Have you ever seen a stone? Of course you have. Stones are everywhere in Groningen: from the red-brick houses on every street in the city to the stoned pavements that guide the way for bikes and feet. Have you ever held a stone? Felt its smooth or rough texture against your bare skin – light or heavy depending on its size?
Have you ever held a stone up to the light to see what it’s made of? Are there cracks and crevices that tell all its secrets of how it came to become what it is or what it has been through? Have you ever dropped it on the pavement to see if it bounces? If you invited a stone to dinner, would it come? Would it engage in conversation with you and laugh at your jokes?
Would it say ‘I’m very sorry to hear that. How can I help?‘ if you told it that your favorite pet had just died, or that your mother is in the hospital battling for her life? Do stones have emotions? Would it help you get back up on your feet if you tripped in the snow and twisted your wrist and would it comfort you if you cried? Would it find a way to reach outside of itself and put your needs before its own when you’re in a crisis, despite what the ‘rules’ say?
The United Nations, in an e-course on multiculturalism formulated for its local and international volunteers, describes four progressive phases that a person is likely to experience when he/she comes in contact with a new culture.
These phases are: Honeymoon, Dissatisfaction, Crisis and Integration.
I fell in love with Groningen on January 31, 2015. Despite the bone-chilling, mid-winter cold that ate through my inappropriately thin coat when I arrived, everything looked new, charming and interesting and I was thrilled to be here.
I found the mercurial weather amusing. It was here that I saw snow for the first time, and while others were upset when it snowed, I was mesmerized by the soft, white power falling quietly and unassumingly from the sky – magically covering everything in its path.
Most of all, I loved the soft crunching sound that it made as I walked to and from the city centre, and I would deliberately walk onto a snowbank just to hear the sound and feel the gentle vibration of packed snow under my feet.
I’ve never considered myself a coward. In fact, much of my life’s circumstances have required a bravery beyond my years, which probably explains why it seemed perfectly natural to me to traverse the Atlantic from as small, rural village in Jamaica in order to enroll in a graduate programme in the Netherlands. But soon the novelty began to wear off – one event after another.
First, I experienced a bizarre sense of intimidation when my Dutch language skills failed to progress. Then, the complexity and cultural bias of finding even a part-time job became frustratingly disheartening and gradually chipped away at my confidence as the months rolled by, while my sources of intellectual conversations were replaced by the transient banter of young adults ten years my junior – or more – most of whom thought and behaved in ways that befitted their ages.
Then, as I was still trying to maintain a steady footing, the dam broke. Family illnesses, financial pressures, mounting debt, organizational rules, ignored requests, unheard pleas made in desperation and stonewalling threatened to snatch away my degree, my progress, my investment and my life’s savings all at once……and won.
What had I done? Why had I come here? Why had I done this to myself? To my family? The truth is: unhappiness, sorrow, resentment, disappointment, regret, isolation and depression take vast amounts of energy. Hiding these feelings take even more.
Whether I came across this e-course by chance or by fate, it didn’t take much more for me to identify myself in the words flashing across my computer screen and admit that: ‘Yes! I am in crisis.’
But do you know what the worst part about being in a state of crisis is? The worst part about being in a state of crisis is living among stones. Have you ever seen a stone? Of course you have. Groningen is a stone.