Please welcome today’s guest writer, Juliana Ludema. Jules graduated in 2017 with a degree in strategic communication. Currently, she makes cheesy videos as an Americorps VISTA at Bethany’s Thrift Store, when not writing hard hitting stories about firefighters and swimming babies for Caledonia Living Magazine. Find her attempting to become a wilderness woman, fill all her coffee shop punch cards or explore every church in Grand Rapids.
I spent an evening with Amsterdam the other month.
It was just an overnight layover, but I had to see the city, to meet her. So like any half-Dutch West Michigan girl would, I reached out to a long-lost cousin and asked for sightseeing tips.
I found her after wandering the subway (despite texting, “We’re by a bridge”) and joined her on a whirlwind tour of Amsterdam’s streets. We stayed with her friends, right on a canal, in one of those tall and skinny and surprisingly not-so-blonde homes. We drank Pickwick tea and ate “real” stroopwafels—things I used to think were cultural caricatures, what my dad likes to buy to pretend his ancestors came last week, not last century.
We watched bikes fly by the window and woke up rushing to the subway.
I’ve seen Amsterdam. I know her. We’re friends. Right?
I’m in a long-term relationship with Grand Rapids, but I can’t say I know her. I know about her, which of her streets lead me to the river, to work, which ones to avoid.
But each day I’m with her, I discover something new: a church whose stained glass I need to ask about, a poke restaurant, a free yoga class in a children’s Sunday School room (ever stared down Veggie Tales characters in downward dog?). I meet new people, learn about nonprofits, hear their stories.
When friends visit or new people start at work, I give whirlwind tours of my city, show off her blue bridge, the Amway’s chandelier, Founders’ Nitro Rubaeus. I share hoping to give a good first impression—I know I can’t share her. Grand Rapids is all those things, but they aren’t what makes her her. I’m not sure what does.
You know how people track where they’ve been on corkboard world maps? If I had one of those, I’d almost find it easier to stick in a push pin, say “been there, done that,” for the places I’ve skimmed than for those I’ve spent years trying to unravel.
Meeting Amsterdam meant putting a face to the name, knowing where to imagine my ancestors ice skating to work; the Pickwick tea of my youth somehow made more sense. But when I discover new little things in Grand Rapids, I’m overwhelmed by how much I must not know. Is it fair to say I “know” GR enough to stick a pin in my mental map?
Sometimes I study the back of my hand. There’s a small scar on my wrist where my sister dug her fingernail in, to the bone, one New Year’s Eve (I deserved it). Is it possible to memorize the way my veins dip beneath bones, branch out in two or three directions? Have they always been the same?
That’s just the physical. How strange that I’ll never know what I’m like. I could spend eternity with myself and certainly with someone else without ever knowing all of them, though I’d know everything about them that drives me insane. But I trip on that slow high—the one that comes after continuing conversation for days or months or years. Why bother with anything less?
It’s easy for me to judge those who seem to seek a quick friendship sugar high—the one you get when you meet someone new and realize you both love The Truman Show. They jump from person to person, looking for the next great landmark.
I know it’s just personality. Sometimes I think about all the effort I’m spending just getting to know Grand Rapids. It’s exhausting. If I spent that effort discovering new places, I’d have seen so much more.
Which poison: a lifetime spent seeing flashy landmarks, never staying put, or a lifetime getting lost in one place? In reality, most of us do a little of both.
Maybe I’ll grab coffee with Amsterdam again sometime.