You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone. Sounds corny, I know, but I never knew that I loved being the centre of attention until I wasn’t any more.
Let me backtrack a bit. Until last year, I had always been told that I was quiet. Not in a mousy, don’t-hear-a-peep-out-of-her kind of way, but more in comparison to a loud person. I wasn’t one of those. In staff meetings, university tutorials and the like I would prefer keeping my trap shut and only cutting in when I had something of value to add. Outside of those formal structures, I could be very loud indeed. As you may be aware, I have a few opinions on things. Add alcohol to the equation and you have someone who really should listen to her own advice and keep that trap shut.
Anyway, tour guiding then threw me in the spotlight. All of a sudden, up to fifty pairs of eyes would be on me and me only. Strangely enough, after a while, this wouldn’t make me nervous at all. I loved it. Going out for dinners and pub crawls, people would turn to me for direction and guidance. People who I’d be too intimidated to approach would want to pick my brain on a plethora of topics. I’d never be staring into my sangria on the outskirts of a circle. The attention was addictive.
Fast-forward to being a student at a foreign university. Bang. Not only am I not the centre of attention any more, but I am forced to extract attention from other people. All of this needs to be done without looking needy.
I tried this. Maybe a little too hard. I attended everything during O-Week, talked to everyone who would listen, but nobody seemed too interested. As someone who lived outside Leiden and therefore couldn’t attend midweek parties starting at 11pm, I wasn’t quite an international student. But as someone who wasn’t Dutch and didn’t have a good command of the language, I wasn’t quite a local student. I was trapped in limbo land.
You see, by the time people reach the age of about twenty, most have stopped taking new friend applications. They’re done. They’ve got a nice little group that they’ve taken from school, adapted during university and/or work, and that’s who they’re going with. Forever. There’s seemingly no room for anyone else.
Travellers, expats and those studying abroad, however, are still taking applications. They actually need new applicants in order to feel somewhat normal. Over here in Europe, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to make some friends, particularly over the past year, with whom I feel I will know for life. Almost all of these friends though, I’ve met while travelling and/or guiding. Put me in one spot, and I’m stuck.
In some classes, before class actually starts, I would sit there while my classmates would prattle on in Dutch. This would both annoy and amuse me. I’d be annoyed that they were deliberately keeping me out of the conversation, but amused by the fact that I’d nonetheless get the gist of what they were talking about anyway. One day, when nobody immediately answered one of their questions, I did. In English. Even though they weren’t talking about anything malicious, I felt like Frank Costanza when he understood Elaine’s Korean manicurist on Seinfeld. It scared the crap out of the guy and I felt like I had a little victory.
But still, I would always leave my class alone and catch my train back to Dordrecht. I’d always study by myself in the library. I’d eat my sandwich solo in the cafeteria (oh, how I miss the food choices of Melbourne University). I didn’t know what was worse; feeling like everyone was watching me, or seeming invisible. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong.
It was starting to get me down. Basically all of the people I’d met in Holland since arriving last February had been Paul’s friends (who are lovely, by the way), international students or Aussies abroad. I hadn’t met anyone ‘local’ on my own.
Until last week. Just when I was contemplating an entire semester without seeing classmates out of the classroom, the girl next to me spoke up. “What are you doing after class next week?’ (Um, nothing.) “Want to grab some dinner with us?”
I had to contain my excitement whilst still on campus, but I was giddy by the time I got home. Finally, I was going to socialise with real, live Dutch people that I’d befriended all by myself.
(On a side note, I’d be mortified if either of them ever read this. But hey, I’ve shared many more embarrassing things on this blog.)
As a tour guide, we often speak about that ‘local experience’. It’s out there if you try a bit, we proclaim. We talk about ‘local’ bars, ‘local’ restaurants and neighbourhoods that are untouched by tourists. Even if we actually physically get to those places, there’s still something missing. Locals themselves.
Last night eating my burger and laughing over the annoying student in our class, something clicked. I may have set off to see the world more than five years ago, but it was only now that I’d finally gotten my local experience.