It was August of my second year in Amsterdam. We got lucky: the weather was sweet, right on time for Rita’s visit, a Portuguese transplant in Paris, and one of my best friends.
I was so excited about the life I had already build in just two years of living here. Everything that seemed impossible in Portugal – a stable financial life, recognition for my artistic background, job opportunities – was available in a foreign country whose language I didn’t even speak. For me, an Eldorado. The most remarkable thing, I told her, was how easy it was to make friends. The Ana I knew could not survive without people around her, even if she had the best job in the world, so yes, it was a grand achievement. It felt like I had been incredibly lucky, but it also felt like I had done something incredibly right. Many people I knew found it a challenge to make new friends in capital cities, BUT I had been adopted by a big group of folks from all over the world, Dutch included! That August, however, Rita met none of them.
Settling in a foreign country with a stable economic situation and a diverse international population sounded like the dream for me, but there was a catch. And it had nothing to do with challenges with integrating or homesickness. It was the August dread. Eventually, in an attempt to deal with it, I created three adagios. They helped me avoid disappointment. Number one: every August, my migrant friends leave the city. Number one point one: my Dutch pals travel every August too. Number two: most expats will eventually leave the country. Number three: Amsterdam locals – both migrants and natives – move all the time; thus, loneliness is not an August exclusive. What I also did was plot a strategy, which I’ll tell you more about in just a second.
I + I.I
Sitting at the terrace of De Brabantse Aap, in a relatively empty Spui, drinking La Chouffe, (in the time that I drank Chouffes in the afternoon):
Rita: What a pity I don’t get to meet these friends you told me so much about.
I: So strange how, suddenly, everyone is out of town. (sight) Usually, it’s not like this at all, there’s always someone up for a beer. And, this square is, usually, super busy too!
After this, does she even believe me when I say I have friends, I wondered. Amsterdam, without the people, was just a charming ghost town.
I: Carlota is in Spain, Frank is in Italy, even my flatmate is on holiday. You really need to come back like… well, not in the peak of summer. I’m sure you’ll meet everyone next time.
I think the first to leave was Aidan. He had found a position as a professor at the University of Florence, plus his gorgeous Spanish girlfriend was to follow along. Who could blame him for trading flat Holland for the sunny hills of Tuscany? After him, others followed. Carlota returned to Madrid and became a mother-of-two. Frank moved back to the States once he finished his studies. Catarina became a nomadic yoga teacher. I kept contact with most friends: I received photos of Carlo’s babies on WhatsApp and followed Cata’s yoga classes via Zoom. I also got to travel to see them: spent ten days with Stefania in London, ten more with Antonio in Oslo, a week with Almudena in Malaga.
Amsterdam is a friendship Pandora box. These newfound bonds are abundant and thrilling, but they can fleet away as quickly as they arose. You gain the world, you lose companionship.
The solution must be learning Dutch. If I managed to make enough friends among the local-born, I’d never ever find myself lacking company or proper gezelligheid. The language would be my freeway to stable, eternal fellowship. Because so much was at stake, I did it. I earned everyone’s admiration for speaking Dutch in record time.
For context, over here, being able to have a simple conversation with a cashier without retreating to English is already a feat. In all honesty, I had to put myself through a zillion of very awkward exchanges and convos until I finally managed to express myself as a full-grown adult. In spite of having become fluent, the August dread still made spectacular comebacks in Christmases, and Carnivals, and Easters, and Ascensions, and during all those extra midterm holiday weeks that I never knew existed.
But that’s not all. Folks went on Sabbaticals too. Months in a row of around the globe soul searching, maybe six, maybe eight, maybe twelve, (still haven’t decided yet). Sometimes years of location-independent work (did I know how cheap life was in Southeast Asia?) It was also dazzling to see everyone constantly fly abroad for leisure (Just arrived from Lisbon, thinking of doing three days of Ibiza in two weeks. Wanna come?!). Perhaps, also, jealousy-inducing for a person like me who cannot afford to hop on a plane every other weekend.
The Dutch seem to be among the nationalities that travel the most. The expats, with their comfortable Dutch salaries, do the exact same thing. So even after almost ten years of Amsterdam-life, countless hours of language learning and culture bonding, and oh-so-many-friends-from-all-over, I came to the conclusion that the sacrifices made in the name of conquering an isolation-free life didn’t save me from the dread. What started as an August phenomenon morphed into a larger, existential question: Will I ever have enough friends in the Netherlands?
Upon moving, I tried to fill my agenda with social activities, say yes to every kind person who wanted to meet up and be way more outgoing than I naturally am. After all, I was an extrovert, and being an extrovert in this day and age, pays off. My life was as exciting and gregarious as I had envisioned it albeit increasingly exhausting. What really caught me off-guard was how the emotional impermanence still impacted me, so many years in. Despite having built a robust social circle in a short time, a part of me kept feeling unsafe, and I found myself grappling with generalized anxiety. Which sounded like a pure contradiction. Was I not the one boasting about my friendships? Was I not living the life I had intentionally chosen? It didn’t matter how many parties I threw, how many strangers I spontaneously invited over to dinners at my place, how many people I befriended. The dread kept making its reappearance. When would enough friends be enough? What did that even mean?
The lifestyle I was pursuing was unsustainable but it took me getting ill to realize it. Once I ceased to relentlessly seek social connections, a kind of orphanage set in. I no longer had my coping mechanism. Friendship-wise, I doubt that my life in Portugal would be any more fulfilling than it is here, especially when three of my best mates live abroad as well. If I had never left my hometown and hadn’t exposed myself to a predominantly international environment, I’m pretty sure I’d suffer from sameness. I didn’t move here for a job but exactly because I craved a more multicultural life.
Moving abroad was the best decision I ever took and yet the most lonely too. It involved loss, even for an adventurous type like me, who always dreamed of leaving. The loss of language, references, familiarity, the discontinuation of identity, the stripping of roots. Now, when I’m in Portugal, I feel like a guest. You know, like one of those guests who happens to know too many secrets about the family. The holidays there are lovely, but I’m itching to come back after two weeks. I don’t feel like I fit anymore. I have an enormous appreciation for the person I became and the life I’ve built in the Low Countries. But it finally dawned on me that, on a more or less significant extent, estrangement is a fundamental condition of migration. Nothing I do will change that.
Amsterdam is my home. Speaking the language didn’t sort all of my problems, however, it made me as intimate with the culture as I can possibly be. I naturally curse in Dutch now, people! I sunbathe when it’s fifteen degrees out and struggle when it’s hotter than twenty-five. I say hoor at the end of every sentence and lekker for everything (lekker weer, hoor! ) I’m a sucker for gezelligheid, I drink fluitjes, I keep the curtains open, I am an Efteling fan, jump in the canals, sing-along to Hazes when drunk (bloed, zweet, and traneeeen!), and obviously wouldn’t be able to survive without a bike. I disregard red traffic lights whenever possible, and other minor rules if they don’t serve me because personal freedom is holy.
I’m not that open to newcomers anymore (sorry, I have become one of those). Cultivating friendship after friendship with people who might leave in the long run is absolutely draining. I have decided to focus on the dears that I am already close with, nurturing the bonds, knowing that it takes decades to build a family. The roots I have in Amsterdam may not be extensive in time, but they are well implanted, and they grow by the day. Currently, whenever the August dread comes, I assure myself that yes, I do have enough friends and the melancholy shall come and go. After all, this feeling is the price to pay for a life that’s richer and more aligned with who I am. Then I mourn a little, miss my parents, and proceed to greet the cashier in front of me with a Wat een weertje, zèg!