At first glance, people looked pretty normal. None of them wore Tea Party tee shirts or complained about Obama-care. Nobody touted the NRA, Michelle Bachman, or the repeal of same-sex marriage legislation. Even the casual banter was pleasant and surprisingly open-minded. I kept waiting for someone to ‘out’ me, to say “We know you’re a Democrat, leave now!” Instead, they offered me grilled hamburgers on old-fashioned American buns and were surprisingly hospitable.
I had driven to a suburb of Rotterdam that July afternoon to attend the Republicans Abroad picnic. It was part of an experiment I had begun a few months earlier. I had become disenchanted with my life in the Netherlands and I had started to ask myself some hard questions. Was I a victim or a perpetrator of my own unhappiness here? Were my innate cynicism and preconceived notions about unfamiliar things limiting me? There was only one way to find out.
I decided to identify an event each month that I had absolutely no interest in or knowledge of, the kind of situation that I would normally run from. And I would force myself to go to it. I wanted to see what would happen if I opened myself up to unexpected environments, to worlds I loathed, was bored by, or frightened of. Would my worst instincts come to fruition or might there be unexpected surprises? Maybe our lives are only as prescribed as we allow them to be. Time would tell.
I found my first happening online. It was a networking event for people involved with a technology called Augmented Reality. Even the name scared me. Being an artistic type, this was the kind of thing that would normally send my right brain into panic mode. Instead, I headed straight for it.
The event was in a modern office building near the Bimhaus, a performing arts venue along the harbor in Amsterdam. It took me over an hour to get to there on my bike, blowing around in the wind like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, just before the tornado. The room was filled with lively twenty and thirty-somethings exchanging ideas while munching on free snacks and drinks. They took turns presenting their latest projects, one more innovative than the next. So this is where the creative Dutch are hiding, I thought.
Augmented reality, it turns out, is the overlaying of digital data on the real world. In short, it makes data appear when you least expect it, like on your mobile phone in the Rijksmuseum. Simply holding it up to a Vermeer painting could tell you all sorts of data about the artist or about the girl with the pearl earring within the picture. I began to see the amazing applications of this technology within my own field, storytelling. For many years I brought history to life in New York through walking tours and live performances. But these happening were always dependent on my physical presence to weave the stories and show people the sites. With augmented reality, a whole new paradigm could be established. Imagine the historic stories that could appear on your mobile phone by simply standing in front of a doorway, a streetlamp, a sidewalk. An exciting world was opening up to me.
I couldn’t wait to identify my next event. I combed through online sites like Meet Up, checked local newspaper listings, picked up every flyer I could find. Would I attend a meeting of Geert Wilder’s right-wing political party, PVV? No, too intriguing. One of my criteria for choosing an event had to be total disinterest. Maybe a conference on Solid Waste? Drat, I just missed their meeting by a week. A Protestant Singles group? Their age limit was 35. I was too old. Perhaps a Button Society meeting? Their agenda seemed boring – that was promising – but the beautiful antique buttons on display looked interesting – that was a definite no. Finding an appropriately uninteresting and abhorrent event was proving more difficult than I had imagined.
Then one evening, the phone rang. It was Mindy, an American expat living in The Hague. She’s a friend of mine who is infinitely groovier than I am, willing to meditate, channel thoughts, and sway on command. “Want to go to a lecture at the Hub in Amsterdam?” she asked, adding, “It’s a talk on sustainability. It was exactly the kind of event that normally made my skin crawl. I had no choice but to say, “Let’s go!”
To be honest, I can’t remember the lecture that well, only that it was a rambling diatribe about the need for individuals to think collectively (to Americans, this is a revolutionary thought) accompanied by some very touchy-feely comments from the audience. One woman even showed up barefoot. While the lecture left me cold, the hosting organization warmed my spirit. The HUB is a fascinating space for independent entrepreneurs. It not only provides individuals with a community workspace but facilitates spiritual and intellectual support for them as well. I subsequently got involved with the Hub’s sister site in Rotterdam where I ran several storytelling workshops for talented women, several of whom continue to work with me to this day. What began as total disinterest metamorphosed into a wonderful addition to my life.
I was batting two for two. Surely there would be some events that would disappoint, I thought. But to my surprise, it didn’t happen. Not at the conference ontraffic infrastructure at the RAI, where I met dozens of fascinating innovators trying to reinvent cities through electric cars and sustainable energy. Not at the lecture on finance theory I went to at the free university’s open day, where I discovered new terms like shorting and pinning and flirted with geeks in short-sleeved cotton shirts who were deceptively naughty. And not at the Republicans Abroad picnic, whose chairman captivated me with stories about and his career in the US military and about his month-long stay at a silent Buddhist retreat in Belgium. Apparently, this conservative Christian starts each morning by chanting a Hebrew prayer, simply because he likes its message. It’s about humility.
As I was leaving, he handed me a few extra packages of Oscar Meyer hotdogs, leftovers he thought I might enjoy. I was deeply moved. It was the first time in years someone in the Netherlands had thrown free food at me for generosity’s sake.
My experiment is far from over. I’ve already identified my next event, the monthly meeting of the Hackers and Founders in Amsterdam. These are the folks who break into computers for fun. I’ll look forward to having my assumptions busted and prejudices altered. Mainly, I’ll be reminded that nothing is as it appears to be. Even our own identities are open to editing.