I’m 11 days into my two month stay in Rotterdam and it feels like a lifetime. Laura, Bernadette, and I returned from our trans-European road trip on the 16th, but from then it was Amsterdam, Utrecht, and then back to Amsterdam before I got into Rotterdam for good last Monday. A week and a half later, and I still feel like I’m catching my breath! There is so much to reflect on, including all of the beautiful things I got to see on our road trip. But for now I’m thinking a lot about what brought me here and what I hope for my time in the Netherlands.
A Tinder match asked me if I was getting the inspiration I had hoped from Rotterdam. The answer is hell to the yes, every single second of the day! That is precisely the reason I came to this magical place. I have spent the majority of my adulthood working toward creating a more beautiful and just world through community organizing and political activism. It’s been an incredible journey! I have seen so many victories, friendships, projects, and events develop from the work I have done. But outside of small circles like my own, the American government continues to fail its people miserably in simply providing basic needs and a decent quality of life with any equality across its population. And in this same world, at the very same time, there is a country that is incredibly organized, efficient, and sustainable. The government largely provides for its people economically, socially, and culturally. The Netherlands is a living example of functioning Democratic Socialism, the type of world Bernie Sanders champions. My politics differ quite a bit from Bernie’s, but this is about as socialist as a country can get in this capitalist world, so I enjoy coming here to be viscerally reminded that the world I am fighting for is within reach.
I came here for the first time to do a WWOOFing stint on a vegetable and berry farm in Lelystad with my partner in 2010. The moment I stepped foot on an NS train, I fell in love with the Netherlands. We had such an amazing time with the Dutch family we became a part of at the farm. We learned so much from their clean and organized style of growing too. We visited Amsterdam and fell in love with the canals and the tiny row houses. We had our first experience on the Dutch bike paths in Groningen, and got invited to a family-style dinner with 4 old Dutch lesbians. It was a big deal for us because we were new gays and the two of us faced serious discrimination at home for our sexuality. It was painfully shocking but also wonderful to learn how normalized it was in the Netherlands.
Then in 2011, an exchange student from the Netherlands landed in an open room in my house in Gainesville, FL my last semester of undergrad. We became instant best friends and have kept in touch ever since. I came back to the Netherlands to visit Laura in April 2015, and then again in April 2017 and May 2018. WOW Air, an international budget airline, opened a hub in Pittsburgh in 2016 and has made our long-distance friendship so much easier! The first two times I visited, I got to know Utrecht, a super old and quaint university city, and also visited some other places like Amsterdam, Texel, and Den Haag. I loved it all, especially the highly functional transit system that is centered around bicycles and trains. With those two modes of transport you can get almost anywhere in this entire country. There is so much to love about the Netherlands: how dense and accessible the cities are by foot, how clean and organized it is, how community is designed into public space, the lively art and event scene, the delicious bread and cheese…
The last time I came to visit in May of this year, Laura had moved to Rotterdam so I came to visit her here, expecting to see just another cool Dutch city like the ones I had previously visited. Instead, my mind was blown. I have never been so inspired by a city in my whole life! Seeing Rotterdam was an absolute game changer for me. I have been visiting cities all over the US for years to see if any of them would move me more than Pittsburgh. I went to Nashville, Portland, Denver, LA, New York, Philly, Baltimore, DC, Seattle, Chicago, Burlington, and Detroit, and none of them did to me what Rotterdam did. In Pittsburgh and many other places in the US, there seem to be so many barriers to reaching your dreams. In Rotterdam, I felt like the world was full of possibility. I knew I had to come back to really soak in that feeling, so I spent the last few months setting my life up to materialize that reality.
Language learning has been a hobby of mine since I was 10 and living a stint in Europe has been a goal since age 16. I have studied many languages in my life and reached a highly proficient level in a few, but have lacked the opportunity to fully immerse, which I always believed was necessary to level up to fluency. I have been studying Dutch for fun on and off for about 3 years and have always hoped for the chance to immerse myself through a more extended stay in the Netherlands. So this is my moment to work on a very long-term goal! I’ve been getting some lessons from my friend Meghan, an American expat who taught Dutch in Indiana and now teaches high school English here. I also signed up for an intensive Dutch course at a language school that will last most of September. Very excited to challenge myself and see how much progress I can make toward this goal!
Most of all, I am excited to take a long, deep steep in the Dutch way of life and research in books and in the streets just how it got to be so good here! Almost all of the justice issues I have organized protests for, marched in the streets for, and led political meetings about in the last three years have already been achieved here. It’s quite shocking to be in a place that has everything you ever dreamed of for your society and more. The biking infrastructure alone is enough to make a Pittsburgh cyclist cry. I’m still getting used to drinking water from the tap. Almost every one of my peers here has a career-type job with excellent benefits and job protection. No one here could truly understand the level of poverty that exists just within a one mile radius of my home in Highland Park. In many ways, the Netherlands makes Pittsburgh look like the third world. This is not to suggest that problems don’t exist here — they do. The Netherlands has a complicated colonial history and has plenty of responsibility to take for its past and present. There is also a strong conservative current here represented by popular right-wing politician Geert Wilders whose politics reflect those of Trump in the US and Le Pen in France. Still, the quality of life of the average Dutch citizen is decades ahead of the average American.
So as an organizer and an activist, I stand in the center of Rotterdam in front of the most modern train station I’ve ever seen with my jaw on the pavement wondering, “Howwwww is all of this possible?! They are living in the 22nd century, while we fight for scraps in the US!” I believe in the power of the working class, and I believe the American people can act collectively to radically change the system. This has to be done by relearning how to organize the way our ancestors did for the last many hundred years to win the rights we do have. My years of research and experience in political activism and organizing have taught me that the only way positive progress has been made for working and oppressed people is by organized collective action. Our leaders will have us believe that over time, they have realized their wrongs, and they have offered us the chance to vote justice into being. This is false. Every victory in justice — be it racial, political, environmental — has an organized social movement behind it. This is true in histories from all over the world: Apartheid would never have been voted out without the decades of struggle the South African people led against their oppressors. India would never have gained independence if not for the radical countrywide actions and international support that finally threw off the British Empire. Haiti was a slave colony that revolted against France for its independence and has spent the last 200 years defending its sovereignty against every capitalist country in the world. Justice is fought for, not freely given.
These are big examples, but it travels all the way down to smaller victories. President Obama was opposed to gay marriage when he took office. He didn’t suddenly change his mind and grant gays and lesbians the right to marry. The LGBTQ community had been fighting since the 70s (with roots even earlier) to get to the tipping point that happened in 2015, near the very end of Obama’s two terms in office. Marriage equality is a huge victory, but it is only a small part of what the queer community has been fighting for since Stonewall. Today, transpeople lack basic rights in most states and face incredible violence and discrimination at work, at home, and in the system. So despite the defeat of DOMA and the victory of marriage equality, the fight must continue until rights are won for the entire queer community. This is how change is won.
If social progress really does happen as a result of collective action, that means the Netherlands must have an incredibly dense history of organizing. This is the history I hope to dig into during my time here! And maybe this will reveal why there is so much more inequality in my home country than there is here. So here I am in Rotterdam for my self-directed study abroad at 29: exploring a new way of life, soaking in inspiration, learning Dutch, working on my many life projects, and expanding my network and realm of possibilities. I hope to meet with folks who run community-based projects like the ones I’m involved in, visit lots of museums, get to know the queer scene, and see what goes on in my field here. The Dutch are known pioneers in sustainable agriculture and I’ve seen tons of evidence of it already…! Follow along if you please! I hope to be updating regularly on more shocking cultural differences and my musings on history, politics, and the world.