Thursday, July 27, 2006

Travelogue 146 -- July 27
Africa Approaches

The language on the screen is Somali. I recognize it; I'm helped along by the obvious Somali features of the man behind the counter. Many of the internet places I've visited in North London are Somali-run. He's happy I identify his mother tongue. The website is news and the feature photo shows Islamic militants, appropriately rageful.

"I hear the Ethiopians have invaded." Yes, he affirms with a meek smile, favoring African hospitality over instinctive indignation. "How are things back home?" I ask. He shakes his head ambiguously. He tells me about the warlords and clans, and how Mogadishu has been closed for so long. Now it's open.

"You like them," I say, pointing to the photo on the computer screen, referring to the Islamists who are gaining control over a large section of Somalia. Yes. I swallow my aversion to religious fundamentalism. "They help people," I say. "They unify." He eagerly agrees, relieved that I give it words, because he didn't want to offend. I nod. Why wouldn't he like them? Lately, I feel like a Roman in the last days before Constantine, bemused by the appeal of Christianity. Fundamentalists work for allegiance, and they're getting it, everywhere.

"God bless you," Meseret gushes, for no real reason. She owns an Ethiopian deli in Camden Town, London. I shocked her the first time we met with a few words in Amharic. Now she knows about Tesfa. She translates a call to Saba. She calls Saba yeni konjo, my dear or my pretty. She's my age or less, but she's thoroughly maternal. "God bless you," she says with feeling. Her own mother, a sweet old woman at the counter, says, "Don't speak in English. He knows Amharic." She insists that I come to her house when she's back home.

Meseret has a friend named Paul, a Brit of Jewish heritage, who is married to a Jamaican. He's a carpenter. He has built cabinets for the likes of Bono. He wants to move to Ethiopia. North London is full of Ethiopians, and it seems like Paul knows them all. Certainly he knows every Ethiopian shop-owner on Caledonian Road and in Camden. Somehow, the Ethiopes are more human for him than his compatriots. They are warm and hospitable and earthy. When I introduce him to some of the difficulties he may encounter on the ground, he pauses and comments, "Ah, but it's the same sort of song and dance everywhere, isn't it?" Well ...

I walk home from lunch with Paul. It's not far, but I'm soaked with sweat and exhausted. The press has had a field day with this heat. It is intense. For days, I can do little but sleep. Outside, the atmosphere is oppressive. Maybe it's the pollution. Last week in Nantes, it was hotter, but I was energized. I craved to be outside. The sky was clear and enchanting. The evening at Yves' house stands out.

I know Yves from his trip to Ethiopia in the spring. He stopped by the school several times with Francois. He's a doctor in Nantes. He's from Martinique. His sister and her husband and children are visiting from the Caribbean. Francois and I are led into the backyard, where we sit with all of them under a flawless summer sky for four hours, blue deepening into glorious dusk and night. Yves' boy and his cousin are fascinated by the planes taking off into that kind sky from the nearby airport. The youngest cousin is more taken with the stones in the garden. She earnestly pours them onto a small patio table.

I'm relatively indifferent to culinary pleasures -- a flaw in character that I have to confess with some shame. But that evening is memorable for the feast. It happens that Yves' wife is a remarkable chef -- a reputation with some distinction in France, I would guess. She refuses to cook professionally, on principle, and also, oddly enough, to eat with her guests. She sits and chats; she just doesn't believe in partaking of the food she has prepared for others.

Sadly, cretin that I am in matters of the palate, I can't describe the meal, other than to say it consisted of cuisine from the African island of Reunion, the birthplace of Yves' wife. On it comes, course after slow course, accompanied by a sweet rum from Martinique, mixed with preserves made by Yves' mother: beautiful. The conversation rolls on effortlessly and pleasantly, and I'm having one of those episodes where the dark glass of a foreign language is not so opaque after all. There's a tinge of the religious to this phenomenon, a 'hearing in tongues'. By midnight, I'm bathing in a warm spring of contentment, and it's a real effort to stand and leave with Francois, to get in the car and head for that bridge across the Loire that stands so bizarrely high, like a new Babel's assault on the skies.

