Falling In and Out of Love (With a City)

I grew up believing in the fantasy that adults make correct and permanent decisions. Once you choose a career, partner and place to live, you live happily ever after in a grown-up life.

Not unlike most adults who have changed their minds at least once or twice, I squashed that myth about ‘ever after’ a long time ago. Settling down with a partner? Sure, but maybe not. The right career? Okay, but we’ll see what happens in a few years. The perfect place to live? Hold up, maybe this one is possible.

Whenever people ask about my decision to leave the United States and relocate to the Netherlands, I recite a romantic, starry-eyed story about falling in love at first sight with Amsterdam. I didn’t make the decision immediately, but I knew I would rather live there than anywhere else I had been. And when I finally decided to move, I thought it could be my first grown-up success story. A love story. A permanent decision.

In hindsight, with rose-colored glasses, the following years were a storybook romance. As time passed, I learned more about my city-love. And I embraced it for its quirks and all. Sure, there were things in the city’s history that didn’t sit well. Yet, love means coming to terms with the past – never forgetting (to be clear, the Dutch history of slavery and colonialism are far worse than anything a romantic love interest could have in his past). But living in Amsterdam wasn’t always easy. At one point I even created some distance, moving to a nearby city to keep our relationship on positive terms.

After a few years, conflicts occasionally arose about money, communication, family and politics. Although I insisted on our happiness and longevity to anyone who asked, circumstances were becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. And to those who knew I was beginning to struggle, including friends who had their own tumultuous relationships with my city-love, I began to share troubling, yet familiar justifications for staying, such as “I can’t imagine liking another city as much as I like this one;” and “I’ve already invested so much, I have to stay;” or “where else would I go?”

Earlier this year, I put my belongings in storage and returned to the US to help my mother through an illness. The time away from the Netherlands gave me some clarity.

As much as it hurt to admit, Amsterdam and I were not meant to be together forever.

Immigration issues were hard hurdles to jump. Everything seemed to cost more money than I was earning. Dating had become nonexistent and I began to socially isolate myself beyond even my loner standards. The language was still embarrassingly foreign. And frankly, I just wasn’t as happy as I used to be.

When it was time to return ‘home’, I was anxious and hesitant. I felt like I was navigating a break-up.

Maybe I went too far with that comparison between my circumstances in the Netherlands to a long-term romantic relationship. Because what I learned when I returned for that break-up is cities don’t fight for you to stay. When I expressed my eagerness to let go and move on, I essentially was met with, “Okay, just leave a forwarding address.”

Well, damn.

I had already moved out of my apartment months earlier. So, when I returned from my extended stay in the US, I relied on friends and an Airbnb or two for places to sleep. I attended a few work meetings, caught-up with a few friends, visited a few doctors and ate at a few favorite restaurants. Overall, I was rather uncomfortable lugging my carry-on suitcase from place to place. And I felt little reason to stay. Shortly after I arrived, I was ready to leave.

Not that I felt any urgency to return to the US, and of course I felt a sense of nostalgia and joy while I was in Amsterdam. But I no longer felt the love that once kept me there.

I believe the skills I learned in this last relationship, including compromise, adapting to change and navigating immigration laws, will allow me to find comfort in a new place. It’s a big world, with lots of beautiful cities. And fortunately, while I plan to remain an expat, I continue to benefit from the reparations of US passport privilege. Also, staying open to change has made me available to new types of love – like, with a human.

So, what happens now? I move again. I look for my next city-love. And I have no fears about the ‘ever after’.

As I write this, I’m in the UK, waiting for my future husband to return home to our new place in Bristol.

Who would’ve thought I wouldn’t be missing Amsterdam?

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