I have not, as I had planned and promised to, yet started writing regularly about the Netherlands. This has put me in the difficult position of finding a time to start. When I've come back from trips, I've felt stuck between the immensity of what I've seen and how little time I have to write as I get my life back together for the coming week. Also, some of my best travel stories involve people peeing themselves or getting thrown up on, and this, as tempting as it is, is not where my story here should start. On the other hand, when I come home from class, I can't think of any particular thing of interest to talk about. and don't have the time to think of something. Anyway, I have now found my starting point. It is not fascinating or significant, but, thankfully, it's a start.
My student housing used to be filled with kids fresh out of Dutch juvenile hall. This is according to the forty-something Surinamese guy in our building's laundry room I had to defuse the awkwardness with after finding him moving my stuff from the washer to the the dryer. I asked him if it's weird for him being one of the few holdovers from before they turned this place into student housing, if living here annoys him. He said there were just regular studio apartments here for decades. Eventually, the city got a hold of most of the rooms in the building and moved in the junior parolees, who lived among all the remaining residents. That is, until the kids knocked out the security guard in the front of the building and broke all the lobby windows. Then they left, and the international students came in. So, no, says the Surinamese guy, we don't annoy him. Let this be a lesson to those annoyed by nearby college students the world over. Do not force us to earn your tolerance by having other people break your windows.
It's only starting to sink in now, a little over a week after getting here, that I'm living in the Netherlands for four more months. Hard as it is to believe, I'm here until December. If you all ask for Christmas is me, your only potential present will be jetlagged, mostly unpacked, and shocked that life has suddenly gotten a third cheaper and Mexican food is available without the need for extreme suspicion. I'm not quite used to the idea that I'm not just on vacation. For now though, on a day-to-day basis, I feel comfortable here.
To be fair, this country wouldn't rate a triple black-diamond difficulty for adjustment. When I first heard that most people speak English here, I had thought that meant the majority of the Dutch would have the same relationship with English that I have with Spanish: they would have some half-assed handle on things and understand me occasionally by thinking back to various middle school English video projects. I expected that this, in turn, would require me to awkwardly mispronounce sentences from a pocket phrasebook and gesture at stuff in order to meet basic survival needs. In fact, almost all the Dutch I've run into speak English surprisingly well, and many are fluent. It's to the point where almost all of them understand me when I'm talking at a normal pace, which doesn't even go for all Americans. And since Dutch, like our good friend English, is a Germanic language, you can figure out what a lot of written Dutch probably means by sounding it out and removing a few unnecessary "Js" and "Ks".
Culturally, there's not a lot of shock to deal with. For one thing, there are only token amounts of obesity and homelessness here. The token part is comforting to me, as it keeps me from being suspicious that all of them have been rounded up and placed at the bottoms of this country's many canals. Most notably, everybody here bikes when they're going around town. In all those ways, it's like the city of Davis on crack. There are bikes lanes everywhere, absolutely everywhere. Bikes are locked up everywhere on the street, often in massive clusters, and in between the two towers of my current dorm building, there's a massive fenced bicycle garage that holds hundreds of them stored row after row. Biking here is so commonplace, that between the city center of Utrecht and the college campus where I'm staying, the only people walking are us Americans.
"Us Americans" means the fifty-five of us, all UC students doing an introductory session on Dutch language and culture. We're staying in Utrecht, which is south of Amsterdam, thirty minutes by train. After the session ends on Friday, we go on to one of four different host universities. Coming into the country with this many Californians has certainly eased the transition as well. A week and half ago, we began our Dutch adventure as one massive pack of blatantly obvious foreigners walking back and forth between town and the dorms, creating quite the sight (as well as a serious biking obstacle) for the Dutch.
In those first few days, that pack shifted and shuffled within itself, as everybody met everybody, exchanging the basic identifying information of "Where are you from? Where do you go? Where are you going?". Gradually, our inwardly-faced, wholeheartedly un-Dutch pack began to split, sometimes on lines of home schools or host schools, housing assignment, Greek affiliation or major, sociability or personality, amount of beer drunk or weed smoked, happenstance proximity, but usually a combination of them all. Like a cell dividing, we began traveling to class, bars, Amsterdam in smaller and smaller groups, more homogeneous and compatible, but most importantly, more functional.
