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Lessons from exchange so far

Having discussed Amsterdam and my feelings about it, I wanted to address the concept of exchange, and especially what I’ve learnt from it so far. Note: There’s a lot of ideas and thoughts I’ve tried to cram in here, so enJOY!

Many people have asked me, “HOW IS EXCHANGE?! Tell me ALL about it!!”

 

Although generally undiscussed, there is such a positive connotation with studying abroad that it’s hard for me not to say ‘it’s amazing, so much is happening and it’s LIFE-CHANGING’. I do believe there’s a romanticised view of travel and an expectation for the response to be anything but ordinary. Whilst it’s important to clarify that exchange has not simply been mediocre – FAR from it actually – there are days where I spend a couple of hours doing less extraordinary things, like buying groceries, doing homework and hanging out with friends at the dorms, and am ok with that. Though at first, I can attest that I was determined to make every second count.

I felt that pressure especially at the beginning of my exchange – like I wanted to live up to everyone’s expectations that life was incredible. Caught up in this myself, I was expecting a dramatic existential revelation upon arriving in Amsterdam – and was let down when my activities were primarily administrative at the start (e.g getting my bearings around the whole town, buying Bertie and sorting out immigration documents). But over time, I realised that the ‘extraordinary’ moments have come incrementally over time – and it is the process over all that has made, and is making a big difference in my life.

So that’s where I begin with important lesson #1:

Slowing down

Let's all be more like this

To be honest, at first I regretted doing exchange. Having solo travelled in Spain for 2 weeks before commencing, the sudden onslaught of classes and homework made me wish that I had taken the year to travel instead. However, I’m so glad this wasn’t the case. Travelling and living are two totally different experiences. I’ve noticed that whilst travelling, I’m constantly trying to cram as much into a day as possible, because god forbid I waste a second in a new country that I’ll leave soon after. It’s as if I started to check off sites that I visited on a list, making me feel more emotionally disconnected from what I was seeing. I find this especially prevalent in Europe. With countries literally next door to each other, it’s completely doable to hop from place to place, but rarely do you truly get to appreciate the life and culture in each.

I like to use the metaphor of food sampling. Whilst you do appreciate the small bite at the stall, it’s impossible to tell what it’d be like paired with other food, or whether that taster was left in the sun for 2 hours and now tastes completely different to a fresh one. And so, people (me included) who have spent 2-3 days at each city or country, fail to understand beyond that taster.

And undoubtedly, if I had visited Amsterdam for a few days and left, I wouldn’t have had anywhere near the same experience as I have now. Chances are I would’ve found a hostel in the centre where the classic canals are, visited the Anne Frank museum, eaten many stroopwaffles, walked around, biked for a day and left. Whilst that is a nice introduction to Amsterdam, it’s just not the same as living there. Having seen the ups and downs of the weather, understanding Dutch people and how they’re blunt but have good intentions, road rage like a local Dutch biker etc, I would’ve never left with a feeling of belonging in an area and having a second place to call home.

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I'm proud I can relate so well

With a semester long exchange, I’ve had the chance to take it easy, and of course s l o w    d o w n.

Independence

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Another thing that I’ve certainly learnt to foster throughout my trip (solo travelling, + exchange) is my independence. After travelling around Spain, I was comfortable being by myself and taking full responsibility for me and my actions. Whether that be taking care of my belongings (don’t know how many times I’ve double checked for my passport), doing the activities I want to and spending as much time there, eating what, where and when I want…the list goes on. 

There is an immense sense of freedom, and onus on yourself and only yourself if things don’t go the way they planned. And as much as I love them, I am enjoying living away from my parents. If I eat poorly and feel the repercussions, that’s on me. If I don’t clean my bedroom and feel mentally cluttered or can’t find something I need (to be honest when does that not happen), that’s also my fault, and I’ll clean it without mum or dad nagging. Strangely, without anyone telling me what to do I’ve found that I’m actually a lot more proactive. Of course, with independence comes greater responsibility, but I’ve enjoyed this jump.

