Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Travelogue 389 – March 23
Part Two

It's fun to drive on the highways of Holland with an American. Kim is talking and weaving among the springtime construction on the roads. It could be anywhere. But it's not. It's the Netherlands, flat and green. The highways are tidy, like everything else Dutch. When we pull off, there is no city. There are no distinguishing features at all to mark this locale off from the surrounding farmland.

This is the village of Wassenaar. A village with no village, that I can tell. Not far from the highway is the American School. This is an international school for children of diplomats and industrialists stationed in Holland temporarily. This is a phenomenon of the post-war era. (I feel like I give away my age when I use the phrase 'post-war'. Won't the current young adults scratch their heads at that? Which war?) The international schools are colonialism meets post-colonial educational standardization. Most capitals have a few of them, an American brand, a British one. A third of the schools will be well-to-do locals, the rest itinerant sorts from all over the world. The education is usually top-notch, the children bright and interesting.

We have a few student guests at my presentation, and yes, they are bright and interesting. The boy, probably 16 or so, has already been to Ethiopia and volunteered for a local charity there. The young woman is an athlete, so she wants to hear about my team of runners.

The school itself is huge and well-appointed. I tour the library and the various wings of classrooms. I see through the eyes of the Ethiopians and marvel. The place is huge and appointed with every convenience and improvement. The children act like young professionals on their way to meetings, except for the two teens chewing on each other's faces, whom Kim has to break up. 'Disgusting!' she pronounces.

Nicole, another teacher, drives me back to Amsterdam. Both teachers have been in Holland for years. One married a Dutchman; the other came with her American husband for the job. They have adopted from Ethiopia. Like many adoptive parents, they are very committed to the culture and people of her children.

For the moment, the brief and passing moment, I am committed to my Dutch city. On Sunday night, I decided to suspend judgement on the decadent old centrum of Amsterdam, and to go exploring. I wanted to see the Jordaan district.

I needed reminding that Amsterdam is a big city. It looks small on maps, particularly the centrum, contained as it is within the circles of canals. But there is lots of room for those high and narrow little buildings. I climb off the tram at the Centraal Station, and head west just a block or two from the Ij River. The blocks go on and on. In the distance, beyond the centrum, you see the vast machinery of industry. I pass through a variety of micro-hoods, suddenly besieged by cheery cyclists and strolling among ad hoc pub patios, tables set up for customers to drink their beers and enjoy the spring sunshine. And then, just as suddenly, I'm alone on quiet residential blocks, mum households stretching off toward the next canal.

I wander until I'm in the Dam district again, the hub of old Amsterdam, the hub of the new, more decadent Amsterdam, too. I arrive from an unaccustomed angle, and quite unexpectedly, there it is! There is the university building in which I took classes so many years ago. I don't know where I had stored it on internal maps, but I had no idea it was so close to the Dam. It's one of those moments where you feel a tingling realignment happen inside you, sweeping through you from head to toe. I walk around the building. Unfortunately it's closed for the weekend, and I can't enter. But I solemnly reflect on the past as I study the old building. I remembered it slightly differently. The building is not Dutch traditional; it's Euro modular, looking like it was put together by earnest children from plastic tubing, perhaps a kind of plastic rendering of Gothic aesthetics. Now it's older, seems streaked by the soot of age.

I walked all around the building, sinking into reminiscences of a dark sort. That trip was decisive in many ways. I had developed a quick and ardent love for things European and Dutch, and yet I left early, lacking the character to commit.

I sat at a hotel bar nearby and stared into the mirror behind the bar, overcome by regret. There is no defense against oneself and one's narrative. That's the only psychological advantage to youth, freedom from the condemning past.

I walked around the Dam, and finally settled in at the Beer Temple, with its list of international beers that takes up a wall. I got the bartender to admit that the Americans were the kings of the specialty brews. I indulged in a Colorado IPA, not thinking I needed to check alcohol content until too late: 8%! Oofta. I pried myself from the bar stool and went in unsteady search of the Number Two tram home.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Travelogue 388 – March 22
Part One

I'm back at Schiphol, neither the most nor the least comfortable of airports. I'm paying top dollar to sit in the brasserie on the second floor of this terminal. It's either that or crammed in among orange plastic chairs, chewing on dry pan au raisin and sipping coffee from plastic. In an hour, I'll be boarding the KLM flight to Khartoum and Addis Ababa.

I took the bus in this morning, the ol' 197 that I catch at the dreary bus hub by the humble medieval church of St Anne off Amstelveenseweg. I have to get up early for the privilege, calculating in the last-minute packing and final glance through emails for life-or-death messages.

