Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Travelogue 778 – November 15
Oliphant’s Ear in Old Stamboul


Baby is putting names to the world. She’s gathering her vocabulary. She’s putting simple phrases together, and with these she narrates what she sees. The words come with urgency. She shouts at me to listen. ‘Papa! Papa! Mama’s standing!’ If I repeat, then the observation is confirmed and she is happy.

We watched ‘Ice Age’ last night. She was very taken with the characters. She pointed in her excessively cute way – eyes wide, leaning forward and finger extended in the way of an admonishing teacher, -- and she named the characters upon every time a new scene opened: Oliphant and Baby and Tiger. She learned ‘Sloth’, but wasn’t too confident with it.

The layers of teaching blur for me here. I’m teaching my college-age students the ‘th’ sound. ‘Bite your tongue’, I shout, and they smile with embarrassment. They know me now; they know I’m going to drill them in pronunciation, no matter how much they squirm. I’ve made my apologies. Adult students enjoy pronunciation drills, but adolescents feel too keenly the shame of having so recently been children.

Baby is experimenting with possessives. ‘Baby’s shoes!’ she shouts until I repeat. The baby she refers to is her little sister. ‘Mama’s shoes! Papa’s shoes!’ Corresponding to this bit of grammar is the discovery of relative size; it offers her another point of leverage in her battle for identity. ‘Too big for baby,’ she points out helpfully, pointing to her shoes and her dress. She sings it. ‘Too big for baby.’ And she swings her head left and right in a slow negation.

We watch her movie. ‘Oliphant’s ears!’ ‘Tiger’s ears!’ Yes, yes, we say, affirming all good things. She finds it fascinating. Her wonder awakens ours. Wonder at all the ears in the world. Wonder at our patience.

Mama and Papa made it to a film recently, and that film featured no sabre-toothed tigers, but instead one heavily bewhiskered Kenneth Branagh, performing as Hercule Poirot. The story is a classic, the famous mystery set on the Orient Express. The glamorous sets and costume were fun. The plot twists amusing, and the performances entertaining. But I found myself surprisingly pulled in by the unexpected pathos. Poirot is portrayed as man exactingly and stubbornly principled. It’s a caricature, but still somehow moving. Murder is an abomination and accounts must be settled.

Spoiler alert! Central to the plot is a murder predating the one in the film, and it’s the murder of a little girl. The murder on the train is avenging her death. For me, this becomes a particularly affecting device, pitching Poirot’s principles against the justice performed against another abomination.

Maybe I’m becoming sentimental, but I was grateful to Mr. Branagh for affirming that morality is more than a dry court case. It’s a struggle in the heart. Since becoming a parent, I’ve been upset by the shows and movies and books in which children are harmed simply to heighten dramatic effect. These are ‘only’ products of fiction, but, as I’ve remarked before, I find something to censure there, when an author has no love for his or her creations. I can’t help but lose faith, no matter how fine a wordsmith he or she may be.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Travelogue 777 – November 7
Side Trip


Three-quarters of a moon hangs over Orion’s shoulder. Maybe it’s less. It’s been waning quickly since the last full moon, a moon that I thought I saw full only yesterday, rising over the city in promise. I regret that I’ve lost touch with the cycles of the night sky. Life in Holland is too busy, and the weather too routinely inclement to feel connected to the lunar phases.

The city lights have washed out much of the heat of the stars. It makes them seem even farther away. The lights have washed out most of the detail among the constellations, but I can still make out the bold outline of the Hunter. I can see a few of the stars of Taurus, which lie in the path of the moon. I see the twin stars of Gemini, and the blazing one of Sirius. I scan quickly for the familiar companions of the North Star, the Bear and the proud queen of Ethiopia. I regret that I don’t get to watch the stars circle on a more regular basis. It reminds me, in fact, of Ethiopia, where I took more time to watch the skies.

