Though I am pretty sure it’s the endorphins talking, I love my city most when I’m biking. But what could be more Dutch? Biking in a country where there are more bicycles than people, passing tulips and daffodils that actually just grow on the side of the road, the sheep in the pasture next to my building, winding my way next to a medieval canal. Honestly, the Netherlands has been disgustingly picturesque. No picture can capture it. The sights are most beautiful in person, where you can feel the happiness exuding from people who are used to windy, wet weather, sitting outside on a sunny day.
Living here has been completely different than my expectations though. I had to go through a tough period in which I was forced to reconcile my expectations with reality. Though, as you can see above, the Netherlands has exceeded my expectations in many ways, I have also been let down.
This is not to say I am disappointed. I am not moping or upset or disillusioned with my study abroad experience. It just took me a period of adjustment to accept the fact that I had embarked on an adventure that would be very different than everyone else’s.
As one of the last people in the semester to leave for my country of choice, by the time I got on the plane, my Facebook friends who were studying abroad had made a group of best friends, gone to a couple of countries and had uploaded over a hundred pictures. Naturally, that’s where my expectations were set.
A week away from the end of month three in this special and amazing country that means so much to me and my family, and I have accomplished things that have nothing to do with those expectations. I have not been to a different European country per weekend, I have not made a group of friends that travel with me wherever I go and I only have one Facebook album, while many people have three.
To start, I have a flat full of people that I really love. We all really like each other. Many Sundays we’ve had ‘family dinner’ in which we eat our dinners together or bring an item for a potluck dinner. We all have nicknames for each other. We all help host everyone else’s friends when they visit.
But most of my friends are not American. Sure, I found the entire University of California clan, but beyond that, most of the people I know are Australian or European. Mostly European. Their view on study abroad is largely different from the American view. As they live in Europe, they can visit countries at any time relatively easily. They have come to this University to study law or economics or marketing because it is good for that. Some have come to improve their English. They are dedicated to studying and living in Utrecht. To doing well in school. It is not for lack of friends that I have not been to a million countries, it is for lack of American friends. And I’m okay with that.
I have had the best exchanges with people in which we talk about our school systems, governments, politics, day to day life. I’ve learned more about the world from meeting people from all over, rather than actually spending a weekend in a hostel somewhere and touristing.
I’ve had to focus on living my life in the city that I chose. Which, when you think about it, should probably be the goal of study abroad rather than traveling to as many places as possible. I have spent great quality time in this country and this city. I have learned that the Saturday market at Vredenburg has a guy who sells sweet potatoes, which are my favorite. I have learned to live my day before 5pm because in this historically Calvinist country, shops close when the work day ends. I have learned to deal with the smell of marijuana and not judge those around me too hard for partaking in a police-allowed activity. I have learned that fritessaus means mayo and people don’t actually judge you for getting ketchup (which I do). And speaking of fried things, the Netherlands considers many (weird) fried foods part of their country’s cuisine. I have learned that my bike route may look flat but is 10x harder into town than out, leading me to the educated guess that the first way is all slightly uphill. Also, I have to take water with me everywhere when I bike as my stamina is not the greatest.
I know when I get to the train station a train will be available to whisk me away to wherever I want to go every couple of minutes. I know that generally Dutch people will switch to English when talking to me (a curse I swear) but those who are immigrants to the country will continue with me in Dutch. I know that Amsterdam Zuid will get me to the Museums and Amsterdam Centraal gets me to the super touristy upper canal ring (but also the Jordaan which I love).
I have two classes which means one class per day for four days out of the week each for an hour and forty-five minutes. That leaves me with a lot of time. Though I feel like I am constantly at Albert Heijn, Jumbo or the outdoor market grocery shopping, I have actually had a lot of time to just live. That sounds hippie but it’s true. I bike places for no reason at all. I buy flowers because they make my room look pretty. I am able to practice yoga every day. I take a multivitamin before I sleep every night, something I’ve never done regularly for this long. I hang out with my flat. I make delicious food for myself. I bought a muffin pan and I bake. This has turned into a very restorative semester for me, when I’m used to two jobs, five classes, sorority responsibilities, dance practices and a maximum amount of credits every school year.
I’ve seen windmills, tulips, flower markets, tasted Jenever, eaten more Hollandsekaas and Gouda than is probably healthy, gotten fresh pannenkoeken, stroopwafels and poffertjes, toured parliament at Den Haag, attended carnival in Maastricht, I’ve even been to Belgium, which has a very similar heritage (i.e was the same country at one point). I have thoroughly explored the Netherlands, which I feel happy about. I chose this country for a reason, and I’m glad I’ve spent more quality time here than everywhere else. It just took me a readjustment of expectations to stop thinking about what I wasn’t doing and start appreciating what I had done and could do right here.