Love Is Not Tourism

This writing is about me and my Russian girlfriend Marina, but tells the story of many other international loved ones who don’t feel heard. Marina and I are two out of many overlooked victims of crude decisions, made by governments in their obsessive endeavour to control corona. And while many Europeans are already continuing life, partying and enjoying their vacations throughout Europe, our crisis is far from over. 

Through the granular pixel rate of video calling, I see how teardrops are making their way down her rounded cheeks. I want to hug her tightly. I want to wipe away her tears. But I can’t. There is a wall in between us. A feeling of apathy and unsettlement unfolds within me. We look at each other in silence. How can I make her feel reassured? Will I tell her everything will end up fine, and would she still believe me? And even so, would I still believe myself?

Just now, it is announced that the travel ban for non-EU citizens will be extended. Again. Our binational relationship isn’t eligible for exemption. We would need to possess official proof of cohabitation. But it is exactly because of a similar rigidity that we impossibly had the chance to obtain any suchlike proof, not even to speak of having legalized documents. 

The goodbye fell on a drowsy valentines day, at the airport of Eindhoven. By now, that’s about five months ago. For the occasion, I gave her a stuffed animal (a small, smiling seastar). To stay hopeful, I told myself that we would see each other again in a month or so. 

That didn’t happen. This farewell would become the last physical memory of Marina until now. The last touch of her smooth skin, the last embrace by her soothing warmth. 

Ever since, not a day goes by without thinking of it. How she hesitatingly walked towards the departure hall, while holding the orange seastar I had given her. How there was an overall ominous ambience in the airport. How I was barely able to catch a last glimpse of her innocent smile, before the all too familiar doors would shut. Before I would become flooded with sadness once again. The heartfelt kind of sadness, of which all airports are the mourning witnesses. It’s the suffering of international love. 

In the following months, our fearful prophecy would turn into reality. A merciless coronavirus struck the world. The ever-rushing mankind was halted at once. Countries crawled back into their shells, to secure their own wellbeing. Inhabitants were repatriated to be with family in these uncertain times. And Marina? She’s separated from me by cold bureaucratic rules. 

In a panic reflex, the once so praised globalization was suddenly revoked; The economically interwoven world which can be held accountable for a deadly virus, inequality and many other forms of misery. But this is also an intercultural world which has brought many people together. All sorts of people, ethnically and culturally different, but united by that one thing which makes humans human: love. 

And I hope that our governments can generate the love to set ajar their doors. For Marina and I, and thousands of other loved ones which were cruelly separated when all doors were closed with a loud slam. It might even be a modest step towards a more loving world, wherein people aren’t divided into groups, based on their ethnicity, skin color or passport.  

Photo credit: Chad Madden & Kristina Tripkovic (header).

Summer Journal: Dutch Siesta

I’ve started a summer journal. This is a note from 26-06-2020.

It’s 11:57 PM now. The temperature is about 23 degrees celsius. It has been the warmest day so far this year. And -yes I might sound ungrateful- hopefully the last. As said in earlier notes, this country is underprepared for this type of weather. It doesn’t have a siesta like in Spain. The economy isn’t halted even the slightest bit. Activities aren’t postponed. Life doesn’t slow down. Work intensity isn’t diminished. 

Frankly, the approach in the Netherlands seems to be even counterintuitive: The stronger the heatwave, the more active Dutch people become. Today, streets were sprawling with sweaty folks, hurrying to and fro on their bike with a red face. To the beach. To work. To the terrace. Or to accomplish all these activities within the same day. 

Despite global warming, Dutch people still gratify each warm day as if it were the last. Muggy and uncomfortable days like these are still perceived as seldom and need to be fully exploited. I think it’s a reflex which occurs whenever we see ’thirty degrees’ appearing on the forecast. It’s an old habit, originating from the harsh winters and disappointing summers we used to have in the past.

