The Age of Exploration

The season of vicarious wanderlust on True Stories Well Told rolls on…. send me YOUR travel essays! -Sarah White

By Rachael Rifkin

Growing up, summer vacations meant hiking in Mammoth Mountain. After the first couple consecutive years, I was ready to go somewhere else. We used to go other places—Palm Springs, Big Bear, San Francisco, Arizona, Utah. We even went all the way to Disney World when I was seven. So I began looking through the AAA book for some new ideas. Maybe my parents had forgotten what else was out there.

They hadn’t. I’d point out a place and my dad would say, “What are we going to do there?”

“We could do anything! What do we do in Mammoth that’s so fun? We hike.”

“Exactly. Let’s go back to Mammoth.”

And so it went until I graduated from high school. I had been accepted into a couple of Southern California schools so my parents and I went to visit them. Every campus I visited left me with a funny feeling. I was always eager to leave.

I had also been accepted into UC Santa Cruz. My parents did not offer to take a trip up there. That made my decision easier; Santa Cruz it was.

“But it’s so far away and you haven’t even visited the campus,” my parents said. My grandmother sent me a newspaper clipping of an article that talked about the increasing dropout rate among UCSC students due to feelings of isolation. I balked.

If I had visited UC Santa Cruz before I went, I probably wouldn’t have liked it. But it had one thing going for it that the other schools didn’t—it was over 400 miles away from where I grew up. I was ready to be somewhere else.

Santa Cruz was beautiful. The campus was in the middle of a forest, with the occasional deer family wandering about. I loved navigating my way around the campus and city. I walked and took the bus everywhere. I explored.

I didn’t really like UC Santa Cruz though. Turns out, I did feel isolated. There wasn’t a lot to do and I was surrounded by people who went out of their way to appear unique. Instead, it was just a different kind of sameness. By my sophomore year, I was contemplating my escape again. This time I wanted to go somewhere I liked. I wasn’t going to just escape for the sake of escaping anymore.

It didn’t take me too long to figure out where I wanted to go. I had always wanted to go to the Netherlands. I had grown up reading Anne Frank’s diary and knew that she adored her adopted country. The first thing she hoped to do after the war was become a Dutch citizen.

I wanted to go to the Netherlands to see what she saw in the Dutch and walk through the same space that she had shared with her fellow Secret Annex housemates. I just never thought I would go. My parents certainly weren’t going to take me. When I was younger, it never occurred to me that I might eventually be able to go on my own.

I decided to look into studying abroad in the Netherlands. UC Santa Cruz offered study abroad programs at three colleges, one of which was an international school. I started the process, but it didn’t feel real. I couldn’t believe I might actually go somewhere I really wanted to.

I collected recommendations and transcripts, wrote essays and mapped out how taking this semester abroad would affect my ability to graduate on time. Every time I handed something in, that little excited feeling would build in my chest.

My parents worried about my safety but they weren’t going to stop me from going. They knew my aversion to paperwork, so I think they were hoping I’d forget something and not be able to go. But by the end of the school year I was all set. I was going to study in the Netherlands from August 31, 2001 through December 15, 2001.

To me, the Netherlands represented exploration, freedom and the fulfillment of a long-held desire. I’d be on my own in a way I never had been before. It meant I had to trust myself to navigate a new country. Even better, it gave me the opportunity to get to know myself anew, without the weight of parents, friends or American culture on my back.

For the first time, I felt in control of my life and it inspired me to do other things I wanted to do. As soon as I got home for the summer, I rearranged my room so it had a better flow. I asked my friend to teach me the guitar. I got an internship at a local paper. A high school friend introduced me to the guy who would become my husband.

Over in Holland, I continued to take risks, and the more I took the easier they became. When I had moments of self-doubt, instead of giving in to them, I’d take a deep breath and remind myself that taking a chance was always worth a try.

I enjoyed my classes and how open and direct Dutch people were. I learned how other cultures viewed the U.S. I traveled and made friends that I still have today. I got to know my husband over the phone and fell in love with him. And I finally visited Anne Frank’s house, saw where she hid and what she saw in the Dutch people.

me and my friends in Rotterdam. I'm the one on the far right.

Me and my friends in Rotterdam. I’m the one on the far right.

In short, I found a place of my own. Now when I travel, my journey is about discovery, not escape.

Rachael Rifkin is a ghostwriter/personal historian who blogs (www.lifestoriestoday.com/blog) about the traits we inherit, whether genetically or environmentally, and the qualities we find only in ourselves. Her favorite things are reading, random acts of kindness, high fives, playing with her dogs, and laughing with her husband.

 

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About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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