Thursday, December 14, 2017

Travelogue 782 – December 14
The Blizzard

There remain a few vestiges of snowmen, much reduced globes of snow, just the bases of the sculptures assembled by exhilarated families during those two days of snowfall, slowly wasting away now in corners of the courtyard of the apartment complex. In the darkness of pre-dawn, they are mysterious patches of light, glowing with an elfin spirit of deep winter.

If Rotterdammers were once equipped to handle snow, they have lost it during a generation of climate change. Snow now seems to be a once- or twice-per-year phenomenon that consists of a light dusting, children quickly running outdoors to run in circles, look up at the sky, collect snowflakes on their tongues. If an inch falls they frantically collect as much as possible before melt starts, making anaemic snowballs and snowmen.

But this Sunday, it looked like Minnesota here. The snowfall was thick and constant. It left several inches on the ground. The next day, it snowed again. I haven’t seen this type of accumulation before in Rotterdam. The city was overcome. By Monday afternoon, most institutions had thrown in the towel. My school closed at 2pm.

There were no snow ploughs to see. There was very little salt thrown down. Before the first inch had accumulated, Minneapolis would have resounded with the scrape of massive ploughs against the asphalt and the crunch of salt underfoot. Not here. Once the snow turned to rain on Tuesday, the pavements became a lumpy mess of slick and hardened snow. People skated and crept forward toward their transit stations.

The date of our youngest’s first birthday party fell on the first day of snowfall, and by the hour guests were due to arrive the snow swirled outside the windows like another curtain, a kinetic screen of white and silent motion. Our intrepid guests did arrive, stamping feet at the door, folding umbrellas, sniffling and shaking. We did our best to warm them up right away, serving tea and sweets. The girls did their best to entertain. Big sister ran and danced. Once shy with strangers, she has developed a new tendency to ham it up. She performs her new ballet moves and waits for applause.

The birthday girl, by contrast, was peaceful as a judge, surveying the festivities with mild curiosity. She’s awfully cute, this little one-year-old, but there is something of the scientist to her at this age. She walks ceaselessly around the downstairs, picking things up and examining them. She smiles often, but rarely laughs. She plays no games. Her one passion is her big sister, whom she watches with devotion.

Our intrepid guests stayed a while, left gifts, and ventured back out into the weather, our gratitude trailing after them. It was so kind of them to brave the weather that official Holland had chosen to ignore. Fortunately, the snowfall had slowed by the time they left. Down in the courtyard, the resident children were turning circles of wonder, looking up in the sky, collecting snowflakes on their tongues.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Travelogue 781 – December 4
The Season

Tomorrow is Sinter Klaas. This is a Dutch holiday that celebrates Old Saint Nick on his own day, separate from Christmas. In a year in which even Christmas can generate who-cares controversy in my home country – whether saying or not saying ‘Merry Christmas’ is more offensive – this holiday continues to spark real controversy in Holland. The reason is Sinter Klaas’s little buddy, Zwarte Piet, a diminutive black servant in seventeenth-century gear, who clowns around at the old man’s side. During the holiday season, it’s not unusual to encounter people in black-face, dressed up for children’s events or parties. It can be startling at first.

Not too surprisingly, Dutch people of colour feel uncomfortable with this tradition. More surprisingly, lots of white Dutch seem very defensive. There have been efforts to soften the tradition – frame the black-face as soot from the chimneys, or propose a multi-colour Piet, which I think is more fun – but old-style Dutch nationalists insist that Black Pete must be black as Al Jolson or else the foundations of the nation might truly be shaken. I try to avoid these topics in polite conversation. I find it hard to know how exactly to respond to nonsense as doctrine. It’s not my country yet, and when I’m confronted with sentiments about Zwarte Piet, I simply nod like a psychotherapist.