I'm walking back to Pete's place the long way around, via King's Cross. I'm not sure precisely where I am. I pass speakers of Arabic, of Italian. I pass the Filipino Center. I'm a few paces behind two Somali women in full gear, red and pink. I stop in a spacious pub that smells of dog hair and urine. The perpetrator of the first odor is romping across the flowery carpet after a ball kicked by the old man with a bulbous nose. His smile says jolly lifetime drunkard. In the next room, a few men watch the horse races on TV. An Irish songster blisters our ears from the jukebox.

I've been strolling every night around the streets of North London, connecting lots of names that have floated freely in my mind before. I'm working to escape a haunting. It's not her. It's the horror of what happened: her pain and her terror. It comes sometimes, whether my eyes are open or shut. I run from it; it blinds me. I find myself on strange streets. There's no help for it.

Africa's coming. it's everywhere around me, like the first chill heralding a storm. So be it.

Please, all our love to Carolyn and her family, who have been visited by tragedy. We're in it together.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Travelogue 145 -- July 16

Paris is a pretty town. I hope I'm the first with that observation. Trust me: it's pretty.

We take the high speed train from Nantes. I'm sound asleep the whole way. I awake to the sight of passing banlieux. I ask Francois if there are any riots scheduled today. What could be more French?

We dive into miles of underground tunnels, dash onto a Metro to stand among French armppits, dash onto another. When we emerge into the midday sunlight, we are on the Champs Elysees -- broad sidewalks and overpriced outdoor cafes in front of sublime buildings. We walk up to meet with pretty Sara, young British lawyer working a block from the Arc de Triomphe. Sara is going to run with us in Ethiopia this fall.

Kudos to Napoleon, by the way. The arch is more magnifique than anything the paltry Roman emperors threw up. The Corsican is everywhere. Look for the N encircled by a wreath all over town. You'll even see it on the Louvre.

By Gallic bon chance, we have scored digs a few blocks from the Louvre, right off the Place de la Concorde, a block from the Rue de St. Honore, where my Beverly Hills compatriots saunter, noses in the air as they contemplate global crises in hunger, poverty, war, and illiteracy. When they need a break, they shop. Who could blame them? It's a friend's flat, which he abandons for our benefit. The entry to the building does justice to the address, tall doors in a stone facade and a cool, tiled foyer. But we cross a tiny courtyard and climb a tight wooden staircase at an angle of 60° or so to our small rooftop flat. It's sweltering, but otherwise comfortable. From the windows, we see other rooftops and their dormer windows.

I would recommend Paris on Bastille Day (a name the Frenchies aren't familiar with). Dodge the crowds and parades, and head to the Louvre, which is free that day. Arrive at 8:30am for the 9am opening, and stand behind the Japanese college kids who are making a pajama party out of it, nibbling out of miniature cereal boxes. Don't carry a bag, and you'll get to bypass a bunch of people who have to be searched. Follow the crowd as they cross to the Denon wing; climb several staircases, passing rooms of glorious statuary; march down the long and grand hallway housing the Italian painters, passing Giotto, Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Perugino, and Raphael without a pause; and follow the crowd as they turn into a bright and massive cube of a room to the right, in which she waits. Titian and others adorn the walls, but she stands alone in the middle of the room. Can you guess her name? She is captivating, no doubt about it. They speak of her smile, but today it's her eyes that intrigue me. What is the angle of her gaze? What is the color of her eyes?

Break away. Pay your respects to the Italians you snubbed on your way in. Look up once in a while to admire the palace itself. Don't forget Caravaggio and his dead whore in the role of the Virgin Mary. Don't bypass the ancient Greek 'Victory of Samothrace', no matter how discouraging the harlequin show of family portraiture en masse, camera flashes flickering like an unrelenting summer storm. Ask at the information desk for the way to Mary Magdalene's crypt, just for kicks.

