“This moment shall be vivid. Bring on the Islands, the foreign languages, the unfamiliar streets and let it be uncertain. Everything’s uncertain. I feel the excitement that lies therein.”
I wrote the words above when I was 22 and departing on a ten-week self-directed research trip in four countries. I was dramatically alone, but I did not feel that way. As I prepared to leave for Europe this time, again, six years later, I felt unprecedentedly alone and afraid. I am not twenty-two anymore, I thought, as I justified the anxiety in my heart and my soul. No, I am twenty-eight, and while I planned this trip to its every detail, I felt out-of-control. I was preparing to move to Europe for six months, and I couldn’t help but feel that my plane would go down over the Atlantic, or that I would arrive in a dilapidated apartment with a landlord who hated me, or that I would blunder into work on my first day.
I am careful, an actual adult now: I don’t like risk like I used to. What am I doing? I did not sleep for a week before my trip, thinking of all the things I had to do to ensure my trip went well. I printed out every document, putting copies of my passport in a spare bag in case my purse was stolen and taking two copies of the papers I needed to enter the country. I called my mom the night before and worried about customs and visas.
There is a degree of planning that goes into being an adult that I was unfamiliar with as a college student. I never was scared to get on a plane, move to a new country, travel with strangers, or trust the future. Trust is not a strength I’ve necessarily cultivated, although I had it, once, willing and open. Then, I spent six years in the United States, a comfort zone, cultivating close friendships and holding onto people and places where I felt safe.
I started couchsurfing in 2009 while living in France, but now, I was struggling with the idea that I had contacted a stranger online to host me for New Year’s Eve. Wouldn’t it be better to just go to my empty apartment in the Hague and spend New Year’s alone? Better than trusting the unknown, better than believing in the old hopes I used to hold (that people are good, and helpful, and trustworthy, and welcoming). Somehow, the fear of being alone overrode all my fears.
Internally, I was struggling, but I chided my mother when she worried that I was staying with strangers for New Year’s and giggled at my father when he gave me some euros for when I arrived. “I’m fine, don’t worry about me.”
My couchsurfing host was warm and gracious. Like they all have been. He fed me traditional pastries that many Dutch eat on New Year’s Eve then let me pass out on his couch because I was jetlagged. When I awoke, we hopped in his little car (all Europeans have little cars) to go to the grocery store for dinner fixings. We cooked pasta in the small kitchen before breaking open wine, and his friends arrived to celebrate the arrival of 2017.
I was standing on the couch rooting on midnight with the countdown, whooping and cheersing as it found us there, before we rushed to the balcony to watch the fireworks and fill ourselves with the world, living strong and proud and brave and pure.
The balcony was wet, cement, and cold when I ran onto it in my socks at midnight, hollering at the sound of fireworks and the joy of new life. The fog over the canal lit up with fireworks, lanterns (released up with wishes), and streetlamp glow. The steady boom and crackle of hundreds of fireworks exploding everywhere along the water became enlivening as the minutes crept past midnight and the children kicked firecrackers down the sidewalks. People stood along the edges of the quay where the houseboats were moored. Cold and coatless, champagne in my hand, I felt breathless and alive, looking down on the street Levantkade both ways so I could see every burst of light, every cloud of escaped breath, every couple trying to light a lantern along the pier, as the night curled around them and heaved and rejoiced and began anew.
My host and his friends stayed awake until 4 am with me, talking and listening to music. We all fell asleep in the living room when the late hour began to feel heavy. In the morning, I took the train from Amsterdam to Den Haag, watching the low canals and small birds, swans and windmills, pass in the gray light. The lifting fog cast a dewy fresh-day glow. I felt complete again, right, where I belong.
I hustled out of the train station to the metro where I caught a tram to my new apartment. It was not long before I was lost, and my phone was not working, but I asked three different strangers for directions, and it felt familiar. I’ve been lost before. I’ve been in strange streets, confused, looking for help. It feels refreshing to be alone and lost again; I forgot what it feels like to try, to struggle, to trust the process. When I find my apartment, my landlady is not home, but I wait on the doorstep until she comes over, laughing and apologetic and beautiful, from the neighbor’s house where she’d been passing time. “You weren’t waiting long, I hope?” she asked. “I just arrived,” I replied. I have arrived.
She leads me inside, and I know, whatever anxieties I had are now gone. I was meant to be here, in the world, confused, afraid, figuring it out. It is what makes me whole.