Thursday, July 26, 2007

Travelogue 193 – July 26
Red, White, and the Blue River

Life leads to funny places. What do I know about wine? I can discriminate between red and white on most evenings. The latter gives me headaches. One glass of the former makes me happy. Two glasses are likely to lead to faux pas. Three and I might fall in love, or some such other embarrassment.

Stephanie was in Ethiopia just this spring, leading the children in painting exercises. Now she’s driving to Minnesota with her boyfriend, carrying cases of wine in her trunk and stacks of children’s art on her back seat. She put together a fundraiser in her home state of Michigan, fusing art and wine, and making lots of dough. She made cute labels for the Michigan wine from pieces of children’s art.

Just the elegant setting should have been a draw to the Minnesota version of her event. Deneen hosted the event in her loft in a St. Paul artists’ co-op. The building is in a downtown neighborhood called Lowertown, which is a knot of brick relics converted into condos and malls, eerily quiet as only a Minnesota city could be. Deneen’s building is opened up inside so you can look up the tall brick shell and see the stacks of balconies that lead into artists’ lofts.

Ride the elevator and you may notice with a start the scorpion set in the plastic ceiling grate protecting the lights. Your heart jumps though you recognize it for plastic. It’s like the outlines of bugs are hard-wired into our alert systems. I study the menace in his claws and multiple legs and his low carriage, ready to pounce, and I feel like this little creature has been stalking me on this trip. I’ve taken a few stings.

We set the wine on one table, the cheese and crackers on another. We set the children’s art on just about any surface we can find, leaning the small matted pieces against the brick wall – the plentiful, cascading brick of this lovely loft – and lean them into the high windows that overlook the river.

We stand at the TV, watching Stephanie’s video of the kids dancing. The artists stand at the windows remarking on the evening light in the river valley. We teachers stand together and gossip. There’s a tug of war over the chocolate port, far and away our biggest seller. It’s a small crowd, and fortunately I’m not called upon to comment on the wines we’re tasting. That one is red, I say. This one is white. A toast to the little ones dancing on the TV screen. They have a future.

A few mornings later at seven a.m., I’m reciting the pledge of allegiance for the first time since grade school or high school. Mary and I are presenting to a Rotary Club. They meet at the clubhouse of a golf course. Outside the window, beyond the flag, lie the peaceful green hillocks of the course. The Rotarians have fed us a very nice breakfast. The old man next to us tells us about the fox in his yard.

The pledge made, I’m standing before a dozen or so at their tables. I’m referring them to Roxana’s power point and stumbling. It’s a tough crowd. I stop and look closer, from eye to eye, and I see in them how many charitable groups have presented here. I see how far away Ethiopia is. The children are dancing.

We do get one donation. It’s from the man who commented on the madrasas in the Middle East, inculcating radical Islam. He tells me later that a relative of his went to school with one of the Emperor’s family fifty years ago. He writes down the man’s name, saying he must be a minister by now. I agree to look him up.
Travelogue 192 – July 26

Suddenly it’s raining. When I enter the cafĂ© at two, it’s ninety degrees and mostly sunny. Half an hour later, I look up and notice the rainfall outside.

The weather counts. My vagabond life has moved out of doors. Four weeks into my Minnesota visit, I have to find new digs at short notice. What I’m able to arrange is a tent and a sleeping bag in Wes’s back yard.

I travel by bicycle. Wes’s house is about an hour’s ride from Roxana’s apartment, which is my only regular access to computer technology. There are no internet cafes in Minneapolis. In a pinch, I can stop by the university and pretend to type in a password at the computer lab.

Everybody has a cell phone. I have one, too, but it doesn’t work. I’m guessing someone hasn’t paid the bill.

I run outside to slip a plastic bag over my bicycle seat. I’m wondering how to handle the unfortunate coincidence of downpour with appointment across town. But I see grace when I look above. Minnesotan Zeus, capricious weather-maker of the north, likes a rich palette. His one dome of sky is many stories, blue patches among milky white strata, beside high, black thunderheads, and darker masses to the east. Today’s story is about jarvis’s reprieve from a drenching.

And this is kind of like the tale of Tesfa, after all – Tesfa meaning hope, I remind the reader – a bit of doggerel scratched in sand. It’s an operation with a big heart and big ambitions and an office that roves – from Craig’s basement to car trunks to boxes and tents – with rotating phone numbers and then none, with borrowed and broken computers strewn across three continents.

