A Home Away From Home


In February 2019, I left my home in Canada for a research exchange in the Netherlands at Erasmus University. Upon arriving in Rotterdam, I quickly settled into a new residence, a small private room with a common bathroom and kitchen shared by sixteen other international students. After unpacking my clothing, toiletries, and other personal belongings into a suite of generic Ikea furniture, I began to set up the electronic devices and accessories I had brought: a laptop, electric power converter, charging cables, and the latest addition to my personal ensemble, a second-generation Amazon Echo smart speaker. Plugged into the wall using my North American power converter, it quickly powered on and began glowing with a soft blue light. 


Feeling somewhat settled after unpacking my things, I looked around the room. This would be my home for the next three months, a small and somewhat austere environment with few furnishings: a bed, nightstand, dresser, desk and chair, small refrigerator, mirror, and sink. I popped out of my room to inspect the common spaces of the dwelling; walking down a long hallway towards the entrance of the building, I entered into the kitchen and met some of the neighbors. Like myself, all the tenants on this floor of the building were exchange students. After a brief conversation, I was invited to a WhatsApp group chat with the other tenants on the first floor. Before parting ways, I asked a few practical questions about the living arrangement and learned that the floor directly above us was managed by the building landlord and not the student housing service that I had signed a contract with. 


Upon returning to my room, I heard the loud sounds of a Dutch passenger train whizzing by. Looking out my window I realized that my room was facing a five-track railway system. I did not pay this a great deal of attention at the time, despite the considerable volume of the passing train. Having just arrived in Rotterdam, I spent the rest of my first day exploring the local neighborhood in Lombardijen and running a few errands. Image 1 displays my private room within the international student dormitory with the Echo visible next to the bed and a passenger train passing in the background. 


Later that evening, despite feeling quite exhausted and ready for bed, I had great difficulty falling asleep. The noise of passing trains was incessant and cacophonous; through the walls I could hear neighbors playing music and TV, talking and disruptively walking through the hallway. The soundscape of this environment was entirely foreign to me – even with earplugs burrowed deeply into my ear canals, I couldn’t lull myself into a restful state of mind. Shortly after midnight, my next-door neighbor turned up his music and began talking loudly in Spanish with a visitor. At this point I remembered that the tenancy agreement I signed stipulated that loud and disruptive sounds in the residence were strictly forbidden after 10pm. Feeling indignant, I left my room to knock on my neighbor’s door. After knocking twice, I suddenly heard the music being lowered right before the door was timidly opened by a young man. I politely asked him to lower the volume of his music and conversation, which had been keeping me awake. He apologized for the disturbance, and I returned to my room. Although the ambient soundscape was still far noisier than I would have liked, now that the volume next door had been brought down, I was eventually able to fall asleep.


I had just as much difficulty falling asleep over the next few nights, although my next-door neighbor now seemed to be wary of disturbing me. Feeling rather embarrassed for having made a complaint immediately upon my arrival, I decided that it would be best for me to find some sort of coping mechanism, moving forward, also realizing how unpleasant it would be to try to police the acoustic environment according to my personal standards or, better, aural expectations. Lying in bed, with my Echo stationed within arm’s reach on the nightstand, I softly said, “Alexa, play a white noise soundtrack on Spotify.” Immediately, the gentle whir and hiss of white noise blanketed the ambient sounds of media and murmuring voices, filling my room with a peaceful atmosphere and an illusion of complete privacy. This provided me with real relief, and I was quickly able to fall into a restful sleep, despite waking up periodically to the industrial slog of trains passing late at night.

Image 1: Private room occupied by the author in Rotterdam, the Netherlands