Studying in St. Louis

Reflections on Life at Wash U and Beyond with Fenneke Wekker (UvA)

Why were you excited to participate in TAF program?

The main thing for me was the opportunity to live abroad for a period of time, because I’ve never done that before. And I would have never chosen St. Louis, or probably even Paris. But I really liked that, you just go there and find out what’s there for you. I like that open adventurous starting point. I was really excited about that. Also, because at UvA I’m not part of a bigger research project, which is strange for PhD’s in Europe, I really liked that opportunity to be a part of an international team of students. Who weren’t necessarily working in my field, but being part of a group and constantly exchanging ideas. And I also really like taking classes.

What was your favorite part about the Institutions course with Professor Bowen?

What was useful to me was, although I was already familiar with many of the readings, it was really nice to read them in a different context. Especially the American literature. It was easier to position it in the American academic world, and some of the issues we know of but don’t experience in daily life. So for instance the Marion Foucade article talks about different ideas of nature in France and America and the Netherlands. It’s true, in the Netherlands we don’t have “wild nature.” Everything is manmade. So that’s something I came to understand better because I was in the US, this kind of cultural comparative element that gets really brought to the fore when you live through it. I also really liked the small groups, which offered the chance to really engage in depth, as well as the time to really grapple with the texts and ideas.

How did the TAF program further your own scholarship?

At first I was planning on doing some extended fieldwork in St. Louis, but the time frame really just ended up being too short for me; I work with some rather inaccessible populations. So I decided, which was really great, to just use it as a writing retreat. I really enjoyed the time and space, without family and other obligations and expectations, to just focus on the writing. It was such a rich time to think about where I am in the project, how I could relate my St. Louis experiences to what I was writing, and it made me look differently at my own data as I was analyzing it because I was in such a different context.

How did you engage with the broader St. Louis community?

I’m trained as an ethnographer, so the moment I come somewhere I can’t help but try to figure out how it works. I can’t help being curious. So I came to live in a neighborhood that was not really part of the university, quite outside university life. It was a transition space to more impoverished neighborhoods that were mostly African American. This was a real experience for me and there was a lot that I didn’t understand. People kept telling me you should really write this stuff down, it’s so interesting. In the Netherlands we think we know America, but we don’t. Not this America. It was really a kind of culture shock. So I went to a church, not because I’m religious, but because I was interested in how the black community, because it was so clear that this community has a really weak structural position, poverty and vulnerability are equal to being black (which is the same in away in the Netherlands, but it’s not so obvious). Everyone can see it. I was interested in how the African Americans that I met were so resilient, so nice. I only encountered nice people, full of life, really open. So I wondered how that worked. So I went to a Baptist church and was really welcomed warmly. I kept going for several weeks. We simply don’t have this in the Netherlands. It was such a different world than the world of Wash U campus. Read a Blog Post about the experience here.

What were your favorite things to do and eat in St. Louis?

Going to the Union Station hotel for sure. It has the grandeur of St. Louis in the 19th century. You can really feel how proud people were, the feeling of progress, you can feel the American Dream, that anything is possible. Right there in the built environment. It’s so, from the Dutch perspective, so exaggerated. We have nice building but not that nice. It was grand and the decoration was so beautiful and wealthy, and the contrast with other parts of St. Louis just couldn’t be bigger. Something else I really liked was the city museum, which is not a museum at all but a big playground for adults. I screamed like a child, we all had red faces, adrenaline running through our veins. It was such a great experience. It’s really unbelievable.

Regarding food, I liked toasted ravioli the best, you know just to have a bite with a beer, it was really nice. Really something totally different.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Perhaps for Dutch students, it’s nice to know you can actually bike in St. Louis. You should, it’s a good way to get around. I bought a cheap bike at Walmart. I’d say just stay on the sidewalks. People are cautious and also helpful.  And I could also go through Forest Park, which I did every Sunday, which was always really beautiful.

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