Monday, September 11, 2017

Travelogue 769 – September 11

I’m re-reading ‘Moon and Sixpence’, and it’s something of a guilty pleasure. This is Maugham’s famous novel based on the life of Paul Gauguin. More accurately, it’s based on the romanticized version of Gauguin’s life, popularized after his death in 1903. The book was published in 1919. I’m sure that Maugham knew the difference between myth and reality. He even travelled to the South Pacific to research. I think his point was to explore, (perhaps to exploit), the mythology of the great artist. It was more of a French phenomenon at the time, the lionizing of writers and painters. Since Maugham was born and raised until ten in Paris, bridging the Channel came naturally. Titillating England with the spectre of the rogue genius must have been good fun.

It’s a guilty pleasure. I’ve described before how I discovered a cache of Maugham at the Oudemanhuispoort book market in Amsterdam, and I couldn’t help indulging. I read him without critical judgement when I was young. Now I’m saddled with some perspective. The disparaging words of one of my heroes, Christopher Hitchens, echoes in my mind. He called him ‘Poor Old Willie’ in an article in the Atlantic, and said his prose was clumsy and banal. Yeah, well, I still the old man. I like the understated romanticism, the reassuring rhythm of his prose.

This morning I’m standing at the door to the stairwell down to the street, standing outside on the first-floor balcony extending around the inside of my apartment complex. It’s early. The sun has risen only within the last hour. Low clouds are flying: the weather has been so consistently inconsistent that I barely register it anymore. If it’s not raining, it just has, and just will. The grounds are wet and the sky is grey. But there, suddenly, arcing above the roofs of the compound, shimmers the full rainbow. It stops me, as a rainbow will. It interrupts routine thoughts and opens a door to something fresh, perhaps even some perspective. This must be the reason the Greeks called the rainbow a messenger from the gods. It has the authority to halt the mundane.

If ‘Poor Old Willie’ – not so young when he wrote ‘Moon and Sixpence’ – was moved to pick among the debris left by Gauguin and pick among the fables Gauguin inspired, wasn’t he just making a record of the appearance of a Greek rainbow, an appearance of the Sublime? That much may seem obvious. The riddle is in deciding what the message may have been. Or, even more intriguing, whether the prism at work is Gauguin himself, his paintings, his persona, his story, shrewd exploitation of the exotic, or the impersonal machinery of myth-making.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Travelogue 768 – September 7
There’s a Wobble

There’s a wobble in my back wheel, and I have to take the bike in to the shop today. I don’t need any further drag as I resume my long commute to work, crossing the full diameter of Rotterdam, along the arcing line of the Nieuwe Maas River. I’m out of shape, after the month of sitting on trains and sitting in the classroom. I don’t need the extra work of a bad wheel. The seasons are changing, and fall brings steady winds from the west. The winds carry in showers. The ride is a long one.

The transition from certification course back to work hasn’t been too bad. It’s just a change in the lessons I’m writing. I’m writing mostly for the first-year students, fresh and both bold and timid. Many are eager to learn. It inspires me to work hard so as not to let them down. I know about the disillusionment built into systems of higher education.

When I’m not writing new lessons, I’m finishing my summer reading. ‘Points of View’ is one of the books I picked up last month in Amsterdam. During lunch breaks in the certification program, I walked toward the old university buildings along the Oudezijds Achterburgwal. I strolled down the narrow Oudemanhuispoort, where the old book market has operated daily since the nineteenth century.

It’s not surprising I found some Somerset Maugham. There’s the whiff of the forgotten about him these days, and yet he’s always there, in every second-hand collection. I discovered him many years ago, and he had his impact on me. His prose was always a pleasure, calm and self-assured. Mr. Maugham knew how to tell a story. With time, the stories came to seem over-ripe, too sentimental for my tastes, but I could still find the prose soothing. It seemed to be composed of common sense. And he was rarely as sensible as he was in his last collection of essays. He wrote about Goethe and about Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi. He wrote about the short story, praising Chekhov and Mansfield, and sniping at James. He wrote about the Goncourts and the French authors of public journals. Maugham had a rare sympathy for the writer, always reminding the reader that the writer had to make a living. That didn’t corrupt the art, but surely gave it shape. And this from an author as famous in his day for his riches as his art.

I’m not an author, but I live the poverty of an author. I live some of the joys, too. Last night, we held first auditions for my new play. These we staged at my college. It’s amateur theatre. Two of the people auditioning were students. Two more were more serious, managing the patchwork lives of actors, juggling work with rehearsal and performance. The actors were better, but still I enjoyed the performances of the amateurs more. There’s something spontaneous happening. There’s more communication.

