In the early weeks of my culture shock while in the Netherlands weekends were a fearful thing. I didn’t know too many people yet. My Dutch roommates were often out of town or busy doing their own things. Without school to get me out of the apartment and interacting with others I feared I’d spiral even further downward. I saw a weekend trapped inside my head, and, thus my apartment, as a failure in time usage while I had this opportunity.
I had come from a summer in Ireland where I was very quickly incorporated into a group and was assumed to partake in any weekend plan. In the Netherlands, things weren’t so instantaneous. With people spread out across an entire city it proved more challenging to make friends than living in the dorm-style environment in Dublin where everyone was at my fingertips.
The first weekend in Utrecht in which the school wasn’t sponsoring an event neared. I began to hear about other people’s plans. It frustrated me that I didn’t have any, and my brain translated the fact that I hadn’t been asked to join anyone meant that I was un-liked. And if I was un-liked then it would be a very long, lonely year of limited travel and experiences. It never occurred to me to figure out what I wanted to do and ask other people if they wanted to join me. Not when I was in victim mode.
Two girls I had hung out with a couple of times were discussing how they were going to check out Slot Zuylen Castle located not far from town. They were going to ride their bikes along the Vecht River. It sounded very idyllic to me. Just the sort of local exploring I’d have chosen if I had been thinking that way. The more they went on about it the more I wanted them to ask me to go too. I wasn’t outgoing enough (it would be rude I thought) to just ask if they’d mind a third.
Friday came and they were still planning on going the following morning, but no invitation followed. I was boiling inside to the point of screaming with my thoughts about a failed, unused weekend, being trapped in my apartment, the dread of not having plans and forcing myself to go outside, and feeling un-liked enough to not be asked to do anything by others. I no longer cared if I was being rude. To me, I’d sacrifice being rude to try and avoid the darkness that loomed in my head. So I blurted out, “Can I go with you guys?”
“Of course,” one girl said. “We would have asked you but we thought you had other plans when you didn’t express an interest in going.” I didn’t see that response coming. When she said this something sort of clicked inside my head. I was able to step back from my situation and I recognized how my dealing with culture shock had affected the way I was viewing the scenario. Without my cloud of fear and anxiety, simply saying, ‘Hey that sounds like fun. Mind if I join?’ wouldn’t have felt like a do-or-die, all-or-nothing event. It would have been normal.
On that bike ride to the castle I was thrilled to see a snapshot of the countryside. I encountered my first windmill up close, saw sheep, and saw how the farmers direct and contain the plentiful water supply. Experiencing firsthand a taste of the extensive bike network out of the main cities was cool too. It seemed like something every country should have.
This freak-out, then blurt-out, and resultant positive response was the first step in breaking with my shock. It helped me to see whatever situation I found myself in more than one way. All was no longer doom and gloom. I still had a ways to go but having made that first step was everything.