It was a cold windy Saturday morning in June as I stood in the taxi line at Schiphol, tired from the lack of sleep but full of nervous excitement for what lay ahead. After months of thinking about this move, then dealing with the paperwork and permit, I had finally arrived. My company had put me up in a service apartment and after checking in, I dumped my stuff and headed out to the nearest grocery store to buy some supplies. There was a slight drizzle and the air felt crisp after the Delhi summer heat, as I shuddered walking the 800 meters to the store, realizing that I should have unpacked my jacket first. I ought to be more careful, I thought to myself. It was my first day in a new country and the last thing I wanted to do was to get sick. Being on my own was already making me mindful about the trivial things.
I didn’t really get a chance to think about much that weekend, since P joined me from Germany. P, one of my closest friends was working in a town called Maine and decided to stay with me the weekend of my arrival. We were both new to Amsterdam, so we did what every tourist does – go to the Dam square. We walked around, ate Belgian fries with dollops of spicy mayo, checked out many shops, chugged some wine and chatted silly. I didn’t say it to P, but I was glad she was there, a familiar face in a new city.
I figured the best way to go to work on Monday was to take the subway, so I did, a little earlier than needed and was one of the first few to reach office. It was in Zuid, the Amsterdam district with very corporate-y vibes. My office was on the 20th floor of a skyscraper with glass windows till the ceiling and spectacular views of the city. It was love at first sight.
I got entrenched into work pretty quickly, but I still needed to get my own apartment. It was the first time I was living on my own and I was excited to spend every single free moment before work, at lunch, after work and weekends to viewings, to find the right place. I wanted to stay in the city and not in the suburbs, a reasonable size apartment in a location that was close to everything, safe, quiet and residential. My initial euphoria died down really fast as I realized how hard it was to find anything that fit my needs – I saw old Dutch houses, sunny attics of lopsided canal facing houses that made me dizzy, boathouses on water, three story canal houses that were completely impractical for me. In a couple of weeks, it felt like I had seen every possible available apartment in Amsterdam and that everything was either way out of my affordability levels, or too touristy, or ill-maintained. It was a city of expats and demand was sky rocketing.
I grew frustrated with the service apartment and the lack of space, of living out of a suitcase, of the quiet suburb. I also knew that a large part of my comfort in this new life depended on where I ended up living, so I continued bearing it out and seeing more options. I was at work and one day, my agent called me to meet up for a few viewings. No luck all afternoon but as we walked towards the last apartment, he said to me with restrained enthusiasm that I might like this one. He was right.
I met the owner a day later, he hadn’t rented before, I hadn’t stayed in a rented place ever. He was giving up his home. I was making it mine.
A week later, I moved in. It was a Friday and co-workers had decided to head out for vrjidag middag borrel, aka Friday afternoon drinks, very Dutch and a very boozy start to the weekend. I decided to give it a miss and move from the service apartment to the new house.
I rented an Uber and put my stuff – 2 big bags, 1 cabin bag and a back pack in the trunk. As impossible as it had seemed initially, I was able to fit everything I needed in just these many bags. I remember the last few days before I left India were full of decisions – of what to keep, what to take and what to give up. I had many tough moments; emotional moments and I constantly fought this urge of holding on to things till I returned. I am glad I gave up what I did. It made me feel lighter, freer and like I had simplified my life in some way.
I lugged all my bags, one by one and with difficulty up the dozen stairs and I could feel my arms burn from all the lifting. But I was too excited to bother. Once everything was inside, I made a small video and watsapp-ed it to everyone back home. I filled a glass with water and sat down on the sofa to relax. I remember feeling happy. Proud. Strong. And self-sufficient.
I decided to do nothing else the coming weekend but clean the house, buy some furnishings, decor, flowers, a rug. I hung up some photo-frames that I had got along with me, my parents, my wedding photo, my sister. I cleaned the kitchen, got out my favorite mugs and set my Indian chai and spices in the drawer. I dusted the closet and hung my clothes. I made a list of everything I needed to buy. I found joy in setting up this new space exactly the way I wanted. It was home before I knew it.
