How many of you still remember their first day of school? I remember I was wearing this cute denim pullover dress, my mom brought me to school and that I was quite nervous to walk into my new class. We stood at the door looking for a good place for me to sit down, when my mom pointed to this really cute girl sitting at a table with her mom. I went to sit next to her and till the moment that I had to switch schools because we moved to a new neighbourhood, I always stayed close to her. This was the start of a really long and amazing friendship between not only me and her but also our families, that endured even after I switched schools in the fifth grade.
This winter I told her about my plans to make a trip for four months in Eastern and Northern Europe, she immediately came up with the plan to visit me together with her little girl. So while I’m writing this down, she is sitting in front of me cutting the nails of her girl on the balcony of our apartment in Pula.
I never thought that we would ever go together to Croatia, and especially not accompanied by a 2 year old. I asked her if she was fine with me writing about our friendship, our holiday together, our different worlds and lives. Her answer was that I have to because she also realizes that it is quite unique that we differ so much but still have the most fun together, that we really are not alike in many ways but do agree on most things in life and society. Even when the Dutch school system drove us apart from each other more and more, we always managed to stay in contact at the moments that it mattered the most. At times when populism rises, the civil social society is crumbling and racism and sexism are still part of the daily life, telling the story about our friendship, does matters. So this article is for Rosa and Ana-Carolina.
Friendship forms our identity and should not be underestimated.
The older you get, the more you start realizing what friendship means and what it takes to keep your friends close to you. They say that you start losing friends when you turn 25, let’s hope that is not actually true for me. As I’m someone who is blessed with a lot of luck in life, I also had the luck to meet a lot of special women during my highschool period, women that are still my best friends. Sometimes I wonder why we’re still such close friends and apart from all the things we have in common, it also comes down to the fact that we just have been friends so long, thus we will be. When you’re still a child your friends are the other children you meet in class or daycare more by accident than that you choose, in high school it starts becoming the people that you have things in common with. Now my friends are the people that stayed with me during all those years. My friendship with Rosa made me realize that the relationship can last without having a shared life, seeing each other a lot, talk a lot, having the same interests, it can be based on comfort, respect and just knowing someone very well.
Friendship and family is one of the first forms of identification for a young child, and therefore very important for the development of our identity when we get older. We make friends mostly when we are young, but definitely still do at a later age. As I wrote in my article on Mittel-Europa, meeting and befriending other and new people from different cultures etc., is very important for the development of a European identity next to the national identity or your social class. The people you befriend have a huge influence on the person you will become, so if those people are different from you or from another culture, this will make you more open and relaxed about people not so similar to yourself.
The coincidence was that while I was writing this article a video got leaked from Stef Blok as the Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs. In this video, he claims that he does not know any successful multi-ethnic society. Thoughts and comments like those, from our politicians, make it extra important to share stories on why multi-ethnic societies are not problematic, but we make them problematic by separating our children and our worlds and creating this narrative of fear. Cohesion, identity, and solidarity are not based on recognition of the same people, it is based on recognition of something that you know even when they are different from you. It would be nice if we could stop talking about the problems caused by the multicultural society and start talking about the problems caused by the lack of a successful integration strategy, and the lack of encounters and respect among people.
How being different makes our friendship stronger.
Rosa’s life has been much more difficult and complicated than mine even though we started at the same table at school. The school did not have a high level of education. I was lucky to move to another school at the age of 9. She stayed, and her disadvantage grew and grew. She had to deal with a lack of personal attention and guidance from the teachers, who did not recognize her dyscalculia in time and dismissed her struggles as a lack of intelligence.
At the age of 12, everyone in the Netherlands has to take the Cito test. Based on the results of the test and the advice of your teacher, you enroll at a specific level for your next school. Even though there are schools that provide for different levels at one building, the ‘highest’ level is not often combined with the ‘lowest’ in the same building. In better words: the level to prepare for the university is not often combined with the levels that prepare for ‘practical school’. At the age of 12 she did not receive high advice from her test and teacher. I received the highest advice. I went to a school to prepare for university in the city center, while she went to a practical school on the other side of town.
