By Shana Ting Lipton
My first friends were guys I was
temporarily dating, DJs and even
a bisexual male porn star from
Germany who divulged to me that
he would go to Belgium often to
get testosterone and viagra.
I had been waiting to move abroad since I was seven and I took the first step–desiging an architectural plan for a playhouse on the hillside of my parents’ house.
Later, at the end of high school, I got accepted to the University of St. Andrews in Edinburgh, Scotland (where Prince Wills went) but opted against royal ghosts, freezing weather and great golf, in favor of New York City’s unbeatable nightlife and art scene. But, years later, when Manhattan finally wore me down, my old wanderlust and dreams of foreign living returned.
If you ask anyone who’s ever moved abroad how it all manifested, most will tell you it was a happy accident. Sure, they had always had the dream of moving overseasin the back of their minds, but the reality manifested in an unexpected way (in the same way that people describe meeting their true love).
These days, it’s de rigueur for most single or divorced women to at least consider moving abroad, or at worst to watch films like Eat, Pray, Love and Under the Tuscan Sun and live vicariously through them.
The ‘great journey’ has always been in the male biosphere. For some guys, that means a year in the peace corps; for others, less noble and more seedy pursuits in the bars and massage parlours of South East Asia. My rationale for moving to Amsterdam was equal parts naughty and nice.
One Christmas, my parents and then-best friend ventured off to England and Paris. On a whim, my friend and I took a side trip–via train–to Amsterdam. We were there in the frozen dead of winter all of a handful of days when I decided I wanted to move there.
Beyond the obvious fun and frolicking that went on there (quite tame compared to what I had seen in my years in NYC), it was architecturally, one of the most beautiful cities I’d ever seen. And something–a sense of the familiar–kept tugging at me. It felt like I had been there before. Those open to spiritual matters will understand when I say that I believe I had a lot of karma there.
A year later, I found myself in the uncomely ‘burbs of Amsterdam on the uncomfortable couch of a bloke I had known only as a webpal. Basically I knew no one there–with the exception of him and another dance music world webpal, and I didn’t even really know them at all.
Those first six months in Amsterdam were the toughest. And it often goes that that is precisely when most people decide to pack up and leave. Another friend of mine had moved to Rome, and while she made friends faster in the open Mediterranean social tradition, she quickly became irritated with the daily ins and outs and customs.
I remember waiting in line at a supermarket in the center of Amsterdam, behind a shady looking guy. He appeared to be cutting in front of me in line so I shot him the requisite look. He then told me in Dutch (though he was from the Dutch colony of Surinam, I gathered) that he wasn’t in the least bit interested in me and that I was ugly.
I told him I didn’t think he was interested in me. I explained that he appeared to be pushing his cart in front of mine in the line. Recognizing my non-Dutch accent, he broke into “Go home, American, we don’t want you here” adding, “we only want your tourist money.” I didn’t have the nerve to tell him I was actually half Chinese and a European citizen as well.
I went home, cried for about two hours and seriously wondered if I had made one of the biggest mistakes of my life moving to Amsterdam.
I had no friends there either. Well, I had nightlife friends. Because I was working freelance, clubs and bars were the only places I knew of where I might actually meet (or at the very least interact with) other humans.
So my first friends were guys I was temporarily dating, DJs and even a bisexual male porn star from Germany who divulged to me that he would go to Belgium often to get testosterone and viagra. Let’s just say that many parts of Belgium are akin to being the Tijuana of the Low Countries.
Fast-forward four years later (yes, I lasted four whole years), and I had become the editor-in-chief of a magazine about creative locals in Amsterdam. I had many editorial clients. I had friends from Amsterdam and from all over the world. I lived in a beautiful two-story canal house. And I had some pretty swell boyfriends as well. In short, I got a life….in Amsterdam.
Through linked articles on this page, I will share my stories and tips on moving to another country (in which you know no one). These are mostly geared towards single men and women. Not to belittle the experiences of couples–but (based on my own circle of friends), couples always have the safeguard of each other to fall back on when all else fails. Some of my insight will of course be universal.
It’s not easy getting from social pariah to insider…but with some navigation, know-how, diplomacy and patience, it is possible; I am living proof of that.
More Living Cosmopolitanism Essays: