On Kindness

Today, I write not from my comfy couch in Copenhagen but from a different comfy couch, in Pune – a city just outside of Mumbai, India, where I’m visiting family this week.

As I continue to reflect on my adventures this semester, I wanted to take some time to talk about an integral aspect of my experience – it’s something I’ve mentioned briefly in other posts: kindness.

We begin with the kindness of strangers, which is one of my favorite ways that compassion can manifest. My journeys around Europe would have been far more difficult without it. The Middle Eastern man who guided us through the public transportation system in Amsterdam (after which we got lost anyway); the elderly lady who helped us cross a perilous street in Rome; and our generous Italian host who discounted part of our room cost, sent his driver to pick us up, and extended our stay by one night for free at the last minute – all of them doing their best to make our lives easier in ways big and small, expecting nothing in return but a simple dank je, gracias, grazie, or ‘thank you’.

Kindness from and toward people you don’t know can also take the form of “paying it forward” , or doing the same act of kindness to a stranger that some other stranger did for you – in both instances, the giver doesn’t know the recipient, but such a simple chain of unconditional and compassionate acts can be a surprisingly potent force for positive change, even if it only affects a small number of people. For instance, I make it a point to always donate some change whenever I see a street musician – something I’ve started doing ever since someone dropped a few dollars on a piano I was playing in a Boston street market.

There’s a different kind of kindness (see what I did there?) that has also enlivened my study abroad experience – kindness among friends. I consider myself blessed to have exceptionally compassionate friends both at St. Olaf and through DIS, who are always willing to reach out and bring a little sunshine to my day.

When among friends, kindness is often based in the relationship – valuing a person for who they are, what they have done, or what they represent is typically the impetus for this type of act. But, like a random act of kindness, it comes from the desire to make somebody’s life better – either by offering them an easier way forward, giving them support during a difficult time, reducing their suffering, or just telling them how much they mean to you.

An act of kindness is not entirely a one-way interaction. In order for it to be received, the act should be understood as it was intended. When the man in Amsterdam offered us assistance, he wasn’t doing it because he thought we were weak, or inept, or that our group of mostly girls didn’t understand how directions work. Our host in Rome didn’t offer us additional help because he thought we were helpless students of color who had no idea how to survive on their own.

They helped us because they wanted to make our lives easier, simply because we were fellow humans sharing an experience with them.

And an act of kindness is just that, whether it’s among friends or strangers – trying to add a little positivity and ease to someone else’s world, whether you know them and care about them or simply want to pay it forward to a person in need. To interpret it as a reflection on the recipient’s capabilities or as an expression of prejudice by the giver is to diminish the act and ascribe malicious intent where none exists. While acts of kindness can sometimes feel like an attack on the self-sufficiency of the recipient, it’s important to understand that compassion isn’t meant to diminish either person involved in the interaction – rather, it’s meant to make the world better for both of them.

And kindness is the lifeblood of the study abroad experience – students helping students, roommates helping roommates, friends helping friends – it’s one of the things that makes the experience as magical as it is.


Part of the Journey is the End.

Wow. The semester’s about to end. Wowzers.

If, before I had left the US, you had asked me how long a semester abroad would feel, I would have responded with something like “It sounds unimaginably long. How could anyone be away for that much time??”

If you had asked me whether I could ever get used to living in a country that isn’t my own (the US or India), I would have shaken my head no.

If I had to consider the possibility of finding entirely new friends in a new place after just starting to feel comfortable at St. Olaf, my hands would have started to get sweaty.

And yet, here we are. I feel like the semester has flown by, I can’t imagine leaving my daily and weekly routine here in Copenhagen, and leaving my newfound family here is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do.

As I look back upon the semester as a whole, I’m surprised as to how my overall experience has evolved, shifted, and changed form over time. Just because my experience exists a certain way today doesn’t mean it always did. I spent my time with different people, I had different types of conversations, I sought out different kinds of experiences, and I made a different variety of mistakes two months ago vs. one month ago vs. one week ago vs. today.

I’ve noticed something about long-term, novel experiences – when looking forward at them, I tend to imagine them as a single, drawn-out experience, where I stay the same person from start to finish. Obviously, this is a flawed way of looking at it, but I usually have to deliberately make myself visualize my experience complexly – this helps keep me open to growth while having these kinds of experiences.

A retrospective look at study abroad is interesting for that reason – the experience I signed up for, prepared for, and packed for is only a shadow of the experience I actually got.

And leaving is hard – far harder than I expected it to be. It’s obviously a bit of a cliché for a study abroad student to say that they’ve made some of their closest friends here, they’ll never forget them, et cetera, et cetera. But that’s not the whole story.

