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Revisiting a (child) hood

By Robert Cornelis –

It’s one of the first warm days in May, and I am slightly thrown off by how lush and green my hometown appears. In my memories of Diemen, it was a grey and desolate product of the 90s’ endless urban sprawl, the neighborhoods’ edges still being finished while I grew up there. The town boomed during the second half of the 20th century, at a time when Amsterdam desperately needed room for expansion, leading to the same lifeless neighborhoods with only the most basic amenities being erected seemingly everywhere around the Dutch capital. My early childhood memories have therefore always been characterized by images of sand and construction areas, which were essentially giant sandboxes to us children. Later, as a teen, my friends and I would travel in- and out of the town -just like our commuting parents- to go to high school, bluff our way into coffeeshops and cafes, and get into trouble such as climbing over the fence of the Artis zoo at night. In my memory, any kind of teenage life took place outside of that dull, depressing town, and we couldn’t wait to get out.

“I can’t believe it’s so.. nice” my companion exclaims, slightly exasperated, as we cycle through the village center. She is a fellow Anthropology student at the VU who also grew up in Diemen, and during the first year of our studies, we quickly bonded over our shared contempt for the town. Though nearly ten years apart, we experienced a very similar upbringing there: We were both raised by lower middle class parents struggling to keep the family finances in check, both our parents were unable to stick out their relationships, and we both moved away from the town when we were teens. Since I’ve known her, I’ve wondered if the similarity of our circumstances is the reason that our reflections on the town are so similar too.

When making the plan to revisit our birthplace, we expected to find the same bleak, mostly poor suburb with already outdated facilities at the time we left. From this image however, only few elements are left. The village has been thoroughly updated over the last decade, and on our tour we quickly came to categorize elements as “old Diemen” and “new Diemen”. Now, the town breathes luxury rather than poverty. The concrete (and mostly empty) planters of my memory have been replaced by ‘wild’ and biodiverse borders, both the shopping center and the train station have gone through excessive renovations, and cute cafes that seem to cater to the yuppie crowd have sprung up in the desolate residential areas of my memories. What’s left from my memories of “old Diemen” is limited to two small petting zoos next to the train tracks, an ice skating rink now encroached upon by a wholly new neighborhood, and a small cultural center where I used to be taught saxophone.

While sitting at the terrace of one of the two only cafes that the “old” village used to have, we marvel at the two expats next to us. Fifteen years ago, we discuss, ordering food in English at this place would have been an exception, and we believe that it would almost certainly have resulted in a raised eyebrow from the waiter.

Until I set foot in the town again on that sunny day in May, my image was still that of 15 years ago, with me naively assuming nothing to have changed over time. The development is of course the result of the ongoing gentrification of the Amsterdam metropolitan area, and shouldn’t be cause for surprise. However, what does surprise me is that the neighborhoods and houses I used to discount as poor and unlivable now seem to me as not only desirable, but maybe even unattainable. It makes me wonder how this image of the town came to be, and raises the question if 15 year old me might have channeled the frustration that I felt during my childhood into a negative attitude towards this place.

The experience completely transformed my image of the town, painting my memories in happier, more vivid colors compared to the bleak grayness I discussed earlier. As we stand behind my companion’s childhood home, she mentions how she loved this house, and how nice it was to play on the big meadow behind it. Again, she too seems surprised to notice these good memories returning.

The process has made me more aware of the assumptions I make based on experiences in the past, and simultaneously makes me question to what extent we can actually trust our memories. It strengthens my trust in our discipline’s aim to untangle the complex workings that humans build over time by emphasizing empirical research, and has sparked awareness that while oral histories and auto ethnographies are a valid tool, one should be aware of how memories can become tainted over time.

At the end of the day I left the town happily relieved, and with a different outlook not only on it, but also on my childhood.

This piece was written and published in connection to the VU’s ethnographic film day, themed “REVISITING”, which is set to take place next Thursday, on May 23rd. More information and registration can be found through this link.

Robert Cornelis is a 2nd year bachelor student and department assistant at the department of Anthropology at the Vrije Universiteit, as well as an editor at Standplaatswereld.

One Comment

  1. Freek Colombijn Freek Colombijn

    Thanks, Robert. That is just a great story!

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