Helicopters overhead

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President Obama is in Amsterdam and the excitement is palpable. Helicopters have been circling the city since the morning and the center is on lockdown. The President landed on the Museumplein and took a limo a short 100 meters to the Rijksmuseum. His first words on landing on Dutch soil were, “I love your country.” It was a perfect thing to say. The mayor of Amsterdam looked so delighted I thought he would do a little jig. Dutch television, which is covering the visit front to back, noted with pleasure that Obama complimented both Dutch efficiency and the nation’s speed skating team. All is well between two nations that John Adam’s said had much in common—the love of democracy and commerce.

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Still, it’s strange to have such a small and quiet city overwhelmed by a military presence. People hear the helicopters, cringe then stop and stare at them flying overhead. Like most European city memories of World War II live front and center. In our neighborhood, Oud Zuid, a villagey-type place of red brick and art deco flourishes, there are plaques on house walls and the sidewalk to fallen resistance heroes. The school down the street from our apartment was Gestapo headquarters, and there are Jewish people in our neighborhood who survived Auschwitz. People are aware of occupation in a way American’s can’t really understand. As I watched Obama’s four enormous White Hawks take off, a man standing in front of the Hilton turned to me and smiled. “There, the invasion is finished.”

He spoke in English so I asked him: “Are you Dutch?”

“Yes,” he said, “but I know you don’t speak Dutch. I have seen you at the gym before.”OZ6

Perhaps it was all the military hardware circling overhead, perhaps I spent too long in the staid 7th arrondissement of Paris, but I found his familiarity unsettling. Only a lunatic of a drageur would talk to a stranger this way in France. The most primary cultural attribute of French culture is respect for privacy. Keeping your neighbors at a distance is so much a part of the social fabric it’s why American’s think Parisians are rude (they are rude but people avoiding eye contact on the metro isn’t evidence of this). I imagine the reflexive isolation of French society—the high walls around country houses, the drawn living room curtains at night, the reluctance to smile at your neighbor as she squeezes into the tiniest bistro chair—is also a product of conflict. Who wants their secrets out in a country that cuts the head off the king, or ousts beloved war leaders like De Gaulle? Sometimes privacy is a citizens only protection against collaborators and informants.

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If the French turned inward in response to occupation, the Dutch turned out. The city became a series of villages where the neighbors keep their eyes on each other. In the evening anyone, native or tourist, can walk down the street and peer into the city’s houses. There are the lovely little Dutch families watching TV and playing with the dog and preparing dinner. No one seems to mind that their entire lives are on display. The openness extends to all facets of daily life. In the playground other mother’s help my children up the slide. On the bus, strangers motion for me to take my headphones off, then compliment my shoes. Sometimes this intimacy is pleasant, sometimes it is not. On a canal boat tour I took with a friend last weekend the captain told us to quiet the children down, or “at least make an effort.” I might have appreciated a greater respect for privacy from him, less of a community spirit.

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Obama only stayed in Amsterdam for 90 minutes, then he was off to the Hague to discuss seemingly all the world’s ills. The city quieted down and the helicopters disappeared. There remained no whiff of military or any other kind of occupation. House lights went on and at five o’clock on the dot the streets were filled with vigorous looking Dutch people riding their bikes home. All was as it should be, safe ordered and serene, though I suspect the past is not forgotten.

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    Great post! Obama’s helicopters recently landed in our small town 25 miles north of Manhattan. My husband used to be in the White House Press Corps as a photographer, so he told me what to look for with all the different helicopters. It was fun — but your post was so sensitive and smart in your reading of what it must have felt like for people whose homes and cities have been invaded. I also find your comparisons of French/Dutch notions of privacy fascinating; I lived for a year in Paris and have been to Holland, where those uncurtained windows strike me as very odd indeed. In NY, where I have lived since 1989 (from Canada) people will say quite shockingly familiar things to you. It can be pleasant but their notions of boundaries are very different from Canada.

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