The friends I spent time with in September aren’t all the same people I spend time with now – my closest friends at DIS range from people I texted before even leaving the US to people I didn’t even know until the middle of October. Some of these friends are people that I would trust with my innermost musings and who I consider as close as family. And it took me a really long time to get there – social anxiety and fear of solitude were my constant companions for the first few weeks, and they would occasionally come back to visit throughout the semester. But ultimately, I found what I was looking for and more, and it was worth the time and effort that I needed to invest.

My Living and Learning Community has been like a little family here in Denmark – we lived together, shared meals, went to events, bonded over random conversations late into the night, and ultimately got to know each other extremely well. Obviously, I spent more time with some people in my LLC than others, but the depth of our shared experiences made me able to appreciate something about each one of them, and I feel grateful for the time I have been given to spend with them.

In fact, one of the happiest few hours of my semester were time I spent with my LLC peeps in the upstairs common area just a couple of days ago. We were celebrating a birthday (at the stroke of midnight, of course), and we ended up staying up for a while afterward talking about experiences in Denmark, reminiscing about our childhood (and the bad art that accompanied it), and jamming to pop music released before 2011 (and discussing whatever pre-teen angst accompanied these songs). It was one of the simplest social nights I’ve ever had, just some friends hanging out, being weird, and embracing the awkwardness of yesteryear. Knowing this would be one of the last times we all would be together made it especially poignant.

A semester abroad is a series of experiences mundane and striking, short and long-term, positive and constructive, solo and social. I’ve found some kind of meaning in most of these experiences, often in a form that I would not expect. And it’s often the mundane that surprised me, whether it’s sharing a couch with one of my amazing roommates while we both worked on papers, or jamming to old Black Eyed Peas songs at one in the morning. My time in Denmark has been an incredible tapestry of emotion, exploration, empathy, understanding, and discovery, and to all those reading this that wish to study abroad – I hope that yours is too.

I leave you with this quote, paraphrased from Captain Benjamin Sisko, dedicated to all my kære venner:

“This might be the last time we’re all together. But no matter what the future holds, no matter how far we travel, a part of us – a very important part – will always remain here, in Copenhagen.”

Until anon.

On Diversity

As the semester comes to an end, one of the things I wanted to reflect on is my experience with cultural identity and diversity while in Denmark. This is often a sensitive topic for many people. Through my reflection, I will not vilify one group in favor or another. Rather, I will do my best to discuss my thoughts and experiences in a manner that will elicit introspection and conversation.

During the last four months, I have encountered a myriad of diverse and distinct cultural identities, both among my fellow students and residents of countries I spend time in – a Palestinian Dane who speaks Arabic, Danish, and English alike; a native Sudanese college student studying in the United States; a Caucasian Dane who has converted to Hinduism and dedicated his life to singing in Sanskrit the praises of the Lord; a Romani family living in Brussels, speaking little English or French and doing their best to get by; an Indian American student whose family speaks 4 languages at home (that’s me!) but whose skills in Spanish are better than those in his ancestral tongues.

This represents but a fraction of the unique tapestry of heritage I have had the privilege to interact with as a study abroad student.

I have spent most of my life in majority-Caucasian communities, in which I am a racial or ethnic minority. Denmark, of course, is no exception. I have also found that the experiences and perspectives of my nonwhite friends here (myself included) are often different from those of my white friends – not because one type of experience is superior to another, but because awareness that you’re a minority makes you pay careful attention to norms, customs, and behaviors that majority-members might not notice. But obviously, minority voices, perspectives, and experiences are just as important as those of the majority.

This has become especially relevant when talking about study abroad.

Some of my peers have very dark skin, and many of them have had dire encounters with racist rhetoric in Europe, some of which are truly appalling. On the other hand, my lighter-skinned but still minority-identifying friends have encountered other varieties of prejudice, not directly targeted at the pigment of their skin but rather at their cultural, religious, or ethnic heritage.

The identity I construct for myself, when distilled and simplified, is that of an Indian-American, a male, and a Hindu.

In my case, as a person of Indian descent, I have brown-colored skin. Due to positive stereotypes surrounding Indian immigrants, we often are afforded more respect than immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, or Latin America. However, in many majority-Caucasian communities, there is always the chance that I will encounter racism of some kind. And I certainly have experienced my fair share of bigotry growing up, because I do look like I come from a non-European country.

I have experienced prejudice once in Denmark, when an intoxicated man mumbled some slurs at me in a local grocery store. But that was one experience, and a relatively mild one at that.

I know students who have been told that immigrants damage the sanctity of the Danish nation; I have heard anecdotes of my African-American friends being insulted on the street for the shade of their skin. A friend of mine told me that someone declared to him that Denmark has a high level of trust because there are fewer Middle Easterners.

I’m male, which shields me from much of the sexism that women face on a day-to-day basis, particularly in the medical field.

