Sunday, 24 February 2013

Groundhog Day

On Groundhog Day this month, Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring. But since then, not only has it snowed in Utrecht but it has even snowed in Phoenix! More like pigs flying than a groundhog’s shadow, as Phoenix weather can feel very much like the movie Groundhog Day; every day the exact same day, lather, rinse, repeat, ad nauseum.
In fact, my life in Phoenix felt much the same. Many, many – far too many – hours spent doing research and writing by myself at home, punctuated by days at the office, occasionally appearing in court. Persistent family issues, relationship issues, punctuated by the mundane routines of house maintenance, car maintenance, paying bills, getting groceries. Always too much time, and yet never quite enough. But also the comfort of kindred spirits who understood. So I retired, moved 6,000 miles away and, “Well it’s Groundhog Day… again!” Once more I am spending many, many – far too many – hours doing research and writing by myself at home, punctuated with days attending class or going to the office, occasionally going to watch court hearings. The very same family issues, relationship issues, punctuated by the routine maintenance of the details of my day-to-day life. And the comfort of kindred spirits who understand. All in a new place and with new people, but somehow still the same life. Perhaps I didn’t pack quite as lightly as I thought!
Funny how you think changing everything in your life will actually change your life. But the chance to do something completely different still requires that you actually do things differently. It is not enough to change the form of your life; you must also change its substance. And as famously stated by Einstein, we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them. But sometimes it is the very repetition of our days, our work, and our relationships that pushes us forward to new realities as we encounter the same things over and over again, haunted by a disturbing sense of déjà vu. As in the movie, perpetual do-overs of no consequence get old, and neither despair nor self-punishment will change anything. The only thing left is to use the time to learn new and master skills for no purpose other than that they are there to be learned and mastered. And to pay attention to every moment, every person, caring deeply and yet not trying to control the outcome or fix every problem. Only then do we wake up to a new day. Only then do we really move forward.
And so I awake once more to Groundhog Day, too much time and yet never enough. It is snowing again, and I have research to do, papers to write, family issues and relationships to sort out. Mini-karmas all, each a little cycle of death and rebirth, all with the possibility of suffocating sameness or transformation, depending on how I choose to look at them and the choices I make in dealing with them. Will I keep making the same mistakes? Probably. But sometimes pigs do fly from the shadow of Groundhog Day, and it snows in Phoenix. Ask me tomorrow!

Sunday, 17 February 2013

In for a Euro, in for a Pound

There are many adjustments an international student must make when settling into a new country. Using a different language, sorting out the modes of transportation, what to wear, what to eat, and where to buy necessities. But then there is the conversion factor to contend with in answering some very basic day-to-day questions, especially for those coming from the USA.
For example, how much does it weigh? Nothing like buying meat or cheese and being asked “how many grams would you like?” when you have no clue what a gram looks like. You can ask the grocer to just heap it on the scale until you say “stop,” and dodge that bullet. But then at the gym, the cardio machines want you to program in your weight in kilos and there is not a scale in sight. What to do? Ask a handy weight-lifter to pick you up and guess how many kilos you weigh? The good news, the numbers in kilos are about half those in pounds. On the other hand, clothing and shoe sizes all run in high double digits. So while your weight may be cut by half, your clothing and shoe size will quadruple!
Or, how far away is it? Yes, I do realize most of the world uses the metric system when it comes to distances, but in the US, the UK and Canada it is still miles. Having run more than a few 10K races, I do know that 10K is six miles. As a starting point for distance calculations, the math gets a bit fuzzy, but it will do in a pinch.  But alas, going from feet to meters, you cannot simply do a rough estimate by simply putting one foot in front of the other!
And how warm (or, more frequently, how cold!) is it? The math gets even fuzzier when converting Celsius to Fahrenheit in your head. Doubling the number and then adding 32 is not a bad ball-park figure. (That is, is until it goes below zero!) Better to just get used to thinking in Celsius and getting used to single digit temperatures that are much better in reality than they sound in Fahrenheit!
Finally, there is the matter of how much does it cost? Much depends on where you are coming from and the fluxuating currency conversion rates. Your best bet is to just think in Euros and stop converting the actual price into your own currency. (This is especially true with gasoline, where you must convert liters to gallons and dollars to Euros, guaranteed to make your head explode!) As to the relative cost, I have yet to meet an Aussie or a Brit who does not gush about how very cheap everything is here, or an American who does not grumble about how very dear. But even Americans comment with pleasure about the very inexpensive but very good quality wine, beer, cheese, bread, and chocolate – you know, basic necessities! And saving money on transportation costs while getting loads of free exercise by riding a bike, priceless in any currency!

