Change. There’s a lot of it around lately, and that makes us want to acknowledge that despite how it looks, being an expat in Amsterdam isn’t always about Instagramming new cafes and shopping for scented candles. Reality creeps into the bubble sometimes too.
To illustrate our point, we’ve given the collective pen to Team Kompas’ Richard so he can reflect on recent experiences from a more personal point-of-view, and describe what two years in the city means to him.
I met Neil within six months of moving to Amsterdam. We arrived here around same time and so our need to find friends and feel at home were a mutual priority. Growing up in the same country (and living in the same cities there) acted as a shorthand in the bonding process, essentially fasttracking our friendship. Getting drunk and going out dancing on day one also helped, so now he’s one of my few close friends in Amsterdam, and one of the best people I’ve ever met.
Neil moves back to London in two weeks and I’ll miss him terribly.
But even when he’s across the Channel he’ll still be closer than the geography alone might suggest because while we’ve shared this Amsterdam experience, we’ve also shared our friends – both new and old – in our new city and elsewhere.
It’s a similar story with the rest of our ‘Dam family. Hilary moved to Amsterdam a couple of months before Neil, Tom moved on the same day I did, and Kevin a couple of months later. We didn’t all meet immediately but over time we came together and grew into the city with one another; settling, exploring, swapping survival stories and establishing our lives here.
I just felt my insides fizz and bubble with adrenaline until the words were finally out there
Kevin already moved back to London in June so Neil’s call back there isn’t unchartered emotional territory for me or for the group. In fact Kevin was my first friend outside of work and our story is remarkably similar… we met for a coffee and ended up spending a whole day together. We eventually got drunk and that was that. A good friend was made.
After Kevin left, I’d pondered that I might become blasé if another friend moved away, become a bit hardened or just shrug and roll my eyes. I’d be ‘sooo used to it now’. But this definitely isn’t the case. The announcement was a bolt out of the blue and I was pretty devastated…
I was with a big group of friends at Food Hallen one Sunday night. Tom had been with us for the first part and we’d talked through his tumultuous weekend, doing as much as we could to soothe his raw emotions before he went home for a much needed R&R. Later, once I’d finished boasting about my (for once) salacious weekend, Neil segued into his news with the ominously earnest words:
“So, I have something to tell you all.”
I knew instantly what it was, and my heart responded by bouncing around my rib cage with a mixture of selfless excitement and self-indulgent dread. Mostly the latter if I’m honest, but at the time I couldn’t tell the two apart so I just felt my insides fizz and bubble with adrenaline until the words were finally out there.
“I’m moving back to London”, he said.
I distinctly remember telling my thinky bits to shut up so I could just react for once. And react I did
I’m not sure if the thud was audible to everyone else but I certainly heard it. It was caused either by the sound of my heart valves misfiring like the exhaust on a clown car, or by the words ‘whataboutme?’ being consolidated into a solid lump as they were uncontrollably squeezed forward from my subconscious and then barely detained at the back of my throat.
I kept the words inside but whataboutme? repeated itself like the world’s most unhelpful mantra for another half-hour as we all sat around and talked through the details. But in that instant it also did something remarkable and pushed me off my stool toward Neil’s side of the table to give him the kind of hug I haven’t given often.
Hugs are great things but usually a hug is just a hug; a warm but unassuming greeting, farewell or reassurance, and they look the same to anyone outside of it.
As simple as they should be I’m often awkward in situations that require tactility. I get too thinky and ruin the natural fluidity required for expressions of affection that seem genuine, or it makes me look like I don’t want it. Not true, but I’ve had a lot of awkward, misjudged hugs in my life thanks to this trait and this was the first time that in a long time that I didn’t really care but just needed to squeeze, really squeeze someone. Not to just say ‘hi’ or ‘it’s going to be ok’, but as if I might absorb a little bit of them that I can keep forever.
I’ve experienced this a few times before but it’s a rare sensation for me and my response to it shocked me, actually. I distinctly remember telling my thinky bits to shut up so I could just react for once. And react I did.
I didn’t really care and just needed to squeeze, really squeeze… as if I might absorb a little bit that I could keep forever
I sat at the stool next to Neil and tightly wrapped my arms around his shoulders. I squeezed him just like I’d wanted to and then I kissed his cheek. I don’t remember much other detail over the next few minutes other than Hilary – Neil’s closest friend – having to leave the table to console herself.
She’d been his only confidant while he went through the process of winning his dream job. This wasn’t news for her but it was raw and she was sad. Hilary felt it as much or more than the rest of us. No one is closer than Neil and Hilary.
It’s bittersweet for Neil too. He isn’t relocating because of any discontent here. He’s happy in Amsterdam with his friends and a new house, but when chances like this one arrive they call for perspective and serious evaluation. We all know it’s what you don’t do that can cause regrets, so you go for it when it feels right, and this feels right.
After the shock subsided and everyone had a goldfish bowl-sized gin in their hands to steady the nerves, we got to what was important; Neil. Our great, great friend has an opportunity that nobody with half a brain cell would let go of. The brain – that annoyingly rational beast – has finally kicked in and then the heart eventually catches up too. Both are in agreement.
Eras are like a club, yet we’re often unaware we belong to one until our membership expires
Inner peace sweeps around the table as we get out of our own heads and realise that Neil is onto a good thing. But those of us who stay in Amsterdam don’t lose out either. We don’t un-meet people when they move away, so nothing has changed; Neil is in our lives, he’s just a bit further away than he was before. He’s now one more great person to visit and another reason to step out of the all-consuming Amsterdam expat bubble for a bit.
But there’s one more thing to be grateful for and to talk about which forms the crux of this out-of-the-ordinary post on Kompas… Eras.
They’re abstract things but they’re eventually tangible and always precious. We all have memorable ones at some time in our lives and although – by definition – they always end, we learn so much during one of these times and we feel deeply about them way into the future thanks to the rarity and intensity of the experience.
We are a part of them with other people, as if they’re a club, yet we’re often unaware we belong to one until our membership expires. They can’t be renewed and really, that’s ok; all of the members have to leave it around the same time too. Everyone moves on, but they’re always with you in one way or another.
For me, an era is the lump sum of good and bad experiences that when averaged out are overridingly rewarding and worthwhile. They are true stories that I, as protagonist, would never act out differently.
We’re fortunate to have aspirations and careers that take us to different places. We leave as often and as easily as we arrive and that’s the way it is
Many people’s first era is school, be it high school, college or both. Often they’re described as ‘the best days of your life’. I don’t share the nostalgia of others for my days in education so I had my first really memorable time period – my era – straight after college, when I moved to London as a terrified and shy 21-year-old to work in a bar.
I met people that changed my life and each of those people experienced the era with me. They all know they’re a part of mine as much as I know I’m a part of theirs. Some of its members are more remote than others, but nothing changes the time we had and it brings us back together in spirit whenever any of us wants. It’s like having a super power.
Neil is moving. Kevin already has, and I suspect these guys won’t be the only ones who go. We’re a transient bunch, expats, and the words of a good friend at work (another brit who’s lived in The Netherlands for 10 years) finally become relevant to me.
He calls this effect The Curse of The Expat Lifestyle. It means we’re fortunate to have aspirations and careers that take us to different places. We leave as often and as easily as we arrive and that’s the way it is. I always understood what he meant but I’d never experienced it for myself. Sympathy has become empathy, and so I’ve grown up a little bit more.
The day after Neil broke his news, my landlords told me I needed to move out of my beloved apartment.
Change. There’s a lot of it around lately, but it’s ok; it’s just the end of an era – a really great one – and the start of something new. This is life and everything is fine.