31 January 2008


20 € ($30) ticket for bicycling without a headlight. Technically, I have a headlight; it's just that it's broken. A true Dutch experience!

01 January 2008

Happy new years!

For the past week, this country has sounded as if it is under attack, as the Dutch have spent their days lighting fire-crackers with maddeningly loud booms in odd tribute to the conclusion of the year. Personally, I can see the appeal of fireworks -- pretty colors -- but fire-crackers? All day, every day? For what?

Last year, the Dutch spent $80 million dollars on fireworks. This year stores are permitted to sell only 10 kilos (22 pounds) of explosives per person. And it is only legal to ignite such pyrotechnics from 10am on 31 December until 2am on 1 January, but that hardly seemed to deter the masses. The police in Amsterdam apparently made 162 arrests for untimely fireworking, so I guess they did crack down for approximately 28 seconds.

These pre-schedule inflammations built to a frenzied crescendo until yesterday, when the city around me entirely erupted. It sounded as if I was inside of a very large and loud pot of popcorn. When I left work, I could hardly see 10 feet in front through the very heavy cloud of smoke. By 11pm, firecrackers turned to fireworks and by midnight the skies absolutely ignited with color.

There's not even a municipal celebration -- it's all private. And as I came home at 2am from my friend's house, through the smoky haze, it looked a bit like the scenes of rioting from Paris. Large christmas trees burned in the streets, blocking traffic. Tables and chairs were added to the fires. Roving masses of drunken adolescents.

In Utrecht, a lovely city of 300,000 people, 22 cars were set on fire. Riot police were called out in Nijmegen (population 160,000) and Tiel (population 40,000). Arrests across the country....

And today, as I look out the window, I see the fantastic detritus of last night's aural invasion. The normally refined and ordered country went crazy for one night; maybe they're too ashamed today to clean up.

05 December 2007

Sinterklaas - Last Words

A last word about Sinterklaas... This email was received this morning:

Dear all,

As you are all aware, today, 5 December, is a big day in The Netherlands. This is the day that St. Nicholas ("Sinterklaas") presents gifts to Children for their good behaviour during the year.

The Presidency is pleased to inform all staff that they may leave today, at 15:00 hrs. in order to be with their families during this special day.


Chers collègues,

Comme vous le savez, aujourd'hui, mardi 5 décembre, est un jour important aux Pays-Bas. C'est le jour où Saint Nicolas ("Sinterklaas) distribue des cadeaux aux enfants pour les récompenser de leur bonne conduite au cours de l'année.

La Présidence est heureuse de vous informer que tous les membres du personnel pourront quitter la Cour aujourd'hui à 15h00 afin de célébrer ce jour particulier au sein de leurs familles.

04 December 2007


Here's an email I received this morning from the Synagogue. I left untouched the original formatting and colors. A translation of sorts follows.

Lieve vrienden,


Een drukke, vrolijke tijd met veel gezelligheid. Ook voor jullie is er weer van alles in petto. Zo hebben we deze vrijdagavond weer onze gezellige Kabbalat sjabbat. Zondagochtend hebben we een speciaal Chanoeka programma. Ook al ben je niet van de vaste zondagochtend-gangers, schroom niet om te komen.

Het wordt zeer de moeite waard.Zoals je in de bijlage kan lezen hebben we o.a. een eetbaar knutselwerk!

Nog nooit in Nederland vertoon! Dat wil niemand missen.

Kom! En neem vrienden en familie mee.

Laat je even weten wanneer je komt en met hoeveel personen?

Chanoeka Sameach!

So I put the above into the babelfish translator and here's my result:

Kind friends, Chanoeka! A busy, lively time with much gezelligheid. Also for you is there of everything in petto. Thus we have this Friday evening our sociable Kabbalat sjabbat. Sunday morning has we special Chanoeka programme. Even if are you not of fixed zondagochtend-gangers, schroom not come. It becomes very the effort worth such as you in the appendix is possible read has to we among other things edible knutselwerk! Never in the Netherlands vertoon! That wants nobody missing. Bowl! And take along friends and family. Let you just as know when do you come and with how many persons? Chanoeka Sameach!

