Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Travelogue 56 – December 29
A Visit to the Vet, or Surviving the Cure

I come home in the afternoon and Jack is lying in a pool of saliva. He’s foaming at the mouth, his eyes are rolling, he’s shivering. I think he’s a goner. In desperation, I run to the shop down the street to call Sophia. She quickly confers with someone on her side and comes back with a phone number.

The vet on the line asks a few terse questions about symptoms. He asks where I am and if I have a car. I don’t. He says, “Be at Topview in twenty minutes.” Topview the restaurant? Yes, that’s right. He rings off. Okay. I run back and stuff Jack into a bag. Out again and down to the end of the block where I hail a taxi. It’s a quick drive to the Magananya neighborhood, and then up the steep hill to Topview. We get out and stand there, a bit foolishly, at the entrance to the parking lot. A gang of local kids takes up the chant of “money” across the street, seeing faranj. The security guard keeps them at bay. I sit on a low concrete border by the road, looking at Topview’s view. It’s a gorgeous one at this time of day. Almost the whole city spreads itself below, across its geographic bowl. A few high, billowing clouds hang above the mountains, catching the white afternoon sunshine, breaking it into long, translucent rays. Jack staggers out of his bag and teeters along the wide concrete strip we sit on. He slowly wheels over onto his butt and over into the bushes in what I had taken for a shallow planter. He disappears and squeals all the way down the side of the wall, which turns out to be about six feet high. I and one of the money kids run around the wall and down the hill. I hold back the thorny bush while the boy reaches in for Jack. Back in my hand, the poor pup rolls sad eyes up into mine and whimpers.

Eventually, a man in a dark suit and shades pulls up in his jeep. He glances left and right before making shaded eye contact. He smiles wryly at the sight of us. He nods discreetly and pulls into the parking lot. There, he walks briskly to the back of his jeep and opens it up, opening the black bag stowed there and withdrawing tools of the trade. His gaze roves this way and that as he questions me again. He nods at the answers, begins preparing medicines. “Where are you from?” I admit America, knowing full well it’s a question about his fee. Quickly glancing around the empty parking lot again, he tells me he was trained in Cuba. With deft fingers, he readies a needle-less syringe and picks Jack up around the collar. He squeezes out some brown solution down his throat. Jack gags. The vet puts him down on a narrow shelf, says, “Worms.” Now he puts the needle on and picks Jack up. He jabs him in back of the leg, and Jack barks, with his little muzzle wide open. The poor pup begins to squirt blood. The vet tells me irritably I’ve got to hold him. He mops up blood, and then we try again. I hold him around the neck, so small it fits neatly in the circle of forefinger and thumb. First, the vet has to sterilize the new wound. More desperate crying. Then, the shot, and it seems like Jack will never stop barking in pain. Briskly, the man prepares another solution to go down Jack’s throat in the morning. He glances furtively around us and hands me a business card. “Call, I’ll meet you.” He jumps in the jeep, and he’s off.

Jack and I walk home. By this time the sun’s farflung light is becoming yellow and pink. It illuminates the bottoms of the clouds. With Jack in my arms, his head sticking out of the bag, I stroll down the hill to strains of “Money,” down to the roundabout, where the taxis race by, down the new asphalt road. Along the sidewalk, I pass the old men sitting like sages by the sidewalk with blankets spread before them, past the woman selling peanuts and tissues, past the little girl with blank eyes who’s there every day, wrapped in her blanket and making occasional loud appeals for help in her strange, whining voice. Wusha, wusha I hear whispered all around, the word for dog. People smile. “Beautiful dog,” one young man comments in passing.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Travelogue 55 -- December 24
The Game

There’s always something to entertain on an afternoon out in the city, amusing, sordid or anything in between. I’m at the cafe beside the school where I’m teaching a class in the early evening. The usual parade is on, of beggars and students, businessmen and the dirt poor. This is the cafe with the view across the streets into the fields and hills beyond. One use for the field directly across the street is the storage of heavy construction machinery. One big Caterpillar with a big shovel retracted comes whizzing by, and the man who isn’t driving is sitting on top and waving to everyone with a big grin. He winks and mugs; he gives a thumbs-up and waves to us to come along. Everything is a show. Next are the two kids with roller blades. They seem to be trail-blazers here, the first with roller blades. Everyone stares. Maybe that’s because they choose to play on the highway, dodging up and down the middle or the side of the road. And one of them seems to have lost one of blades, so he pushes along on one as though it were a skate board. Next is the elderly British a teacher, who walks by with a young Abasha boy, that is, she walks by until one of the huge table umbrellas at the cafe blows loose in a stiff breeze and smacks her in the head. She bends over onto the ground. No one budges. I run over to check on her. Fortunately, she’s not hurt, just dazed. One or two of the waitresses come and stare at her and go away. When she’s collected herself, she returns to the cafe and lectures the manager. He just smiles. This isn’t a country of civil suits yet. Nor is it one where minor tragedies elicit too much sympathy.

I have some time before class. I walk through Bole, across the field where I found Jack. The shepherds wave a hello and show me another puppy. It’s apparently a relative of Jack’s. When I ask the puppy’s name, they say “Jack.” I’m a little shocked; they don’t know my Jacks’ name. Another strange incident around this little dog. I stop at a cafe in the “Haile” building, as it’s called, built and owned by the famous marathoner, Haile Gebrselassie. It’s quite fashionable, and the haunt of the moneyed classes here. I sit inside, where it’s not too crowded. I’m not there long before shouting and laughing starts up between tables across the room. It seems as though the man at the table nearest me is some mover and shaker. Everyone smiles too much with him. His companion at the table wears too much gold. The party gets up to leave, and I notice one of those “celebrity waves” around the guy, the subtle aura that makes everyone look at him and act awkwardly. When I finally get a look, I realize I’ve been sitting next to Haile himself. As I’ve mentioned before, you’ve got to love a country where a marathoner is a hero.

I came close to attending my first soccer match here. It was the day of the semi-finals in the East Africa Cup. Ethiopia was among the four remaining teams. I was scheduled to meet at the house of a new British acquaintance at 3:00 for a 4:00 game. If he were Abasha, I would have planned for late time, but I showed up on time. He showed up at a quarter to four; we arrived after four. The lines were impossible. Kids were roaming around, either begging for tickets or selling them. We stood in one queue until we realized it was hopeless. I rushed to a hotel where I could watch the game in relative peace. I was happy I didn’t make it into the stadium. Ethiopia played its neighbor, Kenya, and there were fights between players throughout the game. God knows what was happening among the crowd. What could clearly be seen on TV were the fires they were setting to newspapers or something and waving in the air. The game went into extra time, and then was decided by penalty kicks: Ethiopia won. The city went wild. Outside, kids were running around in packs, whooping it up. Screams could be heard from everywhere. Buses and taxis were honking and blinking their lights. Firecrackers were exploding here and there. On TV, they broadcast the winning kick over and over. One of their venerable old singers sang on the field, and all the crowd joined in. And that was just a semi-finals match!

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Travelogue 54 – December 19
Life Has to Be Let Go

Does anyone know of a muezzin school? I’m considering offering a scholarship to the guy across the street, the one who does the call at 5:30am. I’ve gotten used to the time; in fact, I find it useful on days I want to run, because that’s the hour I go. But this guy, the way he groans and applies his nursery song sensibility to the fourteen-hundred year-old summons makes everyone who answers look faintly stupid. This is the religion I found beautiful in Istanbul and Egypt? Every once in a while they get in a guest cantor, and I’m reminded of the dignity and haunting appeal.

Hiwot means life in Amharic. Hiwot is the name of a girl. She’s sixteen; she’s got a pretty face, an easy smile. She arrives one night in a flurry of activity and anxiety. “What are we going to feed her?” Sophia asks. “What do you mean?” I ask. “I thought this works the other way around.” Sophia’s brother found me a servant, and now Sophia’s asking me what I’m going to feed her. They’ve been trying to reach me all day, but I have no cell phone. The poor girl has been waiting around Sophia’s house. All I have at home are bananas, so she gets those, and I go to bed hungry. The next morning, we go to the school, where Saba is going to help her shop, and where we’re going to pick up Jack to bring him home. There’s no time for breakfast. Hiwot is fine; I’m exhausted.

The first signs of trouble come at dinnertime. I’m very ready to be served. She gives me soggy spaghetti and soggy potatoes. “Okay,” I think, “she hasn’t had much time today to get settled in and cook.” She hangs around while I eat, watching and smiling. She asks me about America. Here it comes; my heart sinks. Sure enough, she starts in with the line of questioning about how she can get to America. I shrug and try to choke down my dinner. She wants me to meet her family. I smile wanly and nod, and pull out an old newspaper to stare at.

The next day, I get pasta for breakfast and plain rice for lunch. She continues to smile and watch me. I’m getting spooked. She has to go to the store, so she leaves the house when I do. She tells me more about her family, all in Amharic. I catch half of it and respond in single words. Later, I ask Tsion whether servants are supposed to use the shower and describe when I came home for lunch, how she emerged from the bathroom naked and dripping, reaching for her clothes and smiling. Tsion just laughs and laughs. When I tell Sophia, she just says, “Oh, my God,” over and over. The next day, I hide from Hiwot. She knocks at my door and smiles in the window, and I sign her away. “Later!” Sophia sends her brother over to fire her. He has a frightened look on his face. She just smiles.

Now it’s just me and Jack. I’ve become everything I’ve disdained about pet owners. I’ve taken half a roll of film of him. I baby-talk. I carry on about how cute he is with friends. But the charm is wearing thin. I spend much of my time at home wiping up his pee. He can’t go outside, because the compound’s dogs will eat him. They hover at my door, waiting for their chance. I try to potty-train Jack like a cat. When I go upstairs, he whines. In fact, he whines much of the time. He’s regaining his strength from the weeks growing up in the fields with sparse food. He uses that strength to chew on everything and tear up my papers. I’m missing Hiwot. I’ll eat the pasta; just take care of Jack.

Monday, December 13, 2004

Travelogue 53 – December 13
Kwas and Jack

Ethiopia is hosting a soccer championship for teams from all Africa. I happened to catch the end of Ethiopia’s first game in the tournament, against Burundi. I’ve gotten to be a soccer fan, so I was happy to watch. Of course, I’ve gotten used to European style coverage, where they show minutes and the score, and you can follow along in English or Italian. Here, one of two cameras gamely tracks the ball until it approaches the goal. There, you suddenly see the silver edge of the cameraman’s window. It takes them a couple seconds to switch cameras, during which time you’re not quite sure what happened by the goal. There are a couple of other cameras, actually, the sole responsibility of which are the goalies. Whenever one kicks, you get a long, loving shot of him that includes a few moments of him watching the ball sail, and then watching the game, hands on his hips.

