REMBRANDTPLEIN, Amsterdam- The Dutch word for "tulip" is tulp. Boek means "book." And alleen means "alone."
I learned these words, and their meanings, when I took my four-day pass to Amsterdam, during a nine-month deployment to Kosovo in 2017.
It might come as a surprise, but March is a damp and hateful time of year in the Netherlands. I abandoned my fantasies of tulip-filled canals in favor of sulking in my teacup-sized bathtub, listening to my next door neighbor and his lover argue in French. Once in a while, someone would crack open a window to smoke, and I'd hear German club remixes of Pink Floyd's greatest hits.
The famous canals were indeed filled, not with the fleshy pink flowers of a Dutch painter's fever dream, but with dead leaves and bad-tempered ducks.
Ahhh, only in Amsterdam, I said to no one in particular.
Wub wub wub, how I wish you were here, said Pink Floyd.
It was my first time traveling alone in a foreign country and I was proud to have found the youth hostel in Brussels where I spent my first night of freedom without, might I add, losing either a kidney or my wallet.
I shared the room with three other young European women, who dressed like they had just stepped off the set of a Wes Anderson film. The girls somehow managed to be both sophisticated and wholesome in a way I admired, like the foreign language students I remembered from summer camp in Maine.
I thought how nice it might have been to travel with friends. To have a scrapbook you could pull out years later-when your skin was the texture of fried chicken and you dressed like a middle school gym teacher not because it was ironic, but because now it had just become practical-to prove to your bratty grandchildren that once you too had been young and spontaneous.That's alright, let them laugh. You never liked Sharon's kids anyway.
When I met my first U.S. Army recruiter almost three years ago, he assured me that basic training would be a breeze, the best Meals, Ready To Eat were anything with "chili" in the name, and that in the Army I would have the chance to travel all over the world.
He was correct about one of those things. Maybe two of those things if you have a strong stomach.
Since becoming a public affairs specialist in the Army, I had already visited four different states and three different countries. I'd met everyone from Albanian pop stars to the Atlanta Falcons football team, and a man who said his brother used to play drums with The Beatles, you know, before Ringo.
Not bad for a Long Island waitress.
I tried to enjoy my time in Amsterdam, despite the weather. I thought about people I used to know, and where they were now, and if they ever thought about me.
Maybe it was then I learned that the Dutch word for "lonely" is eenzaam.
I found a pair of vintage motorcycle boots and visited The Van Gogh Museum. Now there was a guy who was lonely.
Who did I think I was? What gave me the right to be so ungrateful? In fact, I could name three guys who would give their left ear to be in my shoes. Well. Maybe just one guy.
As an only child of divorced parents I had been alone all my life. It was something that grew to be part of me like a tumor or an extra thumb. Rude people with no manners would sometimes remark upon it and and I'd say 'what? This old thing? It's nothing to worry about.'
But this was the first time, in a foreign land with a foreign vocabulary, I struggled to put a name to an unfamiliar feeling.
In the lobby of the museum, I mentally drafted letters to my fiancé back home, who was somewhere in the swamps of Georgia enduring the U.S. Army Ranger School. For an Infantry man he has a surprisingly sophisticated appreciation for the humanities.
When I checked out of my hotel, the desk clerk told me to forget about America. I could stay here, marry a Netherlander, and learn Dutch.
No thanks, I told him. I needed to learn how to speak my own language before I began to learn another.