Making My Voice Heard

Gemeenteraad VerkiezingI’ve always felt strongly about exercising my right to vote. I looked forward to my first opportunity to vote the year I turned 18, even though the outcome of that particular vote didn’t go my way. I didn’t let that turn me off. Every time I moved to a new state in the US (and I went through a few), I always registered to vote, and got to take part in some important elections on local and state levels, as well as national.

There was something particularly satisfying in going to my polling place and flipping levers or even using the touch screen (though the levers were more enjoyable), surrounded by other people who also felt strongly enough to vote. There’s a solidarity, even if you may well be voting at complete opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Unfortunately, since moving, although I can still vote in the US, I’ve missed voting in person. Absentee ballots don’t have the same visceral thrill of the moment. But today, I finally got that thrill back. You see, in the Netherlands, it’s possible for non-Dutch citizens to vote in local elections. If you’re from an EU country, you can vote with no delay, but if you’re from a non-EU country, you must reside in the Netherlands for five years first. I was ridiculously envious of my Italian boyfriend when he got to vote in the last local election and I didn’t. However, this time around, it was my turn!

Today, local elections are being held across the country. Unfortunately, they’re expecting a rather low turnout, which I find so frustrating. Voting here is physically very easy. You don’t have to register to vote as you do in the US. Since you’re already registered with your local government, they automatically send you a stempas (voting pass) a month or so before the election. They also send out a sheet with all of the parties/candidates (as in the top photo). There are plenty of polling stations and you’re not limited to one specific location. You can vote wherever it’s more convenient (as long as it’s in your city, of course). There are voting stations set up at the train station, and numerous spots in schools, stores, and a variety of locations.

To vote, all you do is show your stempas and your ID and they give you your ballot to fill out, which looks like the one in the photo. There’s a red pencil in the voting booth and you fill in your choice and then drop it in the collection box. Easy peasy, at least once you get the ballot unfolded and spread out. It really is big! (As a side note, I took both my passport and my verblijfsvergunning (residence permit) with me as ID. It turns out I just needed the verblijfsvergunning, but the people working there commented on the attractiveness of the US passport, so that’s nice.)

In Utrecht, we have 17 parties from which to choose this time around, and within those parties, some have up to 50 candidates. The parties include the big national parties like D66, SP, VVD, and PvdA, but they also include smaller, local parties like OnsUtrecht. Doing the research on the parties and figuring out which individual to vote for is the only time-consuming part, but you’ve got plenty of time leading up to the election to narrow things down.

I’m curious to see the overall outcomes, not just for Utrecht, but for some of the other cities in the Randstad (the four major cities in the Netherlands). Although the elections are purely local, they can also be viewed sometimes as a commentary on national politics, either as a show of support or protest.

One last thing … the Dutch word stem means both vote and voice. So in Dutch, when you cast your vote, you really do make your voice heard.

And now my favorite photo from the last election. A little dog calmly waiting for his owner to return from voting.Brave Hond [Day 62/365]

Squatters or Saviors

Conflict Resolution
On a section of the square behind the Stadhuis (town hall), there is a small photo exhibition set up that explores the idea of conflict resolution in day-to-day life. Whether children or adults, there are ways to try to resolve problems without resorting to violence. Sometimes, though, this is easier said than done. Martin Luther King Jr. even said, “A riot is at bottom the language of the unheard.”
Conflict Resolution

I mention rioting, because despite the multi-color flags in the picture above that say Utrecht Viert Vrede/Utrecht Celebrates Peace” you should also pay attention to the unusually decorated building in the background. Known as the Ubica-panden, it is actually two buildings with a long and storied history. The one on the left (in black) dates to the 1300s, while the one on the right dates from 1865, but was built upon the foundations of another building from the 1300s.

During the last century, the buildings were taken over by a company called Ubica. However, the buildings suffered through numerous fires. The last was in 1989 and no one made any attempt to restore the building. Instead, it sat empty and fire-damaged until 1992 when a group of krakers (squatters) moved in and began to make the buildings inhabitable again. They claim — perhaps rightly so — that without their intervention, the historic buildings would have been left to crumble and decay past saving. The owner of the building Wim Vloet, has been described as a slumlord, and he seems to have refused to work with both the municipality and the residents of the building over the past 20+ years.