Well, I had my appendix removed, so I'm not sure this applies. But then, as with everything else in the Netherlands, there will be much gezelligheid.

Finally, speaking of Dutch silliness, here's a screen-shot of multi-lingual print settings:

01 December 2007

I'm starting to think that the best way to update on my life here is by photograph. So, without further ado....

I've been going to Amsterdam (.mp3) at times. Time-wise, it's kind of like going up into Manhattan for lunch, but it costs €10 round trip (with discount card) - about fifteen bucks. It's about 60km away and can take as little as 40 minutes or as long as 1.5 hours, if you get stuck on the train that makes all the stops.

Here's a shot of the doors to an old telephone exchange office in Amsterdam and an old world cheese shop, as it were:

On Thursday, I saw the Brooklyn band The National play at the Melkweg (milky way) in Amsterdam:

Following up on my post about Sinta Claus, here are some advertisements for Black Peter (his assistants) from an Amsterdam shop window:

Back in The Hague, my neighbor had a fantastic 30th birthday party. The theme was "Roaring Twenties" and people were well dressed up. She had this terrific jazz band play, heaps of amazing Moroccan food, and strange looking but very tasty cakes. Apparently, she told her father that about 40 people would come. When the family showed up with restaurant size pot after dish after pot, she asked, "But papa, I said 40!" to which he replied, "Well, I figured 100 just to be safe!" Sunday afternoon I came over for leftovers; Sunday night I was back again. That evening
for dinner, I was the only lawyer-type (rare in this town); there was also an Iranian girl spending a few days here in The Netherlands; two Moroccans; a Senegalese; an Italian; an Israeli; and finally a very tall (naturally) Dutch guy.

On signage: (a) it's very unclear why they must have name streets like this; (b) the second photo was taken in the W.C. at De Paas, which features more than 300 beers. Well, my Dutch is rather limited, but the sign starts Beste heren, (Dear men,) Geen (it is forbidden or do not or something) peuken. I think this may actually mean something else in Dutch, but....

17 November 2007

Amsterdam by Photos

On Thursday evening, I went up to Amsterdam to see the band Beirut. I had to wait for a little while for my friends before the show, so I thought I'd wander about and grab a take-out beer. And although some neighborhoods in Amsterdam are quite lovely, this one teemed with tourists and tourist friendly establishments.

Some places that I did not eat dinner included a pancake-mussel house; any and all places offering a "tourist menu"; a restaurant specifically looking for 20 year old female waitresses; an empty chinese restaurant with stereotypical "architecture"; a self-proclaimed "Falafel King," who obviously has nothing on the Vendy Award runner-up King of Falafel and Shawarma of Astoria, Queens.

Beer was also harder to procure than you might guess. It would have been straight forward to buy magic mushrooms or marijuana; the latter is sold at "coffee shops." Both types of establishments apparently offer a side dish of the touristically required internet access.

But a beer? This place was so cheap that it was boarded up.

But in the end, it was a nice walk and a fantastic show.

12 November 2007


Nicholas was born in 270 CE (AD) in Turkey; he apparently "had a reputation for secret gift giving." He died on December 6, 343 and this date on the calendar became known as St. Nicholas Day. [Wikipedia]

Fast forward thirteen centuries to Manhattan, in New Amsterdam:

As in the home country, the Dutch children would break out in song:

Saint Nicholas, good holy man,
Put on your best coat,
Then gallop to Amsterdam...

And on the sixth of the month, the saint's feast day, they would wake to find that he had left treats for them. ...among the English, the French, the German, the Swedish families of Manhattan, pressure was brought to bear on parents; the Dutch tradition was adopted [by them, also], and, later, pushed forward a couple of weeks to align with the more generally observed festival of Christmas. So 'Sinterklaas' began his American odyssey.