This social phenomenon has served more purpose than just reminding me of summer camps, freshman year of high school, or my first-year dorm. The splitting off and group formation are allowing us to blend in. Some have noticed the check-out clerks at Albert Heijn, one of the local supermarkets, have stopped immediately speaking English to us now that they don't see a mass of fifteen confused looking students ambling around the store. A few clerks have started carrying on conversations in Dutch, leading us to nod and reply "Ja" when appropriate to continue passing as natives, or at least some indeterminate Western ethnicity (for us whities, at least). Now that we aren't an impenetrable mass of sheer numbers, it's easier for the Dutch to talk to us at bars. We have succeeded in becoming comfortable with ourselves, and now we can turn outward. The transition has begun.
Yesterday, on a trip to Rotterdam that I will tell you more about later, a group of us went to the Nederlands Fotomuseum (which, obviously, translates to 'Netherlands Crack Cocaine and Rocket Launchers Museum'. I told you, easy, right?) The featured exhibit, So Blue So Blue, was a collection of 60 photos taken all in various countries bordering the Mediterranean sea. The photographer Ad Van Denderen, whose name might as well be proof of Dutch citizenship, focused on social and political issues, many of them related to tourism. Included in the exhibit was this picture, taken in Kemer, Turkey:
The caption: "Orange County resort is a replica of Amsterdam. In front of the entrance stands the Dutch National War Monument. It attracts mainly Dutch and Russian tourists. At 8 o'clock every morning, a cock crows from the loudspeakers and the day's program begins."
This picture reminds me of the beginning of my time here. Having left California thousands of miles behind, I arrived in a new place to hang out with 54 other Californians, just like the Dutch vacation in Turkey in a replica of their own capital city with fellow Dutch. Yet while the photo fills me with serious doubts about parts of human nature, my beginning here gives me some faith in our workings. We all arrived here in our own Orange County resort, in a partial replica of our homeland, at least in that we are in a dorm surrounded by our own. But we are not staying. In a lot of ways, we've all begun venturing out from our packs, traveling in fewer and fewer numbers, and, with a little help from our friends, really entering the Netherlands. There are even a few here, those staying in Utrecht after Friday who don't have the burden of moving again, who have really crossed over. They have bikes.
Today's headlines according to e-mail headers in my spam folder:
(I am not making any of these up)
Girl, 13, wins world chess championship The Mummy 3 movie bankrupt, release delayed Steve Jobs found with dirty money Russia launches nuclear plant X-rays cause cancer, new medical research Norton Firm admits to releasing viruses Plane crash in JFK, hundreds feared dead Elton John dies in rocket ship
These headlines brought to you by United Unsolicited Penis Advertisements, who today offered to help me "Make love like a barbarian".
I'm going to obsess less about continuity and structure in my blog, oh yeah; and grammar;;;* because otherwise all my attempts to ritualize/routine-ify my writing will predominantly consist of me having a conversation with myself and Microsoft Word. And ever since I figured out how to turn the paper clip, that conversation has become far less annoying but pretty isolated. It's not really fun for either me or Word, who doesn't talk much but occasionally makes colored squiggle lines under things. I've never really kept a journal to myself, perhaps because my life isn't really that interesting.
Maybe that's not the best way to put that. I find my life plenty interesting. I don't think I've been bored in years, other than waiting room type situations, but I've become much better about keeping a book with me lately and paying attention to my surroundings when I don't. I generally have something to keep me entertained. To me, sitting at the doctor's office and reading a good article in Time has helped keep the boredom at bay even in situations where the all-entertaining Internet isn't around. This is the plight of the second America that John Edwards talks so much about: people who don't have iPhones.
