Friday, July 21, 2017

5 Years and Counting

Almost 5 years ago, after a whirlwind month of travel and leaving Uganda, I boarded a plane to Delft, Netherlands with the plan to spend two years in the country (and my master thesis in Uganda) to get my master’s degree. As usually happens, plans usually don’t work out exactly how I envision and here I am officially a resident of this country for five years. Delft in many ways seemed like an odd choice to many of my friends. Universities in the US are good, and I’d complained for years about lack of sunshine and cold weather. Why would I move someplace notorious for rainy days? When my masters started drawing to a close my friends in Netherlands feared I would leave as planned and schemed to have me fall in love with a Dutch guy. While this plan has been wildly unsuccessful, I am still here ironically enough. The first lesson of my time in Holland is that sometimes you just have to go with the flow and seize opportunities as they come along even if they don’t seem to fit perfectly with the original plan. 

A few weeks ago, I returned from a long stay in Kenya for my field research and suddenly felt like a foreigner in this tiny flat country that I have called my place of residence for that last 5 years. Although I wasn’t exactly a willing returnee, coming back has highlighted what I love about this little place (and dislike). Given the current situation in the US, I can’t think of a better time NOT to be in my country of birth and I’m immensely grateful that I have health insurance, pension, solid holiday time, and at least in the two recent elections Europe has managed to hold back far right populism. 
While some people claim that the Netherlands gets four seasons. In my time here I have mostly only witnessed two seasons: two or three weeks of warmth and sunshine, and the rest of the year rain, wind and semi cold weather. When I stepped off the plane a few weeks ago I was greeted by long summer days, sunshine and friendly temperatures (which still left many people complaining it was too hot). I like to describe these days as days where you shouldn’t make any major life decisions since the nice weather has a strong effect on decision making abilities. When it’s hot and sunny I start having thoughts about settling in the Netherlands, making blond Dutch babies, happily riding my bike everywhere, drinking beers after work along the canals, and taking winter and summer holidays in the Alps. Thankfully for the people who DON’T want me to settle here, these thoughts are extremely short lived because within a few days the temperature dropped again and the rain returned. Weather aside there are some Dutch peculiarities that I’ve come to grow fond of (and dislike). Even when I get negative and depressed, this little country has given me some beautiful friendships that I don’t plan on ever losing, and some amazing educational opportunities. 

1. Biking. This is an obvious one. Within two days in Holland I had already missioned to a nearby city after using google translate to translate Dutch bike sale advertisements from the Dutch equivalent of craigslist, then followed my instinct and handy signs to get back to Delft. While I think Dutch people are probably the only people in the world who can hop on their bikes with their umbrellas and rain gear and happily cycle into the wind and rain with a grin on their face, it is delightful to have the ease of hopping on a bike in your own dedicated lane. I bike 40 minutes to work every morning (when it’s not raining) and the ride is enough that I feel like I at least got some exercise for the day but relaxing enough that I haven’t broken a sweat and just show up in my office with a dull hint of endorphins and a clear mind. I’ve now mastered the art of carrying people on the back of my bike, lugging suitcases and many grocery bags around. 

2. My professors. The biggest reason I stayed so long is that fact that I got connected with some wonderful professors who for once really appreciated me beyond GRE scores and GPA like in the US. They have put up with my not so subtle complaining about the Netherlands, are supportive, and have mostly let me go to East Africa as much as possible (although I think it still perplexes them why I want to do this).

3.Public transport. I forgot how much I took this for granted after coming back from Kenya. It is amazing to not have to sit in traffic for hours and to be able to do work on the train and effortlessly get wherever I need to go without stepping into a car. Holland is tiny so clearly developing a public transport infrastructure is a far easier task than in the US or most other countries. But I also appreciate how cars have no status symbol affect here. People have cars as a necessity and usually buy the most practical option available. Although I’m anxious to leave already, I am not taking the ease of transport for granted here. 

4. Proximity to travel. I realized the other day how easy it is for me to get anywhere really. Traveling within Europe is a breeze (even if I feel bad for exploiting cheap inter-European flights and destroying the environment). Within minimal time I’m in a new country with a new language, food and culture. But even travel outside of Europe is easy. Flights both to North America and Africa are relatively affordable and there’s almost no time difference between Europe and most African countries. More importantly I get 42 plus days of holiday which makes international travel easy.

5. Rotterdam. I already blogged a few years back about falling in love with Amsterdam. An event that ironically enough happened in the warm summer months (yes later the honeymoon phase quickly wore off). But now (although I’ve been gone for most of the time) I’ve officially been a resident of Rotterdam for approaching two years. Because Rotterdam was mostly destroyed during the second World War it does not have the charming crooked houses lining canal streets that Delft and Amsterdam have, but it does boast some unique design and architecture. Rotterdam is equally diverse to Amsterdam but feels more integrated. It also lacks the disturbingly annoying numbers of tourists that Amsterdam is flooded with nearly all times of year. Rotterdam also is full of things to do, hipsters, good coffee, beer and food, and I love its proximity to Delft where I work. 
I recently returned from Turkey for a wedding and when I passed through immigration the immigration official grinned at me upon seeing my resident’s permit and said “welcome home”. His words startled me and also made me realize that even though I’ve lived in this country for 5 years I really can’t call it home. When I’m out of the Netherlands and coming back I don’t say “I’m flying home” but rather “I’m going back to the Netherlands”. Given that I don’t consider where my parents live home either this question of going back home is a perplexing one. Holland inspite of its ease of life, and the length of time I’ve lived here (it will be almost the longest I’ve lived in one place when I finish this PhD) is not home. Perhaps this is due to three things I very much do not like about this little country: 

1.   Scheduling. While working with dependable and organized people is pleasant in a working setting I do not appreciate scheduling my social life weeks or months in advance. Receiving birthday invites months in advance panics me and I usually end up forgetting them. This scheduling habit also perpetually makes me feel like asking for favours would seriously inconvenience people and disrupt their perfectly arranged lives. I’ve managed to mostly avoid Dutch scheduling by having international friends and non-stereotypical Dutch friends but it can also make it easy to slip into the rut of being perpetually anti social. 

2. Weather. I don’t need to say much else here. No Holland does not have four seasons (although apparently the lack of seasons is also due to climate change now) and yes when it’s nice it’s lovely but that only happens about two weeks out of the year. I keep more or less the same wardrobe in my closet for the whole year with the occasional moments where I need extra thick coats and gloves or the very rare moment I bare my legs. 

     3. Lack of raw nature. Being in Kenya on the coast or just running in the forest park that became my go to place for long runs in Nairobi filled a hole that my life in Holland left. While there are beautiful cities and coastline in Holland too, it’s a small, densely populated and flat country. It’s difficult to be in a place that’s truly remote and it lacks the raw and rugged mountainous nature that I grew up with in the US and love about the African continent so much. Going back to California to see my family always reminds me of this gap and I think it’s a big reason I have a hard time imagining myself settling in the Netherlands. My childhood was filled with weekend spontaneous trips to lakes or rock climbing in the mountain in my backyard in Arizona. Family vacations were backpacking in remote places, or playing in natural pools in rocky formations and canyons. 
Five years is a long time and it’s been full of ups and downs and lots of wonderful stories and memories. Who knows where I will end up after this PhD is over (or if I’ll even stay in Holland for the remaining duration of the PhD). But certainly this tiny flat country will carry a special place in my life wherever I end up next. J

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