An Outsider in the Maelstrom

European Parliament
drafted 10 February 2009

Dutch has two words for foreigner. It seems that one is a generic label (buitenlander or “alien”) and the other (vreemdelingen) emphasizes – just slightly? – the strangeness of someone from another land. If I ever develop a respectable degree of fluency, I will begin to listen for the usage of these two words in conversation: what are the situational conditions that inspire one word or the other?
It would be an overstatement to describe myself as the ultimate outsider, but let’s look at the facts: I’m American (for god’s sake), a mere bilingual, and the wrong kind of interpreter. Just as the action component of my research project elicits surprise from persons at the site of study, their reactions hold a mirror up for me to see myself, too. Am I just a pushy American? Or am I true to form – enacting that independent “can do” attitude that is a central feature of the American character? Heavens, what is she on about?!
When I made it to Strasbourg last month, a confluence of political and emotional forces enacted through specific acts of communication battered at me, temporarily affecting my ability to concentrate. The conversations I held with Members early in the week were more scattered and less organized than usual. As I became aware of the disruptions in my ability to focus I managed to re-group and re-establish clarity of purpose for the later conversations and my first observation.
I have been at the crux of discursive forces like this before. There are different ways to represent this juncture in academic literature. I am most familiar with it as a storming phase of group development, which I envision as the clash between discourses (the momentum of past trajectories of articulated experience, perception, and understanding) and dialogue (the cooperative interaction by conscious users of these pre-existing discourses in the co-construction of a future-oriented amalgamated discourse). Edgar Allen Poe describes this metaphorically in his short story, The Maelstrom. As a huge swirling whirlpool threatens to suck all objects into void, hope for salvation emerges by careful observation of the most slowly-moving objects. Only these have a chance of avoiding the final flush through a combination of light mass and non-resistance: in human terms, by relaxation and patience.
The trick of survival in a socio-cultural maelstrom is to fix oneself to a couple of moving anchors. I know it sounds like a contradiction, but when everything is in flux, everyone is in fluid motion. In this instance (back in Strasbourg for the first time since 2005), I remembered my interpreting roots as socialized by empowered members of American Deaf Culture, reached out to friends and colleagues met in the U.S. (who, heaven help them, actually like me), and accepted with gratitude the presence of new friends who adopted me without hesitation because, “this is what we do.”
Building trust is hard. I am not sure if it is harder in Europe than in the U.S.? The other day, Topi shared some of the lessons she’s learning in the integration class for immigrants to Belgium. The reason she was given for Belgians’ interpersonal distance – for instance, the way they do not acknowledge your presence when passing on the street – is as an outcome of having so many wars fought over this land. As an American, it is hard for me to wrap my mind around the ever-present lived history of violence across the European continent, especially within the European Parliament where it seems everyone is working very hard to get along. The threat of betrayal is, I guess, never far from mind.
I have thought a bit about “friends” and “enemies” as this research project has unfolded: the fear that I might be a bad guy, or maybe even a journalist, is a fascinating development. I am teasing with the emphasis; I understand that the matter of representation is serious. In fact, the question came up four years ago as well and I wrote about it in this post on critical or applied ethnography. With action learning, I have landed somewhere in the middle of those two methodologies, as well as extending from action research‘s customary fields (education largely, business next), and initiating as a solo actor hoping to engage stakeholder groups.
Now (23 March 2009), there is tentative engagement in a few directions. A number of small gestures – both visible and private – suggest the possibility that a few seeds may take root.

10 thoughts on “An Outsider in the Maelstrom”

  1. Buitenlander is zeer algemeen (niet uit dit land).
    Een vreemdeling is meer bepaald. Een vreemdeling kan in dit land leven als een ‘allochtoon’, ter onderscheiding van de ‘autochtoon’ die hier sinds mensenheugenis woont.
    Ik zou u dus eerder omschrijven als een ‘buitenlander’.
    Een allochtoon of vreemndeling heeft dus nog duidelijke roots met het land van herkomst. Zo noemen wij soms Belgen die sinds de 3de generatie hier wonen en dus volledig geïntegreerd zijn, nog steeds vreemdelingen/allochtonen, want hun afkomst is nog duidelijk traceerbaar.
    Niet erg sympathiek eigenlijk!

