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
Trinkets


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.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Travelogue 762 – July 30
Rain in Sparta
Part One


We had tickets to the Women’s Euro Cup last night. It was a quarter final game, and it was hosted at the Sparta Stadium, which is less than a kilometre from our house. I had been looking forward to the game for weeks. But it was looking like we were going to have to miss it.

The first reason was because I had had another cycle accident. This one didn’t involve any other cyclist or auto. I was cycling with Menna, riding side by side in a narrow section of bike path, when suddenly I came upon a bit of scaffolding inexplicably set up on street side, but occupying space in the bike path. I would have been all right but for a spur of metal sticking out at handlebar height. I took that bar right in the knuckles. One minute, I was chatting with Menna, and the next tumbling across the pavement. It would have been comic, if it hadn’t hurt so much. I took my time standing, and when I did, I was assaulted by a stinging pain from half a dozen minor scrapes and bruises. But it was my hand that hurt most, so much that I was instantly made nauseous by it. The hand started swelling immediately. I was sure it was broken.

I didn’t go to the hospital until the next day. The evening of the accident, I got back on the bike, and it didn’t seem so bad. In the morning, the knuckle was still swollen and sore. I decided I should stop by the hospital just to check. I caught the 25 tram north to the Sint Francis Gasthuis, where I knew an emergency room would be open on a Saturday morning. I registered at reception, and I took a seat. I sat a long time. I had reading material. Unfortunately, it was a long look into Texas politics, which made for depressing waiting room material. I was interested to see that socialist Europe had been replaced by California as the enemy in Republican demonologies. I suppose Europe has graduated to the unmentionable. I imagined a panel of Texan Republicans, all gunning for Obamacare, observing my long wait in the Dutch hospital’s waiting room, and crying out, ‘See? Socialized medicine doesn’t work!’ They watched me return to the reception window to complain. They smiled to see how unconvincing the woman at the window was, assuring me I was next.

I returned to the waiting room, this time to watch the TV. Interestingly, there was a documentary being aired on 60s rock photographer, Jini Dellaccio, who died only a few years ago, at nearly one hundred years of age. Smugly I made a mental note for the sake of my Texan auditors that I was in fact enjoying my long stay in the waiting room at the Sint Francis Gasthuis. The fact is, I have few points of comparison. I had scarce opportunity to see the inside of American hospitals, during all those years I was uninsured.

Eventually, the doctor did call me in. He felt my hand tenderly, searching for pain, and he asked his questions. He used the word ‘contusion’, and he said to give it a few days. I told him I would have no chance to visit him again, as I started my certification course on Monday. He was confident that it was fine. I returned to the tram station, set above the road, at the level of the abundant leaves of the trees set on the hospital grounds and in the nearby park. It was a peaceful morning.

Rain was coming. It had been a wet week, and this afternoon was going to be among the wettest. The rain was destined to be the second reason we wouldn’t be able to attend the Euro Cup game. By the time the stadium lights were raised in the evening, shining into our flat’s eastern windows, the rain was drumming steadily on our roof.

We stayed home. We watched the two little sisters play with each other. Tiny Baby is crawling. She’s laughing. She adores her big sister, and watches her constantly. Baby condescends to play with her little sister. She crawls, giggling, leading Tiny Baby around the room. They stop and Baby chooses which toys Tiny Baby is allowed to play with. We admonish her to share.

When she is free to play her own games, Baby indulges in quiet story-telling. Our water bottles become characters in a fable about family. The large one is Papa bottle and the small one is Baby. Papa and Baby eat together. They play games. When Baby does something she shouldn’t, Papa says, ‘No, no’. The two go for a walk. They stroll around the perimeter of the coffee table, and then they float away toward the kitchen. They say, ‘Bye!’ as they go. A minute later, the two return, saying, ‘Hi, sweetie,’ which is what I always say to her when I walk in the door.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Travelogue 761 – July 6
The Koreans


They’re an elderly couple. But they are fired up. They speak quickly and with passion, interrupting each other. They are planning so many interesting events in the coming year. There are things to celebrate. These two are patriots. They are internationalists. They are also responsible for the founding of a peace museum here in the Netherlands, in the Hague. And it all leads back to one of those Hague Conventions over one hundred years ago.