I settled into this new life fairly quickly. I joined a local gym and enrolled with some expat meetups. I enjoyed my work tremendously and made some friendships with colleagues. That summer was beautiful, long warm days and full of the buzz that takes over Amsterdam. On weekends I always found something interesting to do, exploring the streets of the city, meeting new people, spending time in my home that I absolutely loved. I traveled to many countries, sometimes alone, sometimes for work. I would look out for the cheap flights, connectivity was super and I became more spontaneous with travel, the kind that can decide on a Thursday morning where to spend the coming weekend. It was not the sort of behavior I expected from myself, but I found a new enthusiasm to act on impulses.
This life exposed me to people, situations and perspectives that opened my own mind and horizon. When I didn’t have much to do, I enjoyed the simple things – getting my groceries, doing my chores, going for long walks by the canal and catching up on my favorite movies and books. I found joy in these rituals, all of which I did alone. I was surprised– I always considered myself a people’s person, someone who enjoyed being in a crowd and socializing, the caricature extrovert and I was amused that I could spend extended periods of time all by myself and actually enjoy it. I guess I had never really had the chance before to find out.
I decided to go back to India in December. It had been 6 months and it was a good time for a break. As I booked my tickets, I felt excited at the thought of meeting my friends and family and sharing tales of my new life and how exciting it had all been, I admit to feeling a bit smug about it all. I reached Delhi on a smoggy December night and over the next couple of weeks I constantly socialized, met friends and family, went out, ate, drank and tried to have a good time. Not much had changed, yet I sometimes found myself a bit detached from it all. At that time, I couldn’t really understand why. On the surface, everything was exactly as it should be. In hindsight, being away created a certain distance, and the reality is that not everyone keeps up. Another reality is that I didn’t keep up either with everyone. I realized that there were relationships in my life that existed, even thrived because of situations or convenience. Those had started fizzling out, organically.
What also dawned upon me were aspects of my past life that I just about tolerated, but they now bothered me much more. For instance, life in Delhi(at least my life) was too busy, too fast, no one had much time, and everyone was basically just running around. It was not the pace I enjoyed. I liked having time for myself and my well-being and I hated being rushed. I also realized that all of my socializing was only centered around food, and while I totally love food, I found the focus of meeting up, to be less on catching up and more on eating. I tried hard to suggest alternates but found most people comfortable with what they were used to, and unwilling to relent. By the end of it, I was all round and jolly and waiting to get on the next flight back home.
A change of scene is a great test of what you can do without 😉 .
Using a bicycle as a daily means of transport is a very prominent aspect of Dutch life. I wouldn’t be joking if I told you that a toddler learns to ride a bicycle before walking 😊. It is said that Netherlands has more bikes than the number of people, and tis true that you will see bikes everywhere – from formally dressed office goers, to families on a bakfiet (a cargo bike with a rider parent and two or three children in the cart), to older people. The bike is unmissable and used as an everyday utility which I found very impressive. It is also extremely convenient in a city the size of Amsterdam, plus cheap and fitness friendly. The more time I spent in the city, the more I got asked when I was getting a bicycle for myself, a true test of my cultural integration.
It took me a lot of convincing myself, because bikers in Amsterdam are rough. Okay, rough is probably not the best explanation but I would say that it comes so naturally to Dutch people that there is complete fearlessness in riding (really)fast and overtaking. And I just wasn’t sure it was for me, the last I rode a bike was on a holiday 6 years back in Kerala and the lack of practice showed as I went crashing into a wall because I couldn’t control my speed at a turning. That memory hadn’t faded but my desire to get a bike overtook my fear at some point. A colleague recommended a store that sold second hand bikes and upon landing at the shop, I tip toed outside for a good thirty minutes. When I went finally in, the guy asked me for my budget and showed me a couple of bikes. I rode all of them and eventually settled on a black Bavaria, got the mandatory bell and the front and back light installed. I then invested in a heavy-duty lock to protect my bike from theft, which cost me a bomb. I wasn’t pleased but bikes get stolen all the time in Amsterdam and I was sure I wouldn’t have the heart to get another one. I then had the scary task of riding the bike back home which was thirty min away. It was too much too soon, and I was nervous as hell, but the deed had to be done. My palms sweaty and struggling to balance my phone so that I could see the route, I got on my bike and started cycling as crazy people whizzed past me. I was sure something terrible would happen, there was no way I would survive this. But I kept going on and when I hit a quieter street, I finally relaxed, the sun, the breeze and the feeling of childlike joy consumed me.
