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

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

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.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Travelogue 749 – April 28
Marking the Calendar

The baristas are giddy this morning. They worked yesterday, on King’s Day, and the cafe was a madhouse, as it always is on King’s Day. By afternoon, the lines were long, and they were managing drunks and families and the crises of impatience. The morning after is a relief. They are free to be careless.

Another April is ready to pass into memory. This one is passing on amid colder temperatures than those that brought it in. The skies are dark, and the lanes glisten with the last shower. It’s cold. I ask if I can close the window on the third floor that allows all the heat out. My fingers are moving slowly over the keyboard. The barista only laughs.

Calendars were conceived in ritual. Seasons cycle round; nature’s events seem to recur. The day is much like one a year ago. We remember. We celebrate, commemorate. We observe. We purge. We let it go again. It comes again. Spring is a fun time of year to welcome back.

April has a light heart in Holland. The weather breaks. The trees blossom. The black bird with the lovely voice settles in the courtyard. The April calendar starts for me with the local marathon. I ran this year, as part of a relay team from work. I was one of four, and I got to bring it home and cross the finish line. It sounds exciting, but the reality looks more like zigzagging among tired and nearly hopeless people. As I’ve said, April has stood on its head this year. Warm weather blew in early, and then the weeks slid back toward winter until cold King’s Day. Early April is summer-like. These poor, pale runners, bred for cold, were suffering in the heat. I had a good race, feeling light and ready to run. The weather was gorgeous. I flew by them all, and I felt guilty for it. I snuck across the finish line – though, yes, with arms raised in triumph.

April closes with King’s Day. It may sound like a sober state holiday, but it’s a day meant to be fun. It is simply the celebration of the birthday of the monarch. Holland has been blessed with long reigns since the nineteenth century, and one of those healthy people was blessed with an April birthday. It so happens the new king is also an April baby. Grandmother and son were born only three days apart. (Mother retained her mother’s birthday as Queen’s Day.)

My family and I did our part. We dressed in orange, and we set out to the street markets to walk among the crowds and shop. Our market this year was at Heemraadsplein, a busy centre in the west of the city. Our friend Jan has a balcony that overlooks this pleasant park. Today, his children are manning a table in the market selling hot wine and fudge. In a spirit of charity, I indulge.

Menna and her mother leave Baby and me behind, diving into the crowds and quickly disappearing. Baby quickly finds ways to divert herself with other people’s things. I realize that browsing without touching is not a working concept for Baby. I buy a bag of baby-sized plastic kitchenware for fifty cents, and we retreat to a grassy area to play. She enjoys nothing more than pretending to eat and drink. She can repeat the rituals of meal time for hours, and I’m happy to pay along. The cold day is not bad once the sun gains some strength. We sit in the grass a long time, rowdier and older little children running past, stopping in order to smack and trip and push each other. Baby watches, bemused, and returns to her polite repast.

Shopping done, Mama re-appears like a mirage. ‘Is that Mama?’ I ask Baby. ‘Mama!’ We walk to the tram station along the canal, through the busy park, strolling among many other families. We stop to play on the slide and the swings. Baby sits with Mama on the little toadstool seat that turns in dizzy circles on its base. She laughs and laughs. This is what spring should sound like. This is what we commemorate in April.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Travelogue 748 – April 20
Seeing Friends

I’m contemplating communities this month. They’re surprisingly diverse these days, intersecting in funny ways, making us complex interchanges of identity. We become richer in character and judgement, hopefully. I think of my friend the philosopher, who works at the café and plays minor-league football. I enjoy how all this works itself out in his personality. He has a few voices he can employ. I reflect on the communities themselves. They interact there, at the node of the individual, but rarely outside it. The mid-fielder on his team and his closest associate at the university may pass each other every day on the street and never know it. If they met at a party, they may struggle with conversation. Communities intersect for us in time but not in substance, lying like one transparency over another, making the blotter of life a colourful one.

There are communities that intersect across time. My communities now, include runners, theatre people, writers, teachers. My communities across time are those who were with me in college, in jobs, in adventures. They represent places, California, Ethiopia, the East Coast, and Europe.

This month, I’ve had emissaries from several different lives. Howard travelled from the furthest point in time, all the way from our freshman year in university. He spotted me in the café by the train station before I spotted him, though he stood directly in my line of sight. It had been longer than we realized since we had seen each other last. The lines in our faces and the greying hair gave us away. ‘How long has it been?’

It’s been a long time since his son was the age of my girls, but he still knows how to make Baby laugh. He holds Little Sister with no awkwardness at all. He joins the family, and he’s in good spirits. They aren’t the high and unbridled spirits of our first acquaintance, when we were set loose on university property. That reckless community has dispersed. What is left is the enduring friendship, enduring through years of much quieter times. Quiet as they have become, our vocabulary was formed during the wild times. Everything is set beside the dreams of youth, perhaps with irony, perhaps with contentment, but the mould is set. Friendships are legacies of community. They follow laws. After a few days with us, he continues on to Sweden, where his son studies. They have plans to travel to Israel.

