Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Travelogue 439– March 13
My Town

In the real Amsterdam – not the right British variety – the houses are hundreds of years old and they lean and bulge like crooked teeth, brick the color of clay, the color of decrepit rose, they lean over narrow alleys of buckling brick. I'm walking through history, climbing the steep little inclines of merry bridges over placid canals, bridges that describe tight arcs like jokes.

I'm entering his neighborhood, a tiny made-up district – yes, made up – like a fairy tale, except dirtier, pulled up from the waters of the Ij. It's an island, a creation of land-hungry burgomasters creating a set for the Golden Age. It's a district that has a future as a home to thousands of Eastern European Jews. So many that his street is destined to change from Breestraat to Jodenbreestraat.

I can hear his voice. Although he grew up in the provincial town of Leiden, and didn't move to Amsterdam until his mid-twenties, when he was already gaining a name, he's saying, 'This is my town.' He adopts a sensual swagger as he takes to the streets, swaying in his characteristic gown and floppy cap, and he claims everyone there as his own. He has the cannibalistic appetite of those in his profession.

'The beggars are mine,' he says. 'The street musicians, the street walkers, the street vendors are mine. I know their bodies, misshapen and asymmetrical. I recognize the marks of the years and gravity on the flesh. I know their smiles, teeth missing like gaps that sudden fires make along the street. I know which leg takes his weight; I know which side she lies on. I see their shadows. I know the color of the light in their dens.' And there is no sneer with his claims. They come with a smile of satisfied desire.

His house still stands, now renovated and clean, now standing on a busy boulevard. This is the house of his pride and his shame. He bought it, and almost twenty years later, he lost it to bankruptcy. How does a master go bankrupt? How does a success become a failure in an age known to be Golden? The talent is still there; the money is there.

In his studio, he studies the mirror. He reaches in and strokes the whiskered cheek, reading the texture there by touch. He paces the studio. He stops to pick up a coin, an discovers his apprentices have painted it there as a joke. He admires his extraordinary collections, of prints by his favored masters, Lucas van Leyden, Durer, and others. He admires his collections of armor, armament, spears statuary, and fabrics.

All of this he loses in the bankruptcy. After he loses his wife. It's odd how no reports of rage reach me across the centuries. He adapts; he continues. And maybe it's because he understands the laws of trade so well, citizen of the first republic, citizen of the first modern middle class state, a society founded on commerce.

His wife dies, he starts a long affair with his wife's nurse, a thing that turns to bitter public acrimony. And then the years with his maid, Hendrickje. The church was eventually forced to charge her with 'the acts of a whore,' producing a child out of wedlock as she does, and to ban her from communion. They can't touch him because he is member of no church.

Where there is no royalty, there is respectability. I buy your work, I buy you, the burgomasters say. Am I going to commission for my dear family's portrait? What will the church say? What will they say at Town Hall?

Tourists and students stream by. We have to squeeze by each other on the narrow streets. The tiny world of the centrum makes for intense work for the senses. It's all so close, so concentrated, and so finely detailed by the first and last artist, Time. The cobblestones themselves assert a sort of bourgeois individuality, jostling each other and enforcing sharp attention on the pedestrian. Tourists stumble. They don't want to be distracted by watching their step. They are looking hungrily, claiming the city brick by brick with their eyes. They will bring it home in their cameras. They will own it.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Travelogue 438– March 6
Not Like Any Other
Part Two

As predicted, the day of the race dawns with rain. I can see its tiny, fleeting craters on the pavement from the seventh floor of my hotel. The scene is utterly silent. I have plenty of time to watch the hypnotizing pattern of its falling. The race isn't until half ten.

My warmup will be a brisk walk in my street clothes, gathering rain on my cap and on my shoulders as I search for anywhere open in Milton Keynes on a Sunday morning. There isn't any. It's a half nine opening for everyone, and by then I need to be stretching and suiting up. I stand outside the Starbucks watching the barista bustling behind the counter. Starbucks stands as a miniature free-standing shop in glass under the high, curving ceiling of the town center's super-mall. Here, the space is like a stadium, circular and open-air. The dome stands above the neighboring rooftops and admits plenty of cold air beneath its eaves. It's actually colder inside than out, the clammy cold of dead concrete.

