Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Travelogue 411 – August 30
The Summation

The only thing on one small table in my room is the paper written over in Amharic, a simple document, with a letterhead and one paragraph of text, and the all-important agency stamp. One piece of paper, it's a heavy sheet, a burden. Sometimes I stare at it, measuring it with my eyes.

As much as any paper could, this one captures a human life within its weave and its ink. This is the certificate of a race time issued by the Athletics Federation, passed to me by Mekonnen, athlete and former member of our team. It's his best time yet, summation of a young life's achievement.

He ran so well for Team Tesfa that several years ago he was courted by organizers of what was then the new 'Tirunesh' camp, a government-run facility for young athletes with Olympic chances. Several of our runners left for the camp. Only Mekonnen has stayed the course there. The camp is far from Addis, in the countryside. They provide food and some education … and day after day of intense training.

For years now, running has formed the entire substance of his life. He wants nothing else. The day before I left Ethiopia, he came to the office with this piece of paper and his diffident smile. As important as the paper is, it has already become crumpled in the transport. Ethiopians can be a bit clumsy with paperwork that way. It's as though the thin shreds of chatter aren't completely real for them yet; good for them.

Mekonnen is not allowed to compete in Ethiopia, unless it's a camp event. But we can represent him to run internationally. He pursues me out of the office as I leave to pack, and he asks me for my phone number. I smile; 'I'll be in England, Mekonnen.' He continues to smile, though he's not sure what to do with that information. He's a very sweet guy. He came to us straight away once he was let go for summer break, telling us he still misses everybody, and offering a hand if we need him. He has his motives, of course, but they are so mild, and so submerged in genuine sentiment, that I can't help wanting to help.

If my life could be summed up in a page, it might just now be a spreadsheet. I play with numbers. I calculate; I review; I project. I've begun seeing the spreadsheet as a form of poem, heightened language, condensed meaning. So much of significance gets stripped down, captured in digits, poured into the columns and rows of the spreadsheet. One document becomes a powerful statement about a group of people. It's philosophy. It's an aesthetic work of symmetry.

The balloons are up this morning, drifting up above the fringes of western Bath and above the fields and the vales between here and Bristol, seeming halfway to the ceiling of rippled clouds. I'm surprised to see them today, on the business day after the last bank holiday of the summer.

They rise regularly from some hill or other and lazily drift over town. One sees the occasional glow of the fire inside the base of the balloon. The balloons are silent, nearly still. I can watch them and feel something like meditation. I am lifted from the spreadsheets. And what do I see? The fields and the vales, and the days left to me in England. They aren't many.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Travelogue 410 – August 22
The Schools
Part Two

Stunning are the edifices we inherit from the inspired Cambridge intellectuals, high halls and Gothic chapels and elaborate gateways that are every bit as somber and earnest, playful and smirking as college students, set among their sweetly restrained gardens and the subdued skies of Britain.

While you're in Cambridge, be sure to spend some minutes on the King's Parade, dramatic piazza before the gates of King's College. There you have your first breathtaking view of King's College Chapel, high Gothic at its most striking, built by Henrys VI-VIII, boasting the largest fan vault ceiling in the world. This grand church has survived housing Cromwell's troops, who busted all the original stained glass. It will survive our irreligious gawking. Be sure to spend some minutes sighing over the Bridge of Sighs in St. John's College, a Gothic (though 19th century) covered bridge over the peaceful River Cam, looking as romantic as the name, particularly standing close over the boats being punted underneath in summer.

As it happens, Oxford gets a second chance with me only a week later. I have a meeting there. I'm happy to make the meeting, not so happy to re-visit dreaded Oxford. But Life often forces me to reconsider. That's the kind of relationship Life and I have.

As I say, Oxford has provided me my education: I bow my head disembarking from the train, refusing Oxford its malign 1209 shadow over my naïve trust. This time it's summer. The day opens as it advances, the morning's chill dispersing into astonishingly blue skies. My meeting wraps up in late afternoon, and I am released into the accursed city at a blessed moment.

