Us & Them (Kristina Duffy)

| Kristina Duffy | 02 August 2012 | The Hague, Netherlands |

One thing I’ve noticed about myself is that I could be in the least or most interesting place in the world, but I’m happiest when I’m surrounded by good people. Knowing this about myself, I choose which coffee shop I go to each morning based largely upon where the friendliest employees work. It’s the guiding principle for where I go out on the weekend. I know that if I’m doomed to work in a windowless cubicle after I graduate law school, my happiness will be most dependent on how I like my work. But, how I like my co-workers will be a close second. I’m sensitive, whatever. Because of this, though, I’m particularly aware of the people I come into contact with from place to place. What I’ve concluded is that people can be characterized more by their commonalities as human beings than by their differences. What people consider “differences,” are usually just similarities that manifest themselves in different ways. This includes all peoples’ proclivity for creating us and them dichotomies.

As it was conveniently on the way to our next stop, my sister and I made a quick visit to Angelina’s in Paris to try a cup of their famous hot chocolate. Yes, it’s summer. But we heard good things and it was on the way. We snorted when the young man working behind the counter theatrically rolled his eyes before asking us in English (before we said a word!) what we wanted. I’m past the age where I take peoples’ unearned criticism personally, and find it ever so slightly amusing when people work themselves up into a needless tizzy. We ordered two hot chocolates and then reminisced about our days at a bustling, beach side restaurant in Long Beach on Long Island. We had worked there together a couple of summers ago; one of several stints we’d each had in the service industry. We related with the server’s annoyance at customers, and made fun of some of the obnoxious customers we dealt with. We agreed that it’s a rite of passage for people in the service industry to go in the back and complain about bitchy customers. That being said, I would obviously not choose to be in an environment where I was needlessly treated like I was annoying regularly.

My little sister told me about other experiences she’d had with people while living in France. A couple of them left a particularly bad taste in my mouth (I could kill someone for treating my baby sister like that!). But Kathleen’s outlook on the people living in Paris is complex. She lived with a host family that was amazing to her. I have fond memories of celebrating Thanksgiving with her and her host family at one of their favorite restaurants. Kathleen’s host mother and brother barely spoke English, and I spoke pitiful French, but Kathleen and her host father were able to translate for us. And it always amazes me how people are able to get their messages across in spite of language barriers.

While working in The Hague this summer, I was also able to visit Budapest with a couple of friends one weekend. The people in Budapest were so helpful and welcoming, despite being less comfortable with English than the French and Dutch. Thanks to the meticulous planning of my friend Mallory (“Mal”), we visited a ridiculous amount of sights in the span of 36 hours. In fact, I nearly died of heat stroke after climbing Buda’s steep incline in 33 degree Celsius heat (90 whatever Fahrenheit). Seeking refuge from the oppressive heat, we serendipitously found an outdoor bath toward the city center. We decided to put our feet in the water for a bit and regain energy before tackling the rest of our itinerary.

While sitting there, we notice a lot of noise and bustle at one of the street corners adjacent to the park we were sitting in. Curious, we walked over, and were told that it was Gay Pride Weekend and that the street corner bordered part of the Gay Pride Parade’s route. What should have been a festive and celebratory occasion turned ugly when a group of neo-Nazis approached the medal gates separating the crowd from the parade. Even before that point, we noticed that a veritable army of police officers, all equipped with body armor, guns, and pepper spray, were positioned throughout the city. Not just along the parade route, but outside landmarks, in the metros- everywhere. The neo-Nazis were also in uniform, all clad in black attire and heavy boots, some wearing gas masks. They shouted expletives in unison in magyar (we asked someone to translate). At one point, they stormed the meddle barrier separating the crowd from the parade. It was a pathetic site. The police immediately subdued them, and they stormed off, perhaps to find something else to be mad about. Most shocking of all was that a philosophy that had ravaged that very city years ago could still attract followers.

Now, I’m back in The Hague. Back to what is at this point familiar and comfortable. Now that I’ve been here nearly two and a half months, I’ve gotten to know my neighbors, and often run into friendly faces on the tram, in the grocery store, or at my usual happy hour spots. I’ve come to understand The Netherlands as a cosmopolitan city. Soft drugs have been legal for years. Gay couples can get married country-wide. There is something behind Andrew’s observation that young people here seem more mature than their counterparts in the United States, or at least in New York. People here have their own intolerances, though. I was shocked when an ICTY contractor told me about a Christmas tradition here where people, including children, dress up in black face as “Zwarte Pete” or Black Pete. Black Pete is supposedly Santa’s helper who kidnaps naughty children. This tradition’s appropriateness is apparently debated every year, but it carries on nonetheless.

 This is one of the amazing things I’ve learned through traveling. Even as people express their intolerances, they manifest their very humanity. I hope that as the world continues to become smaller, and we continue to meet people from different places, we will come to realize that we are all more similar than we are different.

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