Different Dreams: Reflections From Day 104

Shanela Ranaraja
December 1, 2019
Different Dreams

“I am experienced enough to do this. I am knowledgeable enough to do this. I am prepared enough to do this. I am mature enough to do this. I am brave enough to do this.” - Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Knock Down The House. 

My plans for studying abroad were not what you'd call flashy. I've encountered assumptions that coming to a place like Amsterdam implies a desire to hop between European capitals every weekend, or ricochet through the city from clubs to concerts to parade to parties. But I’d already moved fourteen thousand kilometres to go to college; the trip to the Netherlands was my shortest transcontinental journey in two years. My fascination with Amsterdam wasn’t based on the festivals or the clubs or the easy access to other European capitals - it was based on the chance to discover a new place entirely on my own terms. It was a bid for onafhankelijkheid, for independence and freedom, of thought and movement and feeling. With some inspiration from congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (who I consider a refreshingly modern dreamer and goal-setter), I’ve done some thinking about the study away plans I made and how they manifested. Here's what I have to say to myself and to anyone out there feeling the same way: as your time abroad comes to an end, remember that people dream differently. Onafhankelijkheid feels different to everyone.    

“I am experienced enough to do this.”

My chosen fields of study - anthropology and journalism - depend almost entirely on talking to other people, often people I’ve never met before. I’ve had to interview people in some strange places - in the middle of a Midwestern marsh, at a Bernie Sanders rally, at an art exhibition in an airport. But studying anthropology at the University of Amsterdam has pushed my research skills further than ever. By the end of this semester, I’ll have completed three research projects, the most exhaustive of which involved speaking to Sri Lankan migrants in the Netherlands. I met people I would never have met otherwise and heard some fascinating stories; as a bonus, meeting them sometimes involved making 180km round trips to different cities. There’s nothing like editing field notes on a windy 147-foot pier in the Hague to strengthen your conviction that you’re meant for a research career. 

Research Trips And Piers

“I am knowledgeable enough to do this.”

The first time I realized that ik spreek Nederlands, I was explaining to a Dutch maintenance man that yes, my roommate and I bought mousetraps and no, that hadn’t solved our muis probleem. Admittedly, the conversation contained much gesticulating (splat is apparently a universal motion) and assorted German loanwords, but I must have said something right, because we haven’t seen a single muis since. I’ll admit that knowing German gave me a huge advantage when learning Dutch, since they stem from the same root and still have some similarities. However, being immersed in the language has made acquiring it all the more rewarding. Singing along to Marco Borsato in the supermarket, yelling dank u wel to the tram driver as I bolt for my connection, eavesdropping on Dutch conversations in random cafes - these are all ways in which knowing the language has helped me feel at home here. 

“I am prepared enough to do this.”

One of the side effects of studying abroad is that you can’t take your loved ones with you. There are times when my closest friends and I find ourselves scattered across five continents. Despite the global reach of social media, it’s still incredibly difficult to sustain connections across that kind of distance - but we were ready for that. Sometimes keeping those connections means planning weeks in advance just to sit in a café for four hours and talk until we’re hoarse. Sometimes that means wandering through arboretums and quiet towns and open fields until I check my phone and realize we’ve walked ten kilometres. Sometimes that means sitting in the stairwell with your phone at midnight because it’s still afternoon where they are; sometimes it means calling the same person three times a day. But it’s worth it. If studying abroad has taught me anything it’s that the strongest friendships are the ones for which you’re prepared to cross oceans.

Keeping Connections

“I am mature enough to do this.”

I turned 22 recently. My mother called at midnight Amsterdam-time, which is 2am in Sri Lanka; my friends sent messages; Facebook hoped I’d have a great day. But it was the first birthday I’d ever spent by myself, and I spent it wandering along the docks and the waterfront with no other plan except to notice seabirds, the scrollwork of Amsterdam’s facades and the massive ships looming like an iceberg out of the mist. I bought a chocoladetaart and doused it in sprinkles; I bought electric tealights because 22 wax candles would have absolutely set off the fire alarm. I went to bed before 11pm, which I’ve done maybe twice this semester. It was unlike any birthday I’d ever had, but it was exactly what I needed. 

“I am brave enough to do this.”

It took me two weeks to talk myself into taking krav maga at the UvA sports centre. The class was at night; I would need to take public transport there; I would be sparring with complete strangers. I wouldn’t have felt safe doing any of these things a year ago. But everything about the experience seemed to embody the onafhankelijkheid for which I was looking. So I signed up for the class - and it was one of the best decisions I made. Krav maga is the ultimate self-defense; the main objective is to incapacitate an attacker before they attack you. Every week I come away bruised. But I’ve also found a welcoming community of strangers - women and men who spar with each other like their lives depend on it and then grin and shake hands when the instructor calls time. On Amsterdam’s streets after a krav maga lesson, I’m surer of myself than I’ve ever been in my life, able to appreciate all the ways a city comes alive at night. 

I’m leaving Amsterdam in twenty days. There are still so many things I want to do; I probably won’t get to do all of them. But what thinking about dreams has reminded me is that they don’t evaporate just because you check them off a list - they evolve. They’re not about accomplishing one thing - they’re about harnessing all the emotion and knowledge and thought you amass en route and channeling them into more avenues. To paraphrase Rep. AOC: on Day 104, I feel more experienced, knowledgeable, prepared, mature and brave than I’ve ever felt, and that’s what I’ll take with me into my last Amsterdam days.

Lights At Night

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Shanela Ranaraja

<p>My name is Lalini Shanela Ranaraja. I grew up in Sri Lanka, a tropical island-nation blessed with perpetual summer, and yet I ended up going to college nine thousand miles away, in Rock Island, Illinois! I’m studying anthropology, journalism and creative writing because I couldn’t pick just one. In my spare time, I dabble in languages (I speak four), browse art supply stores, and people-watch. I require at least one long, rambling walk a day, even if there’s eight inches of snow on the ground.</p>

Home University:
Augustana College - Rock Island IL
Katugastota, Sri Lanka
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