Thursday, December 30, 2010

Travelogue 376 – December 30
The Small Rain

The clouds have gathered in recent days, taking nothing away from the beautiful daylight hours, adding nothing more than spells of shadow and cool mornings. Suddenly last night, they piled up above the mountains, black and flashing with lightning, and they released torrents of rain. Fortunately we were down in Bole, the city's furthest district from the mountains. We watched the light show for an hour before the rain reached as far south as we were.

It's still raining this morning, mildly, steadily, like a mood almost spent. It's still raining when Derartu and Altaye arrive. They come by the house every other morning. Derartu and Altaye are athletes on my team, a young woman and young man with talent in the short-distances, the 800 and 1500. MWF they run speed drills written out by one of the U of M athletes, and TTS they do strength training with Cien. Sometimes it's weight training, and sometimes it's drills borrowed from a video that Cien brought with him, lunges and jumps and twists to driving music.

Kerempt, the rainy season, is a long way off. The autumn is usually all blue skies. The winter and spring months will see occasional 'small rains'. We're getting an early one. We are lulled during the night with the patter of the rain against our metal roofs.

I'm exiled to my bedroom during training. I have work to do. I set up the netbook on my bed and I type to the beat of Cien's southern rock. Occasionally I join the clan in the living room just for a laugh. Being top-notch athletes does not guarantee grace and poise. Many of the movements required are beyond them. This kind of thing is alien. They didn't grow up with PE classes, gymnastic, or ballet. One day they decided to run. That particular motion they've mastered. But the finer distinctions among forward and sideways lunges, bounces and sidesteps, wide arm movements while balancing, all escape them. It makes for comical workouts. When Ijigu is around, he tends to simply jump from side to side no matter what the video exercise.

This starts with Altaye. He's a boy blessed and cursed with talent. He grew up with a contemptuous father in tough country. Somehow he escaped to the city and has survived with virtually no skill, knowledge or talent beyond his running. He can't read. He needs his instructions delivered three times over. He cuts corners like a boy half his age. But he has a winning smile and raw talent as a runner. He requires strict supervision. He needs some muscle, and he needs some specialized training. There is no body fat on him, but he can't do ten push-ups. He can sprint around the track with the best in Ethiopia, but he's unfamiliar with spikes and blocks. Before we got hold of him, he had run on a real track a few times per year. Now he's prancing around the courtyard with Cien, a little mystified but in good spirits.

I'm inside staring at the computer again. For some reason, Januarys have been our most hectic months, even more so than Septembers, when the school year gets going. I can't say why, but it seems the prime month for visitors. Next month does more than prove the pattern; it pushes it further. We have far more going on than I have hours in my planning day, week, or month to take care of. Advances are made before there is the structure to support it. That's where I come in as trouble-shooter, and keep coming in, year after year. These are the growing pains; these are the small rains.

Derartu doesn't need much supervision. She is eighteen. She has run with our team since she was sixteen. But when it's time to train she is the adult in the room. While Altaye wears his goofy grin and cuddles up to Cien, Derartu attacks every movement with a creased brow, clean movement, and blunt muscle. When we take Derartu out for the occasional meal – a good dose of protein, she stares straight ahead silently. The rare smile is beautiful, but she is not here to smile. She is paying her dues.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Travelogue 375 – December 13
Amsterdam, Part Two

It's so hard to get up early in northern Europe. It's dark, and then it's dark some more. I eventually climb out of bed. Outside, the sunrise tints the clouds pink. It's 8:30.

I'm going to walk into the centrum. The canals have a film of ice on them. Seagulls stand on the ice as though they are dazed by the slow dawn.

The trams are humming by. Loads of people are cruising around on bikes. There's bustle, but there's never chaos in Amsterdam. It's the happiest town for A-type stoners. Bike paths accompany every street. Intersections are governed by intricate electronic choreography, and everyone obeys. Everything is tiny and cute. Only the detail and individuality of age saves the town from feeling like a model train set.

