Something I Would Certainly Do Again

I suppose my last post is the one where I sum up my summer experience. This is probably the most stressful part the last few months because I find summaries difficult to write. They seem sterile, consisting of only those things absolutely necessary to get the main point across. They lack the color, the detail, the descriptions of the whole work, that thing (whatever it is) that makes writing come alive. They seem almost disingenuous, like reading the cliff notes of a difficult novel and then claiming to have digested the bona fide original.

Still, I suppose they are necessary, lest you, the reader, think I attempted some pseudo-intellectual and annoyingly artsy abrupt ending to this whole endeavour. (I can assure you that I will not intentionally do something that frustrating). Instead, I will treat this last post as an opportunity to write down what I gained from the summer without sounding like I am trying to sell the wonders of Europe and international legal work through glossy brochure and a snazzy bullet point list.

Disclaimer: I’m sure that the cultural observations of someone who lived here for a mere 10 weeks are bound to be somewhat misplaced or malinformed at some point. For that, I apologize.

Before I arrived in The Hague, I pictured the Netherlands as a nation of tall, blonde cheesemakers and very little else. I thought everyone would be jolly and content, cycling around quaint towns without a care in the world, perhaps even taking their feet of the pedals and stretching out their legs like actors in 1950s movie posters. I realized that I was wrong in about a day. There are still plenty of tall-viking descendents around, but this is not a homogeneous country.

During my one kilometer walk to work, I passed two mosques, a halal shops with green awnings, and a bakery that appears to be run by two muslim women that churned out waves of warm air saturated with the smell of delicious baked goods. I over a canal and under the intricate, multicolored gates of Chinatown. I ambled by the open door of a British tea room sandwiched between noodle shops, acupuncture salons, massage parlours, and Chinese travel agencies. Then, out the other end of Chinatown (again through an intricate gate) and past more traditional Dutch bars, with Heineken coasters and mostly blonde patrons.

While the streets are crowded during my walk, it is with bicycles, not cars. Most bikes over here are heavier and shaped differently than those back in the States. The frames lower and the seats farther forward so the riders are able to sit with straight backs and pedal directly downwards instead of uncomfortably hunched forward over the handle bars. This shape allows for a more comfortable ride when wearing formal clothing. It also limits speeds to something sensible, instead of that insane bike messenger pace. If the bikes here had a motto, it would be “we’ll get you there eventually, calm down.”

Outside my short commute, I observed kitesurfing (and the regular kind too) at the beach. I watched old men fish off jetty boulders with their multiple fishing rods. I heard classic rock playing at the Belgian beer garden and I saw far too many people drinking Corona with lemon. And I saw many shops selling wooden clogs, but no one wearing them (I concluded that this is probably another case of something only the tourists do). I ate at a Surinamese restaurant and stared out the window at the sushi place across the street. I walked past an Irish pub which seemed genuine and not at all like a tourist trap. I stood on a walkway overlooking the beach at the start of a storm, with the hostile wind forcing me to squint and shiver, and watched a retiree walk all the way down to the water for an evening swim.

However, I was partially right about the attitude of Hollanders. They seem to float through life like leafs carried by the wind. They all exude calm satisfaction with the world around them and happiness with the way things are. This attitude gently floats from everyone and settles into the city.

All the shops open at around 9am, give or take 30 minutes, and they all close by 6pm. Then, everyone heads to a local cafe after work to sit outside, drink a beer, and enjoy the sun. It’s like there is a collective agreement that everyone should have enough time to enjoy life and work just hard enough to be comfortable. I never got the sense that working for working’s sake is something to be proud of over here. No one brags about how stressed and busy they are or how much time they spend at the office. (Maybe I should say that no one does this in English). Very few office buildings have the illuminated evidence of workers burning the midnight oil. And yet, the no one seems lazy. Perhaps everyone just works at a more efficient clip.

I thought about a phrase you hear a lot in law school, mostly from law firms trying to recruit new associates: “work-life balance.” This phrase is a tool to assuage the fears of potential new employees, to assure them that it's permissible AND possible to have a life outside of work. In the Netherlands, thought, the idea is different. It’s like the phrase was reordered to “life-work balance” so everyone knows that comes first, a reminder that work is an important part of life, but that life takes primacy. You can easily argue with the sentiment and point out that it might not work everywhere, etc (there is a distinctly American part of my consciousness that takes this view), but I think it is important to recognize that things work a bit differently over here.

I worked with supremely gifted individuals driven to provide the best information possible on constitution building processes. I saw employees so engrossed with work that they donned shooting grade earmuffs to avoid distraction. I heard multi-hour meetings on the status of the Ukrainian constitution. I read email threads about the newly drafted Nepali constitution and its pros and cons. I discussed the relevance of the American constitution to modern constitution drafting. I helped prepare someone for a radio interview on term limits in Africa (sadly, the interview was cancelled due to the Grexit crisis). I read and re-read constitutions of West African nations. I learned about the differences between Supreme Courts, Constitutional Courts, and Constitutional Councils. I discovered the purpose of judicial service commissions. I sat at my desk and smelled good old fashioned bbq from my office windows (the chef remains unknown to this day, but I am convinced that they are an American. Sorry, world, but we OWN bbq). I worked while groups of people from the office downstairs ate lunch and had conversations in Dutch in the common room.

I learned that the U.S. constitution is unlike almost all others in its short length and generality. I thought that calling the U.S. course “constitutional law” and not “United States Constitutional Law” was a little disingenuous. My foreign educated colleagues assumed that any class as general as “constitutional law” involved comparative analysis of multiple constitutions.

I spent many Friday evenings at Miller’s on the Plein, engaged in long conversations with Elliott about constitutional design, Scottish independence, American exceptionalism, the power and nature of true free market capitalism, and veneration of the constitution as America’s civic religion, among other things. I arrived home every evening thinking about work and what I might learn the next day.

I suppose the whole experience was not entirely tulips, sunshine, and rainbows. I am sure that my complaint (although complaint is not quite the right word, furrowed-brow observation might be better) is common among new world visitors, but space is a precious commodity over here. The streets are narrower, the apartments smaller, the cars smarter, and the land more developed. Claustrophobia is too serious and specific of a term; it’s more like an awareness that I can’t run in any direction without hitting a old building of some kind. The wide open spaces of my middle American childhood are nowhere to be found. Maybe the animals in fenced safari parks feel like this, sort of generously confined but keenly aware of the fences.

There is also something distinctly lonely about a temporary assignment. You are always the outside, the temp, the brief interloper. This attitude is not hostility or any other unpleasant, directly expressed emotion, but a background assumption that everyone, including you, recognizes. It is physically manifest via the game of musical desks you play. You want to squeeze the most out of the time you have, learn all you can, help as much as possible, and be well liked. But you have to do all of this quickly, faster than might be normal. And being overly eager to make friends is never endearing. This all pools together into a strange mix of hyper-aware aggressive socializing and internal monologues about how much socializing is too much.

Despite this hurdle, I consider the people of IDEA’s Hague office my friends, and I like to believe that they feel the same way about me.

I would certainly spend another summer living in the Netherlands and intern for IDEA. The experience was nothing but beneficial and educational, and not just within the confines of the office. I hope this sentiment was at least somewhat evident in my writing and that you never felt bored when reading it.