Siblog 50: Some amateur anthropologist’s field notes

Goucher College: Class of 1979

Greg and Dana’s cat Wolfie comes begging for some strokes. I am at the Reston residence, at the table with Cornelia. Both of us are taking stock after our travels to Baltimore and Philadelphia. I was able to take a limited number of field notes during that trip, which was a whirlwind of American beauty like the Eastern State Penitentiary, the Barnes Foundation Museum (Philly) and Fells Point (Balty). As an amateur anthropologist I know that buildings and other cultural expressions do reflect a people’s culture. However, the people themselves speak most. During this trip, Cornelia introduces me to many of her friendships, some of which go back decades: Jennifer, Mark, Richard, Natalie, Megan, Tim (Baltimore tribe) and Jennifer, Martin and Eleanor (Philladelphia tribe). Also, I am present at an alumni/ae meeting of the Goucher College tribe. Cornelia is of the class of 1979 and it is a 45-year reunion. This allows me to study academic social life in more detail. But let me start in Fells Point, Baltimore.

Colored houses near Fells Point

Our first stay is at Jennifer’s appartment in Baltimore, which offers a beautiful view of Baltimore harbor at Fells Point. She and her friend Mark take us on a tour in the area. This is an old part of Baltimore, where stevedores and sailors came to enjoy the jollies of Baltimore. Small houses and cute pubs reflect that past. Taken over by the tourist industry, highly gentrified, chique. Our Dutch and American lives meet, and the mutual history that Cornelia shares with these friends passes by in our chats. But we also talk politics and cultural differences. Although in the Netherlands we also currently have a right-winged majority, the situation in the United States is much more polarized. There are only two parties and they rule in turns. Sometimes the President is a Republican, sometimes a Democrat. And the House of Representatives (Tweede Kamer in The Netherlands) and the Senate (Eerste Kamer in The Netherlands) also vary with regard to which party has the majority. Almost never does one party have the presidency and both houses. It is as if the Americans do strive for balance in their voting. However, the political situation is tense with two elderly candidates: a Republican who is on trial for efforts to manipulate the previous elections, and a reasonable Democrat who did pretty well for the American people. If the dictator-to-be wins or loses does not really seem to matter. In my conversations with Cornelia’s East Coast friends there is talk of huge polarization and even a threat of civil war and a division of the country in two or three parts. In Philly I buy a print of the US Constitution, because I want to know more about the foundations of this country. Meanwhile, Natalie takes us to Ellicott City, a small town hit by two floods in two years. There is a definitely some consciousness about the climate on Earth here, but urgency still seems low. People still drive in their big cars, consume a lot and produce huge amounts of garbage. Little cycling or walking, too. Both are considered dangerous, although I see a lot of car drivers showing true courtesy to pedestrians, too.

Eastern State Penitentiary, first and second floor

The Philadelphia Tribe has a multicultural orientation. In the Gay District we enjoy a nice lunch with Eleanor, a former poetry teacher of Cornelia at Goucher College. Although the art collection of the Barnes Foundation in Philly is excellent and makes us feel drunk with visual impressions, for me a main highlight is the old Eastern State Penitentiary. It is a crumbling ruin, embodying new ideas about confinement in the first prison of the United States. The idea of the prison was that prisoners should be on their own, in silence, with a lot of outside light and fresh air, to make them think of the wrong they did. This is reflected in the building, which was opened in 1829 and closed in 1971. Five cell blocks form a star with a central hall in the middle. It is a depressing building, for us but definitely for its previous inmates. Solitary confinement did in the end prove devastating for the prisoners and did probably not contribute to remorse and moral progress. Rather, it would drive the prisoners crazy and even more eager to escape. I learn there that the USA has the highest number of incarcerated people in the world. I do take a lot of pictures here, to show the beauty of decay and imperfection, which has become a central theme in my photographic work. While in Philly, we stay at Jennifer and Martin’s house in Media, a suburb way outside of Philly. It is a calm, green and still vibrant environment. It is a transition town, a really interesting concept with a lot of local initiatives regarding human-sized alternatives for a sustainable and social community. We especially love the trolley, see below.

Trolley from Media to Philadelphia, 69th street

I will now revert to Dutch again.

