This week is Halloween, which is a lovely American tradition. Although I did go to the occasional Halloween party in the Netherlands over the past couple of years, I have never before experienced such enthusiasm and fervor in relation to this particular holiday. For the Dutch amongst us: the scale of this tradition is a little smaller but still of comparable size to Sinterklaas back home (when the time is here I will expand upon this very peculiar Dutch tradition).
Being here in the U.S., I threw myself into the Halloween celebrations. Last Wednesday, I bought an enormous and quite heavy pumpkin and went to a pumpkin carving party (yes they exist, just like presidential debate watch parties). Quite an aggressive enterprise, since you’re carving out an enormous piece of fruit that has quite a thick skin, with juices oozing out of it and a mess of seeds and threads everywhere. I could literally find pumpkin all over my upper body, with most of the stuffing ending up in my hair. But what are showers for if not to clean up? It was a lot of fun and I was quite satisfied with the result.
This was not the end of the Halloween experience. On Friday, my friends and I went shopping for a Halloween costume. In the end we settled for simple costumes, since we won’t be able to bring everything back home in December anyway. Nevertheless, I think we looked quite witchy and Halloween-appropriate.
The time of our costumes’ inauguration came on Saturday evening. We had booked tickets to the Crime and Punishment Museum here in D.C., which had been transformed into a haunted house for the occasion. This is where culture shock stepped in. I can honestly say that I do not understand what the fun is in being chased by people in masks with chain saws and genuinely frightening outfits. It took us about twenty minutes to do the haunted house tour, and by the end of it I was ready to have a drink. Of course we went for one, so I ordered my first ever cocktail in the United States (except it was a mocktail, since I am still under twenty-one). Anyway, it was relaxing to sit back and enjoy downtown DC for a bit by watching all the people walk by that were dressed up either really funny or really indecent.
Halloween weekend passed by so quickly – but the celebrations are not over yet. Perhaps this week we will go trick-or-treating at the embassies – one of the perks of living in D.C. In addition, there is a drag queen race being organized that we would like to go watch. However, I still have some midterms to study for, and more importantly, hurricane Sandy is quickly approaching D.C., so there is the chance that everything will get cancelled. My roommates and myself are now preparing for that by stocking up on food and bottled water – there is a fair chance the power and water supply will be shut down. Hopefully Sandy will be merciful and let the Halloween-celebrations proceed. I cast my spell and am hoping for the best. Witchy greetings to all folks out there!
We are halfway through the semester which means.... Midterms! No reason to get too excited though, because although my semester here has been a rollercoaster of new impressions, this means it has been extremely easy to find excuses not to read everything I was supposed to. And even though I read at least 500 pages a week, I am lagging behind in three out of the five courses I am taking at the moment. The question here: how to survive and do well on your midterms?
The biggest obstacle here is procrastination – a phenomenon I trust every student is familiar with. I have found some excellent occupations that keep me away from my books. I ride my bike through DC to explore a little of the city; my roommates and I get cupcakes for each other and watch a movie; I campaign for Obama; we visit the zoo; I join the International Affairs Society for a visit to an embassy, etcetera etcetera. What makes these things enjoyable and guilt-ridden at the same time, is the realization that I have so much else to do too. The consequence of procrastination is that it makes things less exhilarating and relaxing than they normally would be.
I do not wish to give the reader the false impression that I am not doing enough for university – it is a fact that most of the time I spent here in DC, was spent studying and reading for my courses. Nevertheless, excuses to are easy to find and adopt. One of my roommates has developed a strategy of her own. Her approach is to cram in as much as she possibly can in two days of study for one course. The result: excellent grades and a slightly insane-looking and stress-ridden roommate, who genuinely frightened me a little. Fortunately, once the exam was over, she was her normal content self again. However, this is not something that works for me, although I might give it a try some day – just spend the night in the library and only take breaks to go to the toilet now and then.
All this talk of procrastination and I haven’t even mentioned the best bit yet. I assume most people have heard of and watched the Gangnam Style song and music video. GW’s very own students made a hilarious video of our mascot (George) dancing to this song. This video provided me and my fellow students with a very welcome break more than once and I highly recommend watching it, not just for the very nice cameos of DC’s monuments and campus locations, but mostly for our unofficial mascot, the Hippo. Isn’t he just adorable? I can guarantee that it will make you laugh out loud.
This week I have two midterms coming up, so one would expect me to be studying hard all weekend. Quite the contrary: on Friday I visited the Pakistani embassy with GW’s International Affairs Society, and it was fascinating to see how very politically-charged questions were answered in a very diplomatic way. In addition, my roommates and I visited DC’s national ZOO on Saturday (one of the Smithsonian institutions). Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the giant pandas, but we did get to see the beauty of DC during fall.
The rest of this weekend is bound to be spent studying and writing essays – my bit of procrastination came with writing today’s entry. I am already looking forward to writing next week’s entry as part of my overall procrastination scheme.
