By Adam Kohut
When I left Texas for China — and, two years later, departing China for Bangkok — I boarded a plane and sat crammed into an economy seat, knowing that when I landed I would be confused, that everything — or, at least, that most things — would be alien, wholly new. There was galvanism in that. And it was where a lot of joy came from: that prospect of adventure, the idea that each day was inevitably bound for oddity. This held true for a good while. But, as always and of course, the new didn’t stay new. No, it became old. And the old, as it often and unfairly does, became boring. At which point I, a member by birthright of The Pessimistic Society of the Eternally Grumpy, began to search for fault lines and cracks and irregularities in Thai society with which to occupy myself. There has, after all, never been a better tool with which to farm interest than self-righteous rage.
“Would you look at that!” I might once have thought, upon observing a man sponge-bathing a rooster on the front steps of one of Bangkok’s many business-district skyscrapers. “Now that’s something you don’t see every day.” And then I’d smile inwardly and feel that prickled charge of excitement and carry on with my walk to work. But by the ninth, or the forty-second, or the ninety-third occurrence, that initial wonder had curdled. I’d realized that this bizarre ritual was, indeed, something I saw every day, and that said rooster, was, in fact, disgusting, dirty, and fairly terrifying, at least as far as birds go. It wasn’t long before I’d become mired in urban contempt toward live poultry.
A petty complaint, sure, but these things add up — the little frustrations and annoyances that prod and poke and rankle. You get sick of the crowds, or the noise, or the traffic, or the seemingly illogical hivemind of group culture, or this weird cultural practice of drinking beer with ice, and you begin to struggle. Or you don’t, and you find yourself adapting and willingly changing to better suit your environment. If this happens, you often opt to stay, to attempt to create a new life for yourself in a landscape so recently uncharted. If it does not, you often take the easiest — and the most effective — course of action: you flee.
So I did, gladly leaving behind Bangkok’s confusion, its chaos, its feckless society. And here I’ve arrived, in Amsterdam, the City That Sensibly Sleeps. Just the prospect of heading cardinally west, even to a place with which I was entirely unfamiliar, was enough to propagate this idea of returning, inciting a strange — and ever falser — sense of homecoming. After a month in The Netherlands, that feeling hasn’t entirely dissipated, although it would be untruthful to say I haven’t yet begun to slip, with more and more frequency, on icy patches that serve as furtively slippery differentiations between US and EU.
As an American, beginning to live in Europe presents a special kind of culture shock, one that creeps onto your shoulder, where it sits, invisibly perched, blanketing your senses in disorienting fog.
So far it’s been a bit like returning from a vacation, only during your absence someone has entered your home and rearranged your furniture. Everything is the same, but different: it’s your end table, but it used to stand by the bed, not wedged into the entryway. And that’s your television, yes, but wasn’t it once mounted on the wall and not sat on the floor? Food portions, the shape of toilets, the maniacal placidity of habitual, universal bicycling, that overall feeling of European put-togetherness — all perceived eccentricities come together to create a form that, at the outset, appears human, but upon closer inspection reveals itself to be merely humanoid, a great pretender. While I haven’t yet seen an entire pig, skinned and hanging from a metal hook — a common sight on the roiling streets of Bangkok — the idea that great wax-sheathed wheels of cheese, the circumference and thickness of a car’s tire, or pyramidal piles of freshly baked baguettes, can be found on essentially every corner is, for now, equally wondrous. As is the air, which, while cold, is crisp and clean. And the streets: quiet, orderly, but just lively enough. It’s easy to see where that very pastiche, very American, romanticized notion of Europe is born.
Surely, though, I will wake up one morning in my apartment, which currently makes me feel as though I am living inside a foreign film, and the sheen will have dulled. The wooden floors, their creakiness, their propensity for doling out splinters, will have lost their character, warped seemingly overnight into hazards, grievances. Surely Amsterdam’s Escher-like architecture — the city seems as though it could be folded into itself — its flat line layout, so dizzying in its varied sameness — centuries-old buildings and their rectangular-plane windows, sharp corners and ninety-degree angles, their slender heights — will begin to make me feel as though I am locked in some sort of dystopian dream. Perhaps that orderliness, at the moment perfect antidote to the whirling mayhem in which I have lived for four long years will suddenly feel oppressing.
Perhaps I will want out.
But perhaps I will not.
There is beauty in that honeymoon’s ending. Of realizing that no place is perfect, and, beginning to recognize flaws for what they are — and then learning to love them. A move — to a new house, town, country — is the beginning of a new relationship — fresh, delicate, precious — and you have to realize, unless you are ignorant or crazy, how onerous, how fraught with risk, how difficult, how unlikely it is to succeed. But as with love, you move forward, caution be damned, and you breathe deep and you take that step and you once more put your toe, your foot, your leg, your body, into the great, international waters of the unknown.
And you see what happens next.