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.

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Innocence lost. When the bike is stolen.

Well, it was bound to happen at some point. Since my arrival in Amsterdam, the most consistent warnings have related to bike security.  So even with the rusty bike, I relatively consistently followed the locking best practices – locking the back wheel with a key and using a chain to lock the bike’s frame and  front wheel to something, like a bike rack, a light pole, even another bike (if I knew the other owner, obviously).  I lived in constant fear of losing a bike that was only slightly more than 2x the cost of the lock that secured it.

I upgraded over the summer, thinking it would improve my quality of life. Nothing fancy. But it had one of those new kickstands, a shiny silver color, and all of the words on its side were in tact. It was like a bike version of my Jetta (from the recent U.S. years) – whereas Rusty was more like the ’85 Maxima we had when I was growing up, except about 25 years after its heyday.

I think the shine is where I went wrong. Even though it wasn’t glamorous, it was obviously new. And a new bike catches attention. And comments. Even from people I didn’t really know.  Like, “oh, is this a new bike?” But I would hear it on the defensive, as if they were saying, “ooohhh, someone’s fancy ass is trying to get robbed, huh?”

By the time I left for Suriname in September, I still hadn’t gotten rid of Rusty. I thought a back-up bike couldn’t hurt. Or maybe I would even sell it. In the meantime, while I was away, Rusty was parked outside, across the street from my apartment, for more than 2 months. Back wheel locked. Front wheel and frame chained to a rack. Shiny was parked in my friend’s garage, then back to my hallway when I returned home (Rusty stayed outside for a bit longer with barely a visit).

Then, after a miserable couple of weeks filled with snow, rain, and healthy doses of cat mourning (and on the same day I picked up Zora’s ashes), I decided to spend time with fun people doing fun things. So not too far from my place I met some friends for dinner, and later a party. I parked Shiny across the street from the restaurant. Back wheel locked. Front wheel and frame…well, uh, tucked next to the rack. I was rushing and my chain lock had been sticking (maybe because it was sitting outside with Rusty for all of that time).  So yes, I admit it. I didn’t lock the front wheel or frame.

Continuing on my rampage of carefree carelessness, I left Shiny behind to receive a ride to the party. Turning down the ride didn’t cross my mind – especially since my friend offered to return me to the bike at the end of the night.  And she did.

I held the Shiny’s key in my hand, waved goodbye, and watched my friend drive away. I thought I was standing at the right rack, where Shiny was tucked into the middle. But it must not have been. So I walked down the street. Checking each one. Maaaaaybe….no. Coooouuuld it be…no. Is thaaaat…no.

Then, returning to the original rack – the actual rack, I happened to look down at the other side of the sidewalk. There was my chain lock. Ripped from Shiny and tossed aside. Shiny was gone. Maybe I asked for it. But Shiny didn’t deserve it.

Robbed and feeling violated, I walked home to a faithful Rusty with a chain in my hand, my frown to the ground, and a brewing enthusiasm to leave Amsterdam for a bit.

This black girl is about to be gone again…

Here’s What I Don’t Like

The number one question I get from almost everyone while I’m visiting the States is “so how do you like Amsterdam?”  And I almost always say, “I love it!”  And I do.  I love it.  But sometimes I have to back up and remind people, as well as myself, that it’s no utopia.  Although it comes close for me, not even Amsterdam can be perfect.  So while I’m away, I figured it would be a nice and cowardly time to mention a few things I don’t like about the Netherlands and (some of) her people.  This way, I won’t have to look anyone in the eye right away.  It’s not a lot.  Just a few things.