So, yeah, I make do while standing in line at the store by watching the person in front of me standing around zoning out and failing to swipe their credit card at the appropriate time (immediately after presenting appropriate club card, because you have nothing else to do while making small talk. Stop just standing there. I want to go home and eat my five-layer dip). It's fun for me, but not the kind of thing I want to come home and write about to myself. I'm sure all the banal details would be of great interest to me if I looked back on them in a couple decades, although after recently finding about two years of IM conversations I logged, I have some understanding of the incredible cringe response that befalls the thought of finding a massive part of an old self intact. But regardless of the benefit of the future, I don't get much out of cataloging the banal details of my life to myself.
I am not forced to give myself too many spoiler alerts when writing to myself. It's all out there. Or in here, or whatever. I feel the same way when I try to record my non-sexual dreams that don't involve anything worth telling a friend. Yes, if I don't write them down I will forget them almost immediately, and I'm sure recording a lot of dreams would have many benefits (My usual scraps of dream memory make me think there's at least a few locations that don't exist in the world that have occurred in a few different dreams. Also, I think I'm have recurring dreams where I sleep with Jessicas Alba and Simpson. Actually only the first thing is true, but I felt like I owed you something juicy for the non-compelling dream fact.) The only time I think I've even written in diary format, I was in second grade. This diary consisted of two half-ironic one-page entries with the salutation "Dear Legal Pad Jr." which contained violent references to my brother and concerned my parents.
But I digress (which is also appearing like it might become a less creative but more appropriate name for this blog at the moment.) Actually, while I'm digressing, here's an amazing quote from Scrubs, which works so well rerunning all the time now.
"My mom had a uterus. I lived in it." -J.D., in response to Elliot's glowing uterus, in an imagined cut-away.
I would never have the motivation to provide myself a funny quote that I already knew while writing to myself. And Word wouldn't be amused, and would passively aggressively noted something as a fragment, and with equal condescendion would tell me to "consider revising". bring my discursive ranting to you, the Internet. Because, Internet, you know I have a deep-seeded need for attention from you, and I think we've both known my Facebook profile wasn't going to do the job in the long term. So, Internet, despite the fact that you now have dramatic prairie dogs and the Colbert Report in HD, everybody knows you're still an insatiable beast who will fit my loosely-organized ramblings along with your Chocolate Rain. You've gotten around and improved since I was an angry 8th grader, Internet, but you still have way too much time on your hands. Look at how much you still go running back to Myspace. If you have to fall back on that hideous, unkempt thing just because everyone else is doing it, then I'm not going to sit in Word most of the time and try to save my best for you. I may not get you the "random play" you appear to be after, but at least I don't play "Milkshake" randomly when you're at work and your speakers are for some reason at full volume.
And may this please, Internet, be the last time I write about the degree to which I write on you for awhile, because I'm sick of coming back to do that. I don't need to explain myself to you. You've watched the laughing baby 53 million times.
BUT I DIGRESS
*The triple semi-colon is actually taught to all English majors** who complete the British literature series and associated prerequisites, and strictly restricted for use in professor-student e-mails about thesis statements. Proper use is only known to students through three example sentences, and improper use is punished by death by Norton anthology.
**I am only an English minor, but know all of Colin Jones's passwords*** and am not afraid to use them.
***His Gmail password is cl3veland:)5teamer, which I found to be disturbing but impressively hacker-secure if Colin Jone's didn't write down his passwords on the back of his and Brian's glamour photos.
I would like to confront my chewing gum. Allow me to explain.
I bought a pack of the new Maui Melon Mint sometime last week at some checkout stand or another. I try new Orbit flavors every once and awhile. In general, Orbit is decent enough, a level of quality no gum will likely ever aspire beyond for me, except for Big League Chew and select other enamel-ravaging, novelty-packaged goodness that advertised between Ninja Turtles episodes when I was seven. Even the days of six-feet of delicious grape gum are largely beyond me, though. My body has lost most of it's tolerance to sudden surges of sugar, and the concept of "too sweet" at some point came to inhabit my personal existence.
