by Elizabeth Atkin
In Holland, I wake up feeling unrefreshed, from sleeping between thin, not-quite-cotton sheets, on a cold, metal bunk bed.
The only thing about Holland I don’t like.
My own fault, really, as I stay at the same suburban Amsterdam hostel each time, for no real reason, other than I like the faint and familiar smell of weed coming from the smoking lounge.
And when I walk in on an evening, the barwoman brings me a shot of tequila, on the house, because she thinks I look ‘kind’.
I don’t really care that I’m sat on my own in a room full of strangers, with a shot that it looks like I bought for myself.
In fact, I kind of like it.
Uptown, the pitch black sky isn’t lit by skyscrapers as you’d expect.
The Vondelpark across the street, usually massive swirlings of green, has no colour. There’s no red neon, or busy sounds to fill the air – though you could find all that, if you wanted to.
The paths are damp, and the rain stops everything from being perfectly still.
It doesn’t quite glitter under the streetlight.
“Each building must have a million windows, but I don’t want to look inside any of them. There’s so much I want to see out here.”
I wish I could paint this next paragraph shades of maroon, and brooding purple, with clean cream and white lines to outline each letter, and slim dabs of navy weaving between words.
Each building must have a million windows, but I don’t want to look inside any of them. There’s so much I want to see out here.
Yet somehow, it all seems to look . . . the same?
Each street needs its own map. No matter how many times I visit, every turn seems to lead me down an identical path. To another stone bridge. To another museum. To another coffee shop. To another canal-boat-turned-café, boutique hotel, or cat sanctuary.
It’s turn after dizzying turn, but somehow I always find myself back in those less-than-crisp bed sheets.
I must look like I know where I’m going, because not a day goes by without a stranger asking me for directions in Dutch.
On the second deck of a future train, I hover between cities, watching from the window as stations and electric-blue timetables blur into glimpses of the coast.
In Delft, there are comedy-sized wheels of thick, yellow cheese. And a flurry of white statues, delicately painted with blue flowers.
Here, I just sit in a café alone in an old-town square, shadowed by a famous clock, and I talk to a stranger, a waiter, about nothing at all for ten minutes.
In Rotterdam, everything is all neat, brutal edges. There are so many clean lines, so much poppy, modern architecture, and the pointy bridge – it all sort of jabs you in the eye.
Even in the bustling markets filled with floral arrangements and rich food – the people line up to queue in perfect order.
By comparison, Utrecht feels older, more mature, a museum town with sleepy trees lining lazy canals. Its mascot is a stick-figure cartoon rabbit named Miffy.
The only thrill I get comes when I perch on the back edge of a bike, that belongs to a wide-eyed girl I met once on a trip to America, and still barely know.
We go for coffee, then she races me across cobbled streets and empty bike lanes, and laughs wildly as I shriek at her to slow down.
I find myself in Kinderdijk, in perfect weather, with spots of sun landing in symmetry across my face.
I turn my head, and strobes of light shine on to blades of grass, and tall, manicured sheafs of wheat.
In Spring, this is where the tulips would bloom.
There’s a pebbly pavement and a pristine white arch, and the walkway that follows leads me over a reservoir, to an aging windmill.
It’s almost perfectly preserved, and the only one still working. The weathervanes travel so slowly, blades like clockwork, and the wind slightly bristles around them.
Dotted along the skyline are dozens more windmills, all identical, standing silent against the gentle breeze.
In Holland, I feel like I’m in stasis.
Like it would be possible for me to linger inside this warm, moody September forever.
But like all dreamy things, it has to come to an end eventually.
At the very least, when I wake up, I’ll be in my own bed.
Elizabeth Atkin is an award-winning journalist from Newcastle, currently living in London, but trying to travel as much as possible. In the meantime, she’s writing a short book of travel essays like this one. Here she is on Instagram: @elizabethkatkin and tumblr: elizabethkatkin.tumblr.com
Photo credit: Elizabeth Atkin