I’ve found a nice afternoon routine for free days. I go back to the athletic fields out behind Gurgi. I believe I wrote about them last spring. To call them athletic fields is visually misleading to a Westerner, who will picture trim, lined, green fields among chain link fences. No, I speak only of function. These are lumpy, trashy, undeveloped lots of land out by the airport. Some of the best runners in town congregate here, along with some decent young soccer players. I should call the game by its true name, igger kwas, (foot ball,) or kwas for short. In the last, golden light of the day, you can see them all out here. The runners are doing drills along trails among brown grasses and so many hillocks that it makes my ankles ache to look at them. The view here is very nice, mountains at one’s back and those alluring, dry hills in the distance, turning purple. Eagles are circling above and whistling. The sun is ready to set over the city. A few games of kwas are going inside rectangles of trampled earth. One is for the big kids in uniforms, and the other for the little ones. The game among the little ones is the wild one. The ball rolls toward me, and I kick it back, right into the cluster of kids sitting on the sideline. The goalie yells at me with a big smile, something along the lines of, “Over here!” I shrug, and continue on to the other side, where I sit on a rock and watch in peace. That’s one beauty about this place: it’s one of the only spots in Ethiopia where I can sit outside and not be pestered. Runners wave politely as they pass. Kwas kids joke about me, but they don’t bother me. A couple bigger guys are playing with the youngsters. The tall, grinning one is good, but he doesn’t hog the ball. He just moves it downfield and passes. The kids bounce it around inexpertly among themselves. Someone gets a good run going the other way. He sends the ball into the legs of one of the sheep that is grazing on isolated clumps of grass near the sidelines. The kids pass again, fighting over possession of the ball far past anything you could reasonably call “out.”

Eventually, as the sun begins to be eclipsed by the southwestern mountain, I get up to go. A trio of shepherds hails me and approaches. I figure it’s money, and I’m not wrong, but they’re offering something for it, a puppy that fits into the palm of my hand. He lies there, on his back, drowsing, tiny paws in the air. He’s a ball of golden fluff, but for a white stripe running up from his nose, between round, black eyes that haven’t been open too long. Well, I fall for it. I pay the $2.50 or so and drop the boy into the outer pocket of my backpack. I’m thinking he could be the school pet. I name him Jack for the time being. He’s very cuddly. The problem with Jack is when you’re not cuddling with him, he raises a heart-breaking whimper and howl until you’re back. I can’t even run to the bathroom without the siren starting up. I think Jack may be another administrative project for Saba. She has a cool and efficient way with my myriad problems.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Travelogue 52 – December 8

“Dance, Sami!” they shout. I’m at the Classic Hotel bar, watching soccer. The Manchester United game is about to begin. We hear him coming, the sound of music from the hallway. He enters, a swaying, dark-skinned man with a radio on his shoulder. “Sami!” they laugh, and they bid him turn it down. He’s drunk, and it takes him a while to be convinced. He makes his rounds, shaking hands and making people laugh. I knew it was just a matter of time until he comes to me. “A white man,” he says, and then he starts up in Spanish. Loudly, he tells me about himself. He studied Spanish in Valencia, he says repeatedly. He lived with a white family. He says he loves white people. “Los negros,” he says disparagingly, “he doesn’t like their mentality. It takes me a while to understand why he’s in Ethiopia. My Spanish isn’t great, and he’s excited to speak it again, so he’s fast. And he’s slurring. He’s here working as a translator. He speaks a number of languages, it seems, including French and English and Ashanti, his native tongue. He’s from Ghana. But I’m more Spanish than Ghanan, he insists. Apparently, he’s even studied ancient Greek. He’s been to Mount Athos. He’s all about Jesus he says. His kids speak Greek. That story is lost on me, somewhere in the Spanish. Five children he may have. At least one is in Topeka, Kansas. Some may be in Thessalonika. “Dance, Sami!” the boys at the bar yell, trying to rescue me. I’m trying to watch the game and listen. Sami turns on his radio and shakes a little out on the floor, but stops, insisting he needs a woman. The boys try to encourage one of the waitresses. He has a tape of Ghanan music. He sets about convincing the boys that he’s from the Ghanan royal family. Apparently, they’ve heard it before and laugh. “Blue blood,” he repeats. It doesn’t seem to translate very directly into Amharic. All of this is conducted in high spirits and high volume, while the rest of the lounge, a Saturday night crowd of relatively staid, middle class Ethiopians, watches mutely. “Dance Ashanti!” They ask him good-naturedly if the Ashanti aren’t kings of all Africa. He has no answer for that, but reverts to what must be his default argument, that black people don’t like him, because he’s more black than white. When they question European colonialism to taunt him, he shouts, “For fourteen hundred years, your deadliest enemy has been the Arabs, and you’re complaining about the Europeans. It’s the Arabs!” At that point, he seems to become conscious of all the eyes upon him, and he hushes us, though he can’t resist whispering again, “Arabs are the bad ones. I love white people.”

It’s been a strange day, another day of exploration. I walked around the neighborhood of Kasanchis in the afternoon, trying to locate a nice restaurant I’d been to in the spring. It’s hot, and I eventually give up, stopping in a little Abasha place. It’s typical, in that it’s deceptively large inside the compound gates. There’s the bar and the pool hall, the patio with some nice tables, and the booths along one compound wall. The regulars glare at me resentfully when I sit, but get over it quickly enough. The gates of the compound are guarded jealously, because this is a poor neighborhood. I’m writing, and ironically, I’m writing about pictures that impress themselves upon the mind and never let go. I see the old man approaching outside the gate. I know he’s looking at me, and I know he’s going to try to enter. I couldn’t see he had a companion, a little boy. When I look again, they’re inside the gate, but hesitating to enter further because the staff is watching them. The boy appeals to me from there. At first glance, it looks as though he’s wearing something on his face, something over one eye. The rest of his face is completely normal. But I realize with a chill that he has some sort of isolated growth out of his skull there. It’s pink and blotchy, about the size of a softball, and my mind doesn’t want to accept it, until he turns and I see the other eye, big and red, blinking against a fly, on the side of the growth. The two are ushered out, and I’m left a little dazed. I’ve seen every sort of twisted, torn, and withered limb here, but this is new. I shut the notebook. Some things take the life out of my little projects.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Travelogue 51 – December 4
Eating Eshet

I’ve been eating eshet for days. Apparently, it’s in season. Suddenly the city is flooded with eshet. Guys from the country walk the streets with piles of it on their heads. At first, I thought it was a big new shipment of ch’at from the east, ch’at being the leaf that is the favorite stimulant in these parts. But ch’at has bigger leaves, and everybody is chewing eshet, not just the bad boys. Eshet is a name for chickpeas. Actually, the more exact term is shimbra, eshet being a general category for raw, unprepared foods. Chickpeas are the raw material for shiro, a soupy, brown sauce that’s universally eaten as “fasting food”. Everywhere, people are sitting around eating chickpeas, picking them right from the stalk. That’s how you do it. You buy a little bundle of the plants, roots, leaves, and all, and you sit down and graze. The plants are of a modest size, growing only a couple feet tall. The leaves are small and similar in shape to locust tree leaves. The peas come in light green pods, from one to three in a pod. These bright green little pods are all over the streets. The chickpeas look like lumpy peas, small and dark green, nothing like what I’m used to calling chickpeas. But they taste good. Yesterday, I’m sitting with my bundle of plants at a new café. It’s a place with a patio that fortunately gets nice morning sun -- that unfortunately overlooks a busy road -- that fortunately, also has a view past the road of the distant hills and the open fields near Bole. People passing on the sidewalk beneath the patio chuckle to see faranj eating eshet. I smile. I wave away the blind man and his begging companion, the old man with blessings, the country girl. A street person strides by happily shouting into a rolled up piece of cardboard that he holds by his ear like a cell phone. He’s laughing and swinging his arms about. The waitresses watch him cheerfully. A truck blows by honking and leaving a billows of black, diesel smoke. A distressed aheya, (donkey) goes crying right out into the street. Somehow he makes it across without getting hit, and without breaking stride. I believe they are magical animals; I’ve seen this miracle before.

I’m exploring the neighborhood. I’m still looking for the cafes where I can sit in the sun. I find another courtyard with tables off the main road. It’s just a square of concrete, half parking lot, half patio, encircled by a bar, a café, and a pool hall. I sit at one table, partially in the shade of its umbrella. I examine the intriguing bit of sculpture in front of the restaurant. It’s standing in the basin of what once must have been a fountain. Inside the basin is pretty blue tile. The sculpture, of plaster or concrete, sits atop a shapeless pile if concrete. It has three interesting figures in the group: to the left is a white woman sitting naked and smiling, pulling a blanket over herself in a kind of dazed and uncertain modesty. Beside her stands a strong Ethiopian woman, gazing into the distance with resolution. Her hair is braided traditionally. She’s garbed in heavy robes. Under one of these robes is a child. All you see of her is her face peeking out shyly. With one hand, the determined black woman shelters the girl. With the other, she holds up a red, metal table umbrella. I’m puzzling over this piece, having given up on being served my coffee, but I’m distracted by the table of giggling young women nearby. I know the giggling is about the faranj. As I pass, they invite me to join them in their lunch of shiro. As it happens, I may like eating eshet, I’m not fond of shiro. I decline. As I’m leaving, one shouts after me that she loves me. I’m just passing a group of men hidden in a leafy alcove. One of them bitterly grumbles, “She loves him.” The others laugh grimly.

I head back toward the hotel where I often dine. The staff knows me and smiles. I read and write at the bar. I try to extract some world news from the confusion of sound coming out of the TV. The set receives several signals at once. But soon, the young man starts up at his keyboard, and the TV has to be muted. This is the latest trend among hotels, the latest notion in luxury here: live lounge music. I sigh and give in to it. Suddenly, it all stops. The place goes dark. It’s a blackout. As they pull out the candles, I gratefully read by the sun’s last light. There’s a small window by my end of the bar. Outside, shadows are settling across the city’s hills, on the forested mountains above, and on the dry hills to the west.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Travelogue 50 – November 26
Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Okay, a personality quiz: It’s 5:30 in the morning. Rank the following noises in terms of their power to irritate or invoke hatred. There’s the call to prayer from the mosque loudspeaker across the street. There is the yapping of the little dog below your bedroom window, a dog with remarkable endurance. There is the man who wakes with the prayer call and revs his car engine just outside your door for ten minutes to warm it up. There is the sudden buzz of a mosquito around your head. I’ve put a lot of thought into this. As many and visceral have been my fantasies about the dog’s destruction, the mosquito has to rank first. The reason is that, out of all these annoyances, the mosquito is the only one that compels action. I must get out of bed, to save the bit of unmarred skin I have left.