Now I’m always on the move. Even this quiet morning, I’m taking in the view of night skies while I walk, already on my way to work. We’ve entered the season in which night intrudes upon the day, draws close to us and becomes familiar again.

The neighbourhood was so silent, I was self-conscious about turning on the lights, as though the incandescence might send an echoing report across the courtyard and wake all those souls dreaming behind the black windows. I held off, and I dressed in the dark. We hold darkness in reverence in the northern latitudes. We feel reluctant to challenge it.

As it happens, I’ve left my bicycle at the central station. The weather has been so unreliable this autumn, and my tolerance for rain so low -- dropping in inverse proportion to the seasons accruing to my body, in fact, accelerating as the Dutch seasons pass, -- that I find myself abandoning the bike here and there for collection later. Here I am, strolling up to the tram station, joining the early commuters converging on the resting trams with all the shuffling, blinking energy of the undead.

The café that stands across from the train station feels like it’s a lone outpost, and its clients like sad refugees. One man waits silently for his order, his head bowed in dejection. Another silently stares at his laptop screen. All the tables are empty. Night stands close to the windows, and only the baristas have the energy to defy it, awake in motion. One whistles ‘Qué Será Será’.

My bike is below the station, where I left it, in the echoing vaults of the bicycle ramp. I unlock it, rescuing it from its cold exile among the hundreds of others stacked like aluminum puppets. I join the stream of cyclists outside, everyone pedaling blindly forward. Light has begun to dawn, and the new day presents itself most dramatically by the river. I arrive there by a route past the Havenziekenhuis, and the spaciousness opening over the water comes as a relief. The wide river meanders east, clearing a course to for sun, which is about to rise.

I follow the river side for half a mile or so, and where the road turns away, I follow. But I do break away, to find some peace. I turn off the busy road and pedal though a park to a quiet bike path that rides along the top of a berm, a grassy strip of piled earth like a dyke, but there is no water below, only the tracks of another tram line. I’m coasting alone along this path, and a moment alone outside is such a rare pleasure in Holland, I refrain from pedaling to prolong the interlude. The parked cars below have thin layers of ice on the windows. There is a low fog hanging over the football pitches in the distance. The sun hasn’t risen but its light teases a rich palette of colours from the sky and earth, the windows and the leaves.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Travelogue 776 – November 1
Property
Part One


Now I’m reading John Galsworthy. It’s another book that straddles the turn of the twentieth century. It was written in 1906, but the story is set in the 1880s. It recounts the decline of an upper-class family in Victorian England, and it’s called ‘The Man of Property’. That seems fitting: my extended meditation on Maugham last month produced a question about ownership. Do we own the artist? Do we own their stories? Do we own our own stories?

The man of property in the book’s title is the middle-aged scion of a wealthy family. Members of the Forsyte family seem to have developed over a hundred years of success a uniquely distilled bourgeois consciousness, a psychological lens that measures all in terms of monetary value and possession. The wife of the man of property is dissatisfied. She acquiesced to the man’s marriage proposal in a moment of weakness. Her values are at variance with his, and he is ill-equipped to understand. He resents her restlessness. There’s a new generation coming of age in London, and they value passion. And so on. You see how the Forsytes are being set up for a fall. I haven’t decided whether the author has any love for his characters. He’s rather sarcastic in his narration of their thoughts and dialogue. I usually have little patience for an unsympathetic narrator or author, but something has kept me reading. I like the author’s language. I appreciate the slow build of suspense, even if it’s all too clear who must be sacrificed as grain to the grinding mill of the plot.

The bourgeoisie are hard to like. Certainly we get that by now, and even Galsworthy’s contemporaries must have been well-versed in the principle. The nineteenth century saw the consolidation of the supremacy of the European bourgeoisie, even as the thought of the period represented one long recoil from bourgeois culture, beginning with a revulsion released in the French Revolution. By the time of Galsworthy’s worthy effort, contempt alone was not novel. The task of authors had evolved by then into capturing something of the inevitability of the fall of the hated class, and the decadence that the fall revealed.

