Last fall, when I would tell folks that I was going to The Netherlands as a Fulbright Scholar for the spring, the response was usually something along the lines of, “So you’re going to be in Amsterdam!” This was generally not a question, but a statement. You are going to Amsterdam, they would affirm, because they could not imagine where else I might be going. Where else is there in The Netherlands?
Speaking of The Netherlands, there was also some confusion about which country, exactly, we were talking about. Was it in Scandinavia? Perhaps Denmark, since they speak Dutch? The “The” seems to confuse people — the capitalized, definite article can appear pretentious perhaps — but there was generally a quick nod of recognition when I mentioned Holland (which, technically, is a region of the Netherlands but is a name many Dutch people use in English). And there was always a reassurance that wherever “Holland” might be, everyone would speak in English. Why would you even bother trying to learn such a crazy language as Dutch?
In fact, I am not in Amsterdam but in Zwolle, which is a little more than an hour east of Amsterdam. This makes it, for those of you from New York, somewhere equivalent to a town on the Long Island Sound, or, for my NOLA buddies, over on the North Shore. But Zwolle is not, in fact, a bedroom community of Amsterdam; rather, it is the capital of the province of Overijssel. It is a medieval town that still retains one of the original gates from the wall that used to surround it. The city center is built in the star shape typical, Wikipedia tells me, of the Hanseatic League, a 13th-century confederation of merchant guilds and market towns in Northwestern and Central Europe.
Zwolle was founded around 800 CE, Wikipedia continues, by Frisian merchants and some of Charlemagne’s troops; the name Zwolle (ZVOH-luh) comes from the word suolle or hill (the English cognate is “to swell”) because it was the only little incline in an area surrounded by four rivers that did not flood. Thus, my New Orleans friends, I am living in the original “sliver by the river” (or, rather, “het strookje bij de rivier”).
I really don’t mean to make fun of people who don’t know about Zwolle, or even The Netherlands. This country and its geography are normally not on our quotidian American radar, and most of us (me included) have a provincial tendency to generalize about places, the farther they are from our experience and knowledge. Just the other day, I excitedly reported to my sister, the other Dr. Y, that my class includes, among other nationalities, “Dutch, German, Bulgarian, Latvian, and African students!” as if, because Africa is so distant a continent, it could stand for a country (in this case, Gambia).
My class, by the way, is about “Diversity, Social Justice, and Inclusion”; it is a requirement for every second year student at Windesheim Honours College, which only offers one degree, a BBA in Global Change Management. The program is built around the United Nations’ seventeeen sustainable development goals, and students come from all over Europe, and also from Africa and Asia, because they want to learn to change the world. I am also coaching a team of four students in their “value creator” semester, in which they work specifically to “create value” around one of those UN goals: my team has decided to focus on designing a sex education program and resources for refugees. Being a midwife to social justice, to my mind, is a pretty compelling reason to spend a semester in Zwolle.
Over the next few months, I hope you’ll share my adventures, moving beyond what the brilliant Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozo Adichie would call the “single stories” of Dutch culture (wooden shoes, cheese, tolerance, Anne Frank) to explore its complexity, and to uncover the lessons of inclusion and social justice that can be revealed at a very modern university in a very old town. Met vriendlijke groets, Naomi