I’d been living in Amsterdam for three years when Sting’s “Englishman in New York” hit the airwaves in 1988. The song made it to #9 on the Dutch Top 40 chart, the highest anywhere in the world. I found it somewhat odd. Most people in the Netherlands had no idea who the song was about, while not only did I know, I’d had a nodding acquaintance with the man. When I lived in New York’s East Village, Quentin Crisp and I were neighbors and often passed each other on the street. Much to my regret, we never spoke, though I like to think if I had invited him for a cup of tea he would have graciously accepted.
To be an alien, even a legal alien, always felt strange – in Dutch, vreemd. In fact, the word for foreigners is vreemdelingen. Literally, strangers. I can’t speak for other foreign nationals (a term I’ve always considered an oxymoron) but although I’ve lived in Amsterdam for almost thirty years I find myself more comfortable around other expats, no matter where they’re originally from. Perhaps because we have that in common. For a variety of reasons, we each chose to leave our native lands and live elsewhere.
There might be more to it, at least in my case. The first people I met in Amsterdam where members of the small English-speaking theater community. Most were expats from Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United States. We put on productions in off-off-Broadway size venues for tourists and locals alike. And through them I began to work with Radio Netherlands Worldwide, which broadcast news and feature programs in seven different languages. I enjoyed the international flavor of my days at the radio station and my nights at the theater. The sense of being a stranger almost disappeared when everyone around you is in the same boat.
The same was true when I began to frequent the gay bar below the little theater called ART (American Repertory Theater). The owner was American, and the place was popular with tourists and expats. The first language around the pool table was English, the music was British or American pop, and if the porn videos were French, the sound was off anyway. What you rarely heard spoken was Dutch.
The sense of otherness, of being an outsider, returned with a vengeance when I found myself homeless, living in a jeep on the outskirts of Amsterdam with my dog, Calvin. The circumstances are too boring to go into detail. After several friends’ couches, a series of house-sits, and other temporary measures, we spent a few weeks in the jeep during the summer of ‘95. It was an adventure for Calvin. For me, not so much. To be an expat and homeless, having fallen between the cracks of the well-oiled Dutch social system, felt about as low as one could sink. But out of that experience came a story, which became a book: Calvin’s Head. Silver lining?
Another group of expats brought me back from the doldrums of homelessness. At about the same time a friend told me about a long-term sublet, which became my longer-term home, another friend invited me to join a spirited band of LGBTQ artists and activists who did a live local radio program called Alien. For two hours every Sunday evening we shared news and personal stories, interviewed local or visiting guests, played great alternative music, and laughed ourselves stupid, sometimes in most politically incorrect fashion. We satirized our outsider status as expats, and as queers. We demanded justice and equal rights. We questioned the existence of lesbian sheep. We called the Vatican and asked to speak with the Pope. We mourned the passing of friends, the death of Princess Diana, the fall of the Twin Towers.
The energy, creativity, and joyfulness of the Alien gang infused my work at Radio Netherlands. A program I made about AIDS and literature with authors Edmund White and David Leavitt won an Excellence in Journalism Award from the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. I was honored again for a feature about the persecution of gay men in Berlin during the Nazi regime. My sense of otherness faded by facing the issue head-on.
In the last ten years, sands have shifted as anti-immigration winds again blow across Europe. To point out a defining moment in the Netherlands, such as the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh by a young Dutch-Moroccan Muslim extremist in 2004, would be to oversimplify sentiments deeper, broader-based than I’m able to explain. All I can say is the sense of being vreemdeling, a foreigner, returned. But I’ve used it to my advantage. The book I wrote, and the stories yet to be written that swirl around in my head, are about people living on the fringes of society, strangers in strange lands, searching for a place to call home – in every sense of the word.
Now that I think about it, Quentin Crisp might have politely declined my cup of tea. Maybe being an Englishman in New York was exactly what he wanted to be. He reportedly joked to Sting that he looked forward to receiving naturalization papers so he could commit a crime and not be deported. Ironically, now that I spend ever longer summers in northern New Hampshire I still feel like an expat, more European than American. Perhaps that’s a story for another time.