Socialisern in Nederland—Socializing in The Netherland

On the bicycle trip, the loaded bikes were an entryway for daily conversations with strangers. Aging on the Run—living in different countries every month — finding other people to talk to in meaningful ways has been challenging. We’ve learned to appreciate small encounters: being recognized the second time by a vendor at a farmer’s market,  a Dober Dan,  Bom Dia, Guten Tag, or Diten e mire, an exchange of smiles or lifted eyebrows with someone on a train, throwing a ball back to a child, a pat on the shoulder.

Deep connections have been missing. In The Netherlands, we made up for it.

Anne Marie is a friend from graduate school who I reconnected with two years ago when she asked me to Zoom with her graduate students at the University of Groningen’s Graduate Program in American Studies.

Buildings as a platform for design, Groningen. University building.

She assigned my book. I did two classes, one on the history of social movements in Minneapolis, and the other on Allegiance to Winds and Waters.

Through Anne and her students, I became aware of Groningen, a university town in The Netherlands with a robust bicycle culture. I wanted to see my friend in person,  and the city that allowed her to thrive as an academic and a person in ways that Texas and the US Midwest did not.

Anne was planning a vacation in June and invited us to stay at her place. We arrived in town two days before her departure to spend time together.

Groningen, The Netherlands: youthful city of bikes and boats. 

Our dinner at Anne’s place and lunch at a café the next day fed a piece of me I didn’t realize was so hungry. With drinks at night and coffee at lunch, conversation flowed fast and diverted down deep and slow streams and eddies that rippled and bubbled. Laughter. Connection to the past, a check-in on the present, hopes for the future. COVID made these kinds of connections harder for all on this planet. For me, introvert extraordinaire, they are always a hurdle.

I told Anne about a time when we were both teaching in the Chicano Studies Department, I attended a national conference, and our colleagues thought I was her. Understandable. After all, we both have two eyes, a mouth, round faces, and the same first name.  I think for some, it did not fit that I was not a Chicana at this national Chicana/o studies conference, so people made me one of them by referring to me by her Spanish surname. The misnaming also reflected the automized nature that instructors outside of tenure-track positions experience in most US universities.

Anne told me about recent events on her campus. The University of Groningen students began an occupation on May 13 to protest their University’s lack of condemnation of the genocide in Gaza. Two days before we arrived, while students were all participating in a rally off campus, the University cleared the tents.

Anne was one of the professors who, under the auspices of the Dutch Scholars for Palestine, issued a statement of solidarity that read in part:

…We stand behind the students’ non-negotiable demands to disclose, divest, and boycott institutions complicit in the ongoing genocide in Palestine. In light of nationwide tightening of protest rules, we urge the Board of the University to consider the risks to students’ safety from police violence, privacy infringement and intimidation that constrains fundamental freedoms. We are appalled at the reactions of University of Amsterdam and Utrecht University Boards to similar encampments… in the face of genocide, taking a political stance is inevitable and not taking one amounts to complicity.

Anne was proud of how the statement took a stand for protest as an educational endeavor that fulfills university goals: Through these encampments, [students] demonstrate their agency, solidarity, critical thinking, and social awareness, qualities that any university should value and nourish

Staying in Anne’s house with its books on race, ethnicity, radical Catholicism, history, and sociology, fed my intellect. Her small town is full of beautiful Mexican art with Virgins of Guadalupe protecting every room. Objects of meaning. A refuge.

Sidewalk memorial to people who once lived here, who perished in Nazi concentration camps, Groningen


Connecting with Anne Marie would have been enough to fill the cup for the month, but our time with her was one of many social encounters in Den Nederlands.

I got a haircut from a man in his 30s from Ottawa, Canada. It was Sunday, I was desperate. Most stores were closed. His sign said Closed Sundays, but the door was open. He was doing a fundraiser for the Alzheimer’s Association, along with a friend offering massages. Full amount donated. Lucky for the A.A. and for me.

“My appointments are usually booked six weeks out.”

He came to The Netherlands seven years ago, following his Florida husband, who landed a job surveying artic regions, with a base in Groningen. They just bought a house here, expecting to stay. At first, he had a hard time getting a job. “They can be quite bigoted here. I kept hearing: ‘You are not Dutch? we don’t want you.’

I wondered if his body tattoos and piercings were also an issue.

He continued:  “I told them—find someone else trained by the best in New York City, who has won as many awards.  While you’re looking, I’ll have a cup of coffee. I’ll source my beans in Colombia, roast them in Ottawa, bring them to a perfect boil in Groningen, and I’ll still be waiting.”

The cut took a good 90 minutes, and his commentary continued. The Pride March in Groningen asked him to MC this year. His parents were coming to visit.

“I’m my mom’s favorite. Not Dad’s. Can’t win ‘em all.” But his dad asked him to send a list of things he wants done on his house. He wants to leave his son and his son’s husband with a more secure and beautiful home. Seems like love to me.

My hairdo is a cut above. Thicker, bouncier. And I made a friend.

Pride, Groningen.


During our three days in Den Haag we visited with Charlotte, and her spouse Lizzie. Charlotte is the daughter of our dear friends Ingrid and Tom. She and Lizzie  were on a visit to The Netherlands when COVID hit. Unable to go home or out, they got a beautiful place by the beach,  Lizzie entered a PhD program in botany and Charlotte got a remote high-tech job. Currently she works for Turn It In, the software that helps professors recognize a plagiarized paper. In February of 2022, when the war in Ukraine began, they sheltered refugees. Personal lives touching the world.

