“Je me sens comme une vraie hollandaise!” I exclaim to my landlady as I walk through the door on Wednesday, soaked in rain. We communicate in French, and I’m telling her that I feel Dutch because I rode my bike home in the rain, like the parents who pile their toddlers into seats on the front and back of their bicycles in the January drizzle. The kids in the seats on the bikes jiggle, happy and relaxed as the tires hit cobblestones, and squint their eyes fiercely in the weather. Nine-year-olds careen around corners in the bike lanes, leaving school with their backpacks, which bounce on their backs as they pedal. Friends chatter as they mosey down a quiet street alongside each other, their wheels in rhythm. Intrepid women in skirts and heels head through the elements, like makeup doesn’t run. They will arrive at their destination, as I now do, pink-cheeked and wind-swept.
This is the charm of a world built around bikes: Riding in the rain and in the soft mornings.
Here, in winter, when it’s not raining, the sun rises slowly and late, climbing to hang orange on the clouds, long after I’ve woken up and gotten ready in the dark. I’ve never seen so many sunrises. Once, on my way to work, I pulled my bike over in the park and sat back on my seat to watch the light stretch on the mist-haze in the trees and over the fields. An older woman smiled at me, as I noticed her, looking at me, looking at the sunrise, over the field. She said something to me in Dutch, and I replied in English, “It’s beautiful.” She smiled again, and I nodded. I reluctantly pushed off, pedaled anew. I left the park, crossed a busy street, and forged down a quiet lane.
A woman was walking out to feed her horses. She called good morning to me, and I called back a twisted Dutch-English version of the greeting. I still can’t say the G’s right, but I’m working on it. I once sang the days of the week to myself in Dutch, in the morning, to pass the time as I rode. It helps me practice the G’s. Maandag, dinsdag, woensdag, donderdag, vrijdag, zaterdag, zondag. I learned how to say thank you, first.
I walk my bike into the bike lot beside the court, and a coworker, who also just arrived, waits for me along the rows of wheels and handlebars as I click the lock and grab my purse. We chatter as we go through security about the anti-Trump protests, pass the line at the coffee bar, scan our IDs, and place our hands on the palm reader before we arrive at the elevator that takes us up Tower D, Chambers. My co-worker is German, and he is saying American politics is a reality show, and I am describing the chants shouted on the long green at Malieveld outside the train station. Muslim rights are human rights.
I bike rode there the day before with my two office mates to stand in the crowds, and my eyes filled with tears at the sight of solidarity, the strength of people believing in a world more inclusive, more diverse. “Refugees are welcome here.”
At the court in Tower D, we make coffee, and I dress in robes and head to the courtroom, where we listen to witnesses of war crimes and crimes against humanity. This witness is from Uganda, and I listen to the soft phrases he says in Acholi before the interpreter kicks in and drowns out the sound of his dialect. The transcript on the screen hurries through testimony. At 1pm, we break for lunch.
The cafeteria is filled with languages: a group of women behind me are speaking French, my friend in the Registry stops to chatter in Arabic with two people from Lebanon and Egypt. I sit with my office mates from Australia and New Zealand; our lunch routine includes a smattering of different interns, who we find and push our trays beside, an American, a Swede, a Scott, an Indian, a Columbian, a Canadian, a Brit. A French friend, whose parents are Syrian, calls hello when I pass her table. A South Korean judge, who is a visiting professional, tells me about her work in her home country.
The conversations are often bright, sometimes serious. We talk about dating, careers, and identity. We debate colonialism and the purpose of the ICC. We laugh. We say goodbye to interns who are phasing out and hello to new ones. “How long are you here for?” We all belong temporarily.
I start taking French lessons from a Parisian. On the weekends, I crowd with new friends into bad karaoke bars and small apartments. I say I am from New York. When I bike ride home, I put in my headphones on and start my country music playlist, which sounds like growing up in North Carolina or mucking stalls in a stable in Maine.
The canals wrinkle in the wind. The ducks leave small wakes behind them, paddling under the bridges I soar over, as I crisscross the quiet of The Hague and its suburbs. There’s a windmill on my way home. I go through tunnels painted with murals. Yellow trains hum past each other on their way to Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Centraal. I cut across tram tracks, a light on my handlebars. The moon comes up. The stars breathe in the cool night.
When you are rootless, you belong everywhere. I feel at home in the stretches of this flat Dutch city where the ducks walk on the ponds when the ponds freeze and where I watch the sunrises in the morning through the break in the trees in the park.