There was a second Hague Convention. This one was actually first proposed by Teddy Roosevelt in 1904. The idea was quickly picked and promoted up by Nicholas of Russia. The Russians were desperate for peace. They weren’t to have it. It would be a bloody century for them. In fact, the peace convention had to be postponed because of a Russian war, in this case with Japan.

Everything is connected, it seems. It is Japan’s victory in its war with Russia that cleared the way for its takeover of Korea. The emperor of Korea appealed to international opinion. He sent three delegates secretly to The Hague Convention, which finally took place in 1907. The Brits and the Japanese took a stand against admitting the delegates.

Among these delegates was a lawyer named Yi Jun. He and his colleagues traveled two months to get to The Hague, traveling on the new and unfinished Trans-Siberian Railway. Upon arrival, they were shunned by most of the diplomats. Bertha von Suttner and others argued vehemently for their admittance, but to no avail. It wasn’t long after his arrival in Holland that Yi Jun was found dead in his room at the Hotel De Jong. The cause of death is still disputed, and the subject still a tender one among diplomatic circles. When the Korean Secretary General of the U.N., Ban Ki-moon, visited The Hague last year, he turned down an invitation to visit the peace museum at the Hotel De Jong.

It was the elderly couple sitting at our dinner table in the Bertha von Suttner building that established that peace museum. It was their son, apparently, who had re-discovered the site of that hotel and had opened negotiations with the owners of the hotel. It took a long time, but the hotel was acquired and the museum established. It’s at once a monument to Korean history, and a monument to the long struggle for peace.

Suddenly the premise of our play has shifted. Our sponsors had wanted something short abut Bertha first. Now they’re thinking the story of Yi Jun might be more exciting. We listen, and we make a pitch. It could be fun. He’s an idealist. He’s a martyr. He links Bertha and the idealists to the violent world of realpolitik. He’s too human and also a symbol. It could work.

The meeting breaks, and we leave the building devoted to peace, descending onto the streets of modern Den Haag, where more people are thinking about their summer vacations than are thinking about peace. In fact, there are few overt signs of peace on these streets, as the drivers of autos are waging war on the cyclists; as the native pedestrians battle the tourists. Is peace natural, we briefly and silently ask the stormy North Sea skies. No answer. We bid each other good night and go our separate ways.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Travelogue 760 – July 5
Peace Palace
Part Two


My encounter with peace begins by chance. There’s a small NGO dedicated to the support of peace museums, and they would like to commission a theatre piece. We are invited to a presentation at the Peace Palace. The original subject of the theatre piece is also the subject of this presentation: a remarkable woman in the late nineteenth century, contributing much to the mood of optimism during those final few decades before the First World War, when peace and progress seemed natural results of human evolution.

After the publication in 1889 of her novel, ‘Lay Down Your Arms!’ Bertha von Suttner was recognized as a leader of the peace movement. She went on to found and lead organizations and publications devoted to peace. She participated in both Hague Conventions, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905, and was pushing for the next international peace conference when she died, only a few weeks before World War I broke out in 1914.

The occasion at the Peace Palace is the release of an English translation of von Suttner’s book about peace in the skies. She lived long enough to witness the birth of flight, and she was concerned about the prospects for warfare. She more or less accurately predicted the destruction that could be rained down on cities from above.

So the plan was a short theatrical piece to highlight this remarkable person’s life. Matteo and I had already discussed a few ideas. I was most fascinated by the impulse that may have moved her to think deeply about peace and decide to write about it. She spent ten years in Georgia, it turns out, in a sort of exile from her native Austria because her family disapproved of her marriage. There she was witness to the devastation of war on the front with Russia. She and her husband contributed stories to Western publications as journalists. She was primarily an intellectual, reading widely and always writing. This was how she was going to work out her experiences and the intellectual problems raised by them. She published her novel about war once she had moved back to Austria, and the public reacted with hope. The novel was compared to ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in its illumination of an issue. People looked to her for leadership. And she rose to the challenge. She seems to have been tireless.

