Wednesday, 23 October 2013

International Student Life 101

There’s nothing quite like small moments of triumph in international student life. Whether it’s finding out where to post a letter to home, buying the proper groceries for the meal you actually intended to cook (as opposed to the Master Chef-like challenge of cooking with some mystery ingredient from Albert Heijn), or successfully navigating yourself via bike to a street with a name like Amsterdamsestraatweg, little achievements feel like big successes.

My small success this week (although a harder task than you might think) was finding a true-to-home, classic and delicious Irish breakfast at local pub Mick O'Connells. Real Irish sausages, bacon, two eggs, baked beans, hash browns and a bit of toast: my ticket home. Consider it a piece of something familiar for a fraction of the cost of a plane ticket out of Schiphol. With the stress of studying for exams and the occasional baffling challenges of being an international student in a country where you don’t speak the first language, sometimes it’s good to find something truly familiar. Utrecht is a multi-cultural city, especially in terms of cuisine, so you don’t have to go too far to find your favourites.

Of course, that’s only half the fun. The other half is being thrown into a culture that isn’t quite what you’re used to. Beyond tulips, clogs, windmills and the Red Light District, the Netherlands is a land full of (very tall) people with their own idiosyncrasies. After you’ve packed your bags and explained to family and friends that you aren’t moving to Amsterdam (no, it’s not a country) or even to Holland (you may want to show them this video:, you will soon discover what really makes the Dutch people stand out.

Those baffling moments I mentioned earlier are (luckily) few and far between. It may not be the first language, but English is spoken by almost everyone in this city. It only takes one expression of complete confusion when someone unknowingly asks you a question in Dutch before they will happily switch to English to accommodate you. The good news is that this makes international student life fairly easy. The bad news for people like me (Dutch-speaking wannabes) is that practicing Dutch means asking people to bear with you while you answer a simple question like ‘Hoe wil je betalen?’ (How do you want to pay?).

If you’re particularly brave, you might want to learn to understand ‘Dunglish’, a mixture of Dutch and English that comes from the direct translation of phrases. Beware: these translations rarely make sense. My personal favourite is ‘Helaas, pinda kaas’ (Unfortunately, peanut butter), but you can find countless more on the aptly-named Facebook page ‘Make that the cat wise’ if you need a good distraction from studying.

Coming into the wintery months, it is essential to wrap up warm (gloves are a must-have for riding my bright orange bike all winter long), keep an umbrella nearby at all times, and enjoy the seasonal Dutch dishes such as Boerenkoolstamppot (a delicious combination of potatoes and kale with sausage) or hearty pea soup. My study snack of choice this week is ‘Oliebollen’, or deep fried dough covered in powdered sugar. Okay, so they are traditionally eaten at New Year’s and they certainly can’t be good for you, but what can I say? It’s exam week.

Over the past week, I submitted my first research paper and sat my first law exam. Even though the grading system is daunting to say the least (with the mentality that '10 is for God, 9 is for the professor'), I will be happy to be out of my current no-grade limbo and officially have some of this Master’s under way. As things move quickly ahead, I jumped on board an opportunity to do a research internship with the university. The Clinic Program on ‘Conflict, Human Rights and International Justice’ will count as one of my classes (7.5 ECTS) and I will be starting the six-month position in just a few weeks.

The end of block one is in sight and it’s time for non-stop reading, punctuated by voluntarily-attended seminars and newly-discovered Irish breakfasts. Such is the life of the international student and it’s not bad at all.

Until the next time/Tot de volgende keer!


Tuesday, 8 October 2013

To the ICC and Beyond

Autumn has settled over Utrecht, bringing with it sunny days, evening chills and glasses filled with seasonal ‘Bockbier’. Flowing summer dresses are replaced by long coats and woolly scarfs, but the pace of life and bikes remains the same. The Dutch are always on the go, meeting friends and making appointments around their packed schedules.
Of course, the best way to answer the question ‘Hoe gaat het met jou?’ (How are you) is always ‘Druk, druk’ meaning ‘Busy,busy!’

In line with this mentality, I have been keeping busy, busy all week. As week five of the semester begins, we are already passing the halfway point of the first block of classes. Whereas in undergrad, the month of October meant preparing for a midterm break and some Thanksgiving dinner, now it means gearing up for final papers and studying for class exams.

Each Friday the class workshop is set up to help us prepare for exams and hone our skills. Theoretical problems solved with group work, writing workshops and legal research guides make the next task and the upcoming exams a little less daunting.

With Utrecht being situated so close (only an hour train ride) to Den Haag (The Hague), there is also a lot to be learned outside the classroom. On Friday morning, the class took the short train ride to the city for an organized tour of the International Criminal Court.

Roaming the long white halls of the ICC, with large portraits of the Judges and Prosecutors of the Court, we learned the history of the Court and how it is run, from the most routine Registry work to the complexities of the Court. Stepping away from the classroom and the textbooks where we study the ICC in-depth, we saw what the Court is like in action and met the people whose decisions we have studied including Judge Van den Wyngaert.

While we didn’t get the opportunity to watch a hearing, due to a closed session, the trip left more than a few of my classmates dreaming of internships and jobs at the International Criminal Court, and visualizing the possibility that they could one day be leading tours of academic hopefuls around the building or have their portrait hanging on the walls.

Leaving the excitement of The Hague behind, there was just enough time to enjoy the last of the afternoon sunshine in Utrecht and stroll through the stalls of the city’s popular biological market.

Now, as I sit at my kitchen table, sipping a cup of tea from home in Ireland (yes, care packages with your favourites are key to international student life), my focus is on the Moot Court problem ahead, which is keeping my group, or ‘The Defense’, both nervous and determined.

While the rate of Skype calls to family and friends has dropped a bit lately, with one mid-week message from my mother asking ‘Are you alive?’, I like to take this as a positive sign that I’m not only settling in to this new city but content being ‘Zo bezig als een bij’ (busy as a bee) and setting my sights on far-off Christmas holidays.

Until the next time/ Tot de volgende keer!


Human Rights and Criminal Justice LLM 2013-2014 with Judge Van den Wyngaert at the ICC