Monday, May 28, 2012

The light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter

These past few weeks have been tough. I know memory is selective, but I don't recall ever studying this intensely for exams before. My first two went ok... they were both oral exams which I am not at all accustomed to. We were pummelled by questions from the prof 15 minutes after having received the case we were meant to analyse. Your entire mark boils down to how you perform in those 15 minutes. Talk about inducing utter panic. I have yet to receive my marks for those exams, but following the quizzing session, both profs said they thought I could have done better. Comforting. Thanks. I most recently suffered through my international economics exam (the one for which I hadn't attended half of the classes.) At 6pm on Friday evening we received two questions: one legal and one economic. I don't think I have ever drawn such a stark, white, BLANK upon reading an exam question. We had until 6pm the following day to send our answers in. While everyone in my house was partying in the kitchen (2 of our house mates just had a send off party), I was buried in the basement tackling the law of the WTO. (In particular, the EU's Generalized Preference System and the principle of non-discrimination between trading partners). Not fun. Somehow, despite lack of sleep and waning mental concentration, I managed to pull something together - I figured if I inserted enough economic acronyms into my text it would at least appear that I knew what I was talking about. To reward myself for a traumatizing 24 hours, I headed out to soak up the late evening sun and take in some of the Jazz Festival acts on an outdoor stage nearby. The upside to this whole sordid affair was how happy I felt after having finished it. I could not wipe the smile off my face!
On the subject of grading and evaluation, the Brussels method differs greatly from what I've become used to in Canada. Here, all grades are on 20 - the highest you can actually hope to attain is a 17 and a pass is a 12. That doesn't leave much margin between an A, B, C, or a D. Also, the system is much less anonymous. My profs in Montreal haven't the foggiest idea whose exam they are marking when they correct it. Here, you write your name on your exam and obviously for the oral evaluations the prof knows exactly who you are. Furthermore, everyone in the class finds out how everyone else has performed! I hate sharing my marks let alone finding out everyone else's so that was an unwelcome throwback to high school. All this to say - only two more left to go. Come June 4th, I will be FREE. I cannot wait.
Before you begin to feel too sorry for me, I have been making time for a little bit of fun ;) We had a 4-day weekend in honour of the Ascension so I took off to Lyon. I had forgotten what a beautiful city it is. I stayed with friends I met when I was living there in 2007. Even though I had a lot of studying to do, I spent my breaks going on trips to the market, running along the water, and meeting up with friends. I requested that we have a crêpe dinner like we used to do back in the day.
Day trip to Annecy:
Finally, I am proud to say, I completed my 1/2 marathon yesterday! My goal was to make it past the finish line in less than two hours and my official time was 1:50:08 so I was happy with that. There were bands keeping us motivated along the way and crowds lined up on either side of the path cheering for anyone and everyone. About 30,000 people ran it, so once you hit an up or a downhill you saw the most spectacular sight ahead of you. I was surprised to find that it demanded more mental concentration than physical prowess. You had to focus so hard on not tripping on the crushed water bottles and caps all over the ground or on the feet of the people in front of you who suddenly decided to stop running and walk. I almost fell trying to pass someone in a tunnel. I witnessed a couple of people go down though - it wasn't pretty. I know it sounds cheesy but events such as these really lift my spirit and renew my beliefs in the good of humanity. A mass of people from all over the world running together while being encouraged by strangers - it gives me hope.
After spending the afternoon recovering in bed, I rallied 'round to attend my friend's birthday celebrations - it was a beautiful, warm, summer evening and there was a festive mood in the air. Birthday cupcakes and chocolate-covered strawberries = yum
last night's sunset.
Today we have a public holiday due to the Pentecost (gotta love Belgium and its religious holidays). I am heading to the park with a picnic and my international criminal law notes. Nothing is going to stop me from enjoying this sunshiny day.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Academic ups and downs

