Pack Light, and Pack Right: Advice to Prepare for a Semester to Remember

Betsy Barthelemy
December 31, 2019
Flying Over Amsterdam

The contents of my fridge are slowly disappearing and my extra belongings have been donated. All the postcards and photographs that once adorned the space which I’ve come to call home are safely packed away in my suitcase – which, at this point, I’m not sure will close. But the point stands: I’m set to leave Amsterdam.

The most important mantra I kept for myself this semester was to live with my feet on the ground, not my head in the clouds. I knew that if I spent some of my precious time regretting something I did or did not do, I wouldn’t have the positive experience I so badly wanted my semester to be. Sure, there’s no way anyone could follow that completely – especially after, say, your keys perhaps fall out of your pocket and you don’t notice until it’s too late – but it’s a good thing to repeat to yourself when you’re overwhelmed. You’re here (in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Paris, or wherever you may be), and that’s a magnificent leap of faith in itself.

IES makes sure to prepare students for departure by “Re-Entry” meeting before the end of the semester. Ours fell on Sinterklaas, so it was accompanied by pepernoten, a white elephant gift exchange game, and chocolate letters. But we also had important conversations about our time in Amsterdam; since IES hosts four programs out of that center, I still got to interact with new faces even in my final days in-country. Flor, one of our fearless leaders (if you’re reading this, hoi!!), asked us what we couldn’t wait to eat back in America, or where we would go first (to which the overwhelming majority said Target), but then asked:

What is something you wish that you’d done here?

It really made me stop and think. At that point, I was in the midst of meticulously planning my final week in Amsterdam so I could say goodbye to as many of my favorite places, like the Noord and Oud-West neighborhoods and the Van Gogh Museum, as possible. But was there anything I still hadn’t done? Or, rather, was there anything I should’ve done in the beginning that I skipped over?

The answers that came from around the room were varied and met with nods of approval, and I think they serve as great logistical advice for anyone coming into a study abroad experience, be it in Amsterdam or elsewhere. Here are a few of the big takeaways.

“I Wish I’d Gotten a Bike.”

I’ve written a few times before that biking is the main form of transportation in Amsterdam, and the Netherlands as a whole. I heard a lot about it before I got here, but nothing can really prepare you for the complete onslaught of bikes on every street in this country. Not that it’s the only way to get around, since Amsterdam is so walkable, the public transit is so easily accessible, and Uber is supported, but having a bike definitely adds to the Dutch experience in a positive way.

I was in a very fortunate position in that my housing provided free bikes for us to rent. But I was also in the minority. Many of my classmates had to turn to options like Swapfiets or BikeBoys to get one, and though the bikes would remain theirs for the entire semester, it was still a daunting amount of money to drop (especially since you spend so much money in the first couple weeks – be prepared for that) and an unfamiliar process to go through with. Plus, there was a catch to the whole thing:

“I Wish I’d Gotten a Dutch Bank Account.”

Swapfiets is one of many programs that requires a Dutch bank account for customers. Not that this is essential, either, but it makes life a lot easier. If your credit card has foreign transaction fees or ATM fees, those add up very quickly. There are a good amount of places that only take cash – notably, Albert Heijn, the main grocer in the city, only takes cash or Maestro cards – and more that are transitioning to only card, too, so you need both those options to get around.

I chose to open an account with Bunq and I’ve never regretted it. It’s a mobile bank, so it’s completely set-up through an app: no trying to navigate your new city to look for a bank and pray that someone speaks English once inside. Bunq cards work at ATMs and businesses all over Europe without fees, even when the currency changes to, say, Swiss Francs. You have the option to get a Mastercard, Maestro, or both, and you can freeze them in the app if you think you’ve lost one. Plus, transfers from American bank accounts are easy, quick, and cheap with Transferwise, another app.

If you’re in the Netherlands, in particular, having a Dutch bank account is also great because you can use Tikkie, a cash app similar to Venmo, to request money from your friends. From picking up the tab at restaurants to selling items in a Facebook marketplace, Tikkie really comes in handy.

“I Wish I’d Packed Lighter.”

It was hard for me to fathom packing any less than what I did when I came to Amsterdam. It took me maybe five tries to get my suitcase down to 50 pounds, which is all I was allowed. I never considered the fact that I would be buying so much during my semester that I would want to bring home. But as soon as I landed, that problem popped into my head. On the first day of orientation, I had two separate conversations around the question, “how are we going to get this all home?”

This was a question which loomed in the back of all of our minds as we bought souvenirs, holiday presents, and new clothes. The majority of my classmates were like me in that they’d packed their suitcases as full as they could to get to Amsterdam. Now, at this departure meeting, we were all having the same (very heavy) problem.

A big factor in packing light is researching the weather. Some people packed too many summer clothes, and some (like me) packed none. Not that Amsterdam is a super summer-y place – a majority of the semester was in the 50s, and I had no problem with that – but it does get hot and it does get cold. When I landed in August, I landed in a heat wave, and 90+ degree days did not agree with the zero pairs of shorts in my closet. Plus, I had another issue:

“I Had No Idea it Would Rain So Often!”

