Note: It looks like I’ve properly alt-texted the header image, but let me know if the caption/alt-text description isn’t working for you. In that case, I’ll fix it as soon as possible.
Lately, I have been doing “summer things,” although it’s not exactly summer. I’ve been turning on my music or podcasts and sincerely enjoying my walks to nearby cafés, meeting with friends to talk and work together. Several days ago, a friend and I sat and people-(and dog-) watched in a park I had never before visited. Notably, that day, I was also the object of others’ people-watching: I was asked in Dutch* if I was a “boy or a girl” by a bench-sitting, middle-aged man, whose eyes took me in with a squinting suspicion. (I made no reply, instead staring for a moment in bewilderment at the multilingual cissexism I had just experienced and then continuing on my way). Yesterday, a day even better than that one because it was just a little cooler and breezier, I went with two friends to a children’s science museum in Amsterdam called the NEMO. I valiantly resisted the urge to buy a book (overpriced compared to what it would sell for at a bookstore) and a t-shirt (unnecessary and touristy) from the gift shop. Obligatory shoutout to Natalie and Nora for helping me resist my consumerist temptations and being proud of me for doing so.
We spent time on the museum’s rooftop (in the header image), which was covered in flowers which were organized by color and breed and sat in thick rows between stone indentations filled with running water. It was a busy day on the terrace, but (surprisingly) not a particularly loud one. Somehow I think all of the snaps of cameras and conversations and splashing and laughter of children in their bathing suits dispersed themselves into the breeze instead of occupying too much soundspace on the roof. Today I feel summer again: although the forecast predicted rain this afternoon, the weather is clear.
I’ve long associated summer weather with “home,” an association strongly influenced by what will be fifteen years of annual “summer vacations” from school. This feeling of “home” is accompanied by a particular collection of memories, including one of coming home from my last day of school to see the fan in the living room window, sitting in front of it, and being offered a plastic-tubed Italian Ice from the freezer. Arriving back to velvet’s apartment to open, breezy windows and a fresh, juicy pear or pair** of clementines feels an appropriate progression of that childhood memory.
At the moment, I feel homesick in the way that both longs for home and does not at all hate “here.”
At the moment, I feel homesick in the way that both longs for home and does not at all hate “here.” In fact, I like here –– the weather has been and continues to be beautiful; my free schedule allows me to read, write, and work on my research independently while also sleeping in and partaking in activities on my own terms. It’s great! But I find myself feeling similarly to the way I feel around this time when I’m at Mount Holyoke. I find myself calling my mother just to hear her voice, whereas in previous months, weeks would pass between our calls. I find myself dreaming about things I never thought I’d miss, like conversations with acquaintances I would rarely otherwise engage with.
I even miss the dewy walk to work I made on so many mornings last summer, past the series of uniformly ugly houses with plastic kids’ toys strewn around the front yard and above-ground pools in the back that neighbor my own. Past the largish patch of dirt and brown, dying grass on the corner, walled by wooden posts and plastic tape and marked by a sign as “private property, do not enter.” Across the street between the liquor store and the Taco Bell-KFC hybrid. I miss the very mainstays of my small-town, even “hick”-adjacent lifestyle that I am also so glad to have escaped. I miss the very people and things that I am also glad to have had distance from. I don’t think I’ve ever felt homesickness in such a positive, hopeful way before. The hopeful weather must be helping. To make yet another cheesy reference to my childhood, this is the weather I associate with running out and greeting at recess and promptly throwing off my coat, swinging for the first time of the year in only my t-shirt. This particular memory involves me wearing a specific polo shirt, with large color-blocks of alternating green and teal, with a small embroidered butterfly on the breast.
Some in my program, I think, feel discouraged and decidedly unfree because of the demands of their independent research or internship. I feel lucky and grateful that I don’t feel that way anymore, although the specter of a lengthy assignment due so soon overwhelmed me at first. This doubled as I acknowledged that this would be (and already is) the longest academic paper I’ve ever written (and also probably has the longest bibliography of anything I’ve ever written). Because of this, my first week of independent research time felt a bit like school in the depths of winter (particularly November; the completion of finals isn’t quite yet in sight and yet you’re feeling the weight of a semester’s exhaustion on your shoulders and you are simultaneously overworked and over-anticipating the inevitable assignment of more work) I spent time anxious and hunched over my laptop with tired, sore eyes and ears so very sick of hearing the same four recorded interviews I’m using in the project.
