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ESSAY When the North is the South Life in the Netherlands by Edward L Ayers fter years ofwatching colleagues fly to Paris,Johannesburg, Beijing , or Bogotá for research trips and speaking engagements, I decided to apply for a posting abroad. Holding only die vaguest and most stereotyped visions, I chose die Netherlands. My application stressed, perhaps impolitely, the direct Dutch involvement in the slave trade and their indirect connection to South African apartheid. Such commonalities widi white southerners, I suggested, might serve as the basis for interesting discussions of race and region. The Fulbright Commission accepted the application and told our family we would be stationed in the city of Groningen. Though on the map it looked a bit far removed from Amsterdam and Leiden, tucked away near the North Sea, the former Fulbright scholar in Groningen allayed our worries with his enthusiasm for the place and the people. Driving to Groningen in early March we predictably commented on the tidiness of the small towns we passed dirough and admired the stone churches that dominated tiieir centers. No tulips yet, and no one wearing wooden shoes, but it was early in the visit. Things were satisfyingly different but not alien or forbidding. We were pleased and relieved. As we neared Groningen at sundown we studied die map: Anna Paulownastraat , our appointed address, lay near the center oftown in the narrow streets of what had begun as a medieval city. We needed to gain our bearings and, to our surprise, the first convenient place to stop turned out to be a brand new McDonald 's restaurant, glowing with a familiar fluorescent sheen. Though it stood alone in an undeveloped area along the highway, the restaurant's parking lot was filled widi cars and lounging teenagers. Inside, we confronted a museum of American icons: a Harley, the rear end ofa pink Caddy, a life-size Marilyn, posters of Chuck, Buddy, and the King. Early rock music played on a jukebox. We had been in our adopted city for only a few minutes and we already heard familiar accents and reassuring backbeats. Maybe this wouldn't be so hard after all—though, to the astonishment of our children, the fries came covered widi mayonnaise. As we setded in we discovered that not everything had been McDonalds-ized. 45 Our apartment resided at the top ofsome satisfyingly European stairs, steep and narrow. Wal-Mart-like hours certainly did not rule in the Netherlands. The stores were shuttered all Saturday afternoon, all day Sunday, and Monday morning as well, with no 7-Elevens to offer a quart of milk or a loaf of bread. If you didn't have what you needed by Saturday at noon, you would do widiout for the entire weekend. Even the Southern Baptists of our east Tennessee youth had not been so strict. We loved the Dutchness of the tilings we saw but reveled in the flashes of the familiar. The television proved a big help in finding the comforts of home, since we could watch alf and die A-Team every day, along with episodes of die Cosby Show and Family Ties. We could also see die Dukes of Hazzard careening around the California landscape that masqueraded, poorly as ever, as north Georgia . Even with Dutch subtities across the bottom of the screen, the fake South appeared before us with a comforting regularity and with fewer commercial interruptions. Despite such touches ofhome, I entered class the first day with some trepidation . What would the students know about the United States? I gained some insight when I was introduced as a visitor from the University ofVirginia and heard a male voice in the back ofthe room stage-whisper, "They're in the final eight this year," referring to our men's basketball team, which had just defeated Kansas in the NCAA tournament. It turned out diat a number of the students had lived in die States during high school, though none in the South, and they spoke widi easy familiarity and unshakable opinions. They felt certain that the United States was 40 percent African American and diat the great majority ofblack Americans, the Cosbys notwithstanding, lived in urban ghettoes. It...


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