I lost my voice in Amsterdam. The day before I was meant to fly out for my second session’s study tour, the chords of my vocals went flat. I was hacking and sputtering so much on arrival I was worried my hotel roommate might smother me with a pillow in my sleep.
As much as I love to hear myself talk, my new croaky rasp wasn’t super alluring. It suddenly meant all my experiences had the sanctity and focus of a Tibetan monk’s silence. Mine just wasn’t voluntary. I was forced to be more perceptive, but given the influx of new perspective that I witnessed in the Netherlands, I’m glad.
The eerie sentimentality I felt running my hand along a banister in the Anne Frank House – hearing her dad tearily admit after reading her diary that parents can never truly know their children; the uncanny valley of robotic doll women posing in the windows of the Red Light District – dorkily wondering whether I was supposed to smile and wave, whether I was interrupting their work; the hoops of cordiality the wizard-cloaked lawyers had to jump through at the International Criminal Court – one British bigwig demanding the prosecution “get their act together” and me wanting to shout “OHHHH!” like they’d just dissed each other in a hip-hop cipha.
I’m a Human Rights major. This city was the mothership calling me home. Where I’d intended to babble my way through it and flaunt how much I already knew, I was forced to shut up. Observe. It’s amazing how much you can learn when you sound like Clint Eastwood and want no one to know.
I could empathize better. On my terrifying bike tour, in between proving it was actually possible to forget how to ride one, I went from being a cocky pedestrian to demanding why all these cocky pedestrians weren’t stopping for me.
And at the refugee asylum, the point of the whole class trip, I realized I’d only relished the excitement in displacement and not reflected on the pain of it. As deeply bummed as I was to be heading home to America in a few weeks, at least I got to. At least I had a home.
I was confronted with the concept “non-refoulement,” in which some kids can’t be returned to their country because of its death penalty for leaving. There was this tragic reality of limbo etched on their faces. They were 12, but weighed with this impending doom of a deportation decision to be made. Sure, there were BBQ competitions and basketball tournaments in the detainment center, suggesting an atmosphere of RAs running a dorm. There was potential to do more in a day than most people I know, who are comfortable with Netflix as their only agenda. It was a paradisiacal version of much harsher, unsanitary conditions in other “transit zones.”
But it made me question what sustenance is, what a real life means to someone else. All privileges boil down to a few ID cards; a student or a military dependent or things central to my identity mean nothing to anyone if I can’t prove it. I wouldn’t even be yukking it up in Amsterdam or Copenhagen without a passport. These kids’ motivations for crossing borders were far more complex, just undocumented, so they were perceived as a resource burden: migrants first, children second.
I had to be open to other people’s ways of being in the world. Which is why I fell in love with Amsterdam’s Rijks art museum. It really hammered home everything the asylum taught me. There were yellow signs near most paintings that championed personal rather than historical viewpoints. There weren’t simply facts and figures, but an idea that “The central actor is not art, it’s you. You’re the hero of the art museum.” And I love being called a hero.
It was all about how art bolsters the dormant aspects in us: some people might be bored by an adventurous landscape because it only calls to those who need to be bolder. There’s no such thing as great art, just art that works for you.
It hearkened back to something I learned in my first session’s class, Children with Special Needs: Your worldview matters, don’t be afraid to ask that others make concessions for it. We’d visited the Handicaporganisationernes Hus, the “most accessible building in the world.” Not only was it built with same budget as any other office building to encourage universal design, but the architects were also given earplugs and glasses for tunnel vision, etc. It allowed them to experience difficulties entering a building firsthand. The designers learned ramps are only beneficial to those with electric wheelchairs, because unless you’re Joe Swanson from Family Guy, rolling yourself up an angle isn’t easy. So they adjusted the blueprints accordingly. It was so easy be considerate, our guide pointed out. All you had to do was try.
The theme of my whole European extravaganza has been perspective. Not just analyzing who I am and what I want, but recognizing that in other people. Whether through special needs or refugees or bikers or being near-mute, I’m seeing the world for more than what I know it to be.