Friday, May 28, 2010

Travelogue 341 – May 28

London is mad today. The metropolis whistles electricity, it chants business, it rushes feverishly for miles at every point of the compass. It's got two thousand years of karma to sweat off. This is the urban circle of purgatory, and we must chase and rant like madness is redemption.

I spent yesterday afternoon on the run, landing in an eastern airport, rushing to a meeting in the west and then hurling toward a rendezvous with the boys in the center. All the wheels of the London machine spin and scream for me, putting me on my feet in all the right places … until rush hour catches up with me at Edgeware Road. We sit stalled in the subterranean tunnel for fifteen minutes and then, as we crawl into the Edgeware station, the driver announces that this will be the end of this train's service, and in fact of all trains going east out of this station. I'm supposed to be meeting the boys near King's Cross at just about the moment that I disembark. There's no choice but to walk.

I gauge my direction by the sun and set off at a brisk London pace, weaving among the crazed crowds. I realize quickly that I've discovered a pocket of the city that I haven't traversed before. I'm happily soaking it all in as I walk: Marylebone Road, Baker Street, Madame Tussaud's, the entrance to Regent's Park. It's a posh little area, one in which pop stars like to play house. Marylebone becomes Euston, and eventually I spot King's Cross and make it to the pub on time. In fact, I beat the buses. All along Marylebone Road, I was passing and re-passing the same buses trapped in the lava flow of traffic. They've been left behind by the time I make it to Euston.

The mania of Marylebone suffers the more for the contrast with Ealing. Ealing is where I'm coming from when I collide with Edgeware Road. I've had a meeting there with Ben, who is conducting some athletics workshops in schools out there. I say 'out there' though Ealing is technically a borough of London. But I've had to travel to Zone Four on the Tube, and when I emerge from the station, I'm confronted only by a sunny park and suburban-like homes. I'm early. I sit in the grassy park, foregoing the shade of the trees. I watch the commuters arrive in small groups and walk home through the park. I've traveled across the entire extent of London to get here, to stretch out in a meadow and soak up rare English sunshine.

The next evening I'm in another park, ironically back in the pocket of London that I'd become acquainted with on my crazed walk to King's Cross. I'm in Regent's Park, one of the prettiest parks in London, established and planned in the early nineteenth century by the jolly Prince Regent, later George IV. Yes, this would be the misbehaving son of crazy George III, the reprobate responsible for some of the most beloved architectural wonders of western London, including Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, and Regent Street.

Neil has tickets to a production at the open air theater in the park. They are staging 'The Crucible'. This is penned by an American author, of course, and it is set in the emotional and physical wilds of seventeenth-century New England. Still, the setting in central London is oddly appropriate. The backdrop to the simple stage is high trees and the darkness of early evening. When the would-be witches leave the stage, they run off into the forest.

The production is passable, but I'm left hoping for more from London players. Many are a bit shrill, like they haven't mastered vocalizing from the stage. But who remembers anymore how to speak from a stage without sounding like one is either shouting or whining? In this production, we have a whining John Proctor who loses the battle for justice and the battle for the audience's hearts to a pack of hysterical teenage women. The latter are lent more momentum by choreography that has them moving together in occult undulations together. Whiny young John never had a chance. Indeed, this production seems as much about teenage hormonal problems as anything so remote as Cold War McCarthyism.

It rains during the second act, a light London rain that is seen more than felt. It is captured by the stage lighting, silver and translucent. It adds something magical to the show, underscoring the atmosphere of an overwhelming sad fate descending upon the players. For a time, in fact, it is the most eloquent of the players, saying as much about the passions and paroxysms of history as old Rebecca Nurse. The hormonal apprentices run off into the rain. John whines his way to the scaffold. And we head to the pub.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Travelogue 340 – May 25
Il Mare, Il Mare

The portrait is impressionistic. That's not because I'm dabbling in philosophies – God help me, – chewing on oils, or even dabbling in color. It's because the portrait is painted spontaneously.

My usual landlords in Rome own several places. The first is in Colli Albani, the praises of which I've sung on other occasions. The second, which I had never visited until now is several Metro stops closer to the centro, and a few blocks from Roma Tuscolana – temptation.

Roma Tusolana is a train station. It's early summer. Rome is delightfully awash in spring sunshine and refreshingly humid. The countryside is bright with greenery, young crops, and blossoms.

I debate for just three seconds outside my lodgings this morning. I turn left, away from the centro. A few minutes later, I scan the departures board at Roma Tuscolana. I'm delighted to see there's a train setting out in fifteen minutes for a seaside town with the fascinating name of Civitavecchia, a form of 'Old City' that manages to keep a bit of broken-down Latin inside, like a Roman section of wall holding up a medieval defense.

The Old City in the plastered flesh offers few suggestions of venerable age, being victim of very effective action during the Good War. And the wooden pleasure palace on the water, the 'Pirgo', that made the town a sensation during the time of Piemontese kings and the pug-faced Leader, was washed away in 1941 by a tidal wave.

It isn't easy to imagine tidal waves on a quiet day like this, nor good-hearted democrats in buzzing propeller-driven bombers swinging their way in toward the harbor. For that matter, it isn't passing easy to picture fantastic pleasure palaces in this prosaic city, on this understated sea. The mild blue water, blurred in friendly haze, emerges a half hour before the Old City, just a mellow suggestion beyond mellow tilled fields that canter down from mountains that might just have been – in a post-traumatic flash – a lost highland range in Ethiopia. But they're not. I take a deep Mediterranean breath and turn toward the western train window: il mare, il mare.

It's a pleasant coincidence that I'm reading 'The Sea, The Sea' by Iris Murdoch, an author forever blurred in my imagination, fused as Italian sea and sky are today, with Dame Judi Dench. The book has moldered in Ethiopia among a cache of serious reading left from serious times, and I was drawn to it as a kind of balancing weight to all the John Irving I've read on this sojourn. She's a match for Irving's talents and a tonic to the feeling while reading Irving that you're being shaken awake at 3am by a sad clown.

I'm a Murdoch fan. I return to her regularly. But this isn't the first time reading her that I feel like I'm a a witness to the demise of fiction. She reads like the last of the novelists. Her lovely language is cut like crystal into grotesques that contrast sharply with the classicism of her expression, quirky and distorted, as in a post-modern funhouse mirror, with plot twists like knots that are tied to give way, with characters that labor through fogs of the unlikely, fiction that isn't real. It's fun, but close enough to a perversion of talent, just close enough to Lord Nelson in plastic, to Marilyn in day-glo, to inspire sorrow. And there are those disturbing you-tube videos of Dame Iris discussing philosophy. I feel locked in a windowless room.

So the truth of fiction is revealed: it's liberating as flight to the auditor and confining as a clean, well-lit cell for the author. The Old City's resident graffitista speaks to me: 'E meglio vivirla.'

My God, what a day! I'm strolling seaside as the morning's last haze evaporates into the flawless blue sky. What beach there is, is all pebble. I sit there a long while. Of all the senses engaged by the sea, hearing seems the most vital. The gentle lapping of salt water against an acre of smooth pebbles is meditative. Plane journeys might encourage an abstract sort of reflection, set in the future, but the sea is reflective in a way evocative of the life lived.

All seas connect, and so all shores must. My mother lived near a shoreline in her last years. Her shore was rougher, made of dark sand and rock. The waves rolled in with severe, crashing purpose, massive and tinted with menacing hues of steel and grim bottle green. They brought with them dense rolling fogs to blanket hundreds of miles in damp anonymity. It was an ocean, formidable and unknowable.

There was something of Dame Judi to my mother, now that I think of it, steely and awkwardly vulnerable, a 'classy broad' my dad and his generation of golden-hearted GIs might have said. Formidable and unknowable. I stand on a high cliff over the chill mass of seething water while my mother lies dying in a nearby hospital. The sea, the sea. It's hungry for all the life it fostered.