I’m Hindu – while there’s plenty of misconceptions floating around about Hindus, I have many Muslim friends who’ve spoken to me about some of the Islamophobic sentiment they’ve experienced. Islam is an oft-vilified religion in the Western world, and its practitioners have to deal with this every day.

So then, we have to ask ourselves,

Who is diverse, and who then has the right to speak on behalf of a diverse experience?

Following the previous line of logic, I haven’t experienced as much hardship, comparatively, due to my unique ethnic/cultural identity. But does that mean that I shouldn’t be qualified to speak from a diverse perspective, sharing my thoughts about what it means to be a minority in Denmark?

My answer would be no.

Diversity isn’t just about who has suffered more. A “diverse” perspective is one that can speak from a unique identity, particularly with a voice that is often unheard. Such a perspective adds something special to the marketplace of ideas, a fresh point of view that highlights a new way of looking at the world and understanding the human experience. Representing diversity requires a unique perspective, a clear voice, and a willingness to engage with difficult questions.

Just because I have never experienced Islamophobia doesn’t mean I can’t represent a voice for diversity.

Just because my male friends from Africa haven’t experienced common forms of sexism doesn’t mean that they can’t represent a voice for diversity.

Just because my light-skinned friend from the Middle East hasn’t experienced conventional colorism doesn’t mean that she can’t represent a voice for diversity.

At DIS, I have friends from almost every continent, who speak over a dozen languages, representing more than 5 religions. Diversity isn’t about a particular one of those people, or about a particular form of social hardship – it’s about the power that a unique, unheard voice can have in a receptive community.

And that’s ultimately why we study abroad.

Staying Healthy While Abroad

This post is dedicated to the people in my life who are dealing with difficulties of the mind.

Hej everyone,

This post is going to be a bit more serious than usual, since I’m going to be talking about something that is woefully under-discussed. (Though the conversation is happening more and more, I’m glad to say.)

You see, I have a brain illness. Nothing terribly serious, don’t worry. I’ve definitely mentioned it before—I have a generalized depression/anxiety disorder.

Many of you who know me well are aware that I’m fairly open about it and I discuss it when I think it can be constructive to the overall conversation on mental health. In this context, I think my thoughts have a place here because mental health tends to be more precarious while abroad, for all of us — and we need to be vigilant, to gather resources to take care of ourselves and the people around us.

Mental illness is an incredibly private thing for a lot of people suffering from it, and it can’t be taken lightly. But it’s also something that so many people struggle with on an hourly, daily, and weekly basis. It can affect us all – the smartest of us, the most caring, the most successful, the most popular, and the happiest people alike. It’s an equal opportunity affliction. Behind the veneer of “put-togetherness” that someone shows the rest of the world lies a complex story not without its obstacles.

It can manifest in a variety of ways for different people:


Feeling inexplicably “down.”

Not wanting to see people, whether they’re friends or not.

Not being able to get out of bed.

Not being able to shower, get groceries, or do other basic stuff.

Depending on the day and the person, it can be any combination of these things, and more. It doesn’t always make sense, and it can come and go without warning.

Returning to the study abroad experience. When we settle into a particular environment, we often have well-developed support systems to guide us through difficult periods – this could take the form of friends, family, roommates, professors, religious leaders, or even cherished activities. When we’re abroad, we take a risk by leaving our network behind us, not just from a social or professional standpoint, but also on an emotional level. We have to deal with a difficult transition and a new routine, all the while trying to find our place in a new community. It’s not easy, and it’s not supposed to be.

On top of that, our varied living situations can make our mental health experiences quite diverse – an LLC student like myself might have different day-to-day strategies than, say, a homestay student.

Over time, I’ve developed a few strategies for taking care of my mental health while being away for an extended period of time. Most of these strategies aren’t new, and they’re pretty commonly discussed; acknowledging that no strategy works equally well for everyone (and that I’m not a doctor), I thought I’d share a few things I do:

When I feel gray, inertial, or just brain-fried:

I make sure to shower, if I haven’t already, and get on some fresh clothes.

I try to make my room a little nicer, even if it’s already mostly clean.

I try cooking or baking – because it ends in food, of course.

I play the piano – it’s something that’s always brought me peace of mind.

Summary: start with “easy” things – things that require no thought, or very little actual effort. Then start working your way up as you are able.

When I feel emotionally “down”:

I try finding some sort of activity that’ll occupy my mind and stop it from having thought spirals that I can’t control: crossword puzzles, for example, engage the problem-solving part of my brain and focus my attention.

Playing the piano works here too.

I go out and find dogs to pet. (Seriously. That honestly helps so much.)

Summary: Either try doing something that’ll occupy your attention, or something that will just make you feel warm inside. There is a bit of a trope where people suffering from depression simply get told to “look at happy things” to cure themselves – obviously, it’s not that simple. But sometimes, if you hit the right chord within yourself, it can make things marginally better, little by little.

