Saturday, December 28, 2013

Travelogue 539 – December 28
Living in The Dorp
Part Two

And so I'm clocking aesthetic avarice as she turns circles in the room, as she is blown through the door and into the next room, where she turns new circles. She wields her iPad. She dances a dance of Shiva and she captures all.

I am reminded of our Christmas Day excursion. Menna and I took the afternoon on Christmas to cycle around the quiet old town, watching folks on their strolls toward church or toward family, family strolls undertaken simply to enjoy the fine weather, our mutual good fortune this holy day. Menna and I have found a Turkish cafe, the only cafe open, and we have indulged in warmth and in coffee. Then we have cycled across the river to the Lantaren theatre for an afternoon film. What has seemed appropriate on the day that Jesus finds his way into form yet again is a film called 'Samsara'.

Samsara, the cycle of rebirth, the soul's fancy for illusion, is the putative theme of the film, and we must be treated with images of Tibet right away in order to be properly oriented in mente. The director renounces all subtlety, and it is good. We see message well before it arrives and are free to enjoy the stunning imagery, which was the correct labor for the man behind the camera, something that consumed him for five years and carried him from prospect to prospect around the world – much like my greedy camera bug at the museum.

On Versailles silver, the director treats us to panorama beauty and panorama ugly. He brings the faces of ancient mummified children, and be brings the stilled countenance of the deceased young man on his day of interment. He is lying in a coffin built in the shape of a revolver. Nobody laughs. We are treated to sandblasted and abandoned homes in some disaster zone. We are treated to Shanghai pauvre and to Dubai riche. We visit a vast disassembly plant, where animals are taken apart along conveyor belts.

Salvador Dali likes to trade in body parts. In the second room of his exhibit, there are sketches of all sorts of strange contortions of form. Humanity is a playground. So are the fundamentals of the household. In display cases we see a variety of divine experiments, including the lobster phone. There are experiments in photography, variations on Dali's theme of flying people, flying objects, and Dali himself arching his satyr's eyebrows.

I'm missing my shutter girl. She brings to us vitality, doesn't she, with her twitching youthfulness and stunning detachment? Her unconsciousness inspires a giddy disorientation, perfect for contemplation of the moderns. How to signify without her?

As we move into rooms deeper inside the museum, we move back in time. In the nineteenth century, we have discovered the painters of the Hague School, who had themselves re-discovered the Dutch Masters of the Golden Age, and then applied a Parisian filter. They had re-discovered the Dutch landscape, and its Impressionistic possibilities, and set about capturing images that we jaded come-afters find hard to see without shades of cliché: the polders, the canals cutting through their fields, the spotted cows, the windmills.

How do we learn to see again? Do we need the belabored intensity of Samsara, making things grand on super 70? Or do we take a lesson from shutter girl, that strange indirection, the glib mediation? The iPad collects, and we trust that the sorting systems inside the machine will assign meaning. The hard drive is ours to possess. It has a mapping mechanisms that make it like a museum. The hallways lined with art from the ages are like text to be scanned and then produced on demand. But what is the demand? Implicit is the faith in the cue. There will be a moment when the images will be produced, the validating moment, when shutter girl is a good and smart girl. Or maybe the moment never comes, and perhaps that is even better, a relief.

We return to the dorp after every journey, a place of significance. The photos will prove it. The goose – a pretty picture – stands ready to bite – a funny picture – beside the canal – a pretty picture – and we were there – group shot – in the dorp – proof in the picture – where people live – blurry picture – people who live in different houses – see here – and speak funny – see the signs. What a big, big, crazy world! It's all right here – scrolling, scrolling.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Travelogue 538 – December 27
Living in The Dorp
Part One

I have a few neighbors. They live in the little park beside the Schie River. This park is only a few meters of grass along the riverside. But it suffices for these two geese. They are a couple, I would say, though I can't tell which is the male, which is the female, or if it's that kind of couple. Either way, they are always together. One is brown and mottled, and one is white. They are like any other neighbor, hanging out, minding their own business, picking at the grass. They exhibit something like my attitude toward neighbors, hissing when they get too close, threatening to bite, waddling at them in attack position.

I pass them in the morning, coasting by on my bicycle. Before the sun has risen they are already awake and standing at the kerb, as though waiting for a bus. The park occupies a corner at the intersection of waterways, the Schie and one of the canals that connects it to the Maas River. It's nothing more than some grass and park benches facing the Schie.

A sculpture has been erected by the water, perhaps to honor the faithful goose couple. It's a kind of bench or love seat made of wrought iron curled and tangled like thick wire, painted cherry red, shaped into a canopy in the shape of a heart. There's a stand a few meters away, made of the same stuff, for couples to place their cameras, set it on auto, and capture themselves in the heart, with downtown spires in the background. Couples have attached padlocks to the sculpture.

The canal beside the park runs underneath the road to my flat. On the other side, it bypasses historic Delfshaven, leads past the windmill that is almost three hundred years old. There's a parallel canal some several hundred meters west that dissects the historic district. Old schooners anchor along the sides, sails stown away.

It's still a village, after all, still the dorp. The geese serve as a reminder. The village may have become urban, or been swallowed by the urgent necessities of sprawl, but still it is a village.

I've had occasion to watch tourist encounters with the geese. These are tourists to the neighborhood. They may be from abroad; they may be from across town. The geese charm them with their misanthropy. I hear laughter as I approach the group. I see the flash of cameras at work. Dad has pulled up a pant leg, and he's rubbing the spot where the goose has struck. He guffaws into the camera.

It's what we do when we visit the dorp. We take pictures. We can sense something different. Is it a sense that we are encountered with something to be preserved? Is that the reflex that reaches for the camera?

I'm wondering about that impulse to preserve. I'm watching her. She embodies it, reflex without thought. She makes a circuit of the small room. She has her iPad deployed, the cover folded back, the tablet held at the ready. At each station she stops to raise it and click. It matters little if there is anyone there first. She takes a moment's position right next to him or her and clicks. She keeps going. I'm taking a break from my original purpose just to watch her. She might be an exhibit herself.

Menna and I have finally made time to visit the Boijmans, the city's art museum. We have entered through the modern first, making our way through a series of small exhibit rooms devoted to twentieth-century art, two rooms for Surrealism because Dali is in town, a room for oddball pre-war realism, then rooms organized primarily by donated collection, bits of Kandinsky, bits of Mondrian, prints from Picasso, and assorted contemporaries.

Then there is herself, the flesh-and-blood tribute to the raw impulse to collect, mobile and restless, never stopping to admire but only to document on her deadly little tablet. I'm fascinated. I could imagine a chuckling and fey Salvador Dali writing this script. Though it would be so much better if some of the bystanders had no faces, or if the walls would melt.

There is nothing melting in this exhibit. The Dali paintings in this exhibit are as melancholy as I've seen the master. There are landscapes of his native, war-torn Spain, dry and desolate, with figures that emerge in mysterious and incomplete forms. Or there are uncomfortable groupings of distorted beings in midnight blue, a tearful or frightened face introduced as one more strange object, but also as extracted comment on it all.

Click! It is captured. And nothing cheers me more than the thought of its future home among unlit circuits, finding more peace there than ever in three dimensions, secure among thousands of images, not only of artistic peers from all ages, but among thousands more from budget beaches in Portugal or Croatia, where not this boyfriend but the one before, or maybe it was two before, passed out with sand in his eyebrows, remember that, and wasn't that hilarious when we painted his cheeks and his lips and then he came to and OMG he was so stoned and disoriented, we practically had to carry him, and God he was so stupid, and God he made me cry.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Travelogue 537 – December 21
The White Bear

I didn't expect the statue. I expected a lot from this town, but not the celebration of this illustrious figure so close to my heart, memorialized here larger than life, standing in costume period and pose heroic.

We have become confused among the winding, cobble-stone streets of this burg, and ended up in this pretty square, not one so unique in this town acknowledged as the prettiest in this part of Europe. The square occupies an unusually open space among the medieval alleys of the town, looking east over a stately canal running away toward its appointment with another canal. Mr. Van Eyck, with a nineteenth-century vigor, granted to him by his nineteenth-century sculptor, has turned his back toward the canal, and turned toward the life and bustle of the town, in particular toward the building that now houses an academy of fine art. Off his right shoulder, across the boulevard that runs alongside his square, is the medieval toll house, built in 1477.

We're standing in middle of the pretty square, and the rain is coming down steadily. It falls steadily but it may not strike steadily, as the raindrops are tossed around by gusts of chilly wind. Our umbrella doesn't serve us very well in winds like these. We stand regarding the Toll House, and next to it, the Poortersloge, or Burgher's Lodge.

The fifteenth century seems to have been the height of prosperity here in Bruges. The town had flourished for a few centuries already, the busy port and markets paying for these lovely buildings we enjoy, for the churches and the guild halls, and for the art that drew the commissions for names like Van Eyck.

