Sunday, January 07, 2018

Travelogue 786 – January 7
Questions We Ask
Part One

Vacation time is coming to an end. One of the joys of vacation time is waking late and then lying in bed, relishing the quiet mornings before anyone else is up. This is my last quiet morning.

In the mornings, the babies are slow to get going. And when they do wake, they are at their sweetest. It’s at night time that they like to terrorize their parents. The busier we are or the more engaged in a movie, the crazier the babies become. They have an infallible feel for where our attention has settled, and with how much intensity. When they want us back, they cry, they climb, they argue, they teeter dangerously on the edge of the sofa cushions.

They claim their turf. I’ve remarked on Baby’s early sense of possession. I still marvel at how quickly babies become territorial. I don’t remember speaking much in the language of possession, or encouraging Baby to label things as hers. But the impulse arises, like instinct. Now I find myself saying lame things, like, ‘You have to share, Baby.’ Because she has developed a habit of taking toys from the hands of her little sister, Ren. Ren looks up at us, her beautiful, round, one-year-old’s face screwing up into despair, and she howls. Baby also looks to us, with an expectant expression, awaiting our judgement. I find Ren’s disappointment heart-breaking because she follows her big sister around all the time with big eyes of wonder and admiration.

We new parents have questions. We ask the questions when we’re tired, and we struggle to concentrate. Babies change so fast that the answers don’t hold for very long. The stages of child development succeed one another at an unforgiving pace.

Just about this time of year, one hundred years ago, Leon Trotsky was making his way west to the frontier of what only months ago was the Russian Empire. He might have felt like a new parent. He had spent almost twenty years as a revolutionary, and suddenly he was one of a very few people at the top of a dizzying ladder of accountability, responsible for holding together a collapsing nation.

As noted, all idealism aside, the most pressing business for the revolutionaries at the end of 1917 was the German army at the door. The Germans kindly agreed to an armistice, ahead in the game of conquest on the Eastern front and grateful for the respite themselves.

Apparently, the negotiators in Brest-Litovsk had a pleasant enough time of it in December. They ate together and socialized outside negotiations. The Russians were cheered by promises by the Germans that they would not annex any territory. Cheered until, some time after Christmas, the Germans added the footnote that all areas in question, some 150,000 square kilometers of formerly Russian territory, were expected to become independent. This was only fair, the Germans argued, as self-determination was ostensibly a Bolshevik principle.

Trotsky decided he had to oversee the proceedings himself. When he arrived, all fraternization stopped. The discussions became philosophical, and the talks extended through the winter of 1918.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Travelogue 785 – January 2
Sounds of War

There is still debris in the streets from the New Year’s celebrations, the cardboard shells of rockets toppled beside their scorch marks on the pavement, wet piles of pink paper that once housed small firecrackers. All the glass at downtown Metro stations is still boarded up in anticipation of vandalism.

The night was a wild one, reminding all the mild peaceniks in this quiet country of the noise of combat. Everyone in our neighbourhood, Spangen, is a fireworks artist. We put the babies to bed well before midnight, but our own sleep was fitful. Outside, the sound of combat carried on for hours, the stormy crackling of the human libido, party lust, perpetrated on Nature’s night. Sadly, our flat is ill-positioned for watching the show. We are set between rows of buildings, and our view is blocked of all but the highest bursts of colour. So it is that all we can enjoy is the sound. Baby shakes her head and knits her brow. She says, ‘Noise!’ and it sounds like ‘No ease!’

One hundred years ago, the new year dawned on a devastated Europe and on peoples desperate for a cease to the roar of guns and cannons. Dawning over Russia, it discovered a brand new government there, a revolutionary government less than two months old, led by fierce exiles who, a year before, were scattered among a handful of tolerant nations to the west. Lenin made a daring journey from Switzerland, through Germany, Sweden and Finland. Trotsky, the revolution’s wild man, had travelled from New York early in 1917, after the first and milder St. Petersburg revolution in March. He spent his summer in jail, but was free in the fall to take a strong hand in the events of November. Where discussion about the Russian Revolution manages to survive, there is a lively debate to be had about whose revolution it was, Lenin’s or Trotsky’s. Lenin arrived for the final act.

Dealing with the war was pre-eminent. It had torn Russia apart. The country had made significant progress in catching up with the industrial powers, but by the time war broke out in 1914, it was still only five per cent of the labour force that was employed in industry and twenty percent of the economy that was industrial. By the second year of the war, the army was able to supply only one in three soldiers with a rifle. The army could supply one surgeon for every ten thousand troops. One in three Russian men was in the army, so agriculture slowed, causing food shortages and crippling inflation. Desertions were high: an estimated two million had left, a number matched by the number of dead.

Having taken control of St. Petersburg in November, the Communists had signed an armistice by mid-December. But discussions about a treaty had bogged down over territory. Lenin and Trotsky disagreed over strategy. Lenin thought any more combat would be too destructive; they could only lose more territory. Trotsky believed in revolution. He believed their own achievements would inspire the workers of Germany to rise in revolution. He fought to delay the signing of any treaty. In January, he took charge of the negotiations himself, travelling to Brest-Litovsk in present-day Belarus.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Travelogue 784 – December 26
The Three Johns

It’s the second day of Christmas, another quiet day of closed shops and families taking to the streets with their strollers. Now that I own a few strollers myself, I greet the holiday with some defiance. Whereas I was simply annoyed by holidays during my long service as a bachelor, now I inhabit them with some pride. And truthfully, a fair share of real appreciation. I was moved this year to essay some modest traditions – tree and gifts and stockings, -- a set of rituals that might withstand the pressures of our schedule and survive to the next year. This effort proved surprisingly successful, and even more surprisingly gratifying. The Scrooge in me suffered a severe blow.