I wonder why Master Brown didn't make use of the Madeleine, Napoleon's temple to Maiden Magdelene and Jesus the philosopher-king, just a kilometer or so from the Louvres. Napoleon is always good for romantic spice. The place has some strange magic to it, an effort in its exterior to out-Greek the Parthenon, and an effort in its interior to re-fashion the New Testament as an Hellenic pastoral with Gothic gilding. Why the Louvre and an 80s glass pyramid designed by a Chinese-American? Maybe it's questions like these that make for the limp aura of esoteric mystery that sells books and lures Amelie to Hollywood. Strange and wonderful our times.

I've seen the glamor. Now I seek the hip and smart. I'm in search of writers and artists. Where are the cafes like bare and unwashed cells, where shaven-headed youths in black suck down unfiltered smoke and argue semiotics? I try Montmartre. I find the seamy: lots of sex shops around the Moulin Rouge. I find the smarmy: the Place du Terte, showcase of 'art'. I find the scenic: Sacre Coeur, atop its hill with a grand view of Paris, and beside it the little St. Pierre, with the pink, pre-church Roman columns hidden in corners by the entrance. The closest I come to intellectual Paris is the bar across from a Watts-like park where an African-American is reading Tom Robbins over his beer.

I try Montparnasse of 'lost-generation' fame. The cafe where Hemingway drank wine and composed 'Fiesta' is now an expensive restaurant surmounted by an anonymous post-war building, surrounded by an anonymous and bustling big city neighborhood. I'm consoled as I eat at a cheaper place by a passing detachment of rumbling old tanks, like rogues gone AWOL from the parade.

Jonathan disabuses me of my illusion. 'Sartre is gone.' Jonathon is an old friend of Francois' from Nantes, French of Sephardic Jewish blood, a writer whom no one has read, taciturn and cynical and solitary. He gestures toward the Sorbonne; he gestures toward the outdoor cafe, where slack-faced tourists catch their breath. 'They can talk to you about Zizou and about TV shows, and that's it. Paris is gone. You know, we grew up with that picture, too, and now it's past. It's all America, now, my friend.' He takes my measure, as though assessing the ugliness of our times. His sneer is the slightest but most expressive curl of lip. Right: I found it. Thank you.

Cheerfully, I ask him what Materazzi could have said to Zizou. He doesn't know, but he says the French hero has inpired a new move in street fighting out in the banlieux called the zizette.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Travelogue 144 -- July 12
Under the Shining Moon

Sara likes Formula One. We can forgive her that. She is Italian. Her father and brother are enthusiasts. She calls home to Cremona during races for narration. She works in a Bond Street boutique, taking an English language break from her marketing course at home. She's passionate about sports. She grimaces and shouts and gesticulates through the World Cup final. She forgives me and Pete and the African-French man next to us for cheering on the French.

Pete and I come early and secure premier seating at our World Cup pub in Mayfair. Then we watch as the place fills with Italians, mortified -- not because we're outnumbered but because every woman is a jaw-dropping beauty. It will be a long night.

Sara is so gorgeous that Pete refuses to speak to her. I’m thinking her grip on my knee when the game is tense means conversation is okay. Between her imprecations flung at the TV, we chat in English and Italian.

Alex, the Russian youth at the window, joins in. He speaks Italian fluently. He says it's because he studies economics in Bologna. That's his first story. Later, he's studying 'cucina'. He snorts with derision whenever I accept one of his stories but doesn't hesitate to tell another, nor to describe how he can bend anyone to his purposes. Pete has told him about Tesfa. 'I understand what you need. You need money.' I look into his grey laughing eyes, and I think 'Dickens'. One of his tales is that he's been on the street since he was twelve. He tells me in spider-web Italian how he will make my kids in Ethiopia into millionaires.

In my turn, I tell him a story of my own: I do what I do because of a woman. She died with a wish unfulfilled. In a few days, when the moon is full, it will be three years since she left us. He bows his head and smokes.