The guy in my cycle shop expresses surprise that I haven’t noticed four broken spokes in my back wheel. He asks if I’ve been carrying something heavy. I say myself. I say my backpack, always stuffed with as much as it can carry. I say sometimes my baby girl, big for her age. My neighbour has donated a seat that sits right above the back tire. The cycle guy shrugs. He asks if I travel over rough roads. I say always.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Travelogue 767 – August 21
Tile and Brick

The Oxford House is an unassuming façade on the curving Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal in Amsterdam, forgivably modern in the midst of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century beauties, built in the 1920s. But it is functional, and it does make some nominal efforts at design. The façade may seem at first to aspire to little beauty, but it has a few touches of near-elegance. The lowest level features a layer of dark stone, grey that’s almost black and almost green. Above it, the exterior brick is a brighter red than in conventional Dutch houses, reminding me of London brick. On the left side, a row of rooms juts slightly outward from the façade, rising from the first floor up to the fifth, in a section with round edges, the width of one office. One enters the building under this overhang of only one metre or so.

The interior is more interesting. I’ve mentioned the Jugendstil tiling on the walls of the steep staircase and flooring of the staircase. It squiggles at the base of the stairs, in white tiles cut into curving patterns, broken with grey spear-like shapes pointing to the stairs. The steps are themselves slabs of tan marble. Underneath them are black tiles with Mondrianesque touches of yellow.

Around the base of the banisters of each landing are laid some nice, small tiles of various colours, some like the iridescent colours of shells or pearl. It’s nice to think someone thought about us, the generations of office workers, students and teachers, climbing this stairway every day, hungering for some colour to the routine.

There are two tiny elevators on either side of the staircase. You enter through wooden doorways, framed so tightly you have to turn sideways to enter. There are tall slits of windows in the door, so you can see people rising in boxes of yellow light. A classmate of mine says he’s been stuck in one twice already. It’s only two storeys so I always use the stairs. I’ve caught sight of his smiling face passing as I’ve climbed.

The centre of the staircase is open, and you can see up to the skylight. Each floor is sunnier than the one below, until one reaches the top floor, where the white walls radiate with the light of summer. The windows look out over the Spui district, revealing the roofs of a city could only be Amsterdam, or certainly could only be Dutch, sharp peaking roofs covered in tin and tile, each at a different height, each in rows turned to their own orientation. Attached to all the roofs, the gables. Amsterdam is a city of gables, steeped and curved and pointed, decorated with white frosting in every variety of theme, with waves and shells and crowns, fish and angels and the faces of burghers. There is heraldry. Nearby, one coat of arms displays a castle surrounded by swans.

There are many buildings in the neighbourhood to love. There is one across the street, dating back only one hundred thirty years, but old, a specimen of nineteenth-century neo-Renaissance, with bay window and chapel-like arched windows, each sectioned into medieval-like small panes. There are two medallions set in the wall with sculpted profiles of two Amsterdam heroes, Vondel and Marius. I think this building is actually attached to the Begijnhof, beautiful inner court remaining from the Catholic city, accessed by the Spui square.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Travelogue 766 – August 17
Where Dreams Go

Well, I never got to go to Oxford, but now, for this one month, I study at the Oxford House. I’ve heard it said that dreams always come true, but always in inexact forms. I suppose this would be one of those instances.

I was a kid with an unnatural respect for academics. I had big dreams, and they were founded on a delusion. I saw scholarship as an honoured pursuit, and, what’s more, a pleasure. Scholars were a lucky set of people. They would find illumination, and they were privileged to share it with the rest of humanity, through teaching and writing. My delusion lasted into adolescence, I’m embarrassed to say, and I dreamed about places like Oxford, places I could neither qualify for nor afford. But I was saved by mediocrity. My tenure at Oxford would have been a terrible disillusionment. Attending the University of California, I could comfort myself with the thought that things were better elsewhere: there were scholars motivated by more than careerism and squabbling. There were great minds eager to mentor their students, and students eager for knowledge.

Anyway, all these years later, well past the white-water descent from childish idealism to realism and the cold comforts of irony, I’m ringing the bell at the Oxford House in Amsterdam in the mornings, entering to climb two flights of old marble stairs set inside high narrow walls tiled in Jugendstil patterns, climbing to the office of the training centre where I study arcane methodologies for teaching language to students from around the world.

The arc makes sense, after all, from Oxford to Oxford House. I love language. Now I’m among others who do, too. We may not be many in number, but it doesn’t matter. There’s an essential utility to language that makes it survive, and in fact fosters its beauty, despite any purpose it’s utilized for. We’re all poets, saying beautiful things when we greet each other in the morning, when we order bagels, when we give directions to a stranger, when we gossip, when we insult and fight, when we boast, and when we cry for ourselves. Even the U.S. president, soulless golem that he is, incapable of spirit or intellect, delivers transporting speeches, glorious in their banality and lack of coherence, magically degrading and hilarious. Language is a miracle.

