I have this close friend Sarah Turner* from The States who keeps saying she wants to come visit me in Europe. Sarah’s a high school counselor in Bend, Oregon. She’s totally into hiking and running, has been happily married for over a decade, is close with all of her siblings, enjoys her job. In other words, she has a great life.
But then her husband cheated on her with one of her best friends who happens to be the wife of her husband’s boss. It’s a total cluster f*&k, as you can imagine, not to mention humiliating. So there she is, 36 years old, suddenly divorced, betrayed by not only her best friend, but her husband (I never really liked that guy to be honest). Did I mention that her mom passed away not long ago? I’ve been worried about her because these are big, disruptive life changes all at once.
Most of our communication about all of this has been through email and PMs on Facebook. But she called me up at 4:00 in the morning (forgot the time change) to tell me something totally out of character; she left her job and has just embarked on a solo-trip through Northern Europe to rediscover herself! At the end of her trip, she plans to visit The Netherlands for some appointment she has scheduled in Amsterdam, and will have time to visit me in The Hague!
I’m really impressed. It’s pretty gutsy to travel all by yourself through Europe; especially for a woman who’s never left the continental U.S. and has a hard time picking up foreign languages. As I recall, she’s also a bit afraid of the dark and she became a vegan a couple of years ago. Hmmm. Not sure how traveling in Europe will work out for a vegan. That’s got to be hard.
I’d love to introduce Sarah to some of my single friends, because she really is quite a catch. But it’s obviously too soon. I wouldn’t say she’s in a man-hating phase, but more like she just needs to be totally on her own and remember what it’s like to be an individual.
I hope Sarah doesn’t mind me sharing all of this personal stuff on my blog.
It’s been a hard week: Husband sick, son sick, a friend suddenly taken to the hospital for an appendicitis, T. winning the U.S. election. Regarding this last sickness, how did this happen and what does it mean for the future of America? The future of the environmental policy, world trade, communication and politics? The security, rights and liberty of fellow Americans who don’t happen to be white and male? These are the questions on the minds of many.
The shock from the election is so pervasive in The Netherlands that when friends and acquaintances in this multi-cultural country see me, one of the first things out of their mouths is along these lines:
“You must be shocked.”
“How are you holding up?”
“How did this happen?”
Just as this tattered Old Glory is sacrilege, so is the hate, sexism and racism so rampant throughout the Trump campaign. I understand in a way how Trump happened–people are angry and fed up with a system that makes the rich richer and everyone else poorer. I understand anger, but not the anger that got him elected.
My anti-establishment, no more business-as-usual anger was of the Bernie Sanders variety; an anger channeled into positive change with clear, decisive actions and planning to make it happen. I believe the anger that got T. elected spawns from a darker source filled with fear and hatred of the ilk found in this Facebook collection of posts called ‘Day 1. Trump America’.
Here’s just a few examples:
Not even 24 hours yet. My friend’s sister, who is Muslim, had a knife pulled on her by a Trump supporter while on the bus by UIUC campus. (November 9th, 2016 tweet by Sarah Harvard)
One of the posts also shows a caucasion male being beaten by a group of African Americans. His crime? Voting for Trump.
And on the flip side? How about this photo?
According to this collection of tweets and Facebook quotes, Latin American children, Muslim women and African Americans are being threatened and told to ‘go home.’
Yet America is their home. Their country, your country, my country, just like the song goes: My Country tis of thee. Sweet land of liberty. Of thee I sing. But in the current state of affairs, I wonder. My Country ‘Tis of Who? I don’t know anyone who voted for Trump, and I don’t recognize the America that has been showing its colors this past year. I’m extremely concerned what will happen to our country under his leadership.
According to a New York Times article this morning, Trump is planning to enlist Mr. Ebell to help take on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Activists labeled Ebell as one of the top seven “climate criminals.” My stomach is turning at the thought.
Mr. Ebell, who revels in taking on the scientific consensus on global warming, will be Mr. Trump’s lead agent in choosing personnel and setting the direction of the federal agencies that address climate change and environmental policy more broadly. See full NYT Article here.
Because all of the four-letter words just weren’t enough to express our frustration, we introduced a five letter word to our collection. The ‘T’ word is an expletive we don’t even want to hear in our household at the present moment.
