Monday, October 11, 2004

Welcome speech for the new UvA's International Students, 2004 - 2005

My first real image of Amsterdam, seven months ago, was the west side of the Numarkt (the New Market square) in the center of the city. I had arrived there by metro from central station and feeling the slow rhythm of the subway’s long electric stairs, I emerged into a gothic square painted by snow. That was an exciting January morning. Some months later I was going to meet a friend in that same square. I was riding my bike from the east, passed next to the Numarkt metro station, and suddenly, I was surprised by the intensity of the same image that had been there for me the day I first arrived to this city. It was the same angle, the same position, although not everything was the same. The colors were different, it was not a winter morning but a long spring afternoon, a cool sunset instead of a cold dawn, no snow but a red-blood light against the walls of the distorted houses. And yet, the image was the same. I stopped to watch it again, to compare it to the picture in my memory. I was also comparing myself, because after some months in Amsterdam, I had also changed.

I wonder about your first image. Hundreds of different moments and details, times and locations of arrival, interests and past decisions, which led to the very moment in which your life in Amsterdam began. Because it has begun.

But what is Amsterdam for an international student? What kind of experiences will be lived in this city? What kind of city is this? I’m still trying to answer those questions to myself; these words might just be another attempt.

The Dutch architect Rem Koolhas has named the region that links Brussels, Amsterdam and the Ruhr Valley (in West Germany) as the Hollocore. The Hollocore is a very unique region in the world. It is only 1% of European land but 9% of the European population live in it, and in spite of its world record demographic density, the Hollocore doesn’t have a single city with more than one million inhabitants. It is a networked set of countries. Many centers, short distances, precise infrastructure, the highest amount of air traffic in the world, and the most progressive, liberal political views put into practice: Gay marriage, euthanasia, sailing abortion clinics, legal distinction between hard and soft drugs, regulation of prostitution, highways without speed limit. And at the same time, it is in the Hollocore where the new forms of right wing politics are being developed, with immigrants, national identity and the transformation – or even disappearance – of the European welfare state as the main issues. However, this opposition of political ideas makes sense, because it balances different forces. Amsterdam is one of those multiple centers of the Hollocore, the biggest city, international and diverse, famous for its liberal environment and full of youth, and it is embedded in the space where all this political and social influences are interacting and melting. You will be living in this place, in this city, cosmopolitan village, center and periphery, all at the same time. You will be involved and surrounded by all these energies, not always evident, but always there.

This brief geopolitical description may anticipate the fact that Amsterdam tends to be a surreal city. If you take a look at the map, you won’t see a city but a labyrinth, an urban web in which everyone will be lost in the beginning. You will also permanently see, in buildings and corners and T-shirts, the flag of Amsterdam with its three Xs, the triple X city. Those are St Andrew’s crosses and they represent the city values: Valor, Resolution and Mercy. A popular tradition also links the crosses with the threats to the city: water, fire and pestilence. But again it makes sense because it represents a kind of equilibrium. Those values are part of the city life and of its open environment, which has, for centuries, attracted new waves of thinkers from all over the world. You are one of those waves, a new wave of young people from diverse places, that comes to learn from a formal, flexible, tolerant, and high quality academic environment but also from your everyday experience, from every instant that brings a new street, a new face, a new smile, from the music of the languages of all your new friends, from the tales they’ll tell about their home countries and cultures, from the way they cook or they dress, from the music they like, from all the ideas they will share with you and from the way they move their hands when they talk, from the way they dream, from the way they laugh, from the way they kiss. You will learn from all those subtle codes, the codes of the others, the code that you have to attempt to understand in this labyrinth that Amsterdam is.

