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I was beginning to get very sleepy sitting in the airport. Once or twice I glanced at the newspaper being read by the guy next to me, but it was just a bunch of words. Suddenly, Frigga, the Icelandic queen of the gods and the goddess of wives and mothers, rushed up and offered me her seat on the plane. I boarded the flight and flew over the ocean, worried about whether it was a good idea to take the queen’s seat. I got up and went down the aisle of the plane,and some guy handed me his apple core. I stared at him for a second; he stared back. Finally, I took it. We landed, and I walked through a McDonald’s drive-thru for coffee. Out of the blue, an enormous bottle of Russian vodka fell out of the sky and landed on one of my toes, so I had to limp really fast to catch trams, busses, and ferries. Rushing to a windmill to have a beer, some angry man spit chewed up sandwich bits on me because I wouldn’t give him ten euros. Wiping my face with toilet paper, I joined a crowd of freakishly tall multilingual people all dressed in orange who were drinking beer. Some guy from Spain was bragging about how he liked to hire women in order to exploit them, when a friend turned and, with a flicking motion of her fingers, cast a spell on him: she blessed him with three daughters. Overwhelmed with the need to think, I got on a bike and rode in the sunny, pouring rain to a park. Lying on a yellow plastic picnic mat on the damp grass, looking at the billowing clouds, questions were running through my head. How can I visualize the invisible? How do I unsee? What is depthlessness? Would waterproof jeans be weird? I woke up to the unrelenting pound-pound-pounding of a pile-driver. I really was in Amsterdam; the dream was real, which is to say, my study abroad was incredibly surreal.

For several days, I navigated using the compass on my phone along with a printed city map. I wandered in circles, lost, until I realized the map was not oriented to due north. The confluence of jet lag, culture shock, hordes of summer tourists, and World Cup madness complicated my disorientation.  I’m surprised I didn’t turn into a cockroach, but if I had, I would have been at home in our pigsty of a communal kitchen.

I had chosen this program because I wanted an opportunity to apply the continental theory I’d been reading and thought that if I was actually situated on the continent, I would gain clarity. Instead, I got more discombobulated. Our class spent two days fabulating; we were instructed to imagine by walking backwards into the speculative future. Each of us had to come up with a final project, and a Chinese classmate asked for my help with German philosopher Martin Heidegger’s writing on dwelling and thinking. I thought, what the heck? Why not plunge headlong into another rabbit hole?

I tried to impose coherence on these initially chaotic perceptual experiences,but I still felt clinically detached, an American woman in the Netherlands,trying to consciously engage in my course of study, find my theoretical register, to really see what was behind the Dutch approach to design problems,especially thorny social problems. Their reputation for tolerance and pragmatism is legendary, and I was starting to wonder if it also had a mythical quality.

One day during class, one of my instructors said, “good intentions can’t be critiqued.” Blessed relief was mine; I had a fresh perspective on the dissonance I was experiencing. While it might be true that we usually give the benefit of the doubt to any well-intentioned projects that are currently underway, it is entirely the duty of a critic to critique the consequences of past good intentions. As I rode around Amsterdam, my thoughts swirling, I constructed an explanatory framework for connecting what I could observe with what I was learning. The Netherlands has had centuries of immigration, and the Dutch have been accommodating it. Where do good intentions meet reality?

I found it in the architecture. Amsterdam’s growth is like tree rings: the massive brick social housing complexes radiate from the concentric canals rings of the medieval city center. Tall, narrow, picturesque canal houses end abruptly, and the monolithic, expressive Modernist social housing behemoths built during the interwar period begin. This transition in dwellings is logical:it chronicles the historical population expansion and an economic divide. It is a classic “birds of a feather” housing model: “old money” Dutch families live in privately owned canal houses, and the working-class citizens live in state-owned social housing.  My favorite example, Het Schip, Dutch for “the ship,” is a multilevel, curvilinear brick, glass, and tile land locked boat. The simple,standard materials, in shades of brown, red, and orange, are arranged differently on each level, to give a pixelated effect. The corners of the building have functionless, cylindrical cigar-shapes, like turrets. They are propaganda pieces, intended to give the building an identity.  Het Schip not only resembles a huge steamship; it is also a metaphor for the mobility and migration that modernity allowed, the uplifting of the working class from the squalid slums. The original post office, now a museum, had a booth for private telephone communication. The telefooncel booth’s glass door is embellished with stained glass finches, intended as a warning to those who are within: beware of little birdies listening.

We visited an outer ring of housing, a post-war suburban project in Bijlmer, which is even more massive in scale and is largely populated by allochtonen, meaning from another place, or what is referred to as “non-ethnic” Dutch.  A mosque is a stone’s throw away. One side of each building features artists’ attempts at breaking up the visual monotony of the structures. One building has clusters of scattered satellite dishes, which looked like giant limpet shells clinging to the wall; another has a giant map with calligraphic place names from around the world. At first, I didn’t appreciate these art installations because they didn’t carry the same cleverly embedded weight of the symbols at Het Schip; but then I grasped their ideological function. While these art installations are after-thoughts, attempts to rehabilitate the image of the housing and intended to make the occupants feel less marginalized and institutionalized, to me they still symbolized surveillance.

Is it a coincidence that this logical, economic segregation is also a political and geographical concentration by ethnicity and religion? I kept sensing that the people who live there are more like sitting ducks than those who are enjoying feathered nests. It was eerie; déjà vu all over again. Each time I heard the disembodied electronic voice of the number 13 tram, intoning in Dutch and English, “Anne Frank Huis, Anne Frank House,” I was reminded that some allochtonen are more equal than others. Time goes on and space runs out. If this was disorienting to a student who was there temporarily, how surreal must it before immigrants who flock to new countries, with their dreams of citizenship and religious freedom?

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