The city of Zwolle is the juncture for all kinds of villages in the East of the Netherlands, all the villagers drawn to what the big city has and the villages do not: offices, high school, shopping malls, and cinemas. Nine long years I went to what is spoken of as Zwolle’s drain: Holterbroek. The neighborhood is poor and has a bad reputation, attracting the lowest incomes while producing criminality and Dutch rap. It is both dubiously and lovingly nicknamed the ‘Holtenbronx‘, although I never perceived it as such.

I went through many high school classes — up-and-down and sideways through the levels — and over a hundred different classmates. Kids that spoke about their dreams but then wouldn’t show up the next week. Second-generation immigrant kids whose parents didn’t speak Dutch. A kid whose dad owned a jewelry store. A kid who picked up cigarette buds from the street and lit them to smoke the last bit out of them, just to get his nicotine kick while being underage to buy cigarettes. Kids who lived on farms and had to travel over an hour by bus to get to school — they wouldn’t show up if the day only had one class. And there were boys who repaired classic mopeds and others who rode expensive scooters without knowing how to fix them, and there were girls that experimented with push-up bras and all the boys who noticed.

None of these kids were any smarter or more real than anyone else, but perhaps people get deeper or at least more honest when their surroundings get shallower. Words with purity, spoken through fewer layers. Nonchalance worn as fashion, for we certainly didn’t carry the burden of aspiration or presentation. Nobody spoke about future dreams except for the weekend. And I easily connected. I felt average, with the benefit that I reached into groups of any color.

It was the hanging around, the small talk, the buying junk food. Being stupid and making fun of each other. These are not ‘the little things that give meaning to life’. This is not smelling the flowers on the way to work, or putting some Times New Roman quote on your wall. My time there provided little education but intuition instead, and with it millions of tiny data points in your gut that tell you what Excel sheets can’t.

In being ‘professional’ we too often focus on being smart — being rational versus being emotional, but this false separation ignores that emotions coordinate the mental modules of the mind, which produce actions and thoughts. There is only an emotional response or there is no response. And this is why in Holterbroek you walk on the ice even though you know it’ll break. Not because you want to be smart and save time getting to the other side, but because you want to feel the sensation of it breaking, hear it, feel it. And to laugh about your friend who goes next.