On belonging

North of Terblijterweg, behind a hill by Discusworp, there is an island. A moat snakes around its outline; blotches of bright-green algae float on its murky water. In summer, white geese flock to the banks, nesting behind a screen of puzzlegrass and dull shrubbery. By midfall, they are gone, leaving behind a sea of feathers and dried excrement on the slope.

The island, small and bleak, is a host to two schools and three residential houses — each has three stories and a brick facade, a combination of gray and brown. From the top floor of the big school, through a window, one could see beyond the hill at the towering beige condominium, the fenced parking lot, the secluded dog paths shrouded with trees. Once in a while, children would bike across the road, heading downtown, with shiny orange plastic pads strapped to their wheels, rotating rapidly.

This place, this island, is where I used to live prior to college.

The town where it resides is called Maastricht, a three-hour train ride from Amsterdam, towards the south. I was there on a generous scholarship to pursue a high school diploma away from my home country Indonesia. My parents, both ordinary civil servants, had slipped a thin envelope containing a few hundred euros in my backpack before I boarded the plane. A note was scribbled on its face: Dine outside with your friends sometimes. The money, clutched in my hand at the airport, was all I had for my two years in Maastricht.

From the beginning, my relationship with the island was clear: it was my home. Still portraits of its paved yard, the dank corridor leading up to the gym, the revolving main door with black brush along the bottom edge — all of them are still vivid in my head, permanently lodged in my memories. The island was where I spent most of my time, working on problem sets and essays, laying on a patch of grass, lounging around with friends.

I knew, from day one, that I was going to pack a lifetime into the two years I spent on the island. I had countless first moments there: first snow, first cuddle, first time meeting people from countries I did not know existed. I learned tricks and shortcuts on the island, when to sneak out to another house, which classrooms were more likely to be haunted. I attended parties and witnessed Indians dancing to Pakistani music, Spaniards gorging on Mexican food, house parents arguing over girls and boys together. I dipped my fingers in numerous birthday offerings: cakes made of Oreos, layered margarita pizzas mounted on a baking tray, chicken curry and bean soup. By the time I had to leave for college, I was ready: I was proud of having fully “lived” on the island.

During my studies there, I rarely ventured into town. The only times I left the island were for my community service, grocery shopping, or when my friends asked me to tag along on their weekend excursions. I dined outside the island only seven times, three of which were thanks to conferences. I only remember two street names in the entire town and made a point to never learn Dutch despite the school’s obligatory courses. My mental map of Maastricht is a constellation of the only few spots I frequently visited: the retail area, a mosque very far away from the island, Jumbo, and a tiny English course center where I used to work. I never went to the bookstore inside the church, or the coffee shop with the chocolate fountain. I turned a blind eye to Dutch politics and would not know the answer if asked what life in a typical Dutch household in Maastricht is like. How they eat, what they find funny, which TV shows they watch.

At first, I was convinced that it was all because I liked living in a bubble, behind the border of my island. I felt a sense of belonging there. I was not a foreigner in a Dutch town anymore; I was a foreigner in a pool of foreigners, of fellow international students who, like me, were all in the process of adapting. The fact that the island felt detached from anything Dutch gave me the right to call it home.

Maastricht, the town itself, was just lurking in the background. Festivals were happening, Saturday flea markets were held, but I never went — though I basked in knowing that they happened so close to the island. Sometimes, when I did go to the city, I would look at a cathedral, with tourists coming out of its arched door, and think about how I had just sat there on the cold pew inside. I would observe people eating chicken basquaise at a French restaurant and suddenly feel that my stomach was full. I would walk into a shop, try on some clothes and shawls, but never really buy anything. My relationship with the town was often more imaginary than real, second-hand than direct.

I was reluctant to engage with Maastricht outside of the island; the experience of exploring the town felt repeatable to me, inconsequential, deferrable. Maastricht was still going to be there tomorrow. Vrijtkhof, the waffle shop, Meuse River — everything will remain intact in its place years from today. I can always return to the cathedral or the basquaise restaurant any time. I can always save enough money, book a flight, and land in Schiphol in case I desperately want to see Holland.

But the island — I was scared of missing its moments and of letting a second pass without my witnessing. There was always a trade-off in my mind: that the more time I spent in the city, either volunteering or buying packs of pasta, the less time I would have left with my friends. In my head, the island existed in a different time zone, its clock always rushing, minutes ahead. Like Maastricht, the island will still remain in its place years from now. But it was never about the space that I was attached to, that I occupied, but the time period. I did not simply live on the island. I lived on it in a specific time with specific people. If I did not get to know the islanders during my days on the island, then I had absolutely missed the chance to know who they were in 2014, 2016, or beyond. Then I have deprived myself the ability to say, in the event that I meet them one day in the future, that they have changed, or that some parts of them still remain the same: the garrulity, the precariousness, the accent, the obsession with certain songs.