This month the light course schedule I had in the first half of the semester has come back to haunt me. Remember way back when in February when I was the taught the first half of my "Law of WTO" course? Well I kept waiting to hear when the next prof would pick up where we left off. Turns out the remainder of the class is scheduled to take place every night this week from 4 to 8pm - the exact same hours that I work. If I don't pass this course I cannot graduate so I somehow have to figure out how to write an exam for which I have only attended half of the classes. If only that were my only challenge - due to the classes that were cancelled/started late in the term/public holidays, this week I have seven extra classes to attend. On top of that, I have an exam (my very first at ULB = eek) all day Friday. I am quite worried about it because I find the format very challenging: we will be given a topic at 9am and will have until 5pm to write a response to the question. The following Monday the prof will meet with each student individually to ask them questions about our written submission as well as the course material in general. All this to say I am feeling quite stressed.
On the upside, I have had some memorable moments at l'ULB these past few weeks. A guest lecturer from Cambridge came to speak to us about the complementarity principle of the International Criminal Court. (The complementarity principle means that the ICC can only try cases that states are unable or unwilling to try themselves). This actually leads to a paradox: because the ICC relies so heavily on cooperation at the state level, in reality, it can only try cases that the states are willing and able to try. Madam Justice (and Vice President) of the European Court of Human Rights, Françoise Tulkens, also dropped by to discuss the influence of extrajudicial elements on the court's decisions. I had a question to ask but of course I had the typical fear that it was a stupid one. In my bumbly French I tried to pose the question as logically as possible and much to my surprise a great hush befell the classroom. The judge didn't know what to say!
The greatest highlight by far, however, was our visit to the Hague. We caught a 6am train there in time to arrive bright and early at the International Criminal Court. It was so cool! After hearing from an intern, we were ushered into the viewing gallery to see first-hand where the trials take place. Absolutely no electronics are allowed in the gallery because there is a 1/2 hour gap between real-time action and when the proceedings are posted online. This is to allow for any names to be eliminated from the record or any other confidential information. We spoke to a lawyer who works in Chambers for a judge and he was recounting that everyone assumes international criminal trials are nail-biting and dramatic when actually, that couldn't be more far from the truth. Due to the fact that every word has to be simultaneously interpreted, there are rules about how fast one can speak. If you ask or answer a question, you have to wait 5 whole seconds for the interpreter to catch up. Once, the accused spoke a language that no interpreter on Earth knew how to speak so one had to be trained from scratch! Such basic factors as language greatly contribute to the glacial pace at which these trials proceed. After a picnic lunch in a park nearby we headed for the International Court of Justice where we heard the pleadings of Colombia regarding a land dispute it is trying to settle with Nicaragua. For some reason it surprised me that the lawyers representing both countries were not nationals of Nicaragua or of Colombia - they were British, Belgian and French. I should have realized that of course, it's like any court case- the parties want to be represented by the top dogs wherever they happen to be from. Another surprise was that the lawyers inserted jokes into their oral arguments. One even quoted Winnie the Pooh at one stage! Some judges cracked a smile while others remained completely stone-faced. It was awesome that we got to meet privately with the lawyers from both sides (separately of course) so they could tell us about what it was really like to argue on behalf of a state. It sounded like a lot of sleepless nights spent in hotel conference rooms, a ton of research, then fingers crossed for the outcome. At the end of our intellectually stimulating day we all shared some tapas at a Chinese restaurant and headed back for Brussels on the train. I was beyond exhausted when we finally arrived at 12:30am but it was definitely worth it.
(outside the ICC)
(outside the ICJ)
Even though it's now May, Spring has yet to arrive. To remind myself that it's on its way I went to see the Royal Palace greenhouses which open for only 3 weeks a year. Other than getting very irritated at the slow walkers in front of me, it was quite a pleasant experience. It was interesting seeing the king's digs (if only from the outside) and venturing into another part of Brussels altogether.
(weirdest flower I saw) The 20K is now less than a month away and I'm still going on my haphazard training runs. I haven't been for a long run in a few weeks since my last one was a bit traumatizing. I got completely lost in the forest and after having run for 1.5 hours I finally spotted a family to ask for directions. When I inquired as to my location, they just kept repeating how far I was from home. Not helpful or comforting! They told me to go back the way I came. I couldn't mentally wrap my head around heading back in the same direction knowing I had 1.5 hours of running ahead of me (thirst and hunger were beginning to kick in - I had only planned on being gone for 1.5 hours total after all). So I hitchhiked on the side of a country road back to civilization. The man who picked me up also happened to be running the 20K. He was rather amused at my predicament. I was not - especially when it still took me an hour to run home from the point where he dropped me off. The only upside I could see to this whole fiasco is that at least I now know I can run over 20k! Even though it's been raining a ton, we still get the occasional burst of sunshine which has rainbows popping up all over the place. My friend took this last week from his office window: