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.

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Feeling pretty damn satisfied

I have this “I can’t wait until…” thing. Like, “I can’t wait to go home for Christmas break;” “I can’t wait till graduation;” “Oooh, I can’t wait to take a break from working;” and the most recent biggie: “I can’t wait to finish this damn thesis.” I’m constantly looking forward to something. Relatively happy, but for this one nagging circumstance that stands between me and ultimate happiness. When the objectives are achieved, I think there’s usually a moment (whether that’s actually a moment or several months) of celebrated achievement. Graduations from both undergrad and law school were acknowledged by spending a couple of months in Ghana, for example.  But for the most part, I spend my time anticipating something better.

The school I couldn’t wait to get into became the school from which I couldn’t wait to graduate. And the city to which I couldn’t wait to move became the city I couldn’t wait to leave (I’m not talking about Amsterdam here, promise). Kind of like a traveling version of “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

But I think most of my anticipated next steps were actual upgrades, whether strategic or indulgent. And after getting through the recent full-time student dysfunction, I think I reached a real clearing.  Maybe there really was some sense to my madness.  Nowadays I’m spending about 90% of my productive time on turning my nonprofit fantasy into a real thing, splitting my time between research in the archives, meeting with remarkably brilliant and inspiring people, and doing laptop-type work from home – oftentimes outside on the porch  (maybe another 5% of productive time is spent on naps – I have no reason to be dishonest).  This was definitely the outcome I couldn’t wait for as I drudged through every forced word of my thesis (about a topic I love, mind you).  But could this also be one of the main points I’ve been anxious to reach all along?  

Living in a place I genuinely enjoy and feeling entirely on purpose, I’m finally feeling pretty damn satisfied.

Not to say I’m not still looking forward to the day I don’t have to worry about money. And absolutely by no means has everything fallen into place seamlessly.  I just have to remember to enjoy those challenges.  These are the types of problems for which I’ve been waiting!

And now, since I’ve been silent for an extended period, I’ll share a mostly unrelated story:

A few nights ago I went to an event in the center of town.  I walked the half mile (or so) to the bus stop.  And I took the bus (1.60 SRD).  The buses are essentially vans – if you appreciate a Ghana reference, they’re like decent tro-tros without the mates.  Vague stop locations, uncomfortable middle seats that require constantly lifting your seat to get out of the way, and a relatively cheap fare paid when exiting. Everyone seems to know what’s going on, even when it’s completely unclear.  And I always feel like the only one anxiously looking over my shoulder when an unexpected turn is made, strategically plotting my exit strategy.

But anyway, there are a couple of bus routes that now make me feel like a local. So I was relatively confident on this night, flagging the poorly lit and barely distinguishable bus after dark. Although sometimes I get on and sit down in one of the awkward middle seats before I realize that I’ve walked irrevocably far from a preferred seat, this time I got a window seat in one of the ideal rows – right by the door and only an arm’s reach from the driver.  But as I settled into the best seat I had ever gotten, I became aware of a strange silence. Everyone was super still, looking forward. It felt kind of eerie – too calm.

But I wasn’t finished reflecting on the weird quiet people before Pebbles started singing “Mercedes Boy.”  It turns out this bus had driven straight out of my 80s-music-loving subconscious.  And it took every ounce of power I had not to dance through the whole ride. Eventually I reached my stop and had to leave the most favorite-weirdo-80s-bus-of-my-dreams during “Don’t Disturb This Groove.”  Bizarrely, it was the first stop the bus made since I had gotten on.  And when I got off, the bus waited at least 45 seconds before pulling off. I could still faintly hear the music as I turned the corner.

After the event, I hoped to retrieve my 80s-dream-bus bliss on another reasonably priced ride home.  But someone offered to drive me.  And for a second I actually thought, “damn, I couldn’t wait to take the bus.”

Plane tickets and pressure

It’s official that at the end of September I’ll be heading to Suriname. For two months. That means I have one month to get myself and all things related in order, then two months to tear into some serious research and writing, and altogether three months to ponder options of stability upon my return to Amsterdam.

I’m 80 percent excited.  The excitement includes the opportunity to experience a new country – a new continent, actually.  I’ve never been in the vicinity of South America.  So the visit feels overdue.  And since I’ve been discussing and reading about Suriname’s history and identity politics for months now, I’m looking forward to digesting some of it firsthand. On a more shallow level, I’m looking forward to trading the Dutch chill for some Surinamese warmth (feel free to interpret that as a commentary on patterns of weather and/or social graces).

