Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Erase, and Rewind:


I was really in need of an erase and reformat a few days ago. Friday was just not my day. Who am I and what is it that I've put here to do? Sometimes I get stuck in ruts; sometimes I'm like a hamster; running forwards on a never-ending stainless steel wheel, never knowing when to stop–even though I know I need to.

Every time I think I know just a bit more about life, something else rears its head to make me stop and rethink everything I thought I had already figured out, once again. And in a way, that's nice. It's a constant transformation between knowing and the unknown; between experience and child-like enthusiasm–with no fear of shame, failure, or guilt. As I continue to live in the Netherlands–I'm realizing that I do miss people, places, and things that were at one time of great importance to me, that I have since so gracefully brushed aside, turned a blind eye to, and figured all would be ok if these people, places, and things were to never manifest in my life again... I'm now understanding, and feeling, that not only do I miss these people, places, and things that I so easily eschewed: I miss my family, friends, spaces, and places that I used to help define and identify my place within the world, for the first 22 years of my life. Everything I used to know or love, is gone within my life on a daily basis. I am and will always continue to be beyond proud of myself for leaving the USA at the age of 22, design degree in hand, determined to make something out of myself in Europe, and the Netherlands in specific. I was all too well aware that the design scene was alive and well in the Netherlands–so I chased it down, surrounded myself with those who knew it best, and slowly but surely wiggled myself into that tight knit circle.

I knew very well what I was doing when I moved to Europe. At least I told myself so at the time. I listen, as I've previously mentioned, to Debbie Millman's 'Design Observer' podcast, all the time. In one of them she interviews the graphic designer Martin Venezky, who used to design coupons, and today has come to be one of the better known American designers at this moment–mixing digital and tangible in this day-in-age of confusion of place, stuck between the digital worlds and those of the physical. Someone in history has to bridge the gap between the two–making sense of the dramatic transformation that's currently sweeping our society through new technologies that seem to only get faster, with each and every day. In this aforementioned interview Debbie speaks to Martin about how he did a three-month internship at Studio Dunbar in the Netherlands, and how it was just the most exciting and wonderful event in his life. And I don't doubt it was. But, it's interesting to hear, and therefore 'see', the reactions to comments such as these–an American trailing off to Europe; everyone in the world of design (and this is a very broad sweeping stance/stroke, I'm aware, but probably 90% true) is utterly impressed by Europe's history, culture, and design output, in America. And if Debbie is impressed by an American doing a three-month internship in Europe, during their later years in life–how would she react to someone who, not only searched out their designer heroes in Europe, but made it a point to move there, and not only touch them, but work with them–through sheer will, determination, and a damn-near ferocious sense of self within the world, which has allowed me understand what I love to do in life, and how I can turn that into a trade; thus in turn, allowing me to accumulate money–which is really only a vehicle to accumulate resources and/or to obtain access to desired relationships. And obtain those desired relationships I have, even if they're in their infancy. When you plant seeds, they eventually grow in to luscious beautiful flowers, and trees...

I now continue typing, one day from where I left off, with the three above paragraphs firmly edited and fully constructed. I love that about writing; you can revisit it and rework it–it being the words you've penned, or more appropriately in this day in age, typed–over and over again. And unless you're physically printing it–as opposed to placing it within the digital domain–that will most always hold true.

I currently find myself on the German and Czech border, just slightly southwest of Dresden. I have never been to Dresden, but did pass through its Hauptbahnhof, on the way here. Apparently it's similar to Disney World, in all it's rebuilt spectacular-ity. I must go soon. I'm perched upon a 500 m high bergen, floating high above the tree tops and the surrounding forest's canopy. Technically I'm on a little backpacking/hiking holiday with a gaggle of gays and lesbians, camped out in a (totally easy to romanticize) Swiss-esque chalet. It's super pretty. The landscape is something out of the Brother's Grimm fairytales; tall deciduous and coniferous trees abound across a vista so unfamiliar to be. I'm in, or perhaps more accurately on the edge, of Bohemia. Romanticism, according to my favorite design prophet, Li Edelkoort, is and will continue to be a major trend within the worlds of fashion and design, in the years to come. So I'm right on-spot in this chalet–as the forest it sits within, was the exact source of inspiration, and further, the radiating point, for the original European Romanticism movement of the mid-eighteenth century. Yesterday I waddled down the hilltop to a look-out point that, obviously enough, looked-out over this verdant clusters of trees and intensely carved rock formations that were given form by snaking Elbe River far below.

Before I had the chance to look-out over this damn-romantic landscape, I decided to go for a run; down to the valley 500 m below, and across the nearby border to the Czech Republic. Even though the EU is and will continue to challenge the ideas and historical divisions of Europe's countries–and most straightforward, their former borders–I still find it intoxicating to run over former European borders, that once required a passport to cross. While striding along the Elbe, I stumbled through and under the former German/Czech checkpoint, an interesting construction itself, and continued onward, alongside and together with the currents of lower-lying, parallel body of water. It was lovely. And only the second time I've ran across a border that divides two countries; the other being when I once ran from Maastricht to the border of Belgium. Totally fun. Walking, the whole point of this weekend excursion I find myself on, is not really my cup of tea. What can I say; I'd rather be running. I like to be in motion, and fast motion at that. It was my goal to run down this high hill, to the Czech Republic, and back up the same hill–all 500 m of it, divided over a 3K road. I did, and I'm proud of myself for that. Now, if only traversing stairs weren't going to hurt for the next few days... Which brings me to my next subject.

