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Rays of sunlight fracture immediately upon contact with my bedroom window and beam onto my duvet, rising up the tousled linen to reach my face. My eyes squint at the dancing hues, fighting to stay open for another few seconds. I fall asleep again and wake for a second time to the obnoxious clanging of the church bells in town—town being a small grouping of houses, a few shops, and less than 2,500 residents. There doesn’t seem to be a specific rhythm or song, just one clanging tone over and over. It sounds like an old man tired of everyone sleeping in, making sure that no one stays asleep through the incessant chiming. The bells’ ringing eventually ceases, and my eyes flutter closed again. I wake up for the final time at the crack of 9:30 a.m.—sleeping in for normal people, but early morning for an insomniatic college student. I’m tucked in tightly under my fluffy, white duvet on my twin XL mattress that I swear is the coziest bed I’ve ever slept in. My barely worn queen size mattress at home can’t compare to the comfort of wrapping up into a cocoon in the safety of my bottom bunk. I glance over the top of the curls of sheets to see if my three roommates are awake. If they aren’t, I have another few minutes of peace and guiltless time in bed. 

Once Sophie and Mar descend from their top bunks, it’s time for Rachel and I to roll out of our bundles of blankets and prepare for the day. We all walk in different directions around the room. My arm extends toward my dresser door as Sophie crosses behind me to reach her toiletries, almost like a choreographed dance routine. With four people in one room it has to be. Good morning, Sophie says with a slightly raspy voice, not yet used to speaking today. She smiles warmly at me and glides across the room to her closet. I dress in my strawberry sweater vest and green thrifted Alice and Olivia pants because I only feel alive in the morning if I’m wearing a cute outfit. Rachel says I could be attending New York Fashion Week, but in reality, I’m walking downstairs to eat pancakes. 

We live in a tower—a lovely turret room—in a restored 14th century castle with views of the moat (yes, there’s an actual moat) and the courtyard. My roommates and I love our room, but there are two things that threaten to break us on a daily basis—the endless stream of overzealous ladybugs and the stairs.

The ladybugs are conveniently only a problem within our room, and sometimes the bathroom when they crawl out of the drain (How did they even get there?). At any given point during the day there will be at least fifteen ladybugs scurrying across the tops of each window in our room. They travel down the white trim outlining the windows and appear on our desks, our clothes, and—worst of all—on us. Mar has even noticed them bouncing off of her head when she sits on the windowsill—I guess it’s an easier route than climbing all the way down. 

The stairs are even worse and completely unavoidable. Four flights in total, each twistier and narrower than the last. I recall the moment (actually, there was definitely more than one) I witnessed my life flash before my eyes after nearly falling backwards on the last flight when I forgot to properly anchor myself to the wall—one hand on the railing, one hand pressed tightly to the wall until you can see white rising in your knuckles. Four flights might not seem like a lot until you have to climb them everytime you want to sit in your room or forget something before class. Then think about what happens when it’s laundry day, and you haven’t done a load in two weeks. Or when you’re coming back from traveling with a suitcase, and you can’t drag it because all of the stairs are original and have historical significance, so you should damage yourself before you damage the stairs. 

Immediately upon my arrival to the castle a couple months ago, a woman I didn’t know yelled at me to protect the stairs. Carry your suitcases up together. One person on each side. And hurry up! She made it seem like the already creaky stairs with small cuts tracing through them like a well-worn map were a priceless painting we were forced to step on without leaving even a miniscule scratch. With every bag pushing fifty pounds, this experience was similar to the episode of Friends where Ross enlists Chandler and Rachel to help him move a couch into his apartment without the assistance of actual movers, attempting to angle the couch in every possible direction to maneuver it up the stairs. Pivot! Pivot! PIVOT!