  2. I like that people are following this conversation – it is continuous (in my mind, anyway!) with the dialogue of “Het Verbazen!”
    Spookie clarified in person what she wrote above; hopefully I remember accurately. A buitenlander is more neutral, simply descriptive that a person’s origins are elsewhere than here. Vreemdelingen can also be descriptive, but it is often given a not nice connotation: you could be from here and still have strange ways.
    For instance, there are plenty of Moroccans whose Belgian roots go back a generation or two or three. They are not from another land, not buitenlanders, but a Flemish person might still describe them as vreemdelingen. The distinction, then, is one of perspective. Interesting, huh?! This is a good example to illustrate the point that whatever you say (even if it is about someone else), you actually reveal more about yourself than say anything of particular substance about the other!
    Other friends added more nuance. You can be Flemish but uit op Flanders! You’re a pajadder if you come from the countryside, and a sinjoor if you come from the Antwerpen metropole. Am I deciphering my notes correctly? (It’s been a week!) Because there are another phrases, van de Vlaanders, and van over ‘t water which fit into the labeling scheme too… so many ways to mark the Other! “Antwerpens,” so I’m told, “speak dialect but criticize you for your dialect. They think they speak a world language!”
    Well . . . ! I don’t think that the Flems I know believe their language is that big or important in global terms, but they are fond of it, that’s sure. Let’s see what Spookie did actually write above:
    Expatriate (“buitenlander”) is very general (not from this land).*
    An alien (“vreemdeling”) is more specific. An alien can live in this country as an immigrant, but distinguished from a native whose ancestors have lived here for as long as anyone can remember.
    Therefore, I would define you as ‘ buitenlander.’
    Both immigrants and aliens have clear roots with the country of origin.
    Thus we may still call Belgians “vreemdelingen” who have lived here for three generations and been completely incorporated, because the trace remains.
    Not very sympathetic, actually!

    I think you are being kind, Spookie, to call me only a buitenlander. Rumor has it I need explaining to people, which means I am strange in at least some ways! 🙂 Apparently there is debate over the extent to which mijn ongewoonheid is uniek of ” American”.
    Which brings up another variation, that of a buitenstaander: someone who is aware of being excluded. This is a common kind of consciousness for people in minority or marginalized groups. A famous Black American educator and emancipationist described the “double consciousness” of those who are not served equitably by the primary mechanisms of a society.
    I guess “buitenstaander” does not mean this, but the word sounds like an American concept of someone who stands out, een persoon die altijd zichtbaar is omdat zij verschillend op merkbare manieren handelen (tr: a person who is always visible because they act differently in noticeable ways.)
    *Dutch to English (in babelfish) gave me buitenlander-expatriate, but reverse translation did not take me back to the same term: expatriate-emigrant. I had to use the van Dale Handwoordenboek for aloochtoon and autochtoon.

  3. o-o-o, this is such interesting matter !
    ‘antwerp people’ indeed ( have the tendency to ) label all flemish dialects as ‘ dialects ‘ except their own . 😉
    also i think there is a BIG difference in nuance ( again, the nuances make the whole difference )between immigrant / foreigner (buitenlander)(visiting) / stranger (vreemdeling) / outsider (buitenstaander) / expatriate (buitenlander)(staying).
    and YES, they can all be about the very same person .
    also, i recognize a lot what you say about your ‘ongewoonheid’ being ‘you’ (unique)or ‘american’ : i had exactly the same living as a vlaming in holland ; every time my behaviour was different than ‘common’ it was called ‘flemish’ , which at a certain point got me realy irritated, because they totally missed the fact that just maybe not all flemish people act the way i do ?!
    so, if i may say so : i strongly suspect (;-))you’re ‘you’ and not ‘american’ !
    ‘ c’est en faisant n’importe quoi qu’on devient n’importe qui ‘
    ( it’s by doing whatever one becomes whoever )

  4. Correction (via email):
    “I think what you mention as ‘uit op Flanders’ should be ‘uit de Vlaanders’ (from either the West- or East-Flanders province) and the correct spelling of ‘pajadder’ is ‘pagadder’.”