I got used to my bicycle quickly, I rode it to work and I rode it around the city. I crossed a beautiful park every day before I reached work. It had a bridge over a pond which became my favorite spot. It instantly calmed me, no matter how bad my morning. On sunny days, I would even stop at the bridge for a few minutes and watch the ducks and the water. I took my bike to Vondelpark in summers and set up a little picnic for myself, with chips and wine and my book. I went to the movies, I went for dinners, I went to buy groceries. I took my bike everywhere. Except the city center. In my 2.5 years in Amsterdam, that’s one thing I never had the guts to do.
Having my bicycle made me explore streets and alleyways of Amsterdam that I never would have, had I had a car or only used public transport. I especially loved riding it in a park or stopping at a picturesque canal. I loved the crisp autumn days when I could hear the leaves crunching under the tyres. I loved the rare sunny days when I would ride for hours and take in the beauty of Amsterdam. Sometimes, when the sun was shining, I would take a longer route to my destination. As I got more confident of the routes, I stopped looking at the map and would go by instinct. I got lost many times, Amsterdam is weird like that, sometimes the streets defy logic. But I found it fun. Having the flexibility of a bike added to my love for the outdoors and nature, in everyday normal life.
Challenges and Lessons
I was on the way back from a work event one evening and as the taxi pulled up outside my apartment, as is my habit, I put my hand inside my bag to fetch the house keys. When I couldn’t find them in the pocket I generally kept them in, I looked in all the other pockets and still, no keys! By this time, I was getting a bit flustered since it was 11:30 pm and I really had no other place to go. I got out of the car and emptied my entire bag on the curb in panic. The driver was a nice guy and decided to wait. No key still. My mind was blank, and my first impulse was to call someone in India. I thankfully realized it would be 3:00 am and there was nothing anyone could do, so I called the event venue to check if they had found a key, maybe it slipped from my bag when I handed it over? They called me 20 minutes later that there was no key.
I decided to call the apartment’s owner, there was very little chance he would be up, but it was worth a shot before I started looking for a hotel. He answered(thankfully), surprised that I was calling him so late, but between unending apologies I was able to explain what had happened. He had a spare key and I told him I would come and get it. By the time I entered my house that night, it was 1 am and I slipped into bed exhausted.
This wasn’t the only time I was locked out of the house. The house was in an old Dutch building, and the door sometimes got jammed. It then needed multiple tries with the key to get it to the exact position and give it a hard push. I once stood outside for a good 30 min and the door wouldn’t budge. Sometimes I would stop a passer-by on the street and ask for help. Sometimes, I would ring my neighbor’s bell, but it was usually my last resort since he hadn’t ever seemed particularly thrilled to help. I still remember one evening, when I rang the bell and he came out, visibly pissed with a child in one hand. Before I could even complete what I was saying, he said “Sorry, can’t help, the kid is asleep” and shut the door on my face. I was shocked by his rudeness, and hot tears of frustration rolled down my cheeks. I also remember repeating this story to anyone who bothered to listen, it angered me so much. I questioned his behavior and painted many scenarios in my mind, eventually settling on an explanation that wasn’t particularly uplifting. For the most part, I was shocked by his indifference.
I had bad experiences, big and small, over the course of my time there. I guess that is inevitable anywhere. I used to get rattled with things too fast and would defend or explain or convince. These experiences taught me ignorance for those whose views or attitude I did not agree with. And if I just couldn’t ignore, I learnt to forget and move in. Some things just aren’t worth your time or energy.
And then there were more practical lessons to be learnt. One time the fuse went out and there was no heat and hot water in the house. On a video call, I learnt from the owner on how to fix it. I fixed plumbing and gadgets and appliances, lifted heavy things, did odd jobs. I learnt to keep my wits about.
