The current state of mind in my apartment is one of sadness and depression – my roommates and I are saying goodbye this week, as are all the other international students that are only here for one semester. The first of us four has left Monday morning, and my own departure is looming on the near horizon too – next Sunday to be exact.
So we say goodbye, we cry a little, we cry a little more, and we thank each other for having been the most important people in our lives for about half a year. We’ve had fights, tensions that ran high, laughter, break-downs, stress, parties and all-nighters, shared food, stories, emotions and worries. In the end, what it came down to, is that we were each other’s family, getting to know each other in ways you normally don’t get to know other people.
It is with this that we say goodbye, thankful for the amazing semester and experiences. And it is not over yet. I still have an entire month ahead of me here in the USA – I am actually seeing quite some people I said goodbye to again – my journey shall take me from DC to NYC over Christmas, to New Orleans for New Year’s, to San Francisco, to Los Angeles, to Las Vegas, to the Grand Canyon, to Chicago, back to DC. I hope I will survive the crazy travel plans my friend and I made – and if I do, you will hear from me last more time in January.
The midterms had only just disappeared from our minds, when the finals presented themselves. That’s right – this week is super busy and it is hard to set my priorities straight – do I deny the fact that I have to study in order to enjoy the last two weeks of this semester to the fullest? Or do I try and cram in studying in between parties, dinners, ice skating events, and planning my post-semester travel itinerary?
I see no other option but to do the latter, meaning that I should not expect very high results on my finals – but right now I cannot make myself care too much. I already care too much for other things: for my family and friends who I am going to see in a little more than a month; my friends here, who have truly become my family here in D.C., and for GW and D.C. themselves. I am experiencing a whirlwind of emotions at the moment and don’t recognize myself. This derives entirely from the fact that I long to go home, while also abhorring the fact that I will have to leave my life here behind in its entirety – a cruel dilemma. This is just a warning to future exchange students: be prepared to say goodbye. Many times.
This attitude is not the attitude I want to leave this place behind with. It is not the way I want to deal with things. Therefore, I have set myself up to count my blessings. And there are many of them. I have integrated into American college life and feel at home in the capital of the United States. I have studied at an American university (finding out that the academics are the same, if not easier, than in Maastricht). I have seen more of this beautiful country and campaigned for the current President. I was there when the President was chosen for another four years. I have met the most amazing people, who continue to make my stay here unforgettable and invaluable.
I do not want to make this entry into a goodbye entry just yet. I have another two weeks to spend here, and I am slowly starting to accept the fact I will have to leave Foggy Bottom and return home (I was in denial for about 4 weeks). However, these last two weeks are going to be special, and cherished. The teary photos will not be published – instead I hope I can provide you with stories about saying goodbye and how this contributes to the beauty of the entire experience. Until then.
Caption: Typical Sinterklaas song – children sing this before they put their shoes under the chimney to reach Sinterklaas and his Zwarte Pieten to let them know their ‘shoes are set’. Sint and his Pieten are travelling by the roofs throwing presents through the chimneys.
The Independent, 11-28-2012 (criticism on the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition):
Thanksgiving break: turkey, family, pumpkin pie, and football. Those were the things that I came to associate with Thanksgiving, and they appeared to be pretty accurate. Over the last couple of days, I celebrated a rather untraditional Thanksgiving break. It was inspiring and new – it was my first Thanksgiving break of my life, and the best one for that too.
Wednesday was our first day off – and this also happened to be my 21st birthday. Myself and some of the exchange students who stayed in DC went to visit Annapolis, the capital of Maryland. An extremely pretty town, with a lot of colonial history (and corresponding landscape architecture), and host to the United States Naval Academy. This was very interesting, and with a healthy dose of American propaganda in our minds, we left this picturesque place after a full day of sightseeing.
