Monday, December 31, 2012

Travelogue 480 – December 31
The Moon and Mischance,
Part Four

It sounds as though there is occasional gunfire in the neighborhoods of Amsterdam, like snipers in a failed revolution are taking their last shots. It can be eerie, these disembodied shots in broad daylight. I am made to jump more than once by the explosions echoing off the blank walls of some housing development.

It's the approaching new year, of course. I turn a corner and see a lumbering youth hidden in his hoodie, walking alone down a concrete alley. Listlessly, he drops something beneath his shoe and he steps on it There is a report that bounces among the surrounding buildings. He shuffles further on. I am his only audience.

Today I visit the centrum. Faithful readers will know that I usually don't bother with the center of town, but I have fallen for a very particular neighborhood, the Spui. This is not the love of discovery; I've passed through the Spui square on previous trips. This time, I am compelled to hang out.

There is little mystery to the attraction. It's all about books. The square hosts two huge bookstores. And there is a Waterstone's (a major British chain) just around the corner. And there is a weekly book fair, of the sort I became familiar with in Rome, lanes of vendors under canopies, selling used and rare books from cardboard boxes.

The square has a sort of accidental charm. Its cobblestone expanse occupies what was once a body of water. I suppose that can be said of much in the Netherlands. For several centuries, this was as far as the city reached. Eventually new canal projects diverted the insistent waters and the new traffic. But it wasn't until the 1880s that the Spui became land. It wasn't until the 1990s that the stream of cars was diverted, much as the waters were.

A number of city tram lines wind by the square, on their way from the Dam on out to the Leidseplein. On one side of the tracks is the Athenaeum bookstore and on the other, the American Bookstore. The former is the more scholarly bookstore, and the latter has one of the better mystery collections I've seen in Europe. Today I'm in an Athenaeum mood. I buy Barnes; I buy a history of Henry VII.

Outside, the Lieverdje stands smirking. This is a bronze of mischief, a kind of Amsterdamsche counterpart to Piccadilly's statue of Eros. The Lieverdje was a gift to the city from a tobacco company, and became a rallying point in the 60s for youth movements – the genesis of which, oddly enough, was an anti-smoking campaign.

I'm writing this from far away. I have arrived back in Minnesota. As in Holland, I started the day before the sun had risen. The moon still presides over the early hours. She has lost some mass, one edge blurring into blackness. There are few stars to accompany her. Instead, there is that unearthly mist that comes with extreme cold. The streets are bare; they are lined with snow. I'm downtown; I cross wide avenues in winter silence, breathing deeply of the freezing air. It seems so clean. It has sharp edges like ice. It doesn't forgive.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Travelogue 479 – December 29
The Moon and Mischance,
Part Three

This morning there is no moon. The cloud cover has congealed above, locking off the night. To the southwest, the airport sends yellow light up into the purple clouds, as though trying to bore through them. There is a plane descending ahead of me as a I run toward the north. It could be the plane from Addis. This is about the time we landed a few days ago. It could be my flight from Minneapolis, too. Same arrival time. I'm always stumbling into Schiphol from an overnight flight.

Tomorrow, I board another plane. I'm returning to America, trading the chill of Holland for the deep freeze of Minnesota. I'm not sure how I always seem to end up there in January.

There is a warm breeze, a nice contrast to yesterday's chill. But a brush of warmth on my cheek in pre-dawn Amsterdam is still a far cry from sunny Kuskwam. Kuskwam is that little church and village on the road up to Entoto. Fikre and Tesfahun don't like training in this area. The terrain is rough. The soil is dotted by an uncanny number of rocks and tree roots, roots of trees once harvested and trees now growing back. You can't build up much speed running in these woods, but during my days I need the time I save by stopping here instead of going to the top of the mountain. And I find the rocky terrain exhilarating. The placement of each step must be carefully minded. It's a type of meditation.

And the sun. I was blessed by bright skies on this trip to Ethiopia. The blue sky overhead is inspiring, transporting. In Amsterdam, it is night. It will be night for hours, though I'm running at 6:30am.

In southern Ethiopia, the sun is blazing with even more intensity We visit Cien at the work site, where school number nine is being built. On the day we arrive, the kindergarten building and the library building are collections of sticks, stood in rows to make walls, looking like a child's project. I've seen school buildings in the countryside that were no more than this. But of course, this is more and will be more than sticks planted in the dirt. Cien and his crew have leveled the land, dug post holes, and raised framework, all before playing with sticks. The sticks are the substructure to hold the mud, which will now be mixed and applied. That will happen after the roof of corrugated iron is added. And after the mud, there will be a layer of cement applied to the exterior to provide strength to and protection for the mud walls.

The crew also had to build a wall around the build site. The kindergarten and library are being built on the land of an existing government school. The construction area had to be kept clear of curious children. The wall is also of sticks, though fit together more tightly than the sticks in the building walls. This is the one school in the town of Azedebo, in the region of Kambata-Tembaro. The area is lovely, greener and hotter than Addis. The school is situated rather picturesquely among lush fields that boast a backdrop of beautiful hills. Though the hills are walking distance away, it's best to admire them from a distance, as they host a thriving community of hyenas, and even a couple leopards.

All the crew wear wide-brimmed straw hats, and it doesn't take long in the midday sun to figure out why. Everyone takes a break during our visit, and they cluster together in the shade of one of the new walls, sitting on large stones piled for some later stage of work. Some of the workers want to say a few words, thanking us for the opportunity to work, thanking us for the kindergarten for their children. Several teachers from the school next door are there. They say they've never seen a faranj like Cien, or for the matter, an Abasha like Ijigu, a faranj who lives and works among them, an Abasha who turns up first thing in the morning six days a week and starts right in on the hard labor.

Ethiopians like their ceremonies. And I like them for that. On another day, back in Addis, we present a few schools with small collections of books, and in each case we are led into the library for a formal thank you. Officials stand and speak, expressing thanks and hopes. I have to follow with the same, and with exhortations to put the materials to use. In one school, a parents committee of twenty or more is there, radiating gratitude and excitement. We break open the boxes and show them some of the donations. They applaud.

I remember that it's the night of the ceremonies that Menna and I stop by a bar called Guramyle. It's long been a favorite, a place where you feel like something out of the ordinary might happen. It's usually a quiet enclave for drunk artists of one sort or another, but every once in a while, you'll encounter a jazz night or dance night. Tonight a band called 'Qwanqwa' (their unfortunate choice of spelling – the word means language in Amharic) is debuting. It's a quartet, drums and fiddle and two krars, one bass, one not. The krar is a traditional string instrument that reminds me, in my ignorance of musical instruments, of a lyre. The lead krar player is named Mesele, and he brings some renown to the project. He outfits his krar with all sorts of guitar effects and generally has a really good time playing, applying his beer bottle to the strings, among other magic tricks, making the instrument cry like Hendrix. The fiddle is handled to great effect by a young faranji woman who demonstrates a surprising feel for local music. It makes for a fun show: experimentation is still the exception in Ethiopia, the rare exception. And it makes that much more impact on me after the traditional meetings of the morning, parents lined up in the classroom in their white gabis.

Behind the clouds of northern Europe, the moon begins its waning cycle. I might catch a glimpse of it on my flight over the ocean tomorrow. Maybe not. I'll likely see her again, diminished but no less bright for appearing over the snowy fields of North America.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Travelogue 478 – December 28
The Moon and Mischance,
Part Two

The early morning run today is grim. The temperatures have dropped. I don't notice straightaway, just emerging from a warm bed. I'm three minutes down the road before my hands feel the bite of the chill. I shrug it off; the morning runs are short.

I'm alone on the bike path that runs alongside the open fields. There is a string of humble street lights beside the path that describe a curving line ahead. I know this path. It turns to follow this canal. On the other side is a set of athletic facilities and football pitches. Another kilometer ahead there is a highway, and the path turns to follow it. I dip my head and concentrate on the flagstones beneath me. I'm feeling the clumsiness and aches of morning. It's darker out than yesterday. The cloud cover seals the city from the sky. I can just make out the location of the moon by its dim glow above the horizon.

I'm recovering from the recent travel. I'm always recovering from travel. I didn't cross many time zones coming to Holland, but the trip has taken its toll in any case. I'm tired. I haven't got my energy back yet. Maybe it's the sudden change in climates, or the sudden lack of sunlight. Maybe it's the backlash from a strenuous trip.

It wasn't a long stay in Ethiopia, but it was eventful. I wasn't twelve hours on the ground in Addis before we discovered that the office had been broken into. These were very particular burglars. They left cash where they found it. They broke the lock on one door, made a beeline to the desk drawer where staff kept the key to the next office, and then they made off with Menna's computer equipment. The building guard later commented that he saw the roaming beams of flashlights in our office windows, commenting on it as though it were a fine meteor shower.

Work immediately slows down after that. Menna is at the center of everything in our office, an observation too clearly shared by our burglars. Liz kindly offers to carry over a laptop on her next trip, but that's not until February. Meanwhile, documents are missing and Menna is inaccessible.

The police borrow all my staff for the day, taking fingerprints and questioning, robbing the charity of one more productive day. I spend the day catching up with other work, work I could have done in Europe. No one expects a thing from the police. And, indeed, almost a month later, there is nothing. They stop by regularly at first, pulling Menna aside for private, whispering discussions in which they assure their commitment to the case, lingering after the words are spoken, waiting for that offer of cash. After they give up, the case goes quiet. This is a replay of the robbery from our house only months before: much sound and fury and time wasted over a case never destined for resolution.

