Saturday, March 13, 2010
Greetings from Albania!
Sorry it's been so long since I posted, but it has been quite a week. When I last posted, I was in the wonderful city of Amsterdam. We ended our time there by having a free day to explore the city. We hit the Anne Frank Museum on Saturday evening, which was so moving. I am a book nerd, so being able to see the actual place where Anne and her family and other persecuted Jews were living was exciting and heartbreaking. Man's inhumanity to man is really something else. We also got to go to two of the best museums ever: Rijksmuseum, which is like the national museum of the Netherlands, and the Van Gogh Museum. It's one thing to learn about these works in school and know their history, but to see Rembrandts, Vermeers, and Van Goghs up close and personal is simply breathtaking. Our last night in Amsterdam was spent having a great dinner with Bram at an Indonesian restaurant. We did an Indonesian rice table, which was pretty cool. Kristy, Amy, George, Bjorn and Bram: thanks for the wonderful memories of a great city. Things that surprised me about Amsterdam: it is very clean, it is very walkable, the people are very nice, and it is very diverse. I will be back!
There are so many ways in which I feel myself growing and learning. I feel everyday that a new part of my life is opening up. I can't describe the exhilaration at knowing that my life is changing and that so many wonderful people are now a part of it.
On Monday Kristy and I left for Rome and joined Anton, Stacey and Jason. We had one really great day in Rome. We got to see the Collosseum, some ruins, the Pantheon, and the "track" where the chariots used to race. We then had a great dinner with our hosts and some Italian MMF alums. Days 2 through 5 were rainy and cold, which was unseasonable for Rome. I had some amazing professional appointments, and we got to see a Caravaggio exhibit. Our time in Rome ended with a wonderful dinner at the home of Giuseppe, an alum, and his wife Francesca. My observations about Rome: a beautiful, very old city, amazing food (especially gelato), and very elegant people. I want to go back when I can explore on my own.
On Friday, we left for Tirana, Albania. I have to say that I never had Albania on my list of go-to countries, but it is really a nice surprise. the weather is beautiful, our city coordinator is very organized and has provided some great programming for us, and I have met some wonderful people. Stacey and I joined Tony and Bjorn for this leg of the trip. Friday night we had a welcome dinner and yesterday we toured the city. I am including some pictures of the old Communist buildings that were repainted after Communism fell. This was done in order to make them more cheerful. Today we go to the neighboring town of Kruje.
Well, that was a lot of information, but it's been a heck of a week. I appear to have a decent internet connection, so, I'll be able to post a little more.
Saturday, March 6, 2010
Well, as promised I am posting about my last 3 days in Amsterdam.
We left Brussels on Wednesday via KLM airlines. I love their cute retro outfits and would have taken a picture, but I was seated next to what I believe was an air marshall and did not want to get wrestled to the ground and ejected off the continent.
Our team of five is a great one. Kristy Teskey, who works for the Bank of America Foundation; Amy Gardner, a partner in a Chicago law firm ( she thinks U of Chicago is the world's best law school, but we all know it's Tulane...); Bjorn Skogquist, who is the former mayor of Anoka, MN; George Walker, who works for the Victory Fund, a PAC that supports LGBT candidates around the country, and me. These are some really cool folks and we all seem to have the same travel mindset, which is great.
We arrived at the fabulous Hotel Ambassade, which I totally recommend if you visit Amsterdam, and set off to explore our surroundings and find food. We happened upon a great little restaurant and then did a little shopping. The cutest thing about that is the shop that sells only toothpaste, toothbrushes and mouthwash. I am not kidding.
I went back to the hotel before the others so that I could get a little rest. When I walked into the lobby I saw Liam Neeson's really attractive Dutch twin brother staring at me. I thought he was just being nice, but then he says, "Hallo Shannan, I am Bram." No, this was not a pickup line, Bram Boxhoorn is our coordinator and he knew me because he has all of our pictures (Rats, because I know y'all were hoping for a better story. Once we were all rounded up, he gave us an orientation to what has ended up being a wonderful trip. We then set out for dinner with some MMF alums at a great restaurant.
A couple of initial observations. The food here is really great; lots of veggies and fresh food, which is nice after the rich Belgian food we enjoyed last week. I have had some of the best salads and soups here. Amsterdam is a really beautiful city, and extremely clean. The canals, of course, are gorgeous. So are the people. The average height for women is 5'6" and 6'1" for men. The Dutch are also all really good looking. Of course I feel like a Munchkin, but they are also really nice and welcoming. The language is a non issue because everyone speaks English. It reminds me how most Americans are not bilingual. That is a real pity, as they say here.
