When you’re a native New Yorker, you forget that certain things aren’t necessarily universal. For example, in other places, it just might be possible to smile at another human being without prompting them to think, “What are your motives?” For another thing, we have the most abrasive drivers, speakers, complainers, and jaywalkers in the world, but God forbid we leave a table without tipping, because that’s just plain rude. Our residents also have roommates until somewhere around mid-life-crisis point, because yes, rent is that outlandish.
Still, it’s my home. I spent the first eighteen years of my life here, pronouncing my O’s like AW’s when I got angry and expressing no shame about it.
I did travel, though. I lived in Pennsylvania and Maine, where produce was a little cheaper and a shared sidewalk warranted a hello. I visited Toronto and the island of Nevis and went all over Italy in a tour bus; my cousin hijacked the intercom and made up facts that were both false and largely inappropriate.
Mountains, farms, cabin in the woods, and then back to mountains, and not one of these places ever felt home enough. Beautiful, yes. Interesting, very much so, and man, did re-re-relocation do wonders in terms of Facebook friends. But I could never recharge my batteries the way I could in New York. Part of me stayed drained and restless until I was back in my squeaky-floored room in the house I grew up in.
I thought that was just the way things were. Your first home is your one true element, and everything after that’s just a hotel room—that disorganized feeling of living out of a suitcase until you get home and unpack. I thought that, and I was wrong.
I can confidently say that the city of Amsterdam, Netherlands, is positively nothing like New York. Therefore, there should’ve been no logical reason why, after a mere fourteen days in that city, I was relatively sure I’d found my second true element.
In an attempt to rationalize this little epiphany to both the hypothetical disputant and myself, I sat down at the gate during my six hour delay at Schiphol Airport and composed a list of things that are inarguably lovely about Amsterdam.
The boy that I am currently seeing is Dutch, and lives in Hoorn (a so-clean-and-quaint-I’m-reminded-of-Disney harbor town right outside Amsterdam). He’s the reason I visited in the first place, and he also turned out to be a pretty impressive host and tour guide, though this is withheld information. His ego should not get any bigger for fear of a nuclear-sized explosion.
I feel things for him that I’ve never felt. Yet, while he’s a reason, he is not “The Reason.”
“But you’re in love!” they say. “But you’re irrational and hormone-ridden and you’d be happy in a cardboard box right now!” To which I respond, “I wouldn’t relocate anywhere solely for one person, excluding myself,” so actually, let’s count this one as a disclaimer rather than a reason, and start over.
I’m not a master of finance. In fact, I’m relatively sure that the mere act of possessing an English degree makes me automatically worse at it, but here’s my understanding of the monetary system there: You can survive on minimum wage. Not luxuriously, but it’s actually a livable salary. This blew my mind. My previous plan was to dibs my dad’s basement until 30, and flying the nest that early is painfully optimistic around here.
Moreover, there are additional aspects of the Dutch system that some find beneficial, but to avoid getting political, I’m not going to say anything about anything that starts with f and ends with ree healthcare. Also, nothing about how I’m all for it. I will now move on to my second point without saying that yes, please, I would love free healthcare. Seriously. Please.
There’s diversity there, but the kind that’s so natural, all the boundaries get blurred. And I’m not just talking about people, although you could walk through a crowd and hear roughly fifteen different translations of the word, “cannabis.” I’m talking about how, in a split second through the window of the train, the cobblestones are replaced with farms. Cars and bikes and trams and feet all weave in and out of each other on the same roads, and the boats have their own, but just barely. Waiters switch between English and Dutch the way I alternate legs while walking, and the weather moves from a downpour to a heatwave before the sky can either fill up or empty out. And everyone just keeps on going, or keeps on staying, like nothing’s changed.
I pet a sheep there. This is a milestone. I was raised by a woman who packed her stilettos and curling iron the one and only time she went camping.
I’ve become addicted to the Dutch language. Unfortunately, the online program I’ve been using has taught me primarily nouns and has withheld all subjects, verbs, adjectives, and prepositions. The boyfriend taught me greetings, and consequently I spent my whole vacation waving to inanimate objects and saying things like, “Hoi, bomen. Hoi, fiets.”
