Sunday, 25 November 2012

What Not to Wear

What to pack for living in Utrecht? In short, a little of everything. The weather is quite unpredictable. The whole country is quite flat and much of it is below sea level, with ever-present low, scudding clouds. You can have rain, sun, and icy, nearly gale-force winds. All in the same day. So, what to wear?

Layers. Unless you are staying close to home and can change every few hours, do not go out for the day dressed entirely for warm or cold weather. Even on the warmest day, the air temperature drops considerably when the sun ducks behind a cloud and a cold breeze comes out of nowhere. And even on the coldest day, the sun can peek out and add warmth to the moist air. Besides, you can get quite warm biking, and there is nothing worse than sweating under your clothes while your nose is frozen. So, dress like you are going through menopause; peel the layers off and then put them back on as both external and internal temperatures fluctuate!
Comfortable, sturdy footwear. Bear in mind that you will be walking or biking most of the time. What not to wear? Cobblestone and uneven bricked streets are hell on heels! Nothing like sashaying down the street in your favorite pair of strappy sandals, getting the heel caught in the brickwork, lurching awkwardly, and grabbing onto some hapless passerby. If you don’t break your ankle, you land on a most unforgiving surface. What to wear? Athletic shoes or dressy flat shoes. When it is cold, boots, and when it is really cold, Uggs (you can get cheap knock-offs at the open market). You can always bring your heels and change into them when you arrive at a more even-surfaced destination.
Jeans, tights, and leggings. Jeans of course are easy, stylish and thick enough to keep you warm. However, do bear in mind that they stay wet a VERY long time if you get caught in a downpour. Not recommended for biking in the rain, unless you bring along a spare, dry pair and have place to stash your now-sodden pair. What to wear? Lighter stretch jeans, and with dresses or skirts, tights or leggings. You can even get thermal leggings at the open market.
Accessories: Scarves, long scarves that you can drape in layers around your neck to keep out the cold. Just not so long that they get caught in the wheel of your bike. Awkward!  And gloves. LOTS of pairs, as they seem to have a high divorce rate. Half of each pair runs off to find itself, and you never do find it again.  
Lastly, don’t forget the most important accessory of all, an umbrella. Never leave home without at least a small fold-up umbrella tucked into your bag. It can rain at the drop of a hat. Sometimes just a light misty rain, sometimes bucket-loads, but it’s always handy to whip out an umbrella, even on a bike. Of course, if the rain is accompanied by those gale-force winds, that little umbrella will turn inside out to comical effect almost immediately, so bring LOTS of those, too. What to do with the broken ones? Perhaps there is a recycling bin for them. After all, this is the Netherlands!

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Gray Matter

I am often asked what it is like, at my age, to begin anew with my life and my education, in a new country. Well, I do find myself in a bit of a “gray” area, as it were.

My position in the LLM program is somewhat awkward at times. For one thing, I am far older than most students. For another, I have many years of experience practicing criminal law, and there is a world of difference between the realities of practicing criminal law and simply reading and writing about it from the ivory tower of academia. Unsurprisingly, my perspective is a bit different than the average student, or teacher for that matter. My background sometimes leads others to assume that by some sort of legal osmosis, I must understand international criminal law as well, or that it must be very easy for me. I don’t, and it isn’t.

International criminal law is a very young practice area, a truly brave new world. It is very exciting. And all very, very, new to me. A complete mash-up of common law adversarial and civil law inquisitorial systems, it is a surreal landscape of the comfortably familiar juxtaposed with the wholly unexpected. All those tribunals, no real precedential authority from one to the other, and no one convenient place to find case law. Court web sites are not all very user-friendly, and I often have better luck finding cases with Google. All those acronyms, not to mention Latin and French phrases. Dutch is far easier to learn than this lingo!

My life is the same surreal mash-up of the old and the new, the young and the old. This dichotomy can be confusing, for me as well as everyone else. Most people my age are not doing what I am doing; they are either comfortably entrenched with careers and family or else simply retired. And most of the people who are doing what I am doing are half my age and have yet to begin a career, let alone think about a second one. Like the former group, I am accustomed to a certain comfort level; like the latter group, I still am not always sure what I want to be when I grow up. Both groups ask me, and I often ask myself, what am DOING, exactly? I am not always sure how to answer that question.