I’m 20 percent nervous.  I considered writing “anxious” here.  But I just looked up the difference between the two words.  According to wiki answers, anxiety comes into play when you have no control over a situation that may or may not happen.  And that’s the opposite of what I have going on at the moment.  The outcomes of my time in Suriname are entirely under my control. Whether or not this trip turns out to be a trailblazing success or a complete waste of time is up to me.  I can do it right.  Or I can do it wrong.  And when I give that nervous 20 percent any attention, doing it wrong feels like a legitimate possibility.  Two months in a completely unfamiliar place, with completely unfamiliar people, under the guise of completely unsettling circumstances called academic research – I wonder if I can pull this one out of my ass.  Yeah, I think I can.  I have every reason to believe I can.  But sometimes I’m not so sure.

As this blog indicates, I have a habit of jumping around, from place to place, looking for something that feels right and pursuing my own happiness by any means necessary.  But as I approach yet another big journey, and as I watch my age increase almost as quickly as my money decreases, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve mistakenly chosen a life of instability and uncertainty.  I wonder if the simpler and more straightforward path that I’ve walked away from (more than once) would have been the better option, even if a bit less thrilling.  Could this crazy, fun, and exciting path be leading from the Netherlands to Suriname to nowhere?

Well, regardless, I have no time or patience to start over again. So to verify the validity of my somewhat questionable life choices, I need to leave Suriname with some solid research, a solid (hopefully almost finished) thesis, solid personal and professional connections, and a solid plan for launching my organization shortly thereafter.

Okay, so perhaps I’m 25 percent nervous.  And perhaps I’m placing undue pressure on the next few months.  But as I’m taking these immediate next steps quite seriously, perhaps I can be forgiven for not being 100 percent thrilled about an opportunity to do (and be) something incredible.

75 percent excited and 25 percent nervous.  Knowing myself, if not for the presence of some nervousness (and fear and anxiety and whatever else), I may not even realize this is worth doing.  So I’m not allowing the jibber jabber in my head to get the best of me.  And I’m certainly not denying the fact that I’m absolutely, positively, without a doubt 100 percent grateful for the path I’ve chosen and the life I get to live.

…gone on planes and trains

Barcelona was refreshing and quite charming.  Athens was challenging and (retrospectively) rewarding.  Oakland was fun and welcoming. New York was familiar and confirming. Rome and Capri were simply lovely. Amsterdam has begun to feel like home. And I’m just plain exhausted.

I love to travel. Perhaps that’s obvious. And last year I regretted the careful and conservative approach I took to planning trips – by not planning them. Allowing my depleting bank account to become a state of mind rather than simply a state of inconvenience, I rejected the notion that I could afford even the shortest getaways.  And even if the money was there, who had the time? I certainly didn’t think I did.  With all the studying I was doing (mostly in my mind, granted), finding time to spend away from Marx and Durkheim felt nearly impossible.

Crazy talk. By the start of a new semester in the fall, I was ready to abandon my oppressive reigns.  Having convinced myself that travel was too costly, both in money and time, I was being ridiculous, confining myself as if I was still working full-time, not living just hops, skips, and jumps away from a bunch of places I’d like to visit.  That life of an oppressed, working person sucked. And it was time to appreciate the new circumstances.  So I started saying yes more often.

Barcelona

I started here in November.  It was a long weekend with a couple of friends.  We walked, we ate, we biked. I stayed an extra night and walked and ate some more. I loved it. Though the staring of Spaniards reached a level of note-worthy, and though it’s not an ideal location for a vegetarian, I would be happy to spend more time there. It’s a beautiful city.

Greece

I pretty much stayed put from Thanksgiving through the new year.  Studying and things of that nature took priority.  In fact, I was working harder than most, preparing to be away for most of January, completing a course on African migration to Europe – in Athens.  I jumped at the opportunity to apply, and (let’s just say) happily worked my ass off to create the time to complete the additional class.

Shortly after the holiday, my time in Greece began in Komotini, staying with a friend/classmate and her family.  A lovely, charming city in the country’s northeast.  I could have stayed there the entire time, eating her mother’s yummy, and generously provided, food.

But I had to head toward Athens. In the midst of a heated and quite visible economic crisis, the city felt tense and unhappy. My course focused on the cruel – essentially criminal – treatment of African people living in Greece. Coping with political invisibility and extreme sentiments of nationalism and xenophobia, African people shared horror stories of denied freedom, a lack of human rights, and uncertain futures. The city’s tensions and frigidity were palpable.

