Earlier today Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands became King and his wife Maxima became Queen after his mother, Beatrix, stepped down from the throne after serving for 33 years. It was while I was studying in Utrecht, Netherlands that I first encountered the new King and his Queen.
Willem-Alexander and Maxima came to Utrecht on their tour of the country following the announcement of the engagement of the future King to the Argentinian economist. The city donned its orange (the color of the royals – House of Orange) and Dutch flags. A parade was planned and the newly engaged couple would greet their people.
Despite my great spot on a rock in a square on the parade route, I hadn’t come prepared with my camera. I remember seeing just their heads and waving arms and hands above the tops of the large crowd. A friend took the photo of me in my spot to mark the day.
Months later in a Christmas grab-bag, I was the lucky recipient of a mug commemorating the engagement.
I’m currently in the beginning stages of planning a trip to the Netherlands this fall. This will be the first time I’ve returned since my time studying abroad in the city of Utrecht twelve years ago. This will be the last of my study abroad locations to go back to. I’ve been to Dublin/Ireland twice since that summer in 2001. The first time was four months after the program and the second was four years later. My return trips to London were similar: four months and three years later. This one, comparatively, is a bit overdue.
On my first return trip to Ireland I donned the hat of tour guide for two girlfriends from Utrecht. I knew what shuttle to take from the airport, what hostel to stay at, how to get around easily, and what pubs were the best. I was too busy living up to my nickname ‘Let’s Go Lindsay’ to really pay attention to anything other than showing off my old stomping grounds. This was primarily to keep myself distracted and emotionally disconnected from the trip. I knew it couldn’t possibly live up to the summer and I was fearful that something might happen to tarnish that time.
Inevitably, I began to compare things. The group dynamic was different. These two girls weren’t the six people I hung out with four months ago. The time of year was different. Instead of being able to be outside in the summer sun, it was December with signs of Christmas everywhere and snow keeping us indoors. The overcast days mimicked my mental state.
But soon I realized that different was also good. With less of us, it was easier to stay together in hostels, or find a place to sit in restaurants and pubs, and there were less personalities to please. These girls wanted to do things that the summer group didn’t. The cold weather showed me another side to the cities and their inhabitants. And who doesn’t want to spend more time in a warm pub? I was also able fill in some missing gaps from the summer such as finally getting my picture taken kissing the Blarney Stone, which my summer photographer didn’t take in time – twice (ahem, Kevy). This trip added to my experience of Ireland, made it more dynamic. Whatever concerns I had before going turned out to be fruitless.
I am really excited to go back to the Netherlands, which is 180 degrees from how I felt when I left. I just wanted to go home and put all that had happened (9/11, culture shock, anxiety attacks, broken heart) behind me. I am returning with a purpose. There are plenty of other travel destinations on my list, but I think it is time I pay homage to a place that was the backdrop to a very formative time for me. Perhaps I’ll even gain some closure on a few things. I’m not quite sure what to expect, or even know yet what I hope will happen, but I’m ready to find out what does and expand my experience of the Netherlands.
I was studying abroad in Utrecht, Netherlands on September 11, 2001. My friend, Elinore, who is from New York City, and I went to the computer labs after classes had finished. We were in a laughing mood. The computer lab was in a group of older buildings that had been converted. The stations were set up in a number of different rooms, some the size of a class room, others a conference room. There weren’t two computers available next to each other so Elinore and I split up and went into different rooms.
The first thing I did was check my email. There was one from my dad. I opened it and it said that the Towers had been hit. What Towers? The image he attached loaded and I saw. But I still didn’t understand. I thought he was playing a joke. How was it possible that two planes hit a Tower each? That seemed like an odd, horrific accident.
Still confused I went to find Elinore to see if she knew anything. I was nervously laughing when I told her that my father said the Twin Towers were hit. She looked up at me and laughed, “What?” I recited the email to her. She was as incredulous as I was. Everything at that moment seemed like a typical day. Nothing seemed odd except the words coming out of my mouth. If something like this had happened why was the busy computer lab so quiet? Why weren’t they talking about it?
