Wednesday, February 21

Jailbird! or The Continuing Saga of the Girl and Her Bicycle

I went to Paris on Monday to pick up the rented Renault, which I will have until the end of April when Joe, Carrie and I will graduate to a 2007 Eurovan for our travels post-school. Pictures will follow in a few days of this Renault supercar. In the meantime, more adventures with two-wheels:

I rode my bicycle to the train station at 6am Monday to catch the train to Paris. The square by the station, a very large square frequently filled with shoppers, travelers, people selling from carts, etc., was, at 6am, totally deserted save for several lonely bicycles.

Now I have described in previous posts the vast numbers of bicycles in Utrecht, locked to anything that won't move: signposts, fences, guardrails by the canals, any piece of metal protruding from a building. And there doesn't seem to be any problem with this.

There are no bike racks at all on this side of the station, and indeed throughout the city there are not nearly enough racks to hold the bike population. No worries right?

Well after riding the train 4 hours to Paris, staying for a painfully-short 30 minutes, and driving back a somewhat-more-painful 6 hours (the trains out haul cars significantly!), I was in no mood to retrieve the bicycle Monday night. Instead I waited until Tuesday morn. I was concerned that my new seat might be taken, but it was a risk I took nonetheless.

On arrival Tuesday to the location where said bicycle had been dutifully triple-locked, no bicycle in sight! Not even a splinter remained of my yellow locks. Never mind the seat that was such a concern, NO BIKE.

Then, a man appeared waving a yellow sheet of paper at me and speaking in Dutch. My Dutch ever-improving (no, that is a lie, I just sort of guessed at what the hell he was saying) I realized the yellow sheet had the number for the police station. Not just any police station, mind you, The Bicycle Jail.

It had been a long morning already, because when one has a car in Europe the first thing to do when trying to park close to the train station is become helplessly, and embarrassingly trapped driving said auto on a pedestrian walkway. A walkway lined with cafe tables and chairs, tons of people giving one American girl and her dogs the evil eye. Once trapped, and discovering no exit in front, I had to hit reverse and shamefully backtrace my steps, at one point getting too close to a building and forcing a person walking her bicycle to make herself as skinny as possible. Not good for my blood pressure. And excruciatingly embarrassing.

So once home again, and recovered from the pedestrian/Renault adventure, I telephoned the Bicycle Jail.

On arrival at the Jailhouse, the outside literally says "Fiet" something or other, which means bike, with police insignia, inside it is a very large warehouse filled with all the little criminals. I provided the date of the offense and was led to the row of offenders on that date. Finding the little guy, I paid the 12.50 Euro bail fee, provided my identification and escaped.

Apparently it is only the area around the station, and only once a week, that these "police raids" occur. My luck with the little bicycle continues; at least now the little crapper has a name: Jailbird. Perhaps that will endear the two-wheeler to me and I will take better precaution.

Tuesday, February 20

Paris musings revisited

I have received several comments on the previous Paris post and have been doing some further thinking of my own as well.

First of all I want to clarify something: I do not mean to suggest that America is the best nation in the world. How could any nation be deemed "best" anyways? What would you look at? Literacy? Infant Mortality? Poverty? GDP? In none of these categories does America rank as the best. Perhaps the strongest military? I would not rely on that as my measuring stick. How about civil liberties? Well, that is another argument altogether :)

Nor am I the least bit interested in what nation might be "best." Enjoying my time in Europe, discovering surprising things that I love about Holland and some things I resent, enriches my knowledge, my experiences, and my attitude. Understanding some similarities and differences between Holland and America does not diminish either nation; preferring one place for some reasons, and another for other reasons, these are simply observations. And it is these observations themselves that are are so valuable to me.

On to another topic...One thing I have been considering is the following: here in Europe it is the fact that I am American that is the most immediate and obvious difference between myself and my colleagues. But is it the fact that I am from America that makes me who I am? Definitely not. What I spoke of in the earlier post, independence and confidence, the ability to go places and do things without being afraid, these are things I possess not through having been born in the US but rather from simply being me, Abigail, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, transplant to Seattle, big time arguer, former athlete, trained in Catholicism, schooled and raised and evolved in a certain way.

Another observation: when I meet people abroad, they always ask about America. What is it like, what are the people like, etc. This question is so hard to answer. Impossible, really. In a nation of over 300 million, how to describe all of us? And how to capture all 50 states in one conversation?

Sometimes in Europe I meet someone who has traveled to the US, and who is excited to share this with me. I am awestruck when this person forms an opinion, as is perfectly natural, on all of America, and on all Americans, by traveling to Delaware. Or Florida (can you imagine?? Orlando as the only representation of America?) Or Manhattan? None of these places can possibly capture the variations of our huge country.