Wait, why are you talking about this online? Aren’t you afraid someone will see it? Doesn’t it make you look weak?

Believe it or not, I get asked this a lot – as if I’m making myself look bad by sharing what might be considered a “negative” experience.

Particularly among high-achieving students (and Asian-Americans, yes), there’s this idea: not only do you have to be successful and apply your full potential (and, of course, make sure everyone gets a good look at you while you do it), but you also need to have a journey free from snags, bad luck, or random misfortune. If you don’t perpetually have your life together, you can’t “compete”.

This perspective might seem ridiculous to many of you — after all, we all fight our own battles and deal with our own unique struggles throughout our lives. But this train of thought is surprisingly insidious — it gnaws at you when you fail in ways minor or major, when you feel like you’re not good enough.

How does mental illness figure into this? Well, it can often tap into that toxic train of thought, amplifying anxieties and fears about oneself and one’s future.

In turn, having to deal with the negative effects of mental illness can make you feel worse about yourself, like you’re too weak to keep up with everyone else. It’s a feedback loop that’s pretty hard to escape from.

Now, I’m blessed with parents that don’t subscribe to that expectation of perfection and place only a few guidelines on what I’m going to do with my life. But even so, I’m still vulnerable to this anxiety – and so, as I suspect, are many of you.

I’m openly discussing this part of my life not merely to bare my faults to the whole world – but rather to embrace my imperfections and demonstrate to the people I care about that these flaws don’t stop me. Sure, they might slow me down at times and muddy the path. But I view an open conversation about mental health as a sign of strength, not of weakness – a sign that I feel secure enough about myself to admit when things aren’t going so great. It’s also a source of solidarity to anyone reading this who might be going through something similar, for them to understand that their struggle should never be a source of shame.

Capital Tour, Brussels: Damp Socks and Gratitude

From Amsterdam, we took a 5:50 AM train to Brussels. Why so early, you ask? As college students on a budget, we tend to like saving money more than we like ourselves.

One of my friends, Simran, was going to meet us in Madrid (our third stop) and was flying out around the same time – luckily, we found an American exchange student in our hostel that was also going to the airport around the same time, so she didn’t have to navigate the labyrinth of Amsterdam public transport alone. More from the realm of kind strangers.

When we arrived in Brussels, our first order of business was to find some waffles. Obviously. We found this wonderful little place which had all kinds of Belgian waffles, with a variety of sauces and syrups – based on the recommendation of friends, I decided to get the waffle with speculoos sauce: a kind of gingerbread cookie butter, I think? It was quite good, and I’d recommend trying it during a visit to Belgium.

It was cold and overcast that day, but we endeavored to explore as much of the city as we could.

After another visit to a cafe…


We began walking around, first heading for the peeing boy. No, it’s not what you think. A statue, or more specifically, a fountain where the water is made to look like it’s being peed out by a statue of a little boy. If you think that’s weird, there are two more urinating statues just like it, elsewhere in the city – one of a little girl and one of a dog.

We also met a clip-clop-neigh doggo.


We eventually came across a church, the Eglise Notre Dame du Sablon. Luckily, it was open, so we had the chance to explore it for a bit. You as a reader have probably noticed that I love churches – this one was no exception. I was especially moved by the sculptures present – in particular, a painted one of the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus and a series of relief sculptures featuring multiple angels in flight.

There’s something about the way the angels, in particular, were depicted in motion that drew my attention. The strong sense of movement that the sculpture expressed and the intensity of their flight conveyed the gravity of the scene quite effectively.

After a while, we wandered out, stopping a bit at a nearby park to get our bearings. It was quite cold, you see. And the wind seemed to be a little less intense in the park.


We eventually resolved to visit the European Parliament, one of the things Brussels is most famous for and a site of personal interest for me. Even before we entered the building where tours were conducted, the grand nature of the overall structure didn’t fail to catch our attention. We made our way to the Hemicycle, a large semicircular structure which served as the main building.


Although we worried about lines, we managed to get a spot on a tour within just a few minutes, and in we went! After passing through some security checkpoints and checking our bags, we headed upstairs to be dazzled by the spirit of international cooperation.

Our tour began with a look at a scale model of the parliament complex (which is actually huge). Scale models are exciting to me – they take a space that to us seems vast and compress it down to a level where we can appreciate the entire space with a single gaze. The model was quite beautiful, and it gave me a unique appreciation for the architecture of the complex.


After seeing more of the building’s common areas, we went to the actual parliament chamber, which looked quite a bit like Congress (and, I would suppose, most national legislatures) but somewhat more polished. Here, our guide stopped to tell us more about the EU overall and how business is conducted during legislative sessions.


One particular thing he highlighted was the methods used for translation between delegates – a critical part of making parliamentary meetings run smoothly. Here’s an example:

An Italian delegate is making a speech. In order for the Slovenian delegates to understand them, an interpreter first translates the words from Italian into English (since all the translators speak English). Then, another interpreter translates the words from English to Slovene.

