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Budapest & The Hague, June 2007-Then Home!


10 June 2007:

I’m making the most of my time here in Budapest: being touristy when I want to, being impulsive when I want to, and generally soaking up the atmosphere of a new place.  This morning I headed out early to the castle (mostly to satisfy that very large part of me which loves history and romance and everything else that castles stand for).  I’ll admit, though, that another large draw for this morning’s excursion were rumors of a fabulous wine festival being held on castle grounds for a few days, of which today was the last.  Together, the combination of Hungarian wines, perfectly manicured castle grounds, and the awe-inspiring castle itself made for quite an idyllic morning.  I wandered and sipped for hours, reflecting and people-watching.  I left the castle with quite a bit of time left in the afternoon, and so decided to take my time getting back.  I made my way to the banks of the Danube and leisurely walked down the riverfront, admiring views of the Buda side and soaking up the sunshine. 

Bridge on the Danube

Later this evening I headed to the Hungarian State Opera House to fulfill my Life List goal of attending an opera in an old European opera house.  I had picked up my tickets earlier today to a showing of André Chenier, an opera I’ve never seen and will probably not understand as it’s sung in Italian and subtitled in Hungarian.  The pleasant surprise, however, was that my pocketbook will not have taken a serious hit for an evening that is potentially lost in translation.  I paid 300 Hungarian Florints for my ticket (roughly the equivalent of 1.70 USD), which I found out tonight bought me a box all to myself and a perfect view of the stage. 

I arrived back at the Opera House a little early this evening to give myself ample time for exploring and generally getting lost in the heavy velvet drapes, rich carpeting, and gold leaf everywhere.  Walking up and down the banistered staircases, I could so easily imagine what it must have been like to attend an opera here one hundred or two hundred years ago.  Entering my box I could even imagine myself, opera glasses in hand, checking out the other patrons in their boxes, soaking up the atmosphere of a place that must have been as much social gathering ground as a cultural venue. 

The opera itself was, truthfully, a bit disappointing.  But I had come less for the actual opera than for the experience, and that exceeded all expectations.  Music filled the theatre, entering my little opera box at just the right volume. And while only words I could understand were “André Chenier” and “amore,” I was perfectly amused soaking up the music and getting lost in the fact of just being there.

At the Opera House

15 June 2007:

Alison Cole, the Special Assistant to the Prosecutor, approached me a while ago and asked if there was anything I hoped to do before leaving, anything that I felt would make my time at the ICC everything I had expected.  Of course, when asked a question like this, I failed to come up with a great answer right away and so have been thinking about it for a little while now.  One of my goals here was to pay a visit to the detention center (in part to more fully understand the way the ICC works, and in part out of an intense curiosity I have as to Charles Taylor and Thomas Lubanga are actually like); however, ICC bureaucracy and (probably legitimate) security regulations prevented that from happening. 

Up until yesterday I was still left with no answer to Alison’s question.  I met with the Prosecutor yesterday morning to review my work and generally to sum up my time here.  After that meeting, I didn’t feel like I was leaving with too many loose ends or like there was anything significant lacking from my ICC experience. 

In the afternoon I finally realized what I had wanted to do for some months now, and what had to be done before I left the ICC and The Hague.  Alison, I’m sure, was expecting my “last wish” to run along the lines of meeting with representatives of the other ICC organs, observing a press meeting, or something else similarly educational.  So when I told her that my one remaining goal at work was to swing over the nearby canal on a rope swing I had seen constructed by local children, she looked at me with a justified expression of surprise.  Still, this afternoon, as we (Alison, myself, Danielle, and Matt) left the office for the day, we trudged to the banks of the canal to attempt what I had seen 13-year-olds accomplish so many times. 

The whole ordeal was more complicated than expected.  Between hiding from colleagues passing the canal on their way home and NGO representatives walking past on their way to meetings at the ICC, our pride took some serious blows.  In my case, this embarrassment was only compounded upon actual attempts to clear the canal, some of which were, well, not so successful.  Yet despite a very wet and sludgy train ride home, I left completely satisfied, with no regrets.

Canal Success!

18 June 2007:

This marked my last week at the ICC, in The Hague, and in many respects, of the Fellowship year. Coming into this week, I thought ending this placement would be relatively easy, given that I’ve done it twice before. But though I have been reluctant to let myself get as attached to many aspects of this placement (work, colleagues, friends) as during my previous placements, I’m finding that leaving this one is proving equally difficult–perhaps even more so.  I am ready to leave.  The novelty of travel has worn off a great deal, and though I can imagine a number of additional projects I could pursue here, I also believe that I’m at a natural stopping point in my work so far. What’s missing here, what’s making this transition much more difficult than those previous, is the uncertainty of where exactly this transition leads. I have my post-Fellowship life planned out as much as possible, but it still remains unclear how this year’s experience will affect those plans. Last summer I could easily imagine myself at school. Though I may now have a better idea of what I want to do through school, I’m still unsure of where I fit in. My approach to certain situations, my priorities, my outlook on what I expect from this academic experience–I expect that those things have changed, but I can’t be sure.

With the adventure of a coming placement replaced by a different, perhaps more uncertain, adventure, I begin this week both excited and nervous for the end.

