Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Perfect Imperfections

I grew up used to being late to things, impromptu unplanned outings and vacations, long road trips in a full size van stuffed with entertainment for my hyperactive brother(s) (ie toothpicks, aluminium foil, glue, paper), living in a house full of noise and mess and chaos. When I grew older I became determined to reclaim my German roots and create some semblance of order in my life. This meant an obsession with being on time, writing things in my agenda, calculations, plans and excel spreadsheets for my budget and life decisions (however, I still couldn’t bother to keep much semblance of order in my personal space…). Given these compulsions it would seem unlikely that after my first visit to the African continent I would fall deeply in love with the red dirt, unorganized rhythm, sense of time, chaotic transport, and lack of plans. I stubbornly told my mother as a young child that I would not go to a developing country (horribly embarrassing to admit now) and just wanted to live in Germany. My stubbornness extended to wanting to learn German instead of the more practical language Spanish that I started with. Oops. Well go to Germany I did and now it’s northern and perhaps equally organized neighbour (I will stop with comparisons there…). I do love both Germany and Holland!

I guess there are some aspects of childhood no matter how hard you try to reject them that just stick. Now I appreciate my family’s flexibility when it comes to trying new things, random and sudden adventures that are organized in the spur of the moment rather than months in advance, willingness to impulsively plan surprise parties for dear friends, and give of time and resources without the need to meticulously arrange every detail far in advance. Maybe it’s the fact that I was nearly born in Zimbabwe or my family’s still close ties to the continent but at nearly 27, I can’t seem to get “Africa” out of my blood. 

I’ve lived in the same country (officially) for 2.5 years. This is a new record for me. And not long ago I started thinking that maybe I could call this place “home”. For two years I was theoretically fixed (but that didn’t stop me from leaving the country as often as possible) to being in the Netherlands but it’s rather shocking that I have lasted as long as I have in this country. It is a well-documented fact that I hate being cold. Like really hate it. Sure, I can tolerate the cold. I spent the majority of my life in the Midwest which has a climate of temperature extremes, no mountains and long months of cold and grey. So in some sense the Netherlands has a significantly milder climate. But more important than the miserable weather, I’ve begun to the hate the aspects of the Netherlands that I first fell in love with. 

I moved to the Netherlands after 5 months in Uganda, which even by African standards is not exactly known for its organization. The first few days of orientation at Delft were a bit of a shock to me. I recall examining the carefully planned program that was split in 20 minute blocks. I scoffed at this level of detail, “how on earth would they stay on schedule?” But miraculously the schedule was followed perfectly. I received invites to parties months in advanced and began feeling stressed at the thought that I should be planning my social life that far in advance. Quickly I learned that if I wanted Dutch friends to show up to my events I had to also plan months in advance. Now many aspects of this organization were extremely appealing. Meetings start on time, people complete tasks on time, train delays (although often frequent) are unacceptable and cause often excessive amounts of stress—everything is highly functional. Education is affordable and mostly accessible to all, healthcare is mandatory and although the Dutch complain about rising costs due to the privatization of insurance it’s still extremely affordable when compared to the US, transport is reliable and easy to use, there is a highly developed network of cycling paths, I can find all the food I want in the supermarket, people speak a high level of English… Essentially it’s “perfect”. But sometimes this perfection is maddening. (sorry Dutchies, I really do love your little country). 

Sometimes I just feel like hanging out and calling friends the day of and going somewhere. Sometimes when I see the immaculate gardens where I picture a kind old Dutch man or women carefully trimming every leaf, I want to get shears and make it a little less perfect. Sometimes when people complain how someone is 5 minutes late, I want to shake them. Sometimes, although I dearly love my agenda, I want to rip up my agenda and others and tell people just to go with the flow. Sometimes I just want people to understand how someone might think or believe differently than them. Ultimately, because everything is so functional and organized I feel like I’m stuck in a perfect bubble with no room to make an impact or really enjoy life. 

So here it goes: I have loved my time in the Netherlands. And I appreciate the organization. But, unless something drastic happens (never say never) I think I will lose my mind in the greyness and perfection if I choose to call this place “home”(but I will still probably be living here for some time). Apparently, the chaos of my childhood is too deeply engrained in me for me to survive in a perfectly functioning society.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

2014: Learning to be vulnerable

I’ve always liked to think there are few things that intimidate or frighten me. Hopping on a plane to an unknown place to stay with strangers in a country where I don’t speak the language generally makes me excited. Navigating public transport and haggling to make sure I get the local price is an adventure. And trying new foods that I don’t know the name of or are still moving when I eat them is a hobby. I’ve never paid much attention to security warnings and tend to trust my intuition rather than what I read from the news or US travel warnings. So perhaps on this measure I might be a brave person. But 2014 (because this post is a very belated new years post) brought lots of scary and intimidating changes and adventures and I often felt more unsure of myself than ever before.  2014 landed me on my favourite continent unexpectedly a record three times; trips that eased some of my restlessness and discontent with living in the Netherlands but also brought about the realization that I really cannot live long term in this tiny flat country I’ve called home for the past 2.5 years (crazy long!).  

Although being in new environments, traveling, and trying new things generally is quite comfortable for me, and regardless of how stressed or unsure I am, putting on a smile and plunging ahead with whatever I am focused on is easy. But leaning in, being vulnerable and admitting that maybe I’m just a bit anxious about things or can’t quite do it all, is difficult and scary. Investing in a community, staying put, and being “comfortable” or maybe even following the status quo is utterly frightening.  And this is the biggest lesson 2014 brought. 

The start of 2014 was quite typical for Rachel, overwhelmingly busy organizing contacts, conducting literature review  for my thesis and finishing up the final courses for my master’s degree. I had no time to think about where I was heading or what I was doing. Between courses, moving out, traveling to Cameroon, then starting my thesis, traveling to Uganda, moving in, months of data entry, an unexpected trip to Rwanda, failed job applications and interviews , the first half of 2014 was perpetual motion without a chance to catch my breath. But by September with a degree in hand, only a part time job offer, no certainty about my future and the deep let down that comes from months (years) of non-stop stress and action, I felt a bit lost. For years my life was filled with productivity and my ability to fill up every spare moment so that I could fit it all in, and suddenly I had much needed time on my hands but nothing to fill it up with. I wish I could say that I used this time productively: to learn French, read, learn new things, fill out loads of applications, train for something. But somehow the months flew by and I am only left with the feeling that I accomplished nothing. 

Currently I’m at a crossroads where I have to make some big, big decisions about where I will be over the next coming YEARS, but in spite of everything,  2014 taught me to occasionally lower my smile when I really wasn’t feeling it, let people care, and instead of constantly giving, let people give to me. Being vulnerable is a risk. For me it’s usually easier to shut down, close people off, and continue with my perpetual motion. But sometimes, opening up and taking the risk of letting people in is worth it and leaves you more full than simply filling up life with outside things.
I wish I had a clear picture of 2015, I wish I had clear plans and knew the direction I’m heading. I wish I knew that the direction I’m heading will help make an impact on the world. I wish that I was starting new, being in a new place with new people and a new culture. I wish I felt the stubborn determination and certainty that usually characterizes my personality and my decisions. My instinct is to run, start with a clean slate in a new place. Maybe that is what 2015 will bring, but right now I just don’t know. So instead I’m attempting to lean in, be present, and maybe be a little vulnerable from time to time.