Alex doesn't get on with Sara too well. She replies with sass, and after a few exchanges, he resorts to a cool 'va fancul'. I ask him why he would say that. The young behaviorist says it will make her want him all the more.

It's the second extra period. Zidane, (or Zizou, as we Frenchies like to call him,) assaults Materazzi with a head butt to the chest. Our Italians explode with indignation. One boisterous man is yelling 'f**k you' at the TV, heavily-accented, complemented by loud gestures. I'm intrigued he curses in English. We in the corner keep our silence. Sara is quick with Zizou's failings as a human being, but she pats my arm in consolation.

Victory: Sara is on her feet with a scream. They're all shouting. They toss their flags at the TV. One principessa is held aloft to wave her flag to sing. The town is shouting. Pete and I wander outside, wide-eyed. The city has changed.

'Never before' are easy words, but I think I can use them honestly: never before have I seen this. Fans are spilling into the streets, streams of them emptying into a river along Piccadilly, into the sea at Piccadilly Circus, roaring, whistling, chanting, blowing horns. Cars creep among them and honk. Girls lean out car windows with flags. We navigate the seas for an hour and the fever does not abate. I am thunderstruck by this spontaneous joy that shuts down a city. 'Where did all these Italians come from?' Pete repeats. There's not a hint of menace to this mob, only good cheer. 'Only the Italians,' Pete says. And isn't that why we love them?

On the day of the full moon, I'm in the air again, reaching for heaven, recoiling from it. How far is it? Further than France.

From the air, Nantes is a white growth in the flat lands of the lower River Loire, a hop, skip and jump from the Atlantic Ocean. On the ground, it’s hot sun and a cool breeze carrying strains of accordian music along a narrow alleyway lined with eighteenth-century beauties and their iron balcony railings, the spires of the white basilica peeking over the rooftops.

Francois’ girlfriend gives me the tour of the historical center while he is busy. The only language we share is Spanish. My Spanish is really only a listening Spanish, which is convenient to the occasion. She narrates what survives of old Nantes. This district was an island when the bourgeoisie built their homes and shops, tall and crooked now on their beds of sand, like an old man’s teeth.

On the ground, Nantes is brilliant and green. Grey country roads meander among old, squat houses with walls of a hundred flat stones plastered together, looking pleasantly cool among their sweltering fields of corn. It’s wooded and sandy banks along the Loire, where a tour boat turns wide of a Mississippi sand-bar isle as it carries on from hilltop chateau to hilltop chateau. It blares in a foggy manner about the crumbling structure on the cliffs behind us, steeply terraced walls and gardens built by a nineteenth-century lord who loved his dying wife.

Nantes is a late and lingering meal with the family. Francois’ father is happy to tell me about the wines and cheeses we are tasting. I pose the question I’ve posed everyone since I arrived: ’What happened to Zizou?’ Well, the Italian clearly provoked it. He deserved far worse. And on it goes.

That night, the full moon climbs and hangs ascendant, white as first light, gentle but unfailing. She passes while I’m asleep.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Travelogue 143 – July 7
Yo Ho Ho

Everyone is relieved. Cool moisture has moved in, bringing with it refreshing breezes and light rains. It encourages a philosophical turn: time moves on. Even the most miserable summer is perishable. It decays into a dozen small autumns, and then one of them is real.

Wounds heal. The World Cup is one more tournament we didn’t win. The papers still stew over Rooney’s red card, describe his rage and hunger for vengeance, exorcising a mass petulance. Portugal went on to lose the next match, and all the media displayed images of the reviled Ronaldo, weeping and dejected at his own team’s elimination. Now it’s France and Italy on Sunday. Thomas wants Italy because he’s an Italophile. So am I for that matter, but Pete and I are pro-France. They seem to have more elegance and more personality. Who is cooler on the pitch than Zidane? Who carries himself with more Gallic nonchalance than Henry?

I may report next from France, as I’m developing plans to visit Francois. He’s back from Ethiopia and, since then, back from Spain, where his girlfriend was studying.