And so I live the dream. Dialled down, diverted, but the dream. Seen through certain lenses, much of my life reads like this, a text of reconstituted dreams, dreams made humble. Take the several dozen medallions hanging off a peg back home, the desserts of ten years of road races. When I was a kid, I dreamed of medals, Olympic medals. I trained hard for them, but never hard enough. And still, dreams, once conceived, seem to have a life of their own. I train for two or three races a year now, and I bring home the medallions to hang on that peg.

For ten years I’ve been doing my best to support aspiring athletes in Ethiopia. I owned a team. I was manager, cheerleader and coach to runners there, most of them nurturing their own dreams of Olympic gold. Some of them have won medals in Ethiopian championships.

Witness to the lives of athletes, I see how mediocrity has saved me. Childhood dreams are killers. They start so simple and pure. With time, they become harder and harder to maintain. Life becomes as complex as the vision is simple, just to sustain the effort the dream demands. It doesn’t seem fair.

For some of us, adulthood provides a succession of lesser visions that are fulfilling, in their way, and are somehow easier to maintain. They are more complex and less colourful, but they fit. They provide surprising moments of meaning. ‘Less is more,’ is one of the mantras of our trainers. We bring into the building our ideas of what a teacher is, and much of the trainers’ job is to trim those. ‘Let go. Do only what is necessary. Focus on the learners and what they need.’ Yep.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Travelogue 765 – August 11
Spui Books, Spui Boys

It’s Friday. I’m completing my second week of teacher training. On Fridays there is a book market in the Spui square. I recognize one of the vendors. He mans a table over in the Oudemanhuis book market by the university, where he offers boxes of paperbacks in English. The Oudemanhuis market is open daily, and has been since 1879, setting up on both sides of a long, narrow alleyway that you access through ornate seventeenth-century stone gateways. On Fridays, the old man joins the Spui market. I take a few precious minutes from my lunch break to browse. I decide on a book by Siegfried Sassoon, the second volume in his ‘fictionalised’ autobiography. Sassoon is known first as a war poet. He signed up for service before the First World War had even started, and he served through the whole war, distinguishing himself for bravery on several occasions. His comrades called him ‘Mad Jack’ for his reckless courage. Robert Graves was his friend, and wrote in ‘Goodbye to All That’ about Sassoon capturing a German trench alone, armed only with grenades. ‘A pointless feat,’ Graves writes, ‘since instead of signalling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him. When he went back he did not even report.’

When, in 1917, Sassoon took a public stance against the war, the army sent him to hospital for ‘neurasthenia’. He was back at the front in 1918, where he took friendly fire, a shot to the head.

The book picks up in the spring of 1916, when the protagonist was in the trenches of the Western Front, in France. The military was gearing up for the campaign that would become the long Battle of the Somme, in which one million men were wounded or killed. The character seems to be sleep-walking.

Headlines from the U.S. being what they are, I think reading about war and peace makes sense. The history of the world wars is pertinent reading for more than military wonks and Nazi fetishists.

I’ve set myself a photography task for each week, (a task made relatively futile, given the poor quality of my little digital). My subject for the first week was the statue in Spui’s central square, a commemoration in bronze of the mischievous boys of the neighbourhood. The statue dates back to 1960. It’s called ‘Het Lieverdje’, which was a term coined by an Amsterdam columnist named Henri Knap, who first wrote about the ‘darling’ street boys in 1947.

It’s nice to reflect that this fun image was first inspired by a writer. During the war, Mr. Knap agreed to write propaganda for the Germans so he could get coded messages out to the Brits. He harboured Jewish refugees in his home. After the war, he became a columnist for the Amsterdam paper, Het Parool. His column was the most widely read section of the daily.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Travelogue 764 – August 3

I had a dream that I was walking through the train station early in the morning. The mind speaks to itself. I have slept neither much nor well lately. I’ve started my course in Amsterdam, so I wake at 5:30 to wash up, and then I cycle to the train station. I suppose my mind was preparing for the inevitable challenge of awaking.

The dream takes a turn. A desperate man pulls out a gun and takes a shot at another man in the station, catching him in the leg and crippling him. The event unfolds in the slow way these things must do in reality, when the mind struggles to assimilate unexpected violence. The man who is shot is stunned and staggers back in a confused state. The man with the gun takes another shot, hitting the other in the chest. The victim turns to stagger away, too much in shock to run or hide.

I’m observing all this quietly, in something less than shock. It’s more like bemusement. I’m observing, and I’m being observed by the dreamer.

