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Travel break part one: The Netherlands!

Oct 29, 2006 • Karen

Sunday morning I got up obscenely early. Not just before dawn--before the buses even started running. Danny and I had to take a cab from the højskole to the train station. The bags were loaded, the students stumbled on board, and off went the bus to the first stop on our study tour: Amsterdam.

Two hours in, we had to get off the bus and take a ferry across from Sjælland to Germany. I'd been on ferries before, at Lake Michigan or Madeline Island, but this one was not only huge--it had a duty-free shop. And when your VAT is 25% (not including vice taxes)...it matters. Or, well, it matters to some people. I got a bar of Toblerone and that was all, but plenty of other ferry passengers were getting their liquor, cigarette, perfume, and jewelry shopping done. Apparently some people will ride the ferry exclusively for that purpose--they just turn around and come back as soon as they arrive in Germany.

Finally in the evening we arrived in Amsterdam, hauled our luggage up some tiny steep-ass staircases, and went out to dinner at a really tasty Thai restaurant on the southwest side of the city. It was fairly late by then, but a bunch of us had the wanderlust to go exploring anyway. So we walked around and found a store that only sold water, looked at some really neat art stores/exhibitions, and of course admired the beautiful canals.

The next day we visited the Van Gogh Museum. For some reason, I'd always assumed that Van Gogh was French, his name notwithstanding. While he did most of his painting in France, he was in fact Dutch and he first started his ten-year painting career in the Netherlands. The museum had plenty of Van Gogh's most famous paintings (Sunflowers, The Bedroom, Wheatfield With Crows, etc). That in itself was cool just because you're walking along and suddenly it's like, whoa, there's the real live thing that I've seen a million reproductions of!

The most interesting part of the museum for me, though, was the collection of Van Gogh's early work. Some of Van Gogh's early stuff isn't just dark and gloomy--it's really rather bad! It makes sense, since he didn't have any real formal training in painting, but given Van Gogh's reputation as a Great Artiste evidence that the man was in fact mortal comes as a surprise. It makes his eventual masterpieces even more impressive when you see how far he came in only ten years.

We had lunch at a fancy French restaurant, for which I was most certainly underdressed, and I had the best tomato soup in existence. For some reason, every meal we had on DIS' tab (except the Thai food) served tomato soup for a first course. Odd.

Then we went to Central Station, rented bikes, and went on a guided bike tour of the city, passing historic buildings, cute bridges, and lovely canals. The frequent smell of pot brought back memories of my high school days and the disgusting bathrooms in which my classmates smoked. We stopped in Vondelpark, a sort of European Central Park, to get a drink and take a rest. It's a pretty park; I highly recommend it.

And then they let us explore on our own.

On a lark, Dan, Erik, Bernadette, Meredith, Jeff, and I went into one of the colorful, tackily-decorated drug shops in the tourist section. Didn't buy anything, but we marveled at the extent of their selection. Canna-biscuits, beer with marijuana in it, t-shirts... Apparently anything will sell if you slap a pot leaf on it. On the back wall were bottles of sketchy-as-hell mystery drugs, purported to do anything from male enhancement to just plain crazy trips. Most didn't have the actual drug name on the label, so far as I saw, which is why I call them sketchy as hell. At least one said it was ecstasy, though.

One interesting thing our tour guide told us was that, even in the Netherlands, marijuana and other soft drugs are still illegal. It's required to be that way, since they're a member of the EU. The Dutch police just don't enforce the law at all. Hmm.

Of course we walked through the red light district. It was...amusing and disturbing at the same time. Normally when I think of prostitution, I think of it in terms of being a "streetwalker." Not so in Amsterdam. The women rent these exorbitantly-priced "boxes," tiny rooms with huge glass windows facing the street, and then pose under the red light and blacklights waiting for someone to knock on the glass. The jobs pay pretty well--just meeting the hooker will cost you 50 euro; actually doing anything will cost you much more--but really the people who make the most money off the trade are the landlords who own the boxes. With the exploitative rent and the whole concept of women in cages, it's hard for me to argue that prostitution is female-positive. I still think it's better that it's legalized, so that the prostitutes both have some protection under the law and are subject to health regulations. And I can respect the women who do it, whether they want to or have to--I read Belle de Jour, after all. But I can't say it's a job I'd ever want...