The well-to-do citizens assembled in the Burgher's Lodge. The emblem of their jousting association still adorns the facade of the structure. The emblem portrays a bear holding the Bruges coat of arms. The bear is a symbol of Bruges. They say that the first count of Flanders, a congenial chap by the name of Baldwin with the Iron Arm, first visited the site of Bruges in the 800s, he encountered a brown bear. Of course, Lord Baldwin engaged with the bear, and after a long struggle, managed to kill it. This explains the small stone bear standing a niche in the facade of the lodge. This bear is white, and he's harmless. They dress him up for special occasions.

All this Menna and I contemplate as we stand quietly in the rain. 'So pretty,' we're thinking. Menna is shivering. My wife is cold. I have to take action. I urge her forward and onward.

It's surprisingly difficult to find quiet little places to sit in Belgian towns. We walk along the canal behind Mr. Van Eyck's back. Even in this emergency, I cannot help but admire the scenic streets, lined by quirky gables and the occasional stone trinket, erected by cheerful medieval landlords in a time of colorful caps and banners, a time when God still cherished us.

We finally come upon a pub. Inside, we hang dripping coats on the backs of chairs. We shiver at the wooden table as a waiter brings us strong Belgian beer, sweet-tasting and heady, shining the color of summer fields of grain, shining even when there is no sun. I am rubbing the tips of Menna's fingers.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Travelogue 536 – December 14
Do Not Disturb My Circles

And what would old Archimedes have thought, arriving from Syracuse, perhaps on a freighter shaped like a huge bathtub, a kind of iron village set afloat, a ship that has steered its mass into the mouth of the Maas River? What words, what cry would suffice for this discovery?

The shores of the river open into port after port, the length of the waterway lined with the mechanics of freight. Etched into the white northern sky are the sober, metallic outlines of machine after machine, cranes, cranks, chains, and the frames of giant swings. It's a vast outdoor physics lab.

'The simple machine changes the direction of a force ... increasing effect …,' he mutters, standing at the helm, as though he were standing before his students.

The Greeks identified six simple machines. The Renaissance scholars, keen students, multiplied these into the hundreds, combining them into compound machines, into thousands of applications. Their Protestant great-grandchildren turned these into profit, into whole cities of steel.

Would this river cruise be a delight for old Archimedes, or would it be an assault of insight, deadly to consciousness, a cacophony of thought, two thousand years in a tidal rush? We are a busy species, always building. There is a lot to see at the end of 2013.

In this town of cranks and gears and pulleys, this modernist enclave of commerce as industry, jewel in the crown of a country of problem-solvers, I indulge in a jog beside the River Maas, the color of steel. It's a day one is forced call sunny at this latitude, though in fact the sun in its ten degrees of glory only lights the dome of the sky with a tinny silver sheen.

I've discovered an esplanade riverside hidden from the road, a spread of concrete located behind a series of housing projects. This bit of river extends west from my usual runs, pushing toward the watery border between the wedge of little Delfshaven and Schiedam.

I like this stretch of unexceptional asphalt, set with squares of dispirited grass, set with odd sculptures looking like big paper hats, but folded in iron, standing on legs like hobby horses. They are painted in colours that just aspire to the scale of cheerful, but achieve only curiosity. I like this place for its air of abandonment. I like it for the prospect of the western ports of the city, miles of industrial age landscape, horizon of machinery changing force, water resuming and resuming again its nature, its peace, among the churning commerce.

I've been marking our progress toward the solstice, marking with interest the inching forward of frosts and shadow. We seem to have been granted a yuletide break from the incessant rains, a time to emerge into the dusk and contemplate. I'm thinking about poor Archimedes, wandering the Rhine delta, looking for that final proof he was working on before the Roman soldier cut him down, harmless old man playing with circles. His ghost is now thinking of other matters, questioning himself in the face of what the industrial age hath wrought. He is captured by wonder, which is no less than what one hopes for for old ghosts.

I turn at the furthest point, where another small haven, or harbor, interrupts the path, and I jog back the way I have come. I discover that a barge has parked' beside the esplanade. One man stands on land while two others stand on the deck of the barge, chatting with him, operating the shipboard crane, which is set just at the bow. If I were Archimedes I might wonder how a boat supports great amounts of weight not from the center, but at the extremity of the bow. About ten meters above the man onshore hangs suspended his car. The man's shift on the barge is over. It's time to go home. He'll take his auto with him.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Travelogue 535 – December 7

So we engage in the struggle against darkness. It's December. We have slid northward, away from light, and under a polar cap of dense cloud. We know we must push forward, as into a headwind, heads down and hands protected. The mornings are dark until eight, the light coming in a slow and diffuse way difficult to describe as dawn. It takes so long to become day, and one can't be quite sure, under cover of mist, when the ambient illumination has achieved full daylight.

Yesterday we saw our first snow, or something like it. Something, in fact, icy. What falls are small white hailstones. They start coming down while I'm out on a run. They bounce off the sidewalk, and they roll in the cold wind. They sting against my cheek.

The winds have been formidable. Menna walks her bicycle home from the Metro station. I return home from my run with numb fingers. Because the still-air temps are still above freezing, I haven't started wearing the black tights yet. Instead, I come home with thighs and knees bright red and raw.

Yesterday we hear that Mandela has died. The news is a sign bittersweet: a life lived well, lived in principle and with virtue; and an era passing, for better or worse. The times of father and son in only my family have witnessed since the ravages of the Depression genocide in Europe and apartheid in Africa. Hitler made his rage and hatred into an international crisis. Mandela made his fight an international matter of conscience.

The esteemed Paul Theroux writes in a recent article that our work in Africa is more or less ineffectual, mere 'telescopic philanthropy', a phrase he borrows from Charles Dickens. What's more it has all been done before. Of course, I too am a huge fan of the author of Ecclesiastes, who wrote 'there is nothing new under the sun' a few millennia before Mr. Theroux felt the sun of Malawi on his shoulders. Like Solomon, Mr. Theroux has been there, and so why should anyone else?

It's popular to debunk NGO work these days, and God knows it deserves a bit of the old debunk, but every generation does the best it can. Shall we feel foolish now because we're helping people in a faraway place? I find myself peering again into the shadowed minds of the secret paternalists of our time who say that one type of person cannot know how to, or have the right to, help another type (word from wise, developed-world sage). It's an odd viewpoint, that geographical distance and culture invalidate the fundamental human instinct to help.

And our embarrassment should be based on logic like this: people are poorer than ever in Africa; therefore, aid work has failed. As a show of thoroughness, let's support with one example, from the thousands of agencies working across the continent: Jeffrey Sachs. Yes, that is a case that cuts right to the heart of my work. I feel exposed.

After declaring general failure, Mr. Theroux offers a few radical tips, should we care to continue with our futile work: 'Seek input from locals. Demand responsible management.' Here is the soul of innovation. Quite right that he should take to the soap box with gems like this. We dast not shade a light like that.

But this is the standard of critique these days, laying down the fifth ace: your work is immoral, but I know how to do it better. But wasn't it immoral? No, not if you're innovative. Ah, like demanding responsible management. That is deep innovation. I've got another one for you: look both ways before crossing the street. Now you've got it. But one question: how innovative is poverty? We have never 'won' against poverty. Ergo, we have 'failed'. The work is failing, and must stop. Astounding.

No, here's the news today: we're not going to solve poverty. We're human and we're going to try. We go where we feel we can make a difference. Someone will always know better, and will say so. We get up every morning and we try harder.

Today's news, the day after the day. It's winter. We will buckle down, and we will go out the door when it's time to work, even though the sun doesn't seem to have stirred. These are the times during the year when the primeval within us wonders whether God has forsaken us. We shiver to consider what is asked of us, even if it is only logging a few miles in the ice of a long night. We still do it.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Travelogue 534 – November 28
Loods 24

In 1930, there were more than ten thousand Jews in Rotterdam, a healthy percentage of them recent immigrants from Eastern Europe who took a stretch break on their way to America and decided to stay. The Jewish community here dates back to 1610, when the first came from Portugal to settle and trade. Current population levels seem to hang at a few hundred.

There are few memories of the larger Jewish community left. What there are are memorials. What we might call living memories were wiped out by the Germans. That holds true in several senses, of course, pertaining to the people themselves, as well as to their buildings, flattened along with those of the purest Aryans during the bombardment in 1940.

Starting in July, 1942, the Jews themselves were sent away. The deportation took one year. Jews were gathered in the harbor, at Loods 24 (Shed 24). By 1945 and the end of the war, about 87% of those had been murdered in Nazi death camps.

Today, the site is an urban park, set among high rise housing and office buildings, just a few blocks from the river, and a few more blocks from the booming Wilhelmina Pier. Beside the river is a small plaza, site to a monument to the 686 children sent off to their death.

I've been reading Hannah Arendt's book about the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961, a famous little volume, the one that gave us the phrase the 'banality of evil'. It's the perfect subtitle to the book, less a theory than a modest aside to the reader.

Adolph Eichmann was the rather bland S.S. functionary in charge of the Jewish question. He was something closer to a middle manager and civil servant than a policy man. He never killed anyone, but he arranged all the trains.

