Friday, June 02, 2017

Travelogue 756 – June 2
City Steeples
Part Two


The most recognizable landmark in Copenhagen’s Latin Quarter might be the round tower. Another project by the great Danish king Christian IV, the tower was built to be an astronomical observatory. It was completed in 1642, and serve as an observatory until the nineteenth century. It’s squeezed in among the busy streets and university buildings, a beautiful specimen of the glory years of old King Christian.

I admired the tower during my meandering tour of the district, but I didn’t know I could make the climb. It was a nice bit of good fortune that I found the tower open one evening, after the climbing theme had clearly emerged for this trip.

I’m cycling across town, and I’m circling under the tower, when I see the door open for a group of uncertain tourists. I shrug and stop. Their uncertainty works to galvanize me. I pay for the ticket, and it’s not much. It’s a worthy stop, after all, ascending one more height in steeple-happy Copenhagen. It’s a worthy stop, if only for the fun of running up the circling ramp that takes you up to the top, best done on a summer evening with a pint of good beer rising to your head and feeding an exhilarating dizziness.

Memorable are several stops on the way up. There is the window niche near the top, where you look out over the peak of the tiled roof of the old church that adjoins the tower, and over the city beyond that. Nearby, there is the small chamber with a floor of glass, in which you can look down the entire depth of the central core of the tower, the central column you’ve been circling on the ramp. The tower is an observatory, but I never saw any stars, even the cartoon stars of exertion. The tower isn’t really so high. The view from the top was enjoyable was not overwhelming.

A better view of Copenhagen comes with the spontaneous climb up another tower. This one is over in Christianshavn, the neighbourhood I visited on my first day, the city’s settlement on the other island in the harbour, in the waters between the big islands of Zealand and Amager. Here, not far from the café where I stopped for warmth on my first day, the Church of Our Saviour rises above the neighbourhood of canals built to mimic Amsterdam. This church (and the neighbourhood) also date back to the busy reign of Christian IV, though the majority of the construction happened after his passing. The steeple I climbed wasn’t finished until the middle of the next century. The steeple was built to a daring helix design, with an external staircase turning anticlockwise. The direction of the stairway apparently fueled speculation about the orthodoxy of the architect. The seventeenth century was fond of its demons, and artists seem as vulnerable as children in the lore of the times.

It’s a beautiful day, and there is a line to climb the stairs. We have to climb all the way from ground level, a total of four hundred steps. Initially, we are climbing up a tight internal staircase, steep wooden steps originally the territory of lonely sacristans. We pass by caged little niches like small neighbourhood attics, where pieces lie in positions of neglect, plaster angels and church bells.

Then we are outside, climbing the final hundred fifty steps, steps that narrow as we approach the gilded globe at the top. The winds are blowing, and all that stands between us and flight is the small gilded railing. We stand close to that railing to let people pass on their way down. I’m surprised by the nonchalance of parents letting their children run ahead up the tight spiral.

It’s exhilarating. There’s a wonderful view of the city and harbor. I stand a while at each corner of the compass, letting people squeeze past. Fortunately, the temperatures have risen considerably since my first day. Finally, I pull out the camera. I ask someone to take my picture, profiled against the free sky and Copenhagen’s horizon, my hair blowing in the persistent wind.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Travelogue 755 – June 1
City Steeples
Part One


The spokes are turning, and I’m still humming the song from ‘Joshua Tree’. I can’t remember where I picked it up, but I haven’t been able to let it go. And I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. The refrain seems appropriate somehow to long bicycle journeys in new cities. I’m perpetually on the lookout for something, a pleasant cafe, the perfect photo, a bathroom. It’s a restless profession, tourism. Human and on vacation: biology, curiosity and the appetites all vie for attention, and none are set aside with complacency.

‘Can’t get no satisfaction,’ the 60s generation famously sang. It was a call to action. By the 80s, the anthem had softened into a wistful and wise ‘still haven’t found’. Relate this to travel – and life is travel: we never quite recover from our first trips, the highs and the disappointments. Some of us perennially chase the highs. Some of us give up travel, in pouting surrender to the disappointments.

