Today marks not only my 27th birthday but also the first day of the three months I will spend working this summer in Den Haag (the Hague), the Netherlands. I can’t believe that I’m here already; the last two weeks have been an utter whirlwind of final exams, packing, and finally, travel.
I’ve spent two summers in Europe prior this one but have never been away for more than eight weeks; this summer I will be here for three whole months – which to me is pretty much as good as it gets. Tomorrow I start work at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), where I will be working in the Office of the Prosecutor. I don’t know yet what exactly I’ll be doing, but it will, in at least a general sense, involve prosecuting some of the worst war criminals from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia during the 1990’s. Given my Croatian ancestry and my experiences working in four Balkan countries last summer, this experience is highly personal for me, and I am really looking forward to my first real legal job dealing with human rights.
I landed in Amsterdam this morning and knew even before arriving at the gate that I was in Holland. While heading towards the gate, I could see a windmill, several bikers, and a canal. I’ve never been to the Netherlands before, and sadly Dutch is not one of the languages I’ve studied, so I am sure that this summer will involve a decent number of good stories – and today was no exception.
You can take a train straight from the Amsterdam airport to the Hague, so I grabbed my two large bags and headed towards the train station. After some frustrating, failed negotiations with the automatic ticket sellers, I made my may to a window and got a ticket. I scrutinized the ticket looking for a hint of what time the train left or at least what platform it would leave from and found neither. Since none of the platforms were labeled with that specifically, I chose a random elevator and headed down to the tracks. I had perfect timing: a train was just pulling up bearing the sign “Den Haag Centraal”, so I heaved my bags on board and settled into a seat. I spent the next 20 minutes convinced I had somehow messed up; the train was going TOWARDS Amsterdam, which despite my limited grasp of Dutch geography struck me as incorrect. When we arrived at the main terminal, I grabbed my bags again and asked someone on the platform about getting to the Hague. Apparently, I did have the right train – but for whatever reason it went to Amsterdam before turning around and going to the Hague. Crisis averted!
I was very blessed to have family with me today – my cousin Rachel and her mom came to spend my birthday with me as part of Rachel’s good-bye Europe tour after a semester in France. It was reassuring to have people with me as I found my way to my apartment, unpacked, figured out how to turn on the hot water heater, etc. We got to spend eight hours together, and it was wonderful!
I’m renting a small flat that’s about a 10-minute walk from the ICTY in the northwest part of the city. The neighborhood is absolutely charming – it reminds me most of Notting Hill, but it has hints of Georgetown and the Fan as well. My building is on a narrow street lined with simple yet stately brown brick houses, and my flt’s up on the second floor overlooking the street. It could almost be a scene from Alfred HItchcock’s “Rear Window” – I can see into the apartments and terraces of everyone across! I have one combination living/dining/bed room, a small bath, and a small kitchen – just enough space for one person.
After I got cleaned up a bit after my flight, the three of us headed off to explore the area. We first made our way in the general direction of the ICTY and managed to find it without any trouble. I think it’s still surreal that I will finally get to work for the UN after a decade of hoping, and the sight of the UN flag flying in front of the ICTY further heightened that for me.
We found an outdoor cafe next to a nearby art museum and enjoyed a late lunch while watching little kids play in the park and thirsty Dutch yuppies enjoy a wine tasting going on just next to us. (We thought about joining in but decided that my truly incredible lack of jet lag probably had its limits.) After that we headed back to the apartment for a some unpacking and research (Rachel did some much-needed research on the public transit system here), and then we set off to try our luck at taking the tram. A short while later we found ourselves back at the train station and set off in search of a popular shopping/walking district. When we found it, I really started to feel like I was back in Europe. The quaint shops (or not so quaint, in the case of the sex shops) lining the pedestrian-only streets felt very familiar to me. We ended up grabbing drinks and some tapas at an outdoor cafe in a big plaza, and our very nice waitress brought us strawberry cheesecake shooters to celebrate my birthday – YUM.
After dinner (already 8:30 at that point) I said good-bye to Rachel and Linda and gamely tried to make it back here via trams. This proved to be a highly prolonged endeavor, as I was essentially removed from the first tram (I was trying to explain where I was going so I could pay, and they thought I was asking for tourist advice) and then ended up on the right one only to get off too early and end up over a mile away from where I needed to be! Thank God I had bought a map a few hours before – it’s hard enough even with the map given the (currently) unpronounceable Dutch words involved, but without it I would have been utterly lost. After an hour of frustrated wandering I finally made it back here via a different route, through which I discovered some nearby eateries and a bar just steps away from my door that seems like quite the cozy neighborhood hangout.
And now, ladies and gents, it’s time for me to FINALLY go to sleep before starting work at the ICTY tomorrow! Tune in tomorrow for an update on what I’ll be working on this summer.