1) Say “excuse me”

Dutch people will bump the shit out of you and just keep walking.  It’s never or rarely intentional.  But it can hurt, emotionally and physically.  And they never seem to care.  On a tram, in a bar, on the sidewalk, in your house.  Saying “excuse me” just doesn’t seem to be a thing.  At first I found this shocking and incredibly rude.  I’m the type of person who will apologize for just about anything.  Even if I bump into a table, I’ll thoughtlessly say “I’m sorry.”  My father tried to break me of this habit with little success, other than making me conscious of my craziness.  So from my place of crazy, I probably overreact to inconsiderate Dutch bumping.  But is this what it’s like when at one point, hundreds of years ago, you briefly ruled the world, Dutch people?  No one matters but you?!  Not impressed.

One theory I’ve heard about the lack of “excuse me” culture is due to the fact that it’s a peaceful, non-confrontational society.   Since everyone is aware that no harm is meant by an unintentional bump or entrance into someone else’s personal space, there is no need for apologies.  Alright.  I get that.  But as a sensitive American who bruises easily, I’m going to need you to say “excuse me.”

2) Forget about Sundays

Unless you live in central Amsterdam, you can forget about finding a store open on Sunday.  There are a couple of exceptions I’ve found in my neighborhood.  But since store and restaurant owners seem to operate on a whim, no guarantee ever exists that something will be open this week simply because it was last week.  Don’t get me wrong.  Lazy Sundays are great.  But I also have a tendency to have lazy Saturdays.  So more than once I’ve failed to get things accomplished earlier in the weekend, leaving me without many options to get things done until Monday – or even Tuesday if I’m counting on one of those places closed on both Sunday and Monday.  That’s annoying.

3) Politically incorrect

Don’t tell a Dutch person what can or cannot be said.  It seems to bring up the strongest emotions they can muster.  “Hell no. I won’t succumb to being politically correct!”  Calm down.

I believe this resistance stems from a time in the ’60s and ’70s when political correctness was almost a mandate.  And now the concept of political correctness is despised because it implies a lack of critical and/or independent thought.  That alone I would accept if it was accompanied by some critical thought about the issues at hand.  But instead, it usually just seems like an excuse for being inconsiderate of historical and social matters, and just plain rudeness.  Offensive depictions of people of color on television as childish, stupid, and/or uncivilized are pretty common and unquestioned in the name of “humor” (these stereotypes are clearly understood even when the language isn’t).  I’ve heard countless hateful remarks about Muslims immersed in anti-immigration debates.  And let’s not forget my favorite annual blackface tradition.

I’m sorry, Dutch people.  But it’s not funny and it’s unacceptable.  No, f* that.  I’m not sorry (my dad would be proud).  You’re just wrong.

4) Ignorance is bliss

So I hear schools in the Netherlands only recently began teaching students about the history of Dutch imperialism, slavery, and other shameful aspects of their past.  And I’m not sure what they’re actually teaching young people now.  But this explains why folks my age and older seem to be oblivious about matters of race and how they actually ARE relevant to the Netherlands.  “Racism doesn’t exist here” is such a common phrase.  It would be nice if it were true.  And it would be true in the absence of all history.  But it’s just not.  When the majority of non-white people in the country have immigrated from former Dutch colonies, where white social, political, and economic power have dominated for generations, and they continue to hold a subordinate position in Dutch society, the effects of history are undeniable.  But when you don’t know anything about the history of Indonesia or Suriname, for example, it’s easy to genuinely believe that everyone’s equal, opportunity is available for all, and those who live in poverty have chosen to do so.  Must be nice to live in a bubble of equal opportunity and color blindness.  But the rest of us live in a much crueler reality.

5) Dude, make a move

I’m still single.  STILL.  And now I’m looking to fall in love and marry a Dutch man to help me stay in the country (slightly joking).  But my efforts on this front are going to be harder than I expected.  I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with this situation.  What I gather from asking around a bit is Dutch men are less likely to make a move than Dutch women.  But I’m shy.  And I have no moves.  So does this mean I’m out of luck?  Perhaps not if I step outside of my comfort zone and begin approaching the fellas.  But haven’t I already done enough by moving?  This one might be more my problem than anyone else’s.  But it’s my right to place blame.  So in this case, I’d like blame cultural differences for my present single state.