Our bonds are memory and vocabularies are hope. Shared partying, shared dreaming.

The next visitor travels from a later time, a time following closely on university, when dreams are careening into kerbs and walls, propelled by our naivete and inexperience. Wes and I met in Boston, but knew each other best in San Francisco and Minneapolis. When we first met, he was a rocker and a college student, and generally too cool to be hanging out with the likes of me. He’s still a rocker, but a family man, and even now, too cool. He has brought his wife and teenage daughter. They are touring Europe, and we are one of their first stops.

Baby benefits again, everyone wanting to hold her, read to her, take her picture. She is laughing, shy and fearless in turns, climbing over her new friends and then retreating into Mama’s arms.

Our bonds are music and culture, the decades we have shared, the things we know about each other by witnessing the struggles. Shared disappointments and lessons.

And now come visiting us are our Dutch visitors. They are co-workers of mine, husband and wife. They have come to meet our youngest daughter for the first time, Baby’s little sister. They bring gifts for both girls. For Baby is an orange dress for King’s Day, and for Little Sister, a crinkly toy. Little Sister smiles, as she so often does. She’s a happy soul.

It’s the present. We sit together in our modest living room, and the day’s vocabulary is woven from work and from the calendar, from the world right outside or windows. Conversation follows simple lines of projection, no less satisfying for their simplicity. Summer is coming. We talk about travel. They are planning on Prague, and tell them about that grand city old in the 90s. It was cheap; it was a celebration. We tell them we’re going nowhere this summer. We don’t hesitate or regret to say it. ‘We’re staying home.’ We’re staying home with the tightest little community, our family. Happy for it. We’ve seen a lot already. And we’ll see more, when the girls are old enough to travel.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Travelogue 747 – April 13
Making Books

Electricity has returned to the wijn bar. Customers cheer. Enough of the Ethiopian experience survives in me to temper my response. All this happens on a different register for the Dutch. The music resumes. Perhaps that is more comfort than the light to generations raised with earphones. The interruption is unsettling; one can’t be sure one is having fun unless the music says so. Ethiopia has been good conditioning for me, a culture of interruption to scramble the programming. It’s liberating for those of us bred to be cyborgs.

I pack away the magazines. The evening is just beginning. I have a ticket to see author Michael Chabon speak at one of the local bookstores. It’s the biggest bookstore in town, meandering across the entire ground floor of a large building facing the busy Coolsingel. It’s after hours; the doors are looked. A solitary employee is stationed by the door to let in people with tickets. We are guided through wide open spaces lined with bookshelves toward a central room set with chairs and stage.

We ticket-holders are a select crowd. We check each other out, with all the affection and hostility of extended family. We are bookworms, writers, and culture junkies. Some of us are comic book aficionados, drawn by Chabon’s forays into that special realm. We chose our seats with care. We pose by the display tables. There is some posing with the interviewer and moderator, a young author who apparently cuts a fine figure among local literary circles.

Once the show gets going, I recognize with a smile the interviewer’s distinctly Dutch style of questioning, brusque and eager for every tangent. Mr. Chabon handles it well, with appealing humility and openness. He discusses his new book, writing styles, his distinct subject matter, and working with his author wife. If it weren’t for his unnerving resemblance, with the coke-bottle glasses and the querulous high treble in his voice, to a particularly repellent member of the board I worked for until recently, I would have thoroughly enjoyed his company.

I reflect on these communities we drift along through and along with, and how these communities define us in pinwheel fashion, giving us our chameleon colours as we progress through our days. I’ve been contemplating this little bit of commentary that takes a look at how politics changes with the multiplication of identities. We are loath to admit how much democracy has historically relied on homogeneous blocks of identity, and how fragile democracy is proving to be in the age of heightened individualism.

It’s a sort of intrusion of politics that finally convinces me to leave the lecture. Chabon is clearly very experienced in interviews. He is resolute in taking no risks. I don’t blame him. I’ve noticed how sensitive people have become, so easy to wound. It has become a persistent danger to anyone in the public eye. It’s as though the enrichment of individuality has only accomplished a taut stretching of our thin skins over more surface area. We are many-faceted targets.

It’s getting late, and I’m thinking about my babies. After his engaging thoughts about the Holocaust in arts – worded with excruciating and exhausting care – I find there isn’t much more to excite me. I slip out of my seat and go in search of the lonely guardian of the door. It’s true night now; there are no traces of the spring sun in the west. I’ve forgotten where I locked my bike. I walk up and down the Coolsingel, breathing deeply of the cool air.