I’m not sure how you picture an exchange, if you’ve never been on one. I’m not even sure that I had a picture in my mind when I upped and left Auckland at the end of last year. The Exchange Office’s propaganda promised “international experiences” and “new friends;” and the walls in their office were crowded with pictures of people in exotic locales smiling maniacally for the camera.
At the final meeting there were murmurings that things mightn’t all be roses and sunshine, and that we should prepare for “culture shock” – but I paid them little heed. I’d been overseas before and knew what was to come, more or less: crazy nights, hot girls and little responsibility getting in the way.
The snow that enveloped the city over those first few frigid weeks eventually dissipated, but not without claiming a few victims in the process. I saw one old man’s bike slip out on the ice, and he smacked ungracefully into the pavement. The Dutch are a resilient lot and before I could offer help he had dusted the snow off his blazer and was back on his way, wobbling gingerly through the cold.
Frozen canals melted and the tulip bulbs tentatively poked their heads above ground. The arrival of spring was tangible and the first few sunny days saw a marked change in the attitude of the town. The locals discarded their winter depression in celebratory fashion, thronging the cafes and bars fortunate enough to catch the evening sun.
The shift in the weather was accompanied by a myriad of other changes. I became familiar with the tiny Albert Hein aisles, the rules of the bike lane and the nuances of bar service (“Mag ik twee biertjes alstublieft?”). I went to class, most of the time, and began to form some tentative friendships with my fellow internationals.