However, last year a developer showed an interest in the building, hoping to turn it into a hotel and café. The squatters themselves had used the building in various formats, including as a concert venue, vegan restaurant, free internet workshop, and art exhibition space. Despite their long involvement with the building, they were served with an eviction notice last week by a court in Arnhem. The squatters were not happy with the ruling, obviously, and they remain concerned that Vloet has not/will not actually follow through on turning the building over to the potential developer.

All of this led to conflict last Friday night. A small riot of sorts broke out as the squatters tried to defend their building and make a strong statement about their impending eviction. A small grouping of tires were set out in front of the building (not far from the photo exhibit) and set on fire. Some of the squatters moved up to the roof of the building and began setting off fireworks and throwing paint balloons. Other squatters remained inside and chained themselves to the building.

From everything I’ve read, there were no injuries on either side, just a lot of paint. Some of the police who attempted to go inside came out covered completely in paint. You can read a pro-squatters account (in English) here. There’s another good article with photos, as well, here. You may want to look through the photos in the second article, since they show the before, while I’m going to post some of the after photos I took the following morning.

Having seen some of the photos of the paint-splattered square and town hall, I was curious to see it all for myself. However, by the time I got there, they had already cleaned up much of the paint and were in the process of cleaning more, as well as cleaning up any char remains of the small tire fire.

After Ubica

After Ubica

Even the Stadhuis wall and window that had been covered in blue paint was cleaned up and the only damage left to be seen was a crack in the window.
After Ubica

However, some of the squatters still remained inside. I think the scene I saw through a window was an attempt by the police to break through the chains one of the squatters was using. In the end, the last of the squatters weren’t removed until 3 or 4 in the afternoon, almost 24 hours after events began.

The squatters knew they were going to be evicted and rather than go quietly, they chose to leave on their own schedule, making their own statement. Interestingly, there’s another quote about riots from Martin Luther King, Jr. that is fitting.

The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win and their participants know it. Hence, rioting is not revolutionary but reactionary because it invites defeat. It involves an emotional catharsis, but it must be followed by a sense of futility.

The squatters knew they wouldn’t be able to remain, but by making a statement, they gained a brief chance to be heard and to express their concerns. Whether it will all be futile remains to be seen.

(For a great series of photos of that night and the following day, check out this site by a local photographer.)
After Ubica

1 Billion Rising

Neude Crowd
As a feminist from a very young age, I’m constantly frustrated and horrified by the treatment of women around the world. I’m not just talking about the horrendous rapes of women that have taken place in India and South Africa recently. I’m just as upset over the fact that the Violence Against Women Act in the US was not reauthorized and only given an extension yesterday. Don’t even get me started on the fact that the US is the only democracy in the world that hasn’t ratified the United Nations Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (otherwise known as the international bill of rights for women).

ONE IN THREE WOMEN ON THE PLANET WILL BE RAPED OR BEATEN IN HER LIFETIME.

ONE BILLION WOMEN VIOLATED IS AN ATROCITY

ONE BILLION WOMEN DANCING IS A REVOLUTION*

Tomorrow, 14 February 2013, women (and men) all over the world will be rising up to protest the violence against women that takes place everywhere. This peaceful protest will take the form of singing, dancing, and flashmobs. Cities and countries all over the world have events planned and you’re free to take part, even if you haven’t learned the flashmob routine. Just dance and support women everywhere!

Utrecht will have its own event taking place, starting at Hoog Catharijne and then moving to Neude. The goal is to have one billion people around the world speaking out peacefully against this brutality. No matter where you are, look for an event near you. Or start your own! It doesn’t have to be big. Just find your own way to raise your voice.

*stats from onebillionrising.org

Utrecht’s Gay Rights Memorial

Recognition
I was born and raised in Florida, but moved to North Carolina (NC) when I was 16. I’ve lived there off and since then, so it’s a state I have some affection for, as well as some feelings of frustration. The recent vote in North Carolina to amend the state’s constitution to ban gay marriage and essentially remove many rights of anyone not in a traditional marriage left me particularly frustrated. The US is legally a secular country, so religious beliefs shouldn’t influence political decisions. I may be an atheist myself, but I have a number of friends in NC, of varying faiths, who fought hard against this vote. It’s a nice reminder that many people of faith practice the loving side of their religion, rather than trying to limit the freedoms of others.