The real fun, more closely related to Thanksgiving, started on Thursday afternoon. For the occasion, two friends and myself were invited to spend Thanksgiving with an American family. I cannot express the gratitude and the admiration I have for this family: they invited us into our home and made us feel like we were part of the family, if only for one day. One thing I have not really written about on this blog, is how homesick I get sometimes, wishing nothing less than to go home. Luckily these moments pass very quickly, but nevertheless, the family experience on Thursday reminded me of home and how important family is. The food they had prepared is indescribable: amongst other things there was turkey, ham, duck (impressively prepared by the sixteen-year old son), roasted sweet potato, Brussels sprouts, stuffing, cranberry sauce, a wonderful salad, home-made bread, cheese, wine, and as a special finale two magnificent pies for desert. Now, we were only with 7 people in total, so one can imagine how long we sat at the table trying to devour as much of this delicious food as we could. I truly needed the next Friday to mend, and I am not sure my body has entirely recovered even by today. More important than the great food, we had the most wonderful time, getting to know each other and sharing our different backgrounds.
I encountered another very interesting experience on Friday, something which I am fairly sure does not correspond with Thanksgiving traditions, but deserves a mention nonetheless. Via some friends, I found myself going to a sauna event organized by some people working for the Finnish embassy. The Finnish, as some might know, take a lot of pride in their saunas, and I found out this is completely justified. It was interesting to see how soon one feels comfortable in the direct approximation of a bunch of naked strangers, and how relaxing it can be to find yourself in temperatures higher than 175 degrees. The rest of the weekend I used to catch up on work and digest all the new impressions and experiences from the last couple of days. This week was amazing, and Thanksgiving comes dangerously close to my top-3 favorite holiday traditions.
Over the last couple of months, there have been several eventful moments in which I found myself completely intoxicated. The first association people will have is alcohol, but it’s surprising how many other things can cause this (usually unfortunate) state of mind and body.
The thing that happens to me on the most regular basis is food. One of the many peculiar habits Americans have, is to create enormous portions of food. Whenever I am eating out, the portions that are served are so big it’s physically impossible for me to finish them. Even when you order a pizza here, you better make sure you’re with at least one other person, (although three is more optimal) simply because it is too big. In addition to that, American food tends to be very sweet – it is imperative to check food labels routinely when doing grocery shopping, just to make sure there was not too much sugar added to the product. Even the most savoury food items one can think of will have sugar added, like soup.
The second thing on my list landed this spot because of the past week. It is not something particularly American, but something that many people run into now and then. This past week I had four paper deadlines coming up, which meant I spent two nights in the library, working until 4 am, and getting up in the morning at 9 am. Consequently, I was basically a walking zombie for four days, which was not very conducive to my writing and logical thinking skills. This is where the intoxication-part steps in: I lived off of coffee the entire week. I would not advise anyone to do this more often than strictly necessary, but it worked perfectly for me, because I had a very productive week and finished everything in time.
The third intoxicating substance on my list is alcohol. No comments there.
The fourth and final thing on my list is a more positive sort of intoxication. This weekend I joined the GW International Affairs Society on their fall retreat to Shenandoah meadows – essentially the middle of nowhere. No phone reception and no internet, something that almost never happens in the Netherlands (I presume because we have a much smaller territory to cover – slightly less than twice the size of New Jersey). It was refreshing to be away from the city for a couple of days, and the surroundings there were gorgeous. Intoxication by the beauty of my surroundings is my favorite kind, just because it makes you happy and quiet and thoughtful.
Four years ago today, I was in high school, not knowing what my future beheld, closely following the American election. Later, when Obama was elected, I remember the developments surrounding Obamacare, and the Thanksgiving cliff-hanger that went with it. In those four years, the United States went through an enormous process of change. Of course, these four years have not been idyllic: the economic recession has had (and still has) major impacts on people’s lives, and partisan differences in Congress diminished the reach of the Obama Administration in many of its plans. Nevertheless, policies promising change have definitely been delivered. The ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy was eliminated, women’s rights and LGBT rights were further endorsed, a more universal health care system was passed, the war in Iraq was ended, Osama bin Laden was killed, taxes were made more progressive and the US combat forces in Afghanistan are on their way out.
Today, I am in university, studying in the city where it all happens. I canvassed for the President, followed debates closely, openly endorsed the administration and its policies, and am celebrating, still, after Tuesday’s victory. Together with the GW College Democrats, we watched how election results came in slowly, with CNN making the suspense more tolerable. It is impossible to describe the energy and excitement that was buzzing through this room the entire evening. Everybody was fired up, and, as soon as it became clear Obama had won Ohio, essentially securing his victory, ready to go to the White House. The mob of students that took to the streets was enormous. D.C. was buzzing, people climbed in trees on the White House lawn, secret service police had to guard the fence, the national anthem was sung loudly, American flags waved everywhere, people were shouting ‘FOUR MORE YEARS’, some were crying, others were blatantly drunk, and amidst of this chaos I was there. I was there, and I was happy as can be, because I knew that somehow, I had contributed, if only a little, by campaigning for the President, by openly endorsing him, and by talking to people who were not yet entirely convinced.