Day 2 in Amsterdam was in introduction to immigration and integration. One thing I did not realize was the number of Turkish and Moroccan immigrants in the Netherlands. They struggle with the integration issue just as we do in the US. We also watched a popular Dutch film that helped define some of the Dutch identity issues, such as euthanasia, gay marriage, abortion and soft drug use (their term). The director of the film was there, as well as a hospice nurse and the head of the worlds oldest gay rights organization. The film was excellent and I recommend it. You have to see the film to understand how all of this integrates into Dutch identity, so SUPPORT THE ARTS: SEE THE FILM "SIMON."
Day 2 continued with another great lunch and a meeting with a Dutch journalist, followed by a walking tour of the Red Light District with the program manager for the 1012 Project. This project seeks to improve the fates of the women, the residents and the overall image and safety for the Red Light District. Let me first dispel a myth. There is nothing romantic about it. There are sex shops, coffee shops (which don't sell coffee, by the way), and almost-naked women in windows at street level. It is really jarring at first to see the prostitutes, but when you start to look at how young some of these girls are, it is really sad. Human trafficking has been a huge problem, and there are many very young girls plying their trade. Gave me a different outlook on the "freedom" of legalized prostitution and drug use. We heard some really terrible stories. This day ended with a great dinner at the home of an MMF alum and journalist, Thijs Niemantsverdriet.
I have to take this opportunity to talk about our wonderful city Coordinator. Bram Boxhoorn has provided some amazing experiences for us and his hospitality is overwhelming. We all joke with him though, because he is really tall and a marathon runner, so he basically makes us walk at a 10-K pace. I thought I was going to have a heart attack on our walk through the Red Light District! We all had to beg him to slow down (except for George, but then he's just fabulous like that). This time in Amsterdam would not be the same without his careful, hard work and attention to detail. Thanks, Bram.
Yesterday (Friday) was great. We went to the Hague and met with a member of Dutch Parliament, Angelien Eijsink. She was great and we could have talked with her all day. We then went to International Criminal Court. This was an experience. We were briefed by the Counsel to the President, who is an American lawyer. We then got to watch part of a hearing of a Congolese war criminal. We were basically eyeball to eyeball with him. It was interesting, to say the least.
We ended the day by meeting with the Secretary-General of the ministry of Economic Affairs, and it was one of the best conversations we've had regarding Dutch/US relations. Bram took us to his organization, the Netherlands Atlantic Association, to meet with a Dutch professor on policy on Muslims in the West. We then went to the neighboring coastal town of Noordwijk to visit their seawall and hear about their success in guarding against natural disasters. This was of particular interest to me because of our issues in Louisiana. Noordwijk is a tourist town right on the beach, akin to Destin. We had dinner there with the Mayor and then returned to Amsterdam.
This morning we went to a dairy farm in Flevoland. I will admit that it was not what I thought it was. The Van Beek family has a dairy farm of 140 cows and they also have a windmill and a biogas operation that provides power for a neighboring residential area. That's right, the cows provide the power. I won't go any further than that. It was extremely interesting to see their operation, and the family, including their two daughters and son, were generous to welcome us into their home and farm. Even though I am a Southern girl, I had never really been that close to a cow. One of the cows had just given birth I got to see cow (or any, for that matter) placenta for the first time. It is an experience I won't forget. By the way, it is VERY cold here and even more so on the farm. Moms, good looking out on convincing me to take the thermals. Wow! I have a great deal of respect for people like the Van Beeks who work the land in an ethical and economically efficient way.
I am writing this post in my beautiful hotel room overlooking the canal. I am taking a much needed mental break and then we are headed for the Anne Frank museum. My mother will smile because she bought me this book when I was 10 and it quickly became my favorite. I can't wait to see where Anne's story played out.
We're going on a river cruise tonight and then tomorrow we'll hit the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum. I have posted a few pix of the various things I've described. Until later...
Thursday, March 4, 2010
Wednesday, March 3, 2010
Thanks to everyone who posted a message on here or Facebook. It's nice to know that these things are getting read! I am writing this from a lovely hotel in Amsterdam. It is almost midnight, but I could not let another day pass without posting. We had AWFUL wi-fi service in Brussels, so I was unable to do much posting the last four days. However, the situation is vastly different in lovely Amsterdam, so, I can again share this adventure with you.
