It felt like I had got off in the wrong town. It was quarter past eight on a Wednesday morning and the parking lot outside Utrecht Centraal was eerily quiet. The air was cold and grey snow huddled in the corners, seeking refuge from a brisk wind.
Perhaps it was the wintery conditions, or the fact that the station was undergoing some large-scale reconstruction, but this certainly wasn’t the Holland I had been expecting. Where were the tulips, the canals, the historical buildings?
Winter is a bleak time anywhere, and first impressions can be hard to shake.
Inside was considerably cheerier and I managed to find the ‘welcoming party’ promised by the international student network. I was rewarded with some vague information about the local buses and reassured that no, it wasn’t usually this cold in the Netherlands.
I had three hours to kill before I could get my room key so decided to head into town for some breakfast. My bags were awkward and I clumsily maneuvered onto the bus and mispronounced where I wanted to go. The driver corrected me and pointed out the right change from the pile of foreign shrapnel in my palm, a welcome aid for my sleep deprived brain.
Then the bus turned out of the station, paused briefly at a light and continued 500 metres down the road before stopping. I glanced absent-mindedly out the window, taking in the picturesque brick facades and their smattering of snow. No-one gets off. The driver looks around confused, and I pick up on it. He senses this and turns to me:
“Neude? This is where you wanted to go?”
I jumped up apologising, grabbed my bag and bailed. Two and half Euro for that shit?! It seems outrageous that such a short ride would cost so much, but more than anything I was annoyed at seeming like such a rookie. The girls at the station had laughed when I had suggested walking to town and so I was expecting a longer ride, despite earlier google research to the contrary.
I now know that you can walk directly through the station and into the centre of town without even leaving the building – so why in the world would they put me on a bus with a flat rate fare when I was only going one stop? I’ll never really know but the swirling snow, that strange interaction on the bus and my cumbersome bags were conspiring against my resolve to be positive.
Things seemed strange. The café was quiet and the menu indecipherable in a much more intimidating way than when you are in a poor country and can afford anything. My previous travelling experience is almost all third world, and I felt strangely vulnerable in the first – as if they might be less receptive to my presence than in a culture where they have endured generations of putting up with foreigners.
I think more than anything it was my fear of being alone and clueless. When I look back I realise that it was the first time that I had entered a completely foreign place on my own. Sure I had backpacked alone in Cambodia and Thailand, but by the time I became solitary I was already familiar with the region and its workings. Here I knew none of the language, had no map and no idea of what was normal.
So it was a slightly off-putting arrival. I ate an average sandwich (the first of what would be many broodjes) and had a glass of orange juice. I fiddled with my computer trying to get onto the café’s temperamental wi-fi then gave up and stared out the window at the cyclists rugged up against the weather.
Eventually I decided to venture out and wander around. My walk led me past my first coffee shop and on the way back to the bus stop I decided to pop in. It was dingy inside and the piquant smell of pot hung heavy in the air. I surveyed the list on the wall calmly, as if it was all a familiar process.
“Can I get a gram of white widow please?”
(How did I decide? Went for the cheapest strain, obviously.)
“And do you have papers?”
The guy nods, reaches into a drawer below the counter and grabs out a small plastic bag. I fork out some euro and he hands me the bag. I look down the stairs to the café below and hesitate:
“I can just take it?”
He nods, bemused, and I shove the bag in my pocket and head back to the anonymity of the street. In my awkwardness I forget to ask about the papers and lighter.
While still sceptical about the motives of the Dutch bus company I was committed to one more ride. I only knew the name of my stop, not when it came in the sequence, and my last minute press of the buzzer fell on deaf ears. I hopped off at the next stop and got my desired walk after all.
The landlord isn’t there but I buzz and one of the housemates lets me in. He is friendly enough, and directs me to one of the spare rooms. He says that he thinks it is mine but isn’t sure. It’s not long after I have the last piece of clothing out of my pack when the landlord’s wife shows up with the keys and the excellent news that I am in the wrong room.
So I switch rooms, and finally grab some sleep.
Later I meet the other new housemate, a shy girl from the Czech Republic. Her English isn’t very good and my polite questioning is met with little enthusiasm. I soon give up.
The wireless isn’t working, so I have to sit on the stairs to check my email. I am restless and walk into town determined to achieve something. I finally get some papers and a lighter, and find a bike.
So far I haven’t gotten too lost – but this will come. The white streets all begin to look the same and the Dutch have a nasty habit of switching street names for every block. Writing out directions is like penning a short novel. I give up and go for the cavalier “I have a sense of direction so I’ll just draw the turns on my hand and I’ll be fine” approach. For the most part it actually works, but occasionally the system fails and I get spectacularly lost. Luckily the Dutch all speak impeccable English and are more than happy to help a frostbitten foreigner.
My first day finally rounds out with a trip to the local Albert-Hein. Supermarkets are one of those things that can really throw you when you arrive somewhere new. You don’t realise it at the time but you become incredibly familiar with a particular supermarket experience: from the products and language to the routine and politics of checkout exchanges. So it is a curiosity to try and figure it out and I wander round, not really sure what to buy.
I am strangely neurotic about being outed as a foreigner, and this is a feeling that lingers for the rest of the exchange. I just want to fit in, to get that sense of being part of the stream rather than outside it, and pausing and staring at something as mundane as tomato soup is a dead giveaway. Fortunately this paranoia decreases with time, and I now have no qualms eye-balling the different dinner options on display.
I grab the staples: fruit, eggs, bread, cereal and milk. I avoid the pitfall of buying buttermilk instead of regular milk and am spared the indignity of tangy coco pops for breakfast. When I hear this story I find it outrageously funny; it is just the sort of thing that I was trying to avoid and it is reassuring to know that others are in the same boat.
Weeks later in a moment of hurried absent-mindedness I slip up and the deceptive buttermilk finds its way into my basket. In telling the story my friend forgot to mention the name of the offending substance, so I too am subjected to the strange taste of Carnemelk. I stubbornly persist with it, a weird testament to the desire for control all humans share.
All in all it was a typical first day: equal parts uncertainty and small victories. I had ticked a few points off the checklist: I had a room, entertainment in the form of buds, and transport in the form of my new cruiser.
The Dutch chapter had begun.