I frequently was greeted with rude treatment and dirty looks, if eye contact was made at all. I wasn’t happy or comfortable there. Matters were not helped when I was chased wildly by a bloodthirsty dog when riding a bike in Nafplio on one of my last day’s in the country. I can’t prove the dog chase was race-related. But at that point in my Greece adventures, it sure felt like it.

I wrote this after returning to Amsterdam: Confronting inequality in Greece.  The beauty parts aside, I don’t see a return visit to Athens in the near future.

Back to the U.S.

All visits to the U.S. are welcome and appreciated.  But they’re difficult and tiring. Wanting to see a lot of people, in a short period of time, over a range of cities, on a limited budget, and with limited access to a phone.  It’s just too much.  So I never get to every city or person I wish I could see.  But this year my visits were to Oakland/San Francisco and NY/NJ.  Perhaps my next visit can be longer. It’s never enough (well, actually, let’s not get crazy…).

Italy

After playing host to a number of visitors in April, a friend/house guest and I took a plane to Rome. I embraced the trip as a vacation (from what? you may ask – to which I would have no reply). And it was easy to enjoy. A beautiful and historically exciting city, combined with yummy, veggie-friendly food (especially if you’re into the cheese game), and free-flowing wine.  Yeah, that was a good time.

And Rome was only defeated by Sorrento, and then again by Capri.  But those weren’t really fair contests.  I’m attracted to water and mountains. So…ya know.

Okay, but now I’m back. To Amsterdam and reality.  Travel is fun. Absolutely. But perhaps it loses its appeal when it’s not balanced with a little work every now and again. Don’t get me wrong: I haven’t reached that point yet. But I expect to at some point, I guess…that it might be likely…maybe.

If you care for more photos…

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An anniversary, a milestone, and more to come

The one-year anniversary to mark my arrival in the Netherlands came when I was in Greece.   I sat in a cute little restaurant in Athens, avoiding returning to my temporary dorm-like residence, getting a little tipsy on wine.  At that time I attempted to write the 100th post for black girl gone.  Most of it was about the journey that brought me here – a journey that began far longer than a year ago, as evidenced by this blog alone.  But it was a ho-hum of a post, with the weepy sorrows of years long gone.  I can get plenty of that with a quick scan of old posts.  So fortunately, a dead battery and a failure to save resulted in the loss of what I had written.

Beyond acknowledgement of a challenging path, some really smart decisions, and a newly found trust in my instincts and distrust of expectations, I think my one-year anniversary and 100th post should focus on what’s next.  The year, and whatever else ahead…

1) Genealogy overload

I went almost completely dark on my personal family research well over a year ago.  And last year I picked up the projects of several others in Amsterdam, researching family histories that stem largely from Suriname and the Dutch Antilles.  But I’ve even fallen behind with them.

No more of that.  Re-opening my own research, while furthering and creating noise around the local genealogy project will be a priority.  My family research has left plenty of unanswered questions.  And the local interest and passion for family history is certainly enough for me to gain more momentum for the project in Amsterdam.   For this reason, you can expect somewhat of a shift in this blog.  Expect more family history and genealogy-related posts.  Accept it, my friends.  This will be a defining aspect of my life.  In the longer-term, I expect it to take me back to the southern states of the U.S., Salt Lake City, Cuba, and southern Africa – at least.  I expect to earn the title of genealogist.  And I can’t wait.

ancestors await...

2) Write a Master’s thesis

By August.  I want to (and I will) finish by August.  Is denial of access to one’s family history a form of social oppression?  It will be some type of a comparative study of black Dutch and black Americans, as descendants of survivors of slavery, and their perceptions of identity, as potentially impacted by a (lack of) knowledge of ancestry.  Or something like that.

study habits

3) Suriname

It’s there.  And I don’t see why I shouldn’t be.  So I’m setting my sights on creating a plan to spend a few months moving a genealogy research project forward in Suriname by the end of this year.  This will require support, funding, and a more concrete idea.  But my instincts are telling me this will be important.  So before I understand it so clearly, I’m going to work on putting a plan into place.

Suriname census

4) More traveling; more writing

I continually taunt myself with the cliché, “life is short!” But hell if it isn’t.

