Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Without Language You Cannot Be Home

"Goede morgen, hoe gaat het met u?"

Instead of responding, the woman behind the counter gives me a blank stare. Am I really that bad?

"Oh, I'm sorry...Uh, how are you?"

"Ahh," she says, as she realizes what I am. "I'm good." Damnit. I encounter this situation a lot, these days.

On moving to a new country, I took a lax stance on learning the language, having been told that "everyone there speaks English." Well yes, this is true for the most part. But that doesn't mean that everyone there "speaks English" to me whenever I want them to. The official language is Dutch, so that's what they speak, officially.

The first day I was here I said "Hola" to someone in a store when they spoke to me. It was automatic. That's the "foreign" language I studied in school, so therefore, that is how I must respond to someone speaking to me in a "foreign" language.

After that I realized I should have prepared better.

In America, we speak English. The end. We've even got those offensive bumper stickers to prove it. We make the excuse that we live in a huge country where "everyone" speaks English, but that's just a lie. The truth is we have shitty schools, a nationalistic attitude, and the sense that "everyone" speaks English outside of English speaking countries.

I'm spoiled to have landed in a country like Holland, where the typical response to, "Do you speak English?" is usually, "Of course," or, to my amazement, "It doesn't matter." In other words, "It doesn't matter which language I speak right now." English, Dutch, German, French - The Dutch don't really have to think about it that hard because it doesn't matter. The same response I might give when asked if I want cream and sugar in my coffee.

God, Americans are so stupid.

Sometimes I feel like a child again living here. But then I remember there are children that speak this language by reason of being born into it. So what does that make me? Less than a child? A fetus? Will my understanding of this language be birthed into physical form? Will I someday hear Dutch (or any other language) as a means of communication instead of an unintelligible jumble of sounds? I don't know how it works to learn a language as an adult, because I do not remember learning one as a child.

My language, I realize, is what makes me human. I know this because as soon as I ask, "Do you speak English?" and the person behind the register, or counter, says, "Yes," they are suddenly human to me. Devoid of a language I recognize, a person is just an object that emits sounds from its mouth.

I never realized how much I take language for granted until it was taken away from me. The beauty of being able to read a billboard on the side of the road. The thrill of perusing the grocery store without using pictures. These are just little things, but they seem big to me now. I used to see words as poems. Now I see them as shapes and colors.

I want to take lessons, so I can start to distinguish words again, but how will I ever be comfortable dispensing those automatic filler words I'm so comfortable with in my own language: just, um, okay, so, cool, great, fuck. Fuck is universal, right? I could walk into a restaurant in China right now and order a fuck sandwich and they'd know what I'm talking about. At least, that's what I'd like to think.

And how could I ever be comfortable in two languages, when my native language sometimes fails me? Like on days when I am tired at work and I say something that sounds rude to my boss. Or when I am surprised and can't form complete sentences. Or when I'm talking to a guy I like and I sound like a boastful idiot.

What is language, anyways? Who made the law that Spanish has a rolled "R" and Polish is practically devoid of vowels? How long does it take for a dialect to develop? And what is correct, when the same language in different locations has different names for things? Is it a fiver or is it a five-dollar-bill?

I should make my own language that's just one word but changes meaning based on intonation. Like Chinese except simpler. Or perhaps I should just become mute while I am here. Pretend I have no language at all. Would that level the playing field or make people think, like I used to think of people trying to learn English, that I'm a little bit "off?" Stupid, in other words. Learning disabled.

I have become more comfortable buying food from a coin-operated, food-dispensing wall than from an actual person. By doing this, I don't have to use any words, and no one can use any words to me. I can memorize the word for "receipt" and "bag" and "change," but as soon as someone decides to say, "Heb je vijftig cent?" instead of, "Heb je gepast?" I become the baffled, wordless, idiot again.

"I'm so sorry," I say. "I don't speak Dutch."

"It's okay," they reply. "Do you have fifty cents?"

Wednesday, June 7, 2017


Polaroids of the Netherlands and Belgium, 2017. 600 film.









Thursday, March 30, 2017

On the Train

A few weeks ago I wrote this short story about my time abroad in London. I've been sending it to online publications but haven't gotten any answers (of course). So I thought I'd post it here, because I like it.

"On the Train," by Me, 2016

For the thousandth time, I looked out the rain-spattered windows of a London train car and wondered why the hell anyone would live here. Compare London to a cup of Earl Grey tea: grey, bland, underwhelming, and only palatable when doctored (such as with cream and sugar). On this night, my cream and sugar was a Finnish Christmas market, said to be one of the finest, with the best Finnish goodies, in all of London. I was very fond of Christmas markets, and so, with an escapist spirit, I fled my under heated flat in the middle of the South Kensington neighborhood to the outskirts of the city, a lesser-known neighborhood called Rotherhithe.