But those times are now disappearing and slowly being replaced by hot and wet seasons, like in Asia. As with any obsession, not much is left of its origins, but the reflex remained. Foreigners from warmer countries must witness this awkward summer obsession with spanish shame. 

Air Conditioners

A related development is the multiplied purchase of air conditioners. From a growing amount of apartments, I see the unmistakable airco hoses sticking out of the windows. Some inhabitants have even fabricated a wooden construction, from where the hose can eject the warm air. 

Herewith, I’d like to make a modest correlation with the end of mankind. It’s quite a simple circle really: People have made the world warmer by using too much energy, and now they need air conditioners to bear with the heat they created, using more energy, increasing warmth even more, for which more air conditioners are needed. 

Why would this be the end of mankind? Well, because people buy the air conditioners for their own good, and don’t take into account the macro outcome. A large chunk of people cannot transcend their own life-span. Long term effects are therefore not considered, for it won’t be their responsibility anymore after they die; Most of the ecological problems of the world of today, have been created by those who didn’t care about the world of tomorrow.

It’s outright selfish, but unfortunately very natural human behaviour. The end of mankind is near, but if you happen to be an air conditioner salesman, you might be able to hold out a little longer than the rest of us. You might even be the last man standing.

Photo credit: Tim Roosjen

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2020. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. 

The Dutch Eye

Being abroad a lot, one can easily forget his roots. Recently, an enormous building had been opened in the centre of Groningen, my idyllic hometown in the north of the Netherlands. Located on its upper floor, there’s a fine cafe which offers spectacular views over the city and beyond. 

The average Italian or a Frenchman would be lyrical about the scenery. Romantic thinkers like them would be lost for words when trying to describe the aesthetics of the view.

From above, the Frenchman would perhaps notice the melancholy of Dutch weather, and the Italian would be besieging an adherent with a monologue on the town’s architectural elegance. And they’d both surely daydream how Caspar David Friedrich or van Gogh would colorize these urban landscapes. For them, aestheticism clearly comes first.

With a similar attitude, I was sitting in the cafe the other day, taking in the view and gazing over the city, giving my mind some rest while inhaling some renewed inspiration.

The spot was ideal. My table adjoined a large window, looking out across the southern part of the city.  As seen from there, the panorama was a colourful blend of red, pantile roofs and gothic church towers, contrasting against a backdrop of modern apartment blocks and offices. The finishing touch were darkened clouds that hovered above pastures far beyond the city’s bounds. 

Caspar David Friedrich – Flachlandschaft am Greifswalder Bodden 1816-18

But in a populous country like the Netherlands, in a popular outlook bar like this, on a perfect spot like mine, personal space and integrity are brushed aside. From the corner of my eye, I could see that a company of middle aged Dutch women had finished slurping black coffee. Moreover, they were marching in a fast tempo towards my table. 

The curious company came standing right behind my chair. Some of them were even leaning over me, and started making remarks about the view. Within seconds, I was trapped and surrounded, and forced to listen closely. But their comments were of a different kind than my hypothesis about the Italian or Frenchman. 

They initially exchanged some neutral facts about the city. Then, one lady (while breathing in my neck) questioned the others how the outside windows are cleaned at such heights. That clearly created uproar in the group. Thus, all possible ways of cleaning were discussed thoroughly. Does the cleaning company use a hydraulic hoist or is it all automatized? 

Without conclusion, the subject changed, as one of the ladies spotted an enormous grey building in the distance. Her comment evoked a lively discussion about its function either. Was it the tax office, or the telephone company? Another uproar amongst the practical-minded women followed.

An elderly lady with short grey hair then summed up all the names of all possible places she could reminisce. Her local shopping centre. Her previous bank. A carpet shop where she had bought a carpet. I silently wondered whether they noticed any of the panoramic beauty that presented itself to them.

The answer was no. They returned to discussing which cleaning company might be responsible for this building. Also the presumed expenses were addressed, as if it were a business meeting. After some more practical remarks, they ran out of topics and the babble died down. 

The group shuffled on, leaving me with an entirely different perspective on my hometown’s skyline; Inasmuch as the Italian and Frenchman would picture the world through the artist’s eye, these women have mastered the art of looking through the Dutch eye. 

In five minutes, this group of household women reminded me of a world view I had almost forgotten, but which is intractably inherent to my Dutch ethnicity; First comes practical functionality. And after that, if there’s time, daydreaming and romanticizing is allowed. 

However, an inevitable wisdom hides within this practical philosophy. Although the women were staring a little blind on the methods of cleaning, expenses and city facts, they denuded something of undeniable value: that maintaining things may not always be aesthetic and exciting, and sometimes even boring and dull, but surely unmissable.

Indeed, the magnificent building would look dreadful without adequate cleaning and maintenance. The breathtaking panorama wouldn’t even be visible, simply because of unwashed windows.

The Dutch Eye also applies to other areas of life. When not maintained attentively, the brightest flower would die, the most romantic love relationship would dissolve, and the dearest friendship would fade out.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2020. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.     

Two People, One Plane Ticket: An Airport Story

Airports, train and bus stations have in common something peculiar. In these very places, thousands of family members, loving couples and good friends say farewell to each other every day. Sometimes they leave for just a few weeks, but sometimes for an undetermined stretch of time. Some can hardly suppress their emotions and burst into tears, while others shake each others’ hands formally, when the moment is there. In airports in particular, the goodbye has quite a definitive connotation, as aircraft possess the impressive force to increase the margin between two people to thousands of kilometers within a short span of time. 

Especially for border-transcending love, the airport can be an incredibly cruel place. While seeking busily for the right departure hall, a wry feeling of contradiction is slowly taking hold of those who are unwillfully divided by distance or bureaucracy. At the airport, the painful separation feels like a sentence which, moreover, also needs to be executed merely by oneself. It’s an act of self-harm in its purest sense. Unlike a train or bus which drives away irreversibly, the airport separation is done by walking into a restricted area yourself. Simple as that. No dramatic train chasing scene. And for those who haven’t chosen to be apart, the moment comes always a little too early. 

Two souls, one ticket. They’re aware that sooner or later after finding the appointed entrance, they will be disunited. Only one half of the companionship will go, and the other will stay, because the robotic gate refuses anyone without a valid plane ticket. No exceptions are made for sticky love birds. Soon, they will be isolated from each others’ warmth and words. Closeness exchanged for sombre separate compartments of the airport. The automatized doors at the end of a brightly illuminated hall symbolize the unrelenting line between tender closeness and a haunting absence. This clinical environment is the last possibility for a series of tight cuddles and other outings of affection. But on an unspecified moment, it’s reluctantly decided that it’s time to let go. 

Meanwhile walking away, the face of your loved one then slowly disappears amidst crowds of hurrying passengers. Eye contact becomes harder with every step onwards. Non verbal messages are sent to and fro, or whenever the masses allow it. A hopeful smile is directly followed by tears of sadness. 

Stringent border guards show no sign of compassion. On this stage, they don’t even allow a brief hug anymore. They simply enforce the rules, and instruct the confused loved ones to place their items in the right bin. Generally, the fluids are in the wrong sachet with zipper, and because of some change in a pocket, the metal detector suspects a potential hijacker.  

The growing sense of the approaching separation makes every glimpse of each other more lifelike than can ever be compensated by the most advanced ways of communication. Eye contact continues uninterruptedly until it becomes nearly impossible. And then, the frightening automatized doors shut for the very last time. Permanently. 

The by now so familiar feelings of intimacy and adjacency, make way for a prompt feeling of disenchantment and numbness. It penetrates into the consciousness in the form of heavy doubts regarding the decision to say farewell. 

Entirely unjust this is not; all kinds of uncertainties may diminish the chance of a quick reunion. Indeed, through the eyes of the one left behind, the airplane is a flying fuel tank, which will tear through extreme weather conditions at the speed of nine-hundred kilometers an hour, on an altitude of about eleven kilometers. A summary that doesn’t inflict much confidence in terms of safety.  