An hour after the plane lands in Schiphol, I'm checked into the hotel and settling in. I have followed the prime minister down the gangway and all the way to passport control. The line is short, the officials there brisk and efficient. I access some euros at the ATM while waiting for my luggage. Right outside the terminal, I catch the hotel shuttle, and since my hotel is furthest from the centrum, I am dropped first. And so, just that easily, I have arrived.

Order is perhaps what distinguishes Holland from Ethiopia most markedly. I often comment that Holland is the tonic to Ethiopia, the contrast. And the axis of my measure is very plain: it is order. I see civilization in the simplest terms now, maybe because I appreciate how tremendously hard order is for the human species. If it seems so easy in a place like the Netherlands, it is because of the centuries of concentrated work.

Oh, but who wouldn't trade order for the sweet whimsy of life in the Ethiopian highlands – the sleepy pace, the helter-skelter of the markets, the hours over coffee as dusk draws on? Well, maybe me. The aromatic disorder is fine for tourists who have confused social order with their own repressions, mistaken dirt for romance, mistaken lawlessness for passion. Can I offer a few of those hills for a policeman who solves a his case? How about a sunset meadow for a teacher who spends a minute on imagining one good lesson, who doesn't strike his or her students?

As a kind of bookend to the burglary, we have to take Cien to the doctor on one of our last days in Addis. He's in town for meetings, having traveled up from the south, where he is supervising our latest school build. He was attacked and beaten the night before. He has several gashes on his head: some local boys rushed him from behind as he was walking home at night and bashed him in the head with rocks. Cien being strong as an ox, they didn't manage to keep him down. He fought back and made it home safely. But in the morning we have to take him in for stitches.

Menna and I wait for Cien at a nearby cafe, sitting in the sun. I am keenly aware of how little sun I'll get in Holland and in Minnesota. I soak it up, grateful for the brief interlude of peace, sitting among the well-to-do of the country, whose money by and large comes from lands with order. Cien arrives, a big plaster on his head and a wry smile on his lips. He shows us a photo he took of himself as the doctors started in with the needles. There's no anaesthetic, but he's laughing.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Travelogue 477 – December 27
The Moon and Mischance,
Part One

The moon hangs below the wing. For just a moment, I'm not sure what that light could be. It's the moon, and it's nearly full. There's a scrap of cloud adrift just above it. We are banking; we are arriving at Schiphol. It's been an overnight flight from Addis Ababa, and morning approaches. The last time I looked out the window, I saw the lights of Amsterdam. Now there is only the moon.

I've been watching 'Dumb and Dumber', trying to master some of the nuance. It's been a while since I've had a chance to catch this film. It's always nice to bring a few more years of age and wisdom to a masterwork.

The flight has been a mellow one. There aren't too many people flying on Christmas Day. In fact there are none in my entire row. In Khartoum, we picked up a big man with a cough, who sits a few rows ahead of me, who wheezes and snorts throughout the flight.

And still I manage to sleep. That is a rarity for me. I make it through a movie in which Kirsten Dunst plays tough girl, plays sex, plays wit, and manages the hard and the sheen of zirconium. Then I sleep. I don't think I move for three hours. When I wake, my muscles protest. My stomach protests even more vehemently, acting out against the airline snacks. I make a dash for the lavatory. After that, there's nothing for it but to boot up 'Dumb and Dumber' the for the remainder of the flight.

Coughing Man is not the only passenger to board in Khartoum. As we sit on the tarmac being refueled, airport officials roll out an actual red carpet from the front door toward the plane. A van disgorges a small corps of thin men in military parade ground dress. They have guns. They wear shakoes, with little plumes on top. They look like cartoon characters as they stumble stork-like from the van and assemble. They perform a few stamping drills for our benefit, and then jog in botched time toward the red carpet. A few more minutes pass, and a motorcade of black cars races in, surrounded by motorcycle cops with red lights blazing. While civilian passengers board the normal way, the dignitaries walk through a perfunctory carpet walk and then board in a special raised walkway attached to the right side of the plane. Two sharp-eyed guards, perfectly groomed and impeccably dressed, take a seat at the front of our cabin, up near Coughing Man. I start conniving how I can implicate Cougher in an assassination plot. But instead I surprise myself by falling asleep.

It turns out the important man is the prime minister of Burkina Faso. I spot him in the morning, marching ahead of me on the boarding ramp in a green corduroy sports coat, his much better dressed escorts sweating under loads of carry-ons. And again I see them, passing on a motorized cart down the long airport passageway. The two guards are looking dejected, slumped forward in the tiny back seats of the cart and facing backward. The PM sits ramrod straight, looking straight forward through his black-framed glasses.

It's seven in the morning when we arrive, and it's still night. The sun still hasn't risen by the time I make it to the hotel. I'm staying at a hotel in Osdorp, one of the furthest suburbs west. I have stayed at this hotel before. I like that it stands at the edge of open fields striped with small canals.

This morning, I'm up before seven for a run. It's deep night, of course. Outside the lobby door are a couple who have not made it to bed yet. They are Russian. The man looks like Randy Quaid; he stands silently in his fur-lined cap with ear flaps, and he smokes. The woman is wide-hipped and blonde. She wears shorts. She wants to talk. 'Do you speak English? Do you speak Russian? This is time for sleep.'

Enough sleep, I say. 'You never sleep!' she shouts after me.

The moon is out again this morning, shining full, again trailed by a shred of aspiring cloud. It is only an hour from setting, hanging just above the silhouettes of bare trees and silent suburban buildings. One has no sense of pace or distance running at night. One exerts among stillness, listening to his breath, and suddenly finds that the moon has slid overhead, and beckons from dead ahead.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Travelogue 476 – November 23
The Binnenhof

So I'm in Den Haag for the day. It feels like I've made a trip to the big city, though Rotterdam is actually bigger. Maybe because Den Haag is the capital, there is a more cosmopolitan air. And of course, more history. As long as there has been something loosely identifiable as the Netherlands or Holland, there has been a capital of sorts in Den Haag. It was in the middle of the thirteenth century that the Count of Holland, a certain Floris IV, built his mansion next to the Hofvijver pond, setting up the pretty scene that persists to this day.

Den Haag is only a half hour away on the slow train. Though Rotterdam is the port city, it isn't all that close to the North Sea. You have to float west down the Maas some miles to reach the North Sea. But if you travel more directly north, you will pass through Delft and Den Haag, reaching the beach at Scheveningen.

Rotterdam is missing most of its historical center because of the Blitz in 1940, but Den Haag has retained a good portion of its own. The bit I get to see is west of the train station and the modern centrum with its humble but attractive set of highrises. It consists of the fifteenth and sixteenth century Grote Kerk, with its high, six-sided bell tower, and the church's environs, narrow streets set with beautiful buildings that date in some cases back to the sixteenth century, leaning, shuttered constructions of brick. Some are newer, maybe even modern nineteenth century. I'm reminded how the mundane, the morning coffee or the afternoon shopping, is enriched by the architecture housing it.

And then there is Count Floris's mansion, expanded and renovated over the centuries, still standing by the Hofviyver pond. This painting of the Hofviyver dates to 1553, and the scene hasn't changed too much. The mansion has become the Binnenhof, the seat of government for all the Netherlands. There are new wings, new buildings, including the famous Knight's Hall, but they essentially line one side of the pond in the same manner, walls flush with the straight side of the pond.

And on the other side of the pond, there is still a humble park, a few gravel lanes under lines of trees. In the middle, there is a statue of old Johan van Oldenbarnevelt, sitting with bronze hand to his heart. One finds this venerable figure sitting with just about the same gravid weight as his huge statue at a critical nexus in Dutch history. He was Land's Advocate for Holland when Holland led the confederation we call the Netherlands, when the Land's Advocate was the strongest official in Holland, stronger even than the Stadtholder. It was becoming a tradition by then for the Stadtholder to be from the family of Oranje. And old Oldenbarnevelt had a formidable political counterweight in Maurits van Nassau.

This was the early seventeenth century, a century that would become Holland's golden age. The Dutch were engaged in a long war of independence with Spain. The Dutch general was Maurits, who, it seems, was the military genius of the age. The Spanish were ready for a truce, and it fell to Mr. van Oldenbarnevelt to negotiate the treaty, and he was in the board room what Maurits was on the battlefield. Holland won the truce on nearly all their own terms.

With no one to fight for twelve years, the Dutch turned upon each other. It seems old van Oldenbarnevelt was an advocate of a strain of Protestantism that takes issue with standard Calvinism, shamelessly flirting with the concept of free will, a sect called Arminianism. The sect has been predetermined to fail. They call for a national synod. Their enemies call for a synod. There are riots. At old van Oldenbarnevelt's urging, the state of Holland arms and declares itself alone and independent in the world, honoring no Dutch brothers. Maurits sighs and stirs from his truce-time repose. No militia opposes him. Van Oldenbarnevelt is arrested, and a year later executed.

Maurits cleans up the house of state, consolidates the power of his house, and he expands the Binnenhof. Centuries later, the old statue of old van Oldenbarnevelt averts its eyes from the mansion that sits ahead, across the peaceful surface of the Hofvijver, as though the statue contemplates the choice God made for the man.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Travelogue 475 – November 20
The Bringer of Light

I discover the Museumpark before I discover the museum itself. I discover the park while exploring the centrum on bicycle. It's just a short ride from home, just past the Erasmus hospital, across the street and down the block from 'Het Park', the patch of green by the river featuring the mouth of the Maas Tunnel. The Museumpark is a pleasant pause in the urban landscape, and for a few days I make a point of drifting through its open spaces on the way downtown. There are rectangular pools of water and a modest canal, and there is a small English garden. A broad, open plein offers plenty of large pieces of sculpture, but without suffocating the spaciousness. There is plenty of room to simply coast on the bike and enjoy.