My approach to being a part of community, to living in general, has always been about witnessing growth. I crave to see traces of time, of experience, on the faces of people that I encounter daily. If I did not have that ability, if it was not part of the deal, then I’d be sure to put minimum effort into integrating myself. I find it extremely difficult to live in a community where people just come and go, where relationships are transient, where the only things I know about people are their names and professions. This traffic — of people simply visiting, never truly around — frustrates me. It gives me the license to basically not care at all. To walk past people without the slightest intention to smile. To look at them and think that no matter how many times we have bumped into each other, we will still remain permanent strangers.

In Abu Dhabi, where I go to college now, this is the kind of community that I live with. The setting is almost the same: my college, like my high school in Maastricht, is also nestled on an island — Saadiyat Island. Itis also located quite far away from the city and the campus area is also reasonably secluded. Despite the similarities, I do not (or have not), however, feel the same anxiety that I did in high school. Abu Dhabi and Saadiyat Island do not exist in different time zones or as separate terrains. In the city or on campus, I feel equally anonymous, foreign and alone. The urgency and the desire to spend time with friends on Saadiyat Island, to belong, is often absent.

From the way my global college education is set up, everyone in my university is bound to move around. January term away, semester abroad, summer course in the US — all of these contribute to people never rooted simply in one place, on a single campus. One semester you may meet A, the next she might be gone in Buenos Aires. The semester after, she will be back in Abu Dhabi, but you will be away in Sydney. The next time you meet her, she will be graduating, with a job offer in hand, soon gone –  you, entering your senior year.

On campus, where people have their majors and clubs and things to tend to, everyone seems to be shelved into their own private worlds. The friends I have made in college, most of them, are those I have taken classes or worked on a project with — almost exclusively so. I am certain that there are more people out there in my college community that would perhaps make good friends, but I have yet to meet them. In high school, if such people existed, I would have, in one way or another, found a way to talk to them, because meeting them was inevitable. But in college, where everyone coexists but revolves around different orbits, there is a higher chance that I may never see them at all.

On the island in Maastricht, because the place was small, everyone was conditioned to interact with one another, although it was not the interaction that made me feel less like a permanent stranger to the islanders. Rather, it was the sheer habit of seeing them around, of having them near. Above all, it was the fact that we shared the same reality. We all knew each other. We knew all the house parents. We all attended the same conferences, the same holi festival, the same prom. We could agree on which teacher was the funniest or which was better at teaching geography. We could talk about the same subject or an event on the island for hours. In college, because things are changing so quickly, there is a sense that other students and I do not always live the same, full reality and instead only share fragments of it. It is not necessarily a bad thing; it just is what it is.

In high school, even in such a place where social exchanges were seemingly contained, we did not, of course, all get along. The community was not perfect. It was simply what I was, and still am, more accustomed to. On my last day on the island, I wept for everyone, including people I only shared perfunctory chatters with in the library. The mere knowledge that they were going to be absent from my life, that I had lost the chance, just the chance, to talk to them and laugh with them and celebrate their birthdays, tore me apart.

In my journal, as a writing exercise, I often write pages after pages of just pure description of the island: the rich soil behind Kurt Hahn building, the square plasterboard ceiling of the school, the gray rooftop carpeted with pebbles (the one that was going to be turned into a garden, but never was). And in my description, there is rarely any mention of the islanders. I keep them from occupying the places I describe because I like the idea of them being by my side, out of sight but present, taking in the view at the exact same time that I did, experiencing the island together, looking at how the moat turned from clear to seaweed-green, trying to shoo away the aggressive geese.

I see the description in my journal as my secret love letter to the islanders. I have shared some bits here and hope, beyond anything else, that it would remind any of them, who happen to find their way into this piece, of the home that they once shared with me: the home nestled on an island in the south of Netherlands. Home of bygone time, lodged in the two years that we will never be able to repeat, even if we return to the island and live the way we once lived. And if somehow, it reminds them of me sitting by their side, laughing with them, out of sight but forever present, then I shall be grateful.

Because I, too, remember you.

 

This piece is part of our Invisible Cities series.
Artwork by Nop Briex, “Views on Maastricht”

 

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