I feel so lucky that I have explored so much of the US, having lived extended periods in 5 states on two coasts. And I have driven various routes across our fine landscape 6 times thus taking in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, Chicago, and many others. But I have never been to what might be the two most extraordinary states: Hawaii and Alaska. So how can even I explain what the US is like?

I do not mean to sound defensive, of either the US or of Europe. I suppose I mean only to encourage openness of mind and an exploratory attitude. And perhaps I suggest some introversion to my readers: when we feel as though we are different from others, or that others are different from us, what causes this feeling? Is it nationality? Skin color? Education level? Trust in the criminal justice system? Marital status of certain nearly-30-somethings? And what does it actually feel like to sense these differences? Do we feel superior or inferior? More lucky or unlucky? Happier or more sad? And why do we sense these differences? Is it because we like to see differences more than similarities?

I know the blog has taken an introverted turn, I promise more pictures and general silliness in the future!! Please respond with any thoughts :)

My Law Courses

I am taking two courses here at Universiteit Utrecht, each is worth 7.5 credits so it is the equivalent of a normal full load for the University of Washington. The learning program is different here: for these 15 credits I am in class only 4.5 hours a week. But there is a lot of reading and the classtime is remarkably focused and well spent.

The Guilt of Nations

In this class, we are looking at historical injustices, predominately violations of human rights on a grand scale, and how to deal with them at the national and international level. I love this class. In the first two weeks, we have touched on the Nuremberg trials and the South African Truth and Reconciliations Commission (TRC). On the one hand, the approach is through criminal justice: prosecuting German military and government personnel for their personal (INDIVIDUAL) involvement in the murders of Jews and others during and leading up to WWII.

On the other hand, in South Africa, the pursuit was simply truth. The police and others who enforced Apartheid through incredible violence and force suffered no criminal sanctions. Instead, for the sake of the pursuit of truth and knowledge, these people were invited (forced? I'm not sure) to tell the nation and the world the details of what they had done, why and how. Also, the victims were given a forum in which to describe in detail the horrors they had suffered and/or witnessed.

The criticisms of the former are many: retroactively prosecuting individuals for crimes that were not technically illegal within the realm of international law; that is, murder was illegal in Germany, America, Austria, but not explicitly prohibited in this international jurisdiction in which the participants were prosecuted. Another criticism that I feel is more legitimate is the nature of the selectivity of these prosecutions. Not every German who took part in the regime was "brought to justice" at Nuremberg, indeed very few were indicted or prosecuted. This same criticism may be made about both the ICTY and ICTR.

The criticism of the TRC, in my mind, is that there is no punishment. A person could describe in terrible detail the lynchings, beatings, murders, rapes of dozens of civilians and then walk out the door completely free.

But the point of the course is that there are these various "remedies" that have been used to deal with atrocities of the past. The course is very relevant as conflict wages on in Iraq, Sudan, and many other places around the world and someday we will be looking at such events in hindsight. And we, or someone, will be faced with how to respond to this history, whether to pretend it didn't happen, whether to prosecute the offenders using traditional methods of criminal justice, whether to seek truth and knowledge and teach future generations about the events that transpired.

Constitutional Law of the European Union

Here I have a bit of a problem because the professor expects fairly thorough knowledge of the history and law of the EU, a subject about which I am clueless. So I am basically learning two courses in one here, the history of the EU and the more recent Constitutional history (and future). It is a fascinating course, despite the formidable challenges faced by this American girl.

Particularly, I can see the reluctance of the Europeans in my class to accept an EU legal system that is supreme over their own national systems. Indeed, through the treaties already entered into by the Europeans, they have an EU court which has expanded its own jurisdiction and power through the last few decades, yet the Europeans are somewhat in denial about this fact. It is not quite like the US Supreme Court, but it is approaching our system of exclusive or shared jurisdictions, between Federal and State, or EU and nation-state, and the superiority of EU law, including the ability of this EU court to, under certain, expanding situations, pass judgment on the law of a particular member-state, something the Europeans probably never foresaw.

The EU seems to have been formed primarily for market reasons (4 Fundamental Freedoms: Free Movement of Person, Goods, Capital, Services) but has included a high court (the European Court of Justice) charged with, among other things, enforcing these treaty rights including the fundamental freedoms. I will try to learn as much as I can in this course, but it will be hard.

