Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Travelogue 90 – July 26

On my flight from London, I sit next to a young man returning to Iraq. I gather somewhere along the way that he is Kurdish. He’s happy to fly. I’m judging he’s never done it before; I have to show him how to find his seat and how to buckle his seatbelt. He wants to know where the toilet is. He excitedly peeks at his cell phone throughout the flight, the screen of which features an unflattering, candid self-portrait. When he’s not doing that, he’s leaning over me to gaze out the window, his hand on my arm, even when there’s nothing to see but cloud tops. He turns to me with a wondering smile.

The innocent Kurd disembarks in Amman, a stop that the flight makes on the way to Addis, and I can’t help wondering what kind of dangers await him after his next short flight. Most of our passengers leave with him, one of them in a gurney. A Jordanian emergency medical team boards and escorts her off the plane. I don’t know what happened to her. She’s apologizing to us as she goes. After that, it’s quiet. For four nighttime hours, it’s quiet, and I’m amazed to find myself on a painless flight. We arrive at 3:00 am. Muluken is waiting for me. I smell Ethiopia in the night.

I awake to rain. I knew to expect it. We’re well into kerempt, Ethiopian winter, the rainy season. The concrete in our little courtyard is slick with moss. My breath escapes as mist. The hills above are shrouded in diffuse clouds. The hills below, beyond the wide valley, the ones that were always a desert brown, are green with grass now. Every day is the same. The sun is rare. Some time in the day, it will pour.

Afternoon is my favourite time of day. I sit on the front step of the school, facing the empty playground. It’s quiet -- except for the echoing cadences of the priest in the church up the hill. He’s preaching hell and brimstone and broadcasting it to the whole valley. At dawn, it’s a haunting voice raised in hymns. This afternoon it’s all angry words of love.

Threatening clouds pass overhead, rolling in from the south, toward the mountains. There’s no wind. The tall eucalyptus trees surrounding the house are still. The small songbirds that usually wait for crumbs are zipping around overhead. It takes me a while to spot their prey: some long-winged insect fluttering across the sky, maybe fifty feet up. They’re all going the same direction, looking hopelessly vulnerable among the zooming birds. A wing from one doomed bug floats down to us. Jackie sniffs it and tries to eat it.

Jackie has grown! I feared for her when I left last spring because she was stuck in her awkward adolescent ugliness. Her body was stretching forward and backward, making her look like a scruffy dachshund. Well, in the intervening months, she’s become a pretty little dog. The dachshund gene lives on, but it looks like the weiner dog was bred with a red fox. She’s grown a luxurious coat of fire. She prances around daintily on light feet. She turns a tiny face up at you with bright eyes and huge ears, and once again, you’re convinced she is the cutest mutt to ever grace the continent.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Travelogue 89 – July 19

When I visit Pey, I stay in the topmost room of her tall Edwardian home, the home that stands in a row with other tall houses of yellow stone. It’s a cozy room under the steep peak of the roof. There are two large windows cut from the slant of my low-slung ceiling. I stand at one and look out over most of Bath, snug among the hills of the green river valley. The river is the River Avon, eagerly running toward Bristol, the Bristol Channel, and the sea. The air here reminds you of Oregon, and I think of the ocean, though Pey’s husband tells me it’s not close enough to smell.

From the window, I can see all the yellow buildings of the old town. The famous abbey is to the right, with its high square tower. You can just about make out its fifteenth-century façade, where angels climb Jacob’s ladder, and olive trees with crowns are carved to commemorate Bishop Oliver King. The abbey overlooks the hot springs that gave the town its name. The Roman ruins were only discovered in the late nineteenth century, and are now surrounded by a slightly ludicrous structure from that era, memorializing the Roman roots of the town. Next door is a Georgian structure that houses the Pump Room, where royalty and lords rubbed elbows, received their treatments, drank the mineral waters. A tour of the baths is well worth the time. The site is redolent with history, from ancient Celts to Romans to Brits. Most fun is learning how the Romans built and enjoyed their baths. There is a collection of Roman curses that were tapped into bits of metal and thrown into the springs for someone else’s bad luck. Directly across the valley from my window is the Royal Crescent, an imposing set of eighteenth century houses standing above a beautiful, expansive park and garden, mirroring in a way the younger set of worker’s rowhouses on this side of the valley.

