Last year November my friend Pedro and I attended a U.S. election watching event in De Melkweg, a cultural center in Amsterdam. We were interviewed by city newspaper Het Parool about our expectations of the outcome. The reporter quoted me saying that “of course” I expected Clinton to win, “given the options.” How wrong I was, as were the panelists on stage, as was pretty much everyone else. The result and the political soap opera that ensued made me wonder how well we know our big transatlantic brother. This question inspired most of the writing I did road tripping across the U.S.
The election night event in De Melkweg was organized by the John Adams Institute, an independent foundation that “provides an independent podium for American culture in the Netherlands.” It is headed by California-native Tracy Metz who’s spent the better part of her life – thirty-seven years – living and working in Amsterdam. After returning from my U.S. road trip I decided to find out whether the political turmoil in her country of birth has had an impact on the John Adams and her work as a journalist and writer.
At the John Adams Institute office in the historical West-Indisch Huis in Amsterdam, Metz tells me that the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president has not diminished interest in the Netherlands for the work of the foundation she leads – quite the contrary. “The Dutch are fascinated with the U.S. That won’t change. The U.S. is still a trendsetter. It’s exuberant and extreme; it’s everything the Netherlands is not.”
Another important factor in the Institute’s success is its independence, Metz asserts. “We are not selling anything. We simply present inspiring thoughts of inspiring Americans to our audience in the Netherlands. That remains worthwhile. The long-lasting connection between both countries is still strong.”
Metz is a seasoned journalist with thirty-plus years under her belt writing for NRC, De Groene Amsterdammer and Architectural Record, amongst other publications. She focuses on urban issues. Her fascination with this theme can be traced back to 1985, her last year with Het Parool. Together with Geert Bekaert, renowned Belgian architectural critic, Metz was involved in a project about social housing in Amsterdam. The whole experience was an eye-opener. “Bekaert and I shared stories about how cities come into being. It inspired me to write about architecture, housing and the construction of urban areas myself.”
In her writing Metz sometimes draws comparisons between the Netherlands and the U.S. She describes growing up in Los Angeles as “terrible”, at least from an urban life perspective. “In L.A. everybody drives everywhere. Some neighborhoods don’t even have sidewalks. When you do walk people will look at you suspiciously. In a way, L.A. feels like a city after a nuclear bomb was dropped. The streets are void of people.”
That a city’s layout and spatial structure can have a massive effect on its social fabric became especially clear to Metz when she settled in Amsterdam. “Because people walk and bike throughout the city you constantly interact with each other. The streets are filled with life, not just with cars like in most U.S. cities.”
When Metz left NRC in 2012 she had time to develop her own monthly live talk show and web magazine, “Stadsleven”, dedicated to urban issues and city life – Amsterdam life in particular. “We started small in De Rode Hoed, but then we moved to a bigger venue at De Balie. There I discuss urban issue with a broad selection of speakers from politics, urban planning, design, arts and research. These evenings are energetic and fast-paced without losing depth.”
Talk to strangers
Recently, Metz also starting doing weekly vlogs. As someone who’s “always looking for new ways to do storytelling”, this was a medium she wanted to try her hand at as well. Her husband edits all of her videos. “At first he wasn’t really into the idea, but he loves the whole cutting and tinkering process now.”
As we wrap up the interview I ask Metz whether she prefers American “fake niceness” to Dutch “grumpiness”. Even though she appreciates the Dutch “down-to-earthness” she does favor the former. “In the U.S. strangers strike up conversation a lot more casually than in the Netherlands. The default response here when someone you don’t know starts talking to you on the street is typically “What do you want from me?”
On my way back to The Hague I regret not asking Metz how that willingness to talk to strangers in the U.S. relates to not running into each other on the street. Maybe Americans are so happy when they finally meet face-to-face that they just start talking – and don’t stop. Americans are storytellers and I like them for it. Perhaps we should get rid of sidewalks in the Netherlands too.