In the meantime, work on Tesfa-UK continues apace. Team Tesfa has survived its dubious performance Sunday. We’re healthy and whole, and plans for our November event in Ethiopia move forward. We’ve had a few bites from leaflets we passed out at the British 10K. We iron out the details of a partnership with a running store in London. I’m hoping that I can work in some benefits for Ethiopian runners that I recruit on the other end as trainers and event staff – shoes or sponsorships.

I pay visits to London schools that have agreed to twin with our new schools in Ethiopia. They are both in southwestern suburbs. Two days in a row, I catch my train out of Waterloo Station. Two days I disembark at sleepy stops and walk down long, leafy, anonymous streets. Two days I enter the cheery and colourful halls of those blessed places given over wholly to children. Two days I’m consumed by the pirate’s instinct for plunder. What I see is wealth: room after room of toys, furniture, computers, and an absolute glut of classroom materials. No more is the Western school one of those ‘normal’ places I take for granted, that I can walk through without seeing. For me, it’s a tour through Tiffany’s, blinding and distracting.

The teachers get it. Their first response is a discouraging sort of ‘Yes, of course,’ a bland eye-on-the-clock attendance. It’s British reserve. By the end of our interviews, they allow themselves cool signs of enthusiasm. And they do get it. Aha! I wasn’t steering too deeply into blind fantasy.

Pete encourages me to take a long walk after the second interview. He’s given me directions. It’s a favourite route of his from one erstwhile village turned suburb to another along the Thames.

It’s the end of the work day. Heat and light are mounting a last assault against the clouds, driving them apart and making them shine around their frayed edges. The school’s cute town, built around a lock on the Thames, gives way to a riverside wooded park. I’m alone on a dirt path, but for doves and the occasional guy on a mountain bike. I’ve been so busy and so city that it takes me a while to realize I’m in nature, but the poplars speak and the odd ray of sunshine draws my eye into the sky, smeared with a palette of soft shades.

I’m far from preoccupations by the time I emerge from the woods into long meadows. The clouds are in retreat, reduced to stooges in the sun’s evening drama. Long beams of light pour through them down into the hills. Ahead of me is Richmond, town on a hill overlooking a bend in the river. Tall Victorian facades keep watch over the valley.

The town itself is another cute one, predictable but inoffensively quaint, roads winding among shops and restaurants and leaking into narrow alleyways of pubs and history. It preserves in its center the old green, where now boys play Zidane and Pirlo, and men recline in the grass with beers. One face on the edge of the green is particularly delightful: the old Richmond Theatre, a fun, pink, turn-of-the-century production that this evening is drawing an impressive crowd, more people than I would have guessed could fit inside.

I’ve had to fight a fierce temptation to spend the evening in the movie theatre. The new Pirates of the Caribbean is debuting tonight. The impulse for movies is still strong in me as heroin might be for an ageing rocker, and the prices are lower here than in London, seven pounds fifty. I resist, chastely choosing a book in the green.

Today it’s London again, pleasantly chilled and half-grey. I notice a pair of women at a nearby cafĂ© table poring over a guide to East Africa. I approach with a flyer about our November trip to Ethiopia. Why not?

Well, for one thing, the well-manicured one has just returned from her trip. She’s giving me her website address. This wasn’t just any trip, but a ten-month motor excursion from London to Cape Town. She’s telling me about Ethiopia, and she’s disappointed at all the sites there I’ve missed. She confides that the people were really the worst on the whole trip. She imitates their begging. But wonderful to speak to you, she says. I limp back to my small world.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Travelogue 142 -- July 3
The Final Whistle

London is baking. It's hardly the time for a white-skinned and retiring race to be exerting themselves excessively. But they are out Sunday morning, lining up along Piccadilly to the sum of 20,000 or better for the British 10K. Few seem aware of the real significance of this occasion: the launch of Team Tesfa. Most would cite England's elimination from the World Cup yesterday as the historical reference point of the day.