It certainly is nice that there are two days of Christmas in Holland. It allows double the time to meet our obligations to this gilded feestdag, debts to family as well as to that monkey on our backs, entertainment. Either we must entertain or be entertained, or we must simply partake in some artificial entertainment. My wife and I like to make an appearance at a traditional Dutch pub and watch the old-timers surrender to their spirits and dance, if it’s late enough even weaving through the bar in a human chain. It’s not the carols that trigger them, but Dutch pop classics, still sounding to me like modern elaborations of oompah music.

I can’t say it makes much sense, two days in celebration of one birth. Perhaps it was a long labour. In the liturgical calendar, the 26th is also Saint Stephen’s Day. Maybe it became a comfortable habit, holiday after holiday. In England they call it Boxing Day, named for the small gifts for the servants on the second day of Christmas. I like to think of it as Boxing Day. The name has the right degree of obscurity mixed with English silliness.

England has been on my mind. I have one pressing reason for that, which is the approach of my half marathon in Bath. I am in distressingly poor shape, never getting the time for proper training. Though I worry about the race, it’s pleasant to have the calendar’s geography cycle around again. In a couple months I’ll be crossing the Channel again.

If I had the time to make it back to London, I would walk the map of the houses of the Forsytes, those infamous Victorians of Galsworthy’s books. The second volume came with a map, numbering the fictional family’s houses in districts of west London too posh now for Victoria herself, St. James, Mayfair, Hyde Park, and Knightsbridge.

I would also stop by a pub in Angel that I had the honour of visiting last time I was in London. I met Patrick there, along with some of his friends, classmates in his PhD program. We had a good time and the setting was this classic corner pub, one spacious room under a moulded tin ceiling, with wood panelling below brick walls. Inexplicably, there was a portrait of George Washington on one wall. I couldn’t help taking a moment to contemplate the image of that old statesman, the odd drunken meditation in London.

I was just reading about one of Washington’s portraitists, Mr. Charles Willson Peale. The painters of his generation were discovering a new subject, the contemporary revolutionary hero. Historian Joseph Ellis makes the point that painters of the era were influenced by an Enlightenment aesthetic that still colours our perception of the American Revolution, making it a gentleman’s conflict, fought by heroes in serene Acadia, as though war could be fought in stillness, with nothing but one’s dignity. These painters were pioneers in a genre that would become quite sophisticated, starting with Jacques-Louis David during the French Revolution, who could make of stout little Napoleon a hero the Romantic Period.

I had no idea of the history of the Three Johns pub that evening. As it happens, this old watering hole opened in the days of the French Revolution and was still open for business for a stubborn group of Russian exiles in 1903, a group that was meeting to define a revolution they were going to bring to the Romanov Empire.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Travelogue 783 – December 24
Why We Have Holidays

The grey skies herald a day of quiet peace. It’s Christmas Eve. There’s a gentle mist in the sky. The streets are quiet. The cafe is quiet. The Christmas music has been shelved, and we listen to jazz. The shopping frenzy seems to have subsided.

Work deadlines still haunt me, but their voices have withdrawn into the aural shadows, out of respect for the holidays. I’m able to breathe. I sit and listen to Baby tell me stories, recounting some cartoon she’s seen, recalling the characters and their words, and I am not beset by the nervous energy that every day urges me to hide somewhere with my computer and ‘take care’ of things.

I took Baby on our first walk together yesterday. No buggy and no destination. We just put on our shoes and jackets, and we went outside. We walked along the canal behind our building, and we took time to quack back at the ducks. Baby was fascinated by the gravel on the path. She picked up one tiny black stone and held it up for inspection. It’s a rock, I said, and she repeated. She bent over to find another, this time white.

I never tire of these exchanges, these short and essential dialogues, though sometimes I wish I could. They are so deeply satisfying that they are heart-breaking. Each is so brief, and each passes, as though time were looking over my shoulder. I want to hold each like I hold my child, with tenderness and a with a fierce sense of protectiveness, against age and decay. But time has an ally in my baby. She wants to embrace life and growth. So I let go.

We circled under the railway and by the school. There’s a small speeltuin hidden away there, a playground. We entered and found we were alone, a singular luxury in the crowded Netherlands. Again, I found my breath coming back to me, my lungs extending in the rare, relaxed full inhalation, enjoying the damp winter air. Standing behind Baby in her swing, I gazed into the cloudy skies to watch the birds charting their erratic courses. Baby caught sight of the black wings against the soft grey background. ‘Birds!’ she shouted and pointed. She likes naming things.

It’s approaching midday, and still the cafe is quiet. The tables are sparsely occupied. Couples murmur to each other, freed from the stridency of work days. I have some research I need to do for work. I follow a few links, and stumble upon a few engaging items. I read, but only lazily. It’s when the baying hounds of the office calendar are shaken for an interval that you find the fun in the work again. You taste of it, and you put it away. The sights out the window are inviting, people in their coats strolling together, the bikes in repose, the half-light of winter set with a whisper upon the old rooftops.

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.’