The next day, our horde of widely hung-over, somewhat pot-headed, possibly be-hooker'ed (I heard rumors... !?!), and certainly reluctantly suit-clad DIS students dragged itself out of bed and onto a bus for the Hague. We went first to the Peace Palace, home of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and International Court of Justice. I'll get to that later. But first, the Peace Palace might be the most beautiful building I have ever been in. The interior is AMAZING. The palace was built with contributions from all the PCA member countries: French tilework, the Japan Room covered in silk tapestries, Hungarian vases by the door, British stained glass, American oakwood, an Iranian rug in the ICJ room worth millions of dollars... Italy donated as much marble as the palace planners wanted, so of course like half the damn palace is made out of marble. The stall separators in the bathroom are marble. Jesus.

Unfortunately, despite all of these lovely things (or maybe because of them), we weren't allowed to take pictures inside the Peace Palace. So I took a picture of the bathroom. Not the best decoration the palace had to offer (though it was probably the nicest bathroom I've ever been in) but oh well.

Anyway, the Permanent Court of Arbitration is the International Court of Justice's older and less-known cousin. It was started near the beginning of the 20th century when the Russian tsar called a conference for finding ways to resolve international conflicts in ways other than war. The conferencegoers all signed a treaty that created the PCA, and by 1914 or so the Peace Palace was built. (Of course, then WWI broke out... The tsar was too late to correct the worrisome political climate that he had foreseen.)

The PCA deals with cases involving nation-states, corporations, or individuals. Each side picks an arbitrator, who then choose a third, non-partisan arbitrator. The three of them hear the arguments of each side and work out an arrangement that both sides can agree to. Most of the PCA's cases don't garner much attention (and frequently cases are kept under wraps, if information is involved that the two parties don't want disclosed to the public). Lately, though, the PCA has been used for determining the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea after their 1998 war and is currently busy resolving all of both sides' claims of war crimes. So that's gotten them some press.

At the end of the tour, our guide pointed out this iron sculpture by the palace atrium staircase. The story is: Chile and Argentina were on the brink of war for some stupid reason. King Edward stepped in and was like, "Guys, this is stupid," and made the two countries sit down at a table and talk. They reached a settlement; war was averted. It was perhaps one of international arbitration's greatest successes. Afterward, Chile and Argentina took all the cannons and stuff they had been going to use for the war, melted them down, and used the iron to build a humongous sculpture on the countries' border...and a miniature version of the same sculpture for the Peace Palace.

The PCA is utterly powerless. They don't have any ability to make anyone adhere to its decisions. It doesn't even *make* the decisions--the parties choose the arbitrators! All it is is a forum, a resource for legal scholarship, archiving, translation, and other bureaucratic needs. Yet nations (and others) choose to use it and they usually abide by the decisions found there. Even though there are obviously lots of conflicts in the world where the PCA is not used, when it is used it works, and has worked. The idea that there can be peacemaking even in an anarchic international system, a system built for war... I find that profound.

In the afternoon, we listened in on a hearing of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The guy on trial was formerly in charge of a Yugoslavian paramilitary group responsible for some of the ethnic cleansing. Er, allegedly. Sorry. Most of what we heard was legal wrangling--the defense had failed to provide certain information about one of its witnesses, and the prosecution was saying that if the defense were going to withhold information, it had to provide a justification to the court in advance saying why it was necessary for the witness' security. To which the defense lawyer said something to the effect of, "Well, the prosecution does it, why can't I?" and implied that the prosecution would contact witnesses and pressure them if it had their contact info. The prosecution denied that they ever did this, but also argued that it would not be outside their rights to do so. Maybe so in the US, but for two of the judges that was a BIG no-no...

It was one can of worms after another. Only the last five minutes or so of the time we were there was spent actually questioning a witness. Still, I found even the legal BS interesting. With such a young institution, there isn't really much of a body of precedent to work from, and all the lawyers and judges come from diverse legal backgrounds. Thus, they have to make up the rules of proper protocol pretty much on the fly. I can respect the difficulty of that.

After the hearing, we got on the bus, still suit-clad, and drove to Brussels. What happened next? See the upcoming part two.

Until then, you can see all my study tour photos here.