South Kensington > Sloane Square > Victoria > Westminster > Embankment > Temple > Blackfriars > Mansion House > Cannon Street > Monument > Tower Hill > Whitechapel > switch lines > Shadwell > Wapping> all the way to >Rotherhithe.

I suppose I sound spoiled to complain of my time spent in another country. True, I should be grateful I got to spend any time on the Queen’s island. Many people yearn for an experience abroad, and I was lucky enough to spend three months in Great Britain exploring and learning outside of the classroom, tethered by nothing but a few measly classes a week. I drank coffee from Italian coffee shops, shared my street with elegant French women, and traveled by plane or bus every weekend. Unfortunately, the biggest lesson I learned after my three-month stint was that I am an unremarkable and fairly boring person, and that the world is a very large, very confusing, and sometimes very rainy place.

My memories are of people who might have been aliens for how foreign they were to me. I’ll never forget a woman I saw on the train, once. I couldn’t know for sure, but I thought she might be from Eastern Europe. She was tall and had a severe face that was caked in garish makeup. She was wearing a skin-tight white dress that showed her sculpted legs. She had long, straightened hair. I wasn’t quite sure if she was wealthy or poor, but in her ears I could hear the rich soundtrack to her life: a pulsating beat that belonged in the club turned up way too loudly on her headphones. She rocked back and forth to the vibrations, oblivious to everyone else on the train.

And there I sat. Mousy hair. A dull raincoat. Shy and self-conscious. Boring.

It was always like that on the train. Nobody looked at each other but everyone was watching. I’m sure this woman was watching me. Did she think I was cute or plain with my shabby outfit? What about the quiet Indian couple sitting a few rows down? Or the Moroccan children throwing candies across the aisles? Or the German teenagers wearing soccer jerseys and teasing each other gently? What did they think? Here we were on this tiny train car not touching or looking at each other. But secretly, we were all watching and being watched.

Back on that night in November, rain beating on the windows, I was dreading the mundane journey from South Kensington to Rotherhithe. I knew it would be wet, the train would smell damp, and everyone would be sullen. But I wanted to go to the market to get some Finnish candies. And to get away from my cramped apartment with my fellow students from the exchange program.

It took roughly an hour and a half to get from my first stop to my last stop. When I got off the train, it was still raining, and I still had to walk to the Finnish church. I got lost for a while in this labyrinthine suburb, an outer extremity of London that lacked the historic architecture of the rest of the city. If I hadn’t known where I was, I would have guessed I was back in America by the cookie-cutter condos and housing developments that popped up on either side of me. The streets were dark. Hardly any streetlights. I turned each corner blindly, wandering, getting lost, finding my footing again. If I vanished in this dingy suburb, no one would notice. I was that far from home. The rain and wind slapped my face. I kept looking for a bright spot to signify the old Finnish church I was headed for, but I couldn’t read the street signs.

Finally I found it, mostly by accident. When I stepped inside I was bombarded by trinkets and sweets, and charmed by the petite Finnish grandmothers walking around the church serving coffee under the shockingly bright lights. The coffee warmed me. The tables of Finnish crafts were so small and sweet compared to the bulky architecture outside. For a while I forgot that I was thousands of miles from home and that I was a nobody, and that I hated London, every inch of it, and just wanted to leave.

I stepped outside the church with goodies in hand and made my way back to the train. The rain had abated by now, and I had an easier time getting back to the station. I waited on the platform, actually looking forward to my stuffy apartment to get out of the cold weather.

When I stepped on the train, I took a seat near the back. I wanted to shut my eyes until I got home; ignore the journey.

Somewhere around Wapping I jerked my eyes open. When I looked to the doors of the train I noticed a small person stepping into the car. I do not mean this person was a dwarf. I do not mean he was a child. I do not mean he was a man of short stature. He was a small person, no taller than my waist, with arms and legs perfectly proportioned to the rest of his body, and without the usual facial characteristics of a dwarf. He looked like a wool sweater that had been shrunk in a dryer. He was something out of a movie, or a dream. I opened and closed my eyes a few more times. But I was not dreaming.

My first instinct was to grab my phone and take a picture. But no, that would be rude. I noticed that a young girl sitting next to me was staring at him unabashedly. Her father noticed, too, and chastised her for staring. The tiny man said, “It’s okay,” and started to play a game of peek-a-boo with her. The child wasn’t judging him. She noticed he was small like her, and she wanted a playmate. He smiled and blushed as he brought his hands up to his face and then pulled them down. Brought them up, pulled them down. She giggled quietly from across the aisle.