Open Mindedness

Moreover, exchange has helped me keep my eyes peeled for new opportunities and to be open minded. With the expectation that I’d be challenged one way or another, exchange has primed me to sniff out new opportunities that I would otherwise not have at home. This has been to take subjects such as leadership, saying ‘yes’ to more things e.g a trip to Turkey and many more. I’ve also become more open minded towards different cultures like the Dutch. As I am an outsider/ temporary local, I am only able to observe the Dutch way of life, but not judge as the differences are what make them and each country unique. I’ve encountered many minor culture shocks, e.g  groceries opening at 12 and closing at 6 on Sundays, not being able to find adhesive hooks etc. It has made me more aware that no culture is right or wrong, or superior/inferior – they’re just different.

Minimalism

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Chaos whilst packing

Another important (and unexpected) thing exchange has taught me is minimalism. As a notorious hoarder (both digital and physical), I have trouble letting go of items that hold personal meaning to me – or that I might ‘need’ in the future, ie I tuck it away in a drawer never to be used again. This would often result in an incredibly messy room, that warranted my mum to say “either clean it or you can’t live here” – thanks mum. But despite this, living from one suitcase has been surprisingly easy for me, and transferring my stuff into my wardrobe took a lot less time than expected. Having only packed the bare essentials, it has taken me away from the consuming mindset that ‘more is better’, and to be happy with what I have. That way, choices such as what to wear are also so much easier, decluttering my mind, and making me a lot happier and relaxed over all.  

The definition of travel

Exchange has also helped me redefine ‘travel’. There is a connotation that to travel, you most often need to traverse the seas and experience a completely new culture. Whilst exploring those places is a wonderful experience and a huge privilege, we often forget that travelling could be simply going to a new suburb/town/state, being curious and just wandering around. It really doesn’t require long haul flights to get an authentic travel experience. I’ve noticed that no matter the place I go, I gravitate towards the park, or greenery, as well as good food – things that I don’t have to travel far to find.

Appreciation

And last but certainly not least is an increased appreciation for everything. Having explored a lot of the Netherlands and parts of Europe and being so far away from home, I’ve come to realise that Melbourne is a truly incredible place to live. During my travels in Spain, I could never really understand why so many fellow travellers had such positive views of Melbourne! But then after reflecting, I realised just how much I’ve taken for granted. 

First of all, we have the beach. I was reminded that living within driving or public transport distance wasn’t normal after seeing my friend from Nebraska’s utter shock in seeing the sea on the Netherlands coast. Melbourne is also very multi cultural and has a lot to offer, whether that be nature and hikes, nightlife, food, art exhibitions and many more. We are quite a warm country, both in climate and people – and I am lucky to call it home.

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Only thing I'm not grateful for

Moreover, in a hostel in Prague, I was asked by a Polish traveller what I would recommend to do in Australia. I ended up suggesting places like the Blue Mountains and the Kimberleys, and realised that I hadn’t even considered visit them myself. I began to question why I try to make the most out of every day in Europe and travel constantly, whereas would often not put the same pressure on myself in Melbourne. And that all came down to a time limit. No matter what, if I am told I have a certain amount of time to complete something, I will finish it within that timeframe. Like homework, without a deadline, I could procrastinate until the day before a test and cram while swearing profusely at myself, while also promising that I’ll change next time. 

This was also reflected during my studies in Melbourne uni. Despite talking to multiple exchange students who were amazed at the facilities we have, I barely made use of them, mainly because I didn’t even bother researching or would get around to it   l a t e r. But when on exchange, there’s just no time to sit around and let the opportunities float past. I began to search for extra curricular activities (and how I found dancing), and treat everyday as something precious. In Melbourne, I could binge a tv show, scroll through my phone, and it could reach the end of the day and I wouldn’t feel as nearly much of regret as I would if I did that here.

And that bothers me. Rather than making the most of each day because I am in another place, I should be treating any day, no matter the geological place as something to treasure. Interestingly, after telling my Dutch friends what I’ve done, e.g going overseas, visiting Keukonhof, most have commented along the lines of “I haven’t even done that and I’ve been living here for #X years”. Not only that, I’ve come to appreciate my family more, and by distancing myself away from them, am able to see just how much they’ve invested for me to live the way that I have.

Taking things for granted is definitely a universal problem, and that’s why I challenge YOU to reflect, be a tourist in your own town and seek out new opportunities! 

 

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I owe a lot to this experience and am trying to avoid the fact that my semester ends in 2 months. Amsterdam has treated me well and I cannot wait for the new experiences to come. Even though this was written to self reflect about my experiences to date, I hope you’ve also taken away some valuable points to consider in your own life, until next time!

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