Charlotte is a climber like no one else, except maybe her brother. On a visit to see her mom when she was still a teenager, she climbed every building, we encountered: Spider Woman for real. I half expected her to climb Den Haag’s ancient or postmodern buildings as we walked, but now she feeds her need to scale heights by organizing climbing trips all over the world. As we talked about our travels, she would say,  “I climbed there.” Lizzie takes them to far-off places to see rare flowers bloom.  Between climbing and hunting rare plants, they travel far and wide.

Charlotte met us with her bicycle— a road bike that stood out among the Dutch uprights. We walked with her to the indoor parking lot for bikes in the center of town and got to see how they park hundreds of bikes in a small space, with pulleys to create two levels.  She took us on a walking tour of the park, the palace, and the promenades, and then we shared a $10 bottle of water, at a cafe where you pay for the comfortable outdoor seats and the parade. We met Lizzie for dinner and beer We talked old days when we met her parents and were a foursome, and they talked about plans for the future. Barring no unforeseen plague or pestilence they are returning to California in the fall. Lizzie will be looking for research positions, Charlotte wants to explore other heights.

*The Conference was an intense socialization for me. We tried to sneak David into a few sessions, to no avail. This was the first time I did anything without him since last October. I didn’t have deep conversations, as I met Dave for breaks and meals, but to be in crowded rooms taking notes, and talking about global catastrophes, was intense. I could not get over the dispassionate nature of our discussions: a war-caused famine that killed 2.3 million, a nuclear testing toxic waste causing generations of genetic defects in humans and animals.  No tears, raised voices, joy, or despair, just chart after chart. As one presenter said: “Our ability to collect data has grown exponentially.”  Passion is not important, I kept telling myself. Impact is. What impact the conference had on the planet I do not know. On a very personal and inconsequential level, it pulled me out of my two-person world. For Dave, however, it was a lonely three days.

In The Netherlands, casual conversations with strangers happened more easily.  We went to Schiermonnikoog Island and stayed at an Inn that served breakfast.

Two days with the same group of people. With most we exchanged pleasantries.

One couple in their 70s sat next to us both days. They have been coming to the Island every year for decades. They walked across France, one segment every vacation, during their 50s. They are worried about our election. “We all are, here in Europe. What happens in the US affects us. It seems you have no good choices. Money runs your elections and that is very bad for democracy. Trump, again, would be very bad for Europe.”


We met the couple again at the bike rack, where a small committee of guests gathered to give us advice and help locking and unlocking Dutch bikes. The man said, “ We have a saying: if we meet a third time, we buy you champagne.” The third encounter didn’t happen, but the feeling of being part of the community continued. At lunch time we sought shade at the only place it existed on the beach: underneath the red lighthouse. I was worried we were doing something unacceptable, to sit on the ground at a place that was an attraction for school groups and others.    But the kids and teachers who ran around the historic structure were super friendly.  A man with middle school kids stopped to approve of our picnic out of the sun. He had a brother who lived in Chicago.

Most people in The Netherlands had some relatives in the US. On the bus back to Groningen, David sat with a man in his forties from Amsterdam with a brother in Texas. He asked about Dave’s children. He had never heard of non-binary people and They/Them pronouns and had questions. He knew all about the US election. He didn’t understand Dave’s comment about a genocide that the President abetted. He liked Biden and believed he would win. (It was the day before the disastrous Biden /Trump CNN debate).

Also, on the bus were young women doing a crossword puzzle. The quest for answers became a whole bus effort. The puzzle was in Dutch, but there was one question we could help with: American writer: three letters. (Email me the correct answer and I’ll send you a treat from Norway).

On the train to Amsterdam to catch the plane to Oslo, we sat next to a seventeen-year-old girl from Raleigh North Carolina, visiting her Dutch grandparents. Her mom and older sibling were sitting a few seats away.  She smiled at me when I put my dirty shoe on Dave’s lap and a clumps of mud fell all over the space between us. She let me plug my phone into her battery outlet. We heard about her annual summer trips to the Netherlands. “ I miss out on all the summer activities with friends.”  But she loved being bilingual, and her grandma’s cooking. She will begin college at Wake Forest University to study Forensic Science, in the fall. “I love dead things.” She was dressed in black with dyed black hair. Her demeanor was happy. She treated us like new friends, though we were probably her grandparents’ age, and we did the same. She watched the Biden/Trump debate. “It matters a lot for young women like me and for  my sibling.

Strangers were noticeably more friendly in the Netherlands than in Bremen, Germany, for example. Children and adults said hello, and offered a hand, especially if we looked lost or were wearing our backpacks. At one point we arrived hot and tired, with backpacks, to a café and then realized we had no money. The woman told us to sit and gave us glasses of tap water with tiny bites of brownie. Here in Norway, where I write, our host is friendly. We liked him right away. He went out of his way to pick us up at the train station. As we walked to his house, I said hello to someone we passed. She looked startled. Our host informed me that people in Norway do not greet each other on the street.

Back in Groningen we rented bikes one day and rode into the countryside. At one treelined intersection facing a farm, there was a picnic table. Another couple were using it. We rode on and then, finding no other suitable place for a picnic, decided if someone was using it on our way back, we would ask to share. There was. We did. The two were our age, out for a late afternoon picnic tea. They brought a thermos of hot water, two glass tea cups, tea bags, and pastries. I coveted those glass tea cups and the seeking of simple pleasure they represented.

The act of sharing public space, our pleasant conversation, comfortable contemplative silences, the sun on the field, and the sweet taste of peanut butter crackers and strawberries after a ride, were a reminder of what the world can be.