It's early enough, and I'm having little enough luck finding a place wide enough for a comfortable work session, so I commit to the walk into the centrum. I do make one stop before I make it there, a plush brasserie, where a diminutive machiatto costs three euro, where sheer white drapes hang beside ceiling-high mirrors. Some of the clientele could be TV stars. The men talk like producers. They wear bold ties. Their hair is Netherlands shag.

I continue my walk, along the Number Two tram line. I eventually arrive at the imposing Rijksmuseum. Passing that building and the Van Gogh Museum, I arrive in the centrum, crossing the first of the inner rings of canals. From here, everything just gets smaller, more squeezed, and more precious.

I stop at the Kandinsky Coffeehouse among the inner rings. It's Amsterdam cramped, all up and no width, off the beaten path, and exhibiting only a modicum of the charm of the classical facades around it. It has a counter downstairs and a few seats. Upstairs consists of four tables on poles set before a ragged L of a cushioned bench along the balcony, divan-style. The tables are barely big enough for my netbook. The music is made of bleeps and chants and hip-hop rhythms in water drops and bubble-gum pops. The downstairs has just enough space for several predictable murals featuring Oriental pleasures.

The barista is a tired-looking eighteen year-old blonde, who is eager to please, which means she is ready with a preemptive show of angry irony. 'Hello,' she drones, her tone saying she has my measure. 'Yes, you can sit upstairs but you have to order downstairs.' Oh? 'You can try to order upstairs ….' I think her English fails her here. Biting wit requires too much agility in a second language. I'd like to see the prices for coffee, but the menu only features hashish and 'Dutch Grass'. They have what seems like a nice variety of these items, several pages worth, anyway, and they're rated by 'stone'. Hmm. You know, I'd just like a coffee. She bucks her head dismissively. 'What kind?' I'm apologetic. I'm missing the tinsel celebs of the brasserie.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Travelogue 374 – December 12
Amsterdam, Part One

It's the truth. I find it odd to be back in this old city again, find it strange and stirring. I've had a pass-through or two in the time since the halcyon days when I lived here, but those isolated snapshots are yellowing themselves, in their way more perishable than the impossibly distant autumn of my residence.

It was the fall. I was a student. It was the season, by chance, that witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall – an event that I'm afraid rings as old these days as the moon shot, as Civil Rights, as the Civil War. But some of us walking the earth have held pieces of the Wall in their hands, gripping them like crystals, and wondering at the sensation of history, at the Right-Here-Right-Nowness of it.

That was my first extended trip to Europe. It was my first chance to experience the contrast between Europe the Romance and Europe the Reality. I was settled into student buildings stacked like blocks of cement among dozens of others of its kind in the outer rings of the city, reached by humming trams. The rooms were square and sterile, functional in a way that I found intriguing, appealing. The Dutch are indeed urban planners. They have centuries of practice squeezing dense populations into precious small space, all reclaimed from the North Sea. I remember feeling the sea, present though out of sight, grey and cold. Once you're outside the centrum, Holland asserts itself. One might think the high narrow houses, all with their hooks, characterize Holland, but instead I think of the flat, green fields, the narrowness of the land itself, the sprawl of flavorless buildings in neat blocks that halt abruptly along a line that the eternally thoughtful planners have scratched across a map.

I remember the light, Flemish skies expanding into expressive banks of cloud. Lying below those over-ripe impressions was the blunt fact of our latitude: the skies grew dim as the solstice approached. Frost gathered in the lengthening shadows and never melted. The omniscient concrete melded into the season's light.

I remember the Dutch, smart and sarcastic, the men with their stubborn blonde shags that were already dated. I remember their quiet domesticity. I remember the ruthlessly egalitarian spirit of the Dutch, tiring in its stridency. I remember being the only American in my language class. I fell for my teacher, young and fiercely intelligent, who not only didn't speak English – an oddity among the Dutch – but made a point of it. I remember American classmates from other classes, and drinking with them into the wee hours of the deep northern night. I amused them with ball-point portraits of their beer-numbed features. I remember Napoleon, my Colombian classmate, who entranced me with his uncanny salsa.

