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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Monday, July 11, 2005

Au Revoir, Europe

It’s funny how much you can fit into one month. It seems like a long, long time ago that I touched down in Heathrow to begin my European adventure. After a month of moving from city to city and trying to squeeze in classes, visits to international organizations, sightseeing, and partying, I need time to recover, and so the next month, which I’ll spend in Philly, will be a welcome break before returning to L.A.

I realized yesterday, as I wandered the streets of Didsbury Village in Manchester, that I’m currently spending 24 hours on my own, without anyone to consult or meet, for the first time in a long time. Now, as I head home to the U.S., I’m looking forward immensely to seeing the smiling faces of my family and friends, but at the same time, I enjoyed the last 24 hours as a change of pace from the frenetic “Be downstairs at 9 a.m. to catch the metro to UNESCO,” “Meet at the statue of the Winged Victory of something I can’t pronounce,” “Last call is in five minutes, here’s five pounds, buy me another beer,” and “We are not hanging out with those girls again after tonight.” Instead, I walked at my own pace, found a nice Italian restaurant I wanted to go to, ate there without worrying what anyone else thought about the place, enjoyed a delicious mushroom risotto and a big glass of Pinot Grigio, and bought an ice cream bar on the way back to the hotel. Then I watched online as the Phillies came back and beat the Nationals in extra innings. It was relaxing.

The final week of the trip, in Geneva, was very different from the other cities we visited. Although it’s a beautiful city, there’s nothing to do there unless you’re there on business. The business end, we handled – an alphabet soup of six visits in the first three days there (WTO, ICRC, OHCHR, ILO, UNHCR, IOM), followed by a couple days of studying for the exam on Saturday. We didn’t sightsee much, unless you count a Ron Burgundy-esque cannonball into chilly Lake Geneva and a stop at the United Nations bookshop.

What we did visit were the bars in Geneva and a hole-in-the-wall Lebanese restaurant near our hotel that served the only inexpensive food in the city aside from McDonald’s (I had a “Royal Cheese” at the one in Paris) and Burger King (it is called a Whopper in Europe).

Since the most memorable experience I had in Geneva was a three-team race to finish a 10-liter column of beer (that three-liter giraffe seems so quaint now), and the times I spent in Geneva weren’t spent seeing tourist spots, I think I’ll just offer some overall impressions of the trip.

Watching a group of people who didn’t know each other sort itself out over the course of a month is fascinating. About 2/3 of the group all went to the same school, but the 1/3 of us who didn’t quickly fell into our own cliques, each of which had their own set of nicknames for each other and plenty of other people in the program. My group of five friends began calling ourselves the G5 (like the G8 – get it?), and our list of nicknames for various people was a long one (New Guy, Lebanese James Bond, Mystery Girl, the Meatheads, Beta Version, Dominator/Modulator, Soul Patch, Bodyguard, Yasser Arafat’s Daughter, Ked, J. Crew, Pop The Collar, Russian Whore, Russian Porn King, and so on – and if you’re reading this and you think one of these may be you, it’s probably not). It didn’t take more than a week for the groups to form, friendships to establish themselves, and dislikes, both rational and irrational, to take shape.

I also got a pretty good look at international organizations, and, with a few exceptions, most of them are enormous buildings of red tape. They overlap, have scores of subdivisions and committees, establish themselves in too many locations in groups that are too large, and often times can’t even enforce anything they actually do produce. The most effective ones seem to be the ones that are more or less independent of politics – the International Committee of the Red Cross and the International Chamber of Commerce Court of Arbitration, for example. The ICRC is actually out in the world making a difference in regions wracked with violence and hate. The ICC Court of Arbitration provides a more efficient forum for dispute resolution than the legal systems of most countries. Compare that to an organization such as the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which, to my understanding, takes about a year to publicly declare that a human rights violation has occurred – and then can’t do anything about it other than to wag a finger and say, “Bad country! Don’t do it again!”

I was often reminded of an exchange from Clue: The Movie between Wadsworth and Professor Plum:

Wadsworth: Professor Plum, you were once a professor of psychiatry specializing in helping paranoid and homicidal lunatics suffering from delusions of grandeur.
Professor Plum: Yes, but now I work for the United Nations.
Wadsworth: Then your work has not changed.

Another thing I learned – or rather, a belief I already held that was reinforced – was that an engaging speaker is invaluable in a presentation. When we visited the ICRC, or the UN High Commission for Refugees, for instance, we had speakers who had served in Africa working in extremely awful conditions, and they were articulate and held the class’s attention. We came away from those presentations fascinated (or at least I did). On the other hand, at the ILO, we heard one of their press officers speak. We figured he would be an excellent presenter, since his job is to deal with the media. Wrong. The guy was European anesthesia. After he was done his presentation, most of the class was looking forward to leaving, and when the 15 percent that didn’t fall asleep started asking questions, the rest of us began glaring menacingly around the room to try to keep more questions from being asked. The guy was long-winded, spoke softly, and stood in the middle of the room and faced only half of the class.

Spending a month interacting with all kinds of people really made me appreciate genuinely friendly people. A few of the people I met from my group fall into that category. So do some people who I randomly met along the way – the cabbie who picked me up from the hotel this morning, for instance (he knew all about baseball from watching ESPN’s Wednesday and Sunday night broadcasts on satellite, which made me feel like my life has had a minor overseas impact). There also were the people who ran the cheap restaurants which we ended up frequenting – they were often immigrants, and I wondered if that had anything to do with it. In France, I learned that their culture is big on polite “bonjours,” “mercis,” and “au revoirs.” If you don’t go through the pleasantries, you won’t get nice treatment in return. It’s different from the States, where people are in a hurry – think about Geno’s Steaks, where you go up to the counter and use a shortened form of what you want to order (“provolone wit raw”). If you went there and said, “Good evening. Provolone wit raw, please. Thank you,” I think you’d get funny looks. But I might try it. I kind of liked being wished a good evening when I walked up to a counter. It’s a nice touch you don’t get at home. A smile and a hello go a long way.

I wish I could say that I learned something about myself, but instead, everything I’ve believed about myself was merely reinforced. I more or less like myself, though, so I’ll take that as a good thing.

I’ve gone more than a month at a time without seeing my family and friends before, but when you’re in a foreign country, it makes you miss familiar faces even more. So I’m excited about coming out of the international terminal and seeing my dad waiting for me in the crowd. My bags are also heavy, so I could use the help carrying them.

Well, one of the movies available to watch on my flight right now is Hotel Rwanda, so I’m going to use my newfound knowledge from the UNHCR and check that film out.

And so ends another chapter in the life. Many thanks to my mom and dad, who made it all possible. Your generosity and support is invaluable.


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