  5. correct !
    [ unless you use the spanish ‘j’, but i think all ‘spanjaerds’ have left ‘de nederlanden’ by now .. 😉 ]

  6. and then there’s this:
    “”We speak belgian”
    Walloons from Wisconsin don’t use the word “walloon” to define the dialectal langage they speak ? They say : “we speak belgian”.”
    From a website about Potential Estate, more of which is apparently on exhibit in the permanent collection at the Royal Museum of Fine Art, Antwerp.

  7. well, there’s the snake again.. .
    anyway : as far as i know ‘belgian’ as a language doesn’t exist. i like the site ! a bit surrealistic, though,- well, belgium is known for that, not? – but i strongly suspect a visit to belgium, wisconsin might be too :-). i wonder how it sounds, ‘their’ ‘belgian’ . funny, i must have been real close some years ago.. i actually was in michigan .
    did you visit this exhibition yet ? i’d like to go there .
    [ i specifically like ” if it’s tuesday, it must be belgium ” :-)) try to find some ‘belgian’ logic in that .. ]

  8. I had a chat with a freelance interpreter the last time in Strasbourg (within hours, actually, after I had published this entry here), who told me that my being American definitely worked against me: legacy of Bush, and all the antagonism he invoked within political circles in Europe over those long eight years. We’ve been witnessing quite a thaw since Obama has taken office, but the Bush taint of ‘being American’ doesn’t disappear all that quickly.
    So. I was here in 2005 when things were really bad. Then they only got worse, and I came back. Oy!
    Some of the conflicts that have emerged I have dealt with in ways that might be American, I’m not sure – perhaps they are personality-based? For instance, I’ve tried to be more light-hearted than crisis-oriented, especially when it seemed emotions were high (mine, and/or others’). I mean, yes – simultaneous interpreting is quite a serious business, and . . . one could argue that research is also important, and . . . both activities can be encompassing. Keeping a bit of perspective is a good thing, no?
    The thing is, there is nearly always a “logic” operating, whether it conforms with, complements, or contrasts with other people’s logics. Even surrealistic Belgian humor, with its delight in being obtuse! Obscurity can be a window or a mirror, depending how one chooses to perceive it.

  9. Ik ga vreemd!
    Oh memory! I think this means, “I’m going to the stranger.” I like the sentiment. 🙂
    More input on the buitenlander/vreemdelingen distinction. Back in the day (some, um, fifty years ago?), buitenlander was the more exclusionary term: you are from another country, and vreemdelingen was a comment on someone’s difference, as in being, acting, or having a characteristic that was unusual but not bad. Vreemdelingen became an insulting label only some ten or fifteen years ago – at least in the circles that this individual heard it used. Anyone wanna confirm or contest this info?

  10. :-)..
    .. ” ik ga vreemd ” means ” i’m cheating ” (when in a relationship). i suppose this is not what you meant to say? (unless it was meant as a pun?)
    i agree partly : long time ago indeed ‘ buitenlander ‘ very clearly meaning something completely different than ‘ vreemdelingen ‘ : the first being a person from a foreign country, the second being people with unusual or ‘ un-adjusted ‘ behaviour. but that might also have something to do with the more archaïc dutch being used at that time. second, i’m not certain about ‘ vreemdelingen ‘ being an insult any time it’s being used but i like to be careful though in using it.

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