November, 2018—I’m doodling a row of gabled canal houses along my arm, waiting for Creative Writing 203 to begin. Because it’s November in Illinois, winter is almost here. At the moment, Amsterdam is a dream and a distraction. It exists for me merely as the conveniently picturesque backdrop to John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars. As another name on the map of airline hubs that I memorize during the long flights between my college in the U.S. and my hometown in Sri Lanka. As a city I might visit. Someday.
August 2019—My Instagram feed is saturated with photos of those same canalside houses. Open tabs on my phone display the homepages of Het Parool and De Volkskrant, and there are random Dutch words lodged in my head, most of which might net me some strange looks should I deploy them out of context. (Maansverduistering. Sterrenstelsels. Tulpen. ) I have an apartment and a Google Maps route to the nearest Albert Heijn. Perhaps most crucially for an international student (and following protracted exchanges with numerous official bodies) I have my visa.
Does any of this help me evade pre-departure anxiety? Not in the slightest. Which is strange, because I should be used to it by now. I’ve spent two years at college in America, and I studied abroad in Austria for three weeks when I was seventeen. Amsterdam will be my third study abroad experience. And yet my suitcase still houses inexplicable miscellanea that I’ll have to abandon at the last minute. I have not learned Dutch phrases that might actually be useful in a social gathering. I have not prepared an hour-by-hour breakdown of everything I need to do, see, sign, and memorize from the moment I land at Schiphol.
I’ve spent nine months on research and planning and emails and red tape and preparation. And I still don’t feel ready.
On the other hand, it’s possible that the other emotions that wake me at 3 a.m. these days—exhilaration, disbelief, terror—are non-negotiable. As in, not embracing them would be cheating. After all, going to Amsterdam was probably the most momentous decision I’ve made that I didn’t need to make. I could have stayed in America for the duration of college, which is what most of my international student friends are doing; we’re already studying abroad! I could have gone back to Austria, which is at once attractively familiar and also contains so much that I could still explore.
But I also remember going into my second Midwest winter simultaneously nursing an inkling that the approaching months would be unpleasant (hello, polar vortex) and trusting in the bubble of my liberal arts campus to insulate me from both the winter and the wider world. I was stagnating, almost as if I had used up the magic of studying abroad. Of course I didn’t feel this way all the time. I had found "my people"—a rag-tag tribe of miraculous humans from five continents—at college. I had discovered countless new aspects of myself. But I’d started walking away from challenges and risks. I wasn’t seeing the chance for adventure in every situation, the way I had as a freshman. I’d established a visible, recognizable version of myself and saw no reason to stray from that.
But then the idea of going to Amsterdam took root, and I dug deeper after that crazy idea. I interviewed upperclassmen who’d studied in Morocco, in Greece, in France. I stumbled upon the IES Abroad blogs. I read essays from writers who made me feel like I was there with them, who were saying loud and clear that they'd found the same magic I missed, who were scared and unsure but also passionate and connected to the world. Nine months later, here I almost am.
There have been no shortage of people who question my decision to go to Amsterdam. They subscribe completely to the “city of sin” stereotype and decide I’m indulging in a semester of skiving off. They ask probing questions about program costs and credit transfers and language barriers. The hardest questions come from my international tribe, who weathered with me the ever-growing challenges of being other in America, the mundane struggle of surviving nine thousand miles away from where we grew up. As rising juniors, we're finally so stable that we know how to submit American tax paperwork. Why would I give that up?
This is the only answer I can offer right now.
Not from responsibilities or reality or common sense. An evolution, not an escape. To, not from. Freedom—
to leave on a plane with a single suitcase, pared down to the essentials (Photographs. Beloved books. Tea, if you’re Sri Lankan)—
to be so far out of your bubble that you cannot operate on autopilot, cannot rely on the assumptions people have built about you, must, in fact, reinvent yourself, every minute, and find there’s room for improvement—
to see before you a city’s worth, a country’s worth, of culture and history and stories and places and darkness and flaws and creatives and progress and injustice and beauty and rebels and magic and most of all, people—to delve into and question and discover for the first time, which will not compare to any other time.
Therefore, to everyone reading this blog—whether you’re sitting at the boarding gate on the last layover before your destination or just fell down the rabbit hole of the study abroad catalogue—either you’ve come very far, or you’re planning to. I’m aware that far too many people have to fight all their lives for a little stability, but I also believe that stable shouldn’t become stagnant. Not taking risks, not asking questions, not leaving that bubble—those patterns can turn incredibly dangerous. More on that later. For now, as we set out towards discovery, remember that we're most human when we're evolving and adapting and empathizing and learning and creating with the communities around us. In 2019, this freedom is a privilege and a responsibility, and I believe it's worth the struggle of not falling off the tightrope between the two. Worth chasing the magic. Worth feeling the emotions. Even if your third-favourite sweater still doesn’t fit in your suitcase.
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<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>