There's little to explore of the unfortunate Old City, so barraged by recent fights. There are fragments of Centumcellae, the original post established by the emperor Trajan. (Not so terribly old a civitas after all, is it? Just a settlement of nearby Rome, already in its Gibbonian decline.) Walk along the seaside and you'll see it all in twenty minutes. Most interesting might be the fortress, a restored stone mass that was once a sweet fusion of Rome and Renaissance, now nearly dwarfed by the cruise ship moored to one side and the grain silo beside it, looking like a bit of nineteenth century Minneapolis dropped here undetonated by our farmboys. The Old City has retired from history. It meditates the sparkling sea from thousands of decrepit concrete balconies arrayed along a wide crescent among the gentle hills, painted orange and apricot and peach and grapefruit.

Santa Barbara is another bit of sand beat upon by the tides. I attended university there, amid sun and fog, amid the odor of seabed tar, amid parties, parties, and more. I strolled, ran and slept on the benevolent sands. Those were frivolous times. Dame Judi would never have been cast in any role from that period, although I intuit that Dame Iris could have teased a story or two from the tawdry plots of our trivial lives. The tide ebbs. I wouldn't go back.

I spend the entire day in the Old City. There isn't much to see, really, but I've lingered by the sea and let my spirit play gypsy. I feel refreshed. As the sun's last rays stretch across the pebble beach, small children swim in their underwear; lovers splash each other and shriek; a young couple pleads with their wriggling errant puppy: 'Vieni qua!' And I'm none of them. I turn my back, and I walk back to the train station, the sea at my back.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Travelogue 339 – May 24

It's time to leave. It's been a long trip; I've been away from home since Christmas. The plane taxis away from the Legoland Bole Airport. It takes off. The Ethiopian capital falls away, sinking among its mountains into a soundless obscurity. Usually the departure evokes a sigh of relief. This time it's a sigh of a different tenor. I'm sad.

What's different? Maybe I live it now. Addis is no less maddening than it ever was, but having become mundane it becomes endearing. The city quickly recedes, retreating into its highland fastness, and I'm left to a mild and passing mood of grief.

It does pass. Altitude makes for cold perspective. Reflection is the artificial mental atmosphere of flight. One sees one's house, one's street, one's city. One looks down on the towering mountains; one looks down on the landscape of human endeavor, etc. It's liberating, but it's a liberation that feels a lot like television, abstract, engaging at the lowest of energy levels. And after six or seven hours, seated in desiccated stasis, the abstraction grows stuffy and unsatisfying. One grows dismissive. London, Paris, Addis Ababa – it's all the same. Why bother? *Sigh*

When I'm off the plane, the sky opens up again. The clouds ascend into heavens grown vast again; the air is aromatic and humid. The landscape, so tame from the air, expands and finds dimension. Hillsides beside the train tracks flower with yellow and purple and the silky scarlet of poppies.

The city opens its arms. It's early evening. People have taken to the streets. Shops are bustling. I have little time, and less inclination, to dash into the center of town. I habitually lodge among the sprawling southern neighborhoods, where few tourists venture, and here I remain for the balance of the day. I weave among the citizens, one thread among a generous fabric of rudimentary routine. I join in the contented cycles of the avenues. I listen to the voices. I make mindless little inventories of the shops.

This side of town was originally a disappointment in my early visits. Back then, my gaze was directed exclusively and steadily upward. Compared to downtown, the architecture here seemed dreadfully modern, uniform and dreary, making an impression like vistas of giant, pastel-colored concrete dominoes.

Today things look differently. I see the people. I see the shops. I'm able to see intriguing variations among neighborhoods that years ago had appeared the very picture of monotony. The contrast between today's vision and its antecedent came as a realization that stopped me on the sidewalk for a moment. How and when had that happened?