Nonetheless, I love it. I love how it’s Germanic enough to encourage an English-speaker and Latin enough to frustrate them. I love the g sounds that I really have to work at, because they only exist in our alphabet when we’ve contracted a plague. I love the disproportionate translations. Gloves: Handschoenen. Sight: Bezienswaardigheden.
I’ve been avoiding this point, because I know exactly which assumptions will arise, and that’s not what I am talking about.
Absolutely everyone that I came into contact with was so laid back. Y’know. In the sense that they could form coherent, logical, very-much-on-this-plane-of-reality sentences if they wanted to, but sometimes they just chose to sit in comfortable silence instead. Their motivational levels were also very much so intact, as were the villi in their lungs, but sometimes they skipped the whole live-to-work thing and just lived instead.
These things were all wonderful, and yet, when I found myself staring up at the ceiling in my squeaky-floored room, mere hours after I landed back at JFK, I realized that absolutely nothing on that list was revolutionary.
Most places outside of New York have decent income-to-living-expense ratios. If I were to drive seven hours north, I’d find something that starts with f and ends with ree healthcare. Foreign languages are intriguing in general, and Rome was saturated with diversity, and Pennsylvania had sheep—I just never got around to petting one.
So it turned out that this list (to which you’ve just volunteered a good chunk of your time —sorry) was useless to me. It didn’t explain why I’d fallen in love with a city that was nothing like my own, and it didn’t explain how Amsterdam was any different from the countless other towns where I’d lived out of that mental suitcase.
I’m now going out on the furthest limb with this writer-reader-trust thing to inform you that the next 48 hours consisted mostly of that phenomenon when, as soon as someone so much as mumbles the phrase, “Are you alright?” your lip quivers and you ugly-cry.
Parental units and friends explained that I had been in the presence of the person that I loved, and now I wasn’t, and that hurts. Long distance is hard. And yes, of course that was true. But in addition to missing him, I also missed the most bizarre, insignificant things.
In a country that, eight months ago, had been somewhere between Newfoundland and Papa New Guinea in my fragmentary understanding of geography, I now missed the layout of their supermarket. I missed how Dutch people didn’t leash their dogs, even though they were too well-trained to defiantly seek out your affection anyway. I missed seeing clocks in military time; take geography and add math and that’s how bad I am at military time.
But if my list of real reasons didn’t hold water anymore, there was no logical reason why I should uproot my life and replant it on a continent across the world. These thoughts smacked against my skull like birds stuck in an attack, and then, out of nowhere, they all just dropped dead. Call it a tiny stroke of insight, or call it a tiny stroke, but all reasoning cut out and a single memory resurfaced: There had been some days when I’d woken up rested.
And when I remembered that, I also remembered that there had been this moment on the terrace of this shamelessly European restaurant, when the sun had gone behind the buildings and the breeze was suddenly too much, and I was sitting with the Dutch boyfriend and his Dutch siblings and not-Dutch wine. There had been this unremitting nudging in the pit of my stomach that said, over and over again, “You could live here. You could live here. For real, don’t think; you could live here.”
There were other things, too. Like how the flight from JFK to Schiphol had been quick and painless, but the flight from Schiphol to JFK had included a six hour delay, a wipe-down of my skin to check for explosives, a security woman cupping my pubic bone because the boys’ boxer shorts underneath my dress had been suspiciously bunched, a lost suitcase that took three days to show up again, and—the part that really blows my mind—bumper to bumper traffic eastbound on the Southern State at one AM on a Monday.
I’d renounced Catholicism, but I never fully gave up on spirituality, and I’ve read a lot of spiritual self-help books in my life. A common theme throughout all of them: a gut feeling is the closest we get to a one-sided phone call with the universe. When you’re not where you’re supposed to be, there’s dissonance, and when you are, well, your intuition will let you know it.
I’d found my second home, and every bone in my body knew it. I just had to silence the logic long enough to realize it.