From hypothetical to The Hague: A semester abroad in the Netherlands

Ellie Canning/THE REVIEW
Spending an entire semester abroad is a daunting concept, but Ellie Canning manages to overcome her fears and embrace The Hague.

Study Abroad Columnist

Before setting out for abroad, I planned frantically. Spending five months away from home meant a lot of items had to be arranged in advance; forgetting something important is not a viable option when trans-Atlantic mail is slow and sometimes costly. In fact, it was like getting ready for college all over again, except all my possessions had to fit in two suitcases. I was terrified of the unknown newness — especially of the people I did not yet know and would have to meet upon arrival.

Boarding the plane gave me comfort. The routine of flying calmed my wild hypothetical questions for a while. Setting my feet on the ground in a concrete location gave me purpose: it was no longer imagination, it was real, and I had to find baggage claim.

Although it was my first time being alone in Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, I was calm while collecting my bags, buying breakfast and getting a train ticket. Among the mix of new voices and new languages, I was suddenly comforted. I love the chatter of other languages around me — though it is unusual where I come from. It means not one, but many are accepted, they have a legitimate place to be heard. The multicultural society of the Netherlands drew me here, and The Hague is home to a myriad of citizens.

After three weeks of being here, The Hague is slowly unfolding before me. I’m becoming accustomed to its rhythms and patterns: I look both ways before I cross bike lanes, I have a public-transport card and I don’t get lost. This is just a scratch on the surface of The Hague’s culture, as my Dutch language skills are limited to three weeks of in-class learning. I anticipate that both language mastery and time spent in the city will enrich my experience.

At the university, I am a World Scholar, so I spent my first semester in Madrid. Now, two years later, I’m constantly weighing my current experience against the last one, even as I try to shake comparison from my mind. Madrid enchanted me, but looking back, my anxiety of encountering situations I couldn’t handle made me timid.

This time, I’m not looking before I leap because I know I spent time on fear. As a study-abroad location, the Netherlands is ideal — exploring is safe on a bicycle, and the bilingual Dutch make their country welcoming for native speakers of English. Fear is a survival instinct, but this is not a city to be fearful of; it’s a city to embrace and become acquainted with.

Adaptation to the city was quick — I morphed into one of the thousands of students who live and study in The Hague, but my university here is the unexpected surprise. Coming from such a large school, I should feel at home among a wash of students, but somehow it feels like I stick out.

Paranoia tells me the Dutch students know that I am not from here, that I am obviously an American, that they’ll make a big deal of it. Happily, this has not been the case. I am simply one among many, my bicycle safely hidden among the hundreds parked casually around the city.
My accent is not odd; it is one among a variety now.

I fit in here; miraculously, I am where I need to be. It assuages my fear that my adaptation has been smooth because I forgot, in my worry, that the prevailing draw to study abroad is the incredible feeling of freedom. Being alone in a new place is scary, solo travel is scary, but the reward on the other side is freedom and personal achievement, and that is worth every day of preparation.

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