I'm not always so virtuous. When I arrive in Amsterdam from Addis, it's often after an overnight. I'm wrecked. I walk straight to the taxi stand.

But today, I'm virtuous. I awake at 6:30. I clean up and pack and clean up, and I set out for the bus stop on a virtuous spring morning in tender-hearted old Nederland. I contemplate my long visit to Europe. It was a fun time. It was a busy time.

My last day in Holland was certainly a busy one. I had to hit the road, due at a meeting in The Hague. No, it was not an appearance before the World Court. That would be something to write about! Imagine committing a crime worthy of the World Court. My mission is something less grandiose: I'm meeting with some teachers at an American international school. And actually, it's not even in the Hague, but in a village outside. So, instead of alighting on the Hague's train platform to be escorted by uniformed policemen, I alight in Leiden to be met by a teacher in jeans.

I arrive early. I want to put in some rushed tourism. I had visited Leiden years ago, but remembered nothing about it. It remained in my memory as an insubstantial name suggesting beauty. The reality now unfolds itself in the hour I have to tour: a pretty town, a ghost town, an anomaly.

Emerging from the station, you see high-rise business buildings all around. It seems like it should be a bustling town. I'm meeting my teacher friend at noon. It's 11am now. I aim toward the church steeples, intuiting that I'll find the historic town center there. I pass a large, traditional windmill on a small green sward by a canal. I find cobblestone; I find canals lined with the typical Dutch houses, everything pink with ancient brick, the water in the canals green and silent.

The further I go into town, the less people there are. I check my watch again. Yes, it's after 11am on a Monday. Some cafes are just opening. Many shops are closed.

Again, my memory of Leiden is just a feeling, that it had been a destination when I studied in Holland years ago. Now I recognize nothing. I turn every corner anticipating the Dutch Golden Age splendor that drew me. Nothing like that appears. It's a cute town, though. And it occurs to me, prompted by the sparse morning population, that it might be a notable party town on the circuit. Otherwise, cute and quaint is as high as the meter goes. Though I would recommend the Hooglandse Kerk, one of the furthest sites available to you if you have an hour to tour from the train station. The bulk of this church is medieval Gothic, and very pretty.

I return to the station, and there meet Kim, the teacher from the American school. We jump in her car and head toward the Hague.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Travelogue 387 – March 15
Sunset in Salisbury

The title of this entry is the title of my magnificent portrait of the Wiltshire town, and I'm hoping I have the presence of mind to post the brilliant photo with the text.

I'm navigating my final days in England, and I must say, navigating them without much poise. I feel for the commuters of the world. In six business days, I've made two day trips to London, packed with meetings, one to Oxford, and one to Salisbury. My brain is not well. Thinking in the aftermath feels like collecting debris from a tsunami – an insensitive metaphor if there ever was one, but there you go.

I'll digress now, digressing all the way to hazy sunshine on green hills. It was warm enough for short sleeves today, for the first time during my England trip! And I responded to the weather's call, emerging from my house in a new, white T-shirt, a shirt which I quickly stained with sweat. I was also wearing shorts and running shoes.

Running has become my method for exploration of town and country. The chaka revolution works on me still and always, the revolution that makes me think of training as a measure of time spent wandering, and work time spent most enjoyably. The ancien régime, when training was Point A to Point B with grim determination, has passed forever. And especially as I recover from my near fatal plantar something-or-other, I am driven by tender concern for body parts and their recovery.

Just the other day, I made my way by zigs and zags to an incredibly cute town just south of Bath, called Southstoke. Well worth the footsteps, I must say. Don't be fooled; travel never stopped being work. Arbitrarily, I'll distinguish between travel and tourism here. Tourism is blinking at packaged sights; travel is discovering sights in more or less a natural state. The little village of Southstoke, set among farmers' fields, is just such a pleasant sight, with its barnacled old church in Gothic-minor.

Today's run, since it's likely to be my last British excursion of the season, has been preserved for the final frontier: the top of the hill opposite our valley, Lansdowne Park above Bath proper. I weave down from my hill, employing recently patented shortcuts, crossing the River Avon a little west of town center, running alongside Royal Victoria Park, and then up and up and up the hill behind, passing through neighborhoods in which the houses have names, passing two aristocratic academies housed in sprawling stone mansions that must date from the Tudors or the Stuarts, and eventually reaching the crest of the high, wooded hill, (near the site of a famous Civil War battle in the Civil Wars, by the way). What a glorious run!

But I have digressed rather far. Let's return to Salisbury, shall we, outside of which is a village called Downtown, where a tiny church primary school has maintained a long connection with our Mercato school in Addis Ababa. It's my first visit in three years. The children in second year who hosted me last time are now in fifth year. They still remember me. First, I get a tour of the school from three girls from the second year. We visit classrooms and gardens, peek into cupboards and cloak rooms, and catch some of the older kids singing and giggling. I visit two classrooms to answer questions about Ethiopia. I am guest of honor in the school 'worship', or assembly. The children are so gracious and so smart, the day is great fun.

