Exploration, Freedom and Being in Control of My Life

Rachael Rifkin

Age of Exploration

A “My Gutsy Story®” 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. They 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 want 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 abroad 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.

Rachael in the Netherlands

Rachael in Rotterdam is on the far right. She still keeps in contact with the people she met in the Netherlands

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.

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

RACHAEL RIFKIN was inspired to become a ghostwriter/personal historian by her grandfather, who wrote a memoir about his time serving as a medic in the Korean War. Her blog, Family Resemblance (www.lifestoriestoday.com/blog), features selections of her grandfather’s memoir and stories about the traits we inherit, whether genetically or environmentally, and the qualities we only find in ourselves.


You really captures the essence of travel: exploration, freedom, fulfillment, trusting yourself and  the opportunity to get to know yourself. I think you are going to help those who feel trapped and want to try new things in life. I like your statement:

For the first time, I felt in control of my life and it inspired me to do other things I wanted to do.”

Please check out Rachael’s:

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Comments (10)

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  1. Sonia Marsh says:

    I’m a firm believer that seeing other cultures and worlds is the best thing we can do to learn who we are. You said it so well in your “My Gutsy Story.” Thanks for sharing, Rachael. Have you been back to the Netherlands since then?
    Sonia Marsh recently posted..Exploration, Freedom and Being in Control of My LifeMy Profile

  2. I haven’t been back to the Netherlands since I left, but I plan to go eventually. I have a lot of good memories associated with Holland and I want to make some more.
    Rachael Rifkin recently posted..Friday Favorites: Weekly Family History RoundupMy Profile

  3. P.S. I left out one significant memory from my time in the Netherlands because it deserves a full article of its own. I was in Holland on Sept. 11, 2001, so my experience was filtered through both American and Dutch/European points of view. I was removed just enough to be shocked at the amount of flags I encountered when I returned home a couple months later.
    Rachael Rifkin recently posted..Friday Favorites: Weekly Family History RoundupMy Profile

    • Sonia Marsh says:

      What an experience that must have been for you Rachael. Quite dramatic. Were you in Holland on 9/11? Did your flight get delayed for several days coming back?
      Sonia Marsh recently posted..“Doing Everything, Being Happy” by Peter JonesMy Profile

      • I was in the middle of my 3 pm Creative Writing class when I first heard about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. A classmate came running into class to tell us the news. By the end of class, we were all in the computer lab on CNN’s website. It had frozen because there were so many people trying to access it at once.

        People kept asking me and the other American exchange students if we knew anyone who was supposed to be at the World Trade Center or on one of the planes. Everyone was very sympathetic, but they were also curious. I remember feeling like they kept staring at us.

        My fiance was coming to visit me the following week. We weren’t sure if flights would be running normally by then, but he made it. On the way to the Netherlands, security was pretty strict but not terrible. On the way back, however, he got a very ‘hands on’ search before he was allowed to board the plane back to the U.S.
        Rachael Rifkin recently posted..Friday Favorites: Weekly Family History RoundupMy Profile

  4. Liz B says:

    What a wonderful and courageous story! I agree with you that once you take that first chance…the others will follow and they become easier. It’s taking that first step, though, isn’t it! I loved your story and how you seems to flourish once you were out on your own. Kudos to you! Will stop by to read your blog about your family history. Well done, Rachael!
    Liz B recently posted..Still A Babe…in Chicago!My Profile

  5. It’s true, once you prove to yourself that you can take that first step, all the subsequent ones are easy in comparison.

    For me the first step is like jumping into cold water — you know it’s going to be cold so you hesitate at first, but eventually you just close your eyes and leap forward (once you’ve made sure the water is deep enough and there’s no one in you way, of course).

    Thanks for the kind words, Liz!
    Rachael Rifkin recently posted..Friday Favorites: Weekly Family History RoundupMy Profile

  6. sharon leaf says:

    You followed your dream and found your own home, on your own terms…the Netherlands…how lovely. I feel that you will return there one day, when the time is right. I wish you oceans of blessings on your journey.

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