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Bike Stories: Regret

Hi, I’m Brunella, a young international girl living in Groningen and curious to know the everyday nature of the inhabitants of this city. One thing connects all human beings, regardless of gender, color, class, or sexuality, and that is the need to question everything and seek comfortable answers–as irrational as it might be. So, that’s how this series called Bike Stories began: where I ride my bike, find strangers, and interview different people with a question essentially related to what makes them ordinary humans.

This week’s theme: Regret. Regret is something crudely human. We all have a moment of regret that eats away at our brains before we sleep, that often seals our lips before we speak, and hits our hearts with every chance we take to feel. Regret is a very painful human experience, which many of us try to avoid speaking or thinking about. But – in one way or another – it is always present. The reasons for its persistence are unclear, but trying to understand them can be as illuminating as it can be hurtful. This week, we will dare to explore this further.

This week, I was studying in the UB, as a regular student in exam season does, and during my bike ride there I decided I would stop two people in the library and interview them for this week. So, I found two individuals who caught my attention, asked to have a coffee with me, and asked them the following question: What is the biggest regret in your life so far? Here I present their answers:

Person 1:

– Regret is a topic I touch on a lot with my boyfriend. Lately, we’ve been talking about things we look back to and regret; things we didn’t do or wish we would’ve done better. I just find it very interesting to understand why we regret our past and the types of situations people often regret.

So what do you regret and why?

– I mean, I don’t think it’s that simple. If you actually think about it, what people our age often answer when they’re asked this question is not very profound. It is very easy to have concrete regrets, to regret things that have already happened and that you have no control over anymore. When you didn’t talk to your crush, when you lied to a friend, when you picked the wrong class. You messed up, you regret it, and you move on.

Yet, I don’t like to think of scenarios like these as regrets. I’ve learned things from every experience that I’ve had, good and bad, and it would be unfair to myself and my growth to be so deterministic with my past. Do I regret things? Yes. But, do I really wish they didn’t happen that way? Do I really wish I would’ve acted differently? I am not so certain of that answer. I am the person I am today because of the things I’ve lived through, because of my successes and failures. How could I look so pitifully upon my past?

Can you give me an example of this to understand it better?

– Okay, so for example, I usually say that my Erasmus choice was a mistake and I regret it. I went to Chile for my Erasmus, which I thought was going to be an incredible experience. When you look at the pictures of Santiago online, you dream of living in such a majestic valley, cradled by mountains, a spark of future within the immensity of nature. I had very high expectations when I went. Yet, these weren’t completely met. The metropolis of Santiago was not as magical as I dreamed it to be. Gray skies that gave me no inspiration, and barely any mountain to rest my eyes upon. Besides, I struggled a lot with social bonding while I was there. I unfortunately overestimated my level of Spanish, which impeded me from making many local friends. Hence, I felt like I couldn’t blend into the city, and my Erasmus could not become a part of me.

If I had picked a different country, with different attributes to the city that were more attractive to me, perhaps I would’ve had the Erasmus experience I dreamed of. Perhaps, if I had been better at Spanish I could’ve also integrated into the city much more easily, and my experience would’ve been what I expected it to be. Yet, I don’t regret making this decision. Chile taught me what I look for in a city that I want to live in. It taught me what I like and dislike, and how much my environment can impact me. It taught me to be prepared to face adversity in situations where I don’t expect it, which is something that was very new to me at that point in my life. Not all lessons have to be nice and gentle, but now I know it was essential for me to learn these things for my interpersonal growth. 

If you don’t regret Chile, then, what do you regret?

– I think that my biggest regret is expectations. They are very natural and human, but I am a person very susceptible to them. I regret sometimes not following what I want to do because of the expectations that I have on myself or others have on me. It is always very hard to end up doing what you want to do since it seems like we are bound by time and compromises. I regret thinking too much about what other people want. My parents’ expectations, my teachers’ demands. I’ve had friends in my past making me feel guilty for not being present, and I’ve consequently internalized this.

Relating back to the Erasmus experience, sometimes I feel guilty of saying I didn’t have the best Erasmus experience. I am aware of my luck and privilege of going abroad to such a different region, and of having the opportunity to travel and try new experiences. Hence, the fact that I actually didn’t enjoy it, like I was supposed to, makes me feel guilty and embarrassed. This internalized guilt and unfulfilled expectations led me to not be very open about my real exchange experiences, which then continues to hurt me as I seek to relate to someone regarding this.

The lack of control that I have over the pressure that I feel is regretful, and, as difficult as it may sound, is something only I am guilty of. It is harder to call this a regret as I am constantly feeding into my regretful habits. People don’t often like to hold responsibility for their regrets. However, I believe it is important to do so in order to stop regretting and start changing.

So, in a nutshell, what is it that you regret?

– I regret valuing too much the expectations of others. We are too young to have regrets like these, we still have a great margin of action, and this gives us the freedom to expand and experience, but also pressures us to not lose that margin on a terrible mistake. I regret not doing enough of what I want to do because of the expectations of people, of the expectations I erroneously attribute to myself, which is something I am trying to actively change. Me talking to you about Chile today is part of that change. I refuse to continue feeling embarrassed and guilty for the things that I feel or want. I don’t want to continue to regret my susceptibility to expectations, I want to revolt against it.