That’s from me. I don’t know how I didn’t know that it rains in Amsterdam roughly 300 days per year, considering all the research I did while packing up (a lot, but I guess not exhaustive). I ended up having to buy a raincoat and boots in-country because my sorry waterproofed booties didn’t put up any fight against the puddles that developed, and my umbrella was no match for the whipping Dutch winds. I’m actually glad I got a raincoat in Amsterdam, though, because that thing is fantastic; probably the best money I spent in these past four months. Especially because it zips right over my camera, it’s saved me too many times to count. That being said, now I have to pack it.

Bookmark this Feeling


There are some things that I brought, though, that I could not imagine this semester without. I poured over the internet for packing lists before coming here, so I thought I would have to add one to the mix. Here are a few items that have become essential to my semester in Amsterdam.

  • My cloth tote bag.

I rolled this up and shoved it into my suitcase almost as an afterthought, but it saved me during orientation and continues to be my companion almost every day. I still bring my backpack to class, but my sturdy cloth bag goes everywhere else with me, carrying anything: my journal, snacks, my travel coffee mug (just in case), space for anything I may end up buying along whatever way I’m walking, and even a spare cloth bag rolled at the bottom if I’m going grocery shopping.

  • My reusable water bottle.

Going with the cloth bag, having a water bottle with you at all times is essential in Europe. Most restaurants require you to pay for water (some give it free in small glasses if you ask for “tap water,” but it depends), and drinking fountains are few and far between. Giant bottles like my own trusty liter will pretty much instantly peg you as an American, but if you’re hydrated, that’s all that matters. Plus, it’s not weird to fill them up in bathroom sinks: the tap water here in Amsterdam is some of the cleanest in the world.

  • A packable duffle bag.

I got my packable duffle bag from Uniqlo before I went to Japan when I was in high school because I anticipated buying so much that I would need it as a second carry-on. I wasn’t wrong then, and I’m so glad I kept it. It fits into a pack smaller than my wallet, but folds out to a full duffle with pockets that is perfect for small European airlines with carry-on restrictions. It took up no space to pack to get here, but works like something that wouldn’t fit in a suitcase. I’ve even loaned it to friends who’ve travelled on planes when I’ve used suitcase-compliant buses. It’s much easier to pack for a weekend than my school backpack.

  • My camera.

If you read my blogs, this is a given: I take my camera everywhere. I put it on under whatever coat I’m wearing so that I can easily shelter it in the rain and off I go. Taking photos is such an important practice for me, and something that I recommend everybody try. I didn’t bring my camera when I went to Ecuador because I was worried about having to lug it around all the time, and I regretted it from the moment I set foot in that beautiful country (especially because I wasn’t allowed to have my phone for that trip, either). I will never make that mistake again – what’s a little shoulder strain for visual memories that will last forever?

  • My journal.

Write everything down. That’s my biggest piece of advice. Even the little things, like your favorite place to grab a coffee, or something funny you see on the metro. It’s surprising how quickly you can forget things that are so significant in the moment. You’re not a bad traveller for forgetting: you’re human. But chances are you’re a human having the time of your life, and when you’re deep in mid-semester stress when you’re back at your American university, it will bring you so much joy to open up a notebook, or even a note on your phone, and read something as simple as, “Today I heard a dog bark for the first time in three months: all the dogs are so well-trained here, not even the puppies bark. But today one did, right at me, and its owner screamed at it in German. Of course it wasn’t Dutch!”

When I look back at my time in Amsterdam even next year, I won’t remember that puppy. I won’t remember that I saw it when I was walking down the Prinsengracht taking pictures of the holiday lights lining the streets; that I saw it on a typical Friday morning on my way to grab a piece of appeltaart with my friends at probably the best bakery in Amsterdam, located in my favorite area. It was such a beautiful Dutch day, not because it was raining a little, or because the tourists were out and about shopping for the holiday season, but because it was normal. And I loved the normal days just as much as the crazy ones, because they were mine.

I’ll leave you with one last journal entry, from October 31, to commemorate my time here.

“Today I rode the swings at the A’Dam Lookout in Noord. They really do go right over the edge of the building!! It was only a three-, maybe four-minute ride, but it was perfect. They put the bar over me before the ride and I down and thought, ‘this is it?! They really aren’t protecting me with anything else?!’ But it actually worked out to only have that bar. It was enough to keep me from sliding off the swing and plummeting to my death, but I still felt free as I swung through the freezing air, over my favorite city in the world, trying not to scream. Amsterdam may not have a skyline, but that makes it the perfect city to swing over. You can see the tips of the cathedrals poking out from the winding landscape of row houses, and of course you can see Centraal Station and all the buses zooming around. It was gorgeous. I’m so glad I took the leap. So glad!!”

See you back in America.

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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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