When people ask me why I live in Europe, I often cite opportunities for work and leisure, the balance its brought to my life, the adventure of learning the language and making new friends, the travel and culture. I like the semi-urban setting in Maastricht, with specialty stores around each corner, music bars and cafe’s lining the squares, festivals every weekend, and the rolling hills of Limburg and the Ardennes a half hour’s drive away. It feels familiar and comfortable.
It’s surprising, then, when people tell me how uncomfortable the same things can make them feel.
To them the streets seem dark and small, dotted with intent young men muttering in a language they don’t understand. Waiters are rude, people emerge from coffee shops glazed and unpredictable, shops are shuttered in the evenings against loud groups spilling from the bars. It’s a struggle to be understood in simple settings; neighbors seem distrustful of having a foreign person living in their midst.
It’s all in how people interpret the scenes and body language around them. And I can appreciate that unfamiliar settings can give rise to a natural caution, apprehension and discomfort. Settings that I see as harmless can seem threatening; people I ignore may loom large on other’s landscapes.
And whether a person resolves that tension depends on the confidence and support that they can draw on: belief that you can cope with what comes and encouragement to keep trying until you have a comfortable nest in local society. Otherwise, life just stays disorienting and frustrating.
I think its back around to familiar themes of assimilation and accommodation. How do we read and react to the signs around us; how do we get help in learning about and adapting to a new environment? When does the unfamiliar become ‘comfortable?
There are those who tell me that it’s not a matter of feeling threatened, it just common sense: being realistic vs unrealistic?
So, what is the reality behind the photos along this essay?
Is it scenes of an abandoned industrial park, toothless broken windows, decaying weeds, graffiti?
Or is it a creative and vibrant art and sculpture park?
To be completely honest, I’m not sure. It’s a rundown plot along the river near the Haven, a high-rent area north of Maastricht. The city allows local artists to work there, and the stovepipe dragon and the suspended shopping cart are too good as art to be characteristic of blight.
But I still wouldn’t drop in after dark.