Register? Who, me?

Immigration matters? Uh, no thanks. Not interested.

Well, that’s been my approach pretty much the entire time I’ve been here. I was a student back in 2011. So when I moved from the U.S. to the Netherlands, the University handled everything with very little input from me. Aside from a bunch of fees and a delay when I first arrived, it was a pretty mindless process. From my residency status to my city registration, they had it covered. I received my registration details in the mail. I barely understood the purpose. And I just had to show up with my passport and smile (or not) to receive my residence permit card.

For once, I was basking in the glow of privilege.* A feeling that doesn’t come easily to a Black woman in the U.S. But in this context, I had two things going for me: my U.S. passport and my student status. I never flaunted it. But I enjoyed it. (*to clarify, unlike many other beneficiaries of privilege, I’d much rather give it up to see all of us live an equal life of leisure.)

And remember when I prolonged my stay in school for an extra semester? That just meant showing up again, smiling (or not) again, and receiving an extended student residence permit – this time skipping away (because now I had been here long enough to appreciate the ease of my circumstances).

Things only got rocky when I went to Suriname last year. My residence permit would last several more months. Then I planned to extend my stay with a search year visa. I wasn’t worried about it.

There was just this one lingering thing: my registration. I knew it was a thing (though pretty foggy on its general principle). And I planned to take care of it before I left. But I was short on time. So when I read online that I could simply de-register by mail, I thought, “oh, that’ll be much simpler to take care of when I’m in Suriname.” Then, over time and under Suriname’s sun, that plan somehow devolved based on my more dysfunctional logic, “if I could do it by mail, it probably doesn’t really matter anyway.”

As time continued to pass, I developed polarized sentiments on the matter: a) a deeply buried terror that I would be arrested the moment I returned to the Netherlands for failure to comply with the ever so complicated, yet strictly adhered to, rules; b) an embrace of my inner carefree, yet dumb American… “do your rules actually apply to me? teehee.”

The side of terror won out when I returned from Suriname. I received more than one look of shock/horror when I mentioned I never de-registered from my last apartment (I was gone for about 10 months). As if I had confessed to living exclusively on a diet of red velvet cupcakes and milkshakes (my dream diet). They couldn’t believe I was getting away with it. Oh no, I was in trouble.

My anxiety was compounded by the greater problem: I didn’t have a place to register. Without an official address, I was in registration limbo. So instead of embracing that limbo, I allowed my no longer legitimate, but unverified status to just…linger. And I thought about it everyday.

Finally, days before I left Amsterdam again for my brief visit to the U.S. in December, I confronted my dreaded fears by walking into Amsterdam’s City Hall (Stadhuis). I took my little number. And I braced my wrists for the imminent handcuffing.

But there were no handcuffs. No shouting. Not even a finger wag or eyebrow raise. The calm woman simply explained, “You’ve already been de-registered. The person now living in your old apartment reported s/he is living alone.” To which I responded, “Oh, so that’s it?” “Yes.” Sort of anti-climatic.

But all concerns were not gone. Because I’ve been in registration limbo ever since.

A couple of weeks ago I was finally equipped (with an apartment lease) to walk into City Hall (this time in the Hague) to register and legitimate my Dutch residency. Only this time my carefree and unreported lifestyle finally caught up with me. My ongoing limbo had knocked me out of the (city registration?) system. So although I still have a residence permit, my lack of an actual “residence” made them assume I wasn’t here anymore. (silly assumption)

I would have to start over – from the beginning of a process that I avoided almost entirely as a student. Not such a big deal. It just meant making another appointment with a different department (about 3 desks away).

So today, after weeks, months – more than a year of residence registration anxiety and limbo, I finally got it right. I had the right appointment with the right office in the right city with the right paperwork and for the right purpose. And just like that, I was back in the system. And delightfully returned to my status of privileged legitimacy. It’s good to be back.

To date, here’s the score – Dutch Bureaucracy: 8; Me: 1.5  (I gave myself an extra .5 for the optional smiles)

Keys that fit

Have you ever had trouble getting a key to turn a lock? Sometimes a key will go into the slot pretty easily, confirming you have the right one. But no matter how aggressive you are with the right turn and jiggle maneuver, the thing won’t budge.  You turn it upside down. You adjust its depth. You try other keys. But you know you have the right key – the one that won’t turn.

Then you take a second to breathe. Frustration subsides. Your grip loosens. And suddenly, as if you were imagining the countless seconds of resistance, the key finds its groove. The lock turns with ease.

That’s how it felt to turn the key in the lock of my new apartment. Finally.


Here’s what it took: 1) taking a step back in silence – no stress, no panic; 2) loosening my grip on the one and only ideal outcome (without letting it go entirely); and 3) listening to the only voice that matters (my gut) to determine which door is actually meant to be opened.

Turns out I wasn’t far off. Just about an hour, actually. The Hague!