I scan the buildings overhead. They don't at all seem monotonous. There is life among the surfaces, colors, and styles of the structures. The skyline jumps as its runs south, skipping heights and dodging from street-side to recessed fronts, peeking out of square and modern windows and entries, doorways fronting marble staircases, windows masked by drying laundry; peeking from neo-classical frames, green-shuttered windows outfitted with flower boxes, secretive doors blocked by tyrannical crones.

The districts speak with the voices of its shopkeepers. All shop doors are thrown open at this hour. Clothing and perfume, electronics and groceries, video games and pizza: every place is a short text about its neighborhood. Teens shop; families stroll with messy gelato in hand; old men sit at outdoor cafe tables, issuing running critique with sour faces. One pizza vendor with pungent alcohol breath wants to tell me about his relatives in New Jersey. He wants to tell me about Robert DeNiro, prolific photos of whom hang about the parlor. He laughs to hear himself say 'Minnesota Fats,' and indeed his accent and manic laughter does make it hilarious.

I didn't fly here. I didn't see the sights. I'm here. It's nearly summer. The sky is tinted, as if by the nearby sea, as if by the day's accumulating gravity, the sky that spans such heights, the sky that harbors clouds as roomy and unique as a bustling city district, the supernatural sky turns a sharper degree of blue. It will be night.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Travelogue 338 – May 15

Walk around Addis these days, and you'll catch some new visual interference. On every post, on every blank corrugated-metal wall, there are posters. It's election time. The posters follow an interesting pattern; you might not even notice them, but for the stark uniformity of them. They're nearly all A4 size, printed inexpertly, featuring unsmiling faces in low res, like family photos from one hundred years ago. And every candidate comes with a symbol within a circle, a party symbol, presumably for the illiterate voter. The most prevalent is the bee. That's the symbol of the ruling party, EPRDF or the 'Yihadeg' party, party of the current and forever prime minister, Meles Zenawi.

The next most popular by symbol is the open palm, pointing upward as if in greeting. I believe this stands for the Medrek party, a new creation for 2010, a coalition among several smaller parties, inheritor of the dubious legacy of the CUD or 'Kinichit' party of 2005. Another symbol is the yellow daisy. I have no idea who that stands for. There seem to be dozens of parties, most of them ethnic or regional in nature, many of them drifting particles from the CUD supernova of 2005.

The mercha is next week, one day before I fly out of Ethiopia. Mercha means choice, literally; in denoting elections in Ethiopia, the term is a little disingenuous. It would be my choice to be gone well ahead of time. Long-time readers of Jarvistravels might recall my election reporting from 2005, which largely consisted of despairing notes from isolation. Bands of reptilian police were roaming the city; taxis and shops were parked and shuttered for a week; I was living alone up the mountain in Shiro Meda, where the reptiles were doing nightly sweeps for teenage boys and young men, hauling them off to prison camps.

This year seems calmer, a sign that the citizenry has been successfully cowed. The reptiles in blue camouflage are out in droves, sometimes stacked in the back of their white trucks with their rifles pointed outward. Sometimes they are lined up along major roads, one standing every fifty meters or so, guns at the ready. At night they occasionally have to pull head-busting duty at the university, where quixotic kids are acting out the behaviors of dissent. My guess is that we won't see the riots of '05 this year, at least not in Addis. But we're all waiting to see.

Rumors circulate. Last night, Gelila called to cancel on plans that would mean traveling across the city. She had heard the reptiles were swarming Piassa. We called Ramete, who lives in Piassa, and there was nothing. People are a little jumpy. One night last week, there were reptiles in the road, directing traffic to take another route. My way home passes the university. Our taxi turned around and took another route, a road that winds upward behind the university. College kids were streaming out back gates of the university, and there was an air of urgency. People had a wild look in their eyes.