To follow was the day after day after day 24-hour news coverage. My parents had concerns about whether or not the program would be canceled, which it wasn’t. Most people seemed to be in a state of shock. I, already dealing with culture shock issues, didn’t want, and, more specifically, didn’t know how to process something like this. It was easy not to try being in a foreign country. Therefore I didn’t. And, honestly, eleven years later I still haven’t.
The Friday after the 11th, I was out shopping for shoes. I loved the fun colors sneakers came in that I couldn’t seem to find back home. At noon the bells in the Domtoren rang. When I finally realized they were playing The Star-Spangled Banner, I stepped outside the store. I noticed that no one in the street was moving. People had left the shops to enter the street to observe the moment. Everyone was standing still facing the Domtoren in silence. I had no idea that this event was planned. Apparently, it had been on the news, but I couldn’t take watching anymore.
Weeks passed and despite my avoidance I felt I should commemorate or have some memento of the WTC. At least that’s what everyone around me seemed to be doing. I knew I’d probably regret it later even if I didn’t really feel up to it at the time. People were buying posters left and right of the New York City skyline or of the Towers. That didn’t seem right for me. Why would I get something so big to commemorate and remember a day I fought so hard to not think too deeply about because I didn’t know what would happen if I did?
I did keep my eyes open for just the right item. Nothing I came across felt right. If I was going to do as others were doing I was going to try and make it personal in some way. That was as deep (or shallow) as I was going to go. I was in an art museum gift shop selecting postcards for my collection when I found it. I instantly knew that this postcard was my personal memorial to 9/11. I added the card to the group and made my purchase. Of course, fitting my modus operandi of avoidance, I rarely look at the card.
To this day I refuse to read any book about 9/11, fiction or non-fiction. I’ve only seen one film where that day plays a part in the story and I hadn’t known this beforehand. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have watched it. The release of tears and emotions I had after watching the movie, however, has probably been the only time I’ve approached a deeper contemplation and mourning. And to my surprise it felt good to have that release.
My train of thought has been that if I try and process that day, then I might comprehend what happened. If I comprehend it, then I might understand how and why people would take such an action. If I understand the how and the why, then I might condone a similar action. If I condone a similar action, then I’ve let my mind cross over to someplace truly dark. And if my mind crosses over, then it might never cross back.
Being in another country when such a tragedy took place in my homeland made it a lot easier to escape and hide. I now have a bit of safety in distance of time and of self. In writing this I can see the cracks in my old logic. Perhaps it is time I purged my mind of what it has kept locked in the closet and swept under the rug for the last eleven years.
One thing that I wasn’t prepared for or even thought about prior to studying abroad was the issue of personal space. Generally speaking, here in the United States personal space is one of those things that is an universally-known, unspoken rule. Around each of us is this invisible circle usually about three feet in radius. Everyone is mindful of their own circle and usually of others’ as well. The big no-no is when someone’s circle is violated or invaded. What I didn’t know before going abroad was that not everyone knows the rule or knows that there is such a thing as personal space.
Sure, personal space is invaded all the time. You can’t really function without someone at some point being closer than three feet from you. Public transit is a good example of a time and place when people are crossing over that threshold; in most cases it is tolerated. But the idea of strangers meeting for the first time, embracing each other, and exchanging air kisses seems crazy. Actions like those are reserved for family, close friends, and lovers, right? Well, not everywhere in the world.
My first experience with the ‘greeting kisses’ was actually here on US soil. The kisser was a friend visiting from Germany whom I hadn’t seen in about six months. I arrived at the house where he was staying and when he opened the door he bent down and kissed me on both cheeks. My lack of knowledge about how people from other parts of the world may greet one another caused me to totally misconstrue the situation. I had always crushed on him and I thought he might have had some feelings for me too. I mean who double kisses a girl they don’t like? Apparently, many.
It actually wasn’t until my second major moment of greeting kisses that I realized what really happened that first time (and it would have saved me a lot of time spent over-analyzing – ha). The next set of greeting kisses came while I was in the Netherlands. A Czech boy from my exchange student mentor group and I were hanging out at a coffee shop on a boat in one of Utrecht’s canals. He greeted me when I arrived and as he leaned in I flinched away. In my head I chastised myself as I had recently had a conversation with a French girlfriend about the whole greeting thing. I wanted to be more open to it, but clearly 20 years of conditioning couldn’t be wiped away so easily. Fortunately, the boy was very understanding, particularly as he had spent some time in the United States.
