Five months ago I wrote a blog post about meeting Irish relatives I never knew I had. My Dad, who organized the reunion, shared my writing via Facebook and it got great feedback from friends and family members back home. One of the people who read the post was Sonja Vink, a woman living outside Ultrecht in The Netherlands who had met my Dad when they were 17. He and a friend had stayed in Sonja’s childhood home on a student exchange trip organized by his high school and later Sonja had crossed the pond to stay with my Dad and experience Rochester, NY with his family. They had kept in touch for a few years afterward but drifted as life went on. 40 years later Sonja found my Dad on Facebook and they reconnected. When she learned he had a son studying in Ireland she reached out to him and suggested I come to The Netherlands to visit. I had already planned a trip over Easter Break to visit a childhood friend that had recently moved to Amsterdam and was able to work in a short trip down to Ultrecht to meet Sonja and reconnect our two families a generation later.
Spending time in a Dutch family gave me true insight into their culture and history, something that I could never have gotten as a tourist in Amsterdam. They were fascinated to hear about life in the United States (especially our political scene), as well as my experience in Ireland. I learned about The Netherlands transformative experience in World War 2, their history of controlling the sea and reclaiming land, and what it truly means to live sustainably. It was reassuring to spend time in a country that not only acknowledges climate change, but is actively preparing for it and attempting to cut their carbon footprint.
Sonja’s house was one of the coolest I’ve ever been in. Designed by Dutch architects it was built vertically and utilizes every possible square foot of space in the most unique ways (secret rooms, pull out drawers, tiny cubbies for storage). Despite rows of houses the neighborhood was anything but cramped. Each Dutch family has fantastic plants in their front and back gardens and make an active effort to live among nature. Canals are incorporated between houses, areas of field and green space are required, and there are designated spots for children to hangout so that they don’t loiter in public places. Trash bins are sorted based on glass, plastic, compost, and paper materials. Each house is solar powered with electric car chargers in the driveway. The windows are multi-use and have shades on the outside and inside so that you can ventilate the house in specific ways depending on the weather and regulate temperature naturally, when it’s not raining or freezing cold people spend time outside. The train is a short walk away, comes every few minutes, and can take you anywhere in the Netherlands. Transportation is quick, efficient, clean, and cheap. Cars are only used for long drives, and bikes are used to get anywhere in a 10km radius, while trains are used to access major cities.
The United States is a country that is heavily influenced by the automobile industry. Our government subsidises car ownership through free parking, building expansive highway networks, and subsidising gasoline. I’ve always thought that having a car is required if you live in the suburbs of a major city because that’s what I grew up knowing. Most families on The Main Line have at least two cars, some have three or four and it’s far more common to see a gas guzzling SUV than a small hybrid. While convenient, American’s reliance on automobiles is crippling our environment. Climate change will have a huge impact on my future and my children’s future. One thing Europeans have figured out is limiting car use. I’ve lived abroad for 9 months and haven’t seen one SUV or pick up truck. Even in Ireland people pay much more for gas which makes public transportation an attractive alternate. Experiencing a Dutch suburb changed my perspective on potential of sustainable living. Not only is it possible, but it’s attractive. These houses were beautiful, the neighborhoods were clean and full of life, and the standard of living was incredibly high. When the United States government decides to recognize climate change and take action against it, the Dutch have created a model that we can learn from and replicate. The day where a Green New Deal becomes mandatory for American cities is coming sooner than we all think.
Meeting Sonja and her family is an experience that will stay with me for years. During my year abroad I’ve had the opportunity to familiarize myself with multiple foreign cultures. Each has broadened my perspective and caused me to view the world in a unique light. Travel, I believe, is the purest way to live and grow. It will always be a priority in my life