04 November 2013

On Homelessness

aesthetic fauna // fly
For those of you who already read my entry in the Expatica I Am Not a Tourist blog competition, I apologize for the repetition; redundancy sucks, I know. This time around, though, it's complete with fun links (a blogger's equivalent of song and dance). 

Sincere thanks again to all of you who voted me into first place; I am so very grateful.

A few months ago, I came across an article detailing general Dutch opinions about some of the nationalities who have settled within their borders. They feel ambivalent about the British. The French and Italians have nice holiday destinations but are frowned upon for various reasons.

Okay, fine. But Americans? Loud and empty-headed.

These two descriptors have haunted me since, rendering me into an eye contact-dodging, full-fledged low talker in public. Recently in a bustling cafe, I was flooded with feelings of shame... on behalf of a tableful of Americans. Their cheerfulness and sharp vowels overwhelmed the room. Their voices were all I heard. I wanted to apologize to someone, to anyone, to everyone. Loud and empty-headed rattled around in my skull like a pebble in a clothing dryer. I felt the need to breathe into a paper bag. In retrospect, I realized that my visceral response to a common scene in a city crawling with expats had little to do with the benignly chipper Americans, and more so with my own insecurities, failure to learn the language, and overall feeling of cultural homelessness. 

My quandary is two-pronged.

I ache for certain aspects of America, Land of...
  1. Sunny-souled servers at restaurants, nearly pouncing on patrons to refill empty (tap!) water glasses. Hey, we know most of it is in pursuit of a meaty chunk of gratuity, but still. It's really nice.
  2. Mindless eavesdropping. I miss being surrounded by a language I can manipulate like warm clay. Dutch feels like a mouthful of sand to me. Before you take that statement the wrong way, I admit to you that it's utterly a result of my failure at prioritizing. Language acquisition just kept falling lower and lower on my list, mostly because English is so accessible. As I write this post, two high school-age girls sitting near me are fluidly switching between perfect American English and (what sounds to be) effortless Dutch. I envy their ease. They have earned the right to speak English loudly. I haven't. Maybe those Americans at the cafe had, too. Maybe I was preemptive, or altogether wrong, in my dagger-eyed shame throwing.
  3. A-grade websites as the norm. As someone who spends a decent amount of time looking for blog fodder, I have to manually unstitch my brow almost every time I am forced to visit a Dutch website. Seriously, Holland. So many shop sites here (some of them belonging to largish companies) look like they haven't been updated since Al Gore didn't invent the internet. Bad links, outdated information, gift cards that can only be used in person and not in the online store (which totes sucks when you rely on public transit with two little people in tow), etc. etc. etc., are the not-so-gold standard. I get really, really excited when I see a fluidly-functioning site now, when before, it was what I expected. 
  4. Familial assistance. Granted, no one can fix this one, short of making a 5,000-mile move, and it's not something that's intrinsically wrong with this place. But raising children far, far away from family is taxing in a lot of ways, and it makes me unable to commit to living overseas indefinitely.  I cringe every time Julian affixes his lips to the computer screen to kiss his grandparents goodbye via Skype.
  5. Wilderness. Okay, some more open space would do, without people. A place like Pawnee National Grassland, one of my happy places on this planet. I've been spoiled in my past, living near places where solitude was a relatively short drive away. Here, a high population density reigns. Although this fact means many good things (easy access to loads of amenities and cool public spaces), it also means people. All the time.
You wouldn't have guessed it after my complaint party above, but I am immensely happy here. My sighs of homesickness are practically inaudible when compared to my praise of the Dutch way of being and living, especially when it comes to raising kids. It's an idyllic place to have a family, and when I close my eyes and say the word home, Amsterdam is the most clear of my options. How do I love Holland? Let me count the ways...
  1. In Nederland, cycling is a way of being, not just as a mode of transportation; cars are a side note.
  2. Children play. Outdoors. Together. The rise of the digital playthings is terribly convenient and pretty technologically cool, but it causes me actual physical pain to know that many kids don't know what it feels like to be windswept, to run home because their fort-building was interrupted by a magnificent rainstorm, to empty sand out of their shoes, to pick burrs off their wool coats after a scamper through a forest. Despite having a national population density of almost fifteen times higher than in the United States and, thus, not having much actual nature (in the same national-park-way I do), parents here give their kids every opportunity to do everything on my list above, on a regular basis.
  3. Personal space is sacrificed for the greater good. People give up giant yards and sprawling homes in order to have an abundance of green space, and they swarm there on the weekends, making for communal and gezellig neighborhoods.
  4. The Netherlands is a pretty safe place, with a murder rate is less than one sixth than that in the U.S. My favorite television series are about either serial killers, funeral homes, or serial killers, so you can imagine how neurotic I am with thoughts of I'MSURETHATI'MBEINGFOLLOWEDOMG, etc., flickering through my brain throughout the day. Crime rates make people like me feel better about living where we live, especially after reading article after article after heartbreaking article being churned out of the U.S.
  5. Amsterdam is so uniquely beautiful, with a friendly populace and such vibrant energy. Since moving here, my perspective on this bustling little capital has only gone up and up and up. Like cars, the hookers and weed are a side note. 
I identify with these (and many other) aspects of Dutch culture so much that now I'm in the predicament of feeling culturally fractured. I get an ache in my chest when I think of my years in Colorado, spent under almost perpetually blue skies, often on the back of a horse in the more recent days. I long for the lakes of Wisconsin, the smell of freshly cut grass that permeates its summer months. But moving back to (one of) the states would mean leaving a big piece of my heart in Holland.

Our future here is currently enclosed in an opaque question mark-shaped case (1 year? 10 years??); until that question mark turns into something more certain, I'm determined to sprout some roots. First step: finally learning Dutch. Gulp. Until then, I'll be working on raising my eyes, my chin, and my voice. 

Here's to fluency, and to feeling at home, even if your definition of the word is as stationary as a bird above the open sea.


p.s. What's more impressive than a mama who can curse eloquently? One who does it at the top of her lungs from the top of the world. Vote me to the Arctic!