I don't know what I expected from Brussels. I am going to all of the cities with an open mind and heart and trying to limit or eliminate expectations. Brussels was a nice surprise. It is the capital of the European Union, so it is the D.C. of Europe. There is a government culture, and many highly intelligent people are walking about. It is a very international city; everything is in French, Dutch, English and German. I talked about the wonderful food earlier. The mussels and the waffles are indescribably good. Like many European cities, it is easily walkable and has a great public transit system. Most of all, the GMF crew in Brussels were very good and gave us some wonderful experiences.
Before I tell you about the experiences in Brussels, I have to take a minute to talk about our really great group. There are 14 of us, and we have all really clicked. I am energized by the conversations we have and by the caliber of people involved in this fellowship. I feel like I am part of a group of up and comers, and it is a club of which I am very proud to be a part. I will be in contact with these amazing people forever and I have built a major network.
Anyway, back to Brussels. At last post, I had arrived in Brussels. On Sunday, we took the train to Antwerp, a small city about 35 minutes outside Brussels. It was a cute place, with some interesting history. I had fruit beer and Antwerp stew, which were both surprisingly good. We could not stay long, because a bad storm was coming, so we came back to Brussels and early. We were very tired, but we had a dinner that evening with some MMF alumni and David Rennie, who writes for "The Economist." This definitely perked all of us up! He was great, and told us of his promotion to Political Editor. I've read his work, so this was a big deal for me and for all of us.
Monday we went to NATO, and it felt like being in an alternate reality. It was just as you might think. Lots of diplomats and whatnot. (I say this like I do this everyday, LOL!) We got briefed on some things that I have to be vague about (;-) and we weren't allowed to take pictures, but we did get to eat lunch in the NATO dining room. Very fancy!!! Later, we each had individual professional appointments. Mine was with Luca di Preso, and MMF alum who heads up foreign affairs for Parliament. He's also a lawyer. He is a very elegant and wonderful Italian man whose first comment to me was how much he loved my Southern accent! We had a wonderful meeting, and he gave me some great information and a framework to better understand everything that we are learning. He was so generous with his time and I appreciate it, so Luca, if you're reading this, Grazie Mille! We also had host dinners on Monday and mine was with Zoltan Simon, and MMF alum from 2007. He is a PhD who works for Parliament and his lovely wife Szonja, is a lawyer. They took us to dinner at a really great steakhouse. It was a wonderful night to just relax after all of the things we did on Monday.
On Tuesday, we went to GMF offices for briefings and then to European Parliament to meet with four members of Parliament. It was wonderful to get an up close and personal audience with the lawmakers for the EU. They were very generous and answered all of our questions. We had some free time, so I joined 3 of my teammates for what turned out to be a very cool experience: we did laundry. We stumbled upon a cute little laundromat and the proprietors were like a French farce. One of the workers swore that my teammate Blaine was Barry White, because he said he looked like him (he doesn't). So I told him I was Beyonce. I don't think he bought it! We ended the day with a briefing from Jason Anderson, the head of European Climate and Energy Policy fro WWF. He's an American from California. One thing that you might not realize if you've never spent time outside of the U.S. is how surprisingly comforting it can be to hear a real American accent. I know that sounds silly, but it's true. He was great and we had an interesting discourse on climate change and Louisiana. Of course, it's not a last day in Belgium without some beer, so we had a nice time doing that and having a great dinner.
Our group split this morning for different countries. Some are going to Copenhagen, some to Hamburg, but I won the MMF lotto and am in Amsterdam with four other teammates. I'll try to behave;-) I am at the beginning of this adventure, but so far it has been wonderful. Stay tuned.
Oh, just wanted to share some observations. My gifts from Louisiana (Mardi Gras beads, shirts and Community Coffee) are going over very well. Thanks and much love to Kelly and Sarah!! I am having some of the best food and wine of my life, and I am doing an okay job of not being "overserved" (Emily R. will get a kick out of that one!). I am walking about 5 miles a day and realize that I need to do it more. First to keep it together with all this good food, but also to keep up. I've got a big life ahead, and I must be ready for what's around the corner. I am loving the European lifestyle and am finding new things to incorporate into my life back home. Last, because I am starting to ramble on (I am just exhausted, but in a good way), I am having the most amazing experience of my whole life. Thanks for reading,