Why Amsterdam? Well, to be brutally honest, I was actually hoping to extend myself beyond the confines of the EU this summer. I don’t think you can ever see enough of Europe, but I was conscious of the fact that my academic clock was ticking; and given the extensive list of places I want to travel to and the inevitable limited holidays of the kind of 9-5 I hope to comfortably land in within the next few years, I’ve always thought I should take full advantage of my 17-week-long college summers.
Having spent last summer in rural France, lured over under the false pretence of working as a florist (I was driving a tractor by week 2) I really fell in love with the idea of cultural absorption. I’ve always been a fan of the two week holidays or the weekends away, swiftly ticking all the major cities off my list, but in fairness, those kinds of excursions – in my case at least – have always been permeated with the overhanging notion of “Ah sure, I’m on my holidays”, which pre-empts a kind of routine that could be performed in any variable country.
I’d wake up late, get a very generic breakfast in some café, spend the guts of the afternoon fulfilling a cultural requirement in a museum or on a walking tour, be in a rush to get ready to go out that night so I’d ashamedly crawl into MacDonald’s for a quick dinner, complain that the nuggets taste better at home, go out to a nightclub where I might as well be at Cheesy Tuesdays in Tomangos, stumble back to the hotel, fall asleep, repeat.
Yeah, I’d come home and tweet “Had a great time in London” or “Wow, Madrid was great!” but despite my pounding the high street or familiarising myself with the main square, how well can you really get to know a place in 3 or 4 days? How well do you get to know the people and their culture when your only experience with natives is on the opposite side of a reception desk or in the passenger’s seat of a taxi? And how raging are you when you chat to someone who has spent time in whatever place you’ve been to who raves about some market or secret jazz bar that you missed out on because it was off the beaten track?
With this in mind, I vowed to spend the duration of my long summers, while they last, “doing” a new place, or a cluster of close places. Sometime last year I decided that 2014 would be the year that I “did” America. I decided to go the J1 route, being the most student-friendly option, and had my sights set on New Orleans. However, after weeks of harping on about Mardi gras and Gumbo and Jazz it transpired that my advertising was falling on deaf ears and that if I were to go there, I’d be going alone.
Conscious of my feeble street smarts and my mother’s stress levels, instead, I linked up with a group of friends who were heading to San Diego. After a couple of months of trawling craigslist and bikini browsing, I realised that my aspirations were completely at odds with my bank account, which had not increased for quite some time, and was declining, if anything.
Despairing at the perceived image of my summer crumbling to bits, I reckoned that I could still do a J1 in theory, except a bit closer to home. That way, if there was no work and my savings ran dry, moving on to a new place would mean trains rather than planes, and if all else failed, I could always come back to Ireland without bemoaning the loss of colossal amounts of money spent on visas or transatlantic flights.
Choosing a destination took some consideration. Having “done” France, I was gunning to try somewhere new, but, because I don’t speak any other languages, employment would be a problem. When I visited Amsterdam a few months ago, the first thing that struck me was the impressive level of English held by the natives. It was a rare occurrence to come across someone with whom I couldn’t have a fluent conversation.
On arrival in the airport, I was stunned that English was the prevailing language, and that Dutch did not appear on any of the official signs. The city itself is small and follows a wheel-like structure, emanating from the central Dam Square, and it’s fairly easy to get around by bike, meaning you aren’t quietly racking up sneaky public transport costs. The cost of living is fairly similar to Dublin, which isn’t ideal, but like anywhere, once you get to know the local Tesco equivalent and aren’t adverse to the odd beans & processed ham dinner, it’s easy to survive on a budget.
Prostitution and coffee shops aside, which are probably two of the more obvious attractions, there is plenty to do, be your needs historical, cultural or musical. The city is teeming with museums, exhibitions, cultural landmarks, and several music festivals are held in Amsterdam and its environs throughout the summer. Markets, jazz bars and art gallery-nightclubs make it the ideal liberal arts-y destination.
Accommodation is expensive, anything under 600 per month is considered decent, and you have to shop around a little to find a short-lease that won’t bleed you dry. Six weeks rent was all I could afford out of my savings, but I’m hoping to extend my stay by picking up a job – sooner rather than later as my wallet is fairly thin going over; beans may even be considered a luxury at this rate. Nonetheless I’m remaining optimistic, planning on hamming up the Irish charm on the bar scene and snagging myself a tidy little waitressing post; my hand luggage is bursting with CVs. The tourist industry is huge in Amsterdam, meaning there’ll have to be jobs going for English speakers – won’t there? That’s what I’m telling myself anyway – wish me luck!