I’ve moved into a new house. It’s actually a nice little house, near my earlier neighborhood in the southeastern part of the city. It’s an independent structure within a well-to-do family’s compound. It’s two-story; from the second floor, I have a nice view of the mountains, (and the minaret.) I have a guest room for visitors from America! It’s in a quieter part of town, (generally,) and more affluent, so I’m not besieged when I leave the compound with mockery and begging. It’s close to the airport – another appeal to visitors. And hot water for the shower!

The new place is close to a neighborhood that’s special to me, where my first hotel is located – the site of my first impressions of Addis. There’s my first internet café, where the baristas still remember me. Wesene, the beautiful cashier, invited me to lunch with her family once, though she made clear she’s not one of my fiancees. She lives in a part of town inexplicably called Mexico, in the southwest of the city. It’s funny to hear the taxi guys calling out, “Mexico!” Like a true Mexican, she’s very devout. Almost every day of the month here is a saint’s or angel’s day. On Mary’s day, and a few select saints’days, Wesene lights candles over the money box. The little shoeshine guy still positions himself on the sidewalk outside the café. He’s still as ragged, and still as eager to please. I have him do my disgracefully dusty shoes. Dirty shoes are just bad taste here. I catch many men sneering at my dusty shoes. But I never want to take the time to have them cleaned.

After the internet café, I have an hour to kill. I want to find another café where I can sit in the sun and write. It’s not so easy to find. Abasha, as a rule, complain about the sun. Cafes will generally be situated on the south side of the road, where the building shades outdoor seating, or tables will be gathered under a tin roof or tarp. I happen to run into a taxi driver who remembers me from those first hotel days, though I don’t remember him. I tell him what I’m looking for – it’s a standard question from Abasha on the street that I don’t understand: where are you going? I usually answer, “The moon,” but today I tell the truth. He says he knows a place. “Follow me.” After a half mile, I’m anxious about the time. We’re almost there, he insists, and soon thereafter, we do arrive. We enter a dusty little dirt courtyard, and he shuts the gate behind us. The house has been converted into a bar. The taxi guy shouts at the women there, commanding they bring some chairs out into the sun. We sit in a little circle in the dirt. A heavy older woman sits fanning herself and asks a lot of laughing questions. A couple of haggard young women in traditional white dresses emerge and sit with us. After a minute, the taxi guy excuses himself. He has a phone call to make, and he leaves. The two young ladies tease me. One of them announces she wants to marry me. But she would prefer, apparently, if I were Canadian. A scrawny, middle-aged woman in a disconcertingly see-through blouse starts preparing coffee, and then forgets about it. The young ladies are begging for drinks. I have no money, I tell them. One of my errands today is getting some cash. See-Through brings out some bottles, anyway, bottles of ah-che a sour version of tajj the bright yellow honey mead traditional at weddings. We go on planning our sour little wedding, until I see that it’s time to go. I got no writing done, got no coffee or tea. The girls lazily say good-bye. Miss See-Through badgers me for money. She says those bottles were twenty-five birr each, which is impossibly high. I give her the few birr I have left, showing her my empty wallet, and I run. Later, I have to explain to Leeza’s mother how I spent the morning in a house of ill-repute. She finds it funny. They say I’m a meskin, which is sort of like what you would call Jethro in the Beverly Hillbillies, a poor innocent.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Travelogue 49 – November 22
The Beautiful

How many miles does it take? I’m trying to block America out, being disgusted by the recent news. But America haunts its expats. There really is no escape. Adidas shirts and shouts from street kids – it’s all American, fashion and music and movies. I’m white. I could be Canadian, German, or French, but the heckling is all American. And then, there are the taxis. There’s the mack daddy who picks me up one night. He’s in a plum-colored sports coat and a wide-brimmed fedora. He’s got fake fur on the dash and under the back window, on top of the red seat. He’s got the dash ornament – a circle around a heart stuck with an arrow – and it blinks with lights that are supposed to move around the circle and down the arrow, but the power supply is spotty. He’s got the hip-hop. And, oddly enough, he’s got a picture of Mengistu placed above his rearview mirror. Mengistu was the ruthless Marxist dictator of the 70s and 80s. He tells me he was military in Mengistu’s time. He had fought against the present prime minister’s forces in the north. His wife and child are riding with us. I must be his last fare. The wife is in traditional Ethiopian garb. The baby boy is about a year old. Daddy is continually playing with him. He takes him and bounces him on his knee while he drives. When the boy stares at me, mommy says, “Ababa.” That’s not “Ababa,” as in the name of the city. This is the familiar for “father.” An old man taxi driver, ejects his tape of Ethiopian pop when I get in and puts in a tape of 70s American R&B. Some of it is good; some is “I Believe in Music.” Another young guy, who plays the tough, puts in something in English, something I’ve never heard. It’s a white voice doing something vaguely soul, vaguely hip-hop. I think there must be a big market for second-rate Americans recording in Europe. I’ve heard too many unfamiliar mediocrities in Italy and here for it to be chance.

There’s the day I meet the Ethiopian-American from Washington, DC. He’s been there all his life. It’s obvious from the accent. He sounds black. That makes me happy. I’m not excited by the prospect of meeting the whites here. They fall into a few unattractive categories. They’ve either got the Bradies-on-vacation face, or they’ve got the proud Protestant bustle to their walks. Or, more rarely, it’s the pseudo-Bohemian here to party. This guy is on a visit to family. He’s the suburban father of two back home. Today, he’s relaxing at the café and conversing with whomever is around. We express revulsion for our politics. We shock Sophia with accounts of Marion Barry, and how violent our capital city is. Good fun.

At night, we go to Bole, the refuge of faranj and middle class Abasha. We eat at the Rodeo House. It’s a bar/restaurant decorated in faux Western theme, where Abasha dress up to eat burgers. Inside, part of the wall is Disney log cabin style. One wall is inexplicably made of the round ends of the logs, instead of the sides. Above, where the shiny, over-varnished logs give out, there are all sorts of Reaganesque horse pictures. There’s a “Mexico” wall hanging. The “hamburger,” I’ve noticed, is more expensive than the cheeseburger. The reason, I discover, is that they put ham on the “hamburger.” They just put a layer of lunch meat over the burger patty in the sandwich. Well, on the plus side, their Freedom fries aren’t bad.

I met some Cuban fellows the other day. My pattern overseas tries to assert itself once again. Invariably, no matter what country I’m in, no matter what new language I want to master, I’ll run into Spanish speakers and end up spending too much time in comfortable Spanish. Pablo and Rafael are having a lunch-time coffee Saturday. They have powerful spirits on their breath. They’re here for a year, working at the hospital. They say there’s lots of salsa going on in Bole. They say there are plenty of discotecas and lots, they say with big grins, of chicas fantasticas. Well, I tell them, we’ll just have to go.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Travelogue 48 – November 17
Meditation on the Squatter

It’s a squatter like any other, a small closet of a latrine detached from the restaurant in the back. It’s a cozy, if airy, little space, and blissfully private for faranj. Nobody is staring—though if they wanted to, they could. There are plenty of spy-holes. The door is a battered sheet of tin nailed to a primitive frame of round bahir zaf limbs. Bahir zaf is eucalyptus, the invader from afar that has taken over the ecosystem of the mountains. The name literally means ocean tree. The door hangs pretty loosely on its hinges and never really closes. Similarly, the ceiling is only an approximation of a ceiling – the same kind of hammered tin on a bahir zaf frame. It makes for a nice breeze, and an attractive view of the brilliantly blue sky between door and ceiling. The walls of the room are cinder block, which are covered by white tile up to about three feet. Above that, they’re bare and festooned with cobwebs. I’m not as favorably disposed toward spiders as I once was, but none are out and about. The plumbing is simple. There’s the squat basin itself, the porcelain cover of which has been cracked, so that the concrete hole beneath is partially visible. There’s a rusting shower spout above and a tiny faucet for hand-washing. Beside the squat basin is a tub filled with water. A little, plastic pitcher floats in the water. This is the “flush” mechanism. Completing, pervading, and really overpowering this tableau, is the stench. Does one grow fond of it? Does one miss it when one returns to toilet economies?

Like so much else about this city, it just serves to emphasize the essential awkwardness of being human. There’s nothing graceful about it. A drunk takes a swing at me on the street. He’s shouting something vile about faranj. But the people who gather are smiling – protective but smiling. The drunk man starts asking me if I’m Philistine. I have to say yes. We all laugh, and some boys lead him away. It makes perfect sense somehow. I stop at a café that’s at the top of a steep hill overlooking the street. I think I can enjoy the afternoon there without being hassled. A group of boys below spots me and starts screaming. They jump around and act out a bunch of hip-hop moves for me. They shout, “I love you,” and “Shut up.” The two phrases complement each other perfectly from my experience. I have to wave and give them a thumbs-up. A gaunt, old man starts tailing me on my way to catch a taxi. I can’t shake him; he boards the taxi with me. He wants “one word” with me. He tells me he was in Chicago once thirty years ago. He says he was a sailor on a Greek ship. His eyes are sunken and unfocussed. His breath stinks of alcohol. He wants his “one word.” He seems to forget what the word was for a moment. He says he wants no money. He just needs help buying this medicine. He pulls out an ancient inhaler that he probably found on the street. It just so happens he’s approached me with the same plea months ago and doesn’t remember. His faraway eyes are resigned. He doesn’t have enough to pay for the taxi ride. The ragged boy starts into the café to ask rich patrons for change. It’s the waiter’s job to turn him away. He does it with a smile and a joke, and he passes along some of his own change. This waiter can’t make more than ten or fifteen dollars a month. It’s late at night. The taxi boys are stuffing their vehicles with everyone that can possibly fit. The priest is high on something he’s sniffing in one hand. He has to sit on the van’s wheel well. He objects to that noisily. Everyone idly watches him. His final protest is to tear the corners of the birr he pays. The boy humbly takes them.