And now, tuckered out from the visit, tired out from weeks of business and travel, I'm watching a clear, blue sunset out the window of an ancient pub. Fortunate Salisbury has plenty of history still standing in shadow of the famous cathedral, neglected as the town was by the Nazi bombers. Lots of the buildings present in classic Tudor style, leaning over the street with their jutting first stories, tarred beams, and Coke bottle windows. This pub is an old one, inhabited sparsely by old specimens of the species, who tell creaking stories and jokes, make frequent trips to the bar, and otherwise slouch and stare.

You'll notice the mastery of the composition of this photo, capturing today and yesterday in perfect balance, glass and Gothic, deep dusk and the flash of the camera's light. Notice the warped supports of the window. Everything Tudor twists, striving for straight lines and marvelously failing, and then, often as not, covering errors of the plane with the carving of a quirky human face, made to jut into the room like curious wood sprites.

The sun sets successfully – it so seldom botches the job – and I'm left to negotiate the evening's journey back to Bath. It's a three-car train, traveling through quiet valleys, stopping at Warminster, Westbury, Trowbridge, stopping at Bath Spa. There aren't too many lights aglow as I walk home from the train station.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Travelogue 386 – March 6
Go, Green Man!

It's chilly this morning. The sun is lingering behind a set of surly clouds, due to peek out later. He has been doing so for days now, making feeble impressions of Good Spring.

Oh, this is not just any morning, my good reader. This is the morning that will witness the Bath Half Marathon. I have very publicly made a commitment NOT to run in this venerable event, this long-standing personal tradition, dating back all of one year. This was to be my second run of the Bath Half, during which I was to crush my already astounding PR (personal record) of 1:38.

Alas, it was not to be. Instead, at the peak of my prodigious powers, I incurred a grievous injury. It's a plague of the heel common to runners, called plantar something or other, that feels like you're tearing the muscles that run the length of your sole.

So, as many of you, my devoted fans, know I regrettably announced my retirement from the field of the Bath Half. … Can you see where this story is going?

I'm running the race. I charted a slight improvement in the heel, and I took that as the nod from God and Body to run.

I put on shorts and shirt. I review the map for the rather complex staging areas for the start of the race. They have to accommodate 11,000 people, after all, and Bath was not a city built for 11,000 people to do anything in one place. I study the chart for attaching my time chip to my shoe. I have coffee with the family I'm lodging with. They think it's hilarious that I'm running. They even commit to coming down the hill to cheer me on. I climb the stairs to take my last pee and put on the last layers. It's 10:45. The race starts in 15 minutes. I curse.

I have to jog down to the start, and by the time I find my place among the masses, the starter's gun has already fired and I'm sweaty. I'm aided by the five minutes it takes the crowd to cross the starting line after the official start. We start at a creep. I'm already warmed up; I'm resenting this pace. I start the bob-and-weave that big races invariably become for at least the first two miles.

About one mile on, I hear the roar of my landlord, shouting out my name. I wave and step on a young lady's heel. Onward! There's very little pain in my heel. Once again God – very concerned about events like this – has shone his favour upon me.

Except … just as happened last year, by the third or fourth mile I've involuntarily become attached to one of the folk heroes of the race. This year, it's Green Man, a runner completely encased in a green body suit of some sort. And I mean completely. His shoes are inside. There are no eye-holes. He runs with a strange, grasping lope, elbowing and kicking people as he goes.

He's terribly popular. Again, I run the race inside a rolling bubble of laughter and cheering. It's not for me. No one is shouting, 'Go Normal Guy with Plantar!' They're shouting, 'Go Green Man!”

I try to shake him, but we're too evenly matched. And if it's no fun running next to Green Man – he might elbow you – it's not very pleasant running behind him, either. People in body suits rarely think ahead about the effects of thirteen miles of sweat. It accumulates at the base of the spine, just above the hard-working buttocks, and from there it spreads its unappealing stain up the channel of the spine.

Green Man and I complete the entire course. I arrive to raves and shouts and wild applause … all for Green Man. For my part, I've wilted quite appreciably in the final miles, but not so much that I don't perk up at the sight of the grand video screen showing us all rounding the last corner.

Good job, Green Man. I smack him on the shoulder on the other side of the finish. He's unveiling himself, but all I have time to see is the back of his shaved head. I want to get my hard-earned medallion and start the hike home before the heel starts complaining in earnest. I did it!