For the second time this year, I found myself crying on an airplane- something I really should stop doing. This time, it wasn’t because a sense of relief had finally washed over me after what seemed like one obstacle after the other. No, this time it was because the airplane had begun its descent to Amsterdam Airport Schipol and my dream return trip was no longer a dream.
At that moment, I remembered the first time I saw the breathtaking Dutch landscape, all while anxiety overcame me. I had no idea what was in store for me once the plane finally landed. I didn’t know what direction I had to go in- hell, I hadn’t ever been on a train but I needed to take one to my final destination. And the Dutch language? I had attempted to learn it months before, but it sounded like a bastardization of English that I just didn’t bother.
Let’s just say that when the plane landed back in 2011, I crossed my fingers and hoped that things would work out. They eventually did, though not always easily.
Things, of course, had changed drastically since that first journey.
The Netherlands would never be just another place I was visiting on my holidays. It was never going to be foreign to me anymore, even if I were unfamiliar with Amsterdam.
No, this country had been my home once not so long ago.
And I knew enough about the Dutch and their culture to desire an experience only they know how to describe: Gezilligheid.
I think that manifested itself in a way that made this trip different than all my other travels. I wasn’t interested in seeing windmills or tulip fields- also it was late September. I couldn’t get the appeal of clogs or anything sold in souvenir stores. And all the attractions that friends had recommended like Madame Tussaud’s and the Heineken Experience were (and they really are) just overpriced touristy fads to me.
No, I wasn’t going to do all of those.
Instead and in the years since returning to Beirut, I thought of all the things I wanted to do should I ever visit the Netherlands again.
I wanted to wander through the aisles of HEMA and Albert Heijn. To sip on Douwe Egberts coffee. To devour all the Gouda and Edam I could get my hands on. To watch Ahmad’s face light up when he tried Poffertjes and bitterballen for the first time. To yell “Dank je wel” and “alsjeblieft” in stores and restaurants. To cycle. To see old friends. To laugh at the Dutch young men with the incredible amount of gel in their hair. To get on the bus with little old Dutch ladies who always stared at me disapprovingly- why I will never know.
These were all fundamental experiences to my life in the Netherlands, and to miss out on doing them again and again, to miss out on showing Ahmad why I couldn’t shut up about them for the past five years, would mean that time had gone to waste.
Secretly though, I also wanted confirmation that I wasn’t looking back at my experience in NL with rose-tinted glasses and selective memory. Because the worst thing that can happen is to look back fondly on things that never were.
And so I went ahead, ticking off the items from my list- my heart almost exploding with joy and feeling overcome with that warm, fuzzy feeling at the completion of each one. I mean, nobody goes to the supermarket every single day- and yet, I found myself in the AH across the hotel almost every morning, buying things like drop and stroopwaffels.
We rented bikes in Maastricht so I could cycle the familiar road from the city center to where I lived and back again once more.
But by doing that, it felt like being home again, that this was normal and happy, that my year abroad hadn’t gone to waste because I came back to Beirut at the end of it. That this knowledge had come in handy somehow- even if it were just for five extra days.
In fact, on some of our walks in both cities, I felt like they were normal occurrences- like we were just any couple who happened to live in the area out for their daily stroll. Yes, it felt that familiar.
It was why when friends and family asked me after the trip to rank Amsterdam versus Paris versus Brussels, there was no doubt in my mind what place took top spot- and will continue to for a very long time.
I did realize that yes, maybe I had glorified some things in the time that had passed. HEMA wasn’t as incredible now that I wasn’t a cash-strapped grad student. The Dutch language was still difficult and hard to grasp. Cycling was a challenge that I made myself undertake to prove a point.
But on the other hand, the food tasted exactly as I remembered it. Even better, the people were suddenly friendlier.
So maybe, my memories weren’t unreliable after all.
But perhaps, the greatest realization I made on this return journey?
I could not have become the person I am today if my eyes had not been opened to a whole different culture- one so quirky and yet so wonderful like the Dutch- just as I was starting adulthood.
And for that, it will always feel like going home.