In Arendt's portrayal, he appears to be rather dim-witted, and moved more by duty and advancement than by personal morality. He found the extermination policy distasteful, but took his cues from those around him. Everyone else seemed fine with it. And he worked for the Führer. 'The man,' he said, 'was able to work his way up from lance corporal in the German Army to Führer of a people of almost eighty million. … His success alone proved to me that I should subordinate myself to this man.'

The Stadhius, or City Hall, is one of the few buildings that survived the bombardment. It was finished in 1920. At the center of the large building, dividing front wing from back, is a garden, very peaceful, very Victorian, with its statuary and trimmed design. At the entrance to the garden is a small monument to the Jews of Rotterdam, placed there in 1981, and consisting of small bronzes set along the brick wall. Each year of the war is the subject of one piece, each suggesting the mounting horrors of the extermination effort. The art is easily missed among the shadows of a covered walkway, and overwhelmed by the pretty park, but the pieces show a restrained pathos, portray a quiet suffering, perhaps one that continues.

In small ways, one must suffer to contemplate it. One has to grieve for the human heart. One is tempted by despair.

In America, it is Thanksgiving. I may be an American in the Old World, but my little neighborhood was home to the Pilgrims before they set out for America. Their church stands along the route of my daily walk. It's old, looks no different to the old around it, but it reads as a sign of the new. New has history, as everything must.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Travelogue 533 – November 20
Holding Course

Daddy of the World War II memorials in Rotterdam would be the one set beside the Maas River, almost in the afternoon shadow of the great Swan Bridge, the tower that could be an obelisk, though one with one angled side and an eye-of-the-needle hole in the top. But at close quarters, you see it is an not smooth white stone at all, but curving sides plated with steel like a ship's hull. It is a memorial dedicated to the merchant ships and sailors lost in the war. This ship's keel passes through green waves of pebbled concrete. And hanging from its side is a bronze of men held by rope to the anchor. The texture of the sculpture suggests waist down submersion in water. 'They held course' the monument says.

This may be the most visible of memorials, but in fact there are small mementos of the war all over town, this town devastated by the war. One of my favorites seems only incidentally a record of the war, maybe more a record of time and caprice.

The Delftse Poort was a gate to the city. The first northern gate was built in the middle of the fourteenth century, approved by the count of Holland, Aelbrecht van Beieren, and called simply the Noorderpoort. It was rebuilt in 1545, a project which apparently nearly bankrupted the city, and then rebuilt again, another two centuries later, in 1764, following a design by Pieter de Swart, a design that remained the face of the city to travelers from the north for almost two more centuries. Somewhere along the way, it became known as the Delftse Poort, named for the next town of significance on the road toward the capital of Den Haag.

As with all things temporal, there came a time when the great stone gate, monument to the past, was judged to be in the way, much as Hitler would decide that Holland was an inconvenience, and at pretty much the same time. In 1939, the city voted to move the gate and began the job of dismantling it. In 1940, the Germans completed the job in a day, reducing the gate and most of the city center to rubble.

Maybe there is nothing so precious as something you are slowly letting go and then is ripped from your hands. The loss of the city symbol was felt keenly. Fragments of the stonework were kept as treasures. Some were incorporated into new buildings in the town center.

It wasn't until fifty years later that a monument was built, commissioned to a local artist, Cor Kraat, who erected a skeletal steel reconstruction of the old gateway, painted Dutch orange, and housing inside some of the fragments of the stonework as haunting pieces of memory. The monument has been moved from the Hofplein, where the gate stood in the middle of the city's traffic and commerce, to a quiet side street. Here it sits silently, and entering it, one enters a meditation.

One is forgiven for wondering, during the bustle and the mundane, what is the purpose of monuments, perhaps even resenting them their stasis, the space they take, the judgements they seem to make. But I think I understand now, they await for each their moment of discovery, and the waiting is quiet, and the space is dedicated, like the hours of deep night during the daily cycle, to reflection and rejuvenation.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Travelogue 532 – November 16

No goal is scored. The nets remain untested. The full voices of the children remain untested. It's halftime. Ato Moges says he is not enjoying the game, and we should leave. He tells the guard outside the game is saai, or boring, and the guard laughs.

It's my first football game in Holland. Ato Moges has free tickets. He works at a school, and the school has given him extra tickets. If I had thought about that proposition beforehand, I would have realized that I would spend the evening being kicked in the back, climbed over, and being unmanned by high-pitched, shrieking calls for the home team in my ear. I long to be in the 'Robin van Persie Tribune', across a corner of the pitch from us, behind the goal, where the rowdies are singing songs and swaying. Ato Moges says that's where the 'hooligans' sit. But their feet are on the ground, and they've outgrown the dog-whistle in their voices.

Robin van Persie played for this team as a youth player a dozen years ago. This is Excelsior, one of three teams for Rotterdam. The team's big brother, and more famous team, is Feyenoord. The third team is Sparta, which houses itself near to our home neighborhood, in Delfshaven, and which is third in the Eerste Divisie now. Excelsior is seventh. Though Eerste Divisie, means 'First Division', it's actually the second. On top of football in Holland is the Eredivisie, which is where Feyenoord plays. Both smaller clubs have had their runs in the Eredivisie, Sparta more than Excelsior. That only seems fitting, since Sparta holds the distinction of being the oldest professional team in the Netherlands.

The stadium is tiny. The pitch is fine, but the stands are very modest. It could be an American high school. There are seats for about 3,500 people. Tonight we are playing Venlo VVV, which apparently is not an exciting match-up. Venlo is a small town near the German border. They wear blue against our team's red and black. I don't find the game boring at all, but I'm wondering if boring might be Ato Moges's code for cold. It's about 5°C. It's been misty all day. The damp cold is penetrating. Menna is showing me her fingertip, which is discolored. She's scared that she has frostbite. I'm thinking it has to be freezing for anything to freeze. The approaching winter is unnerving for her.

We exit at halftime. The gates to the stadium are locked, and there is nobody manning them. We go look for the guard. He is surprised we're leaving. Ato Moges tells him the game is saai. It's only a few steps under the bright floodlights to the tram station. We'll catch the twenty-four back to the center of town. Excelsior is the team for the east side of town. Just east of the stadium is the Woudestein campus of Erasmus University, and the campus of Menna's business program. We feel divided, with the Sparta stadium so close to home, on the west side of town, and Excelsior's close to campus. Tonight, I suppose we lean east.

The next day I read that an Excelsior player gets a red card and is thrown out of the game one minute after half time. Venlo wins 1-0. I'm sure the children were howling.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Travelogue 531 – November 10
Dutch Winter

Because it's Sunday, I get up late. Because I get up late, there is daylight illuminating the white drapes above our bed. On weekdays, those drapes are dark still when we start our day. I will part the drapes just an inch to look over the still street. The occasional early starter breezes by on a cycle, all bundled up. In half an hour, someone will watch me pedal by.

Today the street is just as still, though it's late. It is Zondag. I glance up at the clouds above the flats across the street. They seem to be breaking. I catch a rare sight of blue sky. I check the ground. It looks to be dry.

At the front door, I'm struggling with Menna's bike. We bring both the bikes inside at night because we've had two stolen already. Because hers is the heaviest, we set it in the narrow entry way, front tire tilted against the fourth or fifth step in our steep staircase, the back tire against the door. I have to lift it with one hand away from the doorway while wrestling with the heavy wooden door, which likes to get stuck in its frame, especially in damp weather. Damp weather in Holland: that means all the time.

Outside, I lock the bike up next to the bike path. I go up for my own cycle, which rests in the hallway upstairs. I carry that down on my shoulder. This life keeps me limber.

I'm no sooner on my bike and moving than it starts to rain. There is one dark cloud mass just above, distinct in its wet lines, and it will drop some of its mass on the neighborhood. This is the way it is in Holland. One either steps out into a sudden shower, or steps into the street just as it stops. One might develop a complex, always feeling either the lamb or the goat.

The path glistens in the new rain. I feel the cold drops soaking into the thighs of my jeans. I see it stand in beads on the sleeves of my jacket. Passing cars hiss in the road's moisture. There is a damp freshness to the air. And it's getting chilly. I will have to pull out the gloves.

The cafe never has croissants on Sunday, which I find slightly dispiriting. But I soldier on, investing in an unwholesome cake to complement my ristretto. I climb the steep Dutch stairs to the second floor set with rows of tables. I have a routine, as all cafe regulars must. I stop at the first table by the stairs. I set up the computer. My view extends beyond the balcony and over the lobby and cashiers, through the top of the arching window to the plein.

There is a curious sculpture in the square, a huge bronze of a fat and bearded Santa holding a bell in one hand and in the other something that looks like an ice cream cone. Apparently the latter reminds the Dutch of something more obscene, and thence the statue's nickname which I won't repeat here, in this family blog. Some families don't mind. They pose next to it for photos. There is plenty of public sculpture in Rotterdam, including a Rodin only a few hundred meters away, but it's the massive gnome that weasels his way into family photos.