After the event, we walk back to the office of the small NGO that has invited us. We speak at length with one member of the organization, an elderly man who is a historian. He tells us quite a bit about von Suttner, and about the times. She was quite engaged with the ideas of the times. She was influenced in particular by Henry Thomas Buckle, a historian now largely forgotten, who had made a sensation in mid-century writing about the science of history, claiming that culture and the great men of history were mere by-products of history, that civilization moved forward according to inexorable laws that could be determined scientifically. I’m guessing Von Suttner corresponded with him. She maintained an impressive correspondence.

We arrive at the office. It’s housed in a building that apparently is devoted to peace organizations, offering subsidized rent to them. I’m surprised there are enough organizations to fill four floors. We meet in the kitchen on their floor, members of the organization and their guests, to share some pizza. Sitting around the table are people from Austria, Peru, Korea, and the U.S. The Koreans at the table have an interesting story.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Travelogue 759 – July 4
Peace Palace
Part One


The Peace Palace: it sounds like it should be some cheap stop on the California coast, where someone has strung Christmas lights and placed plastic statues of Krishna, a place to order Vegan and chat with the quirky gentleman who once studied in a monastery in Thailand.

But the Peace Palace is real and legit, an impressive structure built in The Hague in 1913 to house international institutions dedicated to peace. It stands as a monument to an age that considered peace as a natural by-product of progress. It was a subject of serious for negotiation and legislation.

The nineteenth century was in love with the idea of progress. It seemed only natural that progress was a governing principle of life in the modern world. To the generations closing the nineteenth century, there was no reason to question the basic propositions of the Enlightenment. The world was far from perfect, but reason would prevail. Their confidence in the principle is best measured by the trauma engendered by World War I. European civilization was sent into such deep shock that all sorts of monstrosities became possible.

Before 1914, hope was the rule. There were, indeed, significant steps taken toward international codes of peace and war. Abraham Lincoln issued the Lieber Code in 1863, only three months after the Emancipation Proclamation, protecting civilian populations and prisoners of war.

During the same year, the Red Cross was being established in Geneva, and that movement led directly to the calling of the first Geneva Convention, which sought to regulate the treatment of wounded on the battlefield. Notably, this was a distinctly ‘continental’ convention. The powers represented were few and mostly from central Europe. England wasn’t present. The British Red Cross was formed later, in 1870, in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. The American was founded in 1881, by Clara Barton, who had served as nurse in the Civil War and then in the Franco-Prussian War.

By the end of the century, the discourse about peace had become more sophisticated. In 1874, the first attempt at a multilateral declaration on rules of war was drawn up in Brussels, attempting to go further in the protection of prisoners of war and civilian populations. Representatives of 15 countries attended the conference, and considered proposals submitted by the Russian czar, Alexander II. In the end, not enough countries signed on to make the declaration binding.

It was another Russian emperor who proposed the 1899 convention that resulted in the building of the Peace Palace. Those mischievous Russian leaders do like to pop up at the most interesting moments. It’s doubtful the motives of the czars were pure ones. They were forced to represent the weakest of the major powers contributing to the precarious balance of power in Europe. Whatever the reason, they did keep the cause of peace alive. Czar Nicholas II proposed the peace conference that led to the first Hague Convention, in 1899. This conference was successful, culminating finally in the first binding multilateral treaties on the conduct of war.

The Hague Convention of 1899 was a peace conference. It didn’t limit itself to rules of war, but considered mechanisms of peace. The convention established the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which was to be housed in The Hague. Andrew Dickson White, president of the American delegation to the peace conference, -- ambassador to Germany, and co-founder of Cornell University, -- convinced Andrew Carnegie to donate $1.5 million to build the Peace Palace to house the court.

And so, there it is, this rather spectacular Neo-Renaissance palace in the heart of The Hague, reminding us all of an idealism that seems antiquated, even repudiated by intervening events. World War I broke out one year after the Peace Palace opened, and the course of the century was set. Peace lost its privilege as a natural result of progress and became the subject of sombre meetings, like the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949, in which war-weary delegates were confronted with one recent atrocity after another, such as the German execution of Belgian villagers en masse as retribution for resistance. (Now a war crime according to Article 33. Go figure.)