But perhaps the answer is not important. Perhaps, like this hybrid creature that is international criminal law, I will make it up as I go along. Perhaps like Utrecht itself, where the 600-year-old Dom tower plays carillon versions of the Beatles or Adele, I can juxtapose a medieval core with an ever-evolving new outlook. Neither abandoning the past nor entrenched in it, moving steadily forward…cracks of age, gray areas and all!

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Final Thoughts

A final exam, a moot court project, and three final essays later, and the first quarter is finally finished. Hooray!  Friends ask, so how do you feel?
First, exhausted! The last several weeks seem like a blur, after seemingly doing nothing but studying, doing research, writing, meeting with study groups and project groups. Oh, you do eat, sleep, go to class, and venture out of your lair when you run out of coffee (desperate times, and all). But sort of like that long, snarled drive to work, you find yourself at your destination with no clear recollection of the journey. Just mighty glad it’s over!
Second, relieved! You have crossed everything off your academic to-do list; whatever you coulda-shoulda-woulda done, it’s a moot point now (moot court pun intended!). You can sleep in without waking up to the sword of Damocles. You can clean house, stock up on groceries, get caught up with family and friends, and have a little fun. Read a novel instead of another law treatise. Watch some really bad TV. With Dutch subtitles. Go see a movie, stay out late and drink just enough to get out and dance!
Third, euphoric! You did it! One fourth of the program is behind you and now the rest seems so much more manageable. Externship, master’s thesis and all! Yeah baby, you rocked it!
Fourth, oh nooo! The next quarter starts not even a week later. And externship work begins before that, even. And that other to-do list, which you so studiously ignored, now beckons and does not look like any more fun than when you abandoned it for finals. You know, all those mundane chores that have a way of piling up; banking, solving vexing computer issues instead of patching them, addressing random household appliances that have mysteriously stopped working. Reality rains all over your parade. As if there isn't enough rain around here!
Not to mention, suddenly the holidays loom! While you were busy studying, little elves came out and decorated the streets of the city center with Sinter Klaas lights and stocked the stores with chocolate, marzipan, kruidnoten, and almond staffs. When did that happen? No matter, this presents a whole ‘nother to-do list. Guess reality will have to wait!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Group Murk

Oh, the joys of group work. UU seems to fancy group assignments. I am not a fan. There are wonderful people who are a joy to work with, who do quality work, understand the meaning of the word deadline, and would never dream of letting down their group mates. And then there are the rest. You know, the ones who wait until the last minute to do anything, throwing off everyone’s schedule. The ones who turn in minimal or substandard work and then wax indignant when called on it. The ones who feel victimized by the audacity of those who actually expect them to do their fair share of the work. You get to share a grade with these folks.
Of course, you encounter this ilk in the working world, as well. However, in that context there are real consequences for having a pattern of telling colleagues that you just don’t want to do it, you have other priorities, or the dog ate your brief. For one thing, you can get fired. At the very least, you acquire a reputation that won’t be putting you on anyone’s short list. Indeed, you may wind up on quite another list. For good or for ill, a professional reputation is earned through not only how well you do your own work (or not), but how well you function as a team player (or not). You can either be relied upon, or you cannot. Word gets out.
I suppose that is the reasoning behind required group work in academia. The problem with that is that there really are no consequences for being a slacker in this context. Those who take their work seriously have a few very unpleasant options. First, bite your tongue, say nothing, do nothing more, and watch your grade sink to the level of the lowest common denominator on your team. Second, bite your tongue, say nothing, do more than your share, and share a good grade with those who contributed too little, too late. Third, insist that people step up and do their fair share of the work, and live with the ensuing drama.
The first two options are more peaceful externally, but internally can be the stuff of ulcers. The third option can sometimes turn out quite well. Some people actually get it; they step up and the resulting good grade is appreciated – and earned – by the whole team. But some people just never seem to learn. So what is the solution? If given a choice in group mates, choose well. If not given a choice, hope for the best and give the benefit of the doubt. If the worst happens, you just do the best you can, even if others do not. In the end, we all have to live with what we have (or have not) done.