Memorial

About a month ago, I came across a story on one of the Utrecht news site about a gay memorial that stands in the Domplein (Cathedral Square) here in the city. Finally, yesterday, I went to go see it for myself. The memorial is for the 18 Utrechters who were imprisoned and killed for being gay in the 1730s.

The nave of the cathedral was destroyed in a storm in 1674, and the ruins became a meeting place for those known as sodomieten. In 1730-31, after complaints from the sacristan of the cathedral, the government stepped in and began arresting people and interrogating them. Other meeting places were discovered and a wave of arrests followed. Some people in important positions were tipped off in advance and escaped, but in the end, 18 people were sentenced to death and strangled.

The memorial to this atrocity stands on the historic church grounds. It also shows the way thinking has changed from the 18th century to today. The memorial describes how in the 18th century, it was called sodomy and punishable by death. Today, it is called homosexuality and it comes with freedom and choice.

Vrijheid

The memorial is dated June 1999. Since then, gay marriage has been legalized in the Netherlands. Hopefully, sooner rather than later, it will be legal everywhere and we will look back with horror at the way the GLBT community has been treated and isolated.

Source

Equal Rights On Display


Reason #482 for why I like living here in the Netherlands: Window displays like this are both possible and acceptable.

While walking home from the Hoog Catharijne shopping center today, I passed by this window display for a menswear store. At first, I thought nothing of it really. I fully support gay rights and certainly don’t see why same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to marry. The fact that the Netherlands was the first country to allow same-sex marriage makes me happy to be here. What made me stop to take the picture was the fact that this kind of window display would be considered outrageous, political and daring just about anywhere in the United States. How sad. I look forward to the day when this kind of window display could show up anywhere and not turn heads or raise tempers. Same-sex marriages should be viewed as normal and as commonplace as heterosexual marriages.

Plus, the embroidered “Just Married” on the shirt collar is kind of cool.

Red Light Green Grocer

Have I mentioned that there’s a red-light district here in town, not too far from us? If we’d got the house on Breedstraat that we had originally tried for, it would have been even closer. Admittedly, it’s a small district, just one relatively short street really, but yes, they do have actual red lights (well, one red fluorescent light on the side of the window) and the women do sit there in the window.

I don’t see them that often, as it’s usually early on a Saturday morning when I walk down that street, coming back from the lapjesmarkt (fabric market on Breedstraat), and they’re closed up after the previous night. I do sometimes see them in passing if I’m walking down Voorstraat to Etos (a drug store), or heading back up Voorstraat from the Neude in order to stop at the Albert Heijn grocery store, as I did today.

Because I see them so infrequently, they catch me by surprise sometimes, particularly when I see them in the middle of the day. I have no issue with them, but get a bit of a giggle out of the thought of seeing them as I’m going about my daily grocery shopping. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!

Stop Inburgering Me!

Kaatstraat
(the building where I had to go for my appointment on Monday)

A couple of weeks ago, I got a folder in the mail from the Gemeente Utrecht (city offices sort of thing). That’s rarely a good thing anywhere, so I was apprehensive opening it. Sure enough, there was a letter telling me I was invited to begin the inburgering program (Dutch integration program) with an appointment at 10:15 on 5 January.

At first glance, you might not think that’s such a big deal. In fact, it might seem like a good thing — but it’s not. It’s an intensive, expensive program culminating in six 1-hour exams or more, with questions covering more than just history and politics. I’ve heard of questions involving discussion of how to build a shed, along with topics about childbirth, as well. Not to mention various other requirements involving reports or role-playing that are too convoluted to go into here.

Needless to say, I didn’t want to do this program. I also was under the impression that I did not have to do it, because of G being an EU citizen and the fact that I was admitted into the country as his partner. Of course, tracking down official information is not so easy. Ultimately, though, I read enough to make me pretty positive that under EU law, as a partner of an EU citizen, I was covered under the freedom of movement law, making me exempt from the inburgering program.