The museum is the Boijmans Van Beuningen, and it is housed in a humble building on the north side of the park. The central structure dates back to 1935. Both the park and the museum survived the horrific shelling by the Germans in May of 1940. The architecture of the museum is simple. The literature calls it a 'traditionalist design', all dark brick and copper, and topped by a square brick tower with a copper canopy that looks like something Jan Van Eyck might have designed.

Inside, Jan Van Eyck is the flavor of the season, star of a special exhibit, featuring a few key pieces of his from Berlin and Washington and Belgium, and displaying them among contemporaries and immediate precursors. Van Eyck emerges as the genius in the room, of course. I've had occasion to marvel over his work before, particularly at the National Gallery in London, and even more particularly the amazing Arnolfini Portrait, famous for its mirror trick.

Painting in the 1420s and 1430s, Van Eyck was the grandaddy of the Flemish Renaissance. He was court painter to both John of Bavaria and Philip the Good of Burgundy. He became famous in his own time, and yet there is very little that we actually know about him. The man had flair; he had a sense of humor; he had an astounding commitment to detail. Background, foreground, floor, ceiling, hands, face, clothing: there was no part of the canvas that received less than all his skill and attention. He famously signed some of his pieces 'Als ik kan', meaning 'as I can'. Though my weak Dutch may be deceiving me, I sense a wonderful ambiguity there, als implying both 'since' and 'if'. We might have a self-portrait of Ven Eyck in 'Man in a Turban'. But this is about the sum of what we know about the artist. It's disappointing for those who need bio with art. But he lived, and his work survives him. That's quite enough for me as I move slowly through the humming halls of the Boijmans.

The experts tend to link Van Eyck's central achievement to light. There is much more to any one of his works, of course, but it is his sense of light and dimension that seems to separate him from his contemporaries. The International Gothic style so prevalent in his day tends toward the abstract. Figures are elegant. They are symbolic. They float, and the setting or scene is either allegorical or meant to narrate. With Van Eyck, suddenly there is a sun in the sky and air to breathe. Gravity holds the figures to the floor. And humanity appears again in the faces.

One of my favorite pieces of his in the show is his Annunciation. This is a favorite New Testament scene for Renaissance artists: the angel Gabriel visits Mary to tell her the good news, that she will bear God a son and suffer mightily for it, etc. Van Eyck brings a few twists, some flairs of flamboyance, individuality, and humanity. The first is in the colors, particularly the peacock design in the wings of the angel. This was immodest in his day. He may as well have painted mascara and scarlet fingernail polish on Mary. And there is something to Gabriel's expression that I really enjoy. To my eye, there is a tenderness to the smile that adds so much to the usual impersonal majesty and triumph depicted in this scene, a smile one would share with any expectant mother.

There are many more pieces in the exhibit contributing to context than there are of Van Eyck's. And the context is very interesting, capturing a fragile historical moment in which Northern Europe is transitioning from high medieval culture into something more complex. Particularly intriguing is painting's debt to goldsmithery. It's a period and a culture led by rich royal and aristocratic courts. By and large, art objects are trophies meant to demonstrate wealth. So it's no surprise that the goldsmith's art is the most prized. Painters are led to emulate the effects of the goldsmith's art, laying down lots of gold leaf and then punching and stamping it in imitation of the goldsmith's art. But they went further. At the risk of copyright infringement I will quote the exhibit catalogue: 'Gold and silver were often decorated with enamel, creating brilliant colours as the precious metal shone through the glass. It seems that painters wanted to emulate this effect of enamelling by building up the paint layer in a series of thin, translucent glazes. The technique … used oil as the binding medium.'

Van Eyck eschewed the use of gold leaf, but he did become a master of the new medium, oil paints. So much so that later generations claimed he was the inventor of them. No less an art gossip than Giorgio Vasari recorded that claim in his history. But it isn't true. More proof that a great artist does not need the Moon and Sixpence bio, or need to be an inventor or the first (though in modest ways Mr. Van Eyck was, of course,) in order to be solely what the work makes him: a great.

I emerge from the museum, just the man I was, not so great as Mr. Van Eyck, but inspired and happy. I apply myself to one task that I have a unique gift for, which is coasting on a rickety old bicycle across the open plaza and enjoying the gloomy Dutch afternoon immensely.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Travelogue 474 – November 18
March of the Merch

I blink. I look again. It's true. To the west, there is a break in the clouds. I'm cycling into town on a quiet Sunday morning, and discover this miracle: blue sky, there, along the horizon, out toward the sea. I send a quick message to God, the one I doubt mightily. I say, 'Please, dear God, send that this way.'

And God listens. By mid-morning, the clouds have been pushed inland, and the sun shines. The sun-starved souls of Holland respond immediately, and they are out in mobs, cycling, taking walks. But I find out in the afternoon where to find them in masses.

There's a bookstore on the Lijnbaan, the shopping street, that I enjoy visiting. It's like seeing family. There are three floors with books, and on top of that, two floors of music. There are plenty of English language books and magazines mixed in with the Dutch. I am happy.

I shouldn't call the Lijnbaan a street, by the way, though it does show up on the city map as one. There are no cars, and the length of it has been laid with foot-friendly pavement and reserved solely for the consumer-crazed pedestrian. And on this Sunday afternoon, everyone who fits that profile has descended on the Lijnbaan with his or her family. The place is mobbed. I park my bike, and I wade in.

There is a central plaza to the whole enterprise, right in front of the bookstore. This is a space maybe half the size of a football pitch surrounded by sleek-sided buildings and sleek display windows. There's a massive video screen above us, looping Media Mart's ads for video games. There are no doors to this mega-store, just an alluring escalator leading to initiation in electronic consumer goods. At the base of the escalator is a smaller screen advertising TV sets with advanced functions, the looping video set to the Black-Eyed Peas, the sound of which awakens in me primal revulsion, and never fails to turn my steps away.

In front of the Media Mart, standing alone in the center of the plaza is a large french fry stand. The Dutch are fry-crazy. Families line up, turn over their two-euro coins, and receive a cone full of frites, topped with a heavy dollop of mayonnaise. The adventurous order krokets, a Dutch treat that defies description and all laws of nutrition – just another way to serve deep-fried potato.

People always ask what it's like returning from Ethiopia into shopping environments such as this one. My first answer is that it's been years now of going back and forth. The two worlds co-exist comfortably in my polluted psyche. I have no problems with my bourgeois self, my bourgeois roots. Marx says that puts me just one step from four away from Nirvana. I'd say that's pretty good.

But that said, there's something about the dream of excess – not even the excess itself – that falls flat. When I first arrive in the Netherlands, my focus is on healing the old lungs, and part of that plan is to run lots of miles. I'm drawn to the sport shops. I stop in one, browse, and carry on. Oh, look there's another one. Wait, it's the same chain. I look back, confused. The same store just three hundred meters on. I enter. Yep, all the same stuff. I'm puzzled. Sure enough, another quarter mile on, there it is again.

Stop in the clothing shops. They deploy space as though they sell precious metals. There can't be more than a hundred articles of clothing in the space. These are special items. And, furthermore, they all fall into precisely the same categories and sizes as any other shop along the strip. It's strange. For real shopping pleasure, I prefer the oddball shops on the Nieuwe Binnenweg, where fastidious old Arab women sit behind the counter, watching over veritable piles of cheap and random goods stuffed into deep shelves along the walls. There is real discovery in that kind of shopping.

I have one chink in my cheerful consumer armor. Since Ethiopia, there are certain types of stores that never fail to depress me. I can't tell you why. Those are the big warehouse-style supermarkets and discount stores. There is something about walking down a fifty-meter aisle in an American supermarket, between neat shelves of neatly categorized boxes, set in blocks of uniform color, one food item for ten meters, but offered in a dozen brands, that induces in me a trance of despair.

Out into the sun again. The day advances, and we all know tomorrow will be another story. The toddlers are running beside their mamas and shouting, pointing at the gulls, pointing into the skies.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Travelogue 473 – November 8
The Masses

There is a DJ at the Sijf bar and restaurant. He sits behind the bar, raised above it, almost as though in a pulpit, his equipment suspended in a wooden tray just above an array of glassware. The bar is carved in traditional geometries, the whole of it shaped like a question mark wrapped around the blonde triplets acting as bartenders. I'll have a La Chouffe, please. But I don't bother with words. I tap the tap. She counts my money for me. I can't hear.

Outside is nighttime Jacobusstraat, a tiny stretch of herring-bone brick somewhere off the Lijnbaan, the now dormant shopping district at the center of Rotterdam. (A couple from Hull accosts me this morning in the cafe. They have taken the ferry over for a shopping spree. 'We heard there was a shopping mall around here.' I point out the Lijnbaan. 'Oh, we've been through there!' I laugh. I keep then talking because I'm enjoying their accent and missing England.)

The music swings from old world jazz to summat so modern that the beat makes it utterly anonymous. There is a circling simulation of 70s guitar, but so tightly coiled and repetitive that it is not the 70s. I've just seen a movie meticulously set in the 70s. (Actually 1980.) There is, of course, a certain cult of the 70s among the artistes of the naughts and teens, which I whole-heartedly endorse, having lived through them and hated them.

The DJ has black hair pulled back behind grey jowls, behind nondescript studs in the ears. Skin pallor indicates an absorbing engagement with his art, a thing I support for the evening, that we can all support as a benefit to society. The bags under his eyes might signify taste, even if the music doesn't. In this case, bags and tunes match.