I’m still cycling. Even after the cold start on my first day, I’m still on the bike. Cycling really is the best way to see a new city. You are free to meander and stop anywhere, which is especially useful when the guide books or sites recommend an area of the city, as opposed to single sights. There is the Latin Quarter in Copenhagen, for example, ‘Latin’ for its association with the medieval university. It’s fabled to be colourful and eclectic, medieval and modern, full of cute cafes and shops. Fabled and true: general recommendations leave one unsure how to capture the place. Have I seen the most colourful and chic cafe, or is that hidden over on the next block? Shall I check? When do I know I’ve seen it all?

I have seen a good slice of it. I’ve pedalled along a number of quiet streets adorned with colourful old houses. I’ve stopped in a few cafes with character. I’ve found a bar-in-bookstore that feels like a university study hall. I’ve stopped in the fifteenth-century St. Peter’s church, a pretty church in a picturesque, walled-off compound. The original church interior was lost in a fire, but interesting is the old Dutch painting of the sixteenth-century leaders of the Protestant movement. The church became German Lutheran during the seventeenth century, and was a centre for the Germans in the city until the nineteenth century, when a unified Germany became a threat to Denmark.

The church building has a striking steeple. Church towers in Copenhagen are unique. They spiral and they rise in intriguing elaborated sections, sometimes incorporating gilded spheres like shiny ball bearings set in a ring and holding up the rest.

The church-steeple tour of Copenhagen will eventually lead you to Slotsholmen, the privileged little island in the harbour, separated from the city only by canals now, the site of the city’s first fortress, and where the centre of Danish government has resided for centuries. Christiansborg Palace has another distinctive steeple, with three crowns and a set of those ubiquitous revolving golden spheres. Slotsholmen has another, far more intriguing tower, within sight of the palace. This one rises above the seventeenth-century Danish bourse, a steeple made of the intertwining tails of four dragons.

It’s an occasion for climbing heights and plumbing the depths, this trip to the flat capital of a flat land. My hosts have recommended climbing the tower at the Christiansborg Palace for a magnificent view of the city. I stand in a line a while, but I lose patience. Instead, I go the other direction. Underneath the palace, as it happens, are ruins form the first two fortresses built on this site, discovered in the beginning of the twentieth century. The first was built by the warrior bishop Absalon in the twelfth century. The second was built several centuries later, after the jealous lords of the Hanseatic League torched the first one. Soon afterward, in the fifteenth century, the castle became the principal residence of Danish kings.

So there in the basement of the kings, tourists can amble among the remains of the stone walls of the city’s first buildings -- essentially, remains of the city’s emergence from nature and from the forgotten quarrels of local tribes. Absalon was a steely character, the type who, if he survives his own aggressive exploits, leaves his stamp on the map. And this Absalon did. It takes a bit of imagination to interpret the broken walls, dull stones abandoned in the dark under the palace. That’s the challenge posed by all ruins. But here was the birth of the city. These are the traces of history. It’s humbling and inspiring both.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Travelogue 754 – May 24
Capital of Bikes


Those rattling bicycles tripping over the cobblestones of Europe, they make for an unlikely modern charm. We visit for Old World visions, and we watch the bikes. They can be especially mesmerizing for Americans, whose streets are either huge rushing rivers or barren gullies in silent neighbourhoods. Here, they are woodland streams, always lively. The banks crowd in with growth. Communities are visible.

Where do you suppose you will find the most bikes? In Amsterdam? According to my reading, no. The Number One cycling city is the capital city of the happiest people on Earth, Copenhagen in Denmark.

The day I arrive is cold and wet. I emerge from the central station and gaze up into the light rain with regret. I’ve decided to cycle around town on a rental, but the trip came so suddenly that I had little time to research. My regret is having made no reservation for a bike. I will have to walk the streets in the rain in search of a rental shop.

Immediately outside the Copenhagen train station is the Tivoli Gardens, something unique in European capitals. It’s an amusement park – as it happens, one of the oldest amusement parks in Europe. Maybe this accounts for the edge Danes have in the happiness market? Me, I’m not so happy having to make my way around half the perimeter of this oddity before I can search for a bike. The park is not too entertaining from the outside, just a long wall, though at one point I am looking up into the bowls of the roller coaster. Without knowing it, I am passing on the right the great Glyptotek. (There will be more to say about that museum later.)

The hunt for my bike is a short tale of misery, starting in poor planning, persisting in poor luck and misdirection, and finally ending in a tiny and suspect basement shop not so far from the Nørreport Station. I am cold already, doubting my commitment to the cycling idea, and (justifiably, as it turns out,) doubting the integrity of the shop-owner. But I know I must score my transportation soon, as I am due at my host’s apartment in a few hours, and I want a chance to see some of the city.