It’s summer. The perennial cloud cover is broken, and blue shines cheerfully over the quiet town. You wake at dawn, which comes so early here. You listen to the sea gulls. You listen to the muffled roar and the clacking of the train below.

The train brought me in yesterday. Pey wasn’t home yet, so I sought out the Caffe Nero that I remembered from last time, passing along the central shopping avenue, surrendered to pedestrians. I’m numb from travel, but the short, quaint buildings several centuries old, the accents, the Italian of the visiting school kids all work to revive my spirits.

In the crowded café, an older couple shares my table. They recognize my accent, and ask where I’m from. She’s impatient when I answer, “The US.” “Of course, but where?” They love America, they tell me. They have traveled there often, particularly Florida and Texas. The man has a sweet, yellow smile. His face is deeply creased, and he looks the part of ageing sailor’s son. His voice is gentle and cultivated, and you have no problem believing his story of being lost in the bad side of Miami, asking some “colored children” on the corner for directions, and receiving quite naturally a polite reply. “It’s all in how you treat people, isn’t it?” he purrs.

Speaking with him, I feel like I’m warming up from a week in the icebox. And I don’t refer to Minnesota, which was sweltering when I left. I mean the numbing agonies of bad travel: waiting some thirty hours for Northwest to find us a plane, (as we mere passengers play pawns in their labor dispute with the mechanics,) suffering next to a fidgety teenager all nine hours of my overnight flight, stumbling from train to train on my way to Bath, slipping from brief black comas to open-eyed hypnosis as tidy, green English fields trip by. I’m deposited in fair Bath. Pey will be along later. I swing my bags over unfeeling shoulders. I walk and I listen, and slowly I awaken to Europe again. Its accents have saved me before.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Travelogue 88 -- July 11

I tilt away from the computer; the bed tilts toward me. Eventually, dreams make their way through the stagnant heat. I wake up at first light, dim light in the basement windows. I sleep again until the dreams stand and leave. I stand later. The bed tilts away into its concrete corner, where mould creeps up from the soggy carpet. It's always murky down here. My morning mirror is an odd bit of art someone installed in Craig's basement. They painted a rectangle of grey -- I think it's grey, but in this light, it's hard to tell -- and added daubs of white paint, in which they had a cat leave its paw prints. Among these are shards of a mirror glued to the wall. My face is shadowy there. I have to return to my 98 Imac, to watch my work flicker in the unstable screen. But I look into my eyes and say, "This is my life."

What I'm looking at are dead man's eyes. I have to go again, suddenly. Minnesota stands and leaves. It seems the foundation has a golden opportunity in Addis Ababa. I have to go meet it. Summer tilts away, just as the cicadas are warming up their instruments. Last sights are pale.

The sky today is blank and dense. I go to St. Mary's by Lake Calhoun. It's Greek Orthodox; it has a small golden dome; it stands on a green bluff overlooking the lake. The interior is light and airy, unlike those of sister churches in the Old World. There are no teenage girls lining up to bump heads with icons. Instead, there are toddlers getting out of daycare. Several are screeching outside the sanctuary door as I try to pray. It's awkward praying for another soul. I want her to be happy. She loved this church; she came here often to find peace. I look up into the dome and try to decipher the Greek. There are the four evangels, painted in modern primitive imitating ancient primitive. The toddlers are led away. There's peace.

I've gotten some calls and some emails from friends who have remembered it was two years ago she died. These messages seem to come just as the pain is most intense. When Eric calls, I'm sitting in a park in her old neighborhood. The sky is heavy and glaring, just like the days after she died, when I wandered these blocks like a ghost. Maybe I thought my ghost could find her. The sky was so flat and bright, I began to think it was night. Eric called just after I had heard a Whitney Houston song that my Leeza loved. Whitney Houston in the coop? It's never happened until today. Whitney Houston: I used to laugh at her.

Coincidences don't surprise me. There was always something magical about her. The night she died, before I knew, Troy and I walked onto the railroad bridge across the Mississippi that was close to our apartment complex. The sky was alive with the aurora borealis. It was only the second time I have seen it, and this was nothing like the first time. Green waves of light danced across half the sky.

When I got home, there was a message from Leeza's cousin. There was an accident. No one would tell the family anything. He gave me the number they were given. Yes, she was there. "What can you tell me?" I asked, full of terror. The man answered irritably, "I can tell you she's dead."

