Learning Dutch (Guest Bloggers Series)

Daniel Slavin is a third year law student in Boston, Massachusetts. He is studying international law at Suffolk University. He is spending a three-month internship in The Hague this summer with the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Last summer he attended a symposium at the International Peace and Security Institute in Bologna, Italy. For his last semester of university, he lived in Havana, Cuba studying political science and modern Cuban history. Following law school, Daniel plans to pursue a career in international law and diplomacy.

| Daniel Slavin | 20 July 2012 | The Hague, Netherlands |

It is July 19, 2012 at 11:06 AM. I’m sitting at a desk, in an office building with signs indicating “Tweede Verdieping” or “Third Floor”. This frustrates me every morning, as we are definitely on the fourth floor. My supervisor just called and assigned me to write a memo to be submitted to trial chambers in a few hours for our upcoming trial. I almost respond that I have no idea what I’m doing or how exactly I came into a position with such responsibility, but I decide against it.

Maybe I should retrace my steps. I distinctly remember living in New York and in Boston. During high school and college I can even remember a time where I knew what I was doing. Homework, assignments, even lectures, made sense. I could firmly grasp what was expected and I would act accordingly. And then someone convinced me to go to law school and that was all lost.

“Read this case.”

Okay.

“Mr. Slavin, what was the holding and the dissent?”

Well, its a case about dogs…

That was the moment. That is when things stopped making sense. And its been almost two years since then. A full year of Socratic misery, exams that count way more than I was comfortable with, and a sudden appreciation for scotch whiskey. This was followed closely by a summer of client interviews, researching state and federal statutes and applicable case law, and meetings. 2L year promised more of the same, with the addition of electives.

After a harrowing few months of finals and rejection letters, the acceptance email from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is very well received. Its at this point that I begin wondering what language I should study (to avoid preparing for finals). The tribunal is a UN body, so French should be useful. But it is in the Netherlands, so I will need to learn Dutch. But, the indictees, witnesses, and experts speak Serbo-Croatian. This is another example of knowing that I will be unprepared, with little I can do to remedy it. (Also, at the time of this writing, there is no Rosetta Stone for Serbo-Croatian.)

It has now been two months, and I have somehow grown comfortable living in Den Haag. I live on a street I can’t pronounce and the only Dutch words I know are for “Thank you”, “You’re welcome”, and “Men’s Room”. The important part, however, is the experience. I work in a building full of extraordinary people, working on fascinating trials. One of the best ice-breakers, I have found, is asking people what they did before they came here. There are people who have worked at every international organization, studied across the world, prosecuted or defended on every level, and have lived all over the world. As the tribunal is closing within two years, the question as to what people are doing after this job is typically met with looks of dread and confusion.

It is surprising how comfortable you can feel in a situation that you could not fathom just a few months prior. I live a block from the beach, along the North Sea, in a three story house with a dog, a cat, and a turtle. I bike five minutes to work each morning along streets with names that are five syllables or longer. I now think nothing of summarizing documents that are written entirely in Cyrillic. I am so thankful for this immense and unique opportunity. On that note, I should get back to writing that memo. After all, these war criminals are not going to prosecute themselves.

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