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.
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.
It seemed like the easiest choice in a year that had been anything but: the chance for some new scenery, and a reprieve from the demands of reality. So I applied for an exchange, determined to get away from the grind that I felt my life in New Zealand had become.
It had been four years since I moved to Auckland, and for all the joys of being a student there was a bitter current undermining my happiness. Weighty tomes of law and self-imposed high standards strung me out, the late nights serving drinks to future employers adding to the dark rings silhouetting my eyes.
In hindsight it wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it was, but there was no denying the drag of routine. The general fatigue at the all-encompassing nature of university was heightened by a summer spent researching in the Psychology department – starting a new year yet feeling like I had never left. It was a daunting year too – the pressures of an honours research paper atop a heavy course load, with promises of a corporate internship to follow. It felt like my next few years were already written for me, and that my role was to dutifully complete the steps. I found the whole prospect of it somewhat stifling, and was deeply sceptical of my own motives for taking this path.
So I decided to opt out, to take some time to re-evaluate my commitment to the corporate future that awaited me. An exchange was the perfect pretence: “overseas study” an obvious euphemism for a government-funded holiday. The choice of destination was one that didn’t overly concern me – anywhere but here, screamed a part of me, and so distant Holland it was.