It was a dramatic event. Pete and I watch the match with Portugal at our habitual World Cup pub in Mayfair. We're early enough to score a table. By half-time, the place is packed, and people are gathered around the windows and doors.

There's a code to this dance called football, and Pete is far more literate than I. The news he's picking up is all bad. He squirms and mutters. Where I see a lot of inconclusive back-and-forth, concluding after 90 minutes in a 0-0 tie, he reads a pattern of disgrace, wasted motion and wasted opportunities, a team with no plan, strategy or cohesion.

He perks up during the extra periods, as do we all. Spectators start in with commentary, ranging from the bland -- 'Let's go, boys' -- to the guttural and heavily-accented -- 'Kick him, studs up!' Play becomes more vital, though ultimately to no purpose. It goes to penalty kicks. Pete looks ill. The tall boy at the next table tells me in shrugging tones that the Brits never win when it comes to kicks.

For a moment, it looks like the curse is broken. Portugal is blocked. Teams trade more misses, but England turns in one too many. Each England miss is met with profound and unbearably tense silence in the pub. At the last, after a stunned and anguished beat or two, the place empties out. Pete and I remain to finish our pints. Pete announces with strained conviction that he's glad they lost, the way they were playing.

Indeed, watching the evening game later between France and Brazil, even an illiterate like myself can discern a difference in the level of play, an elegance and assuredness missing from England's game.

After the match, the streets of London are menacing. Near Trafalgar Square, we witness a tussle among Brazilians and shaven-headed locals. In the Tube, boys are shouting and prowling in a predatory way. The usual atmosphere of order in the British capital feels ready to unravel.

By the next day, the storm has cleared. Full-scale riots were averted, and cheery morning souls have reclaimed the streets, particularly Piccadilly. And ignorant as they may be that history is in their midst, there we stand, Team Tesfa, as impressive a quartet of pale, middle-aged plodders as any minor charity could ever hope to assemble. We have a fifth, Neil, who is actually the mastermind behind this our first run. He's a real runner, though, and has positioned himself near the starting line. The four plodders have casually settled into the middle of the serpentine mass, happy to gaze ahead at the colorful display of weekend humanity.

We're wearing our yellow iron-on 'Team Tesfa' Ts that Joe poured such care and time into. They're attractive, but we didn't count on the charity hothouse we were entering, where nearly everyone has associated him- or herself with some major name in humanitarianism and sports a sleek, professionally-designed running shirt. These reps of the Beverly Hills non-profits have cheerleaders along the course, ready with banners and smiles and water.

We face the miles of hot asphalt alone. Heroes that we are, we don't give it a second thought, but joke and chat away the time merrily. The race starts. We watch the leaders pass with admirable vigor. (The crowd has to turn in its ponderous approach to the starting line so that runners pass those still in line.) And we chat away the next half hour as we inch toward the start. About the time we sense that we may be close to the line, we glance back and notice that the entire crowd of thousands behind us has passed us by, presumably down the quicker-moving sides of the human river. We laugh and shuffle along. Our legs are stiff and our mood is anything but athletic by the time we reach the starting line, but we creak into motion nevertheless.

What follows is a blur of sweat and labored breathing. I build up some momentum, and in this heat the law of inertia must be obeyed. Move or stop. The trouble is, when you start at the back of the pack your path is littered with all manner of human obstacles. I launch into an elaborate and ceaseless 45-minute weave, no doubt adding two kilometers to my course, dodging thousands of panting and staggering Brits.

Pant and stagger we all do. The heat is extreme. St Thomas's Hospital on the south bank has to turn away victims of heat exhaustion and dehydration. I know this because one of our Team Tesfa troopers is among the first to be admitted. Another one stops to assist and to go along for the ambulance ride, so only half of Team Tesfa crosses the finish line. Only Neil achieves a time worthy of note, coming in 105th.

So it goes. Our debut is less than overwhelming. But isn't that History's MO? Always the shell game. Watch Beckham and you miss the real story. Just wait till next year!