There is a lot to see cycling around the centre of Copenhagen. It’s a picturesque town, first settled as a ‘merchant’s port’ (origins of the city’s name) some eight hundred years ago, built at water’s edge and crossing the gap between several islands.

There are architectural beauties at every turn, but my capacity to enjoy the sights is severely inhibited by the sudden regression into winter. I’ve packed no gloves. My hands are burning with the cold. A light rain is falling, a rain that doesn’t feel so light while moving on the bike. I pedal through the centre of town and across the strait of the inner harbour to Christianshavn. This district sits on an artificial island built by King Christian IV in the seventeenth century. This island occupies old harbour space between the two greater islands, Zealand and Amager, the original homes to old Copenhagen. Christianshavn is often compared to Amsterdam because of its canals. The likeness to the Dutch city isn’t entirely coincidental since Dutch engineers and architects participated in the design of the island.

I find a café. I thaw my hands, and I consult the map. I lay a course to my host’s neighbourhood, kilometres away in west of the city.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Travelogue 753 – May 23
The Royal Theatre


I’m going onstage in an hour. Menna and I are grabbing a snack at a nearby pub. We’re talking about what happened in Manchester, and I have no words. She didn’t hear the news, and I am at a loss how to describe it without losing myself. I confess I am victim to a cold and consuming rage when I hear about children being targeted. I don’t say that with pride. Better the saints and activists who can do something about it. Me, I can’t find the words, particularly with the mother of my girls. It’s a short conversation.

True, I am also trying to preserve the tatters of my voice. I don’t say much in this play, but what I do say, I say with a big voice. I play an officer of the law in a dystopian society, so I get to stamp my feet and yell. It’s a fun part, a short bit in a short play written by a friend. Tonight is our third performance in our third venue. We get to take the stage at the Royal Theatre in The Hague.

The trouble is, I’ve been struggling with a bad cold. My throat has been terribly sore for days. I can barely contain a violent cough. I have stopped at a drug store at the train station and bought an assortment of medicines that might help, based on a dubious scanning of labels in Dutch. I’ve put down a variety of pills with two quick espressos, and I’ve left the Hague station for the station. It’s not far.

The whole square in front of the station has been dug up and fenced off. Holland is feeling like a playground for construction firms. Rotterdam is an obstacle course. Every week, I find a new project blocking my way. Detours are a lifestyle. I walk around the perimeter of this square and cross the street into the park. I stroll alongside the duck pond. It’s a lovely evening, and the park is full of smiling people. Take the first left out of the park, onto Korte Voorhout, and just past the Ministry of Finance is the Royal Theatre.

Matteo, who wrote the play, lives in The Hague. Since this is our only performance in his city we’ve attracted a good crowd. It’s a full house. There are many of Matteo’s compatriots, reminding me what an international city it is. They are laughing loudly in the lobby when we open the theatre doors. One of my duties in my role as Officer is to harangue the audience, setting the mood for the short play. I line them up for entry into the theatre, and I inspect them. The Italians are up to the game, saluting and talking back. It reminds me that Trump and Berlusconi are characters from the same comic book. We Americans are not alone in our love of dark burlesque in the chambers of power. Oppress if you must, but by God, make us laugh.

It strikes me that northern Europe is a long way from being fertile ground for fascism. There certainly are a lot of Europeans busy hating immigrants, -- in fact, succumbing to all manner of biases, -- but I can’t imagine any tyrant surviving the cynicism. There’s a stubborn and unforgiving egalitarianism here, operative in even the most trivial institutions. There is still a royal in Holland, of course, but strictly Dutch in his understatement.

I make it through the performance, though I have no voice left for the celebrations afterward. I’m nodding through short conversations in the lobby, tears in my eyes as I fight off the cough. At the earliest opportunity, Menna and I slip out and start the journey back to Rotterdam.

Menna enjoyed the play. She enjoyed seeing me shouting orders from the back of the house, startling innocent audience members. The play has had a good run. We played in rich Wassenaar a week ago, and before that in Copenhagen.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Travelogue 752 – May 15
Champions!


Feyenoord has clinched the Eredivisie title. It’s the first time in eighteen years. While they are regularly among the top three football clubs in Holland, it has been a while since they’ve won it all.

