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Final Days at The Hague

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November 15, 2006: Cold Weather Finally Hits

The north-European weather has finally hit. It has gotten cold and windy with rain almost every day.  The skies are constantly grey but not flat, not a single slate gray as clouds in the Midwestern U.S. often are. Here, fortunately, the clouds have a dynamic depth that gives a sense of power and movement to the sky.  That is, of course, when I am inside and not trying to look up through the rain. The leaves jumped straight from green to the ground with no days of autumnal coloring to mitigate the change.

I can feel the world’s tilt here, the days get shorter and the sun is lower.  It is dark early in the evening and as I wake in the mornings, and I feel my whole body’s increasing lethargy.  While I’ve never been fully comfortable in cold climates and seasons, I have only now understood the attractiveness of hibernation.  It’s not that the weather is depressing, just intensely soporific.

With that lethargy, though, I find it more difficult to encourage myself to break from my routine and pursue new experiences.  I don’t know how much is due to the geographical location and weather of The Hague – I have never been this far north – or how much is due to other circumstances or personal choices. It does become easy, though, to passively accept that lack of energy and just watch the days go by.  But I only have two weeks left in The Hague, so I want to use them purposefully.

On a side note, I was not awarded the scholarship I had interviewed for in San Francisco.  Unfortunate, yes, but there are plenty good things that came out of the experience, such as a much stronger awareness of what I really want to study in graduate school.  C’est la vie.

November 18, 2006

I am still excited about meeting new people from new places, and this I get to do every day at the ICC.  It is fun to hear the cacophony of languages at times, a mix of Spanish, French, Arabic, and always one or two languages I just can’t place.  And though work at the Court is mainly conducted in English, the second I step outside at the end of the day, I have to transition to utilizing my few words of broken Dutch.  It’s dynamic, it’s inspiring, even after ten weeks.  Even in this weather.

November 20, 2006

Over the weekend I was subdued by a lack of energy.  I don’t just mean physically tired – which I was – but mentally and emotionally overwhelmed.  Suddenly, everything seemed monumental: brainstorming my Fellowship theme, researching graduate schools, even writing an email to a close friend.  The days were completely unproductive.  Even the idea of being purposefully unproductive – actively acknowledging that I wasn’t going to get anything done and therefore intentionally relaxing – seemed to be tiring.  I know I have many tasks in my final days at the ICC – and my final few weeks settled in the developed world – and it suddenly seems overwhelming.

So now, having a bit more energy and perspective, I can try to look back and see a) what contributed to those feelings, and b) how I could anticipate or even prevent them in the future.  The first thing is easy: I haven’t been sleeping well, partly because of a nine-hour jet-lag from California.  I have many tasks but haven’t yet created a good list; this left me lying in bed at night running through a mental to-do list.

How can I anticipate or prevent this lethargy in the future? Aside from the obvious – sleeping enough, creating a good list, and exercise – I need to seek ways to stay refreshed, invigorated.  That’s definitely a difficult task.

A friend suggested that this dearth of energy might actually be completely normal: people simply get tired sometimes.  Furthermore, one way of mentally readying to leave The Hague is through these feelings.  So there might not be a task to prevent these feelings, so to speak, but rather simply to notice them.  While I agree with most of her thoughts, I have a difficult time simply acknowledging this lassitude and letting it run its course.  It seems to me that I can do something to mitigate or prevent these feelings, overcome them.

Or maybe the interesting aspect is that I believe something can always be done.  Why do I think that?  It could be because I have an innate desire for control, to decide what I will do or think or feel without having it dictated to me by uncontrollable forces.  Or perhaps it stems from my desire to fulfill others’ expectations.  How can I justify wasting a second to myself, no less others? I cannot; I look to optimize every opportunity possible.  Thus, if I want to live up to these imagined expectations, I cannot waste chances.

I agree that, within a year, it is probably inevitable that I would feel lethargic at some point.  But in the moment, I compound the feelings, fearing both loss of control and wasted opportunities.

November 21, 2006: Hail

I got caught in a deluge this morning. As I left the apartment, the sky was almost clear – there was even some early morning sunlight – so I foolishly left my umbrella. Alas, this is The Hague, where it can rain at any minute… or, as I found out, it can hail.  Though my commute from the train to the ICC is under a five-minute walk, I was soaked.  Fortunately, the hail was small and melted immediately so it was only wet, not painful.  When I leave, I can’t say the weather will be headlining a list of what I miss about Holland.

November 22, 2006

I realize that I have not written a description of The Hague. The Hague is a beautiful small city – or large town – with numerous international organizations: the International Criminal Court (which prosecutes individuals who have committed the gravest crimes); the International Court of Justice (which addresses disputes between countries); EuroJust; EuroPol; the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; and numerous other smaller organizations, as well as the Queen of Holland, the Dutch government, and many foreign diplomats.  Because of this, there is a major international flavour with bars, clubs, and restaurants taking on numerous international themes.  Similarly, the Netherlands’ relatively open policy on accepting refugees means there are large populations of first- or second-generation immigrants from all over the world.

The other day, I received a haircut from a young man my age who had fled Iran when he was nine.  He was fluent in Farsi, Dutch, and English.  When I asked him about having any desire to go home, his answer surprised me.  He said that he did but there are many other places he would rather visit, such as Western Europe and the U.S.  What startled me was not that he would want to travel to other countries; rather that he had no strong inclination to “go home,” see where he was a child, visit friends and family still there, etc.  I asked him about this.  The reasons he gave were two-fold: practically it would cost him over 2000 Euros in fines for skipping his military service; more importantly, he said that Iranians in exile generally see their relationships dissolve with those at home.  So while he would like to return eventually, he still has so much of the world to see.

I grew up in the same house for nearly my whole life.  I have travelled often, within the U.S. and internationally, and I can always return home.  Moreover, I have been afforded a wonderful opportunity like this Fellowship to travel even farther and longer and still return home.  So I have difficulty even imagining what it would be like to feel little connection to my homeland.

November 25, 2006

As Holland prepares for Christmas, they have a certain celebration that I am hard-pressed to appreciate.  The tradition goes that St. Nicholas – Sinterklaas – sets sail from the south of Spain in mid-November and eventually arrives on the beach to parade through the town and to deliver gifts to children. The aspect of this that I have a difficult time with is that Sinterklaas’ helper is Zwarte Piet – Black Peter.  Black Peter is supposed to be a Moor from Spain and looks like, well, a white man in blackface. The pictures of this character are spot-on images of the early American minstrelsies.  Some of the Sinterklaas songs suggest that Zwarte Piet will kidnap bad children and take them to Spain as slaves.  Pictures of Zwarte Piet adorn all the store windows here just as elves do in America.

In the Netherlands, it is tradition. And yet there are many here who find the practice horrifying.  They say that it encourages children to fear black people and to assume that black people are always servants or helpers to the white people, who come in to deliver all the goodies. My first instinct was to be horrified by the blackface, not necessarily because of what the tradition is here in Holland but rather because of its tradition back in the States.  On second thought, though, I have to wonder about differences in the States: we may have rid ourselves of the blackface tradition, but have we rid ourselves of the accompanied racism? Children may hold a silly fear the Zwarte Piet character in Holland, but what about adults who hold similar fears of black people in the U.S.?