22 June 2007:

If I had ever thought that my two-hour mandatory security training would go to waste, then today I stand corrected. I had been enjoying a pleasant last day: finishing up my projects, saying goodbye, and getting everything settled to a level that would facilitate my leaving. Late this afternoon, an alarm started to go off, urging staff to shut down their workstations and proceed with safety procedures, citing a “security threat” as the cause for the alarm. We all gathered in the hallway, waiting for our “security wardens” to give the go-ahead for us to file downstairs. The entire security procedure, as we were informed during the training, is timed to take only 15 minutes. In my opinion, the length of the wait in the hallway alone was far longer than fifteen minutes. And if not, then our procession down the stairwell certainly was. I’m not sure who timed the procedure and found it took only 15 minutes, but he must not have been taking all 15 floors into account, or must have been conducting the procedure with a group much more coordinated than we. By the time we reached the first level, about 45 minutes had passed. We proceeded to the parking lot, where we waited for about another half hour before returning to our desks. The wait was enough for me to have a productive phone conversation with David Seibel about the end of this placement and to wrap up a few other things with my coworkers. By the time I settled back in at my desk, I found very little left to do. On my last day, at least, I could rest easy that the entire ICC building could be evacuated–in case of fire or “security threat”–in a reassuring 60 minutes.

At my desk

Still, when I turned in my security badge and left the building (for good) that evening, I was with a feeling of complete satisfaction. My last day had been perfect as such. Everything had wrapped up as I had hoped; I felt satisfied with the work I had done and the relationships I had built.

25 June 2007:

I’m sitting in a cabin by myself on a train to Lyon, France.  There’s something I love about train travel, the way you can watch everything pass by your window as you travel. Although it takes many more hours than traveling by plane and is arguably more expensive than a bus trip, something about reading a good book as the French countryside passes by my window really appeals to me. This train trip is also a good opportunity for me to reflect on my year, an opportunity I have yet to find amidst the ritual of goodbyes.

My last weekend in The Hague was a good one. Amidst going-away parties and last lunches/coffee breaks/dinners, I was busy processing exactly what this transition means for me.  Despite the fact that ending a placement is nothing new anymore, each time I leave I’m dealt a few surprises. This time, I found that I’ve grown very attached to my work and friends in The Hague, which as made saying farewell difficult once again. I’m dealing simultaneously with some nervousness regarding my visit to France and my weekend with friends in New York, which will be my first weekend back in the States. A year is a lot to process, so I’m hoping that what I’m unable to think through on this train trip I’ll find time to mull over once the experience of this year is fully over.

Last Day

1 July 2007:

I arrived in New York last night, fresh from a convoluted travel route that took me from Lyon to Paris to Dusseldorf to JFK Airport.  Back on US soil, I immediately came into a sense that I was once again connected, that I was back in some kind of network I had left behind. My old US mobile phone was once again functional, granting me an ease of communication I hadn’t had all year. 

I had about an hour to reflect by myself until a friend picked me up and we headed into the city.  Jetlagged, running on very few hours of sleep and many hours awake, and covered in the staleness of plane travel, we headed straight to another friend’s party–a welcome back party of sorts for the few of us who had coincidentally returned from abroad in the same week. It was good, though slightly stunning, to see the group of my closest friends, most of the people who are really important to me. I’m not sure how, or if, the night would have been different had I more time to sleep or to process my return.  Under these circumstances, I felt as if my excitement to see everyone was slightly muted.  As a result, I spent most of the night in a slight daze, allowing others to lead in conversation, to decide where what we would do.  A small part of me felt disappointed that my responses to questions and comments were somewhat automated, like they weren’t really drawing from the wealth and depth of my experiences this year. But the greater part of me didn’t have the energy to deliver speech or carry conversation in a way that reflected how I felt and still feel about my year, or even the excitement I felt about seeing my friends again.

The evening didn’t leave much time to reflect or to prepare myself for jumping back into a life that I had put on hold for a year.  Since I will be spending the next few days in New York, I’m therefore looking forward to taking it easy, spending more quality time with friends, and working out what it means to be back Stateside.

5 July 2007:

In Kansas. Technically, this means that I’m back back home, though the word means less to me now than before. I’ve considered everywhere I lived this year (whether for months, weeks, or days) a “home” of sorts, so the idea of having one, permanent place to call home seems a little bit strange.

This place also feels a bit less like what I would conventionally term “home,” as well. It’s funny; I even felt a little bit betrayed by the changes that have occurred here while I was away this year. I’d forgotten, or ignored the fact, that while I was away exploring changes of my own, everything (people, places, things) here was evolving as well. True, some things never change. I know that I can still find my favorite cup of coffee at La Prima Tazza.  I know that the air will hang heavy with humidity in the 100+ degree heat by 11am.  I know that there will be an hour-long wait at Free State Brewing Company, but that the wait is well worth it. At the same time, I’ve been thrown by how drastically some things have shifted. These things aren’t even the most noticeable changes. But having lived here most of my life the minor changes are sometimes the most drastic, like reaching for the glass of water that’s always by your bedside and finding that it’s been moved just out of reach. Stores and restaurants have closed, replaced by others. Friends have graduated, moved, started new schools or new jobs. The town is bigger and busier than I imagine.

I’ll spend the next few weeks processing this past year (still) and sorting out my life in preparation for school and yet another move. I have belongings in 3 or 4 different states, not to mention a box “in transit” from The Hague that I hope desperately will make it here.  I thought I would dislike being “homeless” in this sense, but in a way it’s strangely liberating. Knowing that I’m not tied to a certain place, that I can still maintain relationships wherever in the world I am, and having a sense of the conditions in which I’m able to live–these things have made me surprisingly relaxed about the upcoming days, months, years.

Yet there are many things I’ve gained or learned or become this year that I hope will survive the transition, as well. For as much as I felt like I became a slightly different person in each placement, taking aspects of my evolving character with me as I traveled, I hope that the sum of these transformations will not be lost now that I’m back to somewhere familiar.