Elections are strange dramas, vehicles for Aristotelian catharsis, really. There are those who would say that African elections are proof of the bankruptcy of the concept of electoral democracy. Who can't have sympathy for that viewpoint sometimes? One hardly need travel further than Florida. In any case, we'll complete the tragoidia, the 'goat song', lacking other entertainments that conjure so well the protean spirit of 'History'.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Travelogue 337 – May 9
Didier and Tony

One finds his heroes where he may. This week, they come mediated and packaged from faraway. The blockbuster at the Edna Mall, Addis Ababa's only multiplex and venue for new English-language releases, is (can you guess?) the story of a man in an iron suit. No, let's modify that: it's the story of a brilliant and dead charming middle-aged reprobate who finds his conscience in an iron suit. It's not just an iron suit, as we find out in the film: it's that elusive piece of technology that brings world peace. So argues the clumsy and acquisitive military types in the film. But no, argues Tony Stark, it's the conscience inside that works the magic.

It's America; the conscience must be wrapped like an onion inside loose layers of wit and disheveled polish, or polished dishevelment, nonchalance and charm, and a stubborn disregard for propriety. In other words, he must be lovable, in a way parallel to GW's boyish, head-wagging trust in God. (He read it on a coin once: 'Trust in God', and it's not every moral axiom that is minted in silver.) And yet, Tony knows what is right, and he gets the job done.

Or does he? I enjoyed the film, but I couldn't help scratching my head afterward. Much is made in the beginning of the film about the Pax Starkana, but little history is offered. I remember that in Part One, Tony flew to Afghanistan to right some wrongs and wrong some righteous. Is that the template for his peace-keeping missions? Or is it just the threat ever after of his one-man reprisals? I'm not sure. In another unfortunate echo of GW, the action of the movie ends with a rather empty celebration of victory. Not to mention a sweet rooftop kiss, too, while below half a city is ablaze. Hundreds of people have apparently been trampled or shot by Mickey Rourke's robots, but now that the Wrestler has been pinned once and for all, it seems the wounded can mend themselves. And what actually was achieved? Whatever it was, the first priority afterward is the kiss and some repartee with Don Cheadle – and I'll sit through some silly dialogue between Downey Jr. and Cheadle, I'll admit.. But I can't shake that image from recent history, a crowing statement on the deck of an aircraft carrier. 'We won!' We won what?

There's another plaguing question: who was Samuel Jackson? I don't get it. No doubt he's the obvious choice for a one-eyed deus ex machina. He's been floating an inch above the mortal pavement since the 90s. But exactly what secret white-hat agency was he representing? Maybe it doesn't matter. Secret white-hats are a modern necessity. They allow us a comfortable degree of stupidity. When Tony fumbles, Samuel L. Jackson is there to pick up. Even better he sends an impossibly sexy bodyguard. If those are the terms, dress me up in an iron suit and a bottle of whiskey!

Where would the European intelligentsia be without our intelligence services? Since Paul, since Augustine, through Aquinas, through Milton, the Europeans have needed a name for Evil. By now, 'CIA' seems like a code hatched in the Big Bang, Lucifer cast out of heaven. It's very metaphysically satisfying. Especially in the person of Jackson.

Anyway, as much as I love Downey Jr., maybe his heroes are too complex for me. For the moment, I'll stick to the simple inspirations of the football pitch. This week, Chelsea secured first place in the Premiership, led by Didier Drogba, the beefy 'Ivorian'. 'Ivorian' is a term employed by British commentators. Awkward? It makes me imagine Didier with tusks, or playing piano next to Paul McCartney. Chelsea has two 'Ivorian' strikers.

Didier the Ivorian was all hero, turning in a hat trick that thrust him ahead of Wayne Rooney in Premiership scoring. I even enjoyed his unembarrassed pouting in the first half, when Lampard was given a penalty kick instead of him. Silly, but human. Foibles within proportion. We needn't be frightened for the species when Didier pouts. If anything, it comfortably puts all in its proper place. Every day, heroes pout. Just like every day they put on their uniforms, and every day they achieve forgettable feats. But when they lift up their trophies, the numbers add up.