So when a joke is told, there are three different waves of laughter. Yes, it’s as awkward as it sounds.

Wave 1: The Italians hear the joke in Italian.

Wave 2: All the English speakers hear the joke translated to English.

Wave 3: All the delegates who don’t speak English or Italian hear the joke translated to their respective languages.

Oh, and also, every single tour guide we spoke to made sure to take some shots at the U.K. for Brexit.


When we wrapped up at the parliament building, we decided to spend the evening wandering around and getting food in the city – where, among other things, we came across this delightful sign. (It’s based off a Rene Magritte painting of a pipe called “This is not a pipe”.)


Here’s where I’d like to throw in a disclaimer: the anecdote I’m about to share is not meant to be romanticizing or self-aggrandizing in any way – I only want to talk about an experience that was important to me.

As we walked around the city around dinnertime, we passed a homeless man sitting on the side of the road with his belongings next to him. I stopped to speak with him for a moment. Recalling my experience with Sven so many weeks ago, I asked him what he needed. He said that he and his friend sitting next to him would love a cup of hot coffee with sugar. Assuring him that I would return, I headed to a couple of nearby stores to fetch some coffee as well as a warm scarf, which thankfully only took a few minutes. When I came back, he thanked me, and we spoke for a bit. He told me that most people he knows always seem unhappy – even though they might have warm clothes, a sophisticated phone, a nice house, a shiny car, and all the possessions they could possibly need, they remain unsatisfied. “This is my house!” he said, gesturing to his tote bag. “I live out here, on the street. But you’ll always find me with a smile on my face. Remember that. And don’t lose your way of looking at the world. It’s good for you.”

Poverty and homelessness consist of incredibly complex and diverse situations that affect so many people in so many different ways, most of which cannot be solved by simply “being positive” – I want to underscore that emphatically. But this man wanted to remind me to take the time to be thankful and truly comprehend what is available to me rather than focusing on what isn’t. That’s something that I want to carry with me as I continue my education and personal growth. And as I gain more experience, to do my part in tackling the institutional problems that afflict members of my community and of other communities.

Upon bidding him farewell, I reunited with my friends. We wandered around for a bit longer, after which we decided to head to a café to get some food. We had just sat down and started eating when we all received an email from RyanAir, the carrier for our flight to Madrid the next morning: “We sincerely apologize for the cancellation of your flight on 30/10/2018.”

Well, crap.

We had an AirBnb reserved for Madrid starting the following night, and the next available RyanAir flight to Madrid was four days later. And we couldn’t just go to Rome (our last stop) since our planned flight to Rome was out of Madrid.

Time to problem-solve.

Someone dialed customer service, someone googled train options, someone else googled other flights. Like a well-oiled but slightly panicking machine, we investigated the possibilities. Eventually, I hit upon a rather longwinded but ultimately workable idea – take an overnight bus to Paris and fly from Paris to Madrid, where the flights weren’t terribly expensive. We agreed to go forward with this plan, which would require us to cancel our Brussels Airbnb.

Note about our AirBnb hosts, two of the nicest people I have ever encountered – after hearing about what happened, they gave us a FULL REFUND and told us not to worry about the fact that we had to cancel on the night we were supposed to check in.

After booking our tickets, we decided to head to the Delirium Café for some refreshment, and to decompress for a bit. We were there until about midnight, after which we returned to the central train station to retrieve our luggage (we had stored it there for the day). By this time, it was raining quite a lot, but we forged on, grabbing our luggage and walking a few miles to the bus station.

Quite damp at this point, we eventually found ourselves in the bus station – unfortunately, security had arrived and were closing down the main part of the station, so they kicked us out. Also, one of the security guys brought the angriest German Shephard I’ve ever seen, to emphasize the sentiment.

However, the other guard did tell us we could go to a different part of the station closer to where the buses actually arrived – an indoor waiting area where we could stay warm and dry. And so we went there, discovering a large group of other passengers waiting for their international buses, with departure times ranging from 2:00 AM to 6:00 AM. There were people headed to Spain, France, and a few other countries. We were warm, dry, and surrounded by fellow travelers.

But it was not to be. Intimidation doggo and security man returned, kicking us out of the waiting area into the cold, rainy night. So, we had to wait outside for about an hour and a half. The kicker is, some of the other people there had to wait outside for over three hours, since the station wouldn’t open until early morning.

As we waited, we kept warm by dancing to the music being played by some Spanish students waiting for their bus – they had a speaker, and it seemed like a good time for Ariana Grande. At long last, our bus arrived, and it had air conditioning for about 10 minutes before it dropped to about 40 F for the remainder of the night. And so a shivery sleep began.