Person 2:

– The biggest regret of my life is moving to this city. No one told me the difficulties I would encounter. No one warned me about the loneliness I would face. I was 18, freshly out of high school, excited to move into a country full of new opportunities, and I ended up having the worst year of my life.

Tell me more about it. Why do you regret Groningen?

– I always did very well in school. Academically, I had the opportunity to go to other universities in Europe, or in the United States, but something in me felt undeserving. I felt as if I was undeserving of using my parent’s money to exploit my mind’s capabilities. So, I stumbled upon the Netherlands. I had never lived in a small city before, and something about starting my adult life with such an experience seemed attractive to me. Groningen was a city that offered good study opportunities, cheap academic prices, and above all: complete freedom. At such a young age I was attracted to begin my adult life so freely. With access to endless opportunities, an exciting partying culture, and my newly granted independence. Hence, I chose this city with the utmost enthusiasm, and a chain of terrible events followed me ever since.

No one warned you before coming to this city that finding houses was going to be so difficult. Three out of nine of my first-year friends had to quit their bachelor’s because of housing scarcity. I was couch surfing for a while because I couldn’t find a place, and I didn’t want to quit my studies because of that. No one tells you before coming to this city that it’s not just the weather that is cold, but also the people. In spite of the fact that this is a student city, making friends is very hard. Personally, I’ve had a tough time integrating myself into Dutch society and forming close friendships with the locals. They are not very open to forming bonds with people like me, internationals who are temporary, and who are not worth the time and effort. But the worst part: no one tells you the loneliness that comes with the absolute freedom here.

How so? How can freedom bring loneliness?

– I came to the Netherlands at the beginning of 2021, when Covid-19 impeded me from doing many things. There was not much to explore in this city and the courses I was taking were consuming me entirely. I became friends with a group of friendly people, guys who reached out a hand for me to grab, and who convinced me that you can get a gram of happiness for 30 euros. No one ever tells you how the accessibility of drugs in this country is very dangerous for a society of lonely people. Dutch folks grow up here, they build families and circles, and their freedom has not been more to them than the light of every morning. For us internationals, however, who have never tasted a drop of this freedom and aspire desperately to devour all of it… we drown.

Me and my circle of friends began to habitually consume drugs that deteriorated our minds and bodies. Self-medicating became habitual, as it was quite easy and affordable to do so, and then we started doing it alone. Drugs became the thing that enabled me to socialize. It was the only way I knew how to make friends in a city so rejecting of me. How could I ever believe that the reason for my connection to people, that the source of my feeling of belonging could ever be so bad for me?

I was in and out of the ER during my first year. I ODed three or four times, I can’t even remember. I got to a point where I spent all my money on drugs and couldn’t do anything else. I didn’t go to class, I lost all my weight, and I was left with no place to live. My wittiness and my intellect had abandoned me too during that dark period. I was a corpse and not much more. Had I been told before that was going to be my life, I would’ve never picked to study here. 

And what did you do? Who helped you?

– You know, that’s the funny thing about being an addict. Everyone thinks it’s your fault and no one wants to help. After the first year, I couldn’t continue my career because I didn’t reach the BSA credits, which I attempted to get an exemption for given that I was an addict. But, very little empathy was given to me. Funnily enough, this university only tells you you didn’t get the BSA after other applications to other universities passed. I tried to transfer to Amsterdam or London, and despite the similarities with my course, the option was not available.

I tried to reach the university psychologist, even before I had gotten so bad. I found out you could only go five times to the therapist before having to pay particularly the costs of help. Regardless of this, I tried and still, I never got an answer back. I can’t help but think that if someone had gotten back to me then, all the horrible things that happened later could have been prevented.

I don’t blame it all on the city or the university. I hold myself responsible for my actions. But, you know, I have learned as an addict that no one will ever sympathize with you with things such as this. So, it’s up to me to contextualize my situation, to feel compassion for my own struggles. It’s the only way I can keep my sanity, it’s the only way I can move forward with my life. 

So, in a nutshell, what is it that you regret? 

– Figuring out how to be an adult and failing so painfully in it was something I will never forgive myself for doing. My biggest regret is not believing I am undeserving of opportunities, and unsuitable to want or aspire for more. Moving to a city that gave me such a slap of freedom was a curse I would never wish upon anyone, mostly to a young boy like myself: clueless, hopeful, and hungry for things he was not supposed to get. I regret coming here, but I have tried to move on ever since. I try to see my experience in Groningen as a learning moment. My experience in this city is something I know I had to learn, but it is also a regret I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

To learn is to enjoy, while to regret is to suffer. But, are these two really that different? Regret is an emotion we have all felt at one point or another. The helplessness that the immutability of the past leaves you is haunting, hence regret can push you to take decisions out of our comfort zone. However, regret is also a consequence of mistakes, decisions you wish you would have taken differently, or events you now wish you could have prevented. It is so natural to wish upon changing our pasts, building different futures that are perhaps better than our current reality. Yet, I believe there is an unseen power to regret. For instance, would you risk the person who you are today for the opportunity of avoiding mistakes–even if that option would not ensure what type of person you would become would be better? Or even worse, would you not miss this helplessness that drives your bravery or change?