This is not a spontaneous, reactionary missive. It has been slowly building during the last year as I’ve read and viewed the racist, sexist things that T. has said during his campaign and throughout his televised, caught-on -tape life.
Although I am an American living abroad, I am still an American and I still relate to my culture. But since Tuesday’s election results (hell, since the beginning of the campaign!), I’ve felt less enthusiastic about donning my former favorite sweatshirt.
Looking for a kernel of hope, I turn to Bernie Sanders to see how he’s responding (after of course his campaign’s initial post-election response of “We have nothing nice to say right now.”). Here’s a Berning quote that gives me hope.
“To the degree that Donald Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him. To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.”
~Bernie Sanders Facebook Post on Wednesday, November 9th, 2016.
What if Trump America (excuse my French) won’t be the racist, sexist, mysoginist, wall-building, isolationist, climate-change denying country we think it will be? It isn’t a one-man government and there are protections in place, politicians with years of experience, a whole checks and balances system built into governance.
What if he can actually deliver on his big promises of employment for everyone, and an America for all Americans? (Just to clarify, Mr. Trump, all Americans = every U.S. citizen, no matter race, country of origin, disability, religious affiliation, sensuality or lack thereof, sexual orientation, gender or party line). Perhaps there’s a silver lining somewhere in there, waiting to be discovered or revealed.
Or as my mother (jokingly?) said yesterday morning, perhaps the End Times really are near.
When I moved abroad the first time around (Amsterdam 2004), it felt like a European adventure. I had only been to Europe once before and for a measly three weeks, not nine months. My U.S. friends were keen to hear about my adventures and when I moved back Stateside less than a year later, I picked up where I left off. My world view had shifted slightly through my European experience (not to mention the Dutch husband I acquired in the process), but I had the same circle of friends and I even managed to get a better position at the company where I used to work.
This time around I am in Europe indefinitely. My husband is half way through a Master’s program in Theology, my son is speaking fluent Dutch, and despite a clear goal of eventually moving back to the U.S., I’m getting used to European life. We all are. And not just us three, but my U.S. friends have also realized that we’re here for an unknown period of time.
And as time goes by, you lose touch. People back home know they won’t run into me at a concert, in the aisles of the supermarket or out on the beach during a sunset walk. Unless I Prine someone, or someone Prine’s me, the spontaneity has been removed from our relationships.
I have taken on a digital sheen in their lives. And although we live in a digital world and have a digital footprint–whether it is posting photos and thoughts on Facebook, sending e-mails, writing blog posts or even skyping–it’s just not the same as being there in the flesh. My U.S. friends can’t ring me up for a walk, or ask me to help them drown their sorrows from their latest break up over cosmopolitan or celebrate a recent life event over a creamy Chardonnay at that cafe downtown. I’m not there for them like I used to be. And vice versa.
And although I defend Facebook and social media on a regular basis as a worthwhile expenditure of my time, I’m beginning to wonder. Sometimes I just feel, well, detached. And yes, when I see a beautiful sunset from Santa Barbara, or someone sipping a gorgeous wine at a resort overlooking the Pacific, I experience feelings of envy, just like this WorldCrunch article suggests. I sometimes feel lonely when perusing Facebook, just as SLATE Magazine suggested I would.
Is there a threshold for which we no longer wish to invest in long distance friendships? I know this is the case for dating. Years ago I dated a guy in Los Angeles, but after a few months time, I felt that it just wasn’t doable; he was geographically unavailable. In general, I’m not one for G.U. relationships. Yet I feel a desire to hold onto my friendships in the U.S. Why? Because these people are my people; part of my life experience; they helped form who I am in a way. We informed each other. But social media interactions can only go so far in maintaining that bond.
And to top that off, I have friends here. In the flesh. Ones who call me up and invite me out; ones I run into in the super market or the park, women in my book club who relate to me through literature, friends from church who bond with me in another way. If I need something here, in this physical life, they are my go to people.
There is a Dutch expression that goes something like this: een goede buur is beter dan een verre vriend. In other words, a good neighbor is better than a far away friend. I understand this from the practical Dutch perspective because despite their penchant for world travel, their orientation is very locally based. But I’m fairly certain this expression was developed before the digital age wound it’s roots into our daily lives.
