It’s been one week. Somehow, I’ve only been back in the United States for one week. How could that possibly be possible. It feels like it’s been months. There are things I love about it, and things I hate. Reverse culture shock is real, people. The benefits are obvious things like getting to see my friends and having my car back in my driveway. I’m not living at home (because of an internship) but at least now I’m on the same continent as my family. I’ve started an academically stimulating job and I’m living in my first apartment alone. But I miss biking along canals and feeling so proud of the extent to which I’d made a foreign city my home. I miss cheaper groceries and people so tall I wonder how the world looks differently to them from up there. I miss the unbelievably international group of friends I made, and the security I felt in knowing we were all in this (whatever “this” is) together. I miss it more than I don’t, and I’d go back tomorrow if I could.
The more I think about it, though, the more I realize how lucky I am to have a place to miss so deeply and fully. Amsterdam has my heart, today and quite realistically from here on out. And that’s where the important part of this blog post comes in. It’s a sort of confession I suppose, but one that I now want everyone, everywhere to hear.
The reality is that I almost didn’t choose Amsterdam. I knew I wanted to go abroad, but I was looking at programs in Dublin, London, and even Auckland. It’s so stereotypical that I’m almost embarrassed to admit it now, but I thought of Amsterdam as “Amsterdam.” That crazy place where people would hear you were going to and raise their eyebrows, automatically assuming what “type of person” you were. That place where students studying in Copenhagen or Florence or Prague or wherever else would come for a crazy weekend full of explicit legalities. A 48 hour bender; a weekend of laughing like crazy while smoking in public and drinking too much Heineken while satisfying the uncontrollable munchies. I’m exaggerating a little bit, but Amsterdam had this image to me of being a crazy city of tolerance that attracted a certain type of student, looking for a specific type of abroad experience. Each of the stories I’d heard from older classmates and what I’d read online had etched that idea in my head. And that was not what I was looking for.
So I almost didn’t choose to go. See, I’m an outgoing person; I love making new friends and I love fitting in as much as the next person. But in all honesty partying and drinking and “getting high” has never really been my thing. That’s an unpopular enough sentiment when going abroad as it is, let alone when going to a city where “legal weed” or “legal prostitution” is the first thing people think of (or so I thought). I wanted to go abroad with “people like me;” like minded people with like minded interests (retrospectively, I wonder what that even means?)
The internal conflict came in with the fact that, on paper, Amsterdam had everything I wanted, barring that one detail. One of my objectives for the semester was to travel, and it was the most centrally located city I was considering. I wanted to study science, and the university had a specific Psychology & Sciences track. I wanted some place where I could be active, and I knew I’d bike everywhere. I didn’t want to deal with a foreign language, and I found out every single Dutch adult speaks perfectly fluent English. I wanted to be in a beautiful, urban city, and photos of Amsterdam were exactly what I had envisioned. I talked to a friend the week before the IES Abroad Amsterdam deadline, which coincidentally was also the deadline for the other places (through other programs). Our conversation was long, but one specific thing she said has stuck with me:
“If you always stick to doing what you’re so used to doing, how are you going to know if it’s what you actually like, or just what you’re comfortable with?”
I didn’t have an appropriate response. And so that afternoon, I sent in my application.
Six months later, I’m flat out embarrassed at how close-minded and two dimensional my reasons for even slightly discounting Amsterdam were. My experience couldn’t possibly have been further from what I’d been afraid of. I want to write this to tell anyone even remotely like me, anyone looking to study abroad in Amsterdam, or even just travel there, who’s afraid of what it might be like, or what “type of person” you’ll be expected to be.
You can be anyone to fall in love with this place. Anyone at all. Art history’s your thing? There’s over 150 museums in Amsterdam alone, not to mention the neighboring cities. You love travelling? Schiphol, the airport, is a central hub for every European country you could ever imagine. Direct flight to Teneriefe? You got it, no problem. Are you an athlete? Practically every road in the city has a bike lane, and the university had more intermural athletic clubs than I could count. Community service interests you? Greet refugees at the train station as they come into a brand new country, with a smile that makes them know their life is about to turn around. Who doesn’t love pretty cityscapes and landscapes, right? Don’t even get me started on the canals and tulips. Breathtaking. Hell, you’re someone who really likes smoking weed? You can even do that there. You can be anybody.
And because you can be anybody, everybody is there. And that’s the best part of it all. I made friends with people who are just like my friends back home, and with people that I can confidently say I would never have crossed paths with. How silly was I, to think people’s personalities and interests were so black and white? I can’t put them in a box of “like me” or “unlike me.” I learned that just because somebody isn’t specifically like me, that doesn’t mean we won’t be great friends, and conversely, just because somebody shares my interests, doesn’t mean we will be.
Some days in Amsterdam were just like those back in California or Maine. Some days were chalk full of new experiences, both mundane and terrifying. But they all had the common thread of teaching me something – that different is not bad, and that you truly never know unless you try.
I’ll open this up and say that it doesn’t just apply to Amsterdam. If anyone reading this is worried about their abroad experience in any country (studying, travelling, living), don’t be. Go with your gut. Believe in yourself. Try new things, as cliché as that may sound. The people and the culture and the you you’ll become throughout it all might surprise you.
I’ve grown immensely in the past six months. I think I’ve done so in ways I can notice, and probably in a few ways I can’t. I am so lucky to have had the experience I did, and to have another country to hold so closely to my heart. I don’t know what your image of the city may be, but as someone who’s just lived there, I can assure you that it’s truly a magical place. No words can do it justice, so I hope every single person reading this has the opportunity to go some day.
So I can say I did it. I studied abroad. I made friends and got lost and ate new food and travelled alone and butchered a few words I can’t even spell. I’ll go back to Colby as a fuller version of myself, and I owe that all to the place I got to live, and the people I got to meet. I almost didn’t choose Amsterdam, but I can’t tell you how happy I am that I did.
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<p>My name is Elisa Stern, and I am a junior at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. I am studying neuroscience and philosophy, and will be studying abroad in Amsterdam for the Spring of 2016.</p>