Happy in The Hague

I’ve been living in The Hague (Den Haag) for more than 5 months now (whoa, what?!). It’s been enough time for me to experience a pleasant evolution of sentiment about my circumstances and surroundings. What started as a disappointed exodus from Amsterdam has turned into a delighted embrace of Agga (what the cool kids are calling it, apparently).

I first moved here out of necessity. A lack of affordable (and also bearable) options in Amsterdam led me to look outside of the city. And it didn’t take me long to find a cute little place in The Hague that was in a modest price range.

My newly adopted city was a mere 45 minutes by train from Amsterdam, which I convinced myself was nothing compared to my former daily commute by subway from East Flatbush, Brooklyn to lower Manhattan. I could get back and forth to Amsterdam with ease, even daily if I wanted.  And I thought I might want to. I had friends, favorite restaurants, libraries, coffee shops, and seemingly places to be in Amsterdam. In order to tolerate life in this new city, I would surely have to make frequent trips back to the only city that mattered. Continue reading

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So now what?

I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked this question.  It’s a good one. And folks seem worried.  School is basically finished (actually, it’s not until this month ends. but that’s a story I’d rather not get into).  And school was my reason/pretext for moving to Amsterdam.  Without school as my gravity, I find myself suspended in an area of uncertainty. Where to go? What to do? Who to be? How to find that wealthy benefactor to support the fulfillment of my remaining dreams?  Yeah, folks are definitely worried.

But from my point of view, this is freedom at its best. The next steps are up to me – and only me.  Of course I need to feed myself, sleep under a roof (most days), and maintain basic levels of hygiene.  But outside of these responsibilities of adulthood, which sometimes can be achieved creatively, I can go almost anywhere.  This is when I finally get to dance outside of that commonly-mentioned box, which my thinking already escaped long ago.  And it’s going to be like one of those James Brown-fancy footwork-shimmy shake-wipe the sweat off my face-type of dances.

I’ve made some decisions about what I want in the coming months, years, and lifetimes.  Some I’ve known for quite some time, such as wanting to create opportunities and broaden the horizons of young Black people.  Others have evolved over time, like my belief in the impact of genealogy research.  And now, here I am, being pushed, guided, and supported right into the opportunities that will allow me to live an adult life I love.  Having suspended the fear of uncertainty, I’m happy to realize that the universe has been working in my favor (even on the days I’m not).

In The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho has countless quotes that resonate.  In this instance, I think of this: “When someone makes a decision, [s]he is really diving into a strong current that will carry [her] to places [s]he had never dreamed of when [s]he first made the decision.” Yes. Yes, indeed.

So back in November, shortly after I returned to the Netherlands from Suriname, I regretted not being able to stay for the implementation of a youth ancestry research project I had designed.  I wondered how I was going to find and afford a place to stay in Amsterdam after January.  And I received an incredible offer: return to Suriname…on us (well, the plane ticket)…for as long as you’re willing to stay and work on this project.

Awwww yeah. Offer accepted.

From there, life got tougher in Amsterdam, as if the city was pushing me away.  Zora died.  The drains in my apartment started spewing other people’s poo (literally). My bike was stolen.  Money was low (well, that was nothing new – but you get the point).  I needed a break.  I was ready to go.  Not forever.  Just for a few months – say, maybe seven.

So now what?  Well, I have returned to Suriname, of course.  On Friday, the day after my birthday (not necessarily relevant – just important that you know), I began my seven-month stay.  I’ll be working on this local ancestry project.  I’ll be looking for some sustainable income. And I’ll be laying the groundwork for my very own organization that will introduce young Black people to their ancestors and new perspectives of history.  And I’ll be absorbing as much warmth as Suriname is willing to share.

Once I’m finished here in September, I plan to return to Amsterdam.  But while I continue to dance on the path outside of the box, as Coelho pointed out, next I might be carried to places I never dreamed of.  So who knows?  I’m just continuing to take this sometimes intimidating, usually nerve-wracking, always satisfying journey one step at a time.