I decide to allow Oxford an hour to win me. And this time I find a side to the town I hadn't the fortune to see the first time. Granted, I didn't try too hard, caving to disillusionment rather quickly. This time, I see the wonderful Bodleian Library, set against Radcliffe Square, the Radcliffe Camera and the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, the university's official church, and a beautiful one at that, The Radcliffe Camera is an eighteenth-century round, domed building, originally a separate science library, but finally consumed by the Bodleian.

Next door is the Sheldonian Theatre, built in the seventeenth century according to a design by Christopher Wren, built expressly to take the secular ritual of graduations ceremonies out of the university church. Over the years, it has served as a lecture and music hall – Handle made his appearances there – but never as a dramatic theatre – even though it's design was in part inspired by the ancient Roman Theatre of Marcellus. What makes the place fun are the goofy stone heads that adorn the railing around the theatre, grimaces and smiles borrowing from the dramatic tradition, regardless of the use put to the building.

Keep walking south, and you encounter the Christ Church Meadow, wide fields devoted to grazing, to sport, and to summer picnics. These fields extend as far as the Thames, where the punters and rowers are again active in numbers. Oxford is nothing without its arcane traditions: this part of the Thames is traditionally known as the Isis. It seems as though everything must have several names here and, of course, a collection of associated apocryphal tales. Sadly, all the medieval code seems finally to be fading, unable to compete with bland modernism, the sarcasm of post-modernism, and the apathy of international students. Such is life.

I end my tour at the 'Head of the River' pub, which stands by the Folly Bridge across the Thames. It has a terrace beside the river, a perfect spot to watch the boat traffic and the antics of some of the student expeditions on the river. I sit in the sun, I reconsider my previous judgement of Oxford. Harsh, really, don't you think? I take a taste of bitter, and I contemplate. Yes, quite. Maybe we all deserve a second chance. Cheers.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Travelogue 409 – August 21
The Schools
Part One

Influenced as much by the vagaries of British transport – there seems no easy way to get to Lincoln in Lincolnshire – I've determined that my tourist stop after Grimsthorpe will be Cambridge, a quick train trip south from Peterborough.

I visited Oxford last spring, and that was a thoroughly disappointing experience, particularly for a frustrated academic who has romanticized the grand old European universities for a lifetime. The town seemed trashy and noisy. The colleges seemed locked behind walls, which themselves were obscured by the mobs of flippant French high-schoolers and Japanese chain-gang tourists.

I've learned my lesson. Exiting the train station in Cambridge, I duck my eyes well below the bill of my cap and withhold all judgement, like holding my breath, until I've passed through the city districts adjoining the station. I should know better, university towns in the U.S. are the same, attracting all sorts of experimental and tentative personalities, all those who are stalled out in life, stalled in fortune or dallying in adolescence. There is a ring of blessed compassion around universities, similar to what may have surrounded the medieval churches that they sprung from, an atmosphere that attracts afflicted souls.

The mile-long gauntlet run, beautiful Cambridge opens up to me. I might have felt like the first refugees from Oxford who came to Cambridge in 1209, fleeing persecution in the ugly first university town, and setting up shop along the banks of the kind River Cam, or River Granta, as it was apparently called in earlier days.

Trusty old Roger of Wendover, high medieval gossip, tells us that an Oxford student killed a woman in that fateful year of 1209, and townspeople rose in a mob against the school population, hanging several students. The good King John seemed to applaud this turn of events, being excommunicated at the moment because of a dispute with the Pope over a clerical appointment. Anything smacking of church was receiving no protection from the king. The university closed down for a while, and scholars went in search of greener pastures.

There are plenty of green pastures in Cambridge, even to this day. While in Cambridge, make a point of strolling among the lawns of 'the Backs', which are across the River Cam from the colleges. They provide peace and privileged views of the beautiful medieval college complexes.