This time we’re going down for food with nothing in our hands, so it’s much less traumatic. I would never wake up before 10 a.m. if it weren’t for the Dutch pancakes with stroopwafel syrup. Students line up at the front of the kitchen, eagerly awaiting the aluminum trays of medium-sized (and mini, if we’re lucky) pancakes retrieved by tongs that require a swift, strong force to close before they bounce back open. Dutch people never waste food, so there never seems to be enough. Apparently starving students are favorable to food ending up in the landfill. It’s always a race to snatch the last pancakes before the trays are completely empty except for a few crumbs of dough signaling you were just a little too late. The staff’s version of the classic Dutch delicacy is so obviously frozen and shaped in perfectly symmetrical disks, but they are somehow so addictive. You would think I would get sick of them after being served the same thing every single morning, but no. Sometimes I even go to sleep dreaming about my morning pancakes. 

After breakfast, I scale the treacherous stairs again to grab my wallet, and it’s my favorite time of the day—walking to the bakery. My peaceful escape from my four-person dorm room. I love my roommates, but I only have two thirty minute periods during the entire week where I have the room to myself, so this is a VERY necessary outing. I always bring my earbuds and play music as I wave goodbye to the security guard who protects the castle from intruders…or locals attempting to break into the national landmark they have lived next to their entire lives but have never seen from the inside. 

Crossing the gray stone bridge over the moat, I’m free. I enter into the beautiful world of Well, a small town located in the province of Limburg. When traveling to other countries, Dutch people always have the same reaction to our temporary home. 

We live in Well.

Well?

It’s in Limburg.

Oh. (cue looks of utter disgust and confusion as to why any human would willingly decide to inhabit such a place)

I stroll over to the fields across the street, brown brick houses on my right, a curving stone path on my left. In front of me, a large group of sheep meandering along a wooden fence. They scatter if I approach too quickly, but if I’m slow enough, they stay near the fence and stare back at me. They look like little walking clouds with their long wool protecting them from the cold, but not from patches of dirt and small sticks. I consider petting one, but I don’t know if that’s allowed, so I snap a quick picture and continue walking. 

I turn left and almost skip down the stone path, my old Air Force 1s squeaking as I amble along. Daffodils and small white flowers I don’t know the name of line the trail, and greenery surfaces from the litter of dead plants. Rebirth and renewal—something I feel rushing through me on these short outings. 

I’ve never felt this free. Maybe it’s because I don’t know the people I walk past—a mother with a stroller stopping to yell through the bushes at a hidden neighbor on the other side, an older couple riding their bikes side by side, two teenage girls discussing something of great importance in a language I don’t understand. Maybe it’s still the rush of living in Europe. But on that small path, I feel like my complete self. I feel happier than I’ve felt in a while, just listening to Kacey Musgraves and singing out loud quietly when no one’s around.

All I need’s a place to land

I don’t need a Superman to win my lovin’

‘Cause baby I ain’t Wonder Woman

I have no one to impress and no one to take care of. I can just be with myself in a good introspective way. 

Walking into the bakery, Bakkerij Smits, I’m immediately inundated with the smells of freshly baked bread. Loaves of rye, wheat, and white bread line the back wall with SMITS stamped in flour on top. The front cases contain flaky pastries with crystalized sugar and sandwiches with all types of meats. My order is always the same—the chicken sandwich. Rachel and I discovered it on our very first trip to the bakery, and I’ve never felt the urge to try anything else. It is the perfect sandwich—a white roll with shaved chicken, lettuce, a mayo-like sauce, and peaches or mandarin oranges depending on the day. We were nervous at first when we realized the little orange chunks were fruit and not cheese, but it is the ideal combination of savory and sweet. I’ve spent many afternoons with Rachel sitting on the dark blue carpet of our room, shoving the chicken sandwiches into our mouths as we watch Euphoria illegally downloaded on my laptop through a sketchy Reddit link. Without me speaking a word, the woman at the counter automatically switches from Dutch to English. She rolls her eyes at my request for the infamous sandwich as everyone in Well seems to also love the chicken sandwich, but still hands it to me in a white bakery bag. I deposit my euros into the cash machine and wait for my change to roll out into the little dish. It’s a process I didn’t understand the first time I entered the bakery, tapping my American credit card on the machine to no avail and handing the cashier my euros before being redirected to the old machine that I had only ever seen in arcades to convert cash to tokens. But now it was a regular, weekly process, cash depositing into the thin slot, the machine calculating the amount, and a few coins falling into the dish below. 