I am happy to say that by the time I was studying in London, I was much more aware and open to the greeting embrace and kisses. Becoming best friends with a Mexican and an Italian-Columbian expedited my progress. By the end of my twelve months, I even had little or no issues initiating the embraces. However, I still refrained with fellow Americans.
Upon returning home the issue of personal space was probably the first to go back to ‘normal.’ There are times when I do miss the more intimate connection made with the embrace rather than the usual detached and isolated way of presenting ourselves to potential new friends via a handshake or nod of the head. But regardless of your stance on personal space, remember and be prepared that others you encounter while studying abroad may not share your view, or – more likely – not even be aware there may be an issue.
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.
I had a goal for this flight – make conversation with a fellow passenger. If I succeeded, I thought it would bode well for the next few days and weeks of talking to complete strangers on the road to making friends. This plane was headed to Amsterdam. I was embarking on a year abroad in Utrecht, Netherlands.
The summer in Ireland had been a blast. I learned a lot about Irish history, folklore, and music. I’d never seen such lush landscapes. So startled was I at the beauty that I took about 38 rolls of film as each view seemed to be more stunning than the last. And, of course, I made great friends, including the boy who responded so dismissively to my email.
Ireland was such a success that on this flight I wasn’t too worried about what would happen once I arrived. The jitters were far less. Things had worked out once, so I assumed they would again. I identified, however, one weak area that I wanted to work on – my small talk. You needed to make yourself extroverted in the beginning of these programs regardless if you are one or not, and, to me, the sign of an extrovert was good small talk.
Observe, however, is what I do. When I’m in a new situation with new people I tend to remain quiet in order to observe my surroundings and find some comfort in the discomfort. Usually in subsequent meetings with the same people, I’m much more open and can converse more easily. My friends have said that I was shy and quiet when they first met me but then bam! I don’t shut up. Well, I wanted to get to the “bam!” part a lot sooner.
Being from a traveling family and going to school in a different state from my home, I was very familiar with flying and knew there were those passengers that liked to talk to their fellow flightmates. I was hoping I’d be seated next to one of them and my goal would be achieved. Alas, the universe did not let me off so easily.
I was seated next to a middle-aged gentleman. We were the only two in our row. He was it. He was the lucky one unwittingly picked to be my volunteer. He had no idea of his importance to me and the precedence we were setting for my forthcoming year.
I was really anxious. This was a time-sensitive endeavor. I knew that if a conversation was going to happen and seem natural, it had to happen soon after we took our seats. Starting a conversation once someone is settled is awkward. He might pull out a book, or, being an overnight flight, doze off to sleep.
I began situating myself for the long flight and tried to muster up the courage. With each adjustment I made to my person or my carry-on items a voice boomed in my head. Do it now! We were pulling away from the gate and beginning our taxi to the runway. I just wanted to look out the window like I always do. Do it now! The flight attendant began her monologue about the safety features and emergency exits. This was not a reprieve; it actually increased the pressure as more time was eaten away from the precious ‘natural’ time frame to start chatting with a stranger on a plane. Do it now! DO IT NOW!
You would have thought this was a life or death situation from the adrenaline pumping through my veins. I really wanted the flight option but I knew I had to fight. The significance I placed on this one conversation totally outweighed its actual importance. My time in Utrecht would not be made or ruined based upon whether or not I spoke to this man sitting next to me. But it sure felt like it.
“Where are you headed?” I could hardly believe the words had come from my mouth. I must have blacked out from a last push of adrenaline as I didn’t recall making the decision to do it now.
“I’m going home to Denmark,” he replied. He replied!
We didn’t talk long. But we did go back and forth. I learned that he had visited his son in Long Island to help him build a ship that his son was going to sail across the Atlantic. (This was pretty cool and totally nothing I expected to hear.) Then I shared how I was on my way to Utrecht to study abroad for the year. Once the conversation was over, a huge weight was off my shoulders. I felt great. It was a baby step in getting to the ‘bam!’ but, as a first step, it was huge. I had achieved my goal. Utrecht, here I come.
