Tuesday, November 12, 2013

A day in Amsterdam

Hi all :)

As I mentioned in my last post, I live in the Netherlands at the moment. I study in Leiden, a small town (a bit more than 100.000 inhabitants, according to Wikipedia) with the oldest university of the country (even the King studied there!). However, I live in the Hague, which is much bigger and, as you probably know, is the site of the International Criminal Court and, with it, of several international organizations. 

One of the great things about living in the Hague is that it's just an hour away from Amsterdam - a city that I've always loved. So today I'd like to talk to you about what you can do in Amsterdam. Yes, I am gonna talk about the red light district and the coffee shops, but first I'd like to make the point that there are other things to see! ;)

Nevertheless, it is a rather small city compared to many other European capitals, so you might be able to see all the most important stuff in two days max. A couple of weeks ago a friend from Italy came to visit me and we spent a day in Amsterdam, and that was enough to get a good feeling of what the city has to offer.

First, my favourite thing: Van Gogh's museum. I visited this a few years ago and I haven't gone yet, since I moved here, but it's definitely on my to-do list for the next weeks! I've always been very fascinated by impressionism and the artistic movements around it (if I'm correct, Van Gogh can hardly be defined "impressionist" in the proper sense of the word), and he is surely one of my favourite painters. The museum is not far from the city centre (it's near the Vondelpark...I'd say it takes half an hour max to walk there from the central station). It is slightly expensive (15 euros), but I can assure you it's worth it!
You can get tickets online here, which could save you a long queue! https://tickets.vangoghmuseum.nl/activity 

One of my favourite Van Gogh's paintings

Another museum that could be worth a visit is the one dedicated to Anna Frank. This is very near the city centre, the admission is cheaper and I'm sure it will be very interesting! Yes, you guess it, I've never been there. I'm sure I'll go soon...I don't really know why, I've never felt like it. I guess we hear so many things about Anna Frank that you kinda get into the feeling that you know everything about her story, which obviously can't be true.
Anyway, for any more detailed info, this is where to look: http://www.annefrank.org/en/Museum/Practical-information/Opening-hours-prices-and-location1/ 

Now, when I go to other cities what I like to do is spend the morning doing something intellectually "important", then leave the afternoon for more relaxing stuff, something that generally involves discovering the city. There are, obviously, many more museums and galleries around Amsterdam (if you're interested, have a look at this website: http://www.iamsterdam.com/en-GB/experience/what-to-do/museums-and-galleries), but this two I mentioned above are probably the must-see ones (yes, I do feel very ashamed I haven't been to the Anna Frank museum yet....), and this is why I wrote that you can get a good feeling of what Amsterdam is in two days.

The "narrowest house in the world" on Singel 7

What should you do in the afternoons, then? Well, walk around! The street between the station and the main square is the most important one, with all the big shops and the McDonalds&co. Therefore, it's the less interesting! :P But, in between (to the left and to the right) there's a whole beautiful, typically Dutch city centre to discover. Wonderful canals (don't miss the narrowest house in the world on Singel 7 - although all houses around the canals are pretty narrow!), beautiful buildings and lots of weird stuff happening. When I was there with my friend, we first saw a place where guys could pee (you know, those public urinals that, by the way, you can find everywhere in the Netherlands), then the pee would be transported in a sort of container (which you could see......) and, from it, phosphorus would be taken.  Apparently there's a lot of phosphorus in our pee, and this can be used as natural fertiliser. Well, instructive! Then, a while later, we bumped into two guys who were singing and playing (one the trumpet and the other the guitar) on a boat in one of the canals, under a bridge. I can't stress this enough: just really walk around in Amsterdam, and weird things will come to you!

The Green Urine thing where they get phosphorus out of pee

Canal entertainment!

Lastly, take a stroll in the Vondelpark. It's huge and it has all kinds of things inside. Lakes, meadows, playgrounds, an open theatre, bars & restaurant, pieces of art scattered around, a self-managed lost&found thing ("thing" cause I don't know how to call it: it's like a panel where you can hang stuff that people have lost)...You name it!

Then comes the evening. If you're going during the winter, it becomes dark quite soon. At that time I generally head back to the city centre and really start wandering around the strangest part of the city. Go to the street named Nieuwendijk and you'll get what I mean. To be honest, you'll already have walked through it during the day, but it gets magical when it's dark. All the touristic shops that sell anything connected to smoking or to the red light districts are full of this sort of psychedelic lights and music, and I just love to go from one shop to another and get carried away by the good vibes (and the crowd of italians trying to get the best souvenirs for the friends that stayed at home). Then, if you're into it, do hop into a coffee shop. The Bulldog in Oudezijds Voorburgal (hope I spelled it correctly!), very near the old church, is the oldest one, and is a classic. 

Then, after 8 or 9 it gets very interesting to walk around the small streets of the Red Light District. They are all around the Old Church (something I always found fascinating) and they are full of these sort of shop windows were women of literally all kinds smile and wink at the boys (some smile and wink at the girls too!). Now, there's a lot of arguments you could make about the District, but I feel like this is not the right post. ;) I do enjoy walking around there, trying to catch the guys when they are asking for prices or are just coming out of a window, or just enjoying the red-lit waters of the canals!