When we awoke in the morning, it turned out that the bus was two and a half hours late, which meant that we would miss the Paris-to-Madrid flight we had booked the night before, and we would have to book another one.

Eventually, we made it to the Paris-Orly airport, took our flight to Madrid, and made it to our Airbnb, which was a truly beautiful and well-situated accommodation.

And then we rested, and ate some delicious Spanish tacos.

Anyone who’s spoken to me about Belgium knows that I’ve had some choice words to describe our experience with transportation and logistics in Brussels. After some reflection on the overall experience, I decided to take a different approach: gratitude.

The man I met on a Brussels street reminded me that complaining serves no real purpose, even when things seem miserable.

People have often told me to remind yourself that “other people have it worse, so you should feel grateful,” that such an approach is an effective way of developing gratitude for what you have.

I find this woefully inadequate, as well as an insult to those in our world who suffer deeply. Gratitude for my blessings and cool-headedness in difficult situations out of my control shouldn’t be predicated on the existence of “superior” suffering. They should be implicit mindsets that I work to develop over time, to increase my own peace of mind and that of those around me.

If we can feel thankful in our own right, without needing to compare ourselves to others, we can take that one step toward un-tethering our own happiness from the actions, behaviors, and circumstances that affect the rest of the world.

And that’s the lesson of Brussels.

Capital Tour, Amsterdam, Day 2: Sebastian’s Excellent Adventure

Hej friends!

Click here to hear about Day 1 in Amsterdam.

The following day, we awoke to a beautiful morning in Purmerend, with an exceptionally serene square to greet us. It was a lovely day, and we were excited to continue exploring.

First. Dogs in jackets. Dogs. In. Jackets.


Next on the docket was, of course, food. After a bit of wandering and canal-gazing, we made our way to Omelegg, a breakfast/brunch place with rave reviews online that we simply had to try.

While there was a sizeable line outside the restaurant, we were eventually invited inside and seated. I admit, I was skeptical about the free walking tour of the city with FREEDAM tours (get it?). We arrived at the meeting spot to meet our lively guide Sebastian, who warmly greeted us and the rest of the tour group. It was a pretty great tour, so I’d like to share some of the cool things we learned.

I’ve grouped it approximately by topic, in case you want to skip around a bit.

Small history lesson

There’s this old saying: “God made the world, but the Dutch made Holland.”

Amsterdam, originally called Amstel-dam (a dam on the river Amstel), initially served as a critical port of access and trading hub, which meant that a lot of the people present there, at least for a while, were sailors on shore leave. And where there were sailors, far from home, there was always a great need for practitioners of the world’s oldest profession. With all that sin going around, these sailors needed a good place to go and confess after the fact – this led to one of the largest proliferations of churches in history, something that you can still see today, to some extent. The tithes and offerings provided by clients of prostitution allowed these churches to expand considerably. Eventually, sailors could make a deposit at the churches before they even sinned – like a prepayment of sorts.

Many parts of Europe viewed prostitution as depraved and sinful, illegalizing it accordingly. However, although Amsterdam had outlawed it, it was tolerated as long as it wasn’t particularly visible. This idea of tolerating things comes up a lot in Amsterdam.

After the Protestant Revolution, Sebastian said, people really liked what Martin Luther had to say, so Holland (which had until now been under the control of the Catholic monarchy in Spain) rebelled and gained their independence, and they started not liking Catholics very much, outlawing the religion for many decades following.

Due to the ban on open Catholic practice, people used to set up secret churches in the top floors of houses in order to hold Mass. In fact, one such church actually bore the name “Our Dear Lord in the Attic,” and we had the chance to see it from the outside.

Some other little tidbits:

When residential buildings were being constructed, the government would levy a tax proportional to the width of a house – to save money, then, you’d construct the narrowest possible house, and instead make it considerably long.

Also, if you look carefully, the buildings appear to tip forward toward the street. Don’t worry, it’s not secondhand smoke from the legal marijuana affecting you. Since the buildings are so thin, heavy furniture and equipment often had to be hoisted in through the windows.


So how do you pull something up? With a pulley, of course, hence the hooks on the eaves. And how do you prevent your heavy object from crashing against the outer wall and windows as it comes up? Make your building tilt forward.

Sebastian’s funny personal story

Sebastian then shared with us an anecdote from his youth in Amsterdam. As a young teenager, he loved jazz music, and his favorite Dutch jazz bar across town had a concert on Wednesday nights from 10 PM to 2 AM. But it was a school night, so he wasn’t allowed to go. So every Wednesday night, he would sneak out of his window, get on his bicycle, and head to the bar to hear the music. One night when he was 15, while biking back, his bicycle chain broke as he passed the red light district – and while trying to repair it, his hands became covered in dirty grease. If he showed up at home with greasy hands, he would be caught. As he lamented the situation, he noticed a lady of the night beckoning him from inside her window – somewhat embarrassed, he tried to explain to her that he wasn’t interested in her, but as he approached, she told him that she wanted to let him in so he could wash his hands!