It’s made me wonder who can be said to have filled the void left by the bourgeoisie? The proletariat? Was the twentieth century the century of the masses? Would that be demonstrated by the phenomena of fascist Europe and Stalinist Russia, and by the rise of unruly mob called America?

Apparently, the artists of the nineteenth century had reason to hate the bourgeoisie. I came across this passage in the journals of the Goncourt Brothers, dated 1860. Speaking about the lifestyle of their friend Flaubert, they wrote, ‘This forced bearishness of the nineteenth-century man of letters is a strange phenomenon compared with the worldly life of the eighteenth-century man of letters, a life spent in the midst of society, and riddled with approaches, invitations, and connexions, the life of a Diderot or a Voltaire, whom the society of his time went to see at Ferney, or of lesser men, fashionable authors such as Crébillon fils or Marmontel. Approaches to the writer and interest in him ceased to exist with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the proclamation of equality. The man of letters no longer forms part of society, no longer reigns over it, no longer even enters into it. Of all the men of letters I know, not a single one goes into what is called society.’

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Travelogue 775 – October 24
The Same Street


I remember this guy. Tall and gaunt and stooped, dark-haired and now bearded in a rough way. He’s wearing a red plaid cap with ear flaps, and I don’t think he’s going to take it off today. He’s warming up the espresso machine when I arrive. It’s the start of the day, still night outside, in fact. The weather has taken a sharp turn toward winter. The margin above freezing temperatures is uncomfortably thin. As I stand outside, waiting for the café to open, I relive many Minnesota winters, condensed into that one lonely moment, the sky so vast and void of warmth.

The guy’s colleague lets me in, and she takes my order. The guy tinkers away at the espresso machine. I’ve been around coffee to know this is a sacred ritual to those who love the bean, the calibrating of the Italian machine for its first shot. It requires all his concentration. And if it makes him seem forbidding or gruff, I know better. Once the taste of the coffee is right, and once people start queuing for his delicacy, his manner relaxes. He jokes with the regulars, and he moves to the music. He’s a cheerful man with the face of a Serpico.

When I plan for a trip back to Minnesota, the café drifts into the mind’s eye. And it comes with faces. I actually look forward to seeing these baristas. Of course, it’s a profession with much transience. There was a day when they would have remembered me and asked about Ethiopia. These days, my visits are too far and few between. Faces change. One or two carry forward between two visits; then a different one, one of the new ones, carries forward to the next.

The café doesn’t change. It’s been a remarkably steady quantity. My usual seat doesn’t change, the high table in a corner, beside the brick wall. Once I’m seated, my prospect is the same, the bar and counter to my left, and the row of benches along the wall ahead, leading toward the high windows with their view the avenue outside. Outside, the seasons cycle. I’ve seen that street under snow, under the green leaves of spring, and, as it is now, under the turning leaves of fall.

In the same complex as the café is a bookstore. Since my last visit, the bookstore has traded spaces, moving from a small space around the corner that faces a quiet side street to the larger storefront space next door, facing the big street. And, so the owner tells me, they are planning a second move, north along the same street to a space in the busier neighbourhood by Lake Street, looking for ever more shelves and more traffic. I was encouraging in my words, but I regretted the move. The new space was not as inviting as the old. The used section had shrunk. Apparently, it’s the new books that make for profits and legitimacy. That’s business, and, ultimately, city space is business.