And there you have it.  The things that frustrate me about the Netherlands.   Alas, no place is perfect.  At least I haven’t found it yet.

The Queen’s Party

Amsterdam has a reputation for being a party city.  In response to telling them I was moving here, some people (mostly those who don’t know me well) would offer an assuming glance, as if to say, “I know what you’re going there for.”  And you can tell by the gaze and stammer of the tourists.  They come here with the expectation of playing with alcohol, (hopefully soft) drugs, and sex workers.  And from the looks of them, most of them seem to find what they’re looking for.

But for the most part, everyday life isn’t this way – at least not the everyday life I live and observe.  Folks ride their bikes to work, take the bus to the grocery store, walk to the park.  The public library is always so packed that I have to check multiple floors before I can find an available computer.  And you’ll find people having a beer or glass of wine before you’ll find them taking shots or frequenting coffee shops (the weed-selling type).  Not to say Dutch people don’t party.  They definitely party.  They’ll party hard until 6 in the morning – and it can be fun.  But not everyday.  Unlike the tourist approach, the party ends at some point.  There’s far more balance in the lifestyle than the reputation would have people believe.

Well, except for last week, of course.  Everyone went crazy last week.

April 30th was Koningennedag, or queen’s day, celebrating the queen’s birthday.  I know what you’re thinking – “wait, isn’t one of the (many) things that you have in common with the queen the fact that you’re both born on January 31st?”  And yes, you’re correct.  Queen Beatrix was indeed born on the 31st of January.  But her mother, Queen Juliana, was queen first.  And her birthday was April 30th.  So Beatrix, like the kind-spirited aquarius she is, decided to keep the official queen’s day on her mother’s birthday to allow for better weather and plenty of outdoor celebrating.  So every year beginning the night of April 29th, all of Holland turns into an orange garage sale/dance party (the national color is orange stemming from the Orange-Nassau royal family).

Orange flags and balloons were hung from restaurant doors and windows.  Other places hung signs that read “Gesloten Koninginnedag” (closed queen’s day).  It felt exciting before it even started.

So in order to fit in with the rest of the country (locals and tourists alike), I joined the festivities.  Beginning on Friday night, I rode my bike to my friend’s house in South Amsterdam, which is about 30 minutes from me – at my pace.  She, her boyfriend, and I headed to an outdoor party in Rembrandtplein, which was maybe  20 minutes toward the center.  Normally, nighttime streets are pretty quiet, with no traffic and a few bike-riders.  The party is only obvious when you arrive.  But on the 29th, the bicycle traffic was insane.  As we got closer, the crowds multiplied and were more intoxicated.  Everyone was happy – most people wore orange.  One woman fell off her bike in the middle of a busy intersection, hopped up to drop the bike on herself again, and laughed the entire time.  Other people swerved through the lanes, shouting and singing enthusiastically.

Now at this point, although I have become 100x more comfortable on my bike since my earlier day debacles, I would like to remind you of my humble beginnings.  As the drunk people multiplied, I was facing more traffic and more chaos than I ever had before.  So although I was laughing and smiling on the outside, I was freaking out.  I could get away with a few screams disguised as happy shouts.  But I was happy to finally park the bike and walk the rest of the way to the party.

We ended up on the street of the club hosting the party.  A stage was set up for djs and performers.  It was packed with a great crowd and the music wasn’t bad.  We stayed for awhile then walked a bit to another party.  And as I considered meeting another friend at the Rich Medina party that was happening another 20 minute bike ride away, I assessed I was already pooped by 1am, before most people were barely getting started.  I felt a combined sense of being lame and relieved as I rode out of the madness.

