Halfway Through: Being with Yourself in Amsterdam
Two months into my experience in Amsterdam, I think I can now confidently offer real thoughts and advice about how to be in Amsterdam, how to be away from home, and how to be with yourself in Amsterdam. I can also confidently say two things: that I didn’t know what I was getting into prior to arriving and everything has been more than I could have ever imagined.
I don’t want to overstate Amsterdam and write about a city with no faults. This Sunday, November 13th, the city is hosting its Zwarte Piet parade. Zwarte Piet is a controversial Dutch blackface character, the companion of the Dutch Sinterklaas (the origins of the American Santa Claus). The debate surrounding Zwarte Piet reminds me, only minimally, of the controversy around the Confederate flag in the United States. There are still a number of Dutch people who maintain that Zwarte Piet is an inseparable part of Dutch cultural heritage, while anti-Piet activists insist on the racist connotations of the character and advocate for banning him altogether. Just yesterday, twelve people were arrested for protesting at a city council meeting in Emmen. Still, the formal arrival of Sinterklaas has been banned in other places like Culemborg and Druten.
I don’t know yet if I will go see the parade on Sunday. I have less trepidation around seeing the counter-protestors than I do about potentially witnessing a Dutch person unapologetically in blackface. Even if many people may only do partial blackface, I imagine that still unjustifiable “sooty” appearance will be ominous, unnatural. I can’t even picture it. I sometimes stop and think about how the Netherlands has never had a civil rights movement, how the Dutch East and West Indies companies established the slave trade, and how much of the conversation around race has yet to permeate the political and social consciousness of every Dutch person the way it has in America.
All this to say, Amsterdam, and the Netherlands, is not entirely the multicultural, progressive place that many consider it to be, despite the rainbow flags swaying from windows and pro-abortion graffiti. That being said, I’m only here for a year, which is both a long time and short time to get to know a city. If you are looking for a city of many settings, a lifestyle that accommodates and prioritizes you, come to Amsterdam.
- Rent a bike
Offhand, I know that many international students use Swapfiets and Instabike. My bike rental is monthly, which was initially ideal because I anticipated I would use my bike less as the weather worsened, but I’ve found that I’m still riding, wind or no wind (rain is another story). Walking out of the hotel in the morning, it takes a split second for me to decide whether or not I’m going to bike or if I’m going to take the metro, just by tasting the air and sensing incoming rain. For groceries and other quick errands, a bike is much preferable to waiting for the tram. At first, you get really good at losing where you parked your bike, and then after a week, you get really good at remembering what your bike looks like, even if it’s the same as all the other Instabikes, “That’s my bike”. The pushback of wind while riding your bike is brutal. The second skin of sweat down your spine and under your arms is less than ideal when you arrive at class. You’ll feel like a fool riding uphill alongside local Dutch people, who take those legs of the commute with such ease. But I couldn’t stress it enough, if you feel like you could bike that day, then bike. You don’t know how good it will feel until you push off. As the wind of your ride picks up, the city sharpens in clarity. A breeze smelling of freshly baked croissants carries bits of conversation here and there, an accent you recognize, an exclamation of joy. The dying golden and red trees spray you with leaves, one of them hits the dog in the basket of the person biking next to you. I always gaze up at the beautiful architecture, the hanging flower pots, the hooks on the roof’s peak, the white trimmed windows holding a reflection of the blue gray sky. You feel autonomous, you could go anywhere. Amsterdam opens up when you turn a corner and realize you know where you are, and in that moment, you learn the best way to learn, and you’re thankful that you decided to bike.
- Do the touristy things
You’re a tourist with privileges. You have the time to get into the grit of Amsterdam, to take that tired metro ride home in the evening after class, to buy groceries in a crowded store with products in a language you can’t understand, to get rained on while you’re biking to class the one day you forgot to wear your rain jacket. Visit a museum in your free time between classes (you will get a museum card as part of your stay that allows you free access into most museums). Go on a canal tour (I recommend the wine and cheese ones). Walk around the busiest parts of center city, the commercial shopping strips and squares flocked with pigeons. Frequent the vintage markets as much as possible, as overpriced and similar as many of them are. Bike through Vondelpark and read on a park bench. Go cheese and beer tasting. Watch a film in the theaters. Stop and take pictures of everything. Eat fries with mayo from the stand with a sign that says, “These are the best fries in Amsterdam” like the one right before it. Because once you do all the things people come to Amsterdam to do, you’ll start to realize how easy it is to find the places where you want to be, the cafes you prefer, the streets you enjoy. And once orientation ends and the semester begins, there will be less time to experience everything Amsterdam has to offer. You’ll find yourself falling into a routine, and that will feel good until you’re going in circles and you run into yourself in your hotel room and realize you need a break. One thing I’ve learned from being here is how to resonate with the experience of being on my own. It sounds like a very high school sentiment, but it's true, I have found myself enjoying so many things on my own. And stay in Amsterdam some weekends! I know the enchantment of being in Europe makes it easy to run off to London, Prague, Paris, but I would also say, be in Amsterdam as much as you can. Amsterdam is a wonderful place to be alone, sitting back and watching people go about their lives. And sometimes it will invite you to join them. Everyone here is doing what they enjoy, and there is no pressure, only space, for you to do the same.
- Being away from home
I have not been as homesick as much as I have been nostalgic. Especially with the onset of true autumn, gray skies, yellow trees, everyone bundled in coats and craving hot soups and desserts, I think about my family and friends more often than I did when I first arrived. This season makes me want to be close to them when I can’t, and I’ve had trouble keeping up with my friends back home because of the nine-hour time difference with the west coast. They wake up when I’m falling asleep, and vice versa. The same is with my family in California. I go through periods of missing them, wishing I could talk to them more often, that ultimately turn into opportunities for me to realize what is right in front of me. Wanting to share an experience with my close friends but knowing I can’t fully, makes me appreciate it that much more. And experiencing fall in a completely different city makes me reflect on all the autumns I have spent at home, and this isn’t that much different. Same season, same smell of decaying leaves, same weather, same feelings of missing summer and friends but loving the people around me. The nine-hour difference is ultimately a blessing. I stay off my phone so I can take everything in. I write letters and send cheesy postcards to my friends who are also studying abroad. I call my friends when I can, in that small window of opportunity in the evening or early morning, and we relive our good times together. It all makes being away from home hard but even more worth it to have all these experiences become a part of my life, what I will remember when it ends.
I’m learning more about myself, day by day. I didn’t realize until I sat down to write this how little I knew about myself before coming into this experience, when they say that studying abroad will be the best time of your life. It is a crazy feeling to be in the middle of the best time of your life and be able to say, before it even ends, “I am having the best time of my life”. I think that part of what makes studying abroad so special is that, for most people, this is your first time in a new city. So everything you experience, everything you do, see, hear, feel, becomes your memory of that place. And going forward, you’ll always remember that city in amazing contrast to the rest of your life. Everything I’m learning here, from the pros of walking everywhere to how to be fully on my own, I will take back with me for my senior year of college. Without thinking about leaving Amsterdam, I just know that my last year of college will be different after this experience, and I’m looking forward to it.
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My name is Emma Basco and I am originally from Sacramento, California. I am currently studying literature and writing at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. I love to read on the beach, doodle on post it notes, paint with watercolors, and unearth new cafes and restaurants. My hidden talent is that I can make an excellent pot of noodles from packaged ramen.