Six years of living in Amsterdam (and counting)
It’s been six years since I left my home country, Romania, on a very early and foggy morning, with a big suitcase and a small cat, and a crazy heart mixed with joy, hope, and worry. It was a December day that happened to be my official moving day to the Netherlands, although my significant other had moved here a few months before and I had visited him a few times during that period, and all the papers I needed for my stay had been issued in November. Travelling with a cat was a stressful business, I was worried about her well-being during the flight, she was very shy and I didn’t manage to administrate the whole relaxing pill. Also I didn’t know how she would react to all the things she would soon encounter. Worrying about the cat, however, proved to be a welcome distraction from all the other thoughts I had in mind: leaving behind a quarter of my life, my family and friends, the start of a good career, a country whose language I knew and loved. All this to move to an almost unknown country, where I knew only one person (a very important one, nonetheless), where I didn’t speak the language and I needed a residence permit.
The unknown was full of promise, as new beginnings usually are, with so many possibilities to be explored and possible futures at hand. One of my biggest wishes was to live a more bohemian life, and by that I meant not work like crazy, doing overtime every day of the week. Instead, I would dream and live more and find a job which I liked and that would made me happy. My first months in Amsterdam were very positive ones. I didn’t have a job and suddenly I woke up to a lot of free time. I was happily exploring the city, even if it was during the cold months, taking pictures, enjoying its beauty. I was free, I could sleep as much as I wanted and whenever I wanted, could go out in the city when almost everyone else was at work, wander the streets with no purpose, just thinking about things. I started to learn new skills in that time, but didn’t bother with the Dutch language just yet. Talking in English all the time was already tiring enough. It was then I started to reconnect with my creative side. I started two blogs: this one, where I wanted to share my Amsterdamian discoveries with the world, and another one, written in Romanian, where I was planning to share more personal things with friends and family. I was in love with Amsterdam and happy to be here. I didn’t miss my old life at all for a while, that started to bother me later.
I didn’t know, back then, how long I would stay. I had no concrete plans, I was going to let life do its thing. And here I am, six years later, in the same country, the same city. How did things turn out? Well, a lot changed in these years. My life changed, I changed, probably much more than I would have if I’d stayed in Romania. People often say to me, “If you’ve stayed here for six years, you must like it!”. It’s not that simple. Or maybe it is. I’m still in love with Amsterdam, even if there have been moments of doubt in these years. I guess it’s like any relationship, you can’t be happy all the time.
I would like to say I feel at home now in Amsterdam, and that would be very true. But — and there is a but — life as an expat does something weird to you. It makes you feel at home in all the places you’ve lived, but at the same time feel like you no longer belong anywhere. After six years, I am still a stranger in this country, but I’ve become a stranger in my home country as well. It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time, to have more than one ‘home’. I feel blessed to have friends in two parts of the world — not too far from each other but so different in so many ways — , to have my favourite foods in both countries, my favourite places and words. I feel cursed in the moments when I feel alienated, or when I can’t be next to my family and friends for the most important moments of their lives. But I guess these are things that give my life more meaning, makes it more interesting, and that’s why I don’t regret the path I’ve chosen. A boring life is what scares me the most.
Some days I feel so connected to this city that I think I must have lived here in a previous life, reclaiming land from the sea or wearing clogs. On other days I just wish I was back where I’m not asked how long I’ve been living there and how do I like it. A land where I dream, think and speak in the same language and I understand every word of it, where the smells are so familiar that can take me back to my early childhood. I had to adapt to this country. To learn its customs, songs, smells – and the process was a fun one! I still can’t understand or relate to some cultural aspects under any circumstances, but that’s the case in my home country as well. For some people it’s hard to find a culturally perfect match, I guess, and that’s OK. I feel the need to also point out that Amsterdam is quite different from the rest of the country, and I don’t know if I would’ve had the same pleasant experience if I had lived somewhere outside this very international and expat oriented Amsterdam!
I had to learn to deal with the very capricious weather, two seasons in one day, the less warm summers and the winters. Oh, the winters! They should give a mandatory course to all the people moving to the Netherlands: How to survive the Dutch winter. Taking vitamin D supplements was never something I had to think about before moving here. How to deal with the grey, dark winter days is a thing I’ve learned the hard way. The Dutch winters may not be very cold, but they can be very mean. I’ve also learned here how to fully enjoy each moment of sun like there is no tomorrow. When it’s sunny, you drop everything and enjoy the sun. That is a must.
I’ve struggled with homesickness and I still do, some days. This will probably never stop. But if I moved back to Romania tomorrow, I’ll be homesick for the Netherlands. I have learnt to accept it and live with it. Luckily I’m not very far, the plane ride is about three hours and there is Skype to the rescue, and cheap European mobile fares.
I’m still struggling with the language. Or, better said, struggling between my wish of learning the language and the likelihood of this actually happening. I’ve taken courses, I’ve spent hours feeling like a young student again, hours that I would have rather spent at home, on my cosy couch, watching a series, or out with friends, having fun. The final result of all this is that I speak some of the local language, but feel very insecure and frustrated about it, and I end up looking like a lost chihuahua whenever someone speaks Dutch to me. But hey, at least I understand the letters I get from the administration!
But there weren’t only struggles in these six years, there were a lot of happy times as well! I’ve met so many great people here, I think this is what I cherish the most. All the new friends, all the great moments we’ve had and still have together. I’ve rediscovered myself, I allowed myself to be more creative. You could say that I didn’t need to move countries for that, but maybe I did. Maybe this was the right place for me to be inspired, to grow in the direction I did. The symbol of Amsterdam, the one that sticks in my mind from my first visit here, is still the same: a woman and her daughter on their way back from kindergarten, jumping and singing together on a path made of bouncy, wooden planks that covered work done on the road. They looked so happy and relaxed, and I said to myself that that’s how I want to live my life. And that is what I’m trying to do.
I have happily celebrated Queen’s and King’s Days here, Gay Prides, New Years Eves, Christmases and Easters. I’ve bought a house and decorated it. I’ve grown a garden and raised two cats. I am indeed living a more bohemian life, a more simple life that allows me to have time for myself and my dearest ones. The simple act of being able to ride a bike wherever I need to go fills me with joy. When I cycle along the canals in the morning, I get a burst of energy from the beauty of the place. And, what matters the most, I am happy to be here, most of the time. What the future will bring, we’ll see. Until then, I will keep counting the years in my adoptive country.
In conclusion, I would like to say that living as an expat has taught me many things, but I think the most important one is that we all have our place somewhere in the world, and some of us have more of these places. There are places where we will sometimes feel at home, and their names can change in any given moment of our life. Then there is the place where we were born, our starting point that will never change. This place will always hold our roots and we can always go back, if that is what we feel like. And this is something that makes us lucky. What motivates us to move to other countries can be a varied. What keeps us there is something we’ll just have to figure out on the way. After all, we live in a time when physical borders are becoming less important (or is that just wishful thinking?), when we can freely move through some parts of the world, at least. Mobility is increasing and who knows, maybe one day we will all be citizens of the world and not be defined and confined so much by the land where we happened to appear on Earth.