And now, here I am on the squatter, meditating the gracelessness of it all. The need never seems to come upon me when there’s a western toilet nearby. And yet, there’s some peace here. No one’s begging; no one’s staring. The sky is blue and clear above. There’s a fresh breeze to battle the stench. And there’s a sense to it all. Graceless as it is, the posture is essentially comfortable and efficient. It all works out. Everything is clumsy; everything is rough. There’s no escape into ease and soft edges. But it all makes sense, an absurd, silly sense. This is a race that is both rawer and wiser than me. I can’t hope to figure life out here, or to find my poise again. That’s all right. Nothing for it but to wash up and head back out into the world.

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Travelogue 47 – November 13
Tips and Bows and Stunts

Marta is pouting. She’s one of the waiters at my morning café. She’s skinny and girlish and has long, straight hair, half-dyed gold. She’s got a cute smile, and now that she’s pouting, she looks like one of our kindergarteners. What’s wrong, I ask her. She can’t relax her worried brows. She launches into a stream of Amharic, from which I can just deduce that some guys walked out on their hisab, their bill. By the way she’s so anxious about it, I assume she’ll have to cover it. She sits on the border of the little garden by my table and continues to pout. Jerusalem, another waitress comes over and commiserates. These two have taken me under their wing. They say they’re my friends; they say they’ll teach me Amharic. There’s not much to say now. I lean back into the sun, pick up my notebook and work a few minutes, put it down. I try to initiate conversation. I ask how old they are. Marta looks so young when she mopes. She says she’s eighteen. Jerusalem is twenty. I ask about money. Apparently, the tips are bad. Maybe a faranj comes and leaves a birr or two. Otherwise, it’s all Abasha tips, five or ten cents. I point at the other faranj at another table. They make faces. He doesn’t leave anything. One macchiatto and he keeps the change. But there’s a table of Abasha professors from the university. Some Abasha are good. So what do you make total, I ask. They say maybe a hundred birr a week, working every day of the week. That’s about $12. Marta pouts some more. I leave double my usual tip when I leave.

It’s Eid today. Ramadan went quickly. About the only time I had contact with it was one day when I ventured into the west side of downtown, where many of the biggest mosques are. I stopped at a café that I remembered from last time. It happens to be next door to one of the oldest mosques in town, and there’s a mob outside. It’s about noon, just about prayer time. I sit down to some tea and cake inside. The TV is silently broadcasting a Van Damme movie. I get hypnotized by all the stunts and bullets and explosions. The next time I look outside, the curb is lined with men standing on their prayer rugs, facing what I would have said was west, but could be north. I believe Mecca is due north of here. I’m assuming this is an overflow crowd from the mosque. I divide my attention between Van Damme driving his motorcycle through a hail of bullets and the prayers. VD stands on the seat of his moving bike the better to shoot; the devout have closed their eyes and raised open hands beside their faces. VD jumps from the seat to sail over the oncoming car, which crashes into the bike; the men outside bow and sink to their knees, all in unison. They mutter prayers together. VD rolls gracefully across the asphalt of the road and bounds to his feet as more bullets skim by; the Muslim men bend forward toward the ground, hands outstretched. This is the act of submission to God. They pull back up erect again, still on their knees, muttering prayers, and then bow to the ground. They repeat this several times. By the time they’re done, VD has escaped into the bayou. When I leave, I have to work my way through a dense crowd, everyone with headscarves or the Muslim caps. I place myself behind a small herd of bugs going my way. The little shepherd girl grabs my sleeve and won’t let go. She grins up at me with a broken-toothed smile. She’s not asking for money. I guess she just wants a pet faranj.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Travelogue 46—November 8

It’s hot today. I’m riding in the back of a taxi in which the windows will not open. I’m sweating and fuming. I’ve already had to walk a good mile in the midday sun because the taxis were scarce. This is a new development here, along with the score of new buildings going up, new restaurants and hotels, all since I was here last: this dearth of taxis when I really need them. My misery is somewhat lightened by an elderly man who sits next to me. He asks if I’m from America, and I irritably expect this will evolve into the usual appeal for money, or stilted series of questions. One of the more common and humorous of the standard queries is what I think of the air conditioning. The first impulse is always to respond with, “What air conditioning?” until I recall that “air,” pronounced like “ayer,” in Amharic means weather, and they’re asking about the climate. “Wonderful, wonderful,” which is the truth, no matter how monotonous the catechism. But this old man isn’t going to ask me about air conditioning. He’s going to tell me that he had American teachers when he was young. I’ve heard this a few times: there’s a lot of good will here from the Peace Corps days. He says the Americans were very good to the kids, and he made lasting friendships with a few of them. “Americans are very sociable, very simple. They like to talk. They go out to the t’ala houses with us.” T’ala is like a home-brew beer. Yeah, that’s Americans, I say, feeling very un-American in my grouchiness. He wants to know which state I’m from. “Minnesota,” and I try to place it on the map for him. “It’s in the middle, the north.” But he knows where it is. “We studied American geography. I know every state and its capital.” He starts reciting state names. “What’s Minnesota’s capital?” I ask. He’s forgotten. He goes on reciting, “California, Nevada, Texas, Nebraska.” “That’s great,” I say, like a Peace Corps volunteer. “Alaska, Hawaii. Hawaii is very beautiful, isn’t it?” “That’s what I hear.” “There was a movie there, Jake and the Fat Man. I like Jake. I like the fat man. He’s dead now.” Hm. “Kentucky, Florida ….” We get off the taxi and I’m surprised that I have to guide him toward his destination. It turns out he’s from Awasa, in the south. He invites me to visit. He says it’s a resort town by a lake. I ask if it’s hot. I’ve been hankering for some hot, dry air. He says it is, and I promise to visit soon.

The kids have been learning quickly. They come tramping in in the morning. I hear them outside my door as I do some early morning work. Then they run outside for play time. After a while, Wogayehu, the teacher, gets them in line and has them do something like calisthenics. With arms straight, they hold onto the shoulder of the kid in front, and, on command, drop their arms, raise them, drop them. They do some little stretches to a chant called out by the teacher. They jump. They sing the “Teensy Weensy Spider” song (or whatever it’s called,) in Amharic, which makes me itch and reach for the night’s sores. And they march into class. A lot of their learning is accompanied by songs and calling out in unison. It’s fun to listen to. They’re also being prepared for our big opening day ceremony, which has been postponed repeatedly while the adults try to prepare. They’re going to sing songs, some in Amharic and some in English. We’ll have them in their uniforms by then. One day I come home during class and sneak in by the back entrance. They’re shouting out something together, following the teacher’s lead. It takes me a few minutes to make it out. They’re shouting, word by word, “Tsegereda Metasebia Atsade Hetsanat,” and repeating. They’re learning the name of the school. Tsegereda is what Leeza was called when she was about their age. Metasabia means something like “Memorial,” though without the morbid tone that the English word has. It’s inevitable, according to human nature, to forget the significance of what you’re doing, and something like this reminds you. I think of Leeza. I wish she could hear them. I want her to know they’re singing her name, in her school.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Travelogue 45 – November 2
Spirit Problems

Well, I’ve been here long enough to settle into a familiar routine. My first task upon awakening is to inspect the night’s war wounds. The bugs have discovered me. And it’s the same mysterious breed, stealth bugs. They leave nary a trace but their itchy bites. I’ve got them all over now. The other day, I awoke with a monstrous welt on my arm – the redness radiating from a particularly malevolent bite. It was that night I made the acquaintance of the spider. He’s about the size of half my index finger. He’s casually sitting atop my love seat (that is, the foam pad with a sheet over it.) My first thought is that he must be the culprit. I shudder to think he was crawling on me in the middle of the night. That almost induces me to crush him, but I like spiders, and in the end, I just guide him outdoors. The cockroaches and silverfish get no such treatment. They die instantly. This morning, it’s a cricket trekking across the room.

My second task is the cold shower. It’s nice how the thought of a cold shower makes one’s bed so cozy. It’s enhancing my dream life tremendously. But some time or other, you’re in the cold water, and you’re wide awake. There’s no middle ground between sleepy and alert. Afterward, I open the doors to the compound. I open the classroom. Our teacher is always here early, preparing for class. I hang around long enough to see the first kids arrive. Their brothers or sisters or grandmothers timidly drop them at the gate. Each child comes in with hands gripping the top of her lunch bag, usually an old plastic one. She gets a kiss from the teacher, and then, with tiny, solemn steps she takes her lunch down the corridor to the kitchen. The steps become light then. She runs back outside to spend the minutes before class playing on the merry-go-round or the swing. Still whenever I come around, they all stop and stare. “How are you?” I ask, and they answer in unison. Rebka comes and takes my hand.

Before class gets going, I leave. Up our busy little street I go, up to the main drag where I catch the taxi. “Hello, Mister,” some say. “Money,” the gang of little boys says. And it never fails to crack them up when I say “Money” back and hold out my empty hand, looking sad and beggarly. At Hanna’s, my favorite café, the waitresses rush to greet me with big smiles. They race each other to be mine because I order a lot and tip. The usual customers, I’ve noticed, order a tea and then sit and stare blankly for a half hour or more. If I’m around, I’m good staring material. I just get out my jarvis papers and edit.

Daniel shuffles up with a salesman’s oily smile. He’s going to sit at my table. That’s not unusual if the tables are filled, but today there are plenty open. He wants to talk. I shut my notebook with a sigh. Daniel: scruffy, graying hair, a few yellow teeth yet, a ragged suit. I’m American? Well, he used to work for an American aid agency way back in the day. In fact, it was when the Derg came to power, the Marxist dictatorship. He barely made it out of the country with his life, to the Sudan. No, I have no family. How about you, Daniel? Well, that’s a long, sad story. The first wife, well, she went mad when the Derg persecuted them. And the second, she had spirit problems. What did you say? At first, I think he’s saying “speech” problems. You broke up because of a speech impediment? “Spirit problems.” It seems the wife is subject to visitations. And this spirit is jealous. “This isn’t your husband,” Spirit would say. “I am.” Daniel replied, in what must have been an interesting debate, “Yeah? Well, who’s paying the bills?” Apparently, this wasn’t a compelling enough argument for the wife. Now we come to the pitch. I’ve heard this one before, from other gaunt figures in threadbare suits. I’ve got an interview today, in Nazarit, but I don’t have the money for the bus ticket. Could you help? It’s only ten birr. Right. Well, here’s one birr, Daniel, for the story. Thanks. Not another word, but like a ghost, he drifts away.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Travelogue 44 – October 27
The Power in the Stomach

This morning, I’m up at 5:30 to go running. It’s a dream surviving from my spring in Ethiopia. I didn’t have any running gear back then, so I made a plan to pack it this time. Of course, that was when I lived about five hundred feet lower, in the southern part of the city, in the valley, where I could run on a wide, deserted, flat avenue for miles. It doesn’t look anything like that this morning. This is Shiro Meda, the northernmost and most mountainous section of the city. I’m running beside the young man who is temporarily working as guard at our compound. He plays soccer in one of the city’s leagues. He’s about half a foot taller than me and built. I’ve come from sea-level Minnesota and find myself heading up at 7500 feet or so, on the road right into the mountains. I’m surprised at how quickly the city is left behind. We’re on a narrow, winding, hilly road, running among high trees, shanty villages and glimpses of steep, green fields. We run beside men and women shuffling downhill to catch the bus, beside old women with bundles of wood on their backs, beside donkeys piled ten feet high with hay. Old women croak “faranj.” Boys out early to kick the soccer ball around are laughing at me. We’re almost at the end of the road, where there is a huge church, when I have to bow out. I tell Desalegn, “Heed,” which means “Go,” though, I might as well be speaking in Shakespearean English: “Heed, lest this old heart doth burst!”