I’m not the only one facing this quandary. What are your thoughts on friendships that span continents? Is there a distance threshold? And does digital social media isolate you, or bring you closer to your friends and family?
This morning I left the house for an early morning appointment on my two-wheeled transportation and entered bike path rush hour. I still can’t get used to seeing men and women in business attire and fancy shoes peddling along, some with children on the front or back of the bicycle en route to school drop off before heading to the office.
The morning bicycling crowd is more adamant than the afternoon crowds I’ve encountered. People lay on the bicycle bell if you’re not cycling fast enough, and if you don’t merge to the right of the bike path for them to pass, they sometimes make gutsy moves to overtake you. I witnessed that myself this morning as two teenage girls cycling at a slower pace chatting away, were overtaken by people in suits, utilizing the lengths of brick between the street lamps as a temporary third lane. If the timing wasn’t quite right and they weren’t able to cut back in time, my bet would be on the street lamp.
The sun was out, but it was bone-chilling cold. A slight mist oozed from the urban forest as I peddled by with the crowd of cyclists.
After my appointment an hour and a half later, the bike paths were quiet, the sun climbing higher in the sky.
By afternoon pick up at school, the sun was bringing a rare warmth to The Hague. Jackets were shed and faces were turned upward. Within an hour, I felt like I might actually have a sunburn, and I wanted to be inside. Ezra, acting a bit vampire like, also wanted to stay indoors, but the weather was so undeniably beautiful, I felt obligated to extend our outdoor time. I opened the patio door and we had our afternoon snack on the front porch, but not before Ezra lowered the awning to block most of the sun’s rays.
By late afternoon, we headed to the forest for dog therapy with a friend who needed Ezra’s help walking her dog. My friend’s puppy barks at children, but is very friendly and doesn’t bite. She needs exposure to children to get over her tendency to bark. Ezra has grown wary of dogs after a recent bite episode and needs positive exposure to dogs to put that one negative experience into perspective; thus the origin of our win-win dog therapy sessions.
I’m not asking my son to wrestle with Doberman Pinschers or Rottweilers, but to take a small, friendly five-month-old dog for a walk.
He didn’t want to go at first. When he saw the dog, he tensed up, pulling his hands protectively out of reach. But my amazing friend coached him through the interaction as the dog started to bark. Before long, Ezra was keenly aware of dog ear positions and what they indicate. He opened his hand flat, and started to laugh when the puppy lavished it with licks and kisses. Within 5 minutes, he was holding her leash, walking the little dog and using basic commands to tell her to halt and cross.
By the time we reached the forest, they were pals. She began to follow him toward the tree he likes to climb and rather than reacting in fear, he seemed to view his new little companion as another interested party, bathing him in attention. The real test was when a second dog approached. The last time, Ezra climbed the tree and stayed up in its branches until the other dog departed. Today, he came out of the tree and stayed on the ground. He didn’t touch the other dog, but his body language didn’t emanate fear either.
By the time we were walking home, Ezra was telling us how he would like to have his own dog; how he didn’t want to leave his new companion. I informed him that dad was making dinner and it was time to get home. My friend commented on how nice it was to have a husband who was cooking dinner. Yes. I realize I am incredibly lucky; I have kind and thoughtful friends, a son who is overcoming a fear and a husband who is not only a good cook, but a man I love.
I awoke Monday morning before the alarm went off with a strange sensation; energy. I had slept well three nights in a row, and was experiencing a clarity of mind I hadn’t even realized was missing. I was focused and productive at work, I understood almost all of the Dutch that was thrown my way, and I was pro-active when I got home. I finished customizing a flyer my friend Antara had designed for my book Green and headed downtown to drop it at ABC Bookstore in The Hague where multiple copies of my novel GREEN are now sitting on a shelf, waiting for their new owners to come fetch them.
When I stepped outside, my energy increased exponentially because the sun was shining! When you grow up in an area of eternal sunshine, you don’t miss the sun or even realize it’s impact on your mood. You take it for granted, get annoyed with it, even, for it’s unabashed persistence in warming up every day. I always wondered why I saw so many lobster-red German and Dutch tourists in my home state of California. Now I know why they’re not on board with the sunscreen concept; sunshine is a rare commodity in their daily lives. It’s like they think a good sunburn will make up for all those overcast days when the sun was just as intangible as world peace behind the cloud front.
