“Oooh, girl, no, Amsterdam is the sunken place.”
She seemed serious and said this with a shake of her head but, at the time, I burst out laughing. It sounded ridiculous – obviously our America is the sunken place. Any place else could only be better, freer somehow.
My friend Skenda and I were sitting in a noisy DC bar, discussing my upcoming move to Europe. I didn’t have too many thoughts about it, but I was quietly hopeful. Experience had taught me that exiting America filled me out a little, made me stand a bit taller. Made me silly, and vulgar, and bold, and all the million shades of me that took some coaxing in the US. I didn’t have to be black first, then woman, then me, in that order, without fail.
So, I laughed.
Fast forward to a strange Saturday night, where I find myself at the tail end of a house-party, tired, and dreading the ride home. I am trying to decide how soon I can get into bed without offending the host, when I notice I’ve been sitting silently next to someone I haven’t spoken to all night. To compromise, I strike up a conversation and tell myself this’ll be the last, then I can leave. Fred* is a white European who spent some years in the US and is very excited to talk about, you guessed it, Trump. Fred is also very excited to diagnose and express to me the precise problem with race relations in the US (in case you’re interested: everyone takes everything too personally and we need to focus on actual solutions not symbolic statues).
Idiotically Grudgingly, I enter into a conversation with him. Like clockwork, I get suspicious, annoyed, angry, frustrated; like clockwork, he becomes contrarian, tickled, entertained, smug. Forty-five minutes in and I am fuming – and it’s not because Fred the racism expert is playing devil’s advocate just because he can.
How long before I learn not to talk about blackness, or race in America, (or Kanye West for that matter), with people who have zero stake in the conversation. Because those were our battle positions: I was discussing something very big that also happened to affect me personally, every damn day of my life, and Fred was, well, reliving the discovery he made in America that he is – wait for it – white.
Because otherwise, my adjustment to Europe has been great. I imagined that, because people here do not have concrete, visceral ideas about how a black person, a black woman, a loud black woman, is – I met them as American first. My body, my presence, doesn’t always feel like political warfare here.
Now, I find myself needing to careful.
Needing to decide who I can talk to about what, because I really just want to have a pleasant, topical, relationship with neighbors and classmates. I find myself having no chill when asked to help a neighbor with a presentation on identity politics because, “it’s so confusing and everyone says something different, and there doesn’t seem to be a right answer.”
I wished him good luck.
I find myself, several drinks in, spending time with some genuinely good friends and needing to decide if it’s worth it to ask my German friend to stop referring to me with the word “aggressive”. I find myself not knowing how to understand this tiny interaction because I’m not in America, and English is her second language, and we’ve discussed black literature, and she can’t possibly know what that word means, and I know she meant to use the word loud, and I think she actually sees me, and and and.
A part of me doesn’t want to complicate my life; another part of me doesn’t know if simplicity is accessible for people like me.
I haven’t mentioned it to my friend, and doubt I will. Some conversations only drain.
Valentine Marie is a co-founder of Flux, an online forum for those of us encountering adulthood. A restless person, she loves good food, travel, and family. You can find her in a coffee shop or a used bookstore near you.