So I go with sugar-free these days, and Orbit gum is decent enough. Also, the constant variety of new flavors keeps a certain novelty in place, not to mention providing all kinds of good questions. For example, how many people spend their entire workday trying to think of new kinds of gum? Is there some brash new employee making up crazy, reckless flavors by their own rules, and an old veteran a hair away from retirement who thinks up gum by the book and chewed Wrigley's classic while he fighting alongside patriots in the trenches of Korea? Do these two have a contentious but rock-solid bond, solidified by the common challenge of breaking new ground in chewing enjoyment? Did the Korean War even have trenches, or did I just make that up?
I enjoy pondering these mysteries while trying new Orbit varieties and commenting on them internally as if I have been hired by Gum Aficionado. (Raspberry Mint, Midwestern sugarless, 2007. Inconsistent, Dimetapp-like beginning eases into pleasant and fruity impression, mild finish: 78/100). It's generally an experience worth the 89-cent per pack price, and unlike many other cheap, checkout lane impulse buys, Orbit gum does not immediately make me feel bad about America or the human condition. Orbit gum does not inexplicably promise me five hours of energy despite just basically containing an extreme overdose of vitamin B. Orbit gum also does not attempt to tell me how much cocaine Lindsey Lohan might be doing or that Angelina Jolie now has fifteen children. Orbit gum does not offer extensive summaries on what happened on General Hospital this week. Orbit gum knows I do not care.
Yet, despite this very comfortable arrangement, I couldn't help but feel slightly jilted when I picked the latest new pack, it's newness colorfully advertised in the top right corner:
Flavor escape? Hold on.
First of all, I have no idea who could possibly be achieving any appreciable degree of escape through a two-gram serving of processed, artificially flavored gum base, chemically altered as it is. I do not understand what possible level of life boredom could cause me to want to get away from it all with a just-brushed clean feeling. Perhaps I'm just not getting it, and once the world truly understands the ascendant qualities of melon-mint fusion, we won't need Scotch, Xanax or Flavor of Love to tune out anymore. Maybe we will instead get together on Thursday to play Chubby Bunny with Bubblicious and responsibly discourage our friends from operating heavy machinery after three or four pieces. Our RAs will warn to mix gums responsibly with the helpful rhyme: "Sugarfree before sugars, wake up feeling like boogers". And maybe we will sit down with one of our childhood friends and show them the pile of empty Extra packs we found while trying to find their cable remote, and tell them we think they have a gum problem, but that we'll be there to help.
Yes, I'm kidding. I don't think anyone is going to walk into a hotel room anytime soon to find Kid Rock dead from sorbital overdose. It is not the danger of flavor escape that truly disturbs me. I am disturbed because we already have countless sources of escape, retreat, and avoidance at our disposal. Yet we drink, or take pills, or gorge ourselves on food, and end up zoned out in front of the TV or Youtube. We achieve escape. Then, we wake up. It is a new day, and we are hung over, annoyed, exhausted, and craving a bacon-muffin-egg-ham-sausage-croissant breakfast sandwich, and we just want to escape again. And apparently we can tide ourselves through the day with Maui Melon Mint. We have escaped, yet we wake up still living the same lives we were the day before. I do not understand why we still believe escape is a real solution.
Of course, there are plenty of serious problems I'd rather not wake up to everyday. Despite the former major causes of human death being demolished into largely either curable or preventable conditions in the industrialized world, I wake up everyday in a country facing massive amounts of chronic illness like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer in large part due to basic, modifiable lifestyle choices. I wake up everyday in a city where I can expect to find traffic on the freeway, mostly caused by preventable crashes due to speeding, reckless driving, and a failure to pay attention. I wake up in a world where a significant proportion of people who die in those accidents will do so out of a failure to take two seconds to buckle the seat belt that came standard in their car. I go to work at my public tutoring center, and talk to kids who have a tough time believing they can accomplish anything because their parents don't involve themselves and their teachers demonstrate that education is about poorly explaining the worksheets copied from a textbook, taking tests, and assigning grades. I understand the desire to escape.
I also understand these problems are themselves caused because we are constantly retreating and avoiding our own lives. In trying to escape our problems, with or without the assistance of new gum taste sensations, we start paying less attention to everything around us. We zone out driving home from work, and don't notice that we're following too close to the car in front of us. We too tired to cook, and so we drop through a drive-thru on the way home, and order whatever we feel like because we're not thinking about it that much. And we have kids, because that's just how it worked out, but we're tired so we watch TV instead of talking to them or making sure they have a book to read. We get away for awhile, and then we wake up with the same problems, day after day, week after week.