For once, I was happy the tram wasn’t coming for 10 minutes. I leaned against the edge of the tram stop, my hands in my pockets, my face tilted upward toward the sunshine.
When I got on the tram, I sat next to two women with beautiful brown skin more fit for a sunny climate. They spoke in a fluid language that was at once familiar and foreign. I couldn’t help myself.
“Welke taal spreken jullie?” (Which language are you two speaking?) That one question launched a friendly, inspired dialogue that happens on occasion among strangers in a big city. They spoke Portuguese and had been in The Netherlands for over a decade. Although I’ve heard Portuguese, my exposure is limited to a few CDs of Brazilian artists. I soon learned they were from Angola, not Portugal or Brazil. Angola has a long colonial history with the Portuguese, and Portuguese is the country’s official language.
Before our short tram ride was over, the women were opening their purses and looking for something they wanted to give me. Ah. A pamphlet on the power of God. I took it with a smile and waved goodbye.
Rejuvenating sleep put me in the right space to be open to experiences. The sun gave me a physical jolt of warmth and this simple conversation with two Angolan women on the tram emphasized the importance of human interaction.
As I walked toward the ABC Bookstore to drop off my flyer, I noticed that people were smiling at me.
Why? I had a smile on my face, and I guess smiles can be contagious, especially if the sun is out and your energy is just that much more open from its warmth. The ABC Bookstore was closed, but the employees were busy conducting a store wide inventory. I slipped the flyers under the door, hoping the woman who I’d spoken with about the flyer was working that day. I placed a few more flyers in other locations and headed back to my neighborhood, thinking about the Angolan sun.
If you live in the Netherlands, you have probably opted out of reading this post; your ears are icy and red, that little toe in your right boot is going numb and your lungs are working over time processing the chilly air as you walk toward your bicycle or leave the office for the tram. Why would you also want to read about the cold?
Because there is another side to it that we forget; it pulls us into life, full force. It’s cozy here behind the computer as I type, but not 20 minutes ago, I was cycling across The Hague along a canal, the pallid sunlight making a feeble attempt to cast it’s warmth through the gray sky. As I pedaled, I watched the bike path with caution, looking for spots of ice. Finely dressed Europeans clothed in an asphalt spectrum of gray to black walked quickly down the paths, or cycled with determination through the cold. I was keenly aware that my pants were not thick enough, that my ears protested the lack of a wool beanie beneath my bicycle helmet.
I like to think that everything looks better under full sunlight: colors pop, angles are sharp, the geography is delineated. But there is a stoic romanticism to a European city beneath a gray sky, punctuated by the startling cold. You notice detail. You are aware of your body turning inward as you simultaneously breathe in the cityscape or landscape with alertness. But the only thing romantic about cold is the anticipation of warmth that will soon greet you at your indoor destination–in this case, my home.
As I unlocked the front door and entered our house, the warmth enveloped me. I immediately felt my spirits lift; any tinges of melancholy that were working their icy fingers around my thoughts were instantly banished, and I felt happy to be inside. The drastic contrast in temperature woke me up to the emotions associated with hot and cold.
On this note of emotions and temperature, I found the following article on fastcompany.com interesting. Here is an excerpt: www.fastcompany.com
In a fascinating study reported in the prestigious journal Science, psychologists uncovered a link between physical and interpersonal warmth. When people feel cold physically, they’re also more likely to perceive others as less generous and caring.
In a word, they view them as cold.
When we’re warm, on the other hand, we let our guard down and view ourselves as more similar to those around us. A forthcoming paper from researchers at UCLA even shows that brief exposure to warmer temperatures leads people to report higher job satisfaction.
Why the link between physical and mental warmth?
Psychologists argue it has to do with the way we’re built. The same area of the brain that lights up when we sense temperature–the insular cortex–is also active when we feel trust and empathy toward another person. When we experience warmth, we experience trust. And vice versa.
For now, I’m enjoying the cold because I am fortunate to have a roof over my head, heating that works and a wonderful husband to cuddle up with at night. But I’m also longing for my upbeat, friendly and loving California friends. Would they still have positive, warm and friendly personalities if they were living for extended periods of time in cold conditions? My gut tells me they would be the same, but climate does play a role in our friendliness.