Aside from the little black elf, Sinter Klaas is a great holiday for the children, and if I were organised enough to celebrate anything at this time of year – when, often as not, I’m horribly sick and staggering under piles of corrections from school, - Sinter Klaas it would be. But, sad parent always caught unprepared by the calendar, I have nothing. Instead, Mama and I have been preoccupied with the second baby’s birthday, which occurs a few days after Sinter Klaas, and now always will. I foresee perennial issues. But please, I ask the dull winter skies, just let me get through this first year.

We did manage to take Baby to her first ballet lesson. She has found inspiration from the cartoon ballerina, Angelina the mouse, and she practices turns and foot positions constantly, often looking for our applause. So it is we found ourselves in the ballet studio on Sunday, among a dozen other families. We struggled to keep up with the Dutch of the instructor, and found ourselves alarmed to find out that, during this trial lesson, one parent was invited to participate with the child. Menna quickly withdrew from the field. I stayed. Because I love my daughter profoundly, I stayed, and yes, I turned and flexed my toes and pranced around with her, and with the dozen other little girls, in front of a wall of mirrors, sweating profusely because in the humid atmosphere of the studio. Baby was elated. She couldn’t decide which was more fascinating, the elegant instructor telling stories and demonstrating simple routines, or the other girls, some of whom could not focus at all on the lesson. In the end, she was a wonderful student, showing incredible skill and grace. That is said with all the objectivity of a dad who danced ballet with his baby girl.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Travelogue 780 – November 27
Part Two

Suddenly I wake up with a cold. I call into work sick, and I stay home, dosing and, in between dreams, watching the clouds scud overhead, measuring the splash of rain on the windows. I’m dreaming, as I often do, of absent friends. (They might be saying, ‘You are the one who is absent. You moved away.’) I dream of meetings, and there are so many decisions being made. Everyone is proud. I’m traveling again. I’m staying in rooms that will not stay still. Outside are green hills. When I’m awake, I check the windows, spotted with rain. I worry about my family catching this cold. I imagine Baby’s new possessiveness: ‘Papa’s cold; Baby’s cold.’

My sick book is a collection of mysteries by Philip Kerr, set in late-30s Berlin. The city is in the grip of the Nazis, and the hero is a detective who has to navigate a landscape controlled by the Gestapo and Heydrich’s security forces. He’s tough and sardonic, smokes too much. He takes his lumps at the hands of the bad guys, but still prevails. He’s hard as mails but sensitive, etc. In other words, everything the detective hero should be. He hates the Nazis and doesn’t hide it, but he doesn’t try to fight them. The author takes every opportunity to bring to life the brutality and corruption of the Nazi regime.

It’s hard to believe that only forty years separate the worlds in my dual-track reading. I’ve started the second of Galsworthy’s books about a London family of means in the 1890s. Could the Victorians have imagined a time like Hitler’s, and so close at hand? In their time, royalty and nobility still appeared at the helm of societies across Europe, playing with their alliances, their cavalries, and their navies in preparation for the war that would be their undoing.

The oldest generation in Galsworthy’s fictional family has largely moved on. The second book opens with reference to several funerals. These serve as portents, in a work of fiction replete with portents, of the decline to come. The books are dismal with their continual foreshadowing of decline. It occurs to me there is nothing more modern than this gloomy narcissism with which the bourgeoisie narrates its own imminent death. This and the counterpoised roar of those declaring the new thousand-year regime, whichever fleeting one it may be. Neither voice ever seems to make true its prophecy, nor ever to waver in its unappealing song.

The question of the bourgeoisie and its place in history is still a fascinating one. This sturdy, grey creation of medieval cities and commerce, grown to be the definition of modernity, the property-owning middle class, it survives, despite some of the worst press since the Mongols, despite unreserved contumely from above and below, and despite a long, public and self-indulgent contempt for self.

Have we ever figured out what made them so unbearable? Mussolini condemned their ‘social games, five o'clock tea, vacations, compassion for Jews, preference for armchairs, desire for compromise, desire for money’. These are intriguing polemics to deploy, as though perhaps Tolkien’s hobbits were the army of the Antichrist. And yet, it’s no less than history.

