Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Free Spirit, Yo:




It is strange. I really feel different these days. Nothing has–physically–changed about me (except for the fact that I'm in super shape because I'm training for the Amsterdam Marathon in October–and I feel skinny as hell and energized as a result), but in a way, as always, I'm noticing (once gain), that I'm growing up. And as I do that, I realize more and more that the most important thing in life, is simply learning to be: yourself. There's no reason not to. And I get better at it every day. My life has been going great lately. And that's great. When this happens, I write much much less. What it is is that I'm more active (physically and emotionally, that is). I'm present and in the moment–less mentally absent. And by absent I mean lost within myself, going down there to shape and mold my emotions in words. That takes time. But I do love it. Curling up within myself is totally meditative for me–allowing me to completely swim in my thoughts–reflect, experience, process and purge. There's nothing I love more. Perhaps, next to showering/swimming, that is. I am truly a fish. (But a classy fish, that only gets into clean water).

Life shows me something new almost always these days. I'm sure it's something to do with the sun. The sun is staying up later into the night–and all of Amsterdam couldn't be more ready for its return. The winters here can just be so dark, gray, dreary and depressing. The lack of light up north really gets to me. People often forget just how high up on the globe Europe is. It's up there. And because of that in winter the days are short–he sun sets now at 16:00–and it's dark. It works that way until about March. Half of the year in Amsterdam, it's dark. But the other half, well–it's just swell. Really.

Amsterdam can be so charming in the spring and once again, I'm so happy it's returned. And with the sun on it's way to staying up late, once again, spring is in full gear. The trees have all popped open in the last week or two. Everything is green, and everything is starting to be blanketed with color. The fashion is changing too; less seems to be more, as the temperature rises. I am looking forward to laying in the park, and having the sun setting late at night. It's easy to love Amsterdam these days.

However, the thought of, 'Would I ever be able to leave Amsterdam?', has recently appeared into my mind. But how could I ever leave my little city? It's just so cute!

Lately I have been comparing my life in Europe to life in North America. it is quite different, and there are a few things that should be of note. First, Europe, as portrayed in the American mentality and media–is portrayed as a beautiful cultured continent: rich in architecture, art, music, languages, etc. And of course, it certainly is all of that, and more. But what you don't often get in the American media (at least I didn't while growing up) is the not so nice side. Like immigration. Unlike the United States of America, the EU is not a federal state. It's a union/collection of nations. All still very much with their own rules. Not unlike the Unites States. But the EU differs from the USA on many fronts, and one policy is immigration to Europe and the attitudes toward it–both traditional and contemporary.

In the Netherlands, there is a significant amount of attention being paid to the idea of immigration in the media. Europeans all experienced a surge of nationalism in the nineteenth century. Then it faded slowly over time. So much so that these days the Dutch really aren't even allowed to raise their own flag, except for on certain (holi)days. Odd. Additionally, these days, in most European countries, ideas surrounding cultures and what's representative of a 'cultural' identity–is a hot topic of debate. Who are we? And one thing most European nations seem to agree on is: We are not Muslims. We are not Islamic. And, historically, Europe has almost always been a collision point for Islam and Christianity.

Immigrants have always been seen of as 'in need' of help through (ethic) Dutch eyes, as many have come to this tiny country as refugees. Not all though. There were waves of temporary-workers. And some of those workers stayed, and had kids here–as is bound to happen. That's where things get tricky. Immigrants have also traditionally been crammed in small, less desirable areas of the city (usually in 1980s architecture, here in the Netherlands). There's not much Dutch/Muslim action happening. I notice this a whole lot, because I live in the center of a super multicultural area of the city (the Indishce Buurt!). And I think my slice of the city is wonderful. Would I really want to move to a city, and be completely surrounded with people that look, act, think and believe in exactly what I believe? No. Boring! That's what's so great about cities–they bring diverse and different people, together.

I briefly lived in NYC in 2007 and loved every minute of it. It is strange how much of I grown since then, both professionally and personally. Snaking through the subways of New York was a favorite pastime while there. As was relaxing on the roof of our tiny East Village apartment (East 13th and Ave A!), while working on our tan. Everything about NYC is wonderful. If only in regards to its history. Oddly enough, while visiting last year, I was drawn to the lower end of Manhattan, soon realizing I (strangely) felt more comfortable where the streets weren't on a grid (and amongst the cute (and real) Dutch architecture in NYC), rather than 'up there' (where the streets are on a grid). Subsequently, I subconsciously realized that my life in Europe has made me reflect, rethink and reprocess the way that people (mostly, myself) use and absorb public space in Europe, than that of how it's done in America. Americans for instance, have a general uneasiness congregating in large-open-outdoor spaces. Europeans couldn't love it any more.