The first of the surviving colleges to be founded was Peterhouse, founded in 1280. It's now one of the smallest of the colleges, and the southernmost among the chain of schools along the river. You can take in all the colleges in a short walk from Peterhouse up to Magdalen College, (founded in 1458), near the curve in the river that constitutes the approximate site of the original, ancient settlement that became Cambridge.

So why the breakdown between 'colleges' and 'universities', and what was it that our 1209 refugees fled to, if the first college was founded 71 years later? It seems, if I'm understanding the history of European universities correctly, that higher education was the province of church men, but in a kind of free enterprise method, in which schools were set up as independent enterprises with church sanction in order to train bright candidates for clerical service.

As Roger's harrowing tale demonstrates, life as a pious college scholar was no guarantee of protection from the rough and tumble of life in medieval England. So it is that the scholars, shameless liberals even then, organized collectively in associations called universities.

So when Roger's exiles fled to Cambridge, it was because there were already schools in place there, as there were in a few other owns around southern England. It was apparently the entrance of this wave of new blood that gave Cambridge the impetus to grow into the number two spot.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Travelogue 408 – August 15
There's Best and Best

I've turned in my athletic performance for the summer. It was the best I could do, and I use that phrase fairly literally. There are best and there are bests. In this case, I was working at my limit throughout the race. I have the aches and pains on display on the day after to more than prove my case. I feel a wreck.

I'm not so much of a wreck that, when I awake and see the sun shining, I hesitate to place my grieving arse on that instrument of terror, Sheila's bicycle, and with a great groan launch toward Bourne for my last morning of touring in Lincolnshire.

Thinking about the race as I cycle – my knees wouldn't let me forget – I'm thinking that I accomplished what I meant to. I ran that race with everything I had. That the result was less than dazzling is immaterial. I did my best. And in doing my best, I was blessed by near-perfect conditions. I have to be grateful – so seldom does Nature bother supporting us in our small endeavors, and so seldom are we grateful when it does. I had the weather with me; I had health; and I had a course that fairly well matched the conditions of my training in Ethiopia. There were hills and more dirt track than asphalt. I can't say much was lacking for a good result.

And that result? On paper, one minute faster than my last race, where I wanted ten, and NOT my personal best. But somewhere among the top twenty-five finishers, I'd say. Ironically, I was defeated by the terrain, the very terrain that I felt would be one of my strengths in this race. One would have to be phenomenally fit to make this course provide a great time. A few grim hills hit you just when you're struggling; there are stretches on uneven grass; there was a persistent headwind that miraculously seemed to find us at every turn. Given a flat course on asphalt, what would my training have yielded? We'll have to wait for the sequel, a race in the Arizona desert I'm looking at for winter.

In the meantime, it's the day after. It's the time for relief and celebration. I'm built for anxiety and 'what's next', but I have a strong ally in authentic relaxation, and that is the sun. My friendly relations with the universe seem to have extended beyond the race. I was astonished to pull back the blinds this morning and see a ravishing blue sky this morning. I gasped – though as much because of the pain rippling up my calves, thighs and through my bruised backside as in response to the sunshine – and couldn't help a big, celebratory grin. I gulped down my muesli as quickly as I could in order to get out into the day. What with rainy season in Ethiopia and Britain being Britain, it feels like a long time since I've seen a pristine blue sky like this one.

Shall I craft a moral to the story? I kind of feel like it, so please bear with me, in solemn respect for my hard-earned aches and pains, or skip this paragraph if you must. The moral: if you love something, go out and do your best, making no excuses. How's that? It 's an easy moral to digest. And yet, it doesn't quite capture it. No, here's the real moral: exercise integrity. Know when Nature has done you a good turn. Acknowledge when you've been handed the chance to do your best unimpeded. THEN apply moral #1. I think it must be one of the supreme pleasures in life to receive a bit of circumstantial joy in an adverse world.