...it was [in Manhattan] that American children first longed for the arrival of 'St. a Claus' (as Rivington's New Yorker Gazetteer spelled it in the early 1770s, noting that the saint's feast day would be celebrated 'by the descendants of the ancient Dutch families, with their usual festivities'). ... It was a slim fellow in a bishop's hat whose arrival the children of Dutch Manhattan looked forward to on St. Nicholas' Eve; typically, he left treats in their shoes, but occasionally ... in stockings hung from the mantelpiece. As the non-Dutch families adopted him and he gained momentum, bits of other cultural traditions stuck to the ritual; the media (Thomas Nast's cartoons in Harper's Weekly plumped the saint and whitened his beard) and corporate advertising (the white-trimmed red suit came compliments of Coca-Cola's iconic ad campaign in the 1930s) refined the image....

[Copied from The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America, which I highly recommend.]

And now fast forward some more to, obviously, the Hague. As is tradition, Sinterklaas arrives by boat from Spain; given the niceties of modern diplomacy, he is met by the Spanish ambassador. For some reason, which unfortunately I don't remember, Sinterklaas has to arrive well in advance of December 6; this year, it's this Saturday, as the posters proclaim around town (see photograph).

Despite his Turkish origins, Nicholas is thoroughly Europeanized; meanwhile, his assistants wear blackface. Rather than change this overly and overtly racialized tradition, their blackface is simply explained away as "soot" from the ship.

08 November 2007

Some photos

Some days, when I swipe onto my floor at work, I get this inspirational message.


I finally found a vending machine that takes coins (right), but it's still pretty technologically advanced.

Moving onto food, it turns out that New York pizza is actually from a southern suburb of The Hague, seeing as this is apparently "the original."   I did not eat here. 

Finally, apparently the Dutch don't mind
 vaguely-AsianImage009.jpg  menu items with
vaguely-demeaning names.   Woki Yaki Woki.  Right. 

07 November 2007

Dutch Environmentalism and Blinky Lights

This post is quite difficult to entitle... so I'll describe. There's a Dutch word that has been translated variously as cheap, environmental, conservative and somewhere in between. For example, I've already commented on how they ride bicycles everywhere. Ask them why? Well, they're conserving money and the environment and it's just plain efficient. Then there's my roommate, who stuffs all of his smaller garbage into an old milk container and will one day (hopefully) throw it out with the rest of thrash. Why? Apparently, he's conserving too.

So Rotterdam is 25km away (15 miles) and a major highway connects it to The Hague. Apparently, the speed limit is only 80km/h (45mph) because -- as Americans know but do nothing about -- driving faster increases pollution. And you can't exceed the limit, either, because cameras note your plate on the on-ramps and exits and then calculate your speed. A guy I was having dinner with last night just received a €60 ($100) ticket for driving on it at 5km/h (3mph) over the limit at 1am on a recent Monday night. That and the two tickets the Belgian cameras mailed him from a recent weekend trip.

Speaking of tickets, national debate is currently raging here over bicycle lights. Many older bikes have the Dynamo system, which powers a white headlight and red taillight with a tiny generator attached to your front wheel. But many kids these days have those blinky lights that you might know from the US.
Well, there is a recent national decision that these blinky lights are out of compliance with the requirements of the national bicycle lighting law and that the police must start ticketing.

Thus, the headlines and the swirling debate. In response, the police chiefs of Utrecht and another city have decided not to comply and to permit riding with blinky lights. Other cities have promised to crack down. Parliament has scheduled at least one full day of debate for next week. And naturally, everyone's talking about it.

Then there's me: my Dynamo died last week. (I have a "bottle" dynamo to be precise.) I had thought it lucky that I brought my blinky light with me from the US. But foiled again!

22 October 2007


Intellectually, The Hague is a wonderful place to be since it stands at the epicenter of international law. In fact, the concept of international law was largely founded by Hugo Grotius at the University of Leiden, just up the road, at the beginning of the 1600s.

I've already been to a two day conference about the ICC - one day in The Hague and one day in Amsterdam; a lecture at the Asser Institute, an international law research institute; and tonight I went to a discussion about Darfur sponsored by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. Unfortunately, I've had to miss two other interesting conferences, including one sponsored by the International Committee of the Red Cross held at the International Court of Justice. But I'll be back at the Asser Institute on Thursday.