Desalegn is a good guy. Most Ethiopian names, by the way, are either Biblical or they mean something. His means “I’m happy,” and it’s appropriate. He always has a smile and encouragement. He plays with the kids and helps out around the compound when he doesn’t have to. He walks me up to the main road out of concern. Already, I’m gaining some sort of notoriety in the neighborhood. The clean-cut young guys smile and wave, and they shoo away the kids who want to beg. The shady kids sneer and make cutting comments that mercifully I can’t understand. Old people bow. A young woman runs to catch up to me and ask if her son can enroll in the school. I defer to the committee, of course. Just a figurehead am I. As such, I’ve got to look good. They say Bush is a decent runner for his age.

The kids started this week. They are incredibly cute. My favorite is Rebka, a quiet little girl with a perpetual smile. She comes to school in her ragged, pink, ruffled skirt. She watches everyone timidly; she holds my hand. All the kids are amazed the first time they ride the toys that Saba had installed in the courtyard: carousel, swings, see-saw. Their little butts fit perfectly into the seats on the merry-go-round. They ride as it turns with wide eyes and fingers gripped on the arms of the seat.

We found our teacher last weekend. We had heard all about her from Lamlach. She seemed the perfect candidate, with four years experience and training at a government institute. On Saturday morning, I was scheduled to go to Lamlach’s school to meet Wagaiyo, the teacher, and interview her. Well, in a typical interaction in this country, Lamlach was headed for Shiro Meda while I was on my way to her school, which is all the way south. It takes me an hour and a half to taxi there. Traffic is diverted from the road that passes by the palace. Lamlach’s husband greets me and explains what has happened. We’ll wait until she returns, have some tea in his office. “Are you Christian?” he asks, and I know I’m in for a long wait. It seems he is deacon at the Gospel Light Church; a name that makes me think of beer. He’s what is termed here a “Pente.” It isn’t long before he’s repeating emphatically, “You MUST be born again.” He pulls out the Bible, and he has me turn to passage after passage about the Holy Spirit and recite. With a glowing smile that expires from time to time as he reaches for English words, he preaches. “I pray! I say, ‘Help me, counsel me, show me be better. Pray for me.’ Power enters. Here. My body.” And he beams with his hands held over his tummy. “Stomach,” I offer helpfully. “Yes,” he says. “Power comes up from stomach.” He closes his eyes and gives a little jump and demonstrates his tongues. It kind of sounds Italian. “You MUST be born again!” he shouts, and I pray. I pray for Lamlach’s safe return. Nothing comes up from my stomach, but eventually she does return. Wagaiyo is perfect. We offer her the job, and all’s well that ends well. “God is watching over you,” Lamlach smiles as we depart. Amen.

Friday, October 22, 2004

Travelogue 43 – October 22
He’s My Brother

Notice to jarvis-lovers: The internet here has decayed to nearly a standstill. I’ll keep writing, but don’t be surprised if I’m reduced to uploading multiple entries at a time. If there is a lag between travelogues, you may have to catch up. Sorry.

It’s my first morning awakening in the new digs. It’s wonderfully quiet, with the whole house to myself. Kind of lonely, though: only one sow bug stumbling along the base of the bedroom wall. I had more company in the hotel – mosquitoes and cockroaches. And that was a nice establishment, even if it served hourly customers primarily. There was a long mirror beside my bed and condoms on my nightstand. I’m sure hourly rooms are big business in traditional societies like this one. I happen to know that one other customer stayed all night. His car alarm went off once an hour until dawn.

I stroll happily through my new neighborhood as the sun gains strength. I’m on the north side of the city now, old Addis, hilly and poor Addis, administrative Addis, not far from the university, not far from my embassy. The main drag climbs fairly steeply toward the wooded mountain above town. I head downhill, since my house is near the top of the fun section of the street. It’s crowded. The ceaseless appeal for money begins. Eventually, I give in to two boys, about seven years old, who walk along beside me. I sit on the anchor of a low, concrete wall, and one of them shines my shoes. Within moments, a group of country folk gather around, mothers and children, garbed in the stretched and torn dresses of coarse, brown cotton that signal their origins. You find the country people on every street, their rough hands outstretched. They have uniform signals: a drooping of the head to one sign and a sad clucking of the tongue. The shoe-shine boys are not welcoming. They want to shoo them away, telling me they have plenty of money. The gypsies argue. In the end, some of the older shoe-shine boys join in, arbitrating. They say each side should get a birr. Okay.

“There’s a consciousness to beg,” says Yohannes, my newest friend and contributor to the school project (see tesfa.) “We have to change this consciousness.” It’s a refrain I’ve heard before. He speaks very earnestly. I meet a lot of earnest people here. I rather like it. Yohannes is taking me to meet Lamlach, a woman who runs her own lower-primary school. She’s willing to lend a hand. “You’re here to help Ethiopians. I have a duty to help you.” She also is very earnest, but with a broad smile. “God will open doors for you. As long as you are helping people, God will be on your side. He will lead you to the good people. There are cheaters, but God will punish them. Let God take care of them. God is our lawyer,” she says, with generous gestures and glances to the sky. When she speaks like this, I believe, and I am thankful.

Yohannes has a degree in child development. He consults for schools; he’s written a program to teach kids what we in the West have regretfully called “empowerment.” “I teach them to be workaholics,” he says, and I wince. “We must change. There is a consciousness to beg, and we are a country that must work.” I’ve heard many an earnest diagnosis from the young and educated here. It’s heart-felt. It’s strong and optimistic and delivered with sunny smiles. This is a generation dedicated to improving their society. And, as monotonous as the message becomes, it’s never wearying. I’m touched, and I’m impressed with them. A number of them have heard of our project and have contributed in one way or another. These are people who already give from their meager salaries to send small groups of needy kids to school, pay for their uniforms, and buy their books. These are people who volunteer at the crowded orphanages. I’ve seen them lead groups of kids in cheerful and lively discussions about AIDS, or about their responsibilities to give back to their society. It feels like I’ve entered our romantic picture of the early Sixties in America. It’s nice. Who needs post-Reagan irony?

One of the beggars I met with on the street today knew Reagan, by the way. “Where are you from? America? Jimmy Carter! Reagan!” He’s a round, dark-skinned man with dark shades and gaps between his rotting teeth. “Reagan. The one he dies. Reagan. Reagan is my brother. One birr, please.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Travelogue 42 – October 20

Indescribable the sensation of return to this place! From Minnesota’s approaching autumn and London’s clammy clime to brilliant blue in the sky and sun on my back; to the dusty mountains in the distance, the gentle breezes and the gentle faces. It’s like I never left. The girls at my old café cry out happy greetings and we settle into our routine: internet and macchiato. The security guard mopping the steps grins affectionately. The road outside is crowded with the same taxis and traffic. The shoe-shine boys are at their sidewalk stations. The ubiquitous bugs (sheep) scamper by. The radio blares out its same old fare.

One night to the next couldn’t be a greater contrast. First, I’m camping on the floor of Thomas’ tiny but cozy efficiency, watching Dean Martin as secret agent Matt Helm on video. London grinds by out the window. The evening’s conversation at the pub had leapt from movies and art to the headlines, history and politics. The next night, I’m standing at 3 am in the hotel courtyard, fresh off the plane, stars bright and dense above, and packs of dogs howling in the dark streets. I’d forgotten how they carry on at night.

The day starts in a typically random way. There’s a rap on the hotel room’s metal door. I have a call from Sophia, who tells me to call another guy, whose paperwork I’ve brought over from America as a favor for Serawit. He offers to meet me at Saba’s, since I have a lunch appointment there. “Do I?” I ask. So it goes. I wash up and walk the half mile or so to the traffic circle in Magananya, where I hop in a taxi-van. Prices have risen since I left – from 55 to 60 centimes on this ride. The grinning youth collecting fares wants to enact the usual conversation. “How do you find our country?” etc. The exchange is cut short by our poor command of each other’s language. I hungrily take in the passing scenery.

At Saba’s, sure enough, a feast of a lunch awaits me. We have doro wot and injera, (chicken and egg sauce and spongy bread.) We have potatoes fried in egg, a new dish Melesech (Leeza’s mom) tries because she knows the Brits like it. It’s all delicious. Yohannes and Ashu from the local committee (see Tesfa) stop by to welcome me. We talk a little school business, but mostly just catch up. Everyone tells me I’ve gotten fatter. I bitterly blame my drinking buddies back home, but they insist I look better this way. Walking back to the taxi stand, I’m lazy, enjoying the sunshine and the bustle of the street. Something in the tone of the town has changed, it seems to me. People seem mellower. The pace seems slower. Is it the warmth? Is it Ramadan?

In the evening, I eagerly rush to last spring’s hangout, the GG Hotel. They had a beautiful terrace, where I used to watch the sunset. It turns out the terrace no longer exists. They’ve renovated, destroying the terrace and also the bar where I used to watch soccer and the news. Instead, they’ve opted for a traditional style restaurant. My old waitresses are dressed up in costume and the tables are all about six inches from the ground. They have a token table outside on a micro-terrace. I watch the sun set on top of the brown mountain southwest of town, and listen to the construction across the street on a new six-floor-and-counting building. Addis is booming. Night sets in. I sit at the bar writing, and the bartender asks me with a generous smile, interrupting my work, why I’m alone, why I have no friends. I answer, “Why not?” and he repeats the question.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

Travelogue 41 – October 17
Hallowed Halls

My guilty pleasure in London: taking an hour of good touring time to read the Guardian. It’s so nice to linger over a good newspaper. Of course, an American never escapes America. The headline story is all about a survey done in a dozen countries or so around the world that finds a nearly desperate desire to see our current president sent packing.

