As we talked about in our New Year’s Eve post, life here is slowly becoming more navigable and enjoyable. Though we certainly don’t (and may never) feel Dutch, there’s an awful lot we’d miss about life here if we left tomorrow. Further complicating this cultural calculus these last months has been one curious thing: the soundtrack to the smash musical Hamilton, the songs of which have crawled their way into our ears, of course, but also triggered a reckoning of what we connect with most about our new and old homes.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, in its lyrical virtuosity and genius weaving of different genres, has become the soundtrack of daily life. Prepping meals is infinitely more enjoyable while doing your best En Vogue or Martha and the Vandellas impression (thank you, “The Schuyler Sisters” and “Helpless”). “You’ll Be Back” is made for late night strutting around the apartment with whiskey, cape and makeshift crown. Our hearts grow two sizes during “That Would Be Enough.” We drift off to sleep to “Dear Theodosia.”
Given the extent to which Hamilton has saturated life in New York City, it’s unusual to have a monopoly on the experience in Delft. Everyone around us is blissfully unaware of the show, including Ryan’s American colleagues.
But as former residents of “the greatest city in world,” the show places Delft’s peace and quiet in stark contrast with constant buzz of creative expression that defined life in New York, where it was perfectly normal for your online date to be one of the brains behind Occupy Wall Street, for your college roommate to be a professional dancer, your lifting partner to be a leading mind in feminist philosophy, or to share a morning coffee with a New Yorker cartoonist. When Hamilton invokes that quality of New York’s, it serves to remind you that for every 100 degree subway car and pizza rat the city forces you to endure, it gifts you a stunning view from 100 floors up and late night slices at Artichoke. (Or Franny’s, or Roberta’s, or Lucali’s.)
And in a much bigger, but less precise way, Hamilton taps into our flag-waving, patriotic, proud-to-be-an-American sides. Working as he is with archetypes -- these are the Founding Fathers, after all -- Miranda fleshes out his characters such that people of all stripes see themselves and their struggles in them. Though the dramatis personae range from the principled to the slippery, they all bear that most American stamp: an overwhelming drive to preserve or improve their lots in life.
Miranda, too, has clearly made it a priority to make the America portrayed in Hamilton instantly relatable to the modern audience. For all the promise the new nation holds, it is, even in its infancy, deeply divided, dangerous, and built on the backs of people whose way of life is one domestic argument, one paycheck, or one stray bullet from being taken away.
That uneasiness, the persistent, survivalist impulse whose refrain replays in the back of our minds, is by far the most American thing we brought to Holland, moreso than our giant mattress, subway rollisgn, or endless supply of cold medicine. It’s what impels us to work hard, watch our money, and, however irrationally, plan for the day when it all disappears.
It’s an instinct that explains our surprise at discovering yet another way the Dutch government is trying to protect its citizens from falling behind. For better or worse, it’s an instinct we don’t sense as keenly among people here.
As would happen back home, a slew of new laws took effect in The Netherlands on January 1. The more prominent of them merited a few column inches or a segment in the morning news. A new mandatory charge for plastic bags even got its own ad campaign, with notices plastered on shop windows and bus shelters.
Reading about the new laws felt noticeably different this year, chock full as they are of small wins for the Dutch people. In the Staten General (the parliament), a grand coalition of the main conservative and liberal parties, despite their abysmal poll numbers, pushed through modest increases to the minimum wage, widened the middle income tax bracket, increased child benefits and reduced healthcare payments, raised tax on cigarettes, and instituted a three-year rent freeze on public housing while making it available to families on higher incomes.
How did it feel to read, for a change, about a government’s accomplishments, instead of its failures? There was pride in realizing that our adopted homeland, despite disagreeing vehemently at times with its politicians, retains some trust in its government, believes it has a meaningful role to play in improving its citizens’ lives, and is willing to collectively support it.
It’s impossible not draw comparisons with the second act of Hamilton, in which emerging philosophical divides split the Founding Fathers into their factions, presaging the rancor and partisanship that has brought Washington to a halt and is threatening to derail this year’s elections.
So our biggest concession to Dutch-ness, you could say, is not our newly-discovered love of biking, plastic grocery bags, tiny coffees or big hunks of cheese, but our willing participation in daily life in a country of big government, a transition made easier because we have already reaped the benefits of it.
And as public debate in The Netherlands reconsiders the nation’s stance towards the thousands of foreign workers, immigrants, and asylum seekers in its borders, Hamilton reminds us that we are, for the time, ex patria -- out of our homeland. Though our status here is not under threat the way it is for others, we will still struggle to establish ties and understand life here, while striving to maintain a connection to “home."
For all their artistic beauty, Hamilton's songs have been a powerful tool through which we’ve reconsidered who we are and what we stand for. The irony is not lost on us -- we can imagine that moment, years from now, when a playlist calls up the show’s opening bars, or when it reappears as a question at a pub quiz. We’ll think fondly of our “something they can never take away:” the winter when an iconic American musical defined our time as strangers in a tiny town in Holland.