The windows to my right look out over the brick alley that is the Oude Binnenweg. The Nieuwe Binnenweg picks up across the busy crossing street, a bustling thoroughfare of its own, with a tram line that heads outs toward my neighborhood. I look out at the alley, and I see that they've put up lights in anticipation of the holidays. They will be a consolation in the season of long nights.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Travelogue 530 – November 6
First Snow

Yesterday is a day haunted by its weather report. Local media in Minnesota persists in its commentary on the approaching storm. It's the first winter storm. Is it anticipation in their voices? Wes's nine year-old daughter is gently hopping with impatience to see snow on the ground. This is Minnesota. Life would be a blank map without snow.

We're out at the Town Hall Tap when the snow comes. It's a family outing, though I'm outside fielding a phone call, escaping the sound track. A drizzle has arrived a while ago, as the leading edge of the storm. The call is not a short one. I'm pacing outside. Glancing up into the jaundiced light of the street lamps, I see that the rain has taken on mass. When the drops hit the pavement, they don't disappear right away, but remain for the slightest interval as small, melting lumps. The winter has arrived. The breathless radio and television announcers had predicted midnight. It has come early.

Inside the restaurant, Isabella is bouncing in her seat happily as she looks out the tavern's window, watching the snow gathering force in the lights from the street. It is a dramatic sight, and one that Minnesotans find comforting somehow. I reflect that I have grown away from the Minnesotan compass, finding my first sight of snow this season more dispiriting than exalting, especially coming the night before a flight. I'm picturing the ploughs describing their long furrows at the airport.

The flight is not delayed. When I wake up in the morning, the sun is shining. The snow has not accumulated much beyond an inch or so on the cold lawns. I run out in my bare feet to capture a few photos of the sudden winter for my wife, who is facing her first winter under the less impetuous skies of Europe. This is what it looks like. I run back inside with stinging toes.

It will be my fingers stinging next, as I have to scrape the ice from the rental car. Afterward, I sit inside while the car warm up. The defrost is turned up to its maximum. The winter has caught me. I've come to Minnesota for one week in early November, and the winter has caught me. I'll be driving to the airport latter. I'll be turning the car in. I'll be boarding another transatlantic.

My luck is consistent on this trip. The Russian man next to me doesn't fit into his seat. He sleeps restlessly the whole of the overnight flight, tossing and turning and shoving against me while I struggle with the plane's video technology to get one movie in. For some reason I have chosen the Exorcist, and I am watching it thirty seconds at a time, until the screen goes blank. Then I have to pause, play, rewind, play, and watch until it stalls again. It adds a dimension to the story, having to manage the demented machinery.

The sun hasn't risen yet in Amsterdam. There is a yellow glow over the city among the low-lying clouds. By the time I make it to the lobby, there is a dim light in the sky. I stand in line for an espresso. My train leaves on track five.

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Travelogue 529 – November 3
Walking the Dog

They make a comic couple, the soft double-chinned boy in his black uniform, leading with his belly, and his little beagle straining in its harness. The boy hides behind his fine eyelashes. He won't look anyone in the eye as he weaves among the people standing in line. He only has eyes for his little dog, who is busy sniffing among the luggage and the shoes and the pants legs he discovers. The crowd arrayed for passport control is giggling.

This is my first impression of my quirky, neurotic homeland. Well, that and the assortment of my countrymen on the plane, including the Arizona man leaning into me the whole way home, drinking glass after glass of red wine and dozing. He is returning from Madagascar after three months of volunteer service. They are clumsy; they are genial. They don't fit in their seats. The man behind me can't help digging his knee through the seat and into my back.

It's a long way. I have time for a few movies played out on the seat back ahead of me. In between each movie, I pull out my notebook, and I jot notes about work, and about the coming board meetings in Minnesota. And we haven't even reached Greenland yet. Another movie, and we're over the blank expanses of Labrador.

We descend into clouds. We land before we've spotted land. It feels like something has hit the plane, and I look out the window to see that we're rolling down the runway, grass beside us, grass disappearing into the grey fog only twenty or thirty meters away. I think that's a first: hitting terra firma before sighting it.

The officer walks his dog. I'm wondering why everything American has to be vaguely silly. Or menacing. Do the man and his beagle think they belong to the latter category?

It is the Halloween season. Minneapolis is resplendent in its fall colors. The maple leaves are a fiery red. Lawns are decorated with scenes of horror, scarecrows and skeletons and mutilated bodies. The skies are silent and, once the fog lifts, are laced with high clouds that suggest winter. There are tall corn stalks bundled beside Wes's door. He has massive pumpkin standing in his living room. I think it's fake, it's so big. I knock on it and put my ear to its orange, ribbed side.

In the morning, I am up before the sun. Jet lag will have its way with me. I shower as quickly and quietly as I can manage, not wanting to wake the family. And I'm outside, where I'm greeted by a serious chill, and by a starless field of black above. I stop at the gas station, and I walk among the short aisles lined with plastic packages of snack foods. In the refrigerator case, I find my plastic bottles of water. At the end of the cashier's counter there is a basket with bananas. Above us circulates a stream of stale music. The selection is like a distress call from a war settled long ago, a code that can't be shut off and will repeat forever.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Travelogue 528 – October 25
The Round in London

The meetings are over. This morning all I have to do is make my way to Heathrow. But I have some time. And I have a light hangover that needs some attention. That's standard after meetings with the Brits.

I close up Graham's place. He is in New York visiting his daughters, and he was kind enough to allow me to stay at his place two nights. It was such a peaceful place to stay. He stays in a flat inside a large house in Holland Park. The place is one room plus a bathroom. It has white walls and white carpet. The bed is covered in white. I move very cautiously, afraid to leave a mark.

White is the theme of the neighborhood. Holland Park is a collection of quiet streets around this mild hill in west London. It's a rich area; the houses are large, and most of them are white. Or maybe that is cream. There are a few painted in a pastel Haight-Ashbury theme, but most remain white. They stand mute, stoically secure in their neo-classical lines, as though each were stamped in plaster. I feel as though I must whisper here.

I take my hangover to Portobello Road, which is only a ten-minute walk from the house. Those San Francisco colors must have bled through from here. It's a road famous for its street market, which is setting up as I arrive, vendors of hats and vegetables leisurely arranging their tables. There's one table I'm fond of, selling vintage sports equipment, old boxing gloves, old soccer balls, old rugby balls, all looking as though cut from the same cow seventy-five years ago.

The shop fronts along Portobello Road are small and functional. They are many per block, and they run side by side for miles, a few chain names, but most small locals: antiques and Oxfam, coffee and clothes. Walk a few more feet and see another. Small's the theme. Graham has recommended the Coffee Plant, where I take the hangover for treatment this morning. The coffee is very good. So is the croissant, very light and flaky. The clientele has the same consistency. It's a true neighborhood place, where one learns to despise human nature all over again. The place is cramped and the people are too comfortable. They crowd and they shout, and my head rings. Children are screeching from their strollers.

The evening before, I am across town in the Borough with the boys. This is where Pete's office is, among the maze of single-story brick and raised railway tracks of the Borough. We have devoted most of the afternoon to our proceedings, and the boys have been very patient. So now I must pay the piper.

Tonight's pub is another small London space, two rooms not much bigger than the Coffee Plant, the Charles Dickens on Union Street. The bar makes a square in the corner of the first room. There are tables below the window. There is a black supporting pillar in the center of the room. It has a circular shelf fitted to it, where a lively group stands and tells stories to each other.

There is a table in the other corner in back, near the archway into the second room, and that is where we sit, below the TV screen, where Tottenham is struggling with a Moldovan team for advancement in the Europa League. Jonathan orders the ale that advertises American hops. He and I are the Americans on the UK board. Pete is game for the American hops. Thomas orders some very tall lager. 'Cheers.' There are a few more rounds. Tottenham wins, and the boys feel as though they have won, too. We are proud of ourselves, the meetings leading to genuine progress, an elusive quality in most strategic discussion. We happy few have missed each other, and we have a store of laughs to catch up on.

And so it goes. Merry times dissolve into night. It's morning and I walk delicately down Portobello Road, passing all the cute places, on my way to the Tube Station. I'll spend an hour on the metro, an hour on the plane, and an hour on the buses in Rotterdam. The town will seem small after London. I'll arrive home in time for a restorative dinner. My wife and I will spend a quiet night at home.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Travelogue 527 – October 24
The Astral

I've managed to lose my way, and in short order. It's only been twenty minutes or so since I took my leave of Mark on the south bank of the river, just under the Westminster Bridge. I've crossed the Thames, weaving among tourists, stopping to allow for a dozen photos, swinging well around the father snapping children, or the children snapping father.

I've stopped once or twice for my own moments with the bridge's prospect of London on a sunny and blustery fall day. The river sparkles below. South is the Eye, north is the gilded tower of Ben and the yellow cloisters of Parliament,

I've stopped at the Abbey, so much more modest than the Dom of Köln, but so inviting, and I've assessed the damage of the price of a ticket inside to pay my respects to Mr. Shakespeare. At eighteen pounds sterling, the damage is enough to dissuade me and send me back into the streets of Westminster.