The stars and stripes are flying over Westminster Abbey the first time I see it. The first time in two hundred years, it turns out – it’s flying for the memorial service for Alistair Cooke. It’s an odd impression when you’re standing in the shadow of Big Ben and the English Parliament.

I return to the abbey Saturday for evensong. Under the high, vaulted ceilings, surrounded by solemn centuries of stone, it’s an intensely stirring experience. The choir enters, proceeding in two rows down the nave, in red robes, boys first and then the men. Their voices weave a spell that’s everything one would care to call spiritual. Eventually, one realizes they’re singing the 109th Psalm, a violent cry for revenge by the psalmist.

Before the service, I look around at the monuments – Isaac Newton’s grave is directly in front of me – and I’m astounded to see an inscription in Amharic, the Ethiopian script, on a grave dated 1674. It’s engraved among Hebrew and Greek. It may be a verse in Ge’ez, the forefather of Amharic and the Biblical language of Ethiopia. I stand and go to one of the gentlemen in red set about the room to make sure we behave. With a gust of boozy breath, he explains that the man behind the monument was quite the “jack-a-lad,” pointing to the two side crests for his wives. It’s on one of these that the Amharic is inscribed. We’re interrupted by another stern red-robe, who rebukes me for having left my bag unattended.

I leave the abbey without getting to see the Poet’s Corner or the coronation throne because weekends are only for services. I rush away to another house of worship, the huge British Museum. I have time before it closes to see one exhibit, the one I’d come for: the Elgin Marbles. These are the sculptures pried from the surface of the Parthenon by Lord Elgin. It’s no longer polite to call them by the pirate’s name, but I do so because I associate them with the poem written by Keats when they arrived in London. With due reverence, I study them, men grappling with centaurs, gods caught lounging in superhuman dimensions in the pediment of the temple. It’s like glimpsing the birth of western art. Ardent love of man is emerging from ardent love of gods. Philosophy and ideas of beauty are being born. I might say humanism, but I know that’s a despised term by one and all these days. I’m not sure what our gods among men are preparing to replace it, but the rest of us carry on. We bring our sacrifices to the temple. By the way, as far as I can tell, it seems the centaurs won the battle.

The sun has set behind the clouds, and I rush off again. “Next stop is Angel.” I like the sound of that. It’s a bit of a hipster’s neighborhood, judging by the blandly world-ubiquitous rebel styles. I turn right and follow the line of old, brick row houses down Noel Road, down to the Island Queen, my pub for the week. Despite its Mississippi steam boat name, it’s the stock Victorian pub, all red inside, with a horseshoe bar, ornamental sculpted ceilings, frosted glass and tall mirrors, etchings of clipper ships. It makes me happy. The manager makes me happy. She has bright blue eyes that lavish me with affection. My dull grey ones return the sentiment. I ask her to marry me so I can be an EU citizen. She, with heaving bosom, (I’ve been dying to use this expression, and who knows if I’ll get another chance?) with heaving bosom, I say, she offers to dedicate one of the evening lotteries to my enterprise in Africa. I sigh with delight. It’s all rather shameless, I know, but what cause, no matter how great, goes uncorrupted for long?

Okay, off to the next house of worship.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Travelogue 40 – October 15
I’m Back in Time

I’m a commuter in London. I push myself into the morning train. From Thomas’ neighborhood, the “tube” is above ground. Every stop is the same – brown, dirty brick and sullen faces. The faces are all colors. I haven’t seen such eclectic and even human diversity since, perhaps, Toronto. There are certainly a lot of Africans. We crowd in; we sway with the acceleration. A stout older woman with false flaxen hair scowls at me, and I realize that I’m smiling. But I have a right; I’ve recovered from the travel. I’m alert and strong, thanks to a full night’s sleep. I arrived yesterday after a sleepless night on the plane. Even with a personal video screen and my choice of movies, even seeing the aurora borealis over Greenland, the red-eye is hell. I can’t even say it’s a nightmare, since that takes sleep. It doesn’t help that my thoughtless friends kept me out until two the previous night. (Don’t listen to their protests that it was me.) I got to London in the morning and, after an hour’s nap at Thomas’, I attempt some sight-seeing. It makes for one of the more dangerous interludes in jarvis history. I’m blinking and stumbling about the bustling lanes like a stunned animal, utterly confused by the change in directions of traffic. I assure you, they don’t brake for dazed tourists. I find myself in a street market and I dig through my new pence in order to buy some fruit. (There’s no logic to the sizes and colors of these coins.) I confront the street again, purposely standing next to two bobbies, (one black and one Indian), in hopes they’ll keep me from stepping out into traffic looking the wrong way. And what do I accomplish? A dreamy tour of Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square. I watch with bleary eyes a changing of the guard. They look as silly as any men do marching with guns alone under a big sky. Why not wear silly hats to acknowledge it? I make it to Trafalgar Square and sit next to the blonde Japanese toughs I saw last year in Florence, and I admire the monuments of empire.

Today I’m a commuter in London. My job: to admire more spoils of empire in the National Gallery. I’m transported to the Renaissance again, taking in works I’ve seen reproduced in books: the Arnolfini Portait by Van Eyck, smaller than I expected and astounding in its detail; The Ambassadors by Holbein, with its irrelevant puzzle of a skull laid across the very real tiles they stand on, the living eyes of the brothers; the tender and mysterious Virgin of the Rocks by DaVinci -- the angel’s eyes are glowing, and why are they in the Bat Cave; Caravaggio, Piero della Francesca and Botticelli; the marvelous sensitivity of Rembrandt. You see the paint on his canvas. You try to measure the effect. But you will never figure out how the portraits come to life. I tag along with a tour. The witty black tour guide points to the black king Balthasar in Gossaert’s Adoration and recounts the checkered history of the wise men, never enumerated in the Bible but vivid in art and on American’s front lawns at Christmas. Is Balthasar still black on Alabama lawns?

Big Ben, the Tower, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and in between, a big city. I have a hard time feeling like I’m in Europe. Dr. Johnson’s house, the monument commemorating the fire of 1666. It’s all here, everything I’ve eagerly read about. And in between, the big city. The past is here, but it isn’t breathing. All there is of London now: the fire-engine-red, double-decker buses and the accent that I never stop delighting in. They crack me up, this rainbow of the world’s faces, all talking like John Cleese. I sip my tea and listen, watching the unceasing, gentle rain outside. This is London.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Travelogue 39
Peace in Pounds

It's a blustery and pleasant day, perfect for jumping on the bike and gaining a few pounds. That's right, my patient readers, this reporter is finally preparing to hit the road again. Next stop, London. Today's battle against sedentariness: going to exchange a pocket full of dollars. (Now, Webster's says there is no noun to accompany "sedentary." If any adjective deserves a noun, wouldn’t you think it was sedentary?)

And, what's more, it's time to get me to a nunnery. A few blustery and pleasant days ago, I drove to Wisconsin again, this time in search of a host of good sisters. It's part of my research for Zlaty Pes, jarvis' opus #1, the novel under construction. And if that grand work ever progresses far enough, you'll find Chapter One available at Secretly, the trip is also a hungering in my blood for tradition. I launch myself upon our great thoroughfare, I-94, and it wasn't too far beyond city limits that the scenery began speaking. The sumac is burning cardinal and waving gently, whispering, "Jarvis, Jarvis. This way. It's east. It's east, your Bohemian roots, and the House of our Beneficent European Lord." I enter the St. Croix River Valley, wide and gorgeous. The trees climbing the banks of the river shore are bursting with color and they call me on. The water is broad and sleepy, more Mississippi than the Father of Waters himself. Across the line, quaint towns dot the shore selling antiques and vistas. Quaint townspeople crawl along the several streets parallel to the river in their SUVs, turning toward home up the steep roads climbing bluffs, heading into the beer-soaked hills. And it's up in these hills I find the sisters. They inhabit a house on the crest of one shady hill. You pull into their semi-circular drive, under pious pines. You bow uncertainly before the white, waist-high Mary, who acknowledges you without moving. It's that humble and knowing at-the-same-time look, and the palms open at her sides, invoking grace and at the same time giving up on you, shrugging to God and saying, "What can I do?"

The door is answered by a short and wizened old woman. Her hands are gnarled. I think I recall her wearing all white and glowing, but that could be a trick of memory. She says her name is Sister Gemma. Gemma, I mistily recall, means "twin" in Italian, and I try to decipher that. It only reminds me of baseball at the moment. Later, I think she says her name is Sister Yama, which gives me a chill, as that name I have always associated with the Angel of Death. Maybe this is an omen about our playoff chances. She asks me what I teach, and I am further spooked because I never mentioned my career. I try to stammer about jarvis' literary project and my mission, and she makes a wry comment like, "So you thought you'd better meet a real nun." Yes.

She offers to show me to the hermitage, and I think I had better just follow. We get in her SUV and coast a hundred yards down the gravel path beside the monastery to park in front of the cottage. She guides me in. The one room cottage looks eerily like my mother's bedroom in the Seventies, but with Munch-like representations of Christ on the walls. Sister Caroline is scrubbing the bathroom tiles. I nod and say how pretty it is. We sit on the screened-in porch. She asks about my classes again, and I learn she's confused me with someone else who wants a retreat in my mother's bedroom. I learn a little about Sister Gemma. She's been here since the monastery opened in 1963. She was prioress for a while. The sister has a terse and complacent way of answering questions. I set up the scene in jarvis' opus for her. She volunteers nothing, but responds in blunt phrases when I formulate more defined questions. Her summing up, delivered in a tone that might be irritable if it weren't sanctioned by God, is, "It's fiction. You can do whatever you want." Well, so it is.

I ride blissfully down the hill again, contemplating peaceful sisters with gnarled hands. Gemma. She's like a saint, sitting in her porch chair, gazing at the sky, so satisfied with the world. She's like a Twin, sitting in the dugout, gazing at the struggling pitcher, so satisfied with the chaw. Haven't you ever noticed the complacency of a baseball player in his dugout? I want to face disaster with that kind of equanimity. Twelfth inning double by the opposing team: chew, chew, scratch my groin. I like that. The four horsemen are released. It's Famine, Plague, and the skinny, old guy with the scythe: chew, chew, scratch my groin.