My silenced mind almost immediately conjured the idea: search for cheaper apartments in that cute little city where the National Archives are located (a genealogist would feel me on this perk). I hadn’t spent much time in the Hague. But I hadn’t spent much time in Amsterdam before I moved there either. And similarly, once the idea came up, it immediately felt right – obvious, even.

Within 2 weeks I found an apartment online, scoped it out, signed the paperwork, drove from Amsterdam in the passenger seat of a moving truck, and unlocked the door to my apartment. It was as if, after months of resistance and being slightly off the right track, the nooks of the key and lock finally aligned. And I was no longer homeless, my friends.

Here’s how we celebrate:

Fears, doubts, inspirations and pink Cadillacs

I may have made some mistakes. But isn’t there some sort of saying about life being about taking risks, making a mess of things, and somehow coming out on top – or happier – or wiser – or some shit like that? If not, such a saying should exist.

I was in the U.S. for a couple of months a little while ago. I traveled quite a bit while there, getting to see lots (though not all) of the important people, including my Mom. It was at my Mom’s when I started to have some doubts about returning to Amsterdam. In a safe refuge where I was fed, emotionally supported, and understood the language spoken, I wondered if it was time to close the chapter and wrap up the fantasy of living in the Netherlands.Perhaps all signs were directing me back to a stable and U.S.-based reality.

Fortunately, Mom disagreed, encouraging me to get back to the city I chose for myself. Never mind the lack of finances, the lack of housing, the fledgling status of my organization, and – if we’re really getting into it – the lack of love prospects. I shouldn’t stay where I don’t want to be (the U.S.) for fear of what might (not) happen in the Netherlands. I embraced the advice and used my return ticket.

I had a brief layover in Philadelphia (my hometown) before my flight to Amsterdam. In spite of my nerves, I danced my way to the plane. I mean, literally. Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love” pumped through the terminal. I took it as a sign. There I was in my first home, about to “ride on the freeway of love in my pink Cadillac” on the way to my new home. Well, it made sense at the time.

Hours later, I was at the Schipol airport, handing over my passport for inspection. And as I’ve heard so many times before, the immigration guy asked, “What brings you to the Netherlands?” Hm. I used the excuse of an exhausted throat-clearing to delay my response. But I just didn’t have an answer. I almost wanted to say, “a bad habit?”

Fortunately for me and my 3x-cleared throat, he had already leafed through my passport to find my residence permit pasted on one of the pages. He pleasantly interrupted my non-response, “Oh, you live here!” Followed by what might have been the most sheepish “yes” I’ve ever spoken.

So I’m back in Amsterdam, living in the Netherlands. While I still spend time on keeping my organization afloat, I’m mostly coping with the consequences of the risks I took to get me to this point (i.e. burning my savings to start a nonprofit and maybe positively affect some people). I’m staying with a friend, looking under rocks for income, and yearning for the light at the end of the tunnel.

Scary as hell? Absolutely. Surmountable? Uh, I think so. I’m encouraged by the stories of brave entrepreneurs who explain that having an empty bank account and sleeping in someone else’s house are prerequisites to success. And I’m inspired by my love for Amsterdam. If I can still be happy here through the stressful times, it’s nothing short of a miracle.

Never you mind the exit signs
We got lots of time
We can’t quit till we get
To the other side

With the radio playin’ our song
We keep rollin’ on
Who knows how far a car can get
Before you think about slowin’ down

We goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love
Wind’s against our back
We goin’ ridin’ on the freeway of love
In my pink Cadillac


Bugging the elders

To save money, I’ve been staying with an older woman who lives in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina.  As I mentioned before, she’s 82 and delightful.  And we’ve spent hours talking.  Our topics range from her time in the Air Force, dating life (hers and mine), racism in the South, racism in the North, the children we both love (but never birthed), and memories of childhood.

Her honesty is refreshing.  And I’m happy that she likes me.  I was even shown a picture of her single nephew who’s about my age, with the slightest hints of our future together (though she doubts he’ll ever marry).

But there’s just this one thing that came up recently:

Ms. V: You really have so much hair.

Me: I know it. You should have seen me when I had dreadlocks down to my butt.

Ms. V: Oh no! I’m glad I didn’t meet you with those things. I don’t like them at all.

Me: (sad) But you don’t mind the afro, huh?

Ms. V: No, I mind. Just not as much.

Bugging the elders with my nappy head. Nobody’s perfect.

Pro: Freedom to roam

I complained in my last post about not having a stable place to live.  Well, technically I’m still homeless.  And I stand by my complaints.  But sometimes the bright side of a bad situation turns out to be the point of it all.  In this case, once I was able to recognize that bright side, I realized it’s what I’ve been wanting all along: freedom.