There is an underlying code of conduct that occurs in Europe (let's be more specific: North-Western Europe) that takes a while to master. European's have thing called social control (as do Americans but it's much much different). And they love to put it to use. (Fascinating article/book on it here). Basically Europeans are watchers. They love to watch...other people. European society can be very inward looking. In employing this social control, as it's called, everyone is kept 'in line'–or so it's thought. And if something against the grain is done, one is immediately made an example of what not to do, and shunned. Very accepting, as you can see. That's why all those chairs on the sidewalk/square, face the street/main-pedestrian route, to enable just a bit more 'watching'.

You're never truly alone in Europe. And I do miss that about the North American landscape and lifestyle. SpaceAfter living in Europe for about three and a half years in total, I can now begin to see North America (specifically Canada and the USA)–through European eyes: I picture large luscious landscapes, tall trees, wide open space, big houses, big streets, big cars, and most importantly–big American sized refrigerators! With the downsize in my refrigerator size by moving to Europe (and of course, some Europeans do have a jumbo-American-sized refrigerator), comes my adaption and implantation into a a society where tiny refrigerators are the norm, everyone rides their bike, and everyone buys fresh flowers at the market–and shops for their groceries every few days, rather than once a week.

Or so I thought. However, all of these things only scratch the surface of what European life is truly composed of. In short, in America it's very easy to dramatically romanticize everyday life on this side of the ocean. How could it not be? As a tourist to a (Western or Eastern, in some cases) European country (and certainly this is true if you only visit a country's capital)–the architecture can instantly transport you to a different era–say, the Renaissance. And then, just like that, you can turn the corner and see a glass and steel 20 story tower. That's just how it works here. In America, it works like that too–in some cities (think: Boston, NYC, those with a colonial past, where old and new are celebrate and combined). European society places such an emphasis on the notion of public space–in a way that America doesn't. It's used differently. Which isn't a good or bad thing–it's just, different.

Often expats can find themselves (well, at least I did) comparing and contrasting everything upon relocating to a new country, with their former country of residence. I have often read that this is something you shouldn't do upon relocating to a new country. However, I have to pose the question: why not? For me, for my first year in Amsterdam, comparing and contrasting was the way for me to make sense of the world I had fallen into, in the tiny Dutch capital. I can't say that I'm in the expat scene (I mean–I didn't even know what the word was until 2008 when a (German) friend at work told me she was going to an 'expat-meet-up. Odd? I think, so–you're German! Germany is just a three hour car ride East! But then again, Germany and the Netherlands are different countries and I imagine even those from nearby need comfort in adjusting to new surroundings, also). I've just never really been one for expat things. Except one or twice. I'm just interested in going deeper than that. Because if it's the only circle you have, you won't develop a true outlook and understanding on the society you're living within. As most, slash-all, 'expats' are not Dutch. How's that for integration?

And that's another thing about America. When you come to the USA as an immigrant–or if you even just move there for work/temporary–no one is going to tell you you must speak English, that you must –because there's nothing to integrate into. American (and Canadian) society is so ethically diverse. Instead, in America, you're welcomed and encouraged to apply your heritage/identity/background with that of the vernacular (whatever that may be)–and churn out something new. Why not? And if anything, instead of people being forced to learn English in America, people want to learn English, because they know they'll get ahead. Not so n Europe. Even if they do for instance, speak Dutch, in this case, they still won't be accepted by 'Dutch' society–whatever that may be these days. In European countries at the moment, citizens want immigrants (less so highly-skilled-migrants) to assimilate. Speak the language, they say. Learn out culture, they say. Be us!

And of course, one should learn the language of an unfamiliar country of residence. It only helps you and all those around you, European or non-European, whoever they may be. But maybe instead of clinging to cultural identities–ethnic Europeans should perhaps instead ask themselves: who have we become? And what is it that we want others who live in our country, to fit into?