What I don't remember very well are red lights, canals, and 'coffee houses'. These pictures reside at the core of most modern tourists' impression. Amsterdam has become one of Europe's party cities. Book a short flight and commence drinking; make great shows of carousing; take photos with prostitutes; that sort of thing. I confess that, with the exception of Vegas in my teens, I've never conformed well to that mass mandate of travel. I've certainly 'partied', but I've never felt the need of a pack or a sanctioned city in order to do it.

Amsterdam in image is 'cool' in that mysteriously hypnotic way of our time. Age does much to strip away the mystique, and suddenly 'cool' evaporates and leaves something amazingly banal. What is more common, in fact, than intoxication and the jaded, self-aware merchandising of sex? Is this how it was in high school? Did we all swoon before mediocrity, just because we were entranced by its self-confidence? 'Cool' metastasizes into philosophy the way a drunk's ramblings on a bar napkin become art, in a sort of bold sleight-of-hand that consists of nothing but boldness. To the extent that the Dutch call their libertinism 'culture', the more they trivialize themselves. Fortunately, history preserves for them a better place.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Travelogue 373 – December 11
Christmas in Bath

The Kennet and Avon Canal has chunks of ice in it. The Bath area has emerged from a bitter cold spell just in time for my visit. I'm thankful. I need a long run, and I don't have cold weather gear. The towpath is very sloppy, offering either puddles or orange mud to the runner's careful foot. I choose the mud.

It isn't by any means warm out, nor is the afternoon terribly inviting for nature walks, glowering with clouds and already gloaming at 3pm. But there are still a good number of hardy Brits out still, unsteady on their old bikes or hunched inside their long jackets, their dogs by their sides.

The countryside still offers its charms, even in winter. The hillsides are green, lined in a very few fields with traces of snow. The trees are bare and brooding. Everything seems more damp than usual in the frustrated light of near-solstice. There are places slick with frost that never goes away. The sun rarely hits the ground in the northern shadow of tall hills.

The city offers a contrast to the vanquished silence of the hills. Today is Saturday, and Christmas is two weeks away. Bath is the shopping town for the region. The shopping streets downtown are jammed with milling people, and people remarkably cheery for what strikes me as a season of anxiety. Everyone is with family, window-shopping, gobbling sweets at cafes, carrying bags in every available hand. They're smiling, greeting, and chattering. Musicians are playing at corners. There's a group of high school girls standing before music stands and marching through carols with flutes and African drums.

I'm meeting a new friend at the Jika Jika cafe. It's a little restaurant and cafe at the top of the main shopping avenue. Word is it was opened by a rugby player who was drummed out of the sport because of his drug habit – and I'm not referencing steroid use here. The cafe is narrow and deep in layout, as to be expected in old Bath. The fare and service are that curious blend between hippie and posh, organic and refined, that caters to the conflicted appetites of modern urban types. The furniture seems rough-hewn, like sitting at picnic tables. Families loudly consume, while on the walls above them are displayed sophisticated photographic nudes.

I eat very little, and very simply. I have a plan to run soon after lunch. And I'm trying to be careful. Everyone in Pey's house has a cold at some stage of development. The smallest, Bea, has it the worst. She's been confined at home for several days, looking dejected and emitting hollow, regular little coughs. I'm being very careful to avoid the germ.

I limit the distance of my run because of the imminent, gathering dusk, settling down over the valley like the sad illness I'm trying to avoid. I know that stars will be out before five. But arriving home, I want a long warm-down. I pass the house and jog the extra several hundred meters to the top of their hill. There's a park there, and a little circuit around the hilltop that amounts to a third of a mile. I do some slow laps. From this vantage, you see a lot of the town, opening up below you, like scenes from a play, and then repeating. The scenery is very pleasant, but the action is far away and muted. The darkness deepens, and I realize I haven't learned much from the play. Scaling the heights doesn't give you the town.