An ordinary sounding announcement on an enormous screen in the hall then declares that the plane in question had departed seconds ago. Upon this, all the available images of all imaginable disasters pass by in the thoughts of the poor straggler. Intense fear overrules all the successful flights and the minimal statistical chance of such a disastrous occurrence. 

Slightly paranoid pictures of a destructive collision between some unattentive geese and the jet engines, or of a mentally unstable co-pilot who decides to steer the aircraft straight into the earth, constantly besiege the mind of the powerless left-behind loved one. Fierce panic attacks are not ruled out. 

Such imaginations continue to persist stubbornly, until the flight control center of the designated airfield announces that flight number BT451 had arrived according to schedule. Merely two hours after taking off, the beforehand so doomed projectile is safely on the ground once again. A grand but short relief for both, afore emotions of a different kind start taking over.

Together in the morning, alone in the afternoon, or conversely. The first hours after the farewell, often in a bus or train homewards, are characterized by a heartbreaking feeling, followed by an endless emptiness. Undiminished contact with your loved one continues on the phone, on which messages of affection and missing carry the ambitious goal to fulfil the void that had appeared. But communication which was previously transmitted through all senses, is now reduced to only a small typepad. It’s just not the same.

Kissing, an utmost delicate and gentle action between two persons. Lips, made of flesh and skin, are now replaced by yellow bald faces without clearly defined gender, who spit out a modest heart. They can be found in a side cabinet of the virtual typepad on modern phones, and can be given out unlimitedly. Still, it is all insufficient to maintain the complex, familiar conversations like before.   

For a moment, the brightly lit train homewards is an unsparing and confronting place. And surrounding you, passengers are occupied by their daily worries, without having any insight into the tormenting affliction you underwent barely two hours ago. Expressing a serious countenance, the other passengers appear to be sheer indifferent towards the invisible wounds. They are focussed chiefly on their smartphones, laptops or tablets.  Hours ago, when they were presumably still attending hideous meetings in the office, the poor loved one was still in a far away land, happily united with his or her dear one. 

The coming time will be characterized by an uneasy feeling. As fast as the aircraft had departed earlier on, as wretchedly slow the first signs of recovery and reconciliation regarding each other’s excruciating absence will unfold in the weeks to come.

Nevertheless, places like an airport have a paradoxical meaning for international love. On one hand, the sterile departure hall functions as a metaphorical torture room, consisting of clinical white walls, automatized doors and hermetically closed security passages and strict employees. 

On the other hand, the arrivals hall fulfills the conciliatory role of of reuniting loved ones after a long divide. Impatient individuals, carrying a bouquet or a written name sign push each other away at the irregularly opening doors. As if it were a factory functioning on full speed, love birds appear from the production line, to be wholeheartedly embraced by their significant others. This time, crying tears of joy. With this, the intense missing might be numbed for some time, until the inevitable separation presents itself again in the near future. A pattern that should ideally not occur too regularly over a brief period of time. 

This story was written in 2018, originally in Dutch. This is an expanded version in English, with additional details.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2020. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.     

Mocking Day

It’s the end of the year. For myself, this also means that soon another year of my life will come to a close. In a few weeks, I hope to reach the significant age of twenty-eight years.

It’s the ideal moment for friends and family to tease me with relentless jokes about the increase of my life-span. As though ageing were avertible, and I simply failed in staying young. 

Every year, they congratulate me sincerely, but secretly can’t wait to start bullying innocently; ‘Ha, almost thirty, grandpa!’, ‘Say, are those grey hairs?’ But some take it to an earnest level and still expect a sensible answer; ‘So how does it feel to be kind of old?’

As a consequence, the cheerfulness connected to birthdays might now be circumscribed with a rather cheerless edge. Just another year older. A year further away from my highly praised youth. 