This film by Mr. Affleck is set during the Iranian hostage crisis, an historical set piece I can identify in my own memory, a time of anxiety and of ill omens. The film can be recommended as a piece of art. Mr. Affleck proved himself for me in his last, the one placed in unholy Boston. He matched his achievement here.

He does manage to bring a tear to this dry and jaded eye, though what provokes it is probably not what the director might have expected. It is not the suspense. It is not the trials of victimized countrymen.

The DJ winks. He knows it's in the music. No film moves without its soundtrack, and ine, ik, yo, and io, so far from home for almost a decade now, am vulnerable to the tunes that package the eras of my memory. The DJ's eyelids hang now, weighted with care, weighted with knowledge. It's a priest's life.

No, the real heroes and anti-heroes of the film are not the trapped Americans, who are worthy of sympathy, but never quite become flesh and blood here. The heroes are outside the gate. They are the ones with blood in their veins, the frightening and the frightened. They are those creatures of lore, 'the people': the sad and afflicted, the untamed and the mannered, the ignorant and the impulsive, the aristocrats and the mob, the mistaken and the proudly mistaken, the rude and the gracious, the enraged, the people. They're banging at the gate, and it feels like we have awakened Grendel.

I remember the state of shock, and the sense of fate, during those days of the embassy occupation. My generation was going to be the first to look down the barrel of that gun, the long return and coming ascendancy of the repressed 'Third World' and the fire for retribution that will shine in some of their eyes, a wish to visit the sins of the fathers upon their sons.

The developing world we call it now. It is the center of gravity for the world; it's the mass and the reality enveloping the fringes of world population who call themselves 'consumers' and call their movements history. History for my generation, and a few to come, might just have begun and ended in those fiery events in Teheran.

I've been away too long. I sit in the theatre, among the hyper-developed, and among sons and daughters of Arab immigrants, rooting for the soldiers of the Ayatollah. And that's what I see: I see the world outside the gates, the veiled moms driving jeeps, babies chanting death, men playing cop and judge with knives and guns. I recognize all that; while I see through the cultured interiors of the Canadian embassy, as though they were ghostly visions.

There's a brief sax solo at the end of Bowie's 'Changes', and it seems to provide a nice wrap to my haunted thoughts. The DJ winks again. I raise a finger to my cap, in a mock military salute. Regards from the Great Satan.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Travelogue 472 – October 24
The Maas

I arrive at the humble little structure. It sits on the verge of Het Park. It sits on the verge of the river. It's taller than your average public lavatory, but the side facing landward, facing the park, is covered in the kind of tile that makes one think of bathrooms, tile the color of Dutch East Indies tea. What's more, there are always people streaming out of the double glass doors: not a steady flow of people, like out of a New York subway station, but singles and couples in fits and starts. Many people have their bicycles with them. Standing across the street, on the grass of Het Park, one is tempted to chuckle, as if watching a kind of magic act or doctored film clip, in which dozens of people are climbing out of a VW bug.

This is the pedestrian entrance to the Maas Tunnel, and I am about to pull off a magic trick. I will run underneath the river, the big, grey, greasy Nieuwe Maas.

Proof of the weird trance of time in Europe is the name 'New' Maas. It seems that flooding in the 13th century shifted the course of the Maas (or Meuse), and the 'New Maas' came to be considered a branch of the Maas, compliment to the 'Old Maas', which runs further south. Note, this does not mean that the 'new' river itself changed at all, just the course of its relatives, and its name.

The truth is, if you ever wanted to make a case for the arbitrary nature of names for geographical features, the bewildering, many-mouthed delta in Holland is your first exhibit. Technically, it's the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt delta, but where one begins and where the other leaves off is a riddle. Aside from the big names, there are the Bergse Maas, the Afgedamde Maas, the Merwede, the Waal, the Nederrijn, the Lek, the Schie, and and the Ijssel running around, and a dozen canals dug to connect or disconnect them all.

Either way, I'm set to run beneath the waters. I enter the magic lavatory, glancing before I do at the complimentary building across the river. I should note that the riverside dispensation of these 'ventilation' buildings is much more attractive, something like a Washington monument or an old, copper-domed planetarium.

So I attempt the miracle, running underneath the river. I enter the lavatory, and inside I discover the sense, the five senses, of history, smell being the strongest of them, the aroma of age and of stagnant air. This tunnel was only the second crossing of Rotterdam's main river. Bridges are problematic here, in what until very recently was the world's biggest port: anything spanning the waters has to be high enough to let through some fairly magnificent ocean-sailing ships. Talk of a tunnel dates back to the nineteenth century; construction waited until the 30s. The tunnel was given a secret opening ceremony during the Nazi occupation. And the old Rotterdam fixture still serves 75,000 cars and 4,500 cyclists every day.

The tunnel is well with the trip, if only to see the corny and primitive tile mosaics over the escalators, portraying sea deities and little cars and mopeds; if only to see the ancient escalator itself, with its chunky steps and wood slats in the surface of them; and if only to see the photos along the wall of pedestrians from decades long past making use of the escalator and the tunnel.

I'm down below the rushing waters now. The tunnel is rectangular, except for a small slant at the top of both vertical walls, where occasional orange lamps are placed to glow feebly against the tunnel's yellow tile. I'm only seeing one of four tunnels, in actual fact. There are separate tunnels for cars in either direction, for cyclists, and for those of us on foot. Our pedestrian tunnel is nearly empty. Ahead of me is a little girl with her grandparents. She is running and leaping for the lamp panels. Her grandfather is whistling, and such are the acoustics in the tunnel that, even after I pass them and continue on, the whistling hangs right behind my right shoulder. I keep glancing back to see if he has decided to join me on my run.

Emerging from the corresponding lavatory on the south bank, I feel like I'm in another town, even though the fist lavatory is plainly visible on the north bank. I turn south and start running. I find myself on the busy road that proceeds beside the sprawling port, a wilderness of heavy ships standing in boxes of water, and tracts of oily caged waters, swaying restlessly, quietly threatening to spill over and take back the Netherlands. Whatever you call the waters, they are everywhere.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Travelogue 471 – October 20

Jan is standing by the door of the building as my cab pulls up. It looks as though he has just walked up, and I'm relieved to see him. Our appointment was a tentative if-I'm-not-able-to-call kind of appointment, proposed in a final email from Ethiopia.

I've just arrived from Schiphol and taken a train through Amsterdam Centraal and onward. Outside the train station of my destination, I show the cabbie my address, and off we go, with nary a word. The cabbie is Arab, so I'm thinking I'll enjoy some good conversation about the town on the way, but he's not having it. Maybe it's the relatively early hour on a Saturday. I sit in the back, and watch the blocks swim by.

My street is Saturday-morning quiet. Everything is made of brick, including the street itself. Cars are silently crowded into every available space along the kerbs, on one side parallel to the street, on the other squeezed together side by side. Between the cars and the pavement is a pink bike path, the only strip actually paved in asphalt. The street is unremarkable. It could be anywhere in northern Europe, bland and square contiguous housing stacked uniformly three storeys high, unbroken from street to street. But just around the corner is a pretty canal, something most everyone in Holland can say, it would seem.

Jan says hello uncertainly. He is Dutch tall and blonde, and Dutch reserved, though he bears the appearance of once having been a hippie of sorts, his hair still disheveled and his attire tired youthful, tired gallant, much as his face has the markings of European early middle age, something haggard, a look like the North Sea winds.

Jan leads me up the Dutch staircase to the flat, a stairway almost comically long and dim and narrow, each step barely a toehold. Upstairs is something more inviting and cozy, two spacious rooms with generous windows, furnished adequately, comfortably.

We settle up and return to the street together. Standing on the flagstones under the grim northern sky, Jan is telling me about the neighborhood, pointing vaguely left and then right. He is interrupted by a thought. You know, he says, he has an extra bicycle, if I'd like to use it. Of course I do. He invites me back to his place to pick up said vehicle. He unlocks his bike, swings one leg over, and he pats the little luggage rack on the back. I climb on.

We pass over one canal and then another. We pass historic Delfshaven, a narrow alley lined with small gabled roofs, a cobblestone road that heads toward the river. We roll along the bike path on Nieuwe Binnenweg, past 'coffee shops', and sex shops, and corner shops with African flavor, and corner shops with Arab products, and with Turkish, and my behind is beginning to ache.

Jan lives with his wife and three children up an even more precipitous flight of stairs in a hundred year-old building across the street from a neighborhood park. The children stand behind the art deco wrought iron railing that encloses their balcony, and they yell down at their dad. He smiles, an unguarded and unreserved smile, something I may never have seen without the kids.

My bicycle is an old grey monster with deflated tires, but I think she's beautiful. Jan gives me the key to its lock. I delicately push up the old kickstand, and I wobble off toward home. Climbing the precarious stairs to my flat, I sing, 'Welkom in Rotterdam'.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Travelogue 470 – October 16

This is the bar at the Finfine Adarash. The adarash is a government-owned meeting place in the center of town, where the earth's tumble from the mountains pauses in a kind of pastoral bowl before rolling mildly on toward the brown valleys of Debre Zeit, and the long vistas of the Rift Valley Lake district. The adarash is where families meet for weddings, where businessmen come in suits to sulk or joke over alcohol, and where middle-class families dress in their best traditional clothes and gather around the mosob for a special occasion. The wedding parties take place in the outdoor space behind the bar, a cement-paved area as many square meters as the indoor space, broken up by small geometrical patterns of earth cultivated with bright flowers and shade trees, centered around a concrete gazebo-and-stage. During wedding parties, this gazebo is where the DJ stands at his equipment. The middle class families enter and climb the stairs indoors, gathering many stools and chairs and mosob – the traditional wicker stands topped with round serving platforms just the size and shape of injera. And after ten minutes, the middle-class children start screaming and running circles around the second floor, which is built as a mezzanine, looking down on the bar. And those moaning businessmen, they gravitate to that bar.