This is the style in which I approach work: I grind out hours early into a project as if the year is starting and there’s, I don’t know, just been a snowstorm and I’m shoveling myself out of the driveway at 6:00am***. I go in with my proverbial shovel (or laptop, in this case) and work relentlessly. My engagement in the work becomes a positive feedback loop –– I become addicted to the feeling of success, the delight and crack of energy I feel at having laid out an important point, the distinct pleasure of finding an author or journal so perfect for my bibliography, so I continue to engage and that feeling grows exponentially. I liken those to the months of frigid temperatures and numb extremities I experienced in February and some of March. I was so busy and excited and exhausted at once and all of this was reinforced by the unrelenting cold. Cold temperatures themselves have a sense of inherent activity to them: they make it so I need to be vigilant, moving, and conscious in order to survive. The warming temperatures of spring allow for a sort of passivity that winter does not. Although the weather as I began my research was not as cold as it was in February, it was significantly worse than it is now. And as it has warmed, I’ve found myself less and less “busy;” more concerned with the minutiae of my research than overwhelmed by the sheer amount of content I’m expected to turn in less than three weeks from now.
I feel just a bit like I’m on vacation at this point. It’s somewhat inconvenient to feel this way at the same time that others feel least able to to vacation-y things. But at the same time, my ability to enjoy my (not-exactly) “vacation” in a more solitary way is authentic to the experiences I’ve had almost every summer prior to this. In the morning I make coffee; maybe stay in my pajamas, maybe venture to the café. Read. Write. Work on my research and answer emails. Return. Eat at a leisurely pace. Visit with friends, sometimes; run errands; take a walk. Continue to revise and write my research paper. Come back in the cool evening and, after a hot shower, engage in some combination of fiction writing and personal reading. Read the news, hoping I can stomach whatever’s going on today. This was the way my days looked last summer, peppered with work shifts and outings. Producing this creative rhythm is as fun as actually engaging in it, making early-summer days some of the most…dare I say…lekker. When I get sick of this particular rhythm, I’ll be on a plane home. When I’m sick of my home-rhythm, I’ll have the fall semester to look forward to.
There are parts of knowing I’m leaving soon that are more bitter than sweet. I feel some frustration at myself for only recently exploring some beautiful study spots close to the apartment. I can’t help but laugh as I realize that it’s now, as I look toward leaving Amsterdam, that I can finally navigate the spaces within walking distance of the apartment and those within walking distance of SIT without Google Maps. The first time I walked from the apartment to the building where we took Dutch (different from the general SIT office building) using landmarks and common sense rather than my phone was one of our last days of Dutch class. Yesterday, when I had to take the tram to Central Station in order to get to the NEMO museum, it occurred to me that this was one of the first times –– if not the first time –– that I had used the tram without feeling intense anxiety. I think that the me that wrote about unfamiliarity several months ago would have taken the present shift as an indication that I was beginning to truly feel at home here, or something equally warm and fuzzy. I’m generally comfortable here and like the city. I’m glad to be here and even more glad to be familiar enough to enjoy it. But feeling the beginnings of summer here has led me to an observation: I can be familiar with a place, I can enjoy it, I can even make myself comfortable there, but it doesn’t need to be my home.
I’m generally comfortable here and like the city. I’m glad to be here and even more glad to be familiar enough to enjoy it. But feeling the beginnings of summer here has led me to an observation: I can be familiar with a place, I can enjoy it, I can even make myself comfortable there, but it doesn’t need to be my home.
I think I wrote previously on how I (ironically) tend to fall into the trap of thinking in binaries. I’ve learned recently that one binary I put faith in was that between Home (a comforting space I knew fairly well) and Not-Home (an uncomfortable space I do not know well). I was approaching Amsterdam like the guy on the bench who openly asked me my gender.
Are you Home or Not-Home, Amsterdam? Am I allowed to feel familiar, comfortable, and homesick at the same time? Amsterdam looks back at me with the silent bewilderment and disappointed humor with which I looked at that man. So, in this between-spring-and-summer weather, in this not-quite vacation period that feels quite like it, in this space of simultaneous homesickness and pleasure; of familiarity and distance…I sit. Troubling binaries, as per usual.
*I was pretty proud of myself to have understood this, given how bad I am at Dutch in general.
**The latest story I’ve been working on involves subtle wordplay, not the har-har punny kind I use to annoy/endear myself to others, but the kind that makes good quality poetry and prose fun to read, like a puzzle of words it’s satisfying to snap in place. It’s not like I’m good at this, but I do enjoy having fun with language without immaturely nudging-and-winking every time.
***To further expose myself as a weak, sensitive noodle of a(n aspiring) writer-academic, I’ll admit this: I’ve never actually shoveled a driveway.