Escape has been attempted. It does not work. And if it didn't work with American Idol, cocaine, or the delicious food offered at Wendy's, it will not work with ten to fifteen minutes of chewing gum enjoyment.
I do not want a flavor escape. I want flavor confrontation, flavor approach, flavor attack. As a culture, we should not aspire to develop gum to help us get away . We should aspire to have gum that gets the taste of bland, healthy, baconless food out of our mouths. We should aspire to confront the problems we want to run away from, and accept that which is inescapable. We should aspire to show up fully to our own lives.
I abuse the pronoun "we" intentionally, if inelegantly. Tuning out our own lives is not a "them" problem, it is an "us" problem. It is a problem that does not disappear with money, a college degree, or our ability to compare ourselves to others who we think act more stupidly or foolishly than ourselves. We cannot avoid the need to pay attention, we can only confront that need. We have no reason not to. I can see no reason why we should run away from the ability to have power over own our thoughts and lives.
So with three simple words, Orbit gum has somehow led to believe that even it, in its innocuous bright pink and green package, represents in some small one of the greatest threats facing human health and happiness: mindlessness. Perhaps I'm wrong. Maybe these are just three arbitrary words, with no greater intended purpose than to stand out in the checkout aisle more than Peanut Butter Twix. I don't think so, though. Advertising isn't a game won by random messages. I cannot help but believe that out there, somewhere, is the record of a meeting where those three words won out among all other possibilities. Whatever the truth is, this package of Orbit has already led me to ponder far less pleasant questions than whether anyone has ever been fired for unpopular gum flavor ideas. Maybe these are questions that need to be asked. On the bright side though, Maui Melon actually lands among the best flavors so far. So I try and accept it for the cheap gum it is and ignore the suggested usage. It is not a perfect arrangement, but it is decent enough.
Long story short, I was figuring out my remaining required class. I’d overestimated the pace I need to graduate in four years. I had eight classes required still and four quarters left. People who don’t have intensive jobs, activities, or the masochism required to pursue an engineering degree are usually fine with four classes a quarter. So I decided to embrace this freedom and take a comfortable load of three classes. And I decided just to take whatever I wanted for my third class, for the hell of it.
As I cruised the registrar website, I recalled a class occasionally heard of in hushed but overjoyed tones around campus. A class that recalled all the fun, laid-back general education classes that are synonymous with freshman year, although less than the constant fear that someone would do something gross in the one toilet that for some reason is currently receiving basic respect. A class more epic than any other: Dinosaurs and Their Relatives. A class with a lab scheduled for two hours that actually takes 55 minutes and a five page front-to-back worksheet you fill out with a group and check your answers with the TA. The only reason my electrical engineering major roommate has not come back from a three-hour lab and killed me over this? He took Dinosaurs too. Lucky break for me.
So not only in this class like a college-level version of an educational summer program one might get sent off to for a week, but apparently everything my Zoobook and Jurassic Park (Now A Major Motion Picture!) say is totally outdated. So I’m going in to get the facts, and I’ll report back once we get past talking about horse fossils for some vague comparative reason that will hopefully be clearer to me once my lecture slides are filled with some rad-ass, take no prisoners dinosaurs who eat the guy who plays Newman from Seinfeld because that’s what dinosaurs do and, let's face it, he had it coming.
In the mean time, I’ll keep you posted on the stress levels of my roommates and friends who are actually doing work, demonstrate the degree to which I’m willing to be a terrible influence on all of them, and also keep a record of how my quarter goal to watch more Netflix movies pans out.
I’m keeping records. I leave you with my log from Sunday:
Number of Extenze commercials seen: 2 Cadbury Cream Eggs consumed: 2 Reading done: Animal Farm, 4 pages (Not assigned) Percentage of current textbooks not yet opened: 100% Deep insights about Comedy Central programming: 1 First beer opened – 3:44 AM