The esteemed reader should be able to make out a piece of the circular bar in my photo. This is the location of many an important work discussion among our set, in which philosophies are presented and dissected; projects designed, dismantled, and banged together again; the under-privileged are gathered in the finest nets of kindness, and Addis society is analyzed under the finest blades.

Setting lends its colors to debate. That's why location is so important to policy; the gravest issues need the gladdest settings. The Finfine has just the charm for serious matters. Every obstacle is wood. The ceilings were painted back in Solomon's day with patterns suggestive of the garden of love. The bar is dark wood suspended in beds of varnish. It describes a circle around two clumsy pillars and the prosaic, tiled work space of the bartenders. The bar is furnished with stools like thrones, seats covered in goat skin.

Most of the bartenders know us. They know us as a group. Tonight it's only Cien and I. They ask after Menna. The bar is staffed today by one of the stout women and one of the thin men with crooked faces, dressed in those perennial lime-skin green uniforms. The woman won't speak to us, glancing at us with terror. We smile and she smiles back, but the language barrier is too much for her. The man, by contrast, revels in our (exaggerated) Amharic facility. 'Ooh,' he shakes his head, 'bedemp you speak Amaregna!'

The waiters lean against the railings of the second floor level and watch TV. I know from bitter experience how difficult it is to get their attention. At some point, all the TVs in the place will get turned up to 'blast' for the waiters' pleasure, and switched to the deadly dull Ethiopian government channel. The monotonous narration of government meetings and meetings of farmers and meetings of Parliament will rise in volume in counterpoise to the customers' conversation. But that game only starts after nine or so. For now, the businessmen are still in tickled mourning.

This is one of my last nights in Addis. Cien and I have much business to discuss. Our success depends on how fast the Chivas goes down. And the Metas. The astute reader will just discern to the right of the photo a bottle of the Meta, though this particular bottle contains the despised 'Premium'. We order only the original recipe, which comes in the stubby bottles printed with white brand identification. There are no glued labels. When you stop in an Ethiopian bar, ask for Meta acheru , the short one, if you want the authentic experience.

There will be critical subject matter forgotten among countless digressions and stories, the business eventually succumbing to the alcohol and the banter. But that's the beauty and the tragedy of the Finfine Adarash, lacunae woven intimately among its triumphs. One walks out of the bar feeling fulfilled in any case, walking down the long pavement, between narrow gardens and, behind them, the two wings that house the baths. This little geographic bowl provides something like the spiritual center of Addis Ababa, once a tiny Oromo village named, Finfine: the hot springs. The rooms in these two wings feature baths, family-size and … more intimate. I have yet to see them. I come here only for business.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Travelogue 469 – October 8
The Priests

This is the gun that guards the monks. The man is guard and tour guide. He is currently leading our group up the hill above the Debre Libanos monastery, to the famous cave where the saint Tekle Haimenot prayed standing (meaning, standing continuously) for almost thirty years, for so long that one of his legs purportedly fell off. He is traditionally depicted with a detached leg nicely wrapped for him off in one corner.

The cave is a long crevice cut horizontally into the bottom of a cliff. Water drips from the ceiling continuously, the saint's tears. Pilgrims climb the steep steps, nothing more than stones set along a narrow trail, hundreds of them climbing every day in order to bask in the saint's glory. Just outside the gate at the top of the steps, the gate that accesses the small dirt courtyard outside the cave, there is a square shack made of corrugated iron. From inside the shack come the music of splashing water and the crazed, shrieking screams of someone possessed. 'Enough! Enough! I'm burning!' she cries.

Debre Libanos is off the northern road, about two hours or so from Addis. Confession: our first objective is wildlife. I have never driven up to this monastery without a sighting of the Gelada baboon, native only to Ethiopia. They like to hang out in the fields above the canyon near to the road to the monastery. That's just a kilometer or so off the northern highway. You know you're approaching the turnoff when you see the roadside vendors of crosses carved in pink stone.

You'll see the baboons fairly soon after you turn off the highway; they'll be grazing in the fields where some local farmer has built crude boxes on legs for bee hives. The baboons leisurely pick among the grasses, and pick among each other's hides, paying no mind to the sheep or the nearby traffic. But they will mind the humans shouting at them and throwing stones. These local humans will very often wait until you've patiently worked your way to within ten meters of a big, wild-maned father, or a mom with its infant on her back, to run up and start delivering a proud, touristic lecture about the apes in braying voices. Nearby, a farmer will practice his aim with a slingshot on the Geladas. Even that will only motivate the baboons to turn lazily away and migrate to another part of the field.

The monastery is set among dramatic scenery, below high cliffs, and overlooking a broad, hazy gorge that meanders away to the west. The church was rebuilt around 1960 by order of the Emperor. Tekle Haimenot is a saint to be reckoned with. The church is a solid construction of well-worked stone, with a steep dome of silver. It is very pretty against the high bluffs behind it. At this time of year, so soon after rainy season, there are waterfalls to be spotted among those heights.

There are hundreds of pilgrims, even on a weekday. They climb up to the cave. They pray in the church. The monks greet all and sundry with holy boredom. The guard brusquely pushes us toward the office, so we can pay for tickets. One priest in a rose-colored robe asks the ladies if they have had sex recently, assuming, perhaps, in the way of celibate men, that the men in the party had little to do with it. He charges foreigners in the party double the ticket price, and I protest. He just rolls his eyes. I call him a racist. He sighs and gives his nails a glance-over.

The tour begins. Desultorily, the priest gestures toward the church. Some from our party enter. The rest sit in the sun by God' well-provisioned lawns and gardens. Then the priest leads us through the museum, narrating in a nasal tone of disapproval, while a colleague sits at the entrance entertaining himself noisily on his iPhone. The displays are interesting enough, though I've seen many like them across Ethiopia, medieval manuscripts, silver processional crosses, priest's robes, and the knick-knacks of a monk's life before the iPhone came along.

We are led to the beginning of the path up to the cave. The trees obscure the route. The priest passes us off to the guard, an old man with an unsteady gait and a gun. He waves us on in an abbreviated welcome and hello and let's go. He swings the old rifle up over his shoulders, and wrists over each end, shuffling forward in this posture, a traditional Ethiopian long-and-weary-road posture, and we are on our way.

This is the day-to-day of religion now, I guess. It's a tough business the priest and guard might say, a rough and tumble with tedium and dust, brushes with the sins of pilgrims and saints, and the shoe sole sacrifice of miles along the museum pavement and the ancient rocks of penance and prayer. But someone must follow in the big, stationary footsteps of the saint, and they are just the corps to do it.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Travelogue 468 – October 4
The Things That Signify

This design has penetrated into my psyche fairly deeply. I stare at it almost daily when I'm in Ethiopia. I see pictures in it, busts and blossoms, integers and fountains. The familiar and then something new. It's a quasi-paisley wallpaper in the brain.

This is the design in the glass in my salon window at home. It's a big fat window, floor to ceiling, and across the whole front of the room. It allows in light and heat -- especially heat in the afternoon, when the sun shines on it directly – but doesn't allow prying eyes access.

You'll see the shadow of a bar behind the glass. I live behind bars, just like Wheezer the dog. The difference is, I have keys and opposable thumbs. I can get out. But there is security everywhere, bars in all windows and doors. The wall around the compound has broken glass embedded in the cement on top. Above that are rolls of barbed wire.

During the summer, during my last stay in Ethiopia, I slammed the door and shattered the glass. For a few days, the top panel of our door was wide open. The bars remained, to discourage the thieves that might have made it over the barbed wire and shards of glass, but the eyes were free to roam, as were the cold winds of rainy season. The door panel displayed a new design, kind of like the cartoon of a TNT blast, jagged lightning edges around the frame.

Ijigu buys us a new panel of glass and places it back in the door frame. He has found the same quasi-paisley design – I have the feeling there are too many other choices in the market – and I am comforted.

I have one ritual particularly tied to that pattern, and that is my daily workout. When I'm not running up in the mountains, when I need an exercise fix that doesn't require driving, I work out in the salon. There are reasons I don't use the compound's courtyard. The family that owns the property is often making use of the space, hanging laundry, sweeping up, gardening, or just passing through. There is an old man, victim of a stroke and confined to a wheelchair, who is daily wheeled out to take in the sun. Atomsa sits on the low wall containing the garden and holds an old transistor radio to his ear. Wheezer chuffs, and his companion whines.

I've had frequent occasion to comment on staring on this blog. It is a fact of life in Ethiopia, the psychological weight of which is probably hard to imagine for those of my devoted readership comfortably settled in home territory, in European cultures. Life in Addis is very public; so much of it occurs on the street. There are no private spaces. And so, public spaces are continuous, colorful, and commingling dialogue. Everyone is visible, commentary flows freely. It is fun; it is admirable; it is exhausting for people used to privacy cultures.

So I bring the workout indoors. And whatever the activity, I have my face turned toward the sunlight, toward the window. I fix my eyes on a piece of the pattern, a brick in the wall, and the mind goes blank. Blank minds are the most receptive.

I wonder about the symbols that are internalized during lives defined by coincidence and chance, shaped by odd furnishings. How often do we see our nation's flag – artificial symbol of something we think has powerful significance – compared to, say, a red traffic light, or the lines dividing lanes in our asphalt streets? Which symbols sink most deeply in among the equipment of the brain, silently and permanently? And which signs are more arbitrary, which are unique to our age? How many generations can claim whole life spans under the gaze of those red and green and yellow lights?

