Amsterdam: 10 years on

Ten years ago I walked out of this building for the first time. I was pretty confused.

On my first trip to Amsterdam I had no idea what I was doing really, or what I was getting myself into. As if to underscore this fact I took a Valium before boarding the plane.

I don’t remember much else of the flight, except miraculously waking up around mealtime, and shoveling some food into my mouth before passing out again, only to awaken in Frankfurt for a layover.

I caught one more flight and before long I was escorting my naive jet-lagged confusion out of the front door of Amsterdam Centraal Station; I had arrived in Amsterdam, with no idea how it was about to change my life.

That was about ten years and one week ago. And that academic year of 2003-2004 altered my life forever. But at that time I was sort of enthusiastically numb; excited about all the foreignness, but mostly just shrugging my way into it. I’d somehow maneuvered the pieces into place: resuming my university education, getting accepted for a yearlong academic exchange, packing up, having a wonderful bon voyage party in Vancouver, and then boarding the flight.

And nothing would ever be the same.

Stranger in a strange land
The education I received, the people I met, the work I did, the places I saw – everything, I suppose – was some kind of alchemy that created a whole new indescribable element. The most potent ingredient was a stunningly beautiful Italian exchange student – now my wife of five years, partner of ten. And around us was a supportive, fun-loving and reckless group of students from all over the world, many of whom feature heavily in my memories, and whom I’m still close with.

I also managed, at an early desperate moment, to narrowly avoid the drudgery of a temp job at a Dutch call centre by getting invited to work with Boom Chicago, the internationally renowned improv and sketch comedy company. So when not in classes, or sitting in a park with friends, I was travelling around the Netherlands performing comedy, and seeing many anonymous towns and train stations, all the while earning rent, grocery and beer money. It beat hell out of answering phones for some financial services centre.

As far as student jobs go, performing here
sure beat working in the Totem Park cafeteria. 

I also learned a whole new approach to improv to counter-influence my inclination towards gentle organic longform. That experience has heavily influenced the way I practice and teach improvisation to this very day.

Now when I perform I could just as easily be by myself doing a completely open show inspired by being in the moment at every moment – or doing a high-energy, punchline-filled late night show at Boom’s new location on the Rozengracht.

But beyond finding the love of my life and taking a couple big steps down the path of ‘doing what I love for a living’ there are so many other occasions of note: Thursday night borrels; film nights at the ISHSS; pick-up games of football in Oosterpark; attempting to cook fit-for-human meals in my dodgy student flat on the Weesperstraat; and staying up late drinking cheap beers and repeatedly getting destroyed at chess by students from around eastern Europe.

I was a foreigner, living like a long-term tourist, and I loved the outsider experience I was sharing with all my friends.

I also started studying Dutch, and learning as much as I could about the city and its history. And every day here I was bit by bit falling in love with this city. And learning to feel at home here.

Going forth, and back
Memory has a strange effect on the present. Often just by doing something a couple times we can go back
and do it again and start to feel comfortable. That’s how we learn to ride bikes, tie our shoes and bake muffins. And it also holds true for places and experiences – we go back to places where we once were and feel comforted. Nostalgia is a powerful tonic.

So after nine and a half years of being away, moving back to Amsterdam felt relatively easy. And settling into life here felt less disorienting and discomfiting than it could have been, thanks to the familiar faces (and the unfamiliar yet ridiculously friendly and helpful ones), who have helped smoothed our transition.

I’ve returned to the land of windmills.

And now after eight months of living in back in Amsterdam, we’ve arrived at the ten year anniversary of that first sojourn. It’s an anniversary I share with many other folks. And I’ve enjoyed a flurry of Facebook messages and reminisces, as people I’ve known for almost ten years exactly think back on their time in Amsterdam.

It impacted us all, and now many of them are pregnant or parents, or moving on to new phases or cities or jobs, and at least one is fighting bravely for his life. For all of us, hearing “Amsterdam” – conjures up warm thoughts and fond memories.

Amsterdam makes me think about riding those bike paths along the canals, falling in love, being blissfully naive and irresponsible, but having little to no idea about how profoundly my life was being changed, even as it was happening.

Good old Amsterdam
It’s hard to apportion an appropriate amount of gratitude to the city itself; so much of what’s happened has to do with a confluence of events, people and time. And yet, without getting too mawkish, I must say thanks to Amsterdam itself. It sure has done a tremendous job of sticking around, both in memory and, as the city I call home, my day-to-day life.

I don’t remember what I was thinking when I wandered out of Amsterdam Centraal Station ten years ago, but I suspect it was something along the lines of “Oh this is neat. It sure is a swell thing that you’re doing Ryan”.

I’m damn sure it wasn’t “This year will irrevocably and profoundly change your life for the better. You’ll learn things you never thought you needed to know, and start changing in ways you never even knew you needed to. And you’ll fall deeply and lastingly in love. Oh, and ten years later you’ll be back here, living life as a fully grown adult.”

And, as is the case with so many important truths, I would never have believed it anyway.

2017-09-14T08:43:43+00:00 September 5 2013|