After my summer in Ireland I had no time to worry about any re-entry issues. Only a couple of weeks passed before I was off to the Netherlands. When I was getting ready to return from Utrecht, the greatness of the culture shock I experienced while there tricked my mind into thinking that I would be so happy to be home – that, surely, I wouldn’t face any re-entry difficulties.
And at first I was happy. I was reunited with my school friends and with my new friends from Ireland. There was a comfort with my Ireland friends. We could relive the fun memories from the summer, retell the same stories over and over and none of us would tire of hearing them. But I did notice that though we had all studied abroad, this group was more interested in our shared experience than in hearing the new tales I had to tell. At the time, though, I was okay with this. There was much I didn’t want to discuss.
None of them, I thought, could understand what I went through in Utrecht. I assumed they thought I had had a similar time in the Netherlands as I’d had in Ireland. I, however, was ashamed of what happened; I thought I had “failed” at studying abroad, and had an “unsuccessful” semester. I wasn’t eager to share these thoughts. I kept them in – something I would not recommend at all.
The school did not provide much support. There was a program debriefing but that seemed to focus more on the exchange program itself: what I thought was good, what I thought could be improved upon, what worked, what didn’t.
Then classes began. Sitting in my Dutch class I felt overwhelming pressure to have improved my skills while in the Motherland. Classmates would ask questions about the Netherlands and I was so far down my “failure” train of thought that I felt my answers – or lack there of – furthered my feelings of inadequacy. It was all too much for me to bear.
By the end of the first week of school I had dropped my Dutch class and found sanctuary in “Intro to Taoism,” if for nothing more than the topic felt thousands of miles away from anything Dutch. I also thought the philosophy might help me gain some perspective on all I was feeling.
There were two outlets that aided in my re-entry. The first came from being a disc jockey at the student radio station, WSUM-FM. Music is a great love of mine. I bought a few CDs and downloaded a lot more mp3s while abroad. I also had great many, happy, fun and joyous memories associated with the (new-to-me) music. Being in the DJ booth provided me with the audience I was missing in my friends to share my stories through music. It also allowed me the opportunity, by playing these songs, to let the great times I did have flood and eventually begin to wash away the negative moments I was holding on to so tightly.
The second outlet was participating in the BRIDGE Peer Mentor program through the school’s International Student Services office. My exchange program included a mentor and I found having Ludo, my Dutch mentor, to be invaluable. I wanted to do the same for students coming to my campus. I was paired up with a girl named Ro-Zanne from Malaysia. In addition to trying to aid her in every day functions of being in Madison, we took water aerobics classes, we carved her first Halloween pumpkins, and we went to campus dances. I really enjoyed this experience.
In all honesty, I still struggle with elements of what happened in the Netherlands and life once I returned. But that experience has pushed me, rather than hindered me, to try living abroad again (my valiant return abroad three years later for grad school!). I no longer feel I failed or that I had an unsuccessful semester. I’m amazed at all the awesome places I got to go, the cool people I got to meet, how much I learned about another culture, and about myself.
In the fantastic film about studying abroad, L’Auberge Espagnole, Xavier, our main character, makes the following observation upon arrival in Barcelona, Spain (it’s in French, but these are the subtitles with some bits edited out):
“When you first arrive in a city nothing makes sense. Everything’s unknown, virgin. After you’ve lived here, walked these streets you’ll know them inside out, you’ll know these people. Once you’ve lived here…crossed this street 10, 20, 1000 times…It’ll belong to you because you’ve lived there. That was about to happen to me but I didn’t know it yet.”
This narration in the film really stuck with me not only because it’s true, very true, but because that’s what I wanted most out of my study abroad experiences – to have those streets, parks, shops, and sidewalks, including their inhabitants, to belong to me and I, in turn, to belong to them. But you can’t get there without experiencing the unknown first.