Siblog 49: Urban, suburban and natural

Metal red cardinal at Tysons Corner

This Tuesday we plan to consult a medicine woman to let Cornelia’s eye check. She is available within the next hour so we decide to have a Starbucks coffee nearby. When we have our coffees, I see a nice spot near the window with comfortable seats and a lot of light. A man I do not pay a lot of attention to is already in that corner. We sit there for a while, but Cornelia wants to move further inside the establishment. She has a bad feeling about the man in the corner. She is already at the other table, waving me to come over and take our stuff there. I do that. However, her premonition is all to right. Because I am in such haste, we both forget that Cornelia’s purse is still hanging on the corner seat. When we discover that, it is too late. The purse is gone, and so is the eery man. There is a cheque in there that we were to cash for a friend, some cards (including Cornelia’s Medicare card), and some personal stuff. Most things get resolved. We are lucky that Cornelia still has her creditcards and green card. That would have been disaster. We then set out or go to Tysons corner, a huge mall nearby. It is a jungle of concrete and marble and we spend a lot of time finding our way to the shops. We do not find what we need and advertisements scream at us to buy what we do not need. In the lower parts of the mall it is dark and many workers in the shops seem bored, looking at their phones, lacking customers. This is urban capitalism at its worst. At Walmart a bit further away we do find what we need: a charger for the laptop I write this blog on, and an ironing board for Greg and Dana’s household. We walk 12.000 steps and feel exhausted.

Wednesday is suburban day. I go for a walk around Lake Audubon, close to Dana’s and Greg’s house. The lake breathes pleasure: beautiful houses with docks where they have floating platforms one can have parties on. There is a path around the lake, but at a certain point i get lost in Suburbia. Some houses are at the lake, and their path is theirs. An important principle inside the American tribe is property. One should own as much as one can and one should protect it against others who try to steal one’s belongings. Belongings make one belong to this tribe. The weather is mild, and I take my time to take pictures. I see a nest with two elder birds and I see and hear a fishcrow. These creatures are so lucky to live near a lake named after the great ornithologist and bird painter John James Audubon. I take many pictures of some extraordinary members of the Suburban Plant Tribe.

Two deer on the Twin Branches trail

On Thursday I take a walk in the woods, which I consider as Nature (although I can sometimes see the houses throught the trees). I follow the meandering paths of the Twin Branches trail leading to the Washington and Old Dominion trail. Here, nature seems abundant and alive. Fallen trees are left to their own devices, providing homes to the Insect tribe and food to the other members of the Tree tribe. The light green of spring jumps to the eyes and reaches to the skies. I see deer and am able to take a picture of them (see left).

Siblog 48: East Coast tribes

Vacation! This Saturday Cornelia and I fly to the East Coast, to meet many of her family and friends. Two Boeing 737 MAX’s fly us to Reykjavik, Iceland and then to Dulles, Washington DC. These planes have disastrous reputations, but the first plane holds. Iceland is icy. We quickly get into the bus that transfers us to the warm airport. Over Greenland we experience some pretty hefty turbulence. The second plane also holds and we don’t lose a single door. Getting into the Unites States is the real ‘disaster’. Dulles airport border control has three tills open for hundreds of foreign passengers. I am so happy that I decided to stop waiting. Now I enjoy watching all these people from multiple tribes, trying to deal with the wait: silencing or distracting their children, checking their phones, calling their family, looking at points in the distance. I decide that I will approach this vacation as a Dutch anthropologist studying various American tribes. For them to understand my experiences, I write my siblog in English. Driving to Reston with Greg and Cornelia, I get initiated into the American McDonalds food habits. It is not my habit to eat chicken McNuggets at nine o’clock, but to be accepted as a participant observer I think it is better that I do.

To amuse myself, I make this trash can collage
Cornelia & friends

After a short sleep at Villaridge Drive we wake up to prepare for a welcome party in the Italian Oven on Sunday. Cornelia organizes it and it is a great success. I meet many members of the Cody, Goucher and Park tribes, but also Paraguayans and Ecuadorians. I speak Dutch with Huib, who came to the USA as a child. Although born on Frisian tribal soil, he speaks no Frisian. Italian pizzas and salads at the oven are good, and Jorge plays the guitar and sings Spanish songs for us. One of the main events is Cornelia’s bottle dance, a national dance of Paraguay. It is spectacular. I meet many people and at the end of the party I find sixty dollars in my pocket that were not there before. I have a suspicion who did that, but will not say. It is a great gesture from one of the American tribe members.

On Monday both of us wake up early, compensate our lack of sleep with tiny naps. Since I am repairing Greg and Dana’s sliding door, I need some tools from Home Depot. It is 3.3 miles, so I decide to walk it. The American tribe basically travels by car and many consider four miles too far. After a short discussion with Cornelia she decides to let me go. It is hot and I do not wear the right clothes. Dressed for Dutch coolness. I see many cyclists and pedestrians with short trousers and short sleeves. I have a great walk, spotting several members of the Animal Tribe, like bumblebee, a black snake and a red cardinal, the Virginia state bird carrying a beautiful song. Om my way back home a huge shower, hail and all, is supposed to soak me. Miraculously, at that point in time I arrive at a tunnel that offers me shelter. Over my head, cars rush through huge amounts of water. Next, the heavens start smiling again, pooring huge amounts of sun rays over wetted streets. I follow the Washington and Old Dominion trail.I am amazed by the power of nature in these lands, as I am by the power of the culture. Americans are true builders and engineers. The bridge below captures the way that is so leading in this tribe.