Amongst this hodge-podge of people I find myself within; about 2/3rds are German and the other half is Dutch. Being so linguistic as they are–most Dutchies speak German, and when a group is weighted toward more Germans, Dutchies just switch over, and, BAM!: German is suddenly everywhere. I did live in Düsseldorf for a bit, but that in no way makes my German anywhere near conversational. Basic phrases–in German–are the name of my game. Which really feels like stepping back in time, to three years ago, when I might have understood some very basics of the Dutch language, but was more or less helpless and dependent on the kindness of those around me to assist in communicating. That's not really the most wonderful feeling to experience; helplessness, that is. But it's just one of those aspects of daily life that you come to accept, after living in a country other than your own, where the language is different, over an extended period of time. That is, unless you learn the language of the new country you find yourself within. And that I have, with Dutch. I am now officially a B2 Dutch-speaker. I love that. And by November, I will be a B1 Dutch-speaker. It can only continue to improve. So, you see, finally feeling as if you belong within a new group, and then suddenly having all of that learning reversed, is not exactly the most enjoyable experience. The Dutchies are good with the English; the Germans lack that level of fluency.

Everyone in the Netherlands is afraid to be considered ordinaire–it's the whole country’s biggest fear–yet everyone in the Netherlands is more than happy to bestow the title upon others. And really, what is ordinaire? It's such, to my ears at least, not the most politically correct, or the most pleasant label to provide others with. It's just a tad bit-rude, to me, and in the end, only shows how judgment is being passed. Judgment... is just not the greatest of ways to view the world. There's too much of it to see experience and feel to ever think that any of it is not worthy of existing. For all its excitement, I'm not sure that I feel 100% at home within Europe. I certainly feel at home within the Netherlands, and I certainly feel comfortable with the Dutch language. But, as my daily life further ravels and wraps itself within all things Dutch, I'm becoming conscious of the idea that, perhaps, I won't ever feel 100% at home within Europe. How can I; I'm not European. And while it's quite easy to adopt the façade of a European, through mannerisms, etiquette, and a pervasive-lack of spontaneity or fluidity in social situations–to be accepted by Europeans, is quite another story. Even with my collected knowledge of how to react to certain people, situations, and social customs–I still hold my fork in my right hand and my knife in my left, I do smile at people I don't know, and I am more than willing to attend an event at a moments notice even though it might not be in my agenda. For all my effort, it doesn’t matter how many European, or Dutch, customs I acquire, because I'll never be European. I will always be an outsider. And I'm ok with that. I didn't move across the world to be accepted by others; I am my own person and always will be. I do not care what others think of me, or what I should do, or where they think I should go; that is not my business. I will do, what I want to do.

On the flip side, if the situation were to be reversed, Americans–so colorful as we are–are not one people, and the whole country is actually a gigantic social experiment in acceptance, tolerance, and cohabiting side-by-side with those who might not speak your language, worship in the way you do (if at all), or care about the customs your family might hold dear. For all its collective 'we-can-do-it' spirit, Americans are a rugged and individualist bunch, who will almost always be welcoming and accepting of those they don't know. And even if, in the end, they decide perhaps the person or group they might have just met doesn't quite fit within their world, at least they're open to trying them on, to see if, perhaps, they might be the right fit. Europeans, on the flip side, will never consider you one of their own; evident by the fact that even second generation children of non-European immigrants are still all too often considered non-Europeans by Europeans, even though they know no other land or language, and their passports are maroon. Europeans have never been one to embrace pluralism, evident still today. And though not European, it's quite easy for me to wiggle myself into Dutch society, when compared to some, and be accepted as 'one of them', as long as I don't open my mouth: my skin is white, my hair is blonde, and my fashion-sense is now clearly influenced by Dutch culture. But I am not my body, I am not my voice, and I am not a skin color; I am John, I am American, and yet I am a citizen of this largely globalized and constantly-further-connecting world. It's quite astonishing, what a shift our world is going through–those that reject the digital revolution, will only be left behind.

The EU, and therefore Europeans, still need a good 20-40 years for the reality of its inner working to fully function and be accepted by those who living within its domain. The UPC code, which was introduced only on the cusp of the 19070s and 80s, and was once non-existent, like the EU, has since become accepted as a part of our everyday life. Without it, life would certainly be less efficient. And those who remember at time without it, will eventually–like all things –die. And with them will go the memory of a life without this tiny collection of vertical bars printed on products; though those memories will certainly be transferred to some sort of medium, somewhere, allowing us to revisit and reflect on those former times. Likewise, there will be a day when the European continent no longer has citizens who lived through WWII, and further down the road, there will be a time when there are no Europeans who remember a time without the EU. That is progress. What is rejected or rebutted against by one generation is in turn accepted by the next, while the next generation–the third–will look toward the relics of the first, with admiration and nostalgia. Perhaps one day suburban tract-homes in America will evoke the same emotional response that I first had to the Swiss-esque chalet I currently find myself sitting within, viewing those urban homes as a romantic relic of a past that's no longer accessible in its social order, but is accessible through its left-behind buildings, books, and music–its culture. And culture can be defined as anything with such a great importance; you want to pass it onward, for those generations, who've yet to manifest within the world.