Dutch Light (Or, How I Didn’t Get Arrested or Kill Myself and Escaped to Europe Instead)
March 15, 2012 3 Comments
It’s been almost two months since I woke up in Queens and had pupusas and churros on the subway one last time. Many friends don’t know where I am or how I got here. So here’s (part of) the story…with pretty pictures from my crumby camera!
So two months ago, I made some quick cash and bought a one-way ticket for Europe. Then I got on a plane to Reykjavik, where I was stranded by a blizzard long enough to try Icelandic schnapps, go outside, and watch the sunrise at 11am and I swear I saw elves. And then I came to the Netherlands, home of kabouters.
Right now, I’m drinking Albert Heijn’s finest (read: cheapest) rosé, watching trains go by from my balcony in Amsterdam, taking in the first warm sunlight of the spring, and hoping maybe one of the most wretched fall/winters ever… is finally over.
I live with my partner and her Dutch husband. Our place is nice. It has no paint or furniture, and we’re too poor to get any floors. So it’s all bare concrete. We’re on the top floor, a block from the metro and right above a busy market. Every morning, I get up early and make coffee and sit by our giant window. At this time of year in Holland, the sun rises and sets on the same side of the sky – the side with our windows. Our lovely balcony overlooks a mosque, the railway, and the edges of the city where housing complexes fade into farmland. At sunset, the sun sometimes peaks out from the dense clouds and rays reflect soft pink down on the horizon. It’s pretty dreamy, really. (I understand the art term “Dutch light” better now, and it is a real thing!)
In most ways, my life here isn’t very different from New York or DC or Montreal – except they put cheese on pancakes instead of maple syrup, things that should be levers are often buttons, and people pay attention to soccer and royalty and eurotrash boybands. Oh, and you can buy pot in stores. (That’s honestly one of the biggest culture shocks.) In fact, Amsterdam reminds me of Montreal if it had Vancouver’s weather. And was way older, completely below sea level, and full of water.
Between being extremely poor and living with disabling anxiety, I don’t get out much actually. But when I do, the city center is gorgeous. The grachtengordel are even more beautiful than they look in pictures. If not for the tourists, you might think you’re still in the Dutch Golden Age, and centuries of colonial market-expansion on the backs of the imperial periphery had never ended. (Oh wait…) De Wallen, the red light district, is as glamorous as I imagined it to be. The bicycle paths are even more extensive, complex, and well-used than I thought they would be. The falafel is as good as you’d hope. So is the hash.
Here is what I’ve learned about the Netherlands and my Dutch side (some of my ancestors were Dutch) so far: The Dutch have no concept of insincerity, and they sincerely love competitive ice speed skating. Eating enormous chocolate sprinkles with butter on bread is encouraged. (It’s called hagelslag.) Everything is more colorful – the lights on tall buildings, the graffiti. All the modern structures are asymmetrical and oblique and seem bizarre to me. It turns out (vegetarian) schnitzel is actually pretty good. The urban planning and architecture both look like very intentional abstractionist art. Traffic laws, especially those which differentiate ¨road¨ from ¨not road,¨ appear to be optional. There is no wild or unsculpted nature anywhere in the country. The old narrow alleyways are filled with naked whores behind windows, pot smoke, and bicycles at all hours of the day. All in all, I feel very at home! (Except for the lack of wilderness part. I miss forests.)
Dutch isn’t very hard to learn, but there are just as many opportunities to practice my Spanish and French. We live in Biljmermeer, or Amsterdam Zuidoost. Most of the suburb was built in the 1970s and was intended to be cheap middle-class housing. Instead, it became social housing for immigrants, especially from Surinam when the ladder gained independence from the Netherlands, and soon gained the reputation of being a ¨bad¨ (read: brown) area. Reverse gentrification yeah! Hehe.
Today, it’s still a majority POC immigrant area with, apparently, over 150 nationalities represented. It was designed to be mostly free of cars, so there’s more green space than road. There’s even a lake nearby, in Gaasperplas, that’s surrounded by the strangest sculptures. Some of them are made of trees. I got lost there in a labyrinth of walkways, hollow concrete tubes, and at least one horse path. I wandered around looking at and listening to new types of birds for awhile.
