while in high school, effectively biting me with the travel bug. At school, I major in English and minor in anthropology, but also enjoy taking classes in linguistics, photography, Japanese, and theater. When I’m not in class, I’m probably in a chorale rehearsal, helping edit Macalester’s newspaper, working at the cafe across the street, or baking cookies.</p>

Home University:
Macalester College
Evanston, IL
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