Dreams are very mutable. The stark realism of this one began to warp. The villain decided he hadn’t done enough. He doused the victim in some sort of fuel and then tossed a lit match at him, lighting his hair. This plot twist, I realize, was inspired by my TV viewing before sleep. Ironically, I was watching no action film, nothing suspenseful or violent. I was watching ‘Night at the Museum’. There is a scene in which one of the Neanderthals lights his own hair on fire. There’s no reason I should have carried this forward: I had absolutely no emotional response to the scene. I’ve seen this movie so many times before. If anything, I might have quickly analysed the scene for clues to comedy. The caveman’s hand on fire wouldn’t have been funny. A human being on fire is a risk as comedy, but if you’re going to light anything up, let it be the hair.

The dream never strayed into comedy, at least not in a modern sense. It stayed sober and clinical until it ended, not long after the hair-on-fire incident. Maybe it was ‘comedy’ in Dante’s sense, when he called his long poem the Commedia: not funny at all, treating on ‘low’ themes in a language for the vulgar.

These sorts of experiences are a mystery. I don’t know what type of exercise they represent. Dreams can be woven of such rich detail, detail marshalled to such dubious purpose. They are Hollywood productions for a congress of swallows. I used to be interested in dream interpretation, and have even discovered some interesting minor truths there over the years. But I can’t help feeling as though, after all, I’ve been unable to prevent those little truths from becoming pretty baubles I keep around as souvenirs. They are like precious trinkets I keep stored in the barn. I hear a voice from the chorus, ‘So stop living in the barn.’ But barns have so much purpose, such earthy colour. I have respect for the real world of barns.

In any case, I did manage to wake and make my way to class. We are student-teachers, training for certification. Part of the course is delivering lessons to students of the institute. In our small class, students represent Paraguay, Iran, Poland, Turkey, Japan, and other places. Elaf comes from Syria. She’s very young, and she has an endearing innocence. She often sits with young Mirka from Brno. Their lives are very different, but in class they are friends. They share their whispered jokes, and they share an earnestness for learning.

Elaf is waiting in the hallway. I say hello, and I ask her about Syria. She’s from somewhere near Aleppo in the northwest. I comment that it must be beautiful. She confirms that in a few words. ‘Many trees,’ she says, and even this much is a struggle. I say she must miss it. She replies very quietly that she does, and she’s ready to cry. I’m ashamed. It was too easy for me to be insensitive. I’ve been away too long from my work among the people who suffer. Elaf is quiet now. I stay there, but I hold my tongue. Class starts in a few minutes.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Travelogue 763 – July 31
Rain in Sparta
Part Two

The Sparta Stadium, so close to home, has always seemed so small to me. I pass it every day on my bike, pedalling toward the bridge over the little River Schie. It’s the home to the underdog among Rotterdam’s three football teams, and the oldest of the three, established in the late nineteenth century. But the ‘Kasteel’ is a small and old stadium. I was surprised when I saw it was chosen as one of the stadia for the Women’s Euro Cup this year. I was excited for a good excuse to watch a game inside the historic venue, and I was excited that the ticket prices were cheap, cheaper than for a regular Sparta game.

Inside, the stadium is bigger than it seems outside. The pitch looks nice, perfectly suitable for international play. The teams are already on the field. We were delayed in walking the few blocks to the stadium by one of the day’s quick showers. I won’t complain. It’s because of the rain that we get a second chance to see this game. It was rained out of its original time last night.

We go through security at the gate, surrender our water bottles and allow them to search our bags. And then we start the climb. I was late in booking, and so we keep climbing. As the steps multiply, I become worried. We are near the top, but when we turn and take our seats, I’m reassured. It is a small stadium, after all. The view is fine. We are seated in a corner, near the German goal. Just as we settle in, the first goal of the game is scored by the German women. The flags go up all around us. We have been seated in German territory.

The rains keep coming, though the forecast had given us hope of a change. The clouds scud quickly overhead. The sun shines on the field, and then suddenly it’s pouring. We are happy with our high seats now, as the roof covers us well. Fans with stadium-side seats are running up the stairs for cover, jackets pulled over their heads.

The players don’t hesitate. The hold up admirably well. In fact, the bad weather might just be working to the advantage of the Danish women, who probably don’t train in sunshine all too often. They start to bounce back. Their game, which at first seemed in disarray, begins to tighten up. They come back from the half and score within five minutes. The Germans are scrambling. They create chance after chance, but the Danish defence is formidable. Then, at eighty-three minutes, another goal for Denmark.

We cheer. The Danish supporters cheer. But we are separated from them by half a stadium. We remain among the quiet German supporters. We see the Danish flags waving, and we feel out of place. Menna is afraid to cheer, but the truth is this is a very civilized crowd.

By the time we emerge from the stadium, the rains have passed. Danish fans are gathered by the team bus, waiting for the victors to emerge. We walk home along the canal, resolving as we go that we will take a bike ride. It’s too nice a summer day to let go.