Europe is burned into me.
On the surface I shouldn’t like it.
The cities are busy and often crowded. I prefer open spaces.
The weather is variable, often downright freezing in the north. I prefer hot and sunny.
It’s expensive. I definitely prefer cheap.
And yet, every time I come here, I get a feeling that I struggle to put into words.
There’s something about Europe that talks to my soul.
I know that a lot of this is cultural baggage. I’m from New Zealand. The country was colonised by Britain 170 years ago and despite its location – about as far from Europe as you can get – that legacy remains today. Before the earthquake last year, Christchurch – a city I lived in for many years – was often described as ‘more English than England’.
When young New Zealanders strap a pack on their back and bravely go to the airport for the first time, it’s usually Europe that we’re heading for. It’s a rite of passage – first stop London, then trains, buses and beaten-up campervans take us around the continent for a few months until we run out of money.
We climb the Eiffel Tower to admire a city that we’ve dreamed of for as long as we can remember – and have a beer to celebrate.
We wander around Rome’s cobbled streets, soaking up the history while avoiding the swarm of Vespas – and think of our old Classical Studies teacher when we do it.
We run with bulls in Pamplona, throw tomatoes at each other in Buñol, drink our bodyweight in beer in Munich and bitch about the crappy coffee in London.
That’s just what we do.
To be honest, though, I thought I was done with all of that. I saw a lot of Western Europe when I lived in London in the late nineties, and have spent a small fortune returning there several times since.
There was so much more of the world to see, I figured. So many other cultures to immerse myself in. I had fallen hard for South East Asia, and was already starting to think about a stint in Central America next year. Despite planning to be here for a few months, Europe almost felt like an afterthought – a way of killing time between the things I really wanted to do.
And then I arrived in Amsterdam last week.
I felt like shit after a day and a half on the plane from Melbourne. The wind blew straight through me, reminding me that (a) May is not summer and (b) I hadn’t packed enough warm clothes. I walked towards the tram stop trying to remember which way to turn to spot oncoming bicycles before they ran me down, and started to wonder why I’d flown halfway around the world to be here.
Then I looked around.
Narrow buildings crowded together as if huddling against the cold. Indignant ducks scattered from the canal as a small boat coughed past. Two friends rode by, chattering happily in Dutch while their wheels rumbled noisily across the cobblestones.
Despite the jetlag, despite the cold, despite my expectations, my mood started to lift.
There was a sense of familiar unfamiliarity at every turn. I couldn’t read the menu or the signs in shop windows – but unlike in Thailand, I sort of could. I didn’t know exactly how the transport system worked, but I could figure it out. Memories – both my own and a shared cultural heritage – flooded to the surface, and a strange sense of happiness crept over me.
I was back in Europe… and I was happy about it.
Braced against the cold I explored Amsterdam for the next few days. I rejoiced in the fleeting spring sunshine while walking through Vondelpark. When the weather turned nasty a cozy cafe beckoned, offering hot soup, weak coffee and great beer. The delightful mystery that is bitterballen was reintroduced to my diet, as was a chain of bagel outlets that may have ruined me for that foodstuff anywhere else in the world.
I drank in the bars and ate in the restaurants. My feet ached after hours on cobbled streets, dozens of languages swirling around me all the while. A global, yet uniquely Dutch, food festival soaked up most of one sunny afternoon. And I smiled. A lot.
This feels like a homecoming to a place I have never lived.
I’m glad to be back.
[Octoberfest image via uLe @ Dortmund]