This is the moment that we were actually separated instead of the moment that my parents decided to move. It was the moment that we both went on totally different paths, made totally different friends, went to different parties, listened to different music, had different interests, and saw a different side of the same small town. During our high school period, we did not have much contact and kind of lost each other out of sight. But at the same time we also both knew that it did not matter because we would always stay friends. Just as we promised to each other when we were still children in the first grade.
I remember visiting her on the other side of town, meeting her friends and her boyfriend whom I was not really fond of. I remember how far it felt from the life I was living. She called me at age of 16 needing my advice, we had coffee and I told her what a best friend tells her friend at difficult times. Something that you really do not want to hear, but you both know is the only solution. I called her when I needed a break from my life, she brought happiness, excitement, laughter, and different perspectives. We went on like that for a couple of years, seeing each other once in a while, having a good time together, and going back to our own worlds.
This week she told me about her family in Brazil and her family in the Netherlands, how she felt when she met her biological mother and how great her biological sister is. I told her about my family that my parents gathered for me and my sister, the passing of the mother of my brothers and how it felt for me. We talked about our parents getting older and that we both still feel like children around the others parents. We listened to Brazilian music and we listened to my favorite guitarist. She was drinking wine and I bought some beer.
This week together has been very special to us in many ways. It was the first time we went together on a holiday. It was also the first time we went on a holiday with her daughter. When she told me she was pregnant almost three years ago, I first did not know how to react. If any of my other friends would have told me that, I would have known. Because I knew that getting children was not high on the agenda for my other friends. First, you have to finish school, start a career and find the love of your life. Then maybe you get children. I knew that this was different for her and that we did not share that perspective. But when she told me she was going to keep the baby, I could not help but feel a bit sad because, in my eyes, her life was going to be over. Luckily for her, I could not have been more wrong. She graduated this year, she is a super relaxed and in-control mom and her daughter is the cutest of all. Being part of that and getting to know her daughter so well the past week, has been a real challenge for me. At the same time it has been so amazing and unique.
For her, it was special too. She went alone with her baby on the plane to visit her friend traveling in Europe. If it would have been up to her, Croatia probably wasn't the first country on her list for a holiday and she doubted if she would ever have gone to Croatia at all in her whole life. I think she really liked it, or she at least pretended very well. The days before she arrived in Pula I traveled with three guys from Sweden from Ljubljana to Pula. On Rosa and my first night together we went to have a drink with them and Ana-Carolina somewhere in town. I saw how much she enjoyed meeting some people that I met during my travels and in return, I enjoyed sharing a little part of my experience with her.
This holiday with her has been a combination of our two worlds and lives, and we both know that at those moments we enjoy each other's company the most. We concluded that our friendship is based on the exchange of things that make us happy, the exchange of our lives to the other, taking someone with you for a day and letting the other experience something that she would not otherwise. We both love that, it is what binds us, it is what made us always come back to each other after a while.
I feel a bit sad for our Minister of Foreign Affairs because he probably never had such a friendship. He probably just met friends in his own bubble, the bubble of where you’re born and your parents define who you will meet and what you will do. The bubble that the Dutch school system keeps in place and enforces. If we would not separate the children at the age of 12, maybe our worlds would not be so segregated. We could learn from each other, experience each other's cultures and enjoy the multicultural society that Amsterdam has to offer. After these four months of traveling, I hope I have met a lot of Rosa’s, from different nationalities and cultures, who I can visit and exchange with. With whom I can talk about the problems of our generation and how they are not national but European problems. With whom I can laugh, talk, swim and drink and have not much in common but still have a connection. Because for me there is not a lot in the world that I enjoy as much as exchanging cultures and talking about society. I believe that if we all have a Rosa in our lives, the discussion about multicultural society and ethnicity would soon change radically and people would have a better understanding of differences that can be celebrated instead of feared.