I’m writing this from the lobby bar of a hotel in Amsterdam, a bottle deep in Sauvignon Blanc. I’m trying to make sense of my first three days here — what I’ve seen, what I’ve done and how it relates to what is going on back home.
The disconnect is real; I’m seven hours ahead of most of the people I know, love and generally interact with. I’m in a foreign country that seems, at times, not quite so foreign. Language, I think, is to blame.
I mean: walking around the streets of Amsterdam, Haarlem, Bodegraven and any number of outlying suburb-ish areas of this city, I hear a miasma of languages, all of which, individually, I can parse out. In this hotel alone I’ve heard Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French, German and English. I recognize the cadence, the tone, the interactions between couples, friends, parents and children, as the usually nondescript interactions that fill so much of our days. A scold, a reprimand, a term of endearment, a joke known only to these two people. I see the Human Dance, I recognize it, and it comforts me.
It comforts me, but it’s still strange. I made a go at learning a bit of Dutch before we left the country last week, and very little of it took. I think, at this point, I know “child” and “good morning,” which can only get one so far. Fortunately, Amsterdam is enough of a cosmopolitan city that everyone I have to interact with speaks a reasonable amount of English. I order beer and food in English, I ask for directions in English, I read city maps provided by the travel board in English. I think in English.
And yet I exist among a multitude, a Babel-worthy primal scream.
I think that we, in America, face a similar problem on scales both grander and less significant. English, at least the dictionary definition of it, is the language that most of us speak to communicate with each other, with the breadth of our own tiny world. It is the language of our business, our education, our public and private lives. We fill out loan applications in English, write poetry in English.
And yet, we speak different languages.
I’m talking about the different languages of culture, of politics, of partisanship. I’m talking about, statistically, every other person you see during the course of a day. I’m talking about life.
As a friend of mine put it, tonight our country is 48 percent one on side, 48 percent on the other side, with the small remainder in the middle. Probably most of you reading this come down on one side. I do. We come down on it hard. And this partisanship is reinforced by the echo chamber in which we willingly lock ourselves day after day.
The interactions, the relationships that truly matter, take place within a glorified safe zone, a common ground of rhetoric, while the other 48 percent, not to mention the four percent remainder, remain comfortably at arm’s length. We learn nothing because we seek nothing except the sound of our own voice, even if someone else is speaking. We remain static because we choose not to evolve.
This is a plea, a beleaguered, buzzed and supremely irritated plea, to listen. To stop for one moment and listen. To yourself, to your own heart, to the incessant hum of the world that gives not a second thought to you because it will still be here long after you are gone. It had nothing to lose. You do.