How (Not) To Be the Only Person You Know in an Entire Country

By Autumn Palen

Last spring, towards the end of April, I boarded an overnight bus at 11pm — just me and the backpack my mom had loaned me for the semester. One uncomfortably upright night of sleep later, I found myself in a country where nobody knew me, and I didn’t know their language.

And I spent one week there.

This is how that went.

The country in question was The Netherlands, and, although I arrived at Amsterdam Sloterdijk Station, just outside the capital itself, I stayed with a family in Heemstede, south of the markedly smaller city of Haarlem.

Getting from Amsterdam to Heemstede on my own, at dawn, turned out to be a bit trickier than expected. Even in English, the ticketing machine was exceptionally confusing, and the validation system was something my Morning Brain was not ready to absorb. Once I boarded the train, anxiety hummed within me as the Fare Enforcement Officer made his way up the aisle, for fear of not having done it correctly. Thankfully, the officer didn’t bat an eye, nor did I have to open my mouth and make Dutch come out.

I wasn’t in the clear, though. There was still the matter of getting off the train.

Looking back on the moment where I missed my stop because I couldn’t work out how to open a train door is, honestly, hilarious. In the moment, I got off at the next stop, slumped into a bathroom stall and cried, sure, but right now, looking back? Comedy gold.

First off, I couldn’t open a door. I didn’t have the brainpower to do something that, I’d say, most humans master around the time they become bipedal.

Second thing! No one else, in that entire train car, had to go to the same city? At all? There were easily fifty people in there with me. That’s nothing short of farcical.

Thirdly, every stop up to this point was separated by maybe 2 kilometers — 1-2 minutes, riding past sizable town centers and residential areas. The distance between the stop that I missed and the stop I ended up getting off at was, without a doubt, five times as long. We rode past tulips and farmland for a good 10 minutes. And did I mention that their public transportation charges you by distance? So, I had to pay significantly more than planned in order to save myself from my own stupidity. What a fun, wacky disaster!

This was promptly followed by a continuation of my own dumbness punishing me. Because of a miscommunication, I ended up unnecessarily killing three hours walking around the host family’s neighborhood, with my possessions on my back, waiting for someone to arrive home who had already been there since the morning. I would have stayed out there a smidge longer than that, even, were it not for the fact that the father arrived home, spotted me on the bench in front of their house, and told his daughter that there was a “sad woman” out there. Oh, if there were a better two words to epitomize me, I’ve yet to find them.

So, the trip started off rocky. That’s not to say it was like that every day. No, I would not have emotionally survived seven days of that.

I had a wonderful time in The Netherlands, truly. I got to have a few dinners with the wonderful family who let me stay in their spare bedroom, I walked the length of a marathon every two days (because I used public transport as sparingly as possible), and I really got to familiarize myself with The Best of Simon and Garfunkel, because that was the only music on my phone at the time.

I wouldn’t take back a second of that trip if I had the chance.

(Ok, maybe I’d take back the door thing.)

Photo is author’s own
Photo is author’s own

Featured image is author’s own

Autumn is a graduate of USC’s Film & TV Production program, with a minor in French. Born and raised in San Diego, she loves music, movies, photography, writing, and creating lists of five. This past spring, she studied abroad through the USC Paris program, and she hopes to travel and work internationally in the near future.