Feyenoord secured their title in a game yesterday with a club called Heracles. They botched one chance to clinch last week, against one of the other two teams from Rotterdam, a club called Excelsior. Since Excelsior is struggling to stay in the top league, no one has complained too bitterly.

It seems, after all, picturesque to win in a triumph over Heracles. We take down a demi-god, and we are champs. As it happens, Heracles the club hails from a town called Almelo in eastern Nederland, a place I’ve had to look for on a map. It lies north and east, in a border region called Twente. It’s a club with some history, founded in 1903, and twice league champs.

Yes, Feyenoord has won. This is no small matter to the Rotterdammers. Crowds poured into downtown yesterday to watch the game together and then to celebrate. I stayed home, intending to avoid all mayhem.

It’s Monday morning. I have a long ride on the bicycle to get to work. It’s my habit to wake early and bike halfway to work, stopping at the Coffee Company at Eendrachtsplein to have my coffee and do some work. I haven’t been sitting long before I see the first of the fans passing outside, red and white team scarves round their shoulders. They’re walking up the brick, pedestrian alleyway called the Old Binnenweg. They’re heading to the Coolsingel, Rotterdam’s Fifth Avenue, where the team will parade in triumph at noon, passing City Hall and saluting the fans in the Hofplein.

As the stream of fans grows, I retreat to the bike, and I pedal quickly toward school. I’m swimming upstream, schools of fans in red and white stripes ambling in toward the centre. At work, the halls are eerily quiet. Student attendance will be one sacrifice to the glory of Feyenoord. Teachers are smiling good-naturedly about it. It feels like a holiday. The teachers are watching news video of the growing crowds.

An hour after midday, I am back in town. I had an urgent errand, but had to give it up. All the shops are closed for the afternoon. I take refuge in a cafe in the Blaak neighbourhood. Today, the kilometer separating Blaak from the Coolsingel provides no buffer. Even here, the crowds have claimed the streets, squares and bars even this far. They have ordered sandwiches at this normally quiet place at such a rate that the baristas are distressed. They tell me my order will be the last one they take. The ‘kitchen’ behind the counter is a mess, pieces of crumbs and cheese and bits of rocket strewn everywhere.

I’m indoors, but the celebration is all-consuming. The noise is general, hanging in the air with the smoke of the firecrackers. It extends far beyond our boys in the courtyard. It’s a sustained roar above the city, punctuated by whistles, and outbreaks of song.

It’s a demonstration of the mystery of sport. I know it’s phenomena like this that excite hostility. Many of the fans here today are simply enjoying the chance to cheer. Parents bring excited children who get to exercise their enthusiasm. Then there are the contingents always scouting for the chance to drink and fight. How to relate these riots to lives of athletes, the pursuit of excellence, the performances of grace and skill? Is this a reward for the athletes, or outburst of self-indulgence? Hard to say. Tomorrow, the athletes are back in training. The students are back in class.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Travelogue 751 – May 11
Reading


I’m standing at a window in Amsterdam. It’s only the third floor, but I have a view over rooftops for several blocks toward the west. It’s like a platform in time, looking back. The roofs are steeply gabled and tiled. They look pretty much the way they have for hundreds of years.

The neighbouring roofs could be close enough for the leap. The streets below are invisible. They are so narrow they hardly exist. I could dance on the tiles, like a jolly chimney-sweep in ‘Mary Poppins’, except that the roofs are too steep. There is no flat roof, no central stage. And, in fact, the backdrop is all wrong. The Industrial Revolution hasn’t happened yet. The scene in old Amsterdam is altogether too peaceful and cheerful. The irony of the sooty-faced clowns would drain silently into the canals.

I’m waiting for an interview. It’s not a job interview, but an entrance interview for a certification course. I’m hoping to devote one whole month to this during my summer. So, yes, I’m undergoing an interview for the opportunity to spend my own money and my own time. These days you have to qualify to spend money, as much as to make it. But I’m happy. It’s a beautiful little corner of the world. I can spend some of my summer here.

By happy chance, the school is located in one of my favourite neighbourhoods of the city, the Spui. (Pronounce it like ‘Spow’, but with a Canadian twist, like the sound of ‘about’ in Toronto.) There is nothing to recommend the Spui over dozens of other neighbourhoods in Amsterdam. I just happen to like its ambience. Of course it’s an old corner of the city, still within the circles of the original canals, not too far from the Dam. I’m always going to need history; that’s just how I’m programmed. These quiet roofs testify to the age, the elapsed time, the settling dust of history.