One noteworthy thing, however, about the EU: I cannot express with serious enough words the importance and supreme qualities of treaties. Unlike America, the land of the free, where treaties can be erased with a single federal statute, and are generally not "self-executing" without express statutory legislation, here treaties are given the weight and force that an agreement between nations ought to have. I am so embarrassed by the American government's low-appreciation of such international agreements, and by our government's way to tossing treaties aside whenever convenient.

If America does not intend to abide by treaties we have no business entering into them in the first place because other nations afford treaties great respect and expect the same from America.

Monday, February 19

Paris, and some musings

I went to Paris today on the train. I have been to Paris twice before, when I was 16, my very first trip abroad, and when I was 24. Rather than prattle on about how amazing it is to pull into such an historic, beautiful, and unique city, I wish to address another question: Why am I, Abigail, so enamored with Europe? After all, America is the best place on Earth, right?

There are so many things that happen here to me that have never happened in America, or at least I have never noticed them. Being in a foreign place lets one see one's home more clearly. For instance, I have grown up extraordinarily strong-willed, feeling able to conquer just about anything. This means I have few areas of dependency.

Today on the train, I met a young woman, age 27, from Pakistan. She is studying for a business degree at a university in Den Haag (The Hague). We got to talking and she was very curious about the differences between Holland and America. She started asking some nosy questions, which I preferred to avoid, one of which was: What is the family structure like in America? To which I replied, well, a lot of people get divorced, our divorce rate is very high. She asked why. (Like I have any idea...) I suggested that perhaps many people get married too young.

Well, we figured out that she was married and I am clearly not. Later on she (demanded?) asked, persistently, did I have a boyfriend. I said, no, not at the moment. She was puzzled at this answer so I tried to explain: I have had boyfriends in the past but not one right now. More puzzlement. She wanted to know why I did not have a boyfriend, this thought was very troubling to her. I ran out of patience and returned to my iPod and book before I said something rude.

But here is the conclusion to me: I, if not all Americans, are different in our individuality and independence. This really may be only me, and not all Americans at all, but as I wander through Europe I represent America to the people I meet, for better or for worse.

As I was thinking about this exchange later, I wondered if it was something in our national development that has something to do with all of this. Feminism, a word that does not scare me and I hope does not scare my readers, has had a broad and significant effect on Americans, men and women. I wonder what impact it has had abroad? I think women in America are less willing to settle and become part of a husband's family and life than we used to be and less than perhaps some foreigners.

But on to another point, what I love about being in Europe. It is not that it is better or worse than America, it is that it is different. It points out to me the things I appreciate about home and the things I don't. The foreignness itself is hard to get used to but I am learning not to dislike the customs simply because they are foreign and unusual.

There is so much history here, buildings and towns and family lineage are all so ancient. One of my frequent complaints is that many stores, like grocery, are closed by 6pm on weeknights and almost all weekend. This is very inconvenient. But is it something that I could adjust to? Certainly. What do I trade for this? New Jersey strip malls and 24-hour 7-11's? Anyone been to Phoenix? Suburban sprawl as far as the eye can see. This I would be pleased to go without.

But even for those disbelievers out there, who see America as an infallible place, what good is such a notion without testing it? Everyone who travels takes different paths, and forms various opinions about the places they go and how such places compare with their home. But isn't the point to make such comparisons? To have such an opportunity to see for oneself??

Here, in the remainder of this post, is something I wrote over a week ago but never posted as it seemed too personal. I wrote it on the bus, heading from Bilthoven into Utrecht, the night it happened to snow about 2 inches. Like Seattle, the snow did not last long:

Happiness. What is it? Where does it come from? I have been so happy the last few days. I am so happy right now, brimming over with joy. Is it the sense of adventure? It must be more than just that. Perhaps having a destination helps. Or is it the other people encountered? Those who are on their own adventures yet cross and share mine for a while.

A strange place, flat and foreign, and strange weather. Snow today. I am left with a feeling of warmth and containment. What an odd feeling for an adventure! Containment! Maybe it has something to do with the world being so big, with so many places to explore, yet also being so small, where familiarities--people, things, activities--can still be found. Even when so different from home, life can be warm and familiar. Perhaps when things are foreign I cling to the first familiar things that I find--objects, foods, and people from places close to home. But I don't feel like I want to settle into a rhythm--I am so eager to continue to explore even more than I have so far.

I must not be so rigid. I must take this openness of mind and heart with me into the future and wherever I go, particularly I must take it back home. Our bodies are made or have evolved to be strong, to recover, to take what we give them. As long as my body is strong I will take it many many places. I thought I would be homesick! But I never want the adventure to end.