Arnon Grunberg
Words Without Borders

Embedded in Dutch Suburbia

Suburbia is a mythical place. At least, it is if you believe quite a few novels, ranging from Updike's Couples to Yates' Revolutionary Road. And one could argue that Madame Bovary takes place in a village that is just suburbia's predecessor.
Suburbia appears to be place where middle class morality is haunted by boredom and infidelity. One could go a step further and conclude that boredom and infidelity are very much part of middle class morality.
Since I strive to be a novelist who from to time takes a journalistic bath in reality, I decided to go to suburbia. I had been embedded with Dutch and U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and I thought that if you can be embedded with an army, then you can also be embedded with the middle class in their suburban surroundings.
Utrecht, the fourth largest city of the Netherlands, is building a new neighborhood that will be a small city by itself when it's finished. One hundred thousand people are supposed to live in this neighborhood called Leidsche Rijn.
A government agency, set up to provide the arts to Leidsche Rijn, was willing to help me with my endeavor. The agency found families there who were willing to have me at their place for 24 hours.
The deal was that I would stay for one day and one night and follow the lives of the family members. The families knew beforehand that I was going to write about this experience in a newspaper.
From June 13 until June 22, I was embedded in Dutch suburbia. I stayed with families with young children, with teenagers, immigrant families, divorced parents, and an older couple.
Most of my hosts were as curious I was. "Why are you doing this?" a father of three children asked me. "Every night staying with another family. It must be hell."
"No," I answered, "it's quite pleasant. I don't have much privacy, but in a few weeks I'll be back in New York where I'll have plenty of privacy."
Some of the families made me do domestic chores; others treated me as a real guest. Infidelity didn't seem to be a big issue, but quite often the Moroccan emigrants in the Netherlands came up in a conversation.
There is a right-wing party built on a platform against Muslim immigration, and it might become the biggest party in the Netherlands.
I'm now convinced that it is not suburbia that triggers infidelity.
For those who are nervous about the ethical aspects of being embedded with the middle class: a book with my articles about my visit to suburbia will be published next fall. Every family will have the opportunity to comment on my visit and my articles about them. And there will be space for comments on my personal hygiene as well.