I'm coasting down the country lane. All is still, and as long as I'm still on the seat, my aching muscles don't persecute me. The fields expand peacefully toward the horizon. Behind me somewhere are the castle grounds where the race started and finished yesterday. I somehow feel their calm and restfulness, and it's a comfort. Why do humans invent with dangerous playthings like bests? Behold the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they ache.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Travelogue 407 – August 13

I'm in Lincolnshire. I've arrived for my race a few days early, to rest up and to get to know the area.

This is an area that gets a bum rap. You receive this impression immediately. The residents make apologies. It's boring, it's flat, they say with a shrug. But they love it. If flat landscape is a communal character flaw, what will they think of Minnesotans? They should fund a citizens' booster field trip to the American Midwest.

In actual fact, the landscape is lovely. And not flat at all. Undulating is the perfect descriptor for it, with low rolling hills stretching for mile after mile. At this time of year, the fields are golden, divided from each other by dark green copses. The skies are low, gathering in amiable humidity as the day passes mid-morning, shredded by vague clouds that bestow only tender occasional drizzles.

The journey here from Bath was long and tedious, six hours train to subway to train to bus. That much only gets you to anonymous little Bourne, where all lines seem to stop. The final leg ends up being a taxi. There are five miles and ten pounds left to reach the village and castle of Grimsthorpe.

I'm staying at the Black Horse Inn, one of a handful of roadside buildings on the busy road northwest from Bourne that comprise the healthy village of Grimsthorpe. If you happen down this stretch of road, I can recommend the inn. It's set just across the road from the castle grounds. It's comfortable. The inn has its own pub that serves great food. Richard and Sheila are the latest to own and operate the inn, latest in a chain stretching back to the eighteenth century, so they say. They are exceedingly welcoming and kind.

Richard and Sheila are puzzled by the sudden influx of runners. There have been a few ultra racers stopping in already. In addition to Sunday's half marathon, there are a 70- and 100-miler on Friday. Apparently, the Grimsthorpe running events are kept very low-key, as none of the locals know much about them.

I have a chance to meet a few of the event organizers yesterday, on that ultra Friday. They are nothing if not low-key, young guys with runner's bodies and diffident British manners. I have a few questions about the Sunday race, and they are met with that disconcerting British deadpan, a kind of embarrassed regret for your rash approach, with averted look and coy and curt half-answer. 'Will there be mile markers on Sunday?' I ask, amiably. There follows the long pause in which the interloper must reflect on his boldness. 'There might be,' comes the answer, delivered with a mordant smile and a tone that matches shyness with defiance. I think I'm supposed to be abashed, but I don't abash too easily. Rather, I'm left wondering what it is about mile markers that strikes this poor sod as so terribly private.

Once I'm out at the Black Horse, I realize that I'm somewhat stranded. Going anywhere will be ten pounds a pop. Richard and Sheila come to the rescue, dragging out Sheila's old mountain bike. I'm ecstatic. I haven't been on a bike all year. Of course, this one requires a painful bend of the leg to operate. And the seat seems designed to torture. After a mile, my backside is in agonies. But it's a bike.

The first thing I do is take a tour of the race course. I manage to squeeze a map of the ultra course from the Spartans in the HQ tent, and I head out on my little torture machine. It's a beautiful day, and it's a beautiful course, by turns winding through woods on a dirt track and then jogging alongside fields of ripe wheat. The half will be a challenge: there is precious little asphalt and precious few flat stretches. It's not a course for time. But it's a pretty one.

The next day, I get to explore. I take the bike out on the country roads. My goal is to make it to the town of Bourne, my nearest source of espresso and wireless. Richard draws out a course by which I can avoid the main road. British roads are frightening: too narrow, curving wildly, and populated by confident locals in speeding, swerving little cars careening inches from the margin.