Before long, the train was screeching to a stop at Shadwell and it was time to get off. It was late. There was hardly anyone on the next train, which I stayed on all the way to South Kensington. When I got back to my apartment I searched the Internet – “dwarfism,” “little person,” “pygmy,” –until I found an extremely rare condition called Primordial Dwarfism. People with this condition have completely proportional bodies, but are abnormally small, sometimes with health defects due to their condition. They typically do not live past the age of thirty.

It is generally assumed that not more than a hundred people worldwide have Primordial Dwarfism.

In a few weeks, I flew back home to America and resumed life as usual. I became myself again. I knew I was insignificant, but I was back in my own small world. I forgot about London.

But every year, in late November when it rains, I am brought back to those nights in the stinking city, wandering through the streets with wet feet and a dripping nose. It is the smell, and the sound, and the dark clouds above me that bring me back.   

Thursday, March 2, 2017

March Art Horoscope

I've been toying with the idea of doing a monthly art horoscope that observes current trends, ideas, and motifs that I've observed in the art world. Today I decided to start.

March Art Horoscope

In March you will be motivated by the turbulent ebb and flow of political events in America. You will feel an obligation, not only by your country, but by other artists who are reacting to the uprooting of the country's political system. Art that you made previous to this month will feel irrelevant in the wake of current events, and you might throw some of it in the garbage. Your inspiration will come from important figures such as Jerry Saltz, Ai Wei Wei, and the Guerrilla Girls. You may find yourself engaging in much more chanting than in January and February, and may do some crowdfunding in order to plaster your political message on billboards around your city. At the end of the month you will feel tired, confused, angry, and might look something like this:

But don't give up. April will bring a new wave of positivity as the moons of Venus and Mercury increase their rotational speed.

Monday, February 6, 2017


Here are some Polaroids (that got a little bit messed up in the cold weather, but are still nice to look at) and a short piece I wrote while visiting St. Germain, WI, over the weekend. 

I am told that St. Germain, Wisconsin was once solely inhabited by Native peoples, but this is all I know. I do not ask more because to me St. Germain is a place that was inhabited by my grandparents, is the place where my parents will retire, and the place where I come when I need refuge from the world.
It is also a place where I learned to drive, had my first job, woke up to fresh doughnuts in the mornings, caught toads in my grandmother’s garden, hiked in every season, went to flea markets in the summer, and played on the playground at the school with my brother.
It is also the place that taught me to love nature, and the place that taught me to love a place.
It is also where I sit as I write this, on a blustery night in the month of February, in a small cabin on a lake, listening to the sounds outside my window. There is a ghostly vibration in the air that cuts the night like a knife in this land of unusual quiet. It’s the snowmobiles. They’ve taken over the area for the weekend. To them, St. Germain is the place to commune with their snowmobiling friends, to drink at the bars on the main street, and to release dormant energy on the network of trails that cuts through the town.
Earlier in the day I went for a walk to escape their noise. I walked on a deserted trail on the edge of a lake that wound through the oldest hemlock forests in the Midwest. The sun cast long shadows on the snow from the trees, and I stopped at intervals to listen to the sound they made as they blew in the wind. I come to this trail in every season, and in every season it shows me something new about itself. This time I am struck by the permanent feel of the landscape around me, even though I know that nature is not permanent; it is constantly changing and being changed.  
After the hike I drove back to town. I saw a gathering of snowmobiles on the frozen Little St. Germain Lake for an annual snowmobiling competition. The event doesn’t interest me, but I thought I would walk down to the lake to observe the frenzy. As I walked I was assaulted by the thick, cloying scent of gasoline in the air. I felt dizzy. The group on the lake blasted music, tossed Frisbees to their dogs, and threw their trash onto the snow, waiting for the event to start. To me it disrupted the tranquility of the area, but they were very happy.
In moments like these I am confronted with the paradox of nature. Lawmakers, mostly conservative ones, would like to sell all of the places that we call wilderness: our public lands, parks, and forests. Yet everyone from snowmobilers to Satanic cults enjoys the use of these areas. Fossil fuels continuously disrupt the systems that keep nature intact. Yet most people need to use fossil fuels to get to nature. And repeatedly, those who visit our parks, public lands, and wild places, abuse them beyond recognition. Yet without visitors, these places would be forgotten and sold in the blink of an eye.
I am often depressed, dismayed, and anxious about these realities. In my mind, this place where I spent much of my childhood, this place that I consider to be beautiful, this place that forms much of my identity, is mine - even if snowmobilers invade it or lawmakers try to sell it. 
Yet every time I visit St. Germain I remember that it was once inhabited by Native peoples. I am reminded of this when I go to town to run errands and see the statue of Chief St. Germain standing with his arms crossed in the town center, watching the snowmobiles as they tear up the town under his nose. Tonight, neither the Chief nor I can deny that the town is inhabited by snowmobilers. 
When I finish my errands, I go back to the cabin and turn on the radio to block out their noise.