I sit at the kitchen table and I adopt the attitude of a man looking out his window upon a beautiful day. I am oriented toward the daylight, toward the radiation of the sun filtering into the house, but I see nothing; I'm just contemplating the patterns of the brain, the swoosh, the arc, the curve, the turning of time on its axis.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Travelogue 467– October 2
Tiny Homes

This is Wheezer. Wheezer is a dog. He's a big mutt, orange in general color, like most dogs in Ethiopia. There are many specimens like Wheezer running the streets. He's got more muscle than most of his street cousins, and his hair is thick and matted. I don't know dog science well enough to say why the street dogs have healthier coats. Maybe it's because they get to roll in the dirt and in the grass. Wheezer only has concrete walls and the concrete floor. As far as I know, he has never had a life outside his cage. This is where Wheezer lives, day after day.

Wheezer is one of a pair. There are two cages, and two dogs. His companion is older, but looks a lot like Wheezer. They look enough alike that I've wondered if they are family. Maybe it's Wheezer's father. The two never get to play together or sniff each other up. They only see each other through bars, when one gets a minute to run outside the cage.

Once or twice a week, Atomsa cleans the cage. He comes in the morning, stretching the hose across the courtyard of the compound. He turns the water on, and then he lets one dog out, making sure that none of the human family is outside. The dog gallops around the courtyard, stopping to sniff and to raise his leg. Both dogs have gotten used to my smell. If I'm around, I'll play with them, chasing them from one side of the yard to the other.

Atomsa hoses the cage clean, and then he calls the dog back in. Once the dog is inside, Atomsa hoses him down. Then the other dog gets a minute outside. I've noticed that Wheezer is not as fun-loving as his older companion. He is more athletic, and he bounds around the yard with more gusto. But he's not as interested in playing with anyone. He would rather get a good smell of everything.

Wheezer has one job in life, one job with one duty, and that is to bark. That is the job description of most domestic dogs. Someone rattles the compound gate, he barks. A stranger comes in, he barks. He takes his job seriously. He practices all night, when the city comes alive with sound, when dogs everywhere raise their song, and one hears a chorus of hundreds. Wheezer enjoys the nighttime chorals.

Wheezer has a sharp bark, but it's his companion who barks more and longer. Wheezer is a technician; he prefers to make his bark mean something. He will wait until someone is less than a meter away, and then he'll stand and shout. And Wheezer has a broader repertoire than his companion. He has a growl. He puts us all on notice sometimes. If I swat a mosquito, smacking the wall of my little house, he starts the growl. I say, 'Growl, Wheezer, growl.' That sometimes makes him stop, with a snort, more out of contempt than from familiarity.

Our little abode faces the dog cages. If I sit on the front steps of our little house, I stare at Wheezer and he stares back. I tell him, 'our little house isn't much bigger than yours. We are two people and we have two rooms, too. Okay, we have a bathroom, too. That would be nice, wouldn't it, Wheezer? Do you wish you had a bathroom?' Wheezer listens to me, leaning his face against the bars, rolling his eyes to look at me. His eyes look sad. He's thinking about that bathroom. What would that be like, he wonders.

I ask Wheezer if he would like his coat shaved. 'You might feel cooler.' It must be healthier, too, I think to myself. Wheezer shrugs. He's indifferent to comfort. He rests up for his next barking assignment. He dreams about the night, and his wide network of friend around the city. I ask Atomsa if we can give Wheezer a shave. Atomsa shrugs, says Wheezer will bite. Who will hold him? I sit on my front steps and think about that. Wheezer watches me with a mocking look.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Travelogue 466– September 20
The Runners

And I travel into sunny Cambridge (picking up the thread of narrative from three blogs back) not to relish its ever-budding youthfulness inside a city of stern history, not to beat futilely upon the castle door of New England's exclusive internet, but to participate in another fundraising event. Participate means here speak and shake hands. This is far less demanding than extreme sports.

So, once I give up on Harvard Square's internet, I return to the Red Line and ride it toward Boston, disembarking at Kendall Square. This is the exit for Boston's other academic heavyweight, M.I.T. It's also the neighborhood of the Kendall Square Theater, an independent cinema. I will be presenting there after the showing of 'Town of Runners', a British documentary about the Ethiopian town of Bekoji. This is the small town made famous by its runners, also made famous by this blog in the summer of this year.

I visited Bekoji in order to assess for a prospective library project, to be partially funded by the makers of 'Town of Runners'. After visiting and filming for four years, the filmmakers have committed themselves to helping the community and the athletes. That's where we come in.

Above ground, Kendall Square looks very different than Harvard Square. I've traveled from quaint and old world ivy league to a tight grid of modern streets. I catch a glimpse of M.I.T., and it looks more like the headquarters of a pharmaceutical company than a university campus, certainly nothing like the bit of old England that is Harvard.

I stop in at a bookshop, nothing like the cozy basement shop in Harvard Square, instead huge and anonymous, housed behind glass in the ground floor of a high rise. I stop in a Chipotle, as antiseptic as the bookstore. And I stop for a pint in an Irish pub, which is set in a clean-brick block of shops and condos. The pub manages, with a concentrated effort at d├ęcor, to leave the clinical geometry outside. If anything, it overcompensates, with the predictable cute phrases carved in wood, and the etchings of Irish authors, etc., but I'm grateful.

Outside the pub window, the high-tech working class are lining up in the bike lane, streamlined cycling helmets on, yellow shirts, and spiky shoes. One stops too suddenly and nearly topples over trying to get out of the toe clip. Inside, the bartender maintains a ceaseless patter in his broad Boston accent. When I ask the way to the theater, he stares at me and suddenly shouts, 'The-ater! The-ater!' in a caricatured British voice. I'm not sure what the joke is; perhaps the word rings wrong in this neck of the woods, or maybe the spark in his brain was born of no reasoning. I'm not even sure I should laugh, so I just say, 'Yes.' He's disappointed. He leans back against his counter and pulls his chin into his neck. He continues to stare. 'All right,' he says, resuming his natural flat Boston tone, 'see the stairs?' The stezz. Yes, there are shallow steps outside leading to a cleanly paved path between the condos. 'Follow that path to the next block and take a left. It's right there.' He looks away in boredom.

This is the first time I see the film in its entirety. It's a poignant account of a story very familiar to me, the struggle of young Ethiopian athletes to make it – a parable about anyone with a dream in a context of poverty. They might grow up in this special town, supported by Coach Sintayehu; supported by town's tradition of running; supported by the hundreds of other kids with the same dream. But that doesn't solve the hunger or the lack of gear – even shoes. That doesn't remove the intransigent and blind bureaucracy. The beauty is in seeing them, year after year, season after season, returning to the trails and to the decrepit dirt track. It's a story of hope. The anchoring image in the film is the camera tracking Hawi as she runs along the side of the highway, recording her breath and her determination, like a fire of faith.

My contribution afterward is basically, 'Yep, that's how it is.' But I can add a little update, as I've met some of the stars of the film – the cheerful and stubborn coach, Hawi still running, and Biruk tall and calm and now a college boy. It's all real, and life does persist in its fragile and tenacious and spirited way. Thousands of young Biruks still stare out the windows of their family souks watching the passing donkeys in the dirt roads of home. And I realize I can't remember what it's like not to know the highlands and the grasses and the crazy people who inhabit them.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Travelogue 465– September 19
To The Beach
Part Two

Van life is a blur. We in the van follow each runner, stopping every few miles in order to offer water to the penitent, and cheer her on. There are two vans per team, by the way, and the runners in the second van are off resting or wringing their hands somewhere, waiting for six hours or so until their set of relay legs begin. We don't see much of them during the whole event.

At the end of each leg, the runner meets his or her successor in an improvised chute made of ribbons and passes off the 'baton', which in this race is simply a plastic arm band. The next runner heads off down the road to strained and exhausted cheers from the parched throats of increasingly weary teammates.

My first shift is the longest of the entire course, just about nine miles, and the arm band is passed to me just as the sun finds its power. Beautiful weather has followed me to every destination on this trip outside Ethiopia, from Holland into Michigan and Minnesota, and now into New Hampshire, where we have been blessed with blue skies. But dogging my steps has also been the heat. By the time I'm a mile into my nine-mile run, I realize that I am committed to a broad strip of asphalt with no shade. The sun is blazing down on all the second shift runners. I settle into a hot weather pace, and mentally shrug: the weeks of training in sharp sun will pay off now. And I do make it, though I'm a bit woozy by the time I pass the baton off again.

All runners in this show have been assigned three legs, all corresponding to their place in the lineup. As second in the rotation, I apparently have been given the most difficult of the assignments. A few others have individual legs that are more difficult than any of mine, but mine in aggregate are the toughest, which means the longest and the most hilly. I've been training regularly; that alone qualifies me, in the eyes of the captains of this team, for second shift. Most of the others have followed the 'when and if' training regimen, when and if there is time and inclination. That said, I was pretty impressed with everyone's performance.

The Granite State goes far toward comforting us in those early stages, offering up beautiful landscape. We stop during leg #5 or 6 to wade into a small, cold lake underneath a high bluff that is a patchwork of greenery and exposed rock. This is the perfect tonic.

The day advances. The race legs get hotter and hotter. I pity Number Six, who runs mid-afternoon, and has a leg nearly as long as mine. Her face is bright red with exertion; her effort inspires sympathetic pain. But she finishes, and Van Two takes over. We're off for a few hours. We go for dinner and for a nap. The nap occurs in the lawns behind the school where Van Two will finish off their round, and where we will start over. Liz pulls tarp and sleeping bags from the boot of the van, and we set up in the grass closest to the parking lot. The mosquitoes immediately join the party, circling over the grass. As dusk settles into night, the grass becomes dewy. The sleeping bags become damp.