Some cities are instruction in this point, space as commodity, cities like Addis Ababa, where the skyline is dominated by cranes, and whole streets by scaffolding. The landscape is in constant metamorphosis. Neighbourhoods appear, and then they are subjected to renovation before the plaster has dried on the first set of walls. Rotterdam has that feel sometimes, construction popping up with bewildering spontaneity and frequency, overtaking whole city blocks for weeks at a time. Minneapolis, by contrast, has always felt the most reliable of settings. I drive the same street; I feel the rare peace of constancy.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Travelogue 774 – October 22
Red Leaves


There’s colour everywhere. I saw it first from the plane, descending quickly over downtown Minneapolis on Friday afternoon. I could look down over the neighbourhoods of the city, and each had its sprinkling of red treetops like small scarlet explosions, maple trees in high autumnal bloom. On the ground, the colours are even richer. The residential streets, so mundane in any other season, are this week like galleries of rare art, or like small church halls lit by the sun through its stained-glass windows. I had forgotten to expect this, preparing for my trip to Minnesota. I was preoccupied, and so the bookings all took place in a vacuum. The calendar was a stark grid without associations. I arrived, and it was autumn.

I took a break yesterday to run. The quiet streets in the quiet neighbourhoods, each with its canopy of turning leaves, became a private running course. I followed each direction for six blocks or so; I didn’t have much time. The peace of the afternoon was penetrating, entering my lungs with the chill, weirdly calming and disorienting at the same time. My current life, with family at home and crowds in the streets of Rotterdam, had made solitude unfamiliar. All this beauty at hand and I was alone with it.

It’s my second full day here, and I’ve seen two or three of the region’s seasons. It was summer on Friday. The sun was out, and I had to stow my jacket and long-sleeves in my bag as I navigated the town on bus and light rail. Saturday was gloomy autumn. The clouds were heavy. Chilly showers started and stopped. I shivered in the coffee shops. This morning, the skies are lighter but there is a deeper chill in the air, a crisp quality that is so familiar to me, even though I’ve lived abroad for years. It’s the feeling of winter coming. And it’s not the sense of dread you might expect, but a feeling of anticipation. You look into the skies for the first snow.

It’s Sunday morning and the café is very busy. There are kids and families and old regulars. It’s a comfort. I know that when I walk outside, the street will provide a stark contrast. The pavements will be empty, the roads silent except for the sound of passing cars. That’s how this town is, and it’s a small dose of culture shock for me, every time I visit. The lack of pedestrians makes the city seem desolate.

This was my town once. One minute, I recognize it, coasting down Hiawatha without a thought, navigating the city effortlessly, and noting familiar sights as though I saw them daily. Then the sensation turns quickly into wonder. The leaves have turned red again. And I never saw them green, not this year’s growth. Is it possible these leaves were never green? Or perhaps the green leaves were a different set, and the red ones have just taken their place.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Travelogue 773 – October 10
The Scales


So we leave Somerset Maugham and his anti-hero in the shadow of their shadows. Maugham scented archetype, and went in pursuit. Shadows are elusive game, and the author can be excused for losing track of his motives. Was it a search for meaning or just a quest to tame nature? In any case, the story is done.

Baby has become a story-teller. Her language is incomplete. She has some of our words, and she has words of her own. When she is moved to tell a story, she mixes them readily. She doesn’t hesitate. I admire her her fluency. She tells stories about what happens around the house, about blowing bubbles, about the time her little sister took a fall and bumped her head. She tells about her visit to the zwembad. She stands in front of me with wide eyes. She recounts how she jumped into the water, and she performs a little jump to illustrate. She tells me how surprised she was when she ducked her head under the water. She tells me how she learned how to kick. When she runs out of things to say, she tilts her head to one side and she purses her lips. She starts over. And I am so honoured that she wants to share with papa.

We search for meaning, and we tell stories. One day, about a month ago, I spotted a rainbow. It stretched over my apartment complex, and it stopped me in my tracks. The rainbow was a messenger for the ancient Greeks. I wait for the message.

I’ll tell a story I heard once. A friend told a group of us about his search for meaning, and how it led to the libraries. He was seduced by the idea of all that knowledge on the shelves. He read and read. But the more he read, the more disillusioned he became. He found the knowledge unsatisfying. Looking at the shelves again, he saw false comfort. Abundance had become famine and falsehood. He turned to spirituality and said he saw in death and in the other world the abundance and hope he had initially seen on the shelves of the libraries.