Obama Victory Reaction - GWU Democrats Nov. 6th 2012. Credits go to Olivia Lewis.
In four years from today, the United States can start to look back on a decade of fresh leadership and progressive policies. Tuesday’s victory means that the President can finish what he started, and create a historical legacy of moving America forward at a time of economic hardship plaguing the American people and the world at large; at a time of a shift from a unipolar international order to a multipolar international order, with all the challenges this brings, politically, economically and militarily; and at a time of enormous divisions that split up the American political landscape. It may not be easy, but, like the President says:
(Best part: from 1.05 onwards)
“I believe we can keep the promise of our founders. The idea that if you're willing to work hard, it doesn't matter who you are or where you come from or what you look like or where you love. It doesn't matter whether you're black or white or Hispanic or Asian or Native American or young or old or rich or poor, able, disabled, gay or straight, you can make it here in America if you're willing to try.
I believe we can seize this future together because we are not as divided as our politics suggests. We're not as cynical as the pundits believe. We are greater than the sum of our individual ambitions, and we remain more than a collection of red states and blue states. We are and forever will be the United States of America.”
I would like to begin this week’s entry with a very important announcement: all is well at Foggy Bottom and in DC. We have been extremely lucky, because Sandy’s worst has never even reached the city. The only way we were affected was the cancellation of two days’ classes and the run on water and canned food in the stores here on campus. We currently have quite a stock of canned food and tanks of water, and were prepared with batteries and lights so that we would have been able to live without running water and electricity for a couple of days. All in vain however, because nothing broke down, and by Thursday morning everything had returned back to normal. My thoughts go out to those who lost their lives, and their families, and to all of those who were adversely affected by this disaster.
Seeing that everything was well here in DC, the trip that my friend from Richmond, Danielle, and me had planned for this weekend could proceed, and she visited me here at GW. One of the things I love doing here in DC is switching between being a resident and being a tourist. We spent all Saturday biking around DC, sightseeing and visiting all the important landmarks of the city. The balance of that day: we saw the White House, Capitol, war monuments, Lincoln memorial, Washington monument, Jefferson and FDR memorial, Eastern market area, Georgetown, and even managed to squeeze in a visit to Dupont circle.
We were exhausted by the end of the day and settled for staying in during the evening, admittedly also because the prospects of going out for under-twenty-one-girls in DC are meager. It was lovely to bike around and see everything, and I was quite impressed with how easy it was to do everything that we wanted to in just one day. In August, when my parents and brother were here, we had three days to see the city, but we never managed to see all of the things in those three days that Danielle and I saw in this one day. I blame this on the heat, and on our scarce knowledge of the city at the time (although my family and I did visit a museum, something I didn’t do with Danielle). Sometimes I wish they could come back so that I could show them everything here, from campus to the Smithsonian institutions, to all the memorials, to downtown. It is really pleasant to act as the tourist guide and take pride in a city that I didn’t even know less than a year ago.
Having said that, time is ticking, and I have only seen two out of all the Smithsonian institutions (really cool, free museums) here, so I need to hurry up. Last week, the residential staff of my building organized a trip to the Newseum, not one of those institutions, but nevertheless the best museum I have been to in a very long time. It had huge exhibits on the FBI, the presidential campaigns, 9/11, amongst others, and showed an exhibit displaying actual sections of the Berlin Wall. It was also possible to be a reporter, reading news about Congress against the background of the U.S. Capitol. Of course I took that chance and also peeked into the official ABC studios that are housed by the Newseum. It was a great day well spent.
Like I said before, time is ticking, and the semester is already past its halfway-mark. Sometimes it is depressing to think how fast time goes (cliché but true: time flies when you’re having fun), and how much stuff there still is left to do. Inevitably, I am going to have to prioritize and settle for less, but there are still some weekends left, in addition to the time I can use after the GW semester ends. Hopefully the time that remains will give me enough opportunity to see more of this beautiful city and country.
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).
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