I find the scene of a street market, where south Asian men are running here and there to set up their shops. I find a collection of jackets and walk quickly among the racks looking for something cheap and light to wear for the race. Finding nothing suitable, I decide I'm going to have to rough it.

Back in my room, I find the old cotton sweatshirt I packed for training in the cold. This will be the best I can do. I jog to the starting line on the other side of town, timing my arrival perfectly, climbing over the barriers and in among the runners a minute before the gunshot. My competitors stand around shifting from foot to foot cracking jokes, as Brits will. 'I hear the course is all downhill,' one says wryly. 'It is,' says another. 'Except the bits that are uphill.'

We're off. I set a comfortable pace right away, thinking of last year's races, in which I started too fast and paid for it. People are passing me for the first several miles, but I hold steady. After two miles the sweatshirt is soaked. I peel it off and throw it beside the road.

The rain in England is quiet and diffident. It falls gently, and seems to calm the spirit. The hills glow with a warmer green. I have rarely found it to be much of a hindrance to life here. But the British rain is imperious; it will not suffer its reign to be questioned. One accepts it, but one doesn't defy it. The damp penetrates, and pulls one to earth.

I've never had to run a race in England in the rain. In three races encompassing a year and a half, I've had pleasant weather. I'm thinking how bad can it be?

Every race has a story, especially the long ones. I start at a pace I think can hold. I find out at the second and third miles that I'm behind my best pace. A decision has to made. I speed up. I'm able to hold it. Mile Six is particularly successful. I start passing people. I start matching my best time.

Then, just as I approach Mile Nine, and just as I'm telling myself that the next two miles will determine the race, something happens. The weather turns. It's the temperature. Suddenly there's a head wind, and it carries a chill. This rain is on the verge of turning into snow. And I've tossed away the long-sleeves. By the end of Mile Nine, the skin on arms and legs is numb. By Mile Eleven, I'm cramping up suddenly and stumbling.

We're running through villages that are little more than crossroads, stone outposts of age-old comforts, inns and pubs and churches. The residents are standing by the road in the freezing rain, clapping and yelling out support. It's hard not to be encouraged by that.

We have run by lakes; we have run alongside canals. By Mile Twelve, we are heading back toward the city. We find a sheltered half mile, where the arctic winds don't blow, and I find a second or third wind of my own. I find it in me to finish, even pushing my stiff limbs into a burst of speed.

It is the stretch past the finishing line that is most challenging. Now that I have stopped, even for only a few moments, all the muscles are screaming in outrage against the madness of running again, even at a jog, back to the hotel. But the rain is set to turn to snow, and I have to get indoors. This half a mile is the most painful of the months of training. Once indoors, I find my fingers are locked in position; I can't get them to grip anything. Slowly, clumsily, I peel off the clothes. The touch of lukewarm water on the fingers is excruciating.

And today, in London, as I reach the postage stamp beauty at the end of Devonshire Street, both bags across my shoulder, my legs are stiff and sore. It's a day suited to a stroll, more made for a race than yesterday – as was the day before the race, as well. That's the luck of the draw.

I take a working break in a natural foods shop. On the second floor, there is a cafe where I can set up my cafe and have killer carrot cake. The clientele is nothing less than posh, earning every accented phoneme of that loaded word. They sit in style and state, and they glance around the room. As I watch them, I can't help looking over my shoulder with a shiver, sensing the imminent appearance of Angelina Jolie in an evening gown, like a haunting. But no one ever appears, except the waiter with my cake, and a much more welcome sight is he.

Marlyebone turns into a stamp again and recedes, and I walk painfully back to Euston Station, under the gaze of the strangely past-futuristic BT tower, odd spoke to my odd kingdom.

