The 17 Year Anniversary

It is not a particularly round number nor is it a sacred number in any culture I’ve ever learned about in my travels, but this week begins my 17th year as a resident of the Netherlands. 16 years ago this month, I arrived with 50 kilos of luggage from Portugal with a simple idea, be a graduate student in this country that I knew very little about. I’d love to say I remember it as if it were yesterday, but you try remembering stuff from 16 years ago, especially in a city that is constantly renovating, repurposing, and changing things. The buildings might look the same, the people might even do many of the same things, but you can bet life has changed and I’ve been a witness to those changes.

Meanwhile my own life has gone through phases, the ups and downs that make up many a life. If you had asked me what my life would look like at the start of my 17th year way back when I first arrived, I would not have been able to answer. Incidentally, some things never change, I still can’t tell you what my life will look like in 17 years. Sometimes not knowing gets to me, but thankfully, most of the time, I’m thrilled to still not know what is around the corner. I mean other than old age.

This website started just before the big move, back in a little apartment in Lisbon, as I packed my things and said goodbye to a city I thought I could not be without. In the end it is this city, Amsterdam, which has been my constant over the course of almost two decades. At the time the idea was to let people read my observations, and in some form, that is what we still do here. After two years of writing,  I started doing it in audio form, not yet fully understanding what this odd hobby that myself and a few dozen people around the world were doing (podcasting) was going to become; a mass audience phenomenon. In between I kept writing. Kept taking the pictures and posting them. Even threw in some videos for fun. Sites like Facebook and twitter, for better or for worse, would all come along much later. Back in 2002 this was a personal space to share with you the public, and if you were there you know how special it was. It wasn’t just about moving your life to a new city and telling others about it, it was about sharing life experiences and discussing what was going on around us — be it in the place where we live or on the other side of the world. No issue too big and absolutely no issue too small.

The European Communication crew, ISHSS U of Amsterdam, Fall of 2002.

Of course, like Amsterdam, the internet has changed. Writing, recording, on the internet, has become so commonplace that it goes mostly unnoticed and will be buried behind other content within seconds. In some ways so too do some moments in this city. I watched today, in honour of this anniversary, as new students arrived at the U of Amsterdam, ready to do their study abroad or their first year as grad students. The conversations were so familiar, yet I felt invisible. I imagined school as a VHS tape, and these students’ arrival as someone taping over something. Over and over this happens with every new group. The tape doesn’t get grainy or lose quality for them, but perhaps it does for me… as many names, places, and moments, have faded over time.

Regardless, I’m still here, and life is still interesting. Just as it was back in late August 2002. Happy anniversary to me in Amsterdam, and happy anniversary to this crazy website. Long may we all carry on!

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Rotting American Image

During one of my very fun nights out on the town in Berlin my two new friends offerred to show me their favorite night spots. And as we walked town the now typical hipster street, we ran into a big crowd of people gathered around one guy who was struggling to be heard, telling some story like a tour guide.

“Oh this is so funny. Have you ever heard about these pub crawl just for Americans?”. my friend asked. Of course I had not. So she went on “Yeah they have this guide who brings alcohol in this backpack dispenser and everyone gets little shot glasses and it advertized for Americans to come get really drunk and maybe get laid.”

As I listened to these words I was already noticing all these details, looking at the obscenely loud crowd of college age kids in front of me. We walked around them like you walk by the scene of an accident. We joked about maybe trying to fit in and observe them up close. The joke didn’t last long and we got out of there in a hurry.

tacheles

Hours later we hopped into a tram to get to the next destination. It was a typical Berlin tram on a wednesday night, not too full, lots of people sitting and the odd conversation here and there. Suddenly, as the next stop approached, there came this overwhelming sound of people. As if a stadium had let out after a championship game, there was a crowd outside and it was chanting and singing and yelling. And as the doors opened, they packed into the tram with a resounding roar, banging on the walls and stumbling over people in their seats.

YOu could hear the accents, you could hear their words, it was very painfully obvious that the American pub crawl crowd had invaded the tram. When they weren’t shouting conversation to their friends, they were busy leaning over passengers.. repeatedly apologizing for being drunk and for George Bush. I’ll never forget the look in the middle aged German couples faces, the look of disgust and pity, as college kid after college kid apologized for George Bush or even.. being American.

After two never ending stops, they piled out. The silence was deafening. Those who remained on the tram, I’m not exaggerating, gave a collective sigh and everyone looked at each other with this knowing look. To me it said “my god that was horrible.”

These events replayed in my head all evening. The college kids, the pubcrawl, the local people on the tram, the unbelievably loud communication, and of course.. the repeated apologies for what their country has done.

Say what you want about George Bush or even Congress, but these encounters remind me that there is something deeper going on. It is hard to break down what it is all about, but I definitely look to how people are being educated in the US, especially in college. To me college is the new high school, except that now you pay big money for you kids to basically attend a glorified high school with fewer rules.

Then you come back to the whole American image abroad thing. It is in shambles. And It won’t be cured by this congress or a new president. It will take a revolution in American culture that looks highly unlikely any time soon.

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