The topic for this evening was Darfuri and Sudanese views on the ICC. The reporters and NGOs recounted that Darfuris do know something about the ICC and that expectations are high, if overly optimistic. Apparently, Darfuris drew up a list of 51 people they hoped to see arrested. Many expect punishment governed by talion.

Given these expectations, the ICC may disappoint. Obviously, an eye for an eye does not exist here as a principle of punishment. The ICC has indicted two Sudanese on war crimes charges stemming from the conflict in Darfur: Ali Muhammad Ali Abd-Al-Rahman and Ahmad Muhammad Harun. The ICC and NGOs are trying to spread their word and principles in Sudan, but (I'm quoting the evening's participants) "to mention the ICC brands you as a traitor... In Darfur, you could be killed just for mentioning the ICC." They said that there is total governmental control of the media. Apparently, a few journalists recently came to The Hague for some training, but were marked as traitors upon their return and denounced by the supposedly-independent journalists' union.

Naturally, Sudan refuses to turn over the two indictees. Until this evening, I didn't quite understand why the government doesn't simply offer them up as pawns to justice and to attain recognition for "international cooperation." It was explained that the government fears that these two would implicate higher-ups. One of the participants is from the same town as Harun. He said that Harun is "really worried" that the government will kill him to silence him; so worried that Harun has apparently "lost weight" and "can't sleep."

The evening's event will be aired on Radio Netherlands Worldwide (like a Dutch version of Voice of America or BBC), on their program "Amsterdam Forum." It should be posted here soon. Shortwave frequencies here.

(Speaking of International broadcasting, did you know that Voice of America reaches out in about 50 languages? Although the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting only offers 27 languages, it has something that VoA does not: news and radio in Hebrew, on Kol David ("The Voice of David"). )

21 October 2007

A bicycle friendly country

After a year navigating the streets (and traffic) of new york city by bicycle, The Netherlands is certainly a joy. There are certainly more bikes here than cars; indeed, it's oft stated that there are more bikes than people. One fast fact at hand: the Amsterdam train station has a parking garage for 2,500 bikes. And that's not counting the masses parked in front of and around the station.

As you can see in these two photos, I don't work in a small building. At fifteen stories, it's the biggest building around and one of the larger buildings in The Hague.

This large office building has two parking garages, in front and in the rear -- both are for bicycles only -- there's no car parking. On the left is the my parking lot at work. On the right is a shot of my bike at the supermarket, which also has no car parking.

Streets basically have four parts. From left to right in the two photos below: traffic; car parking; bike lane; sidewalk. In fact, the City of New York has proposed exactly that for Manhattan's 9th Avenue, well at least for seven blocks thereof, which would give us cyclists a solid 90 seconds of security. Still, I don't want to knock it, because it is a lovely system and (in an ideal world) perhaps it could catch on in New York. A diagram can be found here (Gothamist).

When you come to an intersection, you get your own green/yellow/red traffic signal, at bicycle level (photo on left) and some intersections have bicycle specific direction / distance signs to neighboring towns (photo on right).

During rush hour, a lot of bicyclists can arrive to these mini-red lights, so some intersections have special left turn lanes - within the bike lane. (photo on left) In the rare case where the bike lane is not segregated, you get to cut in front of the traffic into a "bike box" while you wait at the light. (photo on right) This concept is much better documented and photographed here, where it shows Manhattan's one and only such "bike box," located at W. 9th and 6th Avenue. (StreetsBlog!)

In Manhattan, 6th Avenue is a great way to get uptown because there's a very long bike lane. But when a building is under construction, for some reason the bike lane gets eliminated, leaving you completely at the mercy of traffic. That would never happen here. These photos show two examples of the Dutch making a path for bicyclists, despite the road work.

Here are two final photos. On the left, there's some sidewalk work going on, so even the bike lane gets a warning sign. And on the right, a wheelchair-scooter-thing, which is how people in wheelchairs zip around the city in bike lanes.

17 October 2007


I spent the weekend in Lausanne, Switzerland. The French alps loom above the town, just across the stunning Lac Lémon.

And the Swiss countryside....

And the Swiss Alps....