After some weeks, maybe months, the streets and their names will begin to make sense, and you will know that you’re already part of the city, that it is possible to know the direction in which you’re moving or to meet someone somewhere without struggling with the map. Suddenly, one day, drug dealers in certain parts of the center will stop offering you the usual coca-ecstasy happy meal, because you will look and feel more local. Some of you will be frequent customers of the pub close to your student building, and others will experiment with the spirals of their minds. The red light district won’t be of interest anymore, and its windows will look more like interactive neon works of erotic modern art. You will ride bikes to the point that walking more than a block will seem unconceivable and ride back home at night with red wine in your veins and many friends around. You will see lovers kissing on top of dark bridges or in the shadows of quiet streets. Ghost boats with illegal parties inside will disappear in front of your eyes. Black cats will cross in front of you at night without changing your luck but making you think how strange the night was. You will see famous churches turned into paradise clubs, advertising agencies and exhibition halls in the middle of the sex district. You will hear and forget and learn again hundreds of names and faces and fields of study. During your days, and during your nights, with your professors, classmates and friends, in a faculty classroom or in a Hip-Hop bar, you will tell and discuss stories about global economics, EU politics, presidential media contests, labor laws, migrations, ethnic discriminations, left wing activism, AIDS research, social models, gender inequalities, sexuality, feminism, expressionist art, aesthetic history, filmmaking, techno music, poetry and beat generation novels. You will have the chance to exchange opinions and share thoughts with innumerable people from extremely different backgrounds and with very different interests, and in that exchange your new points of view will begin to appear, slowly, you will begin to feel your own intellectual transformation because you are experiencing life and looking at yourself from the other side of the mirror, because you are learning.

But to amplify that experience you have to balance the accent. The first impulse is to look for and to join the ones that are like you. To look for your same accent. And it makes sense. And it is easier, of course. But this international experience requires that you look and find and understand the other. And that is not an easy task, it involves a lot of effort because you have to comprehend the other’s code, which goes well beyond the language and into the signs that only eyes or moves or laughter or reactions convey. It is the dimension of the other’s history facing your history, the other’s previous experience interacting with yours, the other’s life sharing time and space with your own life for a fleeting year. It is there, at that point, when all these trajectories achieve an instant of balance, when you will understand. If such a thing is possible, but such a thing is what this world needs.

But where are the locals in this picture? To get in touch with the Dutch is a very important part of this effort for comprehension. The openness of the Dutch is evident in the fact that almost everyone speaks English, and in general they are not really bothered if they have to speak it when approached by a foreigner. Maybe a small signal of irritation might appear for a second and then vanish just to continue with a nice attitude. Of course, if you approach them in Dutch, just the necessary to ask for basic things, they will return a smile and an answer in English after hearing your accent (as the urban legend goes). Basic Dutch is useful to initiate casual conversations in English and relations. But if your objective is to get into a Dutch group of friends and make that relation evolve, more sophisticated language skills are needed, and that is totally reasonable, because, after all, the Dutch are not international students in Amsterdam. But they are open and kind and always interested in meeting strange people! Amsterdam has been my world, the place where I have lived for the last seven months, not a transitory experience, but a permanent and intense reality. And that’s because of my Dutch friends; because of you I have felt at home.

After your time here is over, and that’s tomorrow, what will you chose to remember? What will be the balance in your memory? Your first image of the city? the real friends that will stand the flow of thousands of text messages, mobile calls and the forgotten names on your infinite digital directory? Will it be the trip you made with your mates on a rented car to Prague, or Paris or Berlin? Or your basiq-easy-air flights to Rome, Barcelona, London or Dublin? Will it be the final party of this starting week or the first farewell dinner for one of your new friends? a class that someone recommended or a professor that made you speak with passion or a book that came out of nowhere and will be with you for the rest of your life? The foreign girl at the bar of an unexpected coffee shop or of an unexpected cafe? that ice cream in the winter or the bells of Europe ringing at the same time? Your birthday party with a happy birthday song in ten different languages? Your second or your third bike? The days of good weather when it only rained twice and the wind was on your side? The jazz house? Or those two one-night-stands? Two bikes in love while their riders are holding hands? The visit of your friends from home that made you remember your code? That boy that stayed or that girl that went back when all the trains left the central station? After reality, there will be hundreds of thousands of digital pictures left. Digital drops in the ocean of time.

Welcome to Amsterdam. Enjoy the ride.

Thank you.

Amsterdam, September 1st, 2004
By Carlos Peralta

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