Monday, March 05, 2012

Travelogue 437– March 5
Not Like Any Other
Part One

There's a picture ahead, where the street ends. It could be Amsterdam, with its high, narrow house fronts of brick, its rounded gables. And yet it's clearly not. As I approach it, and as the picture opens with unfolding perspective into reality, it becomes unmistakeably British. The brick is too red. The street too tidy, the scene too distinct.

I'm taking a stroll, if a 'stroll' can be burdened by two bags over the shoulder. I have a break between two meetings in the Euston Square area. And I know it's not too terribly far to my current favorite among London neighborhoods, the heart of which beckons to me through that postage stamp vision between buildings at the end of the street.

One of London's attractions is the way it unfolds, one intriguing district after another, each with its frank of beauty and history. I've forgotten exactly where Marylebone is in relation to Euston Square. Graham has to point me in the right direction. It takes me a half hour to walk there, with luggage on my back and carrying in my muscles the lactic memory of yesterday's arduous half marathon.

In each direction, I catch suggestive glimpses of neighboring areas of the city, University College, Regents Park, Oxford Circus, Portland Place and its embassies, Baker Street. Each image resonates with personal memory and with a feeling for the variety of the city.

I'm just back from a venture into another corner of this country. In the early years of my acquaintance with England, there was only London and Bath. The diversity within London was enough to nourish me for a long time. But other locations called, and I'm discovering a crazy patchwork to this tiny bit of map.

My running habit is, of course, one way I explore. Just over a week ago was my first race of the season, 'season' being defined as one of my two annual excursions outside Ethiopia. This race was a 10K that I found online. I didn't have to travel at all for this, the race being located in Bath. And yet, funny England will present variety in constancy.

What does not communicate itself well across the internet is the British fetish for roughing it. This was not a road race. And I knew that much already, as the website made clear there were hills and trails. What it doesn't mention is that the race is a cross country race, and cross country in the true spirit in which the Brits first conceived of the sport. By the second mile, we are stumbling through deep mud on a trail that itself barely maintains its hold on a steep and wooded hillside. Each runner churns the mess a bit more; some resign to a puffing march instead of any pretense to running; some – like me – plunge forward, sliding into tree trunks and courting disaster. It's a two-lap course, and I quickly figure out that the rougher patches are where I excel, conditioned by the mountain running in Ethiopia. Here's where I pass people – the same people who pass me right back on any grassy flats.

A week later, I'm en route to a town named Milton Keynes, and not named after any iconic economists. No, the name – perhaps more suggestive of a droll and obscure author and surely a drunken intimate of Peter O'Toole's in the day – the name has a long and logical and very British history, deriving from a certain Middleton located in the lands of the Norman Cahaines family.

The town stands separately from the village, however, and represents something very unique in my English travels. See, the town of Milton Keynes was implemented in the 60s as a 'New City', an experiment in urban planning toward creating suburban space for a burgeoning population of London.

The town is about forty minutes by train northwest out of London Euston. There is some open farming country on the way, rolling hills trimmed by hedges, roamed by round sheep, cut by tidy country roads. One of the last villages before MK is Bletchley, now a suburb of the suburb, a dot on the map with an august name. During the Second World War, Bletchley was home to Alan Turing and to the Government Code and Cypher School, where German codes were cracked like walnuts, some by 'Colossus', one of the first computers constructed to torment humanity.

Then there appears the 'New City' on its hill, a collection of 60s architectural gems and some of the only grid-organized streets you'll find in Britain. Like most human projections of paradise onto the innocent world, Milton Keynes is a bit spooky. The wide avenues cross the land that once harbored three organic English villages, crossing the ancient farmland with a certain desolate authority, offering more austerity than promise, lined with dull-blue glass beauties that Haile Selassie would have found the acme of sophistication. What vitality that still clings to the place, creeps indoors along the bleak corridors of extensive malls, short, square tunnels featuring a limited and repetitive menu of chain outlets.

Never mind. I'm here to run.