Colourful view on the trail
American Dream Way bridge, Washington and Old Dominion trail

That night, we have dinner with friends Cornelia knows from the travels of her father, who was in the Foreign Service Tribe. They own a beautiful house in Potomac, which has a beautiful eastern decoration inside: Boeddhas, rugs, embroidered screens, Chinese pottery. Lovely, it seems to taks us back in time. We talk about times passing by and I have a nice dicsussion with Jim about America politics, how I look at the American tribe as a European and what we should do about the world considering the state it is currently in. There are threats of dictatorship in this young democracy that worry Jim. Elections are coming, bringing two elders in the arena with totally opposite views on the future of the country. As a participant observer, this conversation is gold for my study of the American tribe. I learn about this tribe first-hand, from the inside out.

Siblog 47: Woordspelingen en twee steden met een A

Dwars door een nog niet door projectontwikkelaars ontdekt braakliggend landje loop ik naar de halte van lijn 73. Geplette blikjes, koffiebekers, plastic flesjes, voer voor plandelaars. Is de lucht die ik inadem zuiver of op den duur dodelijk? Het jonge lenteloof geeft antwoord: het belooft verse zuurstof. Ik hoor en zie een zoemend insect, ze zijn er nog. Vandaag doe ik een dagje Amsterdam met als cultureel hoogtepunt een voorstelling over de woordgrap, waar ik als humordeskundige optreed.

Kantoor in Amsterdam-West

Ik wandel door Oud Zuid, een mooie wijk met diverse architectuur. Mijn doel is kringloopwinkel Muna, een flinke tippel. Onderweg kom ik De Knappe Knip tegen, waar een oudere vrouw de scepter (kam & schaar) zwaait. Haar hele leven vol van ergernissen, pijn en teleurstelling trekt aan me voorbij. Ze kan goed knippen en de ergste slierten zijn eraf. Zo kom ik wel langs de Amerikaanse douane volgende week. West en Muna zijn rustig. Veel kantoren, kuierende mensen. Amsterdam is rustig in West Manu, en plakkerig en vol in Centrum.

Ik neem tram 17 naar het centrum. Rood bakstenen fantastische gebouwen trekken voorbij, geflankeerd door bollende bloesem. Berlage? Amsterdamse school? De binnenstad is druk. Vol van vooral jonge mensen. Een keer diep inademen en je bent stoned. Een Braziliaanse band trommelt en mijn borst vibreert mee. In de Aap van Brabant klok ik twee alcoholvrije witbieren naar binnen. Ik moet immers nog ‘werken’, vanavond. Ondertussen lees ik twee vers aangeschafte en zeer bruikbare grammaticaboeken door. Heb ik wat aan.

Reservering van mijn stoel in Betty Asfalt

Maar het is nog niet op. In het sfeervolle Betty Asfalt theater word ik tijdens een reprise van de Nationale Avond van de Woordgrap geïnterviewd door Michiel Eijsbouts en Victor Mastboom. Ze maken geen grappen over mijn naam en ik ook niet. Ik draag mijn enige T-shirt met een woordgrap erop: Cycologist. Ik krijg na een dolle avond een medaille, een grote homp Stilton kaas (voor een minuut Stilton) en een lekkere fles rode Italiaanse wijn mee.

De volgende dag is het tijd voor die andere stad met een A, Arnhem. Ik heb een bijeenkomst met de Advaitanen. Ik reis met de ICE, proef de internationale sfeer en zie een conflict tussen een Koerd en een Engelstalige toerist over een gereserveerde plaats. De Koerd verliest, en ik nodig hem uit naast me te komen zitten. Een heel aardige man die vreselijk uit zijn mond stinkt. Hij gaat naar familie in Duisburg. Vanaf Arnhem CS neem ik eerst de buurtbus naar kringloopwinkel Rataplan. Ik koop daar Theater vanuit het niets, over improvisatie. Lijkt me ook nog weleens leuk om te doen. In Brew2cup praten wij Advaitanen gevijven lang en diep over non-dualiteit, nu-causaliteit en ruzie. Advaita behelst de gedachte van non-dualiteit, maar het moet volgens ons allemaal echt geen leer worden, met aanhangers en zo. Dat is verfrissend. Zo fijn om met gelijkgestemden te zijn.

Vissteeg Arnhem, high contrast monochrome