But mostly I stay home and smoke too much pot (which I can say legally!) and watch too much BBC. I do miss a ton of people, but that’s nothing new – my chosen family and friends have always been spread across the globe. I especially miss punk shows in DC, my OWS comrades, and the lively Occupy community in New York that embraced me in a time of great crisis. I still spend the vast majority of my time organizing with my online affinity groups. I checked out the Occupy Amsterdam encampment, in front of the world’s oldest stock exchange, for the international day of solidarity with the people of Greece. I’m still looking for more local radicals, anarchists, and Occupiers though!
I really enjoy getting to know new places. I’ve felt like a stateless person, a wanderer, for most of my life. (We used to be called ¨traveler kids¨ back in the CrimethInc days, lolz.) I wouldn’t call myself a tourist, because that implies too simple of a binary: I am from Place A, I visit Place B. I’ve always been more in the liminal spaces, getting to know the world from a new perspective, absorbing a whole new (literal) viewpoint from which to understand history, colonialism, culture. Moving across borders and oceans is like getting an entirely new way to look at struggle and resistance. Europe is literally burning, capitalism is crashing over this debt and austerity crisis, and I have front row seats. (My CrimethInc roots rear their ugly head again, heh.)
Otherwise, my life is fairly uneventful – which is just fine with me! Mostly, I’m a housewife, going to the grocery store, cleaning the house. It’s been far too long since I had a proper kitchen, so its nice to spend so much time cooking. I also spend large portions of my day cuddling. <3 I’m quite in love again, and that feels nice. I was pretty cynical for awhile.
Of course, a lot of folks still want to know why and how I got to Amsterdam. I wish I had a nickle for every person who has asked me, ¨Wait didn’t you just get married???¨ Yes, I did. Thanks for reminding me. /sarcasm. Turns out gay marriage leads to gay divorce. I guess that’s what we get for wanting inclusion in a flawed system. But my wedding was still the most beautiful day of my life, and I don’t regret that.
As to the rumors I ran off with a love affair and went underground in Europe – that’s only mostly true. My wife did leave me, but I probably deserved it. Although we were polyamorous, I spent more time in NYC with other people and with OWS than with her. After that, I fucked up my life. Really badly. I also fucked over a lot of people – not on purpose, but just as heartbreaking. I walked out on a lot of people and was too anxious even to say goodbye. My mental health was worse than ever before. I tried to kill myself.
I can’t say I’m without resentment about the divorce, but I’m sure I hate myself more than anyone else does. I’m profoundly hurt, but I broke too many promises to hold a grudge on anyone but myself. I feel like an epic failure. But instead of trying to kill myself again, I decided to stay in New York and stake my future in the hands of the revolution and my comrades, who had become a whole new family for me and were the first things that didn’t make me feel bitter or hopeless in, to be honest, years.
Unfortunately, we got evicted. It was the second home I lost, after the radical queer collective house in DC I had lived in for four years prior to that. We squatted for awhile until the landlord brought the cops. Then I crashed on couches for awhile with other Occupiers. But in the end, the revolution did bring me a place to stay in a roundabout way. My partner, who I met via OWS, is from Amsterdam and when she came back… I went with her. Not the first time I’ve moved across borders on a whim to be with a lover.
Besides being with her, I came to Europe to hide. I feel like a coward, but I needed to start over. I’m even too anxious to check my e-mail or Facebook. I can’t say I’m completely mentally healthy (is anyone?), but I’m much better than I have been in recent memory. I was terrified of coming here, but then, I’m terrified of everything. It turned out to be great, which is weird, because nothing ever seems to work out for me.
It makes me feel guiltier in a way, for the people I hurt and left behind. I especially feel bad for leaving my DC community – one more trans woman I knew has already been killed since I got here (that makes what, four? five now?) and another attacked. The worrying is hard. But I’m content with a quiet blissful life for as long as it lasts. Hopefully it’ll last a long time. I’m no good to anyone dead, I suppose, so I gotta do what I gotta do.
When am I coming back to North America? I don’t know. I spent years working toward what I thought was a very set-in-stone future, but it turned out I was on a path that ended up going nowhere. Every plan I ever made means nothing now. In fact, I’ve failed at basically everything I’ve ever tried to plan. So I don’t even feel capable of making predictions beyond next week or next month. I don’t even want to. But that said, I rather love it here. I’m still apprehensive that this is too good to be true and will end in tragedy like everything else. But I might as well enjoy it while it lasts, or else what good is living? Almost dying puts a lot of things in perspective.
I still wouldn’t recommend it though.