I learnt patience and taking things in my stride. I learnt that all sorts of people make this world. And that people judge all the time. And I learnt that someone else’s opinion of you doesn’t matter, unless you let it. I learnt that you can have things in common with people from halfway across the world. That you can grow in different directions from people you have known all your life. I learnt that things can go wrong, anytime. And I learnt that that’s not the end of the world. I learnt to deal with loneliness. I learnt to be responsible for my own happiness. I learnt to mope.
And I learnt to get on with it.
I met a lot of people because of my work, colleagues, acquaintances, some of whom developed into friendships that I will always cherish. Many amongst these were some very strong, independent women. Like M, who I met at work, who came and left within a couple of months but our friendship continued. Her parents were Indian and she was born and brought up in Netherlands but felt a strong connection to India and I think it was this connection that tied us well. I grew to admire M’s creativity, she sang in three languages and her resilience to deal with personal challenges inspired me.
G, another work colleague who I didn’t quite hit it off from Day 1 but slowly, we developed a warm friendship, an understanding of each other lives and views and culture, an acceptance of our similarities and differences. She tried her hardest to teach me some Dutch and wanted to learn how to abuse in Hindi once too often. Funny, witty G, she taught me so much.
I met S at work as well, and she was from Mumbai, an expat now settled in Netherlands. I loved her vibe, she was smart, straightforward, fun and always smiling. One of those who do exactly what they want, probably why she was always such a happy soul. I was always happy with her.
And then there was J, a Dutch girl I met at an expat meetup and we continued to meet later on, we had many things in common, we loved our work, were crazy about travel and strong headed. It was natural that I would take a liking to her.
Ci, lovely Ci from Suriname, who dreamt of moving back one day, close to sunshine and family in a beautiful big home surrounded by greenery. She did many many things for me selflessly, a trait that I don’t find myself capable of but truly admire. She is the one I gave up my bike to, I couldn’t think of anyone better.
There was Ga from Mumbai, warm creative Ga, and she made me feel at home every time I spoke to her. She wanted to make the most of her time in a new country and was always making plans, to travel, to see something new, to meet someone. I loved her spirit to always go out of her comfort zone.
And then there was C, crazy sweet C. Once at her home, I saw how eclectic she really was, art in every corner, crazy tattoos on her body, and then she surprised me when she took a year off just to travel the world. I could have never imagined someone as soft spoken as her to have this wild and adventurous side.
There were more, so many more people who inspired me with their wit, their intellect, their ethics, their perspective of life, their take on relationships, their focus on happiness. In them, I saw a little bit of what I was, a little bit of what I wanted to become.
Most people at a distance in India felt that my life was one endless party in Amsterdam. There were recurring mentions of how cool it was to live in such a “happening” city, and it always made me laugh. I look at Amsterdam as cosy and cosmopolitan, you have everything, but it still feels very small and village like. After a year of living in the city, I would joke that I knew all the bus and tram drivers by face, that’s really how small it is.
There is no doubt that living in a new city alone is an empowering experience, there is also no doubt that it can get lonely.
It was a sunny Friday in August, and my WhatsApp was buzzing all day as friends were making plans for the evening. Friends in India. I spent my day feeling homesick and to make matters worse, I had no plans that evening for myself. I left from work at 6, constantly checking WhatsApp for updates. As I walked to my bike, I crossed a line of bars that were full of people drinking and enjoying the sun. The chatter and the laughs, the warm summer sun, the drinking, it just threw me off guard with such a strong dose of homesickness, of longing for conversations, of familiar places and home food, of the comfort of shared history.
These moments came to me many times, sometimes a lonely weekend, sometimes a Facebook update, a festival or wedding back home that I was missing, a familiar joke, there were many things that triggered it. In the early days, I would land in a spiral of emotion and find it hard to get out of. Over time, I learnt to handle this feeling better and rather than denying it, I accepted it as a part of living alone and abroad. I know that it’s far more glamorous to paint this picture of a life that is constantly exciting, full of travel and adventure, and that talking of things like sadness and homesickness dilutes that picture, but it is the truth, at least for me.