Following the incident, Sebastian says that she waved whenever he passed by, and he waved back. The punchline of the story? His father knew he was sneaking out from the very first night he did it.

A little more history (including the Holocaust)

The East India Company, dealing with trading and (obviously) colonizing, which did have a counterpart in Britain, was the biggest company in the history of the world, with a modern adjusted value of 7.5 trillion euros, or 7 500 000 000 000 euros: more than eight times the current value of Apple. Yay for capitalism?

Amsterdam was also known as the Jerusalem of the West due to the thriving Jewish population – in fact, one of the old nicknames for Amsterdam is the Yiddish word for “place,” mokum.

Remember the “tolerating” that Amsterdam is known for? Unfortunately, this to some extent extended to the Nazis. 90% of the Jews of Amsterdam were murdered by the Nazis in the city or deported to concentration and death camps. However, there are many stories of the Dutch protecting their Jewish population. So it’s not clear cut, as so few things are.

We also had the chance to visit the Homomonument, dedicated to the struggles and sacrifices of homosexual Dutch citizens who have been persecuted throughout the history of the city and country. I had never seen a structural dedication quite like this – both in terms of its layout and its subject matter. The monument consists of three raised triangles, each 10 meters in diameter — representing past, present, and future. On the largest triangle, one vertex points to the Anne Frank House, one to the National War Memorial, and one toward the headquarters of COC Nederland, the oldest continuing gay/lesbian advocacy organization in the world. On it is a line from the gay Dutch Jewish poet Jacob Israël de Haan: Naar Vriendschap Zulk een Mateloos Verlangen (“Such an endless desire for friendship”).


I always feel compelled to visit monuments that aren’t as famous – while nearly all famous monuments celebrate and honor worthy individuals, causes, and events, I find that many are overlooked. Either because they aren’t particularly visually stunning, or the cause they promote isn’t a hot-button issue or one that seems incredibly compelling. Seeing this subtle but clearly significant monument reminded me of the incredibly diverse ways we choose to honor things – sometimes we erect great structures, we write epic poetry, we hold massive parades and celebrations.

But sometimes we don’t need all that. Sometimes, all we need is a few shapes and a line of poetry, and it’s just as significant and moving.


Modern culture

More about “tolerating” – the moralism of the Dutch is quite interesting. The idea is that “as long as you’re not bothering me, getting in my space, or harming anyone, you can do whatever.” This is often used for good.

For example, same-sex marriage is legal in Denmark, and the city of Amsterdam is host to a well-known Pride parade each year. Since it’s Amsterdam, it takes place as a boat parade along the canals. In fact, the city police have their own boat to participate. Sebastian told us that his grandma always attends because she wants to see the “boys on the police boat”.

The idea of tolerance itself isn’t a bad one – like almost any worldview, it is a double-edged sword. It allows you to embrace new ideas and expand your perspective much faster and more readily, but it also may blind you to ideological threats. After all, as Alexander Hamilton said (actually he didn’t), “If you stand for nothing, you fall for everything.” If we’re okay with everything, where’s the limit to what we’re okay with?

That’s the ultimate struggle. We can learn a lot from Amsterdam about how to approach the way we treat our neighbors as well as people who we consider to be “other” – but also when to stand our ground on principle.

A Fandom Visit

At Melisa’s insistence, we decided to pay a visit to the TFiOS (The Fault in Our Stars) bench – featured in the film version of the book by John Green. While it isn’t my favorite of his books, it was fun to visit that particular element of his work.


Wrapping up the day

As the day began to come to an end, we decided to split up – tired, I wanted to head back to the hostel to get some sleep before the obscenely early train to Brussels the following morning.

My companions decided to search for some alternative entertainment, so we decided to catch up later.

Although public transportation closures made the journey a bit confusing, I was delighted to find a lovely grand piano in the middle of Amsterdam Centraal Station. After jamming for a bit (Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Leonard Cohen, etc.), I decided it was time to catch my train and bus.

European piano count: 3.



I had been to Amsterdam before, primarily for layovers on my way to see family in India (so I guess that wouldn’t really count). On one occasion, I did spend a 6-hour layover taking a tour of the city, but that was many years ago and I don’t remember it very well.

From my short time in Amsterdam, I could see little traces of my adoptive stomping grounds in Copenhagen everywhere – the cobblestone streets, the architecture, the way that some of the busier areas looked at night.

And yet, it was fundamentally different.

For one thing, the canals changed everything. It was almost like the whole city was a pier, where you were never more than a stone’s throw from the waterways. The roads seemed to follow the water, sloping and curving accordingly, and the city very much felt like it was built in a sort of symbiosis with the water.