So no more questions, please.

(just kidding. you can ask me questions. just don’t be surprised if you’re not satisfied with my answer.)

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…

Zwarte Piet: Go back to where you came from

I planned to steer clear of Zwarte Piet this year.  Not to entirely ignore the subjects of racism and white entitlement in the Netherlands – but at least I wanted to avoid encounters with the (wo)men decked out in their best blackface attire.  Between changed plans and a death in the family – not in the mood.  Not even sure what that mood would be.

So when I took my friend’s daughter to school on Wednesday morning, I was less than thrilled to walk into my nightmare.  It was the 5th of December, the big day for Sinterklaas.  And after handing out gifts to children the night before, this would be Sint’s last day in town.

“Good riddance to you and your creepy team of absurdly archaic sidekick(s),” I’d like to say.  “Go back to where you came from.”  (upward nod to Piet’s supporters for that specific phrasing)

A sint and a piet (from 2011)

A sint and a piet (from 2011)

Turning the corner into the school yard, we could see that everyone was gathered outside.  My first thought was fire drill – do they do fire drills like that here?  When everyone has to line up outside with their class? And the teacher usually stands – … “I think Sinterklaas is here, Dana!”

Oh hell no.

“Oh really? That’s exciting.  Do you think Piet is also going to be here?”

“Of course, Dana! He has to be here with Sinterklaas!”

The young one was excited.  But she knows how I feel about Zwarte Piet.  So she kept her enthusiasm for the impending events of the morning reserved.  I was uncomfortable.  Surrounded by small people, I wasn’t in a safe space to  express contempt for a Dutch tradition, initiate a political debate, or even use certain preferred curse words.  Powerless in a playground.

Several days earlier the young one and I had our first disagreement over Zwarte Piet. Although she’s Black, she’s six years-old.  So she’s probably too young to understand the complexities of racism or the impact of increased ethnic diversity during the post-colonial era of a country that prides itself on its untainted national identity.  And who am I to start these conversations with her?  That’s the godparent’s job, isn’t it?  So when she wanted to watch a “Zwarte Piet gangnam style” video on youtube, I kept it basic:

“No.”

“Oh, come on, Dana!”

“No. Sorry to disappoint you. But Zwarte Piet isn’t allowed on my computer.  Let’s find another video to watch – something that’s actually funny.”

“NO, Dana! That’s not nice what you said about Zwarte Piet. He’s very nice. You shouldn’t say that about him. He’s very funny, Dana!”

The discussion took on a familiar tone.  In fact, it was almost exactly the same argument I have heard and read from countless (grown-up) Piet supporters: he’s nice, he’s funny, and I should like him.

“I’m not a fan of Zwarte Piet. The way he behaves and the make-up he wears – it’s meant to make fun of people. I don’t find it funny at all.”

“No, Dana! You’re wrong. He’s nice. Everybody likes him!” Clearly the schools get to them early.  (Her Mom has already faced the issue of her school painting her face black during a Sinterklaas celebration.)

“We’ll just have to disagree on this one for now.  And find a different video to watch.”  It was the only way I could find out of the circular debate.  She agreed.

But as we entered the school yard, our debate re-emerged.  I flinched at the sight of every little Zwarte Piet hat that bobbed around me, as the young one contemplated my irrational dislike of the lovable character who is painted black.  A few parents were around, lingering to see the arrival of Sinterklaas, I assume.  The only Black man stood in the back, away from the crowd, holding his young daughter’s hand.  We walked toward the front to find the young one’s teacher.  I was anxious for my duties to be relinquished before things got uglier.

A little boy walked with his classmates.  Most of them paid homage to Piet with colorful costumes and those same hats.  But this little boy’s face was painted entirely black.  He walked proudly.

(from 2011)

(from 2011)

“Oh look, there’s my teacher!”  Words that brought relief.