The stairs wait for me when I arrive back at the castle. I can almost hear them laughing when I reach the top panting—not very smooth for a Colorado girl. I scarf down my sandwich before my Renaissance and Baroque art class where I learn about paintings and sculptures that will soon come to life in the churches and museums of Italy. I love learning about artwork that I will eventually admire up close, so close that I could almost reach out and trace the lines and shadows. Michelangelo’s David is still a masterpiece on a screen, but walking into Galleria dell’Accademia’s grand hall, he comes to life. The veins trailing down his arm and unwavering determination on his face convince you that he might actually be a man and not a block of marble. 

After class, I pack and prepare for my trip to Italy the next day, excited but nervous about all of the tiny details of travel that I might have forgotten—Did I pack enough Lactaid for all of the gelato and cacio e pepe? Will I actually wear this top out? Do I really need twenty-five pairs of underwear?

Amid the endless stream of internal questions, my best friend, Bobby, FaceTimes me without fail—like he does every week—because he always remembers to keep in touch. Even if I forget sometimes. His image slowly transitions from a grainy outline to a crystal clear view on the professional camera he uses for everything. The first thing I notice is his hair—the black strands that used to stand up on their own now flop over to the side. He’s still wearing his light blue sleep shirt (he only owns one), very unlike the man who usually rises at the crack of dawn to brew his own coffee and begin editing his photos from the night before. His lips curl into a small smile and his eyes turn up at me. 

Hi Mad Mad

Rubbing his eyes, he tells me about life at Emerson in Boston and all of the drama I missed in our friend group. Person A finally likes Person B back, but no one is happy about it. And Person C now likes Person A—the usual ridiculous changes of heart that accompany raging teenage hormones. Everything is set for him to return home to Fuzhou, China this summer, he says. It will be the first time he has seen his parents in nearly three years because of strict COVID regulations (he will have to quarantine for three weeks before even stepping foot into his own home where government officials will then lock him in for another two). I’m excited for him, even though I will miss him a lot. I realize that I won’t see him in person again until August and think about all of the little moments we won’t share, like our weekly boba dates and talking about our relationships or hopes for one. I’m thankful for those forty-five minutes every week when he reminds me that he still thinks and cares about me even though I’m thousands of miles away.

My roommates meet me for dinner in the dining hall. Yes, this does require another trip down the stairs. Although by this point, I’ve given in to their instability and perpetual creaking sounds. After all, soon I won’t be able to climb them anymore. My roommates and I pray for one meal without noodles and/or potatoes; but, that day won’t come, and we’ll end up liking the food enough, especially if there are fresh rolls in the basket. If we don’t, we can always order Chinese food or pizza, which is always accompanied by a viewing of one of the Pitch Perfect films. With sing-alongs, of course. I still can’t believe that we entered the castle walls as strangers—a duo of best friends and two girls who had only interacted a handful of times who now knew each other like their favorite song. Every lyric, every note, every tonal shift. I wonder how people who lived so completely separate lives in Boston now can’t imagine life without each other. We plan many more movie nights in the coming semester at Sophie and Mar’s apartment as we hike up the stairs again and sit down at our desks to complete final assignments. 

I fall back into my soft, safe bed and turn off my lamp. I think about how lucky I am to live in this little room with my now close friends, to walk up those stairs, to go to a cute local bakery, to be a part of a world that isn’t my own for a little while. Well will always hold a place in my heart as the beautiful, sleepy town no one’s ever heard of where I discovered a new part of myself. I miss Boston a little bit, but I know that when I leave, I will miss this too. 

Maddie Browning is a journalism major with environmental studies and publishing minors at Emerson College. She has written for other campus publications, including Your Magazine and Atlas Magazine, as well as Colorado Community Media.
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