It's a blustery and pleasant day, one of my last in America, and a bunch of us are headed to Game Three of the playoff game with the Yankees. Too bad the Metrodome has a roof. But hey, God smiles on us anyway and Mary rolls her eyes. The saints will chew their cuds, come what may, and the managers will touch their groins till the last strike. And I think I'm on the road to authentic religion, opus or no opus.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Travelogue 38
Autumnal Rain

"How can you tell if you're sweating when the sky is pissing on you?" That's my thought of the day, I guess. I woke up feeling under the weather and decided, as often I'm led to do by some strange daemon, to "sweat it out." I'm running, slowly and painfully, in a chilly, light rain -- "under the weather." I am succeeding in punishing myself. But the question arises, "Am I sweating anything out? Am I sweating?" My heart is pounding, dully. I suppose that is something. I surrender to my suffering. I surrender to the humiliation of jogging along like an old man, slower than students striding along under their umbrellas. That's all right. It's fall; I derive some comfort in that. Underfoot, on the gleaming sidewalk, are curling, yellow leaves. Above, most of them are still green. But here and there are rashes of bright color. There are patches of apple red. There is yellow like summer squash and orange like pumpkins. My misery is compounded with hunger. I didn't bother to eat any breakfast. My hands hurt. Later, passing the bank, I see that it's 37 degrees out. That's kind of exciting: I had wanted to experience some real autumn before I left town. Late September was surprisingly moderate and sunny.

It's autumn. Sports on TV seem to take on new urgency. Teams are competing for championship spots in baseball. The Minnesota Twins have won their division and are in a nosedive now that will drop them right into Yankee stadium for some man-handling in the first round of championship games. Monday night football has started up. It's fun to watch in a distracted way, if you happen to be in the bar, -- that is, once the game has begun. The pre-game can be confusing. You're submitted to a long blitz of blustering, hyper-visual, and absurdly ebullient self-promotion before the game that makes you mentally check your calendar. Is it Monday after all? I mean, we're all here to see the game. What exactly are you selling? It reminds me of the odd tradition here of including a preview on your rented movie video for the movie that's on the cassette. I don't understand.

It's autumn. Guys are running for president. I watched two of them debating last night. I noticed some subtle maneuvers by the troll-like one on the right. He keeps repeating in a variety of contexts, "It's a hard job." I think he's trying to discourage the other guy from wanting the position. He stares blankly, and he stutters, "It's a hard job." He goes on to challenge his opponent with statements like, "What kind of message is that to send to our soldiers?" It reminds me of some board meetings I've sat through recently. You're thrown off by strange challenges like that, if you're not careful. You look around and try to remember which meeting you're in, or which rally. Actually, I felt sort of guilty watching these debates, like it's cheating. We're really supposed to wait for the media analysis, when the troll's flustered repetition becomes "staying on message," and the way he hunches over the podium and wrinkles his brow helplessly become "folksy" and "real."

Anyway, I'm out running and the road is glassy and black. I see the reflections of the trees in the wet surface. Cars are hissing. There aren't too many pedestrians anymore. Everything on the smaller streets is hushed. I like seeing the raindrops in the puddles and the breeze that shakes more water out of the tree limbs. I'm easing into a pleasant rhythm with my running. The punishment is paying off, perhaps -- if you judge by the way it isn’t so punishing anymore. And the rain's not coming down too hard. I judge by the dampness of my shirt. It's wet, but I could swear it's been wetter from sweat on summer afternoons.

Circling the empty baseball diamond in the park, I pass on my right the hulking, white, old grain elevator with the unfortunate name of Bunge. With the high tower and the pulley up near the top with rope that hangs all the way down, it just seems too obvious a suggestion to a frat boy. But no one's done it this year. And it's too cold today. They're all inside. The lonely tower projects into the sky. Shreds of dark cloud race along behind it. Things take on a solemn timelessness in fall weather, and you get to feel lost. I think that's a good Midwestern remedy for feeling under the weather.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Travelogue 37
Mogadishu and Bedrock

Last night we went to see a film produced locally and screened at the Minnesota Historical Society. There was a packed house, and most were white people, surprisingly. The film was the project of a group of Somali high school girls, and it tells the story of Somalis in Minneapolis. In case you think this sounds obscure, let me inform you there are, according to official numbers, 30,000 Somalis in the Twin Cities. Some unofficial estimates range as high as 70,000. It was upbeat and positive. I enjoyed the occasional traditional song and dance because they're similar to Ethiopian. It was fun after the show when the high-schoolers took the stage, swaying, giggling, leaning on each other, and speaking confidently in that strange accent that's half Somali and half hip-hop. These are the same girls who spoke into the camera with the hijab over their hair, swinging their hands like rappers, with quick banter and cocky smiles, all the world as though they're staging a music video. The Somali boys from their schools mock them from the audience. They answer back that it's the men back home who screwed everything up. It's time for the women to take over. The theme of the film is two cultures, one heart. They say they aren't losing their old culture; they just get confused navigating the new one. Aren't we all in some stage of culture shock, anyway? I should join them onstage and recount my strange adventures here this summer. Like traveling home at 4:30 the previous morning from Troy's place on my bike. I sway and weave about as much as they do when they stand onstage, though with different reason. I'm pondering drunkenly how autumn has descended. When I first arrived here, at the height of summer, the sun was rising at this hour. Now it's pitch black out, and I'm hitting all the potholes in the roads. I thought I already had every pothole and crack in this city's roads pounded into my subconscious. Maybe it's just that the subconscious unravels a bit under chemical duress. In "Life On The Mississippi," Mark Twain describes training under a strict steamboat pilot when he was young. "You only learn the shape of the river," he screams at Twain, "and you learn it with such absolute certainty that you can always steer by the shape that's in your head, and never the one that's before your eyes." I think I'm approaching that kind of mystical union with the macadam. The other night I tried for a physical union. Again under chemical duress, I set off from the bar, searching behind me for a glimpse of my departing friends. Three Somali boys stroll up to me as I lie on the street's blacktop on my back. I've managed to work my shoulder back into its socket and now I'm laughing. They shrug in their streetwise way and ask, "What happened, man? Are you a little drunk? You hit this median and flipped right over your handlebars." I sit up and wave to the crowd on the balcony patio of the bar across the street. "Maybe a little drunk. You're good guys to check on me." "Whatever, man," they smirk. I carry on. The next morning, I crawl out of bed and get right back on the bike. A mile from home, I find myself in the midst of a crowd. They all have numbers on their backs. Some are jogging. There are no Somalis here, but I do spot Fred and Wilma. I see an assortment of other types of head gear: pizza boxes, bunny ears, Santa hats, and Viking helmets. I see women in wedding dresses, and I see women in flesh-colored tights sporting big, black bars across breasts and groin. There's someone in a Tweety suit. Another guy has a stuffed, green Shrek in a baby backpack. It's day of the "Blubber Run", an annual 5K sponsored by a local brewing company. Nobody I see is setting any records, probably because many of them have stopped at the halfway point for their free beer. Now they're panting toward their final reward of more beer at the end. We cross the Stone Arch bridge together, (see previous travelogue reference….) On the other side, they turn for a short spur in the course to the right, where they will double back and then up go up the hill across from the bridge. A sign informs them that if they go right as they're supposed to they'll get the full five kilometers they signed up for. But it also says, with an arrow to the left, "Short Cut, 3.75K, This Way." It's a mellow athletic event. I coast along behind Fred for a while. As you know, I have an appreciation for traditional costume.

Monday, September 13, 2004

Travelogue 36
Pictures of Paradise

Browsing the dollar box outside my favorite used bookstore, I came across and purchased a novel written not long after I was born, called "Dana, the Irrelevant Man," by a man named Cater. Now, who still denies that God is speaking to His-Her-Its creatures? These are the signs that one keeps by one's bed. I'll let you all know if there's a happy ending.

Eman was in town last weekend. I call her in the morning, and I say, "Hi Eman. What's new?" In a low, querulous tone, she answers, "Oh, nothing's new." I ask her, "What's happening?" "Nothing's happening," she snaps. "How's it going?" I continue, and I'll go on until she laughs. She hates this American ritual. "What could be new? We talked last night."

She gushes about Wisconsin. Her instructors are all brilliant. The town is pretty. She has new friends all lined up for the coming year. In one class, she's the only woman. She has a new car that she drove home Friday evening. It's going to be a wonderful year.

I should finish my Wisconsin narrative from last week. But I'm afraid I've waited too long. As all stories do, this one has degenerated into a set of vague pictures in my mind. There's the drive down from Menomenie, for instance, to meet up with Craig in Trempealeau. It's a couple hours of golden sunshine and green hills, rolling fields and farmhouses, woods and pretty little outcroppings of rock. And there's the tireless paean to the Badger State coming from the passenger side. "Oh, it's so wonderful! I've got to win the lottery and buy that house, right there. No, there. Everyone can come visit! It's so cute!" And so on. The sun was setting over the promised land by the time we got to the little town of Trempealeau.

Pictures of Trempealeau: the first is of the river. This town of about three or four blocks in either direction is set on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi, due south of Eman's new paradise, and right at Lock and Dam Number Six. The river is wide here. You look across at Minnesota, and it’s a dark line of bluffs at sunset. Some tiny headlights mark the highway. The distant sound of a train tells you that the other side has tracks just like this one. To the left is the long concrete dam. To the right, the river broadens upstream. Trempealeau Mountain rises to an odd point just behind the two or three blocks spreading past Main Street.

Picture Number Two: the Trempealeau Hotel. It's a nice tourist spot. There's a nice bar and restaurant. The latter has a screened-in porch with a view of the river, out past their lawn and the bandstand and the picket fence. They serve a good catfish. Ironically, today's front page has a story about river fish showing a high concentration of Prozac. And, indeed, we're all in a good mood. Craig shows up. Craig's friends show up -- a crew of motorcycle enthusiasts (they don't like the term biker) who gather here every year around Labor Day. They're all in good spirits and friendly. There's eating and drinking aplenty. Some of us play "Horse" on the basketball court in the back. Craig gives Eman a ride on his bike. I take a picture as he starts off with a little wheelie and she clenches his leather jacket with two little fists. The night dissolves in my memory into sketches of silliness. There's a bar on the other side of town -- that is, two blocks away -- where we play pool. Eman is bored, but I point out that this is Wisconsin. We quiz her about Packers and mullets. We marvel at how cheap the drinks are. One of our new friends mixes a syrupy, orange, caffeine-and-alcohol drink from a can into her blue vodka. It tastes revolting, but it seems to help her game. Someone has brought costume teeth. Craig tries on the vampire teeth, and every time he leans toward Eman -- and I mean every time -- she screams and slaps him. The night ends at the picnic tables in back of our hotel, where we drink the beers we not-so-subtly sneaked out of the bar. Some guys are spreading sleeping bags in the bushes. One guy sits conversing at the table in nothing but his cowboy hat.