I've returned to London to wrap up some strategy sessions with the board. The American organization has been all-consuming for the last few years. I've neglected our British colleagues, so my summer project this year has been to catch up with affairs on the island, meet with the UK organization, evaluate and update its role. We've had a few conferences with the American Fulbright scholars, who volunteered to sit in on strategic reviews. During this trip, the full board meets to wrap up the strategy work and set the agenda for 2014.

I have the morning free. I've met with Mark, who I saw only a few weeks ago in Ethiopia. He's back in England a few weeks to make some dosh. Today he's down to three pounds, and he's still waiting for work. I buy him a beverage, and we contemplate our view of the Thames, and we contemplate our view of gentle Time flowing by. Little Yig is thirteen now, and not so little. 'I knew that runt when he was four,' I say. A brisk breeze makes the fall leaves scuttle along the pavement, under the feet of the tourists.

Beyond the Abbey, I'm improvising. I know this part of city in broad strokes only. I'm passing into a district of Greats, Great Peter and Great Smith. I've passed the Home Office, a humble box dressed in colored panes of glass among buildings much older and more fun, Victorian beauties in red stone, curving beside the curving streets, red double-decker buses swinging by, looking like they should tip.

I'd like to make my way to Green Park, and I know it's north, but I've forgotten that the river twists toward the south here, and I'm delving deeper into old Westminster. I'm a few minutes from the highest offices of the land, and the neighborhoods are becoming quiet and quaint. I finally catch sight of the tower of Victoria Cathedral, and I correct course, arriving in due course at Horseferry Road, a harried avenue that careens through the district at a cocksure angle. Carefully I cross. I see a small dive called the Astral. It looks like a right greasy den. I'm hungry.

Inside, there's barely room to stand as you order. There is bustle; there are the heavy aromas of meat and sauces. People are lined up to the door. There are three cooks manning the kitchen, which takes up most of the space in the first room, and one woman with ample hips running among the tables and shouting . There are tables in a dark room in the back, but those are occupied, mostly by road workers.

I sit at a counter in front, looking out the window at an alleyway, where the occasional taxi parks while the driver comes in for a coffee. I order a full English. The ham is dry; the potatoes served in compact patties, but nonetheless the breakfast hits the spot. And I'm paying less than five pounds. A couple blokes cram in at the counter next to me, speaking in the broadest of working class London accents. And I'm happy. This close to the grandest London, the humblest, and I'm savoring my runny eggs.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Travelogue 526 – October 13
A Round in Köln

Köln is the fourth largest city in Germany. It's less than seventy years since the city was bombed to the edge of extinction – I'm reading that the bombing 'reduced' the population by 95%'. Reduced!

But Köln was always a major spot on the map, since its founding by a mass of humorless Romans in the middle of the century that saw Jesus walk the earth. It was given the pithy name Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium. It became capital of this bit of frontier, and the proud city never looked back.

For the Romans, the Rhine was the line in the sand, beyond which lived scary people with painted faces and strange fashions. After the dust had cleared on that half-millennium tug of war, the Germans firmly in charge of the fifth-century European Union, the Rhine began its life as an artery of trade. The Colonia, or Köln, became queen of this little stretch of river, jewel of the Rhineland.

Proud Kölners were the force behind one of the messiest battles of the Middle Ages, that of Worringen in 1288, in which the citizens of the city threw in with one side in a messy dynastic squabble, one in which they would normally have no interest, because it so happened that John of Brabant was fighting against the Archbishop of Köln. The archbishop was lord of those parts, and the city wanted independence. The rule of the archbishop dates back to the reign of great Otto I, who appointed his brother as archbishop and then created the Electorate of Cologne in the tenth century, as part of an ongoing effort to undermine the power of the landed aristocracy.

A few thousand left dead on the fields outside Worringen, the city of Köln was granted its independence. It was a free city, and would be until Napoleon came along.

And then the (American) planes came ...

In any case, Köln is back in the game, modern and crowded. My impression, strolling among the busy streets radiating out from the Dom and orienting themselves by the mighty Rhine, among the streets of shopping and the streets of business, buildings rising stolidly and with precious little reference to Romans or archbishops, Otto or Adolph, my impression is of Chicago. I've made the mistake of booking a hotel on the far side of the train station. That means at least twice a day pushing our way through the choking hallways of the station, and being pushed. Abandoning National Socialism does not mean the Germans have softened any of their edges.

Lodging beyond the station also means walking the gauntlet of the sleazy, narrow street leading to the hotel, past fast food and gambling and bars. Passers-by give us the big city stare, and we lower our heads to soldier on. The hotel lobby smells of cigarette smoke. The entire hotel, one dim and steep moaning staircase leading up to a few rooms per floor, stinks of cigarettes. A couple regulars sit in the dining room, papered in the colors of a post-apocalyptic sunset. They stare and they smoke.

These two grey men must be the ones who arrive back at the hotel at 1:30am, shouting as they slowly mount the stairs. One night, they are laughing at a story that mysteriously revolves around repeated shouts of 'Filippo!' The laughing dissolves into coughing. They stomp as they walk. Then suddenly they are quiet, as though they vanish. There is only the moon over the jumbled tile roofs of the neighborhood. The corner of one nearly penetrates our window.

Menna gets her first taste of winter in Köln. Her fingertips ache as we negotiate our way across the city center. Her brows contract in real anxiety, as she buries her cheeks into the collar of her new fleece coat. We stroll with Scottie by the river, among chill winds. We find Old Town, and stroll among the jolly high house fronts around the Heumarkt. We discover the Great Saint Martin church, with its dash of nineteenth century Romance in the high square tower, with its own dash of Rome underneath its floor, in piles of old brick that used to be a bath, used to be warehouses. And through it all Menna holds herself tightly inside the fleece, looking at the world through worried eyes.

I have come to Köln, inflicting this weather on Menna, in order to run a race. On Sunday morning, she and I have to throw back the bed covers and welcome the pre-dawn cold. We have to rush out of doors and down Sleazy Street to the station. We have to catch the Metro. This we rehearsed yesterday. This well-oiled German race has a start and finish on opposite sides of the river, and on Sunday morning there are no reliable trains directly across the river. We have to travel by means of two Metro lines, describing a lengthy U south and then back n the other side.

The first train sis at one station overlong. The second train is ten minutes coming. I have to start stripping off layers on the train. Just off the train we encounter the back of the long line of runners, a crowd stretching toward the river and out of sight. Menna jogs with me beside the crowds. Someone with a loudspeaker announces the start, and the crowd stirs, starts jogging in place, but it goes nowhere. It will be a few minutes until the start reaches this far. Menna and I kiss and part. I slip past one of the barriers and into the crowd. I join in the tribal dances, shaking my hands and shifting from foot to foot. This one is for the free city.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Travelogue 525 – October 12
A Clown in Köln

There are four clowns in front of the cathedral in Cologne. They stand on boxes at intervals in front of the facade of the great structure, some thirty meters from the doorway. It's early enough in the day that the plaza is not crowded, and there is an informal, cocky manner to the clowns. I'm judging they are French, as I try to listen in to their comments to each other. They are dressed and painted in white or in silver, hooded like ghosts or wigged like seventeenth-century burghers. When they are in role they wave to tourists, or they bend at the waist and beckon to them in inviting and in comical style.

I watch the people invited, and they seem powerless before the attention. They look away, look down, or they decline the invitation with a shake of the head. The clowning has a chilling effect on the tourists at this hour. Afternoon and evening tourists are a different breed. If nothing else, they have the support of greater crowds around them.

We make movies about scary clowns. We have a word for fear of clowns: coulrophobia. Interestingly, since the ancient Greeks had no clowns, the coiners of terms, who so love Greek, had to borrow from a word for stilt-walkers.

These are no American sad-hobo clowns. These are mischief and mime clowns. Cologne has a reputation as the Karneval town in the Rhineland. These clowns have a pedigree. But face paint is still a mask, and there is a menace to masks, even if the menace is Fun. We mortals feel impotent in the face of rampant Fun, as much as we make of our fun-loving, wild-child personae.

The best satire is ambiguous. The jester cringes before the king even as he mocks. So are the clowns in their seventeenth-century wigs paying tribute to history or mocking it? Are we to be welcomed or jeered at, having come to admire this heritage site? Both.

Cologne's Cathedral, or the Kölner Dom, officially the Hohe Domkirche St. Petrus, is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. It has the second-tallest spires and the largest façade of any church in the world. Construction started in 1248, inspired by the acquisition in 1164 of the relics of the Three Kings, taken from a church in Milan as spoils of war by Frederick Barbarossa. Church leaders knew the relics were going to be a big pilgrim attraction, so the cathedral needed to be suitable, needed to be a monument to the city's greatness.

The foundation stone was laid the Archbishop, one Konrad von Hochstaden, and work continued on for over two hundred years. Why the work was halted I don't know, but the spires were left unfinished, and a massive crane left in place over the south tower as adornment for centuries.

Scottie says he learned on his city tour that Kölners passed along, generation to generation, the superstition that if ever the work on the cathedral were finished, the world would end. So I suppose the crane was a symbol of the city's tender-hearted compassion for mortals around the world.