Down in the Spui square, you get a sense of the character that makes this neighbourhood unique. The two main storefronts are bookstores. One of them, the Athenaeum, is my favourite in the city. I make time for a visit every time I come to Amsterdam. The other is the American Book Center. It’s a decent bookstore, especially if you’re a genre reader. There’s a university building fronting the square. And otherwise, the majority of doorways lead you into traditional Dutch cafes, awnings and cheap Parisian-style chairs out front, and wood-panelled nonchalance inside. Before my interview, I’ve stopped in one cafe, the Zwart, for a shot of espresso. I’ve seen it mentioned somewhere as a literary café. These sorts of reputations dwell in the shadows. You won’t see any signs of it at nine in the morning.

Instead, you enjoy the atmosphere of old Amsterdam. You watch the bikes go by, always with urgency. They rattle as they take the bricks. The pass the befuddled tourists, bent over their maps.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Travelogue 750 – May 4
Profile of a Mystic


I’ve been thinking about community, and when I can I pursue my cursory read of the writers of the ‘Age of Reason’. Then I encounter an article in the New Yorker. It’s about the author of ‘the Benedict Option’. I know nothing more about him or the book than what is mentioned in this article. I haven’t never heard of him before. I can only examine the article alone as an artefact of our culture; I’m not interested in learning more about him. He seems to me a familiar sort of amateur mystic, insistent on mythologizing himself and everything he encounters. If so, it’s just another seduction.

More interesting to me is the appeal in the article to that powerful trope of the American conservative mind: the spectre of corrosive moral relativism. He cites an influence in his thinking, one Scottish philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre. You’ll see why this caught my eye. The author of article says modern societies have experienced a breakdown in the ‘ability to think coherently about moral life.’ Apparently, it’s the Enlightenment to blame because the Enlightenment ‘put individuals in charge of deciding for themselves what was right or wrong.’ Now that is a damning charge!

The conclusion for the profiled author/mystic is that Christians need to retreat from a society that has succumbed wholesale to this nightmare world of individualism and set up communities that will quietly survive until … (when?) until the pendulum swings back to ... (what?) back to a resurgence of Christian societies. I sort of lost the thread there. Are we implicitly being led again to the Rapture?

I stress that I only have the author of the article’s interpretation of both MacIntyre and the author of ‘the Benedict Option’. And I have no interest in pursuing a deeper acquaintance with either of them. Standing alone, I still find the profile an amusing puzzle. How does one end up in intellectual cul-de-sacs like this one? And what happens when you lead whole crowds into those tight spaces?

In weak moments, we all hunger for authority. It’s an attractive notion that we might surrender to a greater wisdom, particularly one ‘revealed’ or one from ancient sources. It would be a comfort to have things decided for us. It is exhausting to think. And yes it’s true that, almost by definition, thinking does not ‘solve’ metaphysical or moral issues. If solving it all is what started us thinking, we will some day realize that the real utility of thinking is something else entirely. By shedding light, it may even reveal more problems that we had initially intuited. But the adult lives with contradiction, uncertainty, tension, and adversity.

What is steadfastly refused by the simpler-minded advocates of faith is the role of choice. There is still individual choice at the centre of every decision and act of faith, every commitment. The choice of an intentional community is still the choice of every individual involved. The choice of a Christian morality is still an agreement among people, a ‘social contract’ in the words of one Enlightenment devil.

And what these advocates will resist with even more vehemence is the admission that any moral formulation by a community is modern. No faith or thought or community is the replication of an earlier one. Full stop. The more one tries to force it, the more warped the result.

Morality is a dialogue. Grow up, and begin the dialogue: with the people you share this world with. Every generation discovers morality in dialogue with others and with tradition. There are no shortcuts. Or, I should say, there are shortcuts – like voluntary ignorance, – but they will invariably lead to conflict among stunted and immature individuals.

The article offers a profile of one fan of the profiled mystic. She is complaining: ‘If I say, “Oh, I can’t make it, [my husband] and I have a thing,” that’s normal. But if I say, “Sorry, I have to go to church,” that’s weird.’ These are the deep intellectual reservoirs being tapped. Substitute almost anything for ‘church’ in that little monologue – theatre, book club, football, ballet, Fight Club, bocce ball, -- and you understand something. You understand the how petty the platform can become, even for a great and profound religion.