One day, as I was buying my weekly groceries from the local store, I forgot to carry my phone, something I never did since I always needed Google Translate to read the Dutch labels. I managed to buy everything I needed without the app since I could decipher a bit. When I went to the aisle to pay my bill, the student at the cash counter recognized me and asked me how I was, in Dutch. I surprised myself by continuing the small talk in Dutch, till the billing was done.
Sometimes I went to my favorite coffee spots and the staff acknowledged me. Other times I would get stopped on the road and get asked for directions by confused tourists. It made me happy that I didn’t seem like a flustered outsider in some way. Every time these trivial connections happened, they made me feel less like an outsider.
Lots of family and friends visited me and I would have guests at home for weeks at stretch. I loved it, playing host and taking people around the city. It was a city that had become home and I was always eager to show my version of it. When I traveled, I liked coming back to the comfort of my home and my space.
While two and a half years seems like a significant amount of time, when the final days came, it felt like they came to soon. Reluctantly I found myself in a familiar spot yet again, of sieving through all I had accumulated and deciding on what to take back and what to leave behind. Yet again, I didn’t want to leave anything behind – it was all a collection of my experiences and leaving it was a hard thought. But it had to be done.
The bicycle had to go. The last Saturday before I left Amsterdam, I took it out for a spin around the city. I went to all of my favorite places, the park I crossed every day, my favorite streets and coffee shops, the route to work. And then I stopped at the canal that I loved so much. I parked my bike and watched the water and the birds and the boats. It was a cold sunny day in November, the kind of day I loved, the kind of day that Amsterdam looked it glorious best. I thanked my lucky stars for being there. But it was now time to move on. I called Ci to come and pick the bike up in the evening. It was time.
Over the next few days, I went through my clothes and shoes, the odd pieces of furniture I had bought, décor, linen and kitchen stuff. I made a pile of things to discard and started packing the rest in cartons and labeling them for the shipping company to pick up. I decided to take some things back, even though I knew I would get them in India, for memory sake. A heavy bottom pan that I had gone to Ikea to buy, because I wanted to make my curries. My first French press from Blokker which led me to loving my coffee black, some of my favorite mugs and cutlery, some candles and cushions and throws. It’s always hard to leave things behind.
And then came the task of giving these to their rightful owner, it made me feel sad, like I was leaving a part of me behind. It’s funny how many stories and memories tiny things can actually hold, things are memories in a way. My house looked sparse after all of it was done, the cupboards empty, a cold fridge with no food, no throws and candles that added warmth to my living room, no paintings on the walls. My home that I loved so much was now nothing but empty. I wondered who would live here next, would they love this home as much as I did? I wished they do. Maybe I will come back someday and rent this place again. That’s the last I thought of that home. A thought of hope.
It’s been exactly a year of being back. Being back into familiar territory, into lives of friends and family and catching up and spending time, settling in. Back home, as everyone says. I wonder what home really is? The house where I grew up. The houses I stayed with my parents. The first time I left home for a job and shared an apartment with random strangers in Orissa. My marital home. My first home in Amsterdam. My current home with my husband. All homes. They were all so different, but at some point, in my life, they all felt like my home. And then came the time to move on. So, what is home if not a feeling? A feeling of comfort and belonging at a certain moment. Sometimes it’s people that add to that feeling, it’s the walls and the furniture, your favorite books and paintings, things you love to eat, your bed and blanket. And what you feel amongst it all.
It’s been a year and I remember my time in Amsterdam often, but I now talk about it with decreasing frequency. Sometimes I wonder if with time I will forget it all, and that thought makes me very sad. But then I question that isn’t life about experiencing many things and enriching you and moving forward? And while I always want to cherish the past, I don’t want to live in it. Like many parts of my life, I am glad this happened, it taught me many things about people and the world, about food and culture, about independence and self-reliance. About myself. And it will always fill me with great joy and adventure when I think about Amsterdam – of bicycles and canals, of trams and parks, of home and solitude, of travel and food, of people and friendships. Of a feeling called home.
Have you lived in and loved a another city? How do you feel when you look back?