I spent spring break in the Netherworld, or at least it seemed. I’m not sure I can give a good review of this country, which is a nice one, because it was very different from my usual travel and felt like a vacation more for my heart than for anything else. Usually I try to vacation for my brain and eyes and stomach and such, and accordingly fill my trip with brain-stimulating new knowledge about how different folks around the world live their lives and eye-stimulating new knowledge about what things look like in disparate places around the globe and stomach-stimulating new knowledge about bizarre and bizarrely familiar foods in all these places. But I went to Holland for spring break to hang out with this dude named John, and to distance myself from the pain of not getting something I wanted and worked towards getting for the past seven years.
John and I met on the reverse of a layover I had in Amsterdam. This past February, I went to the United States to interview for a position I really wanted. I was shortlisted. They flew me there. Everything was positive. I gave a talk. I nailed it. It was great. I decorated my future apartment in my mind. I thought about new return address stickers. I wrote 25 times in my notebook, in cursive, “Amanda Propst is a…” where the ellipsis stands for the position for which I was interviewing. My confidence was infectious. I got on the plane feeling great. I had a layover in Amsterdam on the way back. Twelve hours in Amsterdam and I met him during this time. It was perfect. Everything was perfect. He took me to the airport for my flight. We talked about what would happen when I got home. We’d talk. We’d see each other on skype. We’d chat by instant message. We did all that. I waited to hear back from my interview, but I didn’t wait too heavily, because I knew in my heart I had gotten it.
Two weeks passed. During those weeks, I told everyone all about it, I told my professors, friends, family, the ones who had written me letters, the ones who had been in my shoes, the ones who wished me well. When I got a barely personalized form letter that spelled out my rejection, I actually thought it was a mistake. But then the very same form letters came from the other positions to which I had applied, the ones who hadn’t shelled out the cash to interview me in person. It was unanimous. I had failed. I wasn’t good enough.
The professors, friends, and family all told me I was good enough. They promised me I was good enough! They told me it was political. These decisions are always political! They told me it was stupid. These decisions are always stupid! They told me that if I had applied another year, or done x or done y or done z, it’d have been different. It’s a numbers game! It’s internal politics! Every possible excuse was offered, extended to me like a life preserver, and I chewed on each one for awhile. I spent some time trying to believe that they all might be right, but within a week or two I had settled into this bizarrely comforting sense of liberation from something oppressive. It’s not what I thought would happen, if I were to be rejected. I thought that, in the case of across-the-board rejection, I would just try again next time. Try harder. Instead, when it turned out like my worst-case scenario, I was surrounded with this blanket of recognition that hey, I don’t have to be as good at all this as I thought I was. So, I blew it. So? I didn’t get what I wanted! So? And it’s fine, because I’ll do something else. Wow, I can do something else! Before long, the idea of doing something else was actually pretty appealing. I’m not locked into anything! Before this spring, I always thought I was elite. It turns out, I’m not. Now I don’t have to act like I am anymore. It was a relief. For a long time I’ve felt, as an apparently elite candidate full of special promise and ability, that there was a natural course to the next several years of my life. Instead, those rejection letters felt like Someone handing me a stack of empty years and telling me to fill them with whatever I want. I don’t know what that is yet, but I know where to start: with tomorrow.
By this point I had decided to go back to Holland already, but here was when I started counting days. I love my job. But I still counted days. I love Cairo, but I still counted days. I think I started counting days when there were 37 left.
There’s something funny about waiting for something, both positive and negative. When waiting for things like term paper deadlines, when they’re all stacked up at the end of the semester, and I really tried to be proactive this time, but I wasn’t proactive and spent too much time reading about crocodiles on the internet, again, and now I have to do them all in a week, it doesn’t seem like it’ll ever happen. How will it all get done? I truly don’t believe it will happen, that the time will go, it’ll pass, and it’ll be done. It seems unbelievable that a stack of term papers will pass from non-existence into existence in just a week. But the thing is, the time always passes, and I always finish the work. It’s the same with things that I really want to have happen. It’s six weeks until then. It’s five weeks until then. Then, at some point, it’ll be two days until then, and then only one. Even though at the beginning it seems like it’ll drag intolerably forever, the days pass just the same, the same rhythm and the same routine, and then it’s time, and then it happens. So, it happened, and there it was. I went to Holland and I’ve already been back home for almost a week.
And it was great. It rained a lot. I’ve been to the Netherlands four times now and I’ve been a rotten tourist every single time. I still haven’t been to the Anne Frank Museum, or the Van Gogh Museum, or the Rijksmuseum. I haven’t gone to see the tulips. I’ve only seen the windmills through the windows of the train. I haven’t seen a sex show (it’s a pretty unsavory thought, but it’s something everyone always asks about your visit to Amsterdam). I spent much of my time there in Utrecht, where he lives, and Zeist, where he has sort-of family, and Amsterdam, where I had sort-of family (my Doha family was in town). We went to Apeldoorn one day to go to Apenheul, the monkey refuge. That was probably the most touristy thing we did. A squirrel monkey peed on me, and a lemur almost peed on him.
The squirrel monkey incident was pretty funny. The thing is, at Apenheul, the monkeys are mostly free-range. The squirrel monkeys, tiny things whom I would usually describe as “little babies no bigger’n monkeys” but in this case they are monkeys so I have no idea what to use as a referent, I guess a squirrel, since they ain’t no bigger’n squirrels, were cute. They make absurd noises and jump on folks. One jumped on John’s head and this was apparently like taking communion for John. If you have seen me spaz out over baby red pandas or baby leopards or baby cheetahs or whatever, imagine another human on the planet doing the same, but this other human has fluffier hair and a squirrel monkey on his head. I wanted to interact with one too. I was jealous. So then finally a squirrel monkey jumped on my arm. And then peed on me. Of course. And then jumped on John’s arm and then peed on him. Somehow, John left this encounter thinking that the most reasonable course of action is to get a squirrel monkey for a pet. This is preposterous. Discussing the pet issue, we drank a beer in the concession area of the park and, further, talked about how there were too many kids (human ones) there and then I saw a baby pygmy marmoset and almost lost it. I’m not sure I’ll ever recover from the spaz attack that was seeing a baby pygmy marmoset.
On another day, we went to the Hague and sat on the beach and walked around town. We made friends with the neighborhood ducks. He cooked, too. He cooks! (So do I, but you know, he cooks the kind of food humans want to eat.) One rainy afternoon in Amsterdam we got baked eggplant and a pizza in an Italian cafe near Rembrantplein. The waiters were Egyptian and impressed with me and tolerant of my hacked-apart Arabic; it was enough Arabic to earn us some free wine and several “welcome in Holland”s. We did a lot of walking. Mostly, though, we talked to each other. An entire spring break and I spent most of it talking to someone whom I understand and who understands me. It’s enough to get contemplative: If I hadn’t been shortlisted for that position, I wouldn’t have met him. If I hadn’t been rejected from that position, I wouldn’t be moving to DC this summer (he’s moving to DC too). I’m excited about moving to DC this summer, and I’m glad he is, as well. I’m not quite someone who believes that “everything works out,” because that seems like a cheap way to avoid processing the pain of things hurting you. I’m processing a lot of pain, even now, almost two months from the rejections. It’s normal, I think. So I won’t go quite so far as to say “everything works out,” but I will say that everything worked out, at least this far.*
*When did I become so absurd