My course is peaceful and scenic. I am as happy as I've been in months, pedaling along the country lanes, first through Elsthorpe, then over the ridge toward Hanthorpe, and then down a lovely dirt track to Cawthorpe, with always a view of miles of farmland. At the other end of Cawthorpe, I catch the highway that aims north toward Lincoln, but heading south into Bourne. I park my bike across from the Costa Coffee and discreetly massage my bottom for a while before I can walk normally.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Travelogue 406 – August 10

The evening toys with us, giving us neither contentment nor grief. It's another equivocal sky over Bath, England, the clouds absorbing light and heat but leaving the ground dry. I don't mind. There's a kind of beauty to be found in neither here nor there.

If the skies of England take no sides, the people certainly seem to. There is turmoil in the streets. It has provided a steady warlike drumbeat to the background of my English travel, starting up pretty much on the evening I arrived.

There's a lot of strangely effete soul-searching in the papers about it. Who's doing this? What does this say about our times, about our Britain? These are great and somber questions somehow made frivolous by the unmistakable whine in the tone of the press. Or perhaps it's a kind of dead ritual. 'How could this happen? How do we interpret this?' They might have cut and paste from articles about the recent economic set-backs, perhaps from the Sport page.

The attempts at philosophy are somewhat undermined by the news photos occasioned by the troubles, I must say. Some convey the necessary gravitas, cops in riot gear, cars on fire, etc. But most are rather banal portraits of trashy teens carting off consumer goods. Many haven't bothered with camouflage, and look like they happened upon the action after a day in the park.

With this as my dramatic backdrop, I can report a milestone: the first time I've seen Shakespeare performed in England. In all these years, I haven't had the opportunity, oddly enough. But strolling by the Theatre Royal on my very first day in Bath, I couldn't help but catch the promotion for my favorite of Shakespeare's plays, Henry IV, Part One. I could not believe my eyes. Timidly, I ventured into the box office to inquire and discovered that I had exactly one performance available to me before the show packed up and moved on to other stages.

The performance was an afternoon show. (Part Two plays this evening.) Afterward, I walked out of the theatre into Bath's compromised sunshine, feeling completely exhilarated. The sunlight appeared to me as crystalline as Ethiopia's in October. The town seemed blessed. Citizens and even tourists spoke in verse.

Henry IV is, of course, one of Wm's history plays, depicting fragments of the troubled reign of Bolingbroke, a character last seen in 'Richard II' as the conniving usurper, plotting against one of Shakespeare's most sensitive and poetic of characters. A PR challenge from the start. Truthfully, old Bolingbroke just never achieves that sine qua non of modern American politics, 'likability', though his grim carcass is paraded through three distinct history plays, and though Wm seems to try his level best to at least dress him up as respectable, (part of the job description of a playwright popular at court – any crowned monarch must be legit). But Wm opts rather for the theatrical tactic of making the heir apparent – future conqueror and hero – the beguiling one. Blood still counts.

And dear old Falstaff. This is where Sir Jack is born, inside this play, to become one of the great creations in literary history. The actor, a certain Desmond Barrit, was up to the challenge and the joy. But I'm afraid the director succumbs to the temptation of all directors of Shakespeare, the temptation of putting his stamp on the play, the play a thing that somehow manifests longer life and more vitality than the sum of any director or troupe that assays it.

Poor Wm, who really was one of the first to approach characters with a psychologist's eye. His work will always be accepted as an invitation to analysis by lesser mortals. The best practitioners of theatre will simply stand out of the way. Do not impose. That Prince Hal is divided about his friendship with Falstaff becomes obvious. That is how brilliant writing works. No need for awkward blocking.

Fortunately, with a company of this caliber errors in judgment stand alone among long streams of pleasure. Okay, I see no need for Hotspur to fairly jump around in tempers. We get it. And I would paint Prince Harry as more calculating and less colic in his interview with Daddy. But I suppose this is just the temper of our times, when anyone who would be politically relevant in Britain must smash a window or two on High Street and hoist new trainers for the news photographer with a cocky scowl lifted from one rap star or other.