That first bike ride through alleyways to taste the not so yummy kroket in Utrecht, Netherlands is a perfect example for a time when I truly felt nothing around me made sense and what was around the next curve was completely unknown. (That I was focused on not getting killed by my fellow cyclists, I’m sure, had nothing to do with it.) It is only in hindsight that I can recollect that there was a prior way of seeing things. At the time I didn’t know things would look different, would change. As a result, I may have ridden in the same alleyways a number of times and not have known it. If I did, they never looked the same as that first time.
Before understanding all this, the fact that I couldn’t retrace that first bike ride drove me insane. I am someone who is good – no great – with directions, maps, moss growing on the north side of the tree, we parked the car over there stuff.
But that first time had no previous sensory attachments, no known destination until it was chosen for me, no frame of reference. There was one time near the end of my four months that I thought I recognized an alleyway. But I couldn’t be sure. I wouldn’t be seeing it with the same virgin eyes.
It wasn’t about the geographic components. It was about me. How me living there had changed the way I saw the roads and spaces around me. New memories colored spaces. The roads, canals, shops, and alleyways became mine.
That street is where I was asked what time it was by a Dutchmen and I both understood and answered correctly (grammatically) though I gave the wrong hour. That square is where I saw Prince Willem-Alexander and his future Princess Máxima on their parade route through the city. And along that canal is where I said goodbye to a very dear friend.
These memories and stories are what make the streets yours and you theirs. In time I was able to achieve my goal of belonging. And when I have the chance to return to Utrecht, a lot will have changed over the years but those memories will still be there and that street, square, and canal will still be mine.
Post Script: The capturing of the study abroad experience shown in L’Auberge Espagnole make it a must see for anyone who is planning on or just thinking about making that leap.
One thing that I have to re-conquer each time I’m in a new city is the transit systems. I feel like I’m playing a game of “Crack the Code” when I am learning a new system. If you aren’t walking or riding a bike, public transportation is most likely your best (and cheapest) way to get from place to place while studying abroad. So you’ll have some sleuthing to do.
Once you enter a new system you have to don your Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap and go to work on figuring out its inner workings. Let’s take a bus system for example. What all do I say to the driver? Do I have to say anything to the driver? What if I don’t have exact change? What if I don’t know exactly where I am going? Will I not be able to communicate what it is I need to know or want to do? What is the bus stop etiquette? Do I have to flag a bus or will it stop automatically? Is there a right or wrong way to flag a bus?
Also, you need to figure out what line or combination of lines will get you to your destination, when, and for how much. It has always been a daunting task for me, never more so than while being in another country. This means making some mistakes and feeling foolish.
Upon arriving in Utrecht, Netherlands, my roommate met me at the train station and led the way to my new home. We had to take the bus. I was exhausted from the overnight flight and on sensory and emotional overload on having arrived in a new land. There was no way that how the bus worked or even what stop we lived at was going to sink in.
The next day I learned what our stop name was (Viaduct – easy you’d think), about the strippenkaart (the bus ticket/pass), and how much I wanted to avoid the whole thing. Fortunately, the bicycle is the national mode of transportation, but even that had its own set of rules to figure out.
I like to use buses as a way of getting to know an area and seeing what’s around – a personal sight-seeing tour, if you will. In Utrecht, I couldn’t easily just hop on a bus and ride it till I was ready to get off. You had to know your destination in order to find out how many lines of your strippenkaart you needed to use.
I could get from home to downtown easy enough due to the main train station being there and my ability to say Centraal Station clearly; it was getting home that always proved a bit more difficult. I had the toughest time saying Viaduct in a Dutch accent. The V takes on an almost F sound and the ‘duct’ sounds more like ‘dookt.’ I would say it as fast a possible, but I was so uncertain and lacking in confidence in my speech that I made the process more stressful for myself by having to repeat it several times to the drivers at a slower pace – clearly giving away my foreigner status.
Eventually I got the hang of it and learned the names of the two or three main bus stops that I would use. But I preferred to use my bicycle as often as possible, even on longer journeys, which was amazingly possible in this flat country.
The nice thing is usually once you use the system the first time, each time after is a lot easier. Like so many other aspects of studying abroad, not worrying about making a fool of yourself is the best way to approach learning the transit systems. Speaking from experience as someone who did not do this, I think the benefits outweigh the momentary feeling a fool.