I enjoy traveling.  And I enjoy writing.  I need to do more of both to spend more time enjoying this too-short life.

the look of travel

5) The fellas

I’ve gone back and forth on this issue, to dramatic degrees.  All resulting in very little.  Dating/not dating/white boys/no boys/single lady/ cat lady.   I’m putting all of it away.  To be honest, this is less about some level of personal growth, and more about simple boredom with the subject.  Look, folks. I’m human, okay?  Of course I notice that most of my friends are in stable relationships that are leading to marriage and/or babies.  But that doesn’t mean any of this knowledge occupies a significant amount of space in my mind.  It shouldn’t.  And it doesn’t.

This year, whatever happens with the fellas will be fine with me.  Let’s just leave it at that.

"I don't like any of these boys..."

I enjoyed last year very much.  And it looks like, more than ever, I’m in control of the year ahead.   So I think I’ll enjoy this one even more.  I hope you’ll continue to join me!

…gone to Greece

December ended with two weeks of paper-writing self-isolation, resulting in only 75% completion of necessary tasks.  The new year began with war-zone resembling, firecracking chaos in the streets of Amsterdam – a terrifying good time.

And now I find myself in Athens, sadly yearning for Amsterdam.

I was here more than 10 years ago while I was in law school – a shocking revelation about my age and the unforgiving passage of time.  In 2001, I spent nearly two months completing an international law course at the University of Athens, and traveling a bit around Greece.  Every weekend I went to a different island, enjoying beautiful views, kind people, and yummy veggie-friendly food.  But somehow, over the course of these 10+ years, I forgot why I was leaving the city every weekend.  It turns out I didn’t – and apparently I still don’t – like this city.

I’m here for just over 2 weeks to complete an intensive course with the University of Amsterdam on the relatively recent rise of African migration to Athens.  I jumped at the opportunity.  Fond selective memories of Greece and a desire to escape winter in the Netherlands would have been enough.  Access to leading scholars in the field, interesting course materials, and the opportunity for daily fieldwork among African migrants sealed the deal.

The busy days that are filled with lectures and fieldwork appear to leave little time for much else (including the 25% of work I didn’t finish before I left).  But since the fieldwork is literally in the “field” of Athens, I’ll spend plenty of time out and about in the city.  Perhaps it will grow on me.  And my impressions will change over time.  But after the first day, I already was wishing for a summertime escape to an island.

At the moment, the weather is no better than Holland – cold and rainy.  The unapologetic staring is out of control.  Ciggarrette smoke is absolutely everywhere – bars and taxis alike.  And the number of homeless dogs and cats (although they are well-fed and many are given shots by the city) is just too much for me to bear.  But it was last night when I almost reached my breaking point.

We were going to a performance of a Greece-born African rapper.  Since I would be interviewing him later in the week, this was going to be an opportunity to chat briefly and enjoy some of his music. While I waited outside in the cold rain for my colleagues to arrive (for 30 minutes, which admittedly contributed to an incredibly shitty mood), a black man walked by.  I’m black – he’s black – no one else is black.  So of course I smiled to acknowledge him.  He ignored me.   Okay, I get it.  We’re not all on the same team.

The performance was at a bar/club that appeared to be for relatively affluent locals (7 euros for a beer).  The air was filled with smoke and the dj played Biz Markie.  And among the Greek crowd, I saw the same black guy whom established earlier in the evening that we were not going to be friends.  The Greek professor I stood beside motioned to him to join us.  I knew immediately that this was the dude I was supposed to interview.  He was cordial in the introduction, offering me his hand to shake and stating a Greek name by which to call him.  Okay, I thought.  I guess he’ll offer some interesting insight about the experiences of a black man living in Athens.

Before any conversation could begin, two of my Dutch classmates approached.  Oh, the joy on his face.  The taller of the two got most of his attention.  He smiled widely as he introduced himself with a different name from the one he offered me – his rapper name, perhaps.  His body language excluded me from the conversation.  And he proceeded to ask them about the research they would be doing with second generation migrants, indicating his excitement to speak with them/her about his experiences.  Oblivious to the insane rudeness of this interaction, my Dutch classmate corrected him to indicate that I would be the one focusing on 2nd generation migrants, pleasantly turning to re-include me in the conversation.  Oh, the disappointment on his face.  He said something about maybe being able to speak with me later in the week before quickly ending the conversation.

Needless to say, I have better things to do with my time than spending it in a smoke-filled club, listening to an asshole perform to a crowd of white people that echo shallow, insincere tributes to Africa (based on a description of the performance from one of the admired classmates).  So I left.