I take a walk. Inside the school building, local charities have set up tables of carb-rich foods. Runners are lounging in school cafeteria chairs. I do my best to read. There are two students of the school, probably ten years-old or so, charged with hanging out in the hall and directing runners back toward the food tables. One boy aspires to be a carnival barker: 'Right this way! High five! How are you doing? Step right this way to a delicious meal of your choice. Thank you very much!'

And all too soon, we're back into it. My second leg is seven and a half, and it's a night shift. We are required by race regulations to wear an assortment of night gear: reflective vests, blinking lights, and headlamps. I figure out I've put on the headlamp upside down, because it is banging against my forehead. Once sorted, I find the pace. It is eerie running a race at night. My cohort of runners appear only as bobbing and scarce blinking red lights ahead. Cars continue to pass; it's only a two-lane road now, and each of us is reduced to hoping that the drivers see us. It's a misty night, and as we dip into shallow valleys along the way, we run through a light fog. The headlamp projects a shining circle around my vision. It is hypnotizing. The lull between cars is very sweet: silent and redolent with night in the forest. The leg passes quickly. It may be muggy, but the air is cool – a nice contract to the daytime heat.

In the morning, we drive to the next transfer point between vans. The more intrepid of the group head to a field where tents have been set up for runners. Half of us stay in the van. I sleep curled up on the back bench, my refuge and my exile, managing a few hours free of consciousness.

The second day takes on that attenuated and brittle quality of sleep-deprivation, light grating and sound tinny, either too close or too far. Leg Number Three is every bit as painful as expected, running in the morning's gathering heat, taking on a half-mile incline right at the end of my six and a half. And then I'm done. The rest is riding in the van and handing out water to exhausted runners.

The end of a race of this sort has to be surreal, a complement to the start. One is reminded of that sense of placelessness. What does it mean? And how does it relate to that first place, where the mountains were so quiet? Here, one stands in the sands at the verge of the Atlantic Ocean, among a crowd of runners and supporters – among a much dwindled crowd if you are one of the contenders for last place, as we are – and one waits for a solitary figure to appear at the far end of the strand, a figure who must finish his last leg running a quarter or mile or so in sand, in the meantime restoring one's exhausted senses with the sound of the waves, the mellow summer colors of the sea. Today is another one lit with glorious sunshine.

There he is, hobbling forward against the force of the sands. We line up ahead of the finishing chute, cheering him on. As he passes, we all join in behind him, crossing the line in a group, making a ruckus for the last photos and video. And stop, reeling from the struggle across ten meters of sands after having rested. It's over.

One hundred meters further is the event's beer tent. We wade through the crowds eagerly. Plastic pint cups secured for everyone, we drift toward the picnic tables, testing our first war stories, and relishing the equivocal triumph. The whole team gets a chance to get to know each other. The sun seems to hold for while, just above the western horizon, looking back wistfully, hanging among red mists just over Vermont, perhaps, smiling on us through the tent flaps, smiling at the antics of children.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Travelogue 464– September 18
To The Beach
Part One

But I have come east not to reminisce, but to run. Massachusetts grows older at many times the pace I do. But I am headed north, to the relative innocence of New Hampshire. (How innocent, if it claims to be the first state to rebel against the Empire? No matter; the forests glow with youthfulness to my eyes, a buoyancy to the yellow-green of its mountain forests that doesn't admit to the brooding of Massachusetts shadows. No matter.)

So the plane wheels in around the city. Logan International occupies its own peninsula, island-like in its isolation. The plane cruises in along the northern coast, dotted with inlets, marshes, and stands of rock rising from the surf, even unto the eastern horizon. The sun glints off the distant downtown buildings, which, again, seem belittled by the bay, by the history, rather than enhanced by it.

I arrive at Logan International, and I am immediately out again, riding in a rental car agency van on a narrow and deteriorating highway, the 1A. We're heading north, and it occurs to me in my sleep-deprived state that the driver may be taking me to New Hampshire himself. By the time we reach the agency, it does seem as though we have covered half my ride. I thank him and shake his hand.

I am going to New Hampshire to participate in a 200-mile relay. Participate means run. There are twelve of us, and, yes, we are running a 200-mile relay, from the mountains to the ocean. This is the state I'm reduced to as charity guy. I have to join in the American craze for everything 'extreme', in order to make the kids a buck. If it doesn't hurt, it's not worth watching, let alone donating to. Doing it for charity relieves us from taking the 'race' seriously, of course, and our mantra driving up to the race starting point is, 'It'll be fun'. Indeed, the bits I remember were fun. But speaking abstractly for the moment, there is something disturbing about my people's concentrated push into realms that are hard to distinguish from mass sadomasochism. But hey, what doesn't kill us turns us on, right?

I aim the rental north and pass over the state line, into the far north. It's night by the time I make it to Hampton. This is where the race ends, and where I'm meeting up with the team in the morning. I rush into my hotel room and desperately try to force myself to sleep, to no avail, and 4am arrives to roust me out of bed before I've had as many as four hours of real sleep. I weave through the beach town, still under pall of deep night, and I discover the team already loaded into their vans. There are the awkward hellos among strangers who all have regrets, and we are off. We have two hours to drive up north, further up the long state. We will have to make it to the top Franconia State Park. most of the way from Hampton to Canada.

We greet the sun at our destination as it sheds first light on the surrounding mountains, mountains still blue with night. It feels as though we are lost among them; the mission of running across the map somehow draining the place of location, the location of place: it's neither north nor south. We're on a sloping field in the middle of gentle mountains that relate to nowhere else on the map, but in some magical way, we will start running and we will end up back at a place with a name.

There are dozens of vans parked in the lot. We are lectured about dangers and procedures; we are registered; we are photographed; and suddenly our first runner is released out the chute, jogging across the grass toward oblivion. I'm second in the rotation, so watching her head off has particular poignancy. I change into my running gear, and we launch the long trek of the vans.

There are two vans, which means that six people are living in each van for the next thirty-six hours. I am the only man in this van, which brings with it a certain smelly shame; let's not forget that this comes at the end of a vagabond trip of nearly four weeks. But it also means that I am billeting with a mellower sort of human, further mellowed by physical exhaustion. They are kind. I settle in the back bench with proper deference. There are piles of stuff on every bench, and the state of disorder will only grow with the passing hours.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Travelogue 463– September 17
Random Access Memory

I have a time on my hands, just when I don't want it. New England is playing chess with me, and I am just about stalemated. My mobile network does not seem welcome in this region – providing me yet another run-in with America's nonsensical phone systems that punish mobile phone users who are mobile. There is a method to being a business traveler in a country of business travelers that has eluded me. I have no mobile network, and I have no internet connection. Today I've traveled from Acton into Cambridge, expressly to access better networks. But apparently even Harvard students must be confounded with signal issues, providing them a lab for dealing with the real world frustration of getting ahead in this one-legged free-style called America. 'Look ma, no infrastructure!'

Today I have traveled from Acton into Cambridge. I have parked the car -- dare I say it? -- in Harvard Yard. Not true. I parked the car at a ramp down the Red Line and taken the subway in … to Harvard Yard. Maybe my esteemed reader doesn't understand the joke referenced here, but it's a good-natured jab at the edgy Boston accent, an accent that I've been enjoying for days now. Like any accent, it's most fun when you hear it from the mouths of children. To my ear the accent is flat and metallic, and so suggestive of noiresque grit and sarcasms that the children of Massachusetts seem weirdly sophisticated ordering candy at the corner store.

I have time on my hands, and it's a beautiful day in Cambridge. I gaze out the window helplessly, waiting for my computer to negotiate with the surly spirits of the internet. I will soon take a walk among the lawns and venerable halls of Harvard Yard. But I must first turn in a modicum of work.

Enough time has passed that I hardly feel as though I'm back. But that was indeed the same life as this one. Flying over the length of Massachusetts on a spectacularly sunny day, seemingly all the old state's hills and forests laid out below me, I am reminded: I used to live here. We pass over a river that I'm pretty sure is the Connecticut River, nestled in its broad and green valley that I remember by the innocuous name of Pleasant Valley.

Hillary attended the notorious Hampshire College, while I gathered non-transferable credits at the post-graduate academies of Unemployment and Aimlessness. I did manage to squeeze in stints in slacker jobs that I will never forget. One was as parking ticket clerk for the town of Amherst. I had a desk at Town Hall, and recorded by hand the occasions of man's malfeasance in a great ledger. I loved the old castle of Town Hall, set among the green and serene lanes of Amherst, town of Dickinson and Frost. My other memorable gig was at the radio station in Northampton. Though merely a clerk, I was allowed to play in the studio, learning a few tricks of the DJ trade, now no doubt obsolete.

My years there merge into a handful of tableaux: the timeless prospect of green hills on gorgeous summer days; the feeling of claustrophobia for a California boy among all those trees; the year on the second floor of the old Bay State Hotel in Northampton, living above the bar and rehearsing Jonny's songs; running across the snow with Hillary and feeling winter's bite for the first time, being scared by it.

We pass overhead in the plane. We pass over the twin stretches of water that are the Quabbin Reservoir, and on into the midland hills around Worcester, the province of our friend Doug, with his impish grin and guitar, his accent hard as diamond. And we pass over the darker forests that surround and presage dark Boston, repository of so much history, a history and a city seemingly denied by the times, by the country that was essentially born here.

The city emerges where forests meet the ocean. It seems to occupy the center of a natural circle, described by the bay and its islands, North America, made of trees and more trees, pouring into the amphitheatre to attend the tragedy. The clusters of buildings are modest, fleeting ornaments to the enduring bedrock of Massachusetts.