The ride back: a bit of a blur because sleep was not easy. The train runs by the hotel, along the river, about every twenty minutes. And the room was stifling. I resisted drinking water because there's one bathroom for the entire floor, and a coupe guys are snoring in their sleeping bags out in the hallway. It's a lovely drive, though. Eman is too tired to gush, but I know she enjoys it. You pass by Lake Pepin, which is actually a piece of the river that widens out to an impressive breadth. It's bound by pretty hills and more picturesque towns. One town, named Alma, has a scenic vista that is worth the stop, even when you’re as painfully sleepy as I was. You drive up around the backside of the town's looming hill, park and walk to the edge, and a few counties emerge below you, and the winding Mississippi with a cluster of islands and marshes. You rest on the rocks at eagle's height and resist turning back to drive the rest of the way back to the city.

Monday, September 06, 2004

Travelogue 35
Strangers in the East

Eman and I drove to Menomonie the other day. That's in Wisconsin. She's enrolled in a graduate program in the university there. It's a big move for her, and we have all tried to prepare her for it. She's been in the U.S. for eight years now, but that mysterious land to the east -- Wisconsin -- we just weren't sure she was ready. For one thing, she has no taste for beer. We spent a couple weeks trying to train her, but she was stubborn. She reverted to wine every time. Wine in a Wisconsin bar? We told her how some wines come in boxes. But, really, she is being too glib about it all. I'm afraid she will have to learn the hard way. There's the cheese thing. I thought I had a teaching tool there. Ethiopian women like to put butter in their hair to condition it, and Eman does it more often than most. Visit her at home and watch it drip down her brow. I've taken to calling her kibi ras, which means butter-head. You can see where I'm going here: in Wisconsin the people are called cheese-heads, and often drive around with plastic blocks of it on their heads as hats, especially in Green Bay. She doesn't like football! We did our best to explain the place of the Packers in their hearts. She just laughed. One thing going for her is that Wisconsin people are generally much friendlier than Minnesotans, which isn’t saying much. But here again, we ran into communication barriers. She had never heard of a mullet. "Business in the front and party in the back," Troy explained. She was confused. We began to worry about her. So I decided I had better escort her there for her first trip.

About a half hour outside of Minneapolis, you cross into Wisconsin, passing over the wide and lovely St. Croix River. Almost immediately, the hills start. Where Minnesota is disturbingly flat, Wisconsin is wall to wall hills. They're small and rolling -- no mountains. Some of them are kind of funny-shaped, vestiges of glacial days, I hear. But all of it is scenic and rustic. Lots of corn and soy stretching off in rows, farmhouses and their silos on hilltops, cows grazing. Eman was gushing about her new home state; that is, until the huge Bush signs began appearing in the fields beside the highway. And I can't wait to see what she thinks in November, when all these pastoral scenes begin to take on the appearance of war zones, orange-vested hunters stalking among the woods and tiptoeing through the fields.

We arrived in Menomonie and scouted around for the university. It's near the old town center on the southern shore of Lake Menomin, (which means "something" in Amharic, by the way.) It was a pretty day, bunches of white clouds shaped like turd piles scudding across a bright blue sky over the green, turd pile hills. The lake was radiant, and I use that word literally because it glows in spots a strange neon green. Later, walking along the lakeside, I saw the culprits: tiny, one-leaf water plants like moss floating together like oil slicks close to shore. Kind of strange.

The town is standard, upper Midwestern fare: a few blocks of squat, stone buildings from the end of the nineteenth century, some of which are delightful with their elaborate, Victorian-era carvings, turrets, and arches. The rest is wooden boxes from a later era and bland offices and bars. I had time to kill, so I stopped in an internet café close to campus. It was empty except for the owner, a lively, cross-eyed old man (can I say coot affectionately?) with shreds of gray hair straying from under his cap. He's got plaid on, of course, and loose, old polyester slacks. He's beaming a toothless grin at me and wants to know who I am. He tells me all about his place. He established it for the kids -- "leave them money and they'll just fritter it all away" -- but found that he had such fun, he spends more time there than anyone. "It's a three-ring circus in here, I tell you." It's a Spartan place, hardwood floors and random desks with an assortment of computers. He's obviously a technology nut. The screen savers are pictures of college boys sleeping on the beat-up couches. The browser is an alternative variety, a free download from the web. There's a mixer and a mike up front. He can't pay anyone to play, but he broadcasts their performances on a web cam. "There's so many kids in here on a Saturday night, you have to come in the back door to get to the bathroom. Oh, it’s a hoot."

More on Wisconsin …

Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Travelogue 34
The Body

On the tranquil north side of Nicollet Island, there's a small, old bridge that crosses the stream of the Mississippi that separates island from land. It's one of those ancient trestle bridges that abound in historic Minneapolis. Its span is laid with planks wide enough only for pedestrians. A metal plaque informs me it was built in 1901 and designed by a man named Loweth. I stop in the middle of the bridge to space out for a while, wage the day's battle with melancholy. On the island side is a steep, wooded bluff that fishermen climb down in order to sit by the calm water. On the other side is a park. This morning, the sky is an odd patchwork of blue and rain. Dark water laps soothingly against the shores. A fish jumps. Intriguingly, there are a few spots in the water below that reflect the light in lines and shadows, so that the small waves create a pattern like a topographical map. The exact shapes never repeat. I'm studying this phenomenon when an old man approaches. He is white-haired and wears big, square glasses. His nose is veined. He looks at me and asks, "Have they found the body?" I don't know. "A lot of them end up around here," he says. It seems there's a body from Fridley due to pop up. Nothing. He nods briskly and moves on.

The meditation is blown. Now I'm glancing around for bodies. It's my civic duty, I suppose. I get back on my bike and ride along the river. I can't help but scan the shores. Crossing the wide Plymouth bridge, I'm staring over the side. The current is unmarred by human flotsam. On the other side I head back downstream. I hit one of the little showers drifting over the city. I pass a forlorn man who is blowing leaves from the bike path. Further on, I ride over the white figure of a man painted onto the path to indicate it's a pedestrian path. Someone has chipped away his head. Seems a sign of my mission. I stop and wait on a wet bench. Nobody passes but a living young woman with a huge lens on her camera and an intent, determined smile. Her vista will be won. Maybe she's a crime reporter.

I give up and head into the Warehouse District. This is a district on the north side of downtown, along the river. Its square, Chicago-style quaintness was a lot more quaint before the 90s boom discovered it and made it an investment. Now, instead of blank, brick walls, empty windows, and a feeling of history, you've got coop balconies overhead and boutiques below. There's still a bit of atmosphere. The café recommendation for this part of town: Moose and Sadie's. Sit among the yellow brick and wood, below the air ducts, and watch artists and software engineers mingle. Wonder at the familiarity of the faces. "They're still all here," you muse -- that is, if you're a Minneapolitan who has returned from far away. "They're still here. Time is strange." You'll watch the healthy young window-washer, soapy brush in one hand and squeegee in the other. Each tool is given an expert turn across the glass. He gets a patch of sunshine on his shaven head, but he doesn't seem to feel its warmth. You'll notice how the highest windows are warped and ripple like water in a transparent stream. You'll notice an old man with red veins on his nose entering, and you'll feel apprehensive.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Travelogue 33

I emerge from my basement cubbyhole. It's not all that early, but Dinkytown is quiet. It's Sunday morning. I heard Craig get home after bar time last night and crank up his P.J. Harvey. This morning, on the porch, there's an open bottle of dip beside the chair, and an empty can of malt liquor.

My party yesterday died with the light. It was a barbecue at Abebaw's place: chowing on chicken legs and beef strips while we sit in a circle in the lawn out back. Those Midwestern monster clouds are floating overhead, making us shiver and making the Canada geese squawk like winter's coming as they fly by. We're listening to DeJunius, the neighbor, tell us about traveling to Madison to see Otis Redding play in 1967, only to find out Otis' plane had crashed that afternoon. He's been working on a documentary about that event for some time. He's a film maker. He's almost 70, but you wouldn't know it. Maybe his moustache is gray; maybe he's a little bent when he walks, but his skin is clear and smooth. He looks you in the eye with a generous smile and asks you where you're from.

My daily routine begins with a bike ride to the coop. Minneapolis is a town where you can be very healthy. There are half a dozen natural foods coops around, four of them within biking distance of my house. I dodge around the plentiful bottle glass in the roads, another sign of the return of college season. Crossing the bridge, I listen to the geese still complaining, and I watch the lone woman skulling upstream. The coop is empty. I wander among the bins of fruits and vegetables, among the bins of bulk grains, by the shelves of advocacy and Bush-hatred. Just yogurt and a muffin for me.

My café is also quiet. It's family time. Little kids with their parents, big kids with their parents. A couple old-timers work on crossword puzzles. I glance over an article in the paper about a local wrestler. Not Greco-Roman, mind you. Apparently, there are a set of clubs for novices in "professional" wrestling. I hadn't thought about it, but I guess beginners have to start somewhere. There's a huge picture of a scrawny guy grimacing, spread over the ropes at the side of the ring with a shoe across his throat. The quote in bold below the picture is his. He's saying wrestling is "finally something I could do." In another story, I see the comedian Joe Piscopo is considering a run for the New Jersey governorship, taking over from the man who had to admit, (with his wife standing loyally behind him,) that he was gay.

By afternoon, the place will be back in its regular swing. The 80s music will replace the soothing Latin crooning. Style will re-emerge: mop-tops and midriffs, retro shirts with unbuttoned cuffs and the right boots, ironic pigtails and painfully unironic ponytails. Laptops will swing open on every table. To the tune of "Turning Japanese" you order from the big guy with silver-painted fingernails. He's declaring that he wishes Madonna and Prince would make a suicide pact. "They're done." But he goes on to defend Madonna's voice from a mop-top's attack, proceeding to warble "Border Line" for him as rational proof. Kramer gazes from his oil portrait over our heads, bemused.

I think about silence. I was talking the other day, sitting in this very seat, with a guy who had been through a meditation camp. For ten days, he meditated from four in the morning until nine in the evening. And for the first nine days, he wasn't allowed to talk. His eyes are bright with wonder and gratitude as he describes the rigorous practice of this meditation, as he describes how his life is changed. He's sure he will never need crack again. He says he's never felt that way coming out of conventional treatment programs. His eyes waver a bit with shame. I'd like to tell him there are better reasons for shame, but silence seems best. Around us, the chatter churns on. The man with the long, red ponytail who works in the magic shop down the street stops to adjust his kilt.