Eventually the romantic nineteenth century rolled around, with its fetish for the Gothic and with its no-nonsense commitment to engineering, and work was initiated again, tempting fate and apocalypse. In 1880, the work was complete, and everyone held their breath. The sun still rose the next morning, and the next, illuminating two towers 157 meters tall.

In the front plaza, beyond the station of the clowns, there is a replica of the finial that caps each tower, set at ground level for the tourists to gape at, wondering how the laborers, in a horse-and-buggy age, managed to lift this mass of stone 157 meters into the air and plant it like the star on a Christmas tree, one on each height.

The clowns see this every day. They don't look to the heights. They don't show any regard for the works of man, the precision and the wonder thereof. They prefer the quirks of God, the two-legged measures of imprecision, and they mug and they smirk and they call us out. 'You!' they seem to shout, in their silent derision. 'You! You are in Köln. That's right, you are in my city. Kiss the ring. These are my times.'

Monday, October 07, 2013

Travelogue 524 – October 7

I'm back in Holland. Scottie has come to visit. We have a few hours to tour one morning, so Menna lends him her bike, and we cycle around the city center. It's one of those indeterminate mornings that we come to call good weather in Holland, though in reality it's just an absence of rain and some spots of sunshine, temperatures that allow for the shedding of jackets.

We see the river and we see the Swan Bridge. We stop by some of the architectural quirks of the city, the cube houses and the Blaak, and nearby the old leaning cathedral with its seventeenth century statue of Erasmus, consulting his Latin grammar.

Scottie likes the city. There's a mellow pace to it. He likes the pink bike paths, separated from the motorways. I'm reminded how much I like all that, too.

The next day, once Scottie has departed for Germany, I have my first bike accident. Getting banged up on your bike is a sort of rite of passage in Holland. It's morning. I'm coasting down one of those generous pink pathways, and I've built up some speed on the old ten-speed. I'm going to pass a guy on his left. I'm at his shoulder, when suddenly he pulls to the left and into me. It turns out there was a broken bottle on the path, and he's swerving to avoid it. Either way, he pushes me into the kerb before I can brake, and I take a tumble. I take a few scrapes on the knuckles of one hand and the palm of the other. I tear a hole in one of my few remaining whole pairs of pants. I stand up and brush off. The guy doesn't know what to say. He retrieves my water bottle from the middle of the street. There's nothing else to be done. I shrug it off, and set off again.

A few nights later I take my wife out to the movies. We like big screens and big action. Even if it's Imax, we sit in the third row. Even if it's Imax with 3-D. Tonight it's Gravity: the story of a woman who has the spunk to make it home from being untethered in outer space. Those are some large odds that she beats. And somehow the winning of the contest only seems to underscore the odds against us all, rather than the strength of the human spirit. My wife and I have a dumb game, in which I whisper during action movies my promise to protect her, against zombies or gunfights or during the hurtling car chases, during any one of the prolific descriptions of danger that films unfold for us. But in this movie, I don't have the heart. Any one life is like an Alpine wildflower in the shadow of winter, the movie says. We file out of the theater with the somber crowd. There has been no spontaneous applause in the theater when she makes it to safety.

This week my aunt Verna died. She had known it was coming. She had written to all her family to say good-bye. She had made it into her eighties, and by and large seems to have made a happy life from a rough start. There's little better tribute to be paid. I remember her from two stages of my own life, from my teen years, when she seemed to be around often, supporting my mother through hard times. Verna was tough but always with a smile. She could try a teen's soul with her stories and her folksy Colorado accent, but she was cheerful and energetic, and completely authentic.

The second stage of Verna took place years later, when she and my mother had settled next door to each other near the coast of Oregon. I was in my thirties and still a mess, a nephew to shake her head over and embrace. She was ever the same, strong and opinionated and caring. She had a smile for every occasion. She was dear to us all.

One of her sons published a video of hers recently on Facebook, a home video from 1950 or so, clips from a road trip she and her husband took to Alaska. It was so charming and so alien, disjointed and silent and scratched. It might have been Bradbury's Mars, but it was us, us before we were born. There's is only one shot with Verna, thin and sassy, passing out of frame with a laugh. And then she's off screen, and the camera keeps rolling.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Travelogue 523 – September 29
Go Godino!
Ethiopia, Part Three

No one but Tesfahun and I has risen yet. The shadows are contracting as morning advances. I am sharing a comfortable silence with Lake Babogaya. Tesfahun and I have already put in our training.

This vantage at the top of a steep bluff overlooking the lake is where Tesfahun slept last night. The lodge management set up a tent here, carried up a mattress and sheets, and we paid half the price of a normal room for Tesfahu to have the best view of any of us.

At 7am I climb to his eyrie at 7am to rouse him for the morning training. Of course he is up already. Ethiopian athletes never sleep in. Together we climb further up the same hill, and then along one side of the summit, among dewy grasses, out of our compound, and then down the other side, descending to an open, communal space, where the boys play football, and to the dirt road there. We start our run.

There is construction. I'm told this is part of the new road linking Debre Zeit to Addis Ababa. Now it's a deserted stretch of asphalt crossing over a marshy little river. On the other side, the asphalt halts at a crossing with a dirt road. We take a left and head into a wide valley.

The prospect here is vivid evidence of Ethiopia's beauty, particularly right after rainy season. The whole valley glows with an almost neon green, the color of healthy young t'eff. In the distance is a line of mild hills. The fields are dotted sparingly with short acacias. I'm energized by the sight for a long run.

The distance melts away. The occasional bus passes, rocking among the ruts of the dirt road, the driver honking at us and raising a thumb. It passes slowly, raising a cloud of choking dust, and boys are leaning out several windows shouting. Coming the other way is a bajaj, one of the ubiquitous blue three-wheeled buggies that ferry people around the towns of Ethiopia. The back seat is crammed with people. They slow and invite us in laughingly. When they leave, the valley of t'eff is silent again.

We make it to the first line of hills. We climb up and over, and then the road tilts to the right. We gain a new prospect over the valley, from this angle looking across its expanse as it runs toward the east. Before the next line of hills, we pass a small quarry and cement factory, common sights in recent years among the highlands.

The road sets itself in a long incline, and we fearlessly lean into it. The way leads us into the outskirts of a town, a town which will occupy the hilltop ahead. There are fences lining the road, fences made of sticks, and behind them are mud-walled houses. Boys standing in the road yell and laugh. A few start running with us, giggling as they do. They are half our size. One or two carry on when the others drop away. Men we pass yell at the boys, and the boys ignore them. I'm encouraging. 'Gobez,' I say. 'Good job!'

Our audience grows as we enter the town proper. We get steady shouts of approval and mockery. I ask Tesfahun to find out what town this is. He asks someone as we pass. 'Godino.' The men are laughing. 'All right, Godino. Thank you, thank you. Yes! We're happy to be here!' I'm waving and giving thumbs-up to the good citizens of Godino. They're cheering. We make it to the town center, no more than the confluence of three dirt roads and a couple of one-window shops. We've made it to the summit of the long hill, so we turn around. We'll return between the lines of our fans again, sharing our triumph. We'll return through the fields of t'eff. No one will have risen by the time we're back. My rest will be the view over the sleeping lake.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Travelogue 522 – September 28
The Feast
Ethiopia, Part Two

Only Tesfahun and I have risen early. Everyone else is lying in.

The lake doesn't have much to say. It lies in a bland well of peace under the mid-morning sun, reflecting back the cresting light with indifference, turning the light into beauty without the need to herald its magic. I'm glad for the simple and uncelebrated fact of beauty. I'm happy for the silence. It is restful after the unrelenting human chatter of the week previous. And there is an imperiousness and vanity underlying even the most trivial human chatter. Nature doesn't tug on my sleeve.

The trip to Ethiopia is short. I have to pack dozens of meetings into three business days at our new office. We operate out of a compound of our own now, a three-story house overlooking a rocky curve in a narrow dirty road that one reaches by walking through a nearby gas station lot and out the back. The office is roomy. We have space for everyone, for a meeting room, and for a small children's library on the ground floor. We've called the library 'Gebeta', which means something like 'feast', with the implication that we sit together at the table of learning.

Opening day for the Gebeta library is madness. I've been forced to schedule a number of meetings that day, which all pile up in the afternoon, some appointments arriving late, some running over, some uncharacteristically prompt. On top of that, I'm required for a signature at an office of records in nearby Sidist Kilo.

I've written before about the ordeal and the ugliness of government offices in Ethiopia. This one is less horrible than others, more chaotic than cruel, more nonsensical than evil. They detain us for a series of incomprehensible corrections. Melaku is running from one counter to another, then to the typist, and back again. Finally, we are allowed to sign the contract. I run to the waiting taxi.

The teens are at the office. They are not so 'teenie' anymore, as much as they may look the same to me. If anyone has changed, it could be Hiwot, whose plump and doe-eyed countenance has been exchanged for one lean and fierce. She always speaks for the group, her words direct and sharp-edged. She demands, and then she listens. She nods and she stares with unnerving intensity. Then suddenly the smile emerges, all warmth. She is an accomplished negotiator. We are preparing this group to take over the team cafe.