One of the streets of the Red Light District...as you might have guessed! ;)

Hope you find this information useful. If you do go to Amsterdam and have other questions just let me know :D


P.S.= You MUST try the chips they sell everywhere around the city centre. Make sure you go in one of the places that sell ONLY chips and get the largest portion...You might not be able to finish it, but it's worth it!!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

A masterclass by Salaam Fayyad

Hi all!

First thing first, a very short update about my life: I live in the Netherlands now, in the Hague. You can imagine how great it is to live in such an international city, one of those you always here about in the news, when there is an important diplomatic meeting! Well, I'm loving it. Also, I've started a Master in International Relations and Diplomacy, and I find it so interesting! Perhaps I'll tell you more about it in the next posts, let's get to what I wanted to talk to you about today.

A couple of days ago I went all the way to Tilburg (yes, this is a small country, but let me tell you...trains are horrible! So, to get from Leiden - where I had classes - to Tilburg took 1 hour and 40 minutes, 3 trains and lots of running) to attend a masterclass taught by Salaam Fayyad

Who is Mr Fayyad? Former president of the Palestinian National Authority (until June 2013), he has a PhD from the University of Texas and worked at the IMF and the Arab Bank until he became Arafat's Finance Minister. I got this info from Wikipedia and you can read more about his life there if you want...interesting career!

The title of the class was "Justice and Power". I'm following a course on conflict resolution at the moment, and exactly two days before the lecture we had a seminar on power. What a great coincidence! It really got me thinking about whether justice and power can go hand in hand: can they respect each other's role? And then Salaam Fayyad said something that really stuck with me: "Justice without power is inefficient, power without justice is absolutism". So, it seems like for him they can, and actually they have to, go together. Coming from a country like Italy, where too often justice is slave to power, I couldn't help but being doubtful, as much as Mr Fayyad's statement does seem correct. 

He did, however, solve some of my doubts later on during the lecture. He made it very clear that, in his opinion, any system, where both power and justice are present, needs to have frequent "checks and balances". People don't always behave "well", you can't just trust a small number of individuals to hold justice in every occasion, so you need a system that checks on their behaviour regularly and that balances out whatever injustice there is. It might seem like a really obvious argument, but I can't say that it is followed in many places. However democratic you might thing Italy to be, it certainly does not have enough checks on the behaviour of legislators in particular, but maybe also of magistrates (I say "maybe" cause I actually don't know much about it...I should get informed!). There is a politician, in Italy, (Fabrizio Barca) that devised a system of checks for parties that I strongly support, but I guess I'll have to talk about it another time...

This is me with Fayyad, at the end of the lecture. Yes, I look like an idiot (how could I not, next to such an important person?) and yes, the woman behind us seems like she wants to kill me. Scary!

Going back to what Salaam Fayyad said, he stressed the idea that there are, indeed, certain universal values, and that one of them is justice. He argued that thinkers have agreed on this for centuries, millennia even: Plato believed that a "just" society works better than an "unjust" one, because it works in harmony. In Fayyad's opinion, unjust laws are those that degrade human personality, the importance of which is a value shared throughout the world. In this respect, he mentioned the sense of oppression that comes up when we feel like we are obliged to give up a bit of our personality. In particular, he gave the example of the way we dress (I think he didn't talk about a particular sex, but my mind immediately went to women and their freedom to dress however they like). He said that it is not oppression when a person conforms to certain dressing norms willingly, but it is when (s)he feels like (s)he has to dress in a certain way in order to conform with what it is expected of him/her. A state has to correct the oppression, where there is one.

About this last example, I thought about Muslim women (probably I'm not very imaginative). When can we be sure that a certain woman dresses modestly (wears hijab) because she actually wants to, she feels like that's the best way to express her personality, rather than when she has heard so many times that she has to dress in that way, and now she does it cause that's what she is expected to do? I have a profound respect for Islam and Muslim women, I know many of them that wear hijab and I truly believe that it is their will to do so, but not for all Muslim women around the world the line is so clear. How can a state decide when it is oppression, and when it is not? I asked Salaam Fayyad this question but he didn't really answer, I think he felt like he didn't have enough time (the coordinator kept saying we were reaching the end of the lecture).

Another interesting idea that came up during the masterclass was that history has shown that no big change was brought about in a short period of time: it took three revolutions to bring democracy in France, and almost a whole century. How can we expect, therefore, the countries that have been through the Arab Spring to be democratic and just right away? Perhaps we can give them time, and see where the change goes.

Finally, he encouraged us to be optimistic and, in a way, idealistic. He believes, and I agree, that, whereas realism works on the short term, idealism works on the long term. True, at some level you need a bit of realism, but that doesn't mean you can be idealistic in general. So, for example, we can see the state of Palestine even before the world recognises it, and we can work to create a just society there, so that when it does become a recognised state, much of the work will have already been done. In sha'Allah ;)

Thats all for today, sorry for the long post but the masterclass was really inspiring!


P.S.= in the end me and my friend found out that he had been invited to a small reception in a café in the university, so we sneaked in. Was really cool to stop for a drink (well, water for me) with Salaam Fayyad! He seemed like such a nice man.

A drink with the former President of the Palestinian National Authority