But then I rode right back in the following afternoon to meet some classmate friends.  Every street was lined with vendors selling things, including some people just selling – and eventually giving away – junk from their homes.  Everyone freely smoked and drank their substances of choice.  Yummy, fried food was everywhere.  And most importantly, I think, there was a different party, with a different vibe no matter where you turned.  The entire city was a party.  Even the canals were filled with party boats (my plan for next year, by the way) blasting disco music.  So we walked from one party to the next, our ultimate destination a party in a parking garage (although, due to its misleading name, I thought it was going to be a park).  And I shared in the free-flowing substances each time they came my way.  It was delightful.

Well, until I was exhausted (which didn’t take relatively long).  We took a break for a bit by some water, went to a couple more parties, had some pizza and wine, and I was done.  Hopes of sticking with my initial plan to party into the night were not so regrettably squashed.  Once again, I proudly hopped on my bike and rode away from the orange madness.  I was asleep, like a rock (passed out?), by 11.

Happy belated birthday to the queen…she sure can party!

Grievances

We’ve all had crushes, right? You see someone from far and s/he’s totally dreamy. You get close enough to exchange the appropriate contact information of that era (facebook, phone, p.o. box), allowing you to confirm that the attraction is just as strong up close. You go out once or twice with starry, glazed-over eyes. L.L. and Boyz II Men sing in the back of your mind…”this is more than a cruuusshh.”

And then round about the third date you notice he ends most of his sentences with prepositions? Or her inside voice is not clearly distinguishable from her outside voice? Or he checks his work email more than once while you’re out? Not so much deal-breakers. But enough to raise an eyebrow and think, “really?”

Yeah, that’s where I am with Amsterdam right now. Please know that I’m not complaining. I’m still totally crushing. In fact, I see long-term potential here. I just uhhhh, have a few grievances.

It starts with the bank account. Hardly any stores accept the debit card that we hold so dear in the united states of america. And even though the visa sign shows up on various windows and cash registers, they don’t mean any kind of visa card that I’ve ever had. Unless you have a bank card that has one of these chip thingies, you need cash. Cash for everything. So I quickly learned that I would need a bank account in order to fully function here.

But I couldn’t apply for a bank account until I had an immigration/registration intake appointment with the university. 2 weeks – fine. After that, with a passport and student i.d. in hand, I walked over to ING, thinking I would walk out with a special place in the back to keep my money, like a bank account. But instead, I walked out with a one-page form letter explaining that it would take up to two weeks for them to review my application. I was instructed to wait for a letter in the mail that would provide further instructions.

Meanwhile, classes started and life continued to expect me to function. And as you may remember from earlier, existing in Amsterdam without a bank account is quite difficult. Professors expected multiple articles to be printed, which would require use of any of the printers in university buildings. And that would be fine, except those printers require one of those damn chip thingies found in bank cards. Another option would be to spend a bunch of money on a special card (with less value than what I would have paid) just for the priviledge of printing.

And as I’ve navigated around my lack of printing abilities, I’ve come home every night to an apartment lacking in both cable and internet (and a tv, but that’s clearly irrelevant). Although I found it to be annoying to be without the internet for a couple of weeks, I’m finding it harder and more irritating each day. Why haven’t I just contacted the cable/internet people and told them what I want? I tried. But without a local bank account number, I couldn’t even ask for an appointment. No one cared how much money I may have had in my U.S. account.

A letter and bank card arrived in the mail about a week later. I rejoiced. It was official, including a bank account number and everything. Since the guy at the bank told me I would take this letter to the nearest ING bank/post office (not sure why they’re often combined) as the next step, and since I couldn’t read any of the letter written in Dutch, I went to the post office first thing the next morning. I even had an extra pep in my step. But with a blank stare, the lady looked me up and down and said, “did you get the second letter telling you to come here for your pin code?” I thought she was joking. But she wasn’t. And it wasn’t funny anyway.

I walked home in defeat – yet still happy that the bank/post office was in short walking distance. I would have to wait a few more days for the next set of instructions to arrive. In the meantime, I went to an internet cafe to sign up for internet and cable. With a bank account number, I could at least get one thing accomplished. Going back and forth between their website and google translate’s version of it, I managed to get through 4 or 5 pages of the online form, ending with a confirmation page indicating I would receive an email. Well, I didn’t get the email until several days later – in my junk mail, and only after I had submitted a brand new request. Both follow-up emails basically said “thanks” and listed what I requested. Okay, now what? Do I get an appointment? Can you give me the internet now?

Meanwhile, the second letter from the bank did come. So three days after my first attempt, first thing in the morning, I was back at the bank/post office. The guy did something mysterious that may or may not have involved a machine. Then he handed me a bizarrely sealed envelope on what seemed to be carbon copy paper. This, he assured me, was what I needed to make my account official: my four-digit pin code. Okay, thanks and all. But why couldn’t I have just chosen my own pin code about 2 weeks ago?

Great, with a bank account, I was on the road to normalcy. Now I just waited for information on when/how the internet would arrive. I couldn’t call because the customer service charges 10 cents per minute, and I’ve been holding off on settling my phone matters until I had a bank account, of course. Then just yesterday (Friday), I received a notice from the post office that I had a package. I tracked it from my phone to learn it was from the cable/internet company. What could be in this package? A letter explaining what to do next? Are they just sending me the stuff to install myself? I was instructed to be at home between noon and 6pm today (Saturday) to receive the delivery. I planned my day around receiving this package. I refused to miss it. Yet, when I walked by my door this morning, around 10am (obviously before I was on alert), there was another notice that I had missed the delivery. My whisper of a doorbell and the lies of the previous notice conspired to leave me without a clue for at least another weekend.

A very long story just to say I’m annoyed. With so many things figured out, balancing the fine line of freedoms and regulations in a way that seems to mostly fall on the side of the people and happiness, how can this place tolerate such frustrating absurdity? I’m comforted by the fact that these are one-time issues. Once they’re resolved, I shouldn’t have to go through any of this again. Or at least I learned enough about these Dutch processes to have clearer expectations in the future.

And don’t worry. Although I’ve just noticed this minor flaw, when I think of Amsterdam, I still hear Dwele singing, “I know it’s early…I know it’s soon…but truth be told…I think I looove you.”

Bits of Updates

Although I like to think that every small event in a day holds tremendous significance in the bigger picture of a person’s life, there are some smaller events that just don’t warrant their own blog posts. So for these smaller occasions, I have decided to lump them together as bits of an update.

My Birthday. Today is my birthday! Okay, maybe this should be more than a bit of an update. But since it’s my birthday in a new city, I don’t have too much to report, other than the fact that I’ve technically entered another year. And that feels great. It also happens to be Queen Beatrix’s birthday. She and I have more in common than she realizes.

Exploring Amsterdam and beyond. My mom and her husband met me in Amsterdam on the day I arrived. They were troopers, walking with me through all parts of the city as I tried to get my bearings and shop for essentials. We walked through the touristy areas of central amsterdam, the southern canal belt, and oost (my neighborhood). We explored Vondelpark, while socializing with plenty of happy Dutch dogs. We took a canal cruise through the city, and a bus trip down to Rotterdam, the Hague, and Delft. We walked through plenty of markets, including Dappermarkt, which is my favorite because it’s just a couple of blocks away from my apartment. We visited some great museums, including Van Gogh and Tropenmusem (tropics museum). And we ate in all types of restaurants, ranging from Ethiopian and Tibetan to falafel and frites with mayo.

Sadly, in spite of my efforts to convince them to move here, they left on Saturday morning. The weekend felt instantly lonelier.

Immigration status. I had a bit of a snafu with my immigration paperwork. The University claims they sent me an email back in December. But I never responded to it because they never sent it. Since I didn’t respond, they stopped working on my application. As a result, I haven’t been able to move quickly on opening a bank account. And everything else that requires a bank account to begin has been on hold. But no fear, I have been able to set an appointment for this week, at which time I should get all of my official numbers and things of that nature. I know I’m legit. And soon the Netherlands will know this as well.

