Nothing like someone else’s misfortune to remind you of all that is good in your life…
Today I went to the shops to buy groceries and stamps. I had spent about 20 minutes researching the various ways to say “I would like some stamps, please,” so I wanted to get that task out of the way first. I walked around the bookstore/card shop that doubles (triples?) as a post office for quite awhile, examining the merchandise and rehearsing my line. Finally, I decided I’d been stalling for long enough and marched up to the desk. I smiled and said hello and then at the crucial moment… totally chickened out.
I know exactly what happened. Frequently, when I start a conversation in Dutch, the person responds with what might as well be an eloquent dissertation in the future conditional tense about the geopolitical implications of Greece refusing to comply with EU sanctions against Russia. I say something like “Ik wil graag 15 postzegels, alstublieft” and then they are extremely friendly and open my narrow linguistic world into a million pathways involving, presumably, the postal service, packaging options, the chemical makeup of stamps, the weather, my outfit, who knows? Anyway, I can’t imagine whatever she might have had to say would have been that difficult to understand, but I still chickened out. I spoke English and she was super nice, and I bought my stamps and left, kicking myself.
I was still beating myself up later on when I was in line to buy groceries and noticed a woman behind me pushing a stroller and clutching a €10 note in the “hier alleen pinnen” (debit card only) line. The cashier had already asked me if I knew I was in the “alleen pinnen rij.” “Ja, dank je. Ik weet het.” I said back without blinking, “Yes, thank you. I know.” It sounds less bitchy in Dutch, I promise.
The cashier asked the same thing to the woman behind me with the cash. The woman clearly didn’t understand Dutch and looked up baffled. The cashier repeated the same thing in English. Still no dice. The cashier pointed to my card, the woman held up her 10 euros, the cashier shook her head and pointed to the line next door, and the woman finally seemed to understand. That’s when I noticed the item she was trying to buy…
A motherfucking pregnancy test.
Count your blessings, McCandless. It could always be worse.
I’m in absolutely no position to complain, I realize that. I’m the fortunate recipient of an extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I’m so lucky. I need to squeeze every ounce of experience out of this amazing time. Believe me, I know.
I’d heard about people feeling like aliens on another planet when moving to a foreign country, but I’d never really processed that information until doing it myself. I mean, duh, right? Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of stunning awe, when I’m looking over the canals, centuries old, as the sun sets and bicycles are whizzing by, and I’m tempted to pinch myself. But the thing is, those amazing high points only reinforce this bizarre dream state I’ve been living in since September. This is not an endless vacation. This is where my friends will live and where my job, and my dentist, and my coffee mugs will be. This is my home now.
Going into it, I knew there would be aspects of moving to a new country that would be “hard,” but I naively assumed those trying times would be screwball moments of comic adventure. Took the wrong bus and got lost in Leiden, LOL! Almost got run over by a pair of 90 year old twins riding a tandem bicycle with a Corgi in their basket, LOL! What no one tells you about are the quiet, mundane hard moments that drain you with a million tiny cuts. The weeks of sunless days. Spending an hour in the store, circling the aisles over and over again just to buy four things, because each package is completely unfamiliar and undecipherable, not to mention there’s always the chance that you’ll never find something because they don’t even have that thing in this country. No baking powder. No dryer sheets. The looks on children’s faces when you tell them you can’t understand what they’re saying because you don’t speak their language. The mild, disgruntled ruffling of feathers and side eyes when you can’t operate a turnstile properly, or pause too long at an intersection. And that goes on for months, not days.
When I leave the apartment, all the conversations around me are in Dutch. At first it was thrilling, but after awhile, I started to tune everything out. Even if I catch a few words, I’m not going to be able to follow the thread. Without a job to go to, the only people I see on a regular basis, other than Trenton, are strangers. On the days I spend working hard to find a job, I feel guilty for not leaving the house to explore the city. On the days I spend visiting museums and walking in parks, I feel guilty for not working harder to generate income. I don’t suppose we’re ever really happy with where we are, but it feels like I’m bouncing to the outer limits of each extreme–joy and loneliness, freedom and toil–and it’s exhausting. I try to quiet my mind and to find a comfortable sense of being present, but have you ever tried to force yourself not to worry? Talk about screwball comic adventure… “How about now? Are you peaceful now? No? Okay, what if you concentrate on your breathing? Now? Peace? Yes? Ready to to say ‘I’m sorry. I only speak a little Dutch. I don’t understand.’ to a panhandler begging for change?”
A few weeks ago, I was riding the bus and carefully watching a man with a clipboard walk up the aisle, asking questions to the passengers. With the intensity of a rabbit being stalked by a snake or a person trying to avoid an ex in the grocery store, I concentrated on not making eye contact while being 100% sure of his location at all times. When my bus stop was approaching, I waited the exactly correct amount of time before standing up and walking to the exit, so that I would not draw any attention to myself or show up on the question-asking man’s radar. I miscalculated. As the bus slowed down, the man approached me and asked me something in Dutch. I took a breath and said to him, “Het spijt me. Ik spreek maar een klein beetje Nederlands. Ik begrijp u niet.” I’m sorry. I speak but a little bit of Dutch. I do not understand you. He said something in response. The other people in the bus laughed. The bus stopped in front of my apartment. I got off and walked home.
It’s isolation like I’ve never experienced before. I feel like an astronaut, breathing my own recycled air, viewing everything from inside a lonely bubble of my own thoughts.
I’d like to offer you some fun anecdotes as a counterpoint, show you that I’m not just an ungrateful whiny malcontent, incapable of appreciating a good thing when she has it. And honestly, if I’m being completely truthful, it is getting easier, albeit in slow, hard-earned micro-increments. I joined a book club for international English speakers. I can answer the basic questions at a cash register about wanting a bag or not (nee, dank u), wanting a receipt or not (ja, graag). I can ride a bike without my heart pounding in fear. But these tiny wins are the huge, momentous, humbling mile markers of expat achievement. I’m not exactly channeling Roman Holiday when I get pumped up after buying a lamp at IKEA.
There’s no denying that this city is pulsing and vibrant and breathtakingly beautiful. When I’m coasting on my bike down the hill on Rokin towards Dam Square, or when I catch a pair of swans floating in towards the open window of a house boat for a drive-thru breakfast, I am so, so happy to be here. I say it all the time and it’s the honest truth. I love living in Amsterdam. It’s just that I find that truth to be very difficult to reconcile with the other truth: that a lot of days I’m struggling to keep my head above water. I’m struggling to stay sane and optimistic when I’m untethered and drifting. I’m struggling to find a solid real life inside of a dream come true.