Once I realized how different my friend and I were, the story became a touchstone. I saw how there were two types of passion. There’s the passion that sees in the world a desert, and there is a passion that sees fertile valleys. Each view inspires a kind of exaltation, and each can inspire its own species of depression.

One question has occupied me for a long time: how do you take it all in? It’s one question with many variations: How do you hold everything? How do you love it? How do you appreciate it? I appropriate the word, ‘appreciate’, and I make it carry more than bland gratitude. It has to mean some deep evaluation of its object.

My parallel to the story of my friend would take longer to tell. It would take a lifetime. It would be the story of each book in succession, none of them the secret to all knowledge, but each a piece.

So one day, about a month ago, I spotted a rainbow. It hung over my apartment complex. It stopped me in my tracks. There was no message, but it was beautiful nonetheless. It hung above us, iridescent, insubstantial, colour made of dew. It was made of nothing but light, but it was real as rain.

I tell the story in much the way that Baby might, with some made-up words, halting and searching, pouting in thought, pouting in the slow trickle of thoughts, wishing I could say more while I have papa’s attention.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Travelogue 772 – October 3
Artist for the Parlour


I’m left with a few final observations about Mr. Maugham’s ‘The Moon and Sixpence’. Despite the darker edge to my impressions after this latter-day reading, impressions that never would have occurred to me in sunny youth, I enjoyed the visit to the Maugham’s charming old-world style. It’s been a pleasant reminiscence. If there is disappointment, it’s in the dry fact of reminiscence itself. I may have no further crack at the old book, and that’s a factor in the value of art that we often neglect to calculate. Who has time to make that calculation, let alone re-visit all the great reads of a lifetime?

Almost a third of the narrator’s tale in ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ recounts his research after the painter has already died, specifically on a chance trip to Tahiti. (Here’s a glimpse into Maugham’s charmed life, that he should imagine a chance trip to Tahiti as plausible.) He encounters people who knew the artist, and he pieces together the last few years of his life, a story that makes of his raw material – the life of Gauguin – something more picturesque and morally satisfying. Strickland, Gauguin’s fictional stand-in, is redeemed by love and then is taken by a disease appropriately horrific, leprosy. It’s a demise gauged to show Nature’s capacity for cruelty, commensurate to Strickland’s own penchant for the primitive. There were rumours that Gauguin died of leprosy, but it’s more likely to have been something more prosaic, perhaps syphilis, a common fate of artists and writers in the nineteenth century. And the love in Gauguin’s last days? More likely to have been a series of tawdry and abusive affairs.

Interestingly, the narrator discovers one of his sources in Tahiti while searching for a black pearl. This detail, revealed once and in passing, seems very revealing. The narrator would like to set himself apart from the collectors circling like buzzards over the corpse of the great painter. He offers several stories about the small fortunes made off Strickland’s work, about the jaded opportunism of the European arts market. He rather too casually lets slip that he is in the market for a black pearl to take home, dark genius condensed into a very portable state. But it’s too expensive.

Much has been said about art in bourgeois Europe, its role as object and collectible. The narrator has inserted himself into a different market, one more refined and high-stakes, the market for artists and their souls. This grows into quite a lucrative market in the twentieth century. Whether Maugham intended this final twist or not, I cannot say. If he set this up consciously, lens upon lens, Gauguin as refracted through public distortions of his own myth-making, as interpreted by a narrator with mixed motives of his own, then hats off to him. Playing with this many layers takes a certain type of genius, and that achievement would indeed make ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ a great satirical work.

But I’m guessing that the author’s intentions, if they matter at all, were more modest. I would say they more or less reflect the narrator’s, and reflect a real fascination. The book has the feel of a Jungian quest, a shadowy pursuit of archetypes, doomed and, finally, significant in its failure. The narrator declares himself content with every polished sentence, and yet there is too much lost in the end to allow that. The English imperturbability is strained.