“Goedemorgen!” I greeted the teacher.  “Dag!” I said goodbye.  Then I walked so fast out of there the children may have thought I stole Piet’s wallet.  But I didn’t do anything to Piet.  In fact, with the exception of his little disciple, I didn’t even have to see him.

Then, right on cue, all images of Piet and his bossman, Sinterklaas, were nowhere to be seen the following day, replaced by his commercial counterpart, cousin Santa Claus.

I may have escaped a direct run-in with Piet this year.  But this isn’t sustainable.  In order to have a higher quality of life in the November/December months of future years, particularly if I raise children in this country, these uncomfortable moments will need to stop.  Everyday I need to leave my house confident that I won’t see someone dressed in blackface – every single day.

Judging from what I’ve seen, heard, and read in the past couple of weeks, progress continues.  And while this argument usually feels like beating a fist against a brick wall, I think we’re starting to see some signs of cracks.

In an effort to make up for my silence on the subject throughout the season, here is just a sample of the actions and recent articles I recommend:

  • Sign this:

Petition to remove Zwarte Piet from schools

  • File a complaint here (for locals: according to the mayor of Amsterdam, it’s not an issue worth considering until they receive 300+ complaints):

https://www.discriminatie.nl/meld-discriminatie/klachtenformulier 

  • Watch this:

Ned2: Zwarte Piet en Ik

  • Read these:

The Independent: Like the Golliwog Zwarte Piet Is a Racist Relic

Wishful Thinking : Zwarte Piet and the Colonial Inheritance

Racialicious: Zwarte Piet – a Racist Caricature 

Quiet return to Amsterdam

Some time has passed since I returned to Amsterdam.  And the dust is beginning to settle.  Or maybe it’s not dust and more a misty rain – not the weather you hoped for, but somehow still refreshing and welcome.

Before I left Suriname, I told some partial truths.  My emotional state (I only cried in front of a couple of people, don’t worry) and abrupt plans to leave required some explanation, of course.  But the actual explanation did not necessarily fit into Surinamese cultural norms.  A place where dogs never go inside and cats are mainly misunderstood street wanderers, Suriname was not as sympathetic to the needs of my ailing cat as you may have hoped or expected.

“You’re CAT?”  This was the reaction from the first two or three people to hear the true reason for my return to Amsterdam.  They had this way of emphasizing “CAT,” perhaps hoping I actually referred to my AUNT named Cat.  Or as if I had said, “I have to return to Amsterdam because my blankie got a tear.”

“Your BLANKIE?” – now that reaction I would understand.

But I didn’t appreciate the judgmental responses that implied my CAT was somehow less important than whatever I could accomplish during those remaining weeks in Suriname.  And though I may have been overly sensitive and took the reactions of people with genuinely poor hearing too personally, I decided my bleeding animal-lover heart should stand on guard.  So I  started telling others that a family member was gravely ill.  And I just needed to be in Amsterdam for her.  No one asked questions beyond that, for which I was thankful.  Because as I left it, I hadn’t lied.  I just, uhh, shaded.

And since I’ve been back, I’ve barely told anyone I’m here.  Not that it’s a secret.  It’s just easier if things remain quiet for a bit.  During this time when I was supposed to be in Suriname, accomplishing all types of magical, thesis-related research and writing, I have gone somewhat underground, off the grid, minding my own, re-grouping.  Living a comfortably homeless life until my apartment is available again (I was able to infringe on Zora’s accommodations when my lovely friend and her daughter were also willing to take me in), I have been going from the guest room to the library almost every day.  Rates of productivity may still waver.  But my focus has been brand new.  This quiet return has been good for me.

As for Zora, she’s not graceful yet.  But her recovery has been.  We’re both adjusting to her new circumstances.  And the future on 3 legs looks quite bright.  I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all of the well-wishes that have been sent our way.  It’s helpful to know that not everyone thinks I’m a hot mess with a torn blankie and poor judgment.

As for my apartment, I move back in tomorrow.  And all I want to do is sleep in my bed for 23 hours.

As for Suriname, plenty of stories were lost in my poor time management and bad news shuffle over the last couple of months.  I just have so much more to say and do related to the subject.  And I will share, I will.  But for now, I’ve realized that the month I spent in Suriname blew some major doors off their hinges.  And the direction of this already complicated life path has shifted yet again.

As for this new path I’m on…I see sunshine ahead. Lots of it.

 

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!

Settling In

Exhausted.

I tend to think the moving process is complete once the boxes have been placed in their new home and the movers have left. But just like any other move in the past, that is far from my current reality. I have so many things to do before I can begin to feel settled in the city and in my apartment.

Learning my way around has involved lots of walking, a bit of getting lost, and plenty of asking for help. I have collected about eight maps, guaranteeing that I will pull one out if I check in any given pocket. And I study them in bewilderment, trying to understand and remember the multi-syllabic street names as they all seem to twist, narrow, and intersect. And once I’ve determined either where I am or where I’m going, I look up to find no street sign, or perhaps there is one in the distance, posted on the side of a house in the smallest of fonts. But sure enough, I’m coming to know where to find Linnaeusstraat and how to get home from Dapperstraat, or even Overtoom, which requires two trams and a short walk.

Speaking of the trams, public transportation won’t be too bad. I’ve been on the metro, multiple trams, and at least one bus. Although the maps appeared useless at first, the system seems to be pretty straight forward. To help matters, they have a trip planner website (something like hopstop), which allows me to enter a “to” and “from” address and provides me with the recommended travel route. Considering my classes are all in very different locations, and I don’t yet have a bike, I will become quite acquainted with that website, as well as my fellow tram riders.

In addition to learning my way around, to really become comfortable, I have to establish myself with the basics. A phone, mobile or otherwise, is basic. A bank account is basic. And you can’t get more basic than food and water. I’m gradually getting there, with a temporary cell phone and some snacks and drinks in the fridge. But the lack of ease that seems to come with much of it is frustrating. The bank account, for example, can’t be opened without a visa number. I’ll need to either hear from my school on the status of my paperwork, or start the process over on my own by making an appointment at city hall. None of it can be done over the weekend. So regardless, I need to wait until Monday to inquire further. And, unfortunately, I need a bank account in order to purchase internet and cable. Although I don’t have a tv, which makes cable a lower priority, I feel like I’m shriveling inside without easy access to the internet. And with the internet, I’d be able to straighten out so many other basics with much less effort. But, alas, I’m immersed in a somewhat confusing cycle. And even if it only takes a few more days to resolve, my impatience makes it feel like it’s already been an eternity.

As for my apartment, it has a major lack of storage issue. And also a lack of furniture issue. It came equipped with a single bed, a large table, two chairs, and a bunch of junk in the kitchen that I don’t want (old glasses and silverware). I’ve made a few trips to stores that are close-by to gather some of the things that will make me comfortable but weren’t able to come with me from the States, like sheets, a pillow, cleaning supplies, and Zora’s litter box. And I’ve bought simple groceries – nothing requiring a pot, pan, large fridge or oven to prepare (yeah, there’s no oven and only a tiny fridge).

I’m adjusting to living with the basics. But let’s face it – I’m a grown-ass woman with a bad back. I want my queen-size bed with its memory foam. I want my sheets, and blankets, and artwork. I want my Cuisinart pots and pans. I want my plates and appliances. And I want my books. I can do as much shopping for practical little things here and there as I’d like it. But I’ve already faced the truth: waiting until the end of this semester to decide if I should have my stuff shipped over here won’t be necessary. I want my stuff now. My stuff will help a lot. Yeah, my stuff. That’s what I need. My stuff…

Regardless, with a tiny bed, a tiny fridge, a tiny bathroom, no bank account, and no internet, I couldn’t be happier. I’m so friggin’ happy…gradually settling in.