What Europe really wants to say with all these new immigration laws being passed is: keep out the Muslims. In a way it's very sad. European societies are becoming more and more ethically diverse everyday–and yet some citizens are resisting that. Europeans are not getting it on these days–and as so the population of the EU is drastically shrinking. So much so that in the next 50 years the population is set to decrease–by half. Clearly immigration is needed.

The New York Times had a great article earlier this year that outlines a few points regarding the 'Europe vs. Non-native-Muslim' situation, entitled:


The most fascinating quote being:

"Of all Europe’s great and present miseries, the one receiving the most uncertain remedies is the failing integration of its increasingly large and alienated Muslim communities.

Instead, denial is their standard metric: That bomb didn’t go off here, our national soccer team is full of Muslim players, and we haven’t elected any anti-immigrant parties to Parliament, or if we have, they’re ultimately manageable. The less we talk about this stuff the better.

Then something happens. A conflict comes into focus that, beyond its particulars, raises the question of the ultimate compatibility of Islamic communities in Western environments. An issue that, most comfortably, is kept vague, suddenly demands that Europe — in this case, the Netherlands — draw the line. But where is the line?"

Some ethnic Dutch-ies still don't seem to understand that the 'Moroccan' and 'Turkish' children playing in the street, the ones speaking Dutch to one another–are not Moroccan or Turkish: they are Dutch, because they were born here. Even if their parents were not. (Just as a child born to, say, a Chinese immigrant couple living in the USA, that was born in the USA, would be American.) Their passports are red, and I would say most probably speak Dutch better than I do (though I am so much better these days!). I'm sure this will take a few more generations to fully sink in (and by then I'll for sure be dead)–but one day, everyone will see each other for what they really are (beyond skin color or religion): people. People who, just like themselves, are working, living and loving.

I write all this not because I'm an activist–but because I come from a background (and generation) that began to see race, religion, sexuality, and the like–as a by product of what makes up an individual, not who an individual is. I am a product of 1980s America. And I like that. It's something that I have yet to find in Europe. My parents–full members of the hippie and flower power generation–had a whole different outlook on life than their parents: a bit more accepting, a bit more tolerant. That is to say, an acceptance of all on a deeper emotional and metaphysical level. This just doesn't occur on most of the European continent. Europe is very much a aware of social hierarchy, on a level that doesn't occur in the USA–as the idea of royalty was almost never present. It does however, to a certain degree, occur in Amsterdam. And that's why I love living here, the free-spirited nature and acceptance of everything, by everyone. It's quite unique, and the vibe is quite comparable to that of San Francisco. I like that.

Lately I've been looking toward Toronto with fascinated eyes. Multi-cultural, diverse, full of skyscrapers (something that strangely excites me now that I live in Europe–even though my country of birth invented the concept and construction method) and friendly accepting people - the city looks more appealing every day. Hence the comparison map.

In 2007 I met one of my great friends–Sara–right before I departed for Germany. I often joked that we were both free-spirits in the world. Flitting about, discussing life in America while reveling over Impressionism and all things European, during out long chats on warm spring nights. However, I always sort of thought that I was somehow lying to myself. Who was I to say that I was a free-spirit? I always imagined some higher level of free-spiritedness that I had yet to obtain. However these days I'm realizing that moving to Europe alone (for the third time), at the age of 22, couldn't be any more free-spirited, than I was looking to be. I truly am just that: a free-spirt, yo.
But more importantly, knowing yourself is something, I'm learning, is a process and is constantly changing. As you yourself are always continuing to grow, evolve, expand, adapt, and change. All my life, I've thought that life could be compared to building a house: first you lay the foundation and build up from there. However I'm learning it's not that simple. Rather than building a house, foundation first, life is more akin to an oil-painting that's never quite finished. There is, and always will be, a few more areas that need reworked, re-colored, or rethought. And parts of the canvas that will always need (yet another) layer of paint added. Life will always be incomplete. And I like that I'm realizing that.

These days I'm adding another layer of oil-paints to a concept I've known about for quite a long time: a city doesn't make you happy–your life makes you happy–and a city is a only a backdrop for life. However both my life and my city are beautiful. But I'm curious as to if my city will ever change. And the thing is, it doesn't even matter. As long as my equally as free-spirited boyfriend is along for the ride, I'd be happy to call many many cities home. But for now, I couldn't be more happy, in cute and adorable Amsterdam.