Packing Light

by Jess Van Nostrand

The Laundress, 1889
Henri de Toulouse Lautrec

As I was finishing my master's degree in London, I had the idea that I should try another country instead of rushing back to the United States like all my classmates seemed to be doing. "I just can't wait to go shopping at Target," one girl used to say as graduation approached. People like her spent their days in London missing home, but I was constantly thrilled and amazing by everything in that city, which seemed new to me even at the end of a year. What’s the hurry? I thought; I was already in Europe, and I could get to any number of great places in just a few hours. So that's what I did. I got on a bus and went to Amsterdam.

The other reason to go right away was that my boyfriend, Mike, who was coming to the end of his long-distance-relationship rope, was going to be about two hours outside Amsterdam in a graduate program. With that in mind, I had designed a Sex and the City image in my head of us having our own apartments but dating on the weekends. So, I handed in my thesis and got on a bus that slowly took me out of England, through France, and into the Netherlands. I was a little bit nervous, but mostly excited to be doing something I had never done, something no one I knew had done, and I watched the approaching landscape with a smile that was part disbelief.

Week One: Confusion

My first week in Amsterdam was fun because I mistakenly thought I was on vacation, so I spent my days visiting museums and exploring the city. I stayed at a bizarre hostel that resembled the bedroom where Little Orphan Annie slept pre-Daddy Warbucks—eleven beds lined up in two long rows. I met lots of travelers, and I was both amazed and comforted by how many other young women were also on their own. On the weekend I took the train to my boyfriend's place and we marveled at the idea of seeing each other every week. Aside from homelessness and unemployment, it seemed like things might really work out.

Week Two: The Flying Pig

The next week, in a moment of desperation, I took a job at the famous Flying Pig Hostel in exchange for free room and board. Those of you who know this famous pot-filled hippie haven where the bar doubles as the reception desk can stop laughing right now. My job was to clean the rooms with a team of three other Piggie Helpers. I don't even like cleaning my OWN room. Cleaning one that has garbage, smoked joints, and mystery surprises belonging to smelly strangers is even less fun. The worst days were those when I had bathroom duty and had to scrub the toilets, also sometimes filled with little surprises. Because all the Piggie Helpers shared one room in the basement and tended to bring home late-night hookups, I was totally sleep-deprived. Sometimes I found myself chanting silently, "You have a master's degree, you don’t have to do this!" but I stuck it out for an entire week, knowing that I had nowhere else to live yet. Even though I did not stay long, I still stop by and see them sometimes—Jos, the mousekilling Frenchman, Sagi, the worlds slowest Israeli vacuumer and the others, but my days of that are over.

Week Three: Waiting Tables

While I was scrubbing the filth of backpackers, I got a phone call from a restaurant owner who had interviewed me the week before when I’d walked around the entire city, stopping in any place that had a hiring sign in the window. The owner offered me a waitressing job at his Dutch restaurant, saying he would give me a chance based on the fact that they have a lot of English-speaking customers and that I had several years of waitressing experience in America (this was, in fact, a lie). I had been in Holland only two weeks and my Dutch was not very strong, but I needed the job and the boss was nice, so I decided to give it a try.

During my first week of that employment experiment, I got a surprise call from a recruiter I had known in London, saying he had a job for me with a consulting firm (let's just call it McCorp Corporation). Although I originally had wanted to avoid large, American, for-profit companies (wasn't I in Holland to learn about another culture?) the indoor gym, all-you-can-eat cafeteria, and relocation package had me converted into a full-fledged corporation-lover. I even managed to stay focused during the interview, which involved watching a small hyperactive French man chart the structure of the company on a white board with colored markers. Although I answered the questions I was asked with confidence, I couldn't help feeling like I was lying the entire time ("Yes, even though I have two degrees in Art History, my first love is selling software!") They seemed to like me, however, and I left with a good feeling about my financial future. I even started telling people that I was temporarily waiting tables while waiting for my work papers to come through for my real job. I should have known I was asking for trouble, but it made waitressing easier while I waited to hear from them.