Apartment makeover. The apartment has been painted some lovely colors, including an orangey-red in the bedroom, a golden-yellow wall in the kitchen, and sage with a dark green accent in the living room. In addition, the wonderful paint team also aggressively cleaned all of the wood in the apartment. With a smoker previously living here, the walls were horribly stained and everything was stinky. Now it all looks so fresh and so clean. I hope to have my stuff shipped relatively soon, arriving by March. With the walls looking so nice, I just need some furniture between them to make it feel like home.

The same contractor who managed the paint and cleaning will return this week to begin working on my garden. Clearing out all of the crap, filling-in and painting the fence, and turning the little pond into a fountain are the plans. It should be a great blank slate. I will work on the rest. I’m going to get a gardening for dummies book. There is always room for a new skill.

Starting school. Today/Monday/my birthday is the big day. I have an orientation for the graduate program, as well as an orientation for my language course. This will be my first chance to get a good sense of what my program is all about, as well as assess my peers. It feels like my first day of grade school. But in addition to meeting new people and trying to appear intelligent, I need to navigate the city under more pressure than I have had to so far. Over the course of the day, I will be in several buildings throughout the city. I’ve studied the map. I think I’m ready.

This won’t be my first orientation day. Last week I participated in the international students orientation. We were split into groups of about 10 or 15. I quickly realized I was one of two or three graduate students. The rest of the people in my group were undergrads, spending a semester of their junior year abroad. While this will certainly be a great experience for them, and I wish them the best of luck in everything they do, I didn’t want to spend an entire weekend with 19 year-olds. Our interests just aren’t the same. And I didn’t appreciate feeling like a Golden Girl so early on. I skipped out on the rest of that orientation.

Although I will share one priceless quote from a policeman who said a few words to the group of international students: “Never buy soft drugs off the street. Sometimes it’ll be fake. But most of the time, it’s just shit.”

Fulbright application. The good news is that I am now a finalist. There isn’t more I can say on this without feeling like I’m cursing myself with all types of bad luck. Let’s just say I’m really happy about this and everything else mentioned above.

A Walk through the Oost

I live in Amsterdam Oost, pronounced “oast,” meaning east. Before I arrived, I read a small amount about the area. From what I could make of it, there would be a few places to eat and maybe a museum or two. And since I would not be living in the heart of central Amsterdam, I gathered I would not make it into any of the cooler kid circles. But cool kids or not, it didn’t take me long to fall in love with the Oost.

my block

My block is quiet. With the exception of a heavy-footed upstairs neighbor, I have yet to hear any noise at night. Yet, I’m quite close to pretty much everything I would need. Across the street there is a ‘Comfort Cafe,’ which, although I haven’t tried it yet, is exactly what I need to be across the street from me.  On the next block, a store exists for everything I can imagine needing, from the general grocery store, to a pet store, and then to a black hair products store.  At the end of that block, I’m at Dapperstraat, which hosts a market Monday-Saturday.  A couple of years ago, National Geographic voted it one of the top 10 markets in the world.  And it’s just about a block away.

shopping street (not busy on this day)

black women everywhere...sigh.

I walk another long block and I have arrived at NiNsee, an organization that I would pay money to work or volunteer or research or whatever for (I was so excited to stumble upon it).  Across the street is the entrance to Oosterpark.  Water, trees, birds, dogs, happy people.  My own personal park.  I’m in love.  After walking through the park, I discovered the Tropenmuseum (Tropics Museum).  Haven’t visited yet.  But it looks like a gem.

NiNsee Office

Oosterpark

in front of Tropenmuseum

In addition to these finds, there are a number of cafes, evening stores (read: bodega or corner store), and yes, even coffee shops.  I came home one night, ran out to the store for some water, went down the street for some herbal refreshments, and I was home again in less than five minutes.

neighbors

Again, I’m in love.  And it’s with the Oost.  Cool kids better recognize.