The computer is new, and keenly embarrassed that Massachusetts is its first theatre of operation. It struggles valiantly with the connection, and does manage to complete a few tasks, slipping a few emails past the embargo to let the world know I'm safe and still engaged in the good fight. It is time for a show of mercy. I relieve the computer and cross the street to stroll through Harvard Yard, heart of another profound tradition. Young students are leading tours today. They walk backward, orating in sing-song strains about the obscure rooms and the mundane rituals of higher education. This is how it goes, year after year, they say.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Travelogue 462– September 10
Touch of Season

The asphalt is dry. The grass in the park looks wan and unloved. The lakes themselves seem tired. The Midwest has been through a drought. Even the Mississippi looks depleted, shrinking from its banks, flowing only quietly.

I swing past the bottom of Lake of the Isles on Saturday morning, and the dry road is peaceful. I continue on into Kenwood. We have a board meeting scheduled at the community center. Across the street, some neighbors are at work setting up for some festival. It's already becoming a beautiful day, the kind that Minnesotans will not waste. All day there will be a ruckus over there, children running mad and grills smoking.

The community center is closed. There has been some misunderstanding with the center manager. We gather in front, sitting on benches inside a semi-circle of cold concrete. The sun hasn't touched this little plaza yet. And my rousing welcome speech is met with shivers.

And so it is that, even at the tail end of an overheated summer, on the morning of another sunny day, the board greets the organization's new home with the site's most appropriate body response. This is Minnesota, one must shiver.

The same phenomenon follows us, even into the dinner break. While outside the afternoon hums with residue heat, the Chatterbox is resolute in its climate control, blasting us deep into autumn with its AC. We huddle together around the table anxiously. I don't have anything to wear with long sleeves.

Jon works in the restaurant business, and that means in the management of a prosperous chain, not as a busboy. He measures the place up in a glance or two. The Chatterbox is a favorite of mine. It's an anomaly, and somehow so Minnesotan in its quirks. Unassuming outside, and comfortable inside, the bar manages to stand out in pleasant ways. It has two rooms, one a typical Midwestern barroom, stools at the long bar, booths with plush seats, and one room a restaurant with high table tops and stools. The restaurant is supplied with a variety of games, board and video. There is a TV devoted to video games, ringed by couches. The food is the surprise, at least for Jon, who sums up, 'Upscale menu, downscale decor.' The beers are their own microbrew, and the food is bar food-plus. My favorite is the 'Build Your Own Mac and Cheese'. There's something about Jon's verdict that seems to capture Minnesota for me.

We may be cold, but TK warms us up with political debate, teasing the liberals at the table with a full menu of neo-con invective, spliced with a Catholic critique. Obama is a well-meaning failure. Carter did nothing. Clinton: well, TK will just pray for us. TK is Ethiopian-American. He says he asks his friends of African origin who are all enamored of Obama if they can think of one good African leader. Just one. So why is an American leader with African ancestry hailed as a great man? We liberals, laugh and try to change the subject.

The Mississippi has lost much of its mass, but none of its charm. Cien, Louie and I stand on its banks. We've been running. I should say, Cien and Louie have been running, and I've been jogging. Louie continues to run after Cien and I have stopped, jumping in the river's waters and sniffing up the two other dogs on the beach. We stand underneath the bluffs of Fort Snelling, beside the meeting of waters, of various waters, from Minnehaha Creek to myriad small streams, emptying in shallow deltas across the light sand here. A few miles downriver, it will be the Minnesota River that adds its considerable volume to the grand old watercourse.

Here the park surrounds us, with its high banks and woods deep with summer green, even in a dry season green. We breathe gratefully of the season, our lungs fresh,emptied, scoured by the miles among the trees. We inhabit the moment, moment like a still life, like a snapshot of golden summer. Humble Minnesota teaches gratitude.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Travelogue 461– September 1
Mitt and the Tigers

On a Saturday morning, there will be men in waders standing in the middle of the Grand River, casting their line. And this is downtown.

I'll be riding Stephanie's bicycle down the sidewalk set three meters above the river. The water will be calm. One of the men will be smoking a cigarette. The buildings of downtown Grand Rapids will stand quietly beside us, providing something like testament to the peace of the scene.

I will ride by the Gerald R. Ford Museum, among its expansive lawns on the other side of the river. That's about where I will turn, to the left, away from Gerald's memorial and into downtown proper. I will make my way to the Madcap Coffeehouse, there to work at my little computer for hours while sipping macchiatos.

I will worry about America. I visit this country infrequently. Generally I see that as a blessing. My country makes me nervous. I don't understand it.

One night, I'll be eating chicken wings and trying to watch the Tigers. The Tigers will be holding onto second place in the division in which the Twins are dead last. They will be losing to the Royals. I'll be sitting at the bar drinking Mad Hatter, trying to ignore the carnival that is this establishment. Grand Rapids will not seem to have much selection in bars, either offering seedy depression or overripe fun-fun-fun.

My peaceful baseball vigil will be threatened by politics, the neighboring television screen suddenly glaring with a live broadcast from the Republican convention. Mitt will be smiling and shaking hands on his approach to the podium. There will be something to this man's manner that approximates the natural in a curious way, making for an interesting aesthetic. The spectacle makes watching my game difficult, and I prepare to go.

This will seem the crux of my anxiety, and ultimately the salve, this glimpse of a new aesthetic. America worries me. Will it not seem that there were moments, like a brief moment after Prohibition and through the Second World War, like the 60s, -- even as the government chose to play Byzantium to Russia's Khan, -- when America might have chosen a European path, a style and a sensibility gentle and cosmopolitan?

Will it not seem tragic to someone like me that America didn't? I like Europe. Their policies and their people seem moderate and measured. They have many more centuries of grief to draw from as wisdom.

But will we not resign ourselves to the American aesthetic after all? The unforgiving slide into conservatism -- lasting my entire adult life -- masks an assertion of identity in the face of history. The country's violent and passionate re-entry into European history in the twentieth century awakened things in the national soul, longings and then the reaction to those longings. And now we drift away again, into determined Americana, part self-conscious myth and part nature. And the tonic to despair is love of the aesthetic.

That same night, Mitt's night, will feature preseason football. The crowd in the carnival wings bar will be all about the football. Mitt and the Tigers will only be sideshows. 'Grab your foam finger,' the television will scream. There will be a table of loud men who seem to be 'playing' fantasy football. They will have pasted a diagram on the wall charting their fantasies, their triumphs.

That night will pass. I will remark on the beauty of the morning, the placid waters, the gentle late-summer skies. The city will be so quiet at this hour. The fishermen will seem so contented. I will remark how near the center they are, how shallow the river.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Travelogue 460– August 22

I'm at Schiphol when I hear about Meles dying. I'm waiting to board my flight to Michigan. Something on Facebook catches my eye., something that has the ring of reality. There have been rumors among the expat Ethiopian communities for months, stuff always sounds like conspiracy theory. Meles has died a myriad of times in a myriad of ways in diasporic gossip this summer. But the post I see is just a brief note of condolence. I do two things immediately. I look up BBC News. And I call Menna.

BBC doesn't have much to say, just confirmation that Meles has been in and out of European hospitals all summer. Apparently the end came suddenly, after he'd been convalescing just fine. But actual cause of death: no comment. We'll probably never know.

My first reaction, like that of many others, is concern for people back home. Menna says everything is calm. People are sad, she says, a state that the state is dedicated to milking for weeks. The government media has already started its 24-hour-a-day vigil and 'coverage', which means retrospectives and teary interviews ad infinitum. After only a few days, the country has re-imagined their much-reviled, diminutive leader as a giant and a saint among men.

Meanwhile, we all brace ourselves. Ethiopia has seen exactly three supreme leaders since the 1920s. And there has never been a peaceful transition of power since the modern state came into being. Ethnic tensions have built steadily year by year. And it was only a few weeks ago that the Mercato district in Addis was the scene of rioting over religion.

It's been comforting to see that the first response has been peaceful. Though 'shock' might be the correct diagnosis. I'm not optimistic. In 2005, the worst uprisings were a full six months after the election.

It's time to board, and I obediently follow the crowd onto the plane -- though I'm ill at ease, and irrationally I feel like I should abandon my plans. Everything, including the work, is thrown into a tenuous sort of no man's land by this development. In the end, one has no choice but to carry on until events themselves provide the final judgement on your planning. I board.

The skies over the Atlantic are wonderfully clear. We pass over Greenland in thaw, and we can see every crevice and every retreating glacier. We can see the sun glinting off metal roofs in what appear to be tiny, isolated vales with the slightest hints of green. Otherwise, the landscape is white or craggy brown. The imagination boggles at the sight of those villages.

It's only as we approach Detroit in the late afternoon that the skies change. The pilot warns us it will, and we begin our descent through piles of clouds. The plane starts bucking, and people are gasping and laughing. I'm watching the distinctly Midwestern masses of condensation out the window. The Nederlander next to me is nervous. 'We don't get storms like this,' he says. I nod; I like that about both places.

As we bank one way and then the other, the view out the windows changes dramatically. Facing one direction, the sun is blotted out by ominous storms, clouds nearly black and suspended in a sickly yellow light. The plane circles, and looking the other direction the clouds disperse and we see promising blue skies over the horizon. It seems that the pilots have circled around this violent storm, and the landing is quiet and uneventful. I sense the Nederlander's wonder that a storm of that intensity could be simply skirted, like an iceberg in a calm sea.

But there you go. One more twilight, one more dizzying tilt of the ship, one more arrival.