Half a dozen women athletes are there. We are launching a pilot program that places some of them in school library settings to assist and to work with the children. The athletes are so diffident. They stand humbly along one wall of the hallway, quietly and patiently. One always recognizes an athlete, her poise and her health radiating from her. We invite them into the Gebeta library, where we have gathered kids of a variety of ages, from our kindergarten on up, and we watch to see who flinches. The room is roaring with the children's excitement. They intrepidly pick up picture books and gather children around themselves.

The HPL guys are at the office. That's HPL for Horse-Powered Literacy. And HPL is our revision of the Donkey Mobile Library program, the men on horses to replace clumsy carts with the range of a few miles at most. Teachers on horses reach deep into the countryside, where they can share books with children in remote villages among the hills, read aloud to children who have no schools. The men of HPL are few in number yet, an elite corps. They both bear the name Legesse. One is an older man, one younger. The elder Legesse has traveled from southern Ethiopia to be with us. He was the educator of his village before we built a school there, volunteering his house as a place where the little ones could learn the alphabet. The young Legesse is apprentice. He roams the grassy hills west of Chancho, among the small Oromo villages far from the market town, far from schools. He gathers the children under a tree, his horse tethered and standing nearby. He reads to them. He rides home again as the shadows get long.

Now I rest. The shadows are contracting as morning advances. No one but Tesfahun and I has risen yet. Tesfahun and I have put in our training. I am sharing a comfortable silence with the lake. Just the friend one needs sometimes, placid and indifferent.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Travelogue 521 – September 27
She Was Looking at Me
Ethiopia, Part One

Mimi won't sit at the table again until I take care of the frog that was under foot. I push the little guy onto the top of her notebook, and then I lean out the window to let him go in the garden there. He's very cooperative. He doesn't want to scare Mimi. But it's hard for a frog to control first impressions. He's not intimidating; he could fit snugly into one of our coffee cups. And he's not too lively, just hopping once a minute, looking for a quiet place. Mimi screams and jumps from her seat. 'She's looking at me!'

It's night. We're waiting to be served dinner in the restaurant of the Salayish Lodge in Debre Zeit. We're used to their cycles. You order and you wait. It may take an hour for the food to arrive, but it will be tasty. The waiting is calm. It rests in the dim lighting of the room; it takes on the tone of the night sounds, of the birds and the frogs.

Mark lives at the Salayish Lodge. The lodge is a collection of ageing circular mud huts made up in tourist fashion, meaning with large beds, with modern showers and hot water, with sit-down toilets, and with strips of bamboo lining the walls.

The huts are getting old. Mine has acquired a persistent aroma of urine. The bed's mattress has been beaten to the consistency of the wood beneath it. Nature wants to reclaiming the space. The mosquitoes circle with delight when I bed down. Mimi's frog has migrated into my shower basin.

But the charm is the compound, which is lovingly tended, with lush gardens lining the paths, gardens supplying ingredients for those leisurely dinners, including the coffee and the avocados and the guava. The fish is fresh from the lake.

And yes, there is the charm of the lake, Lake Babogaya. The Salayish doesn't front the lake, as the other half dozen or so resorts do. But the lake is just across the dirt road and down a steep hill. That hillside provides access to one of the only public beaches at the lake. Boys gather here every day to strip to their shorts and dive into the water and shout. Local shepherds also drive their animals big and small to the water side for a drink. And here the lodge's little blue rowboat is moored.

Mamush will lead us down to the water, like thirsty animals, and he will hold the boat steady as we board. We will be four guests, a nice balance in a small blue rowboat, with Mamush sitting up front to row. And row he will, steadily and without complaint for several hours as we make the circuit around the lake, looking up into the gardens of the resorts that climb up the steep sides of this crater lake. Mark will bring a picnic lunch. We'll eat avocado sandwiches, and the Ethiopian beer will inspire Mark and I to rock the boat in order to get frog screams from Mimi.

Today is Meskel, and it's also my birthday. The one occasion celebrates the discovery of the true cross, and the other the discovery of a third son in our celebrated family line. Today the commemoration is very mellow, a surrender to African sunshine. But last night, driving home from Menna's family's house, driving back up the hill toward Shiro Meda, the roads are illuminated here and there with the fires of Demera.

Demera takes place on the eve of Meskel, and it's the real holiday, if not in religious significance, then in the making of merry. It seems that the ritual celebrates the Empress Helena's perspicacity in following the smoke of her divining fire to the hiding place of the true cross. We reenact. We spend the day stacking wood into a high conical shape, and we spend the evening tracking the heavy smoke.

It's a new year in Ethiopia. We pass on in the taxi, counting the fires, and watching the shadows play. Today, it's the rowboat. There are no shadows whatsoever and just one fire in the sky, sending smoke off in pursuit of the true voyager.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Travelogue 520 – September 16
So This is Holland

We look at each other, and we say, 'So this is the real Holland.' We are walking toward old Delfshaven, toward our favorite place of an evening, the Ooievaar, which occupies the bottom floor of one of those buildings precariously narrow, leaning on its neighbors in rows that line the brick streets. The face of the building is a unique blend of the designs available to brick workers, each of them being unique, of course, and that being one of their preeminent charms. But the brick face of the Ooievaar has a special flair – eight steps to the high gable, parti-colored brick set in half-moons above each window, and a graceful bell in light red brick outlining all the windows.

But when Menna and I refer to the real Holland, we refer not to the earth, but to the sky. We had different plans, but even as we dressed for the evening, the weather changed. The rain started to fall. We reined in our plans, drawing them geographically closer, so we wouldn't have to get on the bikes. We walk to the Ooievaar, taking our evening rain in light doses.

The next morning, sunshine brightens the curtains of our place as I ready for the day. I note that with some relief. Even as it starts to cool with autumn, I like to hop on the cycle in jeans and short sleeves in the morning, feel the cool air pass over my skin as I gather speed on the bike, like I'm cooling the system after a night of dreams. It's refreshing.

I'm admiring the clouds, always a spectacle in northern Europe, broken across a panoramic sky, a sky spacious enough to allow for the dark and the light, wet clouds and daylight's heroic light, light making it all the way down the long leagues of oceanic sky, to the real waters lying impassively among their channels, the waters rippling only slightly among gentle breezes, reflecting back toward the dramatic sky its palette of morning colors.

This bike path leads away from old Delfshaven, away from the Ooievaar, toward business, toward work, toward the center of Rotterdam,, but not before a mellow mile beside the Schie canal, and then crossing it. My street traverses a narrow island of sorts, created by the Schie running close and parallel to the big Maas for a mile or two before emptying out into the larger river. At one end of the island is the Ooievaar, standing watch over the first small canal cutting from the Schie and creating one side of my island. At the other end, I'm passing over one of those Rotterdamse drawbridges – this one leading into a lock, – and I'm looking back over the little lagoon of sorts created by Schie here, and I'm taking in a long view of the sky. It's my first weather reading of the day, and at just about the moment I judge that I might be in for some precipitation, the drops start coming. I haven't gotten far before the rain begins in earnest. And I'm only in a T-shirt.

This crisis calls for a cool head. I make a dash for the bike path that leads to the park. Beside it is a hill that falls steeply toward a sunken road that will enter the Maas Tunnel and pass underneath the river. I'm not aiming for the tunnel, but for that hill, covered in healthy pines. I toss the bike down and against the trunk of one of the trees. I take shelter, swinging the pack off my back. I'm able, under cover of the pines, to open the backpack in relative dryness and dig around for my jacket, packed deeply therein, underneath my computer and books and snacks. I smartly yank the jacket free and start pushing my arms into the sleeves.

I'm covered. Crisis solved, I pause to reflect on the close call, sighing into the cool and humid air, exhaling a mist into the autumn chill. Never let anyone say that life in Holland lacks adventure. It's there in the clouds, those majestic visions of the Dutch masters, piling high into the firmament, and creating a kind of study of absurdity for the tiny denizens of the cities below, throwing sunshine down on one neighborhood and a torrent down on another, revealing patches of cheery blue in some near distance while the wee humans take shelter where they can, rows of them standing under a bus stop shelter and staring morbidly at their share of the patchwork sky, the one dark cloud that sullenly refuses the sea's invitation to go.

And there's one poor soul trapped under the shadow of a grove of pines, like a hobo shivering in his makeshift home. He waits not for surcease, but only for an allaying of the rain, carefully watching the drops as they hit the wet pavement, measuring them like the rhythm of an atmospheric snare or a high-hat, waiting for his cue, cue to a running solo.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Travelogue 519 – September 12
The Year is 2006

Last night I dreamed about Ethiopia. At least, it was identified as Ethiopia in my dreaming mind. I'm looking up into a spectacular blue sky. I'm marveling at it, thinking that I must enjoy this beauty while I have it, though I can't say now whether the awareness that will pass is the awareness that I am in a dream or the awareness that I am due back in Holland, where, by the way, the unshielded sun has been a rare presence. Clouds and light rain have moved in for a long stay. Menna had has her first test at cycling in the rain, and she has passed with flying colors, as she has every test of expat living. I'm really impressed at her strength and resilience.