Like I promised last week, this weekend I joined the College Democrats on a campaigning trip to Columbus, Ohio. Extended bus rides, gym floors, canvassing, middle class and beyond, a visit from Charlie Crist and Ted Strickland, and more made this weekend remarkable and unforgettable.
Leaving Friday afternoon, we departed on what was to be a very long and exhaustive bus ride. All in all, it took us 9 hours to get to Columbus. Due to the fact that I tend to compare situations here to situations back home, it is interesting to consider I would already have been in Germany, France, Belgium and Luxembourg when riding on a bus for that amount of time. Notwithstanding, the greatest surprise came when we arrived at the hostel where we were going to stay: it turned out we were literally sleeping on the floor of a gym. Not much fun (I only brought one blanket), and causing a very sore back on the way back home, but it was all worth it 100 percent.
That was it for the less appealing aspects of this trip; the real fun started on Saturday morning, kicked off by a huge sponsored breakfast in a very typical American diner. This all soothed the experiences of the night before and got us ready and fired up to start the actual campaigning. I was very afraid I was going to be out of my league, talking to undecided voters and it was quite hard to come up with a sound rationale as to why they should support Obama, because there is just too much to say on the subject. For that reason I settled for telling people why I support the President: his support for women’s and LGBT rights. In addition, the most important reason for me to support Obama is the difference that distinguishes Barack Obama from Mitt Romney: Barack Obama truly cares for all American citizens and this is reflected in his policies of the last four years. His opponent is clearly not, and willing to say anything to appeal to voters, even if the words he speaks are completely the opposite of the truth. This big difference affects every single policy stance and attitude of the candidates, which is why I think the choice this year is easier and clearer than ever. Nevertheless, people need persuasion and encouragement, which is what we were in Ohio for.
Canvassing, or going from door to door to talk to people, is scary in the beginning but becomes encouraging the more people one talks to. Fortunately, no one goes alone, because everyone is divided up into pairs and walks with a partner who you’re constantly close to, in case anything happens. I have been to three different neighborhoods in and around Ohio this weekend to canvass, and all had their specificities. There was one which was clearly blue and did not need any more persuasion; people were pro-Obama and proud to tell me about why they supported the President. It was truly moving to hear some stories about why they were so convinced of Obama. One woman showed me pictures of her entire family with a cardboard Obama, another started to tell me everything that was wrong with Romney and his attitude, and another told me about how important the equality of opportunity that Obama stands for is to her.
There was that, and there were the fanatic Romney supporters. These people were less fun to talk to, not because they did not support Obama, but because some of them were just very uncivilized and unpleasant to me. Some did not want to look me straight in the eyes, others opened the door and quickly shut it again, and some just didn’t open the door at all. Of course, I can see that it can be annoying when people are bothering you with political talks, but I do not see what is so hard about telling me calmly they are not interested - it is what I would do. Luckily, I have quite a thick skin and was not bothered by these talks at all, and they did not ruin my resolve to knock on people’s doors and reach out to the community.
Being in Ohio also showed me another side of the United States. DC is a very urbanized area, where people are used to quite a wealthy lifestyle, especially around campus. In contrast, some of the neighborhoods I canvassed in where clearly poor. Some friends visited places that were truly terrifying and shocking, with drug addicts and criminal practices. Some of the houses I saw were confiscated and shut down with huge locks on the front door: the people who used to live there are now homeless. These things are shocking and clearly show why the elections are so vital, because the policy choices that are being made to revitalize the economy influence people’s lives in a very real sense. It also reinforces and strengthens the realization that I need to keep in the back of my mind: I have been very privileged my entire life and am extremely lucky to be able to live up to the opportunities that come across my path.
The second night in the hostel was much better, which I ascribe to our mental preparation of where we were going to sleep, and probably more significantly, our complete exhaustion after the first day. On Sunday we undertook another canvassing session, after which we departed for Washington, DC, on another 9 hour-long bus ride. The commitment that all GW students made this weekend to go all the way to Ohio and try to convince people to vote for Obama was quite impressive, and this commitment was strengthened by a visit from former Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, and former Governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland. Former Governor of Florida, Charlie Crist, used to be a Republican but basically turned away from this party after he openly embraced President Obama after his inauguration - a very civilized and normal thing to do in his eyes, but not in the eyes of the GOP. These two men were inspiring and made my commitment a little stronger by telling us personally why they are supportive of the President in the upcoming elections. In addition the good care and all the food that was bestowed upon us by the campaigning staff made the weekend a lot more productive. The balance at the end of the campaigning weekend was very impressive: together the GW students knocked on more than 1000 doors and more than 800 people signed up to vote early. This was amazing to hear, and very satisfying.
The journey does not stop here: upcoming is the next presidential debate on Tuesday; on foreign policy no less, and there are 26 days left to election day. A lot can happen this month and hopefully I will be there to report back on some of these events. Until then: FOUR MORE YEARS! (not kidding, I don’t like slogans, but I had to put this one out there).
I am not an expert on American politics, nor on the current electoral environment that I find myself in, but precisely because I find myself in this situation I would like to dedicate some of my blogs to this topic. Although I am not an objective observer (as you will notice shortly), I think it is safe to claim that I am less partisan than most Americans.
The House representative from DC has no vote (besides on procedural matters and in committees) and there is no DC representation in the Senate whatsoever (because DC is not a state, technically). This explains the slogan “Taxation without Representation” on all DC license plates. Therefore, it is ironic that the residents of this district are nevertheless very interested in politics. In addition, DC happens to be the most liberal spot in the entire country, with almost 40% of the residents identifying themselves that way [Gallup Politics]. This fact distorts my reality a little bit, because I have not come to know any other city as well as this one. Visiting Richmond last week did alter my perspective somewhat, showing me that there is also a large, strong base of Republican voters in the United States.
Having said that, I did find myself sitting in the wrong section of the audience that came out to watch the presidential debate last Wednesday. Even though I have mainly met Democrats here, I found myself surrounded by Republicans, cheering on Romney and booing in response to Obama. I stayed put there the entire debate and it was fun to applaud for Obama now and then, just to see people turn around trying to stare me into silence. In general, the debate was fun to watch, although I must admit it got a little bit too detailed from time to time. I would have liked to hear about the most fundamental differences between the two candidates, but instead they (especially the President) engaged in discussions on details of each other’s policy proposals, both trying to appeal to voters in the center rather than their traditional left and right wing voter bases, which is not surprising, but it does not make for a great debate. In addition, I would have expected for Obama to pick up speed and go for the easy kill by bringing up Romney’s “47%” videotape that was leaked several weeks ago. I think this video is critical in illustrating the difference in approach between both candidates and where they are coming from: Romney, the white, older millionaire, and; Obama, the black, younger candidate, from a less wealthy background. Even though most people have probably already seen the video, I have included it for this sake – note the quote “And so my job is not to worry about these people” - Shocking!
Throughout the rest of October we will have two more presidential debates and this week we will have the delight of watching the two running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, try to outdo each other in the debate arena. The other two presidential debates hold a lot of promise now that we have not been given the pleasure of seeing Obama in full-fledged frontal attack yet. In addition to looking forward to these debates, next week I am joining the George Washington College Democrats on a campaigning trip to Ohio. I have absolutely no idea what to expect but I am looking forward to seeing another part of the country that is not outspokenly Democratic. Consider this blog an introduction to my next entry where I will report on this trip, which will hopefully turn out to be very exciting.
The story of how a weekend with a friend turns my conception of home upside down
The past weekend I left DC for the first time this semester, to visit a very good friend who is currently studying at the University of Richmond in Richmond, VA. It was so good to talk to my friend – we’ve known each other since we were twelve and it was such a relief not to think about the language and share each other’s experiences coming from a similar background. We had a lovely dinner in the Cheesecake Factory, attended an a cappella concert, walked around campus, partied a little and had nice brunches in the dining hall. Besides that, visiting a different university involved adapting to a change of scenery, a change of pace, and a change of people. Many changes, but was it very different from GW?
In some ways, yes. The campus of Richmond university is very rustic - it literally lies in the middle of a forest. There's a huge lake, with bridges connecting the different parts of campus to each other and very pretty residence halls and apartments, that reminded me of the campuses in Oxford and Cambridge. In addition, it has a very large dining hall, where everyone has breakfast, lunch and dinner, making every meal of the day a very social event, and a delicious one at the same time, with its provision of many different foods.
In other ways, this university was not that different from GW at all. College life seems quite similar. In those three days that I spent on campus, we attended several dorm parties, with the same kinds of beer pong games and the same degree of temporary insanity. Moreover, even though the campus is much prettier than GW's, students are, like GW students, spending their days inside -the library or their dorms - studying.
This weekend was a breath of fresh air (literally), but it also made me realize something I had not given real thought before, and something that I had not expected to occur so early in the semester. On my bus ride back to DC I was sleeping and looking forward to my own bed again. However, once the bus entered the city, with its Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial on the left, and all its majestic, marble buildings throughout the rest of the city center, a surge of happiness suddenly overcame me. And in that moment I realized: DC has already become the place I consider to be home. At the moment, the place I perceive as home is not Nieuwkoop, my home town, and nor is it Maastricht – it is DC. It was very uncanny for me to realize this, but at the same time it was an honest moment of happiness – feeling so close to a place I only lived in for a little less than two months.
DC as my home – I would never have believed had somebody told me this a few years ago, and realizing that I feel this way is definitely food for thought.
P.S. Answer to last week’s question on whether I hit the ball or missed? It seems kind of obvious looking at how far I am standing from where the ball was going to be thrown: alas, I missed.
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