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.


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  2. I think you have mostly spent time in the cities, but if you would go to the countryside you will find people visiting each other without planning ahead and a more easygoing life. It will be harder to find people to speak fluently English with though, so I don't know how well your Dutch has become..? ;) They often speak with a heavy accent too (I sometimes don't even understand what they are saying) but if you're up for the challenge: go for it!

  3. Yes but I am getting sick of how perfect things are in general. Not just the planning haha. I have spent some time in villages. I actually like Amsterdam the best because it has some dirt, diversity, and is a little less "perfect". I have enjoyed my time in the Netherlands but if I "stay" here for the PhD I will be spending as little time as possible here. No hard feelings. I have very fond memories here and I really really appreciate so much of Dutch culture.