Initially, the city felt like “wrong Copenhagen” – just similar enough that it felt familiar, but just different enough that I didn’t feel quite at ease. But, as I found throughout this trip, it usually never took too long for me to find something about a city that I could appreciate and connect to. With Amsterdam it was street musicians, Indian food, and canals.

And ultimately, returning to the helpful Muslim man from the beginning of our visit, the kindness of strangers – something that I would find in almost every city I was to visit.


Capital Tour, Amsterdam, Day 1: Food, Friends, and Fortunate Encounters

Hej friends,

The travel week begins!

Note: as you may have noticed, I tend to write chronicles rather than blog posts, so I’ll try to organize my story in a way that’s easily navigable.

For our first stop, we headed to Amsterdam, Holland, where we planned to spend the weekend.


Wandering around

In Amsterdam, you can-al-ways find a good view.

Upon landing at the Schipol airport just after 2 PM and making our way out of the building, we decided to begin exploring, luggage in tow, since our Airbnb was outside the city. But not before noticing this billboard ad.

I, too, bring my prayer beads to business formal events.

As we struggled to understand the public transportation system of the city (no easy task, mind you), we encountered a Middle Eastern man who worked at a nearby mosque (he amusingly called it a “Muslim church”) and helped us figure out how to buy bus tickets. While he was quite nice and well-intentioned, his advice was a bit inaccurate, leading us to be unceremoniously kicked off a bus by a curmudgeonly old driver.

However, we were close enough to our first destination that we could walk the rest of the way there: to Vondelpark. Named after a Dutch playwright and host to an annual ten million visitors, it seemed a good place to begin and get some fresh air. The first thing that struck me about the park was how incredibly open it was – despite being a vibrant, bustling European capital, Amsterdam could hold within it a vast park with gardens, fountains, playgrounds, paths for bicycles and pedestrians, and a place for dogs to run and play.


There was this “big” feeling surrounding the park that really stuck with me.


Following our visit to Vondelpark (still dragging our luggage around) we decided to be touristy for a bit, heading to the “I AMsterdam” sign, made up of giant letters and a must-see for anyone visiting Amsterdam. There were quite a few people with the same idea as us, taking pictures and climbing on top of the letters.


“There’s an ‘n’ in Amsterdam, right?”

One thing I didn’t expect to see by the sign, however, was the live show taking place a few meters away – consisting of dancing, juggling, and various other forms of street performance. It was almost as if the little square by the sign had been turned into an impromptu amphitheater.


It was time for food. Indian food, of course! We discovered an Indian restaurant, Saravana Bhavan, pretty close to where we were. We would find out only later that this was the largest South Indian vegetarian restaurant chain in the world, and that it was founded in 1891! As we walked into the restaurant, I commented to my friends that “this is one of the most aggressively Indian places I’ve been to outside India.”

In the positive way, of course.

The all-Indian kitchen and waitstaff, the art on the walls, the Bollywood music coming from the speakers, and the smell of cuisine from the motherland was enough to take my mind back home, at least for a bit. Between the five of us, we all ordered various forms of masala dosa, a savory crepe made from fermented rice/lentil batter and stuffed with spiced potatoes and onions. And I also followed my personal rule of getting a mango lassi (like a milkshake except 1000% better) at every Indian restaurant I go to.

And it was all amazing – the dosas were top-notch, the lassi was fantastic, and the atmosphere was delightfully authentic. Without ever leaving Europe, I had the tiniest sense of being back in India and spoiled by my grandmothers’ cooking once again.

Late Night Exploration

Following dinner, we managed to pull our satiated selves out of our chairs for some quality time with the canals at night. I have to say, Amsterdam is quite an interesting city to explore at night – it’s fairly quiet, and it almost feels like you can get some quality time to commune with the canals. Even just walking around the canals at night has a distinctly different feel than seeing them during the day. As we wandered through the evening, we selected as our last stop for the day a café where we heard they serve a delicious apple pie. After finding the restaurant, we set up camp at an outdoor table (with candles to warm our hands) and got ourselves some apple pie.


Eventually, as the day began to end, we headed to Purmerend, a nearby suburb which had our lodging for the next two nights – a hostel.

After struggling further with the public transportation system (which I’ll return to shortly), we eventually made it to Purmerend, where we discovered a quaint yet vibrant town with a lovely square and a handful of small ponds. People were walking around, enjoying themselves at bars along the street, and it seemed like a wonderful place to stay. Our hostel host met us in the square and escorted us to the building, where we were able to set our stuff up and retire for the night.

Note about the public transportation system. There are two bus companies; buying an unlimited 2-day pass for one of them does not allow you to ride the other, and if you don’t find that out beforehand, you might end up (cough) spending a lot of money on bus fare.

More to come on Amsterdam in the next post!

“How big was the dosa?