Grainy Amsterdam scene

There’s something about Europe

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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.

Octoberfest 2009

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.

Amsterdam bagel tapas

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.

Hey Europe?

I’m glad to be back.

[Octoberfest image via uLe @ Dortmund]

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  1. 😉 I have yet to travel to all of amazing places you’ve been but it’s reassuring to me that with all of your experiences you are still captivated by Europe! I just uprooted my life in the USA to move to Europe last week (Holland 🙂
    Not sure if you’ve been asked but have you ever been to a country that you’ve fallen so in love with you’ve considered permanent relocation?

    1. Awesome! The more I go to Holland the more I love it, quite frankly.

      To answer your question – yes, and then again no. 🙂

      I come across places surprisingly often that I fall in love with, and think ‘I could happily live here for several months’. Sometimes I actually do – Chiang Mai, for instance – and other times I don’t.

      The idea of a permanent relocation though? I don’t think so. I’ve moved to places with that idea in mind in the past (a long time ago) and it hasn’t worked out … I think I’m better off these days enjoying a place for a few months and moving on, although some of those places I could see myself returning to for regular several-month stints each year or two.

  2. if your are in rotterdam next monday there are many parties every where for the paris to rotterdam run if you are in south holland come and join me for a beer or 10 🙂

  3. I think for those of us who come from “newer” places, Europe has a special sort of old charm that we just don’t get in our home countries.

    1. Yeah I think you’re right … I find most parts of most cities quite soulless back home. Not a claim I could level in Europe! 😉

  4. Hey Dave, I completely understand the feeling! Europe is definitely seen as a rite of passage for young Aussies! It’s a shame it’s so damn expensive!

  5. You might be pleasantly surprised by the state of the coffee in London next time you pass through – it’s improved dramatically since I first arrived (when the Flat White in Soho was just about the only decent option) – in the last couple of years there has been an explosion of (mostly but not exclusively kiwi/aussie-run) cafes and roasteries – there’s even a “London’s Best Coffee” app!

    1. Now that *is* good news! It has been terrible every time I’ve been in London, but I guess last time (2010) I was out in the suburbs and was stuck with bad coffee chains and even worse cafes. Next time I’ll be heading to the city for my caffeine fix!

  6. Born in London, lived most of my life in N.Z. – I know exactly what you mean. Above all Amsterdam is unique – looking forward to being back there in September.

  7. I couldn’t agree with you more, Dave. There is something about Europe that gets under my skin too and although I try to venture away from Europe, I still feel myself drawn there. Have a great trip!

  8. Haha. I definitely needed to read this. I’m a New Zealander who’s been traveling since November 2010 – Asia and Europe mostly. I’m from Christchurch, too. Back home for what was supposed to be a week long trip which has been extended a bit due to a few circumstances. I feel like I have a million reasons to stay and I’m feeling a bit on edge about my summer trip back to Europe. But, you’re right. There’s something dreamy and wonderful about it, despite it being a place I shouldn’t like (due to costs and just general lack of rawness that I love about Asia).

    I definitely needed to read this today, so thanks. I know that I have to go back, even if my heart wants to stay here.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Izy!

      If you’re anything like me, all those fears will quietly dissipate somewhere in the 24 hours between Christchurch and Europe. 🙂 I do know what you mean though … leaving can be the hardest part.

  9. I’m not sure I will ever get tired of Europe. It is naturally so diverse and changes all the time anyway. Glad you have found that you can come back and still enjoy it.

    I like the description of feeling happy to be in a place despite the jetlag. I love that feeling. It reminds me just how much I enjoy travel. It happens with night trains too.

    1. It’s a really weird feeling hey? Your body is crying out for sleep and yet you’re getting excited despite yourself. Very odd … but kinda cool!

  10. hey Dave, Since I read your post about traveling to Pai on the worlds worst scooter I am a real fan. Funny you were here in Amsterdam, where I live. Hope you had fun and ate enough bitterballen and pannenkoeken, have a good trip and keep writing!

  11. I love Europe too! I have seen some parts of Europe and definitely would love to the other countries that I have not been to. Amsterdam is one of them.
    I like how you described Europe. I’m from Asia, hot and sunny weather and cheap spending. Europe is the opposite but there is something about Europe that makes me want to come back and have a feel of it again.
    Thanks for sharing such a nice experience.

  12. Hi Dave, great to read you love Holland and especially Amsterdam. I’m a Dutch girl and I must say I love Amsterdam. Everytime I’m on holiday or when I was in other countries for internships, I was glad I was back in Amsterdam. Good to hear that also foreigners have that feeling.
    When you’re back, let me know and we can grab some beers.

    1. It’s a truly wonderful city … I’d happy live there for a few months, no problem at all. 🙂 I’ll let you know next time I’m in town!

  13. Great writing here man, I can so relate. Julia and I are just now finishing up the Asian portion of our big trip and heading to Europe for summer. Even though I have been there four times, I am probably more excited to go back than I ever have been in the past. As an American, I think we have the same kind of pull to Europe as you Kiwis do and the whole “rite of passage” thing you mention is spot on.

  14. There is so much variety in Europe… my favourite place is Edinburgh, but I may be biased as I live here. The festival is crazy fun every year, and it’s so beautiful on a rare day when the sun shines.

    I found Bosnia one of the most fascinating countries I’ve ever visited, and Zagreb must be one of the most chilled capitals in the world.

  15. So I can’t help but notice that that’s a bagel tapas from Bagels and Beans, but not the one from the place we went to. 😉

    Glad we’d met up, and do say hello next time you’re passing through!

    1. Yes. Ahem. Somebody – well. ok, two somebodies – may have developed a bit of an obsession with bagel tapas and gone to one for breakfast the following day…… 🙂

      Hope we can catch up again somewhere!

  16. I love reading all this Europe Talk. I love Europe and travel there at least once a year. My ancestors were from Europe and I wonder if that is what makes me feel so at home there

  17. I totally can relate. Though, coming from America – I’ve just moved to Europe and now living in Dublin. So still in the eye-candy phase so to speak.