Fundamental to these rather arbitrary jokes, lies the more serious implication that ageing after roughly the age of twenty-five is equal to downright regression. Although birthdays are genuinely a celebration, they are inasmuch as likely to become shrouded under a layer of sadness. With each consecutive year onwards, the birthday celebration is experienced more and more as a burden. An unwanted formality to be avoided when possible.  

Over the years, birthday parties consist majorly out of mocking and teasing the defenceless birthday boy or girl. Adherents sharply point out the unpleasant aspects of ageing, using a dark sense of humour. Which may though, on itself, be quite harmless and even disarming; ‘How’s the retirement home application going?’

But amidst all the comicality, people forget to celebrate something valuable: the survival of another year of existence. Surrounded by true hazards, a life full of realistic dangers, which uninterruptedly threaten our vulnerable and humble human existence.  Misfortune is lurking around every corner.

There are plenty of reminders that disaster can strike at will. Frequently, we are confronted with news reports saying that a contagious epidemic had nearly wiped out an entire village. That a merciless tsunami had taken the lives of hundreds or perhaps thousands of people. Or, that an unlucky young fellow died, after a brook fell on his head while cycling. And way too often, news travels to us about the incurable illness of someone we know.

Considering these gritty statistics, I perceive it to be rather miraculous to soon have survived almost three decades on this planet. Twenty-eight years. Many of us weren’t that fortunate. 

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ode To The Restroom

Going to a public water closet can be a quirky experience. Not because of the traditional struggles, like a malfunctioning flush, or when running out of toilet paper and all of their shameful outcomes. No, the real thrill comes from an exemplary demonstration of human stubbornness.

If you’d ask me, a fine public restroom is of utmost importance for mental health, and I’m dead serious about it. Next to its primary use, which we hopefully all know, it offers something of grander value. Namely, that it serves as a great retreat, offering some welcomed minutes of solace amidst our stressful lives. A small but fortified space in which you can regain your breath. A pit-stop before rejoining the rat race.

Times change. And so do our water closets. The definition of toilet should therefore be broadened. As our lives got more and more accelerated, there is an increased desire for a room to rest: say hello to the restroom. An upgraded meaning of the word toilet, thanks to the way in which it has enhanced our lives over the past decades.

The restroom proves its effectiveness when trying to escape lengthy meetings in the office (preferably during a brain shrinking question round). And in particular, the unfortunate case of being dragged into a shopping mall or an IKEA for the afternoon. When trying to overcome the excruciating horrors of screeching children and ceaseless announcements, a swift slip into the restroom might enable you to survive. Nothing can interfere this modest moment of serenity. Right?!

As ought to be widely known; most reliable toilets have a functioning lock. This small device fulfills a simple but crucial role, since it’s the barricade between the hostile outside world and your two square meters of tranquility.

So, it’s clarified that the purpose of this device is obviously to lock the door. But more importantly, the essence is to show those waiting in the queue that it’s locked, so that they don’t have to come over and disturb your five minute retreat.

It does so by presenting either a white or red bar/lid. It can be seen from afar. Red, in combination with the door firmly closed, means that it’s occupied. There’s not much sense in trying to enter. The lock makes sure that the poor soul inside won’t be harassed for merely a brief frame of time.

Yet it appears not all that obvious to quite a few fellows. Especially during toilet rush hours, politeness is brushed aside. Those who cannot bear with the waiting, do something typically human. They intervene.

And so, ignoring all the clear visual signs of occupancy, these impatient individuals venture towards the sacred door, hoping that it will magically open. A fierce pull will do the job. They grab the door handle and pull it powerfully, just to find out what they already knew. Indeed, it is confirmed that the door won’t open. Nonetheless, they desperately try to shorten their temporary uphold and conquer the restroom, but are foolishly unaware of this attempt being rather counterproductive.

And to all the smart minds who had the mind-blowing idea to turn the door handle aggressively, attempting to shorten someone else’s pit-stop in favour of themselves: thanks, the effectiveness of the door lock has been proven.