Despite being fairly positive, I was still a bit nervous this morning when it came time to head off for my interview. All the worrying was in vain, as it has always been when it comes to anything regarding immigration here. Everyone is always very friendly, kind and helpful, and the woman I met with didn’t seem to have any issue when I said that I didn’t think I was required to do the program. She looked at my residence card — which says essentially that I have the same rights as an EU citizen — and that was that. She made a copy of my card and passport, just for the records, and explained that they generally send the letter out to everyone who isn’t an EU citizen themselves, but that I wasn’t their target. As long as G and I don’t break up, I don’t have to do the program.

Ultimately, if I wanted to become a Dutch citizen, I’d have to at least pass some sort of exam, although the program isn’t actually mandatory. As it stands, after five years, I will have almost all of the benefits of being a Dutch citizen, without actually having to become one, per the IND (immigration) officer I met with when we first moved.

So, I didn’t have to use any of my examples to show that I’m trying to assimilate and integrate already. I didn’t have to explain how we came in fourth — out of eight teams — at the Christmas Eve Quiz, beating at least eight other actual Dutch people. I didn’t have to explain how we’d taken part in Sinterklaas this year and even written poems (even if they were in English). I didn’t have to give my scores at sjoelen. I didn’t even have to pull out my ace and sing along to Utrecht Mijn Stad!

Utereg het mooist van allemaal!

Out of the Shadows



Out of the Shadows
Originally uploaded by indigo_jones

Although I could have picked it up any time during the past month, I finally got around to picking up my residency permit card today. I’m officially a legal resident of the Netherlands! It’s valid for five years, and at the end of the five years, I can renew or I can choose to apply for citizenship. The citizenship is something I’m definitely considering, especially if McCain gets elected. I have no patience for the US if they choose him after eight years of Bush.

But that’s enough political ranting. I have a whole new country’s politics to figure out now!

… Is Ingewilligd.

… is granted.

Those were the important words I was looking for just now when I saw that a letter had arrived for me from IND (immigration). My request for legal residency here has been granted. Yay! I still have to go get the stamp/document, but that will come at some date in the future. They’ll send me another letter with the date and time for me to go pick up the stuff. (I’m guessing that horrid picture of me that had to be submitted with my application will be used on my ID document. *shudder*)

Also, I can’t tell you how happy I am to be living in an age when I can go online to the Google translation page and type in the information to be translated and have an immediate (although literal) translation. I got the gist of the letter. The letter, of course, was in Dutch and my Dutch isn’t up to it, especially when you consider the super long words they create by combining words. Gemeenschapsonderdaan, for example. It roughly translates to Community citizen. Of course, even Google couldn’t handle Tewerkstellingsvergunning, but as it’s not required, I’m not worried about it.

So, this means in five years I can apply for citizenship if I want. Let’s see who and how the next president of the US is. 😉

Legal Immigrant

We had our appointment in Hoofddorp today to visit IND, the immigration offices. We took the train up, since it’s close to Amsterdam (only one or two stops after the Schipol stop), and ended up being about an hour early for our appointment. Ah, the joys of having to follow a train schedule. Not to mention, the building truly is right outside the train station. There’s absolutely no missing it.

After having a saulcijzbroodje (basically a sausage pasty that was quite nice) from the little shop at the station, we headed in to the building to await our turn. The building was pleasant and clean and comfortable, so the wait wasn’t that bad. We even saw the man we’d seen at the Utrecht office who had explained everything to us. He had mentioned that he worked in the Amsterdam office and was just filling in that day in Utrecht. And for whatever reason, they don’t do the stamps we needed in Utrecht, thus our trip to Hoofddorp.

The woman we met with was pleasant as everyone else has been and the whole process was painless and simple. Giovanni got his stamp put into his passport, and thus made it possible for me to then apply. I also got a stamp in my passport that is good for six months. Sometime in the next six months, my application for residency should most likely be approved (there’s no real reason why it shouldn’t be) and then I will have to go back to get my official residency permit. But I’m still legal for now.

We might celebrate tonight with some herring and onions.