I visited Amsterdam for the first time about 8 (!) years ago. It makes me feel crazy-old to say that. It was my first solo trip to Europe, and I was visiting Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, and Vienna. I chose these cities because I was just coming off a summer studying art history in the south of France, and I wanted to visit some of the art museums I’d pored over in all of my late night study sessions.
When I got to Amsterdam, I was tired. I hadn’t packed well — my suitcase was too big and heavy for me, and my feet were already covered in blisters. I was lost immediately. Just when I thought I might never find my hostel, I rounded a corner and made eye contact with a cute guy around my age.
He laughed and said, “You look really lost.” Grateful to hear a fellow American accent, I asked him if he’d seen the hostel, and he said he was staying at the same one, and he pointed me in the right direction.
The next morning at breakfast, I saw him again; later that night, when I returned to the hostel after a day spent wandering through the art museums, he was chatting with a few other travelers on the stairs in the courtyard. Later, he told me he’d been sitting there hoping I’d pass by.
We spent the evening traipsing through bar after bar, wandering the streets while I probably rambled on about art museums, eventually stopping in the park long after midnight to catch our breath and lay down and enjoy the beautiful summer weather.
He convinced me to stay in Amsterdam for one extra day. I changed my train ticket and we found a room on a houseboat on one of the canals. We toured the Heineken brewery and stumbled through more bars, and he tried to convince me to stay even longer, to cancel the Vienna portion of my trip and stay with him until it was time for me to head back to the US.
I refused. It was my first trip alone and I didn’t want to derail my first independent foray into the world just because I had met some guy — no matter how cute he was. For some reason, I was so terrified that I might never get to travel to Europe ever again, and so I didn’t want to ruin my only chance to see all of the cities and art I wanted so badly to see.
So I went on to Vienna, and I hated it. I was lonely and there was no one to talk to, and the streets were ugly and I was tired of art museums. I wished I had stayed in Amsterdam. Eight years later, I still wish I had stayed in Amsterdam.
I don’t think anything serious would have happened between us, but I don’t understand why I was so scared to change my plans, or why I was so stubborn about traveling alone. Why did I think that would be my only chance to do so?
Now, about a dozen visits to Europe later, I got to see Amsterdam for a second time. My suitcase and shoes were both more manageable, though I did still get lost on my way to the hotel. As I wandered through the streets — alone this time — I recognized a few of the places we’d wandered past together. The people were just as friendly as I remember, but the flower market had gotten more crowded and more touristy. There are still bikes surrounding you everywhere you go, and crossing the street without getting hit is almost an art form.
On this trip, instead of seeking out art museums, I wanted to be outside. I visited the famous Keukenhof Garden (only open for 6 weeks every year); I stopped by the sample sale of a local designer and got $300 boots for $50 (more non-blistering shoes!); I sought out a doughnut shop I’d seen on Pinterest; I passed by the Anne Frank museum (still too long of a line to get in); I popped into a few ceramics stores; I had a beer on a patio in the sunshine.
This past weekend’s trip was the one I had imagined when I was twenty — a relaxing, quiet, independent weekend in a beautiful European city, completely free of anyone telling me where to go or what to do — but I’m really glad it wasn’t the trip I got back then. That first weekend in Amsterdam is one of the best memories of my life, and I imagine it could have been even better if I’d been more willing to derail my plans for a few days.
The fact that no cute guy popped around the corner to help me out this time around reminded me how rare those encounters are, how it’s not actually normal to meet someone like that every time you venture out by yourself — and if you do, you should probably go with the flow.
I used to think that traveling by yourself meant that you have to be by yourself the entire time, and I was terrified that if I let someone else dictate even just some of my plans, it would somehow make me weaker or less independent.
I actually saw Amsterdam Boy again about two years ago. Turns out we both ended up in Brooklyn, about a mile away from each other, and we came across each other via another chance encounter: this time, it was a dating app. We met up for a drink and marveled at how strange it was to run into each other by chance TWICE in a lifetime, on two different continents.
“It’s such a good story,” he told me, and I agreed, admitting that I’d often relayed it to groups of friends whenever the topic of epic travel stories came up. I’ve never written about it here — my most intense travel stories are the hardest for me to write about (read: the entirety of my Central America trip) — but revisiting Amsterdam this weekend made it impossible for me not to relive this one all over again.