I’m standing at my apartment windows, watching Amsterdam light up all the way to the horizon. Excited Dutch chatter floats up from the courtyard; from further out comes the click-whoosh of bicycle wheels and the clang of tram bells. After dark, everything hums with energy - the planes circling Schiphol like fireflies, the turrets and treetops claiming space from the skyscrapers. Everyone seems so alive.
I don’t always feel so awed by my new home; it’s never the whole story. I only really processed that I’d arrived in Amsterdam after I’d heaved a suitcase larger than myself round and round Schiphol, after the coach drove off the highway and into bicycle-fringed streets, after I’d unlocked my apartment and performed my first grocery run. That was all Day 01. Since then, I’ve obtained a Dutch phone number, been tested for TBC, lost myself on the tram, and found my way home by memory. Practicalities and contradictions and unmet expectations are daily occurrences; I’ve cried six times already. But I’ve also discovered that when the dust settles, the starry-eyed, everyone-seems-so-alive moments are still there.
It’s my second week in Amsterdam. The next four months will hold as many frustrations as they do victories. Amsterdam won’t always feel kind; I’ll miss my friends; I’ll wish I was back at my home school, wearing my coat in class like everyone else. So I’m glad I spent these first two weeks learning how to store up some of Amsterdam’s magic for the harder days. Here’s what I found out.
Yellow Fleece Blanket
Sometimes the freedom of getting on a plane with a single suitcase is tempered by the dimensions of that suitcase. While it’s true that Amsterdam has been smoldering, temperature-wise, I woke up shivering during my first few nights here. Finding a yellow fleece blanket for 2.99 at the Zeeman’s on Javastraat was a matter of survival but also my first move towards nest-building. As it turns out, I’m comforted by fiery hues - a carrot-coloured pillowcase, a lemony wooden tulip, a sheaf of golden-red postcards - that lend a tropical air to my room.
Grain, Green, Protein
Despite years of scorched attempts at sustenance, I’ve begun looking forward to grocery shopping and sketching out the week’s meals. There’s something undeniably satisfying about being able to cook the dishes you’ve grown up eating and having them taste the way you remember. Yes, sometimes the RA’s will replace your old fridge with a freezer-less version and you’ll scramble to consume a fortnight’s stockpile of meat in two days. Sometimes you have to present the Google Translate page to the salesperson at Albert Heijn so that when you say vinegar they know you’re asking for azijn. But if it leads to the kind of food that fortifies you for that daily eight-kilometer trek, it’s worth it.
The Breakfast Show
Back at my home school, I wrote daily agendas featuring entries like ‘eat lunch’ and ‘shower’. That need for rigid routine hasn’t changed just because I came to Amsterdam. In a city and a semester that feels full of possibilities, schedules help me get my bearings before I dive into exploring. And so my roommate and I begin our days at 7am, sitting side by side at our desks. She sips green smoothies and watches sciency YouTube videos; I inhale scrambled eggs and giggle along to The Big Bang Theory. It’s thirty minutes of rejuvenating peace.
Most of us embarking on a semester abroad can agree that the journey here was a joint effort by a whole tribe of people - parents, friends, advisors, immigration officials - who facilitated an extensive chain of events. But it also began and ended with us. We had the determination to make real an irrational dream. Remember that overarching victory, and notice how it echoes back in your smaller, daily triumphs.
I notice by journaling, in a throwback to the scrapbook which my mother and I assembled after a family trip to Singapore. She glued in theme park brochures; I drew stick people riding airport elevators. I suppose, for my six-year-old self, navigating airport architecture unscathed was quite the feat. Fast forward sixteen years and I’ve begun a new journal, in a maroon HEMA notebook given to me months ago by a Dutch friend. It holds shopping lists, grocery receipts, orientation name tags, boarding passes, museum tickets. Every piece is a reminder of something else that my tribe and I made come true.
In a corner of Technische Universiteit Delft’s quiet botanical garden, butterflies keep breaking away from a towering oak tree to alight briefly on the bag in my hand. It’s a miniature miracle. During a tile-painting session at the Royal Delft factory, I ink Tamil letters onto the ceramic; they spell out Nedunthivu, the name of an island off Sri Lanka’s northwest coast, once occupied by the Dutch and still marked on maps as Delft. In the Albert Cuypmarkt, a power-suited middle-aged couple strolls by with their arms around each other, perfectly in sync; they are followed by a tall man who talks constantly to his wife as he maneuvers her wheelchair through the crowds, their rings shining in their wake. At Pancakes Westermarkt, I order tea, and it arrives in a red-green-gold Dilmah tea bag from Peliyagoda, Sri Lanka, next to a stroopwafel.
Seven out of ten evenings in Amsterdam, I have a direct line of sight to the setting sun; a neon sphere that couldn’t be brighter if someone took a highlighter pen to it. By nine pm the stars are out; they’re faint, but if my elective astronomy class taught me anything last spring, it was that just because you can’t see all the stars doesn’t mean they’re not there.
There are always stars and planes. There’s the roar of a night train. There are always windows lit up after you extinguish yours.
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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>