The restaurant gig worked out pretty well, probably due to the fact that I love chatting with customers and devised a way to get around the language barrier by guessing what people were saying. For instance, if they walked into the restaurant and said, "Blah blah blah blah?" I would say, "Certainly, sit wherever you like!" If they were finished with dessert and said, "Blah blah blah blah?" I would say, "Yes, I will bring the check right over." It wasn’t foolproof, but I didn’t get fired, and I met some really great Dutch people there.

Week Four: Getting it Together (sort of)

It was while waitressing that I decided to run in the Amsterdam Half Marathon, just to see if I could do it. I had never run one before but I had been running for a few years, and I knew myself well enough to realize that I needed a project to motivate and focus me during this unsettling time. But between running during the day, working at night, looking for an apartment, and living with a roomful of stoned partiers, I was getting exhausted. When I went to Mike's house on weekends, I usually showed up looking really scary, dragging my overnight bag behind me and going right to sleep. By the time I left his place, I was repaired, and he would send me back on the train like some boxing coach pushing his fighter back into the ring. "Good luck this week," he’d say, and I would wave to him from the platform, feeling like this was going to be a good week for me.

Week Five: One Step Forward...

Then two things happened: First, I found a room to rent from a woman for a lot of money in her low-ceilinged basement, but it was a home and I eagerly moved myself in, probably ending my relationship with hostels forever. Second, I got an rejection email at my boyfriend's campus computer lab, (yes, email) from McCorp Corp., which until that point had been telling me I was "the one" and it was just a matter of getting the paperwork done.

After that I decided to follow my heart, meaning that I would do in Holland what I could not do in the U.S. Wasn't I there to learn about another culture? Wasn't one of my goals to have adventures and travel more? So in addition to working at the restaurant, I started studying Dutch more seriously, and I finally bought my first Dutch bicycle, an old piece of metal that was offered to me by a homeless man for about the equivalent of seven US dollars. I began traveling on weekends and also began singing again—something I hadn't done for a while—and I auditioned for musical groups and shows, not to get in as much as to gain experience. When the half-marathon came up and I saw the 1924 Olympic Stadium ahead of me, I nearly went crazy with excitement, and when I ran inside it and did the final lap in front of the people in the stands, I realized that pushing myself to do this was critical to my happiness.


From then on, things got to be much more fun. Mike and I biked to Germany randomly one day, not realizing that it would take 6 hours but having an amazing time anyway. I had been wanting to go to for a long time. "We’re in Deutschland!" I shouted when we got to the border as Mike took a picture of me in front of the small sign that signified the change of country. Through rain showers on unlit farm roads, we made the journey back to his house where we rubbed our legs and stayed in bed the rest of the night. "You are the coolest girlfriend," he told me.

The next thing I did was audition for the musical, Saturday Night Fever. There are rituals and habits in highly specialized worlds including professional dancing, but I was not prepared for what I found. Everyone was changing clothes in front of everyone else (I was apparently the only one who foolishly forgot her thong), pretending to be best friends, and wearing tight cotton pants that flared at the ankle. The standard greeting was a triple kiss-kiss-kiss, and celery was the meal of choice. Although the paper number pinned to my shirt was never called, I learned a lot about what it takes to be a professional dancer.

Things have gotten a lot easier lately—I speak better Dutch, I have great friends who are willing to help me when things get difficult, and I even got a raise at work for lasting so long. People always ask why I don’t just live with Mike in his town, where everything would be easier and less expensive. The answer is simple for me and is always the same: I wanted to go to Amsterdam and have my own adventures and make a life for myself, and that is what I am doing. I could always pack up and move in with a boyfriend, but I would not have any of the amazing opportunities I have gotten from being in the city. I think Mike understands this because I have always been this way, and we agree that we love our weird and unusual relationship.

For my birthday last month Mike took me to Paris. We were eating dinner with some friends and one of them turned to me and asked, "So, in order, what are you the most proud of since you moved to Holland?" It was a great question, one that took me several minutes to think about, and one that I encourage every girl to ask herself about her own life. As opposed to a few years ago, I now believe that choosing the more challenging route is the best way to go. I also understand that if everything were a smooth and easy process, in which every girl followed the same path determined by others, I would not be as happy as I am now.

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