Leeza tilts away. She finds her new place. I remember that I lost all my breath. I sank to the floor, and it took forever. I couldn't find my voice to talk into the phone. Some time later, I find it again. And all it has is a long, jagged, "No!" I've thought about that cry often over two years. It was a sin. I pray to cleanse it.

"This is my life," I say to the shadow in the mirror with dark eyes. I turn back to the computer. In a while I'll eat again. Some time I have to start packing again.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Travelogue 87 -- July 4
Fictions, Part Two

It’s Independence Day, and two columnists raise their voices about the threatened imprisonment of two journalists who protected their sources against Bush administration prosecution. Instinctively, you set them aside, hidden inside the lightest section of the Sunday paper – the four-page opinion section – and root around among the real stuff. You glance at headlines – death in Baghdad and holiday traffic – and pick up Entertainment. Now we’re talking. Hall and Oates are back, and there’s a web site that analyzes box office statistics. Read why “Cinderella Man” didn’t rake in what it could have. Page after page.

“Praise Fukin Jesus” the sign says. Ben and I are taking a stroll along Venice Beach. I’m drawn to the rambling, magic-marker posters hung beside the sidewalk. There are about a dozen of them, and they rant in dense, meandering text about religion and poetry. (Behind them, bright sand to the blue ocean edge.) “Praise Fukin Jesus” crows the title of one of the posters. I’m intrigued, but I find little to grab onto in the accompanying diatribe. A long list of LA people are false, he’s reporting.

The author isn’t false. He calls to Ben from behind his table. He’s black, with short, kinky dreads. He tells Ben that he looks like Bruce Jenner. Ben pauses to chat. When the man finds out Ben is a musician, he’s full of nodding encouragement. But don’ t sell out, he advises. “Don’t walk over the gold to get to the coal, man,” he shouts as we’re leaving. “That’s what Jenner did when he put himself on that Wheaties box, man. Don’t do it.”

It’s my second trip to Venice. Carolyn brought me on my first day in LA. We walk along the sidewalk together, beside the merchants and their wares. T-shirts seem the money-maker along this strip. At one stall, you can get just about any slogan you can imagine with the word “fuck” in it. There are tattoo parlors, of course, and music vendors. There’s even a bookstore. Vendors at their tables are plying crystals and baskets and African art. There’s a steady stream of people on roller blades.

One of them wears all white, including white shin pads and a white turban. He’s playing an electric guitar and coasting along behind a pretty girl, serenading her with a blissful smile. Carolyn tells me excitedly, “That’s Harry! He’s famous.” Later, Carolyn’s brother informs me that Harry is a runner. He’s seen Harry running all the way up in Malibu, white turban and all. We come to Muscle Beach, and I laugh to see it. It’s like a petting zoo, and I wonder what attraction it has for the animals. They’re scarce today. One stands in chiseled languor, rolling massive lozenges of metal over his shoulders, apparently massaging them. We move on. I’m enjoying the sun and the sea, wishing I had brought my running shoes, so I could breathe deeply of the salt air all the way up to Malibu myself.

Craig, Eman, and I stumble out of the discount theater, having enjoyed the evening’s romp of the stars across the Sahara. The lead couple close the movie in self-aware displays of beauty on the beach at Monterey. We leave them there and lurch across the dank and peeling lobby, where the counter kids are romping unself-consciously. One has a trash bag over her shoulder.

We go to Manning’s, the neighborhood bar behind the railroad tracks from Craig’s house. They have free popcorn. A barista at my regular café sits in the booth behind us. She has an angelic face. Her smile is beautiful as ever, but her big, blue eyes are glassy and rimmed with red. They’ve been drinking a good log while. I find out she was a film major. She’s written a screenplay, something about girlfriends from different races, something “you don’t see in Hollywood.” She’s moving to Chicago to take a Master’s course in media studies. I want to ask what that is. “It buys me some time,” she says with a shrug.

Suddenly she says, “Dude, you’re friends ditched you.” I turn around, and sure enough, Craig and Eman have sneaked away. They’ll get a good laugh out of this later. The barista stares foggily after them. Her friend tells the story of being ditched by a man named Ditcher. They talk movies. Merrily, we carry on, swapping movie plots and favorite scenes for another hour.