It wasn’t a good night.  And it exacerbated the negative feelings that were already starting to brew.  But instead of packing my bags and fleeing back to Amsterdam, I decided to be a big girl and stick it out (after a couple of frustrated tears and a skype call to my mom, of course).

On a brighter note, I was wise enough to bookend my time in the city with side trips to other parts of Greece.  When I first arrived, I spent a weekend with a friend and her family in the northern region of the country, in Alexandroupolis and Komotini, which was delightful.  And after the program is completed, I’ll spend another weekend somewhere else pleasant.  My opinions of Greece will not be measured by the weather or the people in Athens.  But in the future, I need to be more careful about this whole selective memory thing.

The Life List

Vacation in Mexico was enjoyable. It was great to be out of NYC and winter weather, even if just for a short time.

Prior to leaving for vacation, I was inspired by one of the newer reality shows on MTV (honestly, I watch most of them…but few of them actually inspire me), the Buried Life. If you haven’t seen it, it’s about a group of white guys who travel the country in an RV, accomplishing everything they’ve previously decided they want to do before they die. Some people refer to a list of such tasks as a “bucket list” (what you want to do before you “kick the bucket”). I didn’t see the movie by that name and I’m not particularly fond of the whole bucket reference. So while I was inspired by the MTV show, I decided to create my own before-i-die list and call it a “life list.”

I put a lot of thought into my life list while I was in Mexico. And when I returned home, I actually wrote the list on paper. As we all know, once something is written on paper (in ink), it’s official. Official, but not complete. I plan to add to the list as new ideas come up. Perhaps I’ll eventually need to factor another person into these plans or I’ll simply discover brand new dreams. For now, I have 17 tasks on my life list. I figured I’d share a few:

*Meet Oprah Winfrey and respond to a question she asks me. I don’t know many people who would turn down an opportunity to meet Oprah. I thought for many years that at some point she would interview me on her show about something amazing I had accomplished. But now that she has announced this looming 2011 end date, the dream of sitting on that stage has fizzled. She simply isn’t giving me enough time to accomplish that amazing something. So instead, I am willing to settle for a brief encounter, during which she may ask me something as simple as “what time is it?” or “are you the one who slipped past my security?” As long as our meeting consists of Oprah asking me a question and expecting an answer, I will be satisfied.

*Experience genuine, authentic, romantic love. I have said “I love you” in several relationships (okay, four). I believed I was in love each time. But I also knew I was only capable of being in love to the extent that I understood what that meant. And my understanding of love has changed over time. Don’t get me wrong. I’m still not sure I’ll recognize the real thing when I experience it. But I can say, with relative confidence, that I have yet to say the ever so important three words with any sort of accuracy or legitimacy. I feel confident that I will one day.

*Drive across the country (in either direction). This is just one of those classic things you have to do at least once. For all the time I spend on planes, one might think I had experienced more of this country. But my domestic travel experience is not so impressive. And since I don’t need to spend tons of time in most of those states in the middle, driving through should be sufficient. Both times I changed coasts (Philly to Oakland then Oakland to Brooklyn), I planned to drive. And both times the plan changed for practical reasons. I would prefer to make the trip under more leisurely, less stressful circumstances anyway. And although taking a vacation alone is another item on my life list, I wouldn’t want the cross country drive to be the alone vacation. I think this one would be best shared.

* Take an international vacation alone. I spend tons of time alone. And fortunately, I enjoy my own company. So that’s not a bad thing at all. But being alone under certain circumstances can become a personal challenge. Eating in a restaurant, going to the movies, buying a house. Big and small things can feel different when you experience them alone versus with another or several others. I have conquered the restaurant and movie thing many times. And I have taken tons of work trips alone that require solo hotel stays and dining. And I even spent a couple of months in Greece, visiting islands and exploring, most of the time by myself (and I was oh so happy to have visitors during that time). But I have never purchased an international flight and hotel with the intention of going on vacation for and by myself. I don’t feel the need to check this one off the list right away. I’m saving it for a time in my life when I will be seeking an opportunity to appreciate the alone time. I’m sure I’ll know that time when it comes. Hopefully the people in my life at that time will understand.

So there’s a sampling of my life list. So far I don’t have anything too off the wall. The list isn’t for shock value or to compete with other list-makers. It’s just for me. The things that will help me make the most of my time here. And since I’m a master at wasting time, I’m pleased the list is written in ink, official, and putting on the pressure.