I turn again to the Goncourt brothers, who committed to paper their artist’s complaint against the bourgeoisie of Paris as early as 1860. ‘When society had a hierarchy of orders,’ they wrote, ‘the nobleman, deeply conscious and proud of his rank, did not feel jealous of the man of letters; he conversed with him on familiar terms, because talent did not encroach on his rank or offend his vanity. … A man of letters was a rare bird, whose intelligence and verve tickled delicate, sophisticated minds. Easy-going hospitality, a friendly welcome, flattering attentions did not strike eighteenth-century society as too high a price to pay for the pleasure of a writer’s company.

‘But the bourgeoisie stopped all that. The grand passion of the bourgeoisie is equality. The man of letters offends it because a man of letters is better known than a bourgeois. He arouses a hidden rancour, a secret jealousy. Moreover, the bourgeoisie, an enormous family of active people, doing business and making children, has no need of intellectual discourse: it is satisfied with the newspaper.’

Monday, November 20, 2017

Travelogue 779 – November 20
The Victims of Our Fictions

We took our youngest to the doctor yesterday. It was nothing serious. She’s so eager for life, little one. She started walking absurdly early, and now she walks nearly all day, waddling round in circles, picking up things and handing them to us with a big smile made achingly cute by her one small tooth. She walks so much, she has developed a curve in her small legs, like a tiny cowgirl. The doctor says it’s nothing to worry about. But that’s what we do. It’s virtual definition. We worry. And little one is so eager for life.

I leave so early in the morning, it’s dark. All our windows are dark. I lock the door behind, double-locking it as I turn the key. Facing outward, I breathe in the morning air with child-like eagerness, but, looking back, I worry. I check the door again.

These children are precious things. It’s society’s job to protect them. And still, as I’ve noted, I see imagined children put in harm’s way with disturbing consistency by our writers for TV and film. I can think of half a dozen dramas I’ve seen lately that had threats or harm to children as a central device.

My wife is furious. We’ve made it to the tenth episode in this new series, and things have taken a turn that she didn’t appreciate. The story begins with a child murder, and moves forward from there, every subsequent action a reference to the original murder. The writers cleverly manipulate their audience, wrenching our sympathies first one way and then another. By the end of the season, we are – spoiler alert – tempted to side with the murderer in his struggle with the father, who has become something of a monster. My wife is furious that the father is so relentless. I have to remind her that his boy had been shot and killed.

The star of the series is one of my favourites, Tim Roth. He brings to the role both the blunt force and the ambivalence that make it continually fascinating. One is never quite sure what he is capable of.

Still, it’s the innocent who must suffer, even in fiction, some suffering at the hands of their own callous and mercenary creators. Some suffer at the hands of more delicate creators. I’m finishing the first in the Forsyte series of novels by Galsworthy, the book I’ve written about before, the first in his study of the slow decline of the Victorian bourgeoisie. It’s an oddly cool narrative, built though it is around a passionate extramarital affair. The point of view is removed, placed among family and never with the lovers, often among the eldest generation of the family, who are the ones who built the family fortune. And here too, -- spoiler alert -- a character must finally be done away with, and discarded rather pointlessly, having been maintained at such a distance already by the narrator. It’s less tragedy than riddle. This character was no child anymore, but young.

An interesting, and possibly redeeming, effect is created by the affection of the eldest Forsyte for his small grandchildren, some of the only warmth in the novel. It’s a kind of meeting of innocence, the natural innocence of the children drawing from the old man a vestigial complement. The grandfather, led thus into a purer state, intervenes finally in a touching way, during a long epilogue to the novel, which the author calls an ‘interlude’. It’s actually a beautiful piece, and admittedly not possible without the long and cynical tale of the novel proper.

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
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.’