Stability would be cool.  Eventually I want to have all of my stuff in one place.  And I’d like to eliminate that uncertain pause when people ask me where I live.  But in the meantime, what have I been complaining about?  This is the perfect time to take advantage of my life with no leash.  As you may know, I thrive on opportunities to pick up and go wherever, whenever.  So I trashed that rising anxiety and purchased another plane ticket.

In the interest of building support for my nonprofit, Ancestors unKnown, this latest journey has led me from the Netherlands back to the U.S.  At the moment I’m in South Carolina, absorbing as much information as I possibly can from the elders, educators, and trail blazers.  I’ve been able to spend time with the high school students who are participating in the Ancestors program.  And I have more people holding my business card and talking about the ancestors than I ever thought possible.  This is progress that wouldn’t have been possible had I been committed to staying put.

During my first week here, I stayed in a cheap, extended stay motel.  I was happy to have a place to myself for the first time in a couple of months.  But it turned out I was merely a houseguest of the roaches.  So I found my way to the home of an 82 year-old woman who lives alone with an empty room.  I’ll admit that I was worried about the arrangement – until I realized that she and her stories are fabulous.  More than once we’ve stayed up talking past 1 a.m.

I’ll stay in Charleston for another week.  My suitcase is in the trunk of my rental car.  I’ll make several more stops in the U.S. before I head back to Amsterdam.   And although my bank account just shed a tear, Ancestors unKnown is really on its way.

Everyone has a different definition of freedom.  Turns out this is mine.

Con: not having a home

One of the major disadvantages to this quirky lifestyle I’ve created for myself is home instability.  When everything else is up in the air, not having a stable address just might be the worst part.  It’s probably the thing that would deter most people from choosing this route.  And I don’t blame them.

Occasionally I look back on some of my former apartments and try to remember what it felt like to be at home.  Places where I could have stayed for much longer.  But they rarely kept me for more than 3 years.  There was the cute, oddly-shaped Oakland  apartment with the red door.  I had a sliver of a view of Lake Merritt, a private entrance, and a back door, all of which made me think I was doing something.  In Philadelphia I had the nicest and cheapest (in retrospect) apartment, with a huge porch, two floors, a gigantic bedroom, and a view of one of my favorite Ethiopian restaurants.  Forget about everything else that may have been upsetting me at those times…they were the good ‘ole days!  I had a lease, some keys, and immediate access to all of my belongings.

Today, well, not so much.  Returning to Amsterdam has been absolutely delightful, with the only exception being my technical homelessness.

My stuff is in storage (it’s getting used to it).  And I’m renting a temporary room.  Bleh, even the sound of it makes me queasy.

The place is incredibly charming, with the prettiest canal view.  It’s in one of my favorite neighborhoods.  And it’s cheap.  So in some ways, I feel lucky to have landed on a borrowed bed with these perks.  But if I’m going to be honest with you, as cute as it all is, this is some bullshit.  I need my own keys, a lease, and access to my belongings.

room with a view

room with a view

I only have one more month in the room with a view.  And as I’m currently suffering from address instability, I have no idea where I’m heading next. I’m officially part of the Amsterdam housing saga that I’ve so often heard about (but escaped thus far as a student).   Let’s just hope that I finally get a grip of these bootstraps and upgrade to some keys of my own soon.  Because this foolishness is getting old quickly.

In the air and finally grounded

Perhaps the most extended silence on the blog has just passed.  I wish I had an excuse – maybe I haven’t had a minute to write; or perhaps I forgot my WordPress password.  But nothing like that.  I’ve had plenty of time.  And Chrome remembers all of my passwords.  I’ve even had things I wanted to write.  But I’ve just been unable to commit to the finality of blogged words.  Many of my thoughts have felt fleeting.  Most of my grievances have passed.  And a bunch of my recent “lessons learned” have been challenged.  So even if I had written in the last couple of months, I probably would have wanted to take them back.  Turns out I just needed some time to be quiet.

And now, as I’m sitting in the Suriname airport, waiting for my Amsterdam flight to board, the journey I’ve been on seems to have adopted a new and welcome tone.  I’ve spent 9 months in Suriname (10, counting the brief stay last year).  I came here with the intention of working on a pilot project for Ancestors unKnown, investing lots of time and energy into business development, researching other people’s ancestors in the local archives, and securing sources of income (for me and the organization).  Although the last task continues to elude me, I can confidently say I’ve accomplished my goals.  And I’m feeling really…calm.  I’m in a place of (quiet) satisfaction.  I’m satisfied with what I’ve done.  And I’m satisfied with where I’m going.

With the many flights between here, there, and elsewhere, I had begun to feel like I was moving in a circle rather than one consistent direction.  And, quite frankly, the dizzying effect of the frequent moves was tiresome.  But now, as I prepare to make an international move yet again, it feels different.  Because once I’m on the ground in Amsterdam, I think I’ll be ready to call that place home.  So I’m really looking forward to getting back in the air, and finally getting my feet on solid ground.

I’ll deal with the hard parts when I get there.