Soft landing in the Netherlands

Soft landing in the Netherlands

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Hallie Engel had visited the Netherlands before, but this time it was for real. She was on her bike, cycling into her first day of student life in Amsterdam.

After a quick shower and a bowl of cereal, I’m astride a rusty silver bicycle, making my way to the first day of class at Amsterdam University College. Turning a corner and braking at a red light, I try and catch my balance with the tip of my sneaker; the seat on my bike is too high and my toe barely grazes the ground. Before I know what’s happened, I’m pinned underneath the metal frame on a grassy divider between lanes. At least I landed somewhere soft!  

A few months ago, I thought I’d be restarting my academic career in rainy Vancouver, BC. I’d been accepted to the University of British Columbia and was planning my relocation, when, for no particular reason at all, I looked up the University of Amsterdam website on a late July evening. Perusing its pages, I stumbled onto the homepage of the school’s newest addition, the University College, which offers a bachelor degree programme in English.  I was enchanted by the idea of biking around the city, eating fries doused in mayo, and of course, being part of the College’s first entering class.  I put my Canada travel guide back in my desk drawer and printed out an application. 

Time was running out, and I spent the next few weeks rushing transcripts and paperwork to Amsterdam.  I spent hours crafting application essays and not knowing if fate would place me in Canada or Europe, dodged questions from friends about my future plans. A few hours after chatting with a university representative over the phone, an acceptance note arrived in my email. I could almost smell the fresh herring. 

Suddenly things got real. My fantasies of an idyllic European life disappeared as I stuffed an old suitcase with sweaters and a cheap umbrella.  Thoughts of everything that could go wrong flooded my mind: the school could shutdown partway through the year, plagued by unforeseen problems. The euro could rise even higher, driving the cost of living through the roof. 

I could hit a snag in the complicated visa process or decide partway through that the problem was with me, and that I wasn’t ready to go back to school after a long absence.  A little deep breathing calmed me down, and I realised if the University of Amsterdam had been going for a few hundred years, it would probably continue to do so.  

There were other things to handle beside frayed nerves, of course.  I signed up for international student insurance, which at a cost of a few hundred euro a year for comprehensive coverage, was a bargain compared to anything I might get in the States. Jumpstarting the involved visa process cost a pretty penny though— it seems the Netherlands has a long way to go in streamlining the procedure if they want to attract students from outside the EU on a large scale.  

Forms filled out and fees paid, I boarded a flight to Holland half excited, half terrified.  Allaying my fears with complimentary wine and in-flight movies, I finally began to relax; there’s little that Merlot and a cheesy romantic comedy can’t fix.

Photo flickr by earcos
Amsterdam canals, taken with a 10-20mm lens ©  earcos

After a connecting flight in Frankfurt, I was hauling a pair of unwieldy suitcases through Schipol and onto a train downtown. The trip was a familiar one, as I’d been to Amsterdam several times before.  This time, it looked different though: it wasn’t a travel destination to be pillaged in a few days packed with museums, furtive walks through the red light district, and perhaps a visit to a dingy coffee shop.  It was my new home, a place I’d get to know inside and out, somewhere I’d see seasons change.  Somewhere in the city I had friends yet to be made, a life yet to be lived.  The next few months were sure to be busy ones.

A few hours and a visit to the student housing office later, I was sprawled across my bed in my dorm room in the east of town. A breeze from the open window ruffled the curtains and I stared at bicyclists and trees in the field across the way.  

I’d definitely landed somewhere soft.


Photos credit:  earcos

Hallie Engel is an American student and budding writer living in the Netherlands. 

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