When I woke up it was sunny. By the time I got breakfast on the table it was sprinkling and overcast. My son was apparently under the spell of the weather, transforming from happy and cooperative to feisty and unbearable within a 15 minute time frame. He exploded. I exploded. Words were exchanged. We muddled forward.
The walk to school was pensive and gray, filled with big, calmly presented questions designed for my son to analyze his outrageous behaviour. He tried a similar technique on me. I used my superior vocabulary, height and stature as parent to maintain the alpha order. He heard me. I listened to him, giving him room to express himself. Even though there were other people on the sidewalk, bike path, riding the tram or driving up the street, they were rendered background noise as we bobbed along in our own little bubble of recovery.
As we entered the school grounds, our bubble popped, and we were absorbed into a larger bubble–that churning chaos of child energy that crescendos moments before the bell rings. We pushed through the doors with the sea of children and parents around us. Even though the hallways in the school seem impossibly narrow and there is no order to speak of, we all worked our way through the maze, getting to the right classroom, hanging the jacket in the right section while little bodies maneuvered around us followed by their parents.
This press of bodies and jackets and lunch boxes and parents of all different colors and scents used to wear on me, making the morning drop-off seem like a major cultural undertaking. Now that sea of chaos has been tamed by familiarity; I have collected names to go with the faces and shared experiences with them–even if it is as simple as waiting for our children after school, or attending a school event. These daily acts have made some parents lose their exotic qualities. Others are not so easily tamed and remain illusive and foreign to me.
Walking home I became not a mother dropping off her naughty child, but a woman on her way to work. Each step took me further away from the 200 or so children filling the school of knowledge, wiggling in their seats, or passing notes to one another, and closer to the day of work ahead of me. I passed others in business attire on their way to their prospective positions in our shared society.
Once inside the church building, I was completely alone. The silence was both welcoming and startling. A few rays of sunlight shot through the floor-to-ceiling windows of the ground floor gathering hall before receding behind darkened clouds. I started the coffee, luxuriating in its powerful aroma. I walked through the building, checking that all was in order before unlocking the large wooden doors.
Shortly thereafter, students for the 9:30 course started wandering into the building. They slowly gathered around a table in the hall, chatting politely with one another. These are no ordinary students, but seniors between 70 and 80 daring enough to learn about the computer. Perhaps I’m imagining it, but these folks seem different from most senior citizens I meet. Maybe I’m making assumptions about their shared sense of adventure and a desire to learn, but it goes beyond assumption; they think differently about little things; I haven’t overheard a single complaint about the weather or ill-health; I have overheard people making jokes and talking about current issues. I wanted to figure out what the common thread was between these people-who-dare-to-learn so late in life and put it on a spool for my future.
Later, a friend dropped by with his toddler, who emitted another reality of energy into the church and my day. His laugh, his big eyes, the way buttons on machines, such as the dishwasher’s start button, intrigue him. I gave my friend the lowdown on the morning house explosion and he gave me some very wise parenting ideas.
I had a pause between clients and headed to the gym. The sun was out, but I kept my resolve to head indoors for a quick work out. I entered the modern gym. Music pumped through the overhead speakers. Fit people moved in rhythm to the beat. I changed into my work out clothes and before long I was powerwalking on the treadmill, my steps also in rhythm with the song blaring through the speakers: “I’m sexy and I know it.”
When I returned home from work, my husband and son were both in the living room.
“I’m sorry about this morning,” were the first words out of my son’s mouth when he saw me. I had given my husband the low down, and wondered who had been the first to bring up this morning’s emotional fireworks display. When little man tried out some tests (not coming to the table when asked, for example) to see if I was really the no-nonsense mom I seemed to have morphed into, I implemented tips given to me both by my friend who stopped by with his toddler, and my husband’s non violent communication tips. What does this translate to? No dessert as a consequence. Amazingly, the tips were effective, but met with a crying fit and lots of calming conversation.
Now as I sit in relative silence once again, the only sounds an occasional tram or the tapping of my fingers spilling my day into the computer, I realize that over the pond people are celebrating America’s Independence. Perhaps I should have claimed this day as a holiday on the grounds of being American. Oh well. It’s illegal to shoot off fireworks any other day but New Years over here. At least I got one fireworks show today, and a whole stream of multiple realities.