The theatre itself is a delight, well worth a stop in while you're in Bath. It became the first royal theatre outside London in 1768. And though both waves of construction exhibited within the current edifice are nineteenth century, it retains its eighteenth century feel.

The skies continue to withhold comment. And the spirit of Richard II rhapsodizes on death and honor, as does poor old Falstaff. I'll head home now, before unequivocal night falls, spreading its share of either silence or mayhem across England.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Travelogue 405 – August 4
De Pijp

I'm feeling like I'm in heaven today. The sun has shone steadily since five or so. The temperature is nearly perfect. There's a slight breeze to move the dense, sea-level air, air that is redolent, humid and full of the suggestions of sea and flowers and clean, modern cities.

The experience of travel has already receded in my wonderfully resilient corpore so nearly sano, though it must be said that I barely 'experienced' the flight out of Addis at all. The travel was a species of void, a taste of non-existence, particularly after the acute pain of the passport and security lines. I spent nearly two hours in that mess before the long stroll down the suspended tunnel that feeds one into the throat of the flying beast.

KLM offers an overnight to Amsterdam and a day-flight back to Addis. For the overnight, I decided to splurge on a minor upgrade, a seat they shamelessly market as comfort, abandoning any pretense that comfort is a right with any ticket. Settling into my few extra centimeters, I dig out my supply of melatonin and down a few in a desperate attempt at speedy unconsciousness. Even so, I make it through two movies – vaguely imprinting Brody and Gyllenhaal in my diminished mind. I remember something of Greece, islands outlined in the night in the feeble lights of civilization. I recall meals sealed in impossible little boxes and plastic containers. But sustained awareness is only awakened again at Schiphol, in the halls of which I wandering wake, bag recovered, and so is daylight.

The daylight isn't much to inspire adventure. In fact, it is hard to register any change at all in location judging by the weather. The temperature is the same as Addis; rain is streaming steadily down on Gomorrah. I remain at Schiphol for hours, settling in at a cafe, studying nothing at all but the shadow play of modern life in the forms of rushing people pale and intent.

Today is a new matter. I have drunk deeply of sleep and of daylight. I went to bed before the sun had finally set, and I was up this morning well after old boy had come back around. And this time, he battles with very little atmospheric condensation. He shines benevolently on my shoulders as I stroll toward my new neighborhood.

You see, this time I've had to reserve a room in a different hotel. The internet usually offers up my old standard, the HEM Hotel, among the top choices. But summer tourism throws a wrench into all good works, and I found myself in an entirely new price range. Hence the hideous green highrise, the Novotel. Fortunately, the hotel's forbidding outside belies a different standard inside, and I am shamelessly enjoying the luxury that summer and the internet forced on me.

And I get to explore a new neighborhood. The immediate environs of the Novotel are unpromising. Except for the pretty and expansive park across the busy street, it's like being dropped into the worst combination of corporate park and convention center wasteland. But if one is intrepid, and one walks north, toward the center, one finds happier pastures. In point of fact, one enters de Pijp. Pijp is the name of a district of the city, just outside the rings of canals that define the historic centrum. (What is it about this town that lends itself to adolescent, slightly sad, puns on its reputation? A district named Pipe, the school named after Saint John the Doper...)

As far as I can tell, De Pijp is the most nearly authentic Bohemia in a city full of counterfeits. But does the fabled Bohemia still exist in our comfy Western cities? I'd call it a dubious proposition. Some of the accepted symptoms are in evidence: independent book sellers and neighborhood cafes; immigrants African and Middle Eastern; art galleries and disheveled young wannabes. And yet there is an underlying prosperity in the Netherlands that is hard to escape, and the accompanying sense of well-being that turns any counterculture into a pose.

So I stroll through the Edenic Bohemia in my sleepy mood. I find a book that I can stand, and I buy it. I find a cafe owned by extraordinarily loud West Africans. I drink very good coffee, and I contemplate the sunshine on sidewalks. The mild humidity envelops me and gives me comfort.