In spite of this, the harmonious calmness inside has been interrupted heavily. It leaves the slightly irritated rest seeker in the cabin no choice, other than to annex his sanitary sanctuary a little longer. He decides to use the granted stretch of time productively.

Thus, after being reassured by the trustworthy door lock, he sits back, returns to zen mode and takes plenty of time to write a peculiar article in honour of a peculiar place: the restroom.

Now, if you would excuse me, I need to get back into that terrible shopping mall.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

In The Netherlands, Everything Is Anticipated On.

Forget about bicycles, tulips and windmills. What really characterizes the Netherlands is much more life-enriching. It comes down to this; Dutch authorities have a plan for pretty much everything.

Days ago, I read a news message saying that a Wolf had been seen in a natural area in the east of the country. A big thing for an urbanized country without any scary animals in the wild. The fact that the female beast was caught on camera (in a forest?) in the vicinity of cubs meant that these furry friends weren’t planning to retreat back into Germany.

No, they are intending to stay. And thereby it is confirmed that the Wolf is officially reintroduced to the Netherlands, after decades of absence. A small victory for nature. Bummer for the folks living in nearby urbanized areas. Which, in the Netherlands, is pretty much everywhere. For a country with such little wilderness, the arrival of a Wolf on the loose, induces quite some fear.

But, no worries. The Dutch government had already foreseen the expansion of family Wolf. And upon this discovery, an officially named ‘Wolf action plan’ has been initialized. This is a book-like protocol, worked out into detail, regarding the approach towards the newcomers.

You have to try and imagine that different authorities, the mayor, police and various experts have had numerous meetings to develop a work of countless pages, just to anticipate on the birth of two cute wolf cubs.

Essence is, that Dutch people always have a plan. For everything. Months or years ahead of a situation. In summer, there is a ‘heat action plan’, developed by various specialized institutions. This plan is immediately implemented whenever the temperature rises above a certain level.

It advises that people with overweight, elder people, the weak and the sick, should be extra careful during this type of weather. Likewise it recommends that citizens should not underestimate the strength of sunlight and drink enough water. How generous. Similar to the Wolf issue, a selection of smart minds have been cracking their brains in order to come up with valuable advise.

I think there are only few other countries better prepared for any event than the Netherlands. Downside is that it kills spontaneity. It’s a bit patronizing too. Upside is that, as a citizen, you don’t have to worry about anything. Everything is anticipated on.

If I may take it a little further; might there be the unfortunate case of a meteorite on crash course with the Netherlands, the local authorities will implement a ‘meteor action plan’, empirically founded by appointed experts. As a matter of fact, I think the authorities already have such a protocol. The Netherlands is a sanctuary. When you follow the steps as described in the plan, you’ll surely be safe from harm.

While writing this, more exciting news came from the Netherlands. This time a bit more gritty though. Of a sudden, the parliament stated unanimously that the Dutch aren’t prepared for death. The statistical institution (CBS) had revealed that people are too avoidant regarding their final hour.

Now, this institution was already a renowned research facility, but these results are really mind-blowing. They calculated somehow that people don’t like to acknowledge that their life isn’t infinitive.

Furthermore they concluded that the Dutch are therefore emotionally and financially underprepared to be burried or cremated.

To stimulate citizens, authorities launched an extensive campaign to inform them that their lives are not infinitive. A governmental webpage will guide you through the process, containing the necessary information, tips and tricks on how to die responsibly.

On the somewhat formal looking webpage (the same interface is used for tax inquiries), the government has collected all information considered to be necessary for a carefree end of life, for it would be a pity to do all the paperwork in your last hour..

So after filling out a somewhat dull questionnaire, an algorithm will tell you what to do. The system reminds you to take into account that death has some emotional aspects too.

The Netherlands proves again that it can (and will) prepare you for pretty much anything.

© Stefan Hoekstra/The Social Writer, 2019. Unauthorized use/and or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full name and clear credit is given to Stefan Hoekstra and The Social Writer with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.