All in all, I have to be happy at the end of the day, bicycling to the home of the day late at night, zigzagging among silent residential streets in South Minneapolis. The air is still and humid. The moon is up, its lines indistinct in the hazy sky. Crickets sing among the hedges and in the parks. I check in with Wes when I arrive, quick whispered hellos and news, careful not to wake the family. And then I climb into my blue pod of a tent. It crinkles as I crawl in. I lay across the sleeping bag. I unzip the flap that opens my screened window. I can look up at the stars. I fall asleep trying to figure out what piece of a constellation I’m looking at.

In the morning, it’s on the bike again, back into town for work. I spend a lot of time on that machine this month, and I love it. Occasionally, I think my friends are mystified. I ride it to meeting places even when I have a ride. But in a few weeks, I’ll have no bicycle.

One of the highlights this trip: the new ‘Greenway’. That’s a bike path, recently completed, that travels along an old railway line east to west, from the river to Uptown in Minneapolis. I look for errands along that route so I can cruise its smooth course, pedal without stopping. It’s the best meditation.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Travelogue 191 – July 5

I have to pre-empt the Tigray series again with another expedition, this one instigated by a crew of friends and believers back home. And that's where I write from today: 'back home'. That means Minnesota -- bright and sunny and clean old Minnesota, my happy and peaceful state picking up the pieces after its raucous national holiday.

I came by way of Rome and London. The latter for business, the former a pleasure required by the return ticket in hand whilst 'back home' in Ethiopia. Ah, Roma: it's like a long and luxuriously slow novel that I pick up every summer.

The Eternal City is baking when I pass through. I'm staying with Ugo, in his flat on the top floor of the mid-century high-rise among blocks of the same in Colli Albani.

Ugo has jump-started his artistic career since the last year's chapter. He's had an exhibit of his photography. He displayed a series about the story of Jesus, but featuring a nude female model in an empty room with brick walls. The exposures are long, so that any figures beside the woman are ghostly. He pours green and red light into the room at various angles. Several shots are very attractive, how ever dark and abstract the message may be.

Ugo wonders what my agenda is this time. I say, 'walk'. And that's just about all I do. I'm a bird released from his cage when I make it to the West. It could be Watts or it could be Rome; I just want to walk all day. It feels like freedom.

My favorite walking route on this trip (after the Metro and a bus) is to cross the river on the Ponte Sublicio and walk through Trastevere to the Ponte Sisto. I stop in my beloved Campo de' Fiori for a long coffee at Le Matte Teste and watch the neighborhood. The cute Romanian waitress is still there, singing along to the Beatles and Stevie Wonder. I've been away too long time; she only half recognizes me.

I return to the river and walk along the bank below street level up to the Ponte Sant'Angelo. It's a peaceful way to go. You don't catch many sights , and you may have to dodge a bike or two, or skirt a homeless encampment underneath one or two of the bridges, but it's quiet. You stroll beside the green water on a broad bit of pavement. Up above are the plane trees along the Lungotevere. Climbing back into the city, I bypass the Vatican and explore the neighborhoods north.

One late afternoon, I end up back in the center. I like the old, winding streets just across the river on the Ponte Sant'Angelo. Without thinking about it, I come upon the Pantheon, one of my favorite spots. I soak in the place, leaning against the fountain in the middle of the piazza, and finding myself becoming an unlikely nuisance to photographers.

I think there are more cameras than people in the piazza. Certainly more lens tourism than naked-eye appreciation. It's that odd ratio that makes me a nuisance. I've chosen an innocuous position, but I'm so absorbed in the sight -- the age and majesty of it, standing since the days of Augustus -- that I attract the notice of the camera people. They are on schedules; they ebb and flow, circle and fidget so furiously that I must look like a statue in time-lapsed footage. They just need the angle at every tourist stop, and they need it quick. This guy's got the angle, they must think. They position themselves in front of me, back into me. Click. Finally, I become the photographer, couples handing me the dream machines to imprint their trips to Rome. I must be a natural dreamer: the structure is framed rather nicely in the digital screens from my spot. Stand there, between the colossal columns of the towering portico. Click: you are recorded and remembered, along with old Agrippa. The monument does its job.