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

One of the beauties of studying in the Netherlands is its location – the gateway to so many adventures! On the break between semesters I took a trip with a friend to the southern coast of Spain to get a little sunshine. Sangria, paella, tapas, miles and miles of sparkling beaches, and all those lovely white villages dotting the coast! Stumbling along with beginner Spanish, making new friends, exploring the local markets and trying new food. My friend and I decided to take coach tours to some of the further destinations, like Alhambra in Granada. Alas, new food and bus tours, not always such a great mix! “I'm sorry to say so but, sadly, it's true that Bang-ups and Hang-ups can happen to you!” ―Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! 

We boarded the coach to Alhambra before the sun came up. My first indication that the trip might not go as planned was the sharp, stabbing pain in my gut that I initially attributed to too much food and not enough sleep. Hoping it would pass (and that those nearby would not notice!), I sat back and tried to relax. However, my misery increased exponentially with every mile, branching out to include nausea and suddenly feeling very hot. And then… I passed out! My friend tells me that a great deal of consternation and alarm ensued, of which I remember nothing beyond waking up lying outside the bus with lots of faces hovering over me. Much to my chagrin, they insisted on calling an ambulance, and so I wound up in an ER in Granada. Definitely NOT on the itinerary! It was not exactly a conversational Spanish opportunity and as nobody at the hospital spoke English, I just pointed at my gut and grimaced as they poked and prodded. Finally it was determined that I was suffering from gastroenteritis and dehydration (sadly, treated with an IV and not more Sangria!), and I was released a few hours later with a prescription for antibiotics.  

The surprising thing about the experience was in not having to deal with the usual reams of paperwork entailing proof of insurance, a credit card and promise of your first born child so common in American ERs. My friend had given them my Dutch residence permit and student ID, and I was presented with no paperwork beyond discharge instructions. I filled the prescription at a local pharmacy incredibly cheaply. And so, my gut no longer in revolt, we took a cab into Alhambra, found our coach and went back to our hotel, missing out on the palace but having quite the adventure nonetheless!  

After a few happily less exciting day trips in Spain, we flew back to the Netherlands, going from sunny beaches to big, fat snowflakes swirling outside the window of the train to Utrecht. A quick stop at a local café for paprika soup and thick, wonderfully hearty Dutch bread, and back home in the midst of the cheerful bustle of activity in the city center. It’s carnival season! As welcome a respite from winter and the study load such adventures may be, the best part about studying in the Netherlands is coming back!

Friday, 1 February 2013

The Battle of the Midway

The end of the second quarter and the first semester – the midway point! The end of the semester means you actually have a week off while orientation for newly-arriving students takes place. A good opportunity to do a little traveling! And, a very welcome pause to review what has been accomplished and what lies ahead.

In American law schools, the saying is that the first year they scare you to death, the second year they work you death, and the third year they bore you to death. The first year, you are overwhelmed with all the reading, learning legalese, living in dread of being called on in class to discuss that painfully long case that you either didn’t have time to read or did not understand no matter how carefully read. Condensing your hard-won knowledge into outlines with so many phrases highlighted in bright colors and so many notes scrawled in the margins that they resemble kindergarten collages. The second year you branch out into clinical programs on top of classwork. You spend even longer hours in the law library, sometimes falling asleep to awaken with impressions of spiral notebook bindings on your face. This is the midway point where you scratch your head and wonder what you were thinking when you decided to go to law school. But, too late to turn back and so on to the third year, where all you really want to do is graduate and get to work. And the ink is barely dry on your diploma when you have to start studying for bar exam. It can be the longest three years of your life!
An LLM in international law is far more condensed. The first quarter, they scare you to death with all that reading, learning even more complex legalese featuring all those Latin and French phrases. And you thought the program was in English! The second quarter they work you to death with an externship or clinical program as well as your classwork, and as your head nods over your keyboard in the wee hours, you again ask yourself what you were thinking. This is the battle of the midway, with the beginning barely over and the end barely in sight. But the beauty of studying in Utrecht is that you are in the company of fascinating people from all over the world in a city that keeps you smiling with all its cozy, quirky diversions. Travelling to The Hague, the hub of international law, for your externship never fails to excite. It is all so close, and you have learned so much. You already think like a lawyer, but now are learning to think like an international lawyer. Yes, there are two more quarters and a thesis to write, but it will all go too quickly for the luxury of boredom. At the midway point, you find that you have regained your confidence and expanded your world in so many ways. And through the haze of battle fatigue, victory beckons. Time to soldier on!