The Ethiopia in my dream begins to diverge in odd ways from the real thing. There are sand dunes, and men are riding away on camels. Well, arguably that is a scene one could find in Ethiopia, though it bears little resemblance to my Ethiopia, centered in the rocky and verdant highlands. Then there is a huge bobcat dashing by, chasing an antelope or something. I'm thinking, 'Really?' and the big cat might have heard me, because he stops and turns to look at me. I stand between it and Menna, and make sure she backs into the house that's suddenly behind us. But the cat just seems curious. He might have had the same thought: 'Really? This isn't MY Ethiopia.'

Yesterday was Ethiopian New Year. Menna and I celebrate with Ato Moges, taking him to Getu's house, where we treat him to Ethiopian food. There are a number of relative quantities in that sentence. The Ethiopian food is a qualified version of it, made with European ingredients. And this is Getu's house, but it's also a restaurant. I should explain that Ethiopian restaurants in Rotterdam are informal institutions, meals prepared in the homes of Ethiopians like Getu. Cooking is his 'hobby', Ato Moges says. At the end of the meal, you pay, as an act of courtesy. Ethiopians are masters of the blurred line; that I can testify to in a hundred ways. And this scenario is but one example. Getu is host and waiter and friend. At the end of the meal it becomes clear, if one reads the signals of this culture, that I am expected to stump up for a few rounds of New Year's toasts, and stick around for lots of holiday chatter. But I'm finding my euros and my time too valuable for all that, and I make ready to leave. Menna is annoyed with the lot of us. She repeats, and she is emphatic: she wants nothing to do with the Ethiopian community here. Too may rules, all the time, she says. Too much pressure.

And so the place haunts us, as places will. I find places to be the most potent hauntings. The bobcat and I stare at each other, 'Is this MY Ethiopia?' Moges and Getu sit in their dim Dutch salons, leaning back into the cushions, hands across their ample bellies, and they discuss Haile Selassie. They play a 'did you know' game with Menna, acting the parts of village elders and teachers. They could do this for hours. 'Even his torturers could not look him in the eye. They bowed as they entered, without even knowing they were doing it. That was the power this man had about him.'

The year is now 2006 in Ethiopia, and I enjoy a moment of multiple resonances as I consider it. I think of my own 2006, when it really was MY Ethiopia. I was a few years into the experience, and I was making it my own. A few years into a place is the height of ownership. I find it only slides backward after that. One's knowledge is challenged.

I think of what it means that it's 2006 in Ethiopia. I was there for the Millennium, their millennium. The place enters its new year without me. I herald it from afar, from Europe. I raise a glass in Ato Getu's hired salon, and I propose a toast to the Inkutatash, to the Addis Amat, to the new year, the new time already rolling forward, already spending itself with the fervor of new life, and I only feel the weight of the aged, whose job it is to admit that this isn't mine and this isn't mine. And whose Ethiopia is it, anyway, the bobcat pauses to say aloud, exhibiting the wisdom of an imaginary animal. He has the whiskers and ears of a bobcat, but he has the body of a panther or mountain lion, the tremendous muscle of a creature built to prowl the crushing boulders of high mountains.

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Travelogue 518 – September 7
World Port

And so in Holland, we awake every day to the world of waters, the precise and right-angled channels, large and small, some cutting the fields into fine strips, some making for pretty networks among the towns, offering themselves as roadways, conjuring cute arching bridges, and drawing the lovers out for lingering strolls.

In Rotterdam the royal waters would be the Maas River, majestic swath of water passing through the center of town and emptying into the sea, providing the city with centuries of lucre and its reason for being. 'We are Europe's port.'

There's a fair share of worship that the river merits, and this weekend witnesses the city's ritual adoration, 'Wereldhavendagen', or World Port Days. For four days, the port's business makes way for events and tours. I appreciate the educational angle, not only showcasing the port facilities but taking the good citizens by the hand and explaining to them how the business and the technology work. The Dutch are famous for their mastery of everything water and the technology can be astounding. This is the opportunity to be wowed.

I don't make it out on any tours this year, but I have undertaken several sacred vows to do it all next year. We do make certain to attend the main event, which is Saturday night's river parade. We cycle down to the river early, parking the bikes a mile or so from the action, which will be centered around the Erasmus Bridge. We stroll by the waters, looking like lovers, watching the procession of the final colors of the evening in the sky, and those forming the backdrop for the color of downtown, buildings alight with celebration.

The show begins promptly, and it begins with the circling of two boats shooting sprays of water high into the air, almost as high as some of the buildings fronting the river, while spotlights play among the plumes of water, making them glow. There's a band on a ship that's outfitted with a big plastic dome, complete with stadium stage and lighting. The music is schlocky, the song list determined by reference to rivers and seas, but the voices and the sound are surprisingly strong.

I come from a flying family, air force vets and private pilots, but I was the oddball attracted to ships and the sea. So when the ships start parading by, I'm excited. I'm totally suckered into the mood when they interject bits of the solemn and the grand among the schlocky pop, playing the Star Wars theme and some old classical master dreaming of Napoleon. Some of the ships are rather magnificent, awing with size or sinister capability, military ships bristling with comms and readiness, cranes on the water as tall as buildings, freighters that take nearly the whole width of the river to turn around before their momentum would tear a hole into the high Erasmus Bridge.

More fun are the sailing ships, even though none of them is powering under sail. The parade requires the reliability of engines. The highlight is the three-masted 'Eendracht'. It isn't historical itself, but models itself on history. It harks back to the time of tall ships – perhaps not the era of Holland's height, when Dutch frigates engaged with mighty Brittania – but not an inconsequential time, a time when Dutch ports in Indonesia or the Caribbean might have harbored a ship like this.

After every class of ship has floated by; after the band has drained the pool of water songs, including 'Sitting by the Dock of the Bay', and 'Sailing' by Christopher Cross; after we've seen all the monstrosities of human invention, including a triangular tower made of iron beams meters thick, from which swings a set of iron jaws that can pick up and throw a roomful of river water; after all the nautical pageantry, then come the fireworks. They are shot into the sky from the deck of a barge, rockets and spinning lights and raining lights and balls of lights, lights that change color and lights that make you crane your neck back they go so high. And Menna is happy; this is the first close-up fireworks show she's ever seen. It's not often that I'm disappointed when a parade finishes, or for that matter a fireworks show, so rarely are they worth the crowds and the hours on foot. This time, I could stand for another hour if only there were more.

Next year.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Travelogue 517 – September 4
Still Summer After All
Part Twee

The big canal might be a river. I haven't quite figured out the legal status of this body of water, or of any spot of water in this country, a nation that has made water so complicated and wondrous. I think this might have once been the Schie River, or one of three branches of it dug out of the soggy earth even before the Golden Age. It seems that even the name of nearby Delft might derive from digging, a Dutch preoccupation, digging land from the bogs and from the sea itself. Delfshaven – my neighbofhood, once a separate village, once home to the English Pilgrims – has a crackling, dusty charter on record to dig its own waterway connecting the Schie to the Maas, more than five hundred years ago. This might be the waterway I'm cycling beside right now.

These days, if this is indeed the Schie, then it has been tamed, channeled, and regulated into the manner of a domestic canal, calm, phlegmatic, sardonic as a good Dutch burger. At the point that my road intersects the river-canal, the bridge is one of those wondrous Dutch drawbridges, found all over Rotterdam. The bells go off, the candy-striped arms come down to stop the cars, and the bridge rises on its monstrous hinge, projecting asphalt and the neatly painted lines for lanes into the air, making the mundane beneath our feet into an abstract to study while the boat passes. Below, a long barge motors past, the cabin slipping by at about the height of the waiting pedestrians. The bells sound again and the bridge lowers into place, reuniting with the road with a small, echoing boom.

On the other side, I take a left and start down the bike path on the north side of the canal or river. It's a pleasantly long and uninterrupted bike path, allowing me to cruise alongside the water and watch the gulls and coots, and sometimes the swans, at their daily nonsense, wheeling whimsically above the water, or crying over crusts of bread, or simply turning in the water and preening.

Dutch cities are just the right size. One can embrace a Dutch city. City boundaries are reined in tightly. One can cycle to any edge of Rotterdam within a half hour. Traveling northwest on the Schie, or the Delfshavense Schie, one arrives at the first open fields within fifteen minutes. The once-river Ts into another rather large canal that travels from or toward the town of Delft and from there probably to the sea, along straight-edged channels through Den Haag.

Where the three diversions of the original Schie meet stands the original nucleus of the town of Overschie, now a suburb of Rotterdam. There's a cute little village church there, something remaining from the digging days, standing tall with two small onion domes in the spire, the kind of sight that might have made young Piotr's heart go pitty-pat, homesick prince in a foreign land.

On the other side of the intersecting canal from the steeple, there the fields begin. I have to take a detour to cross this new canal, but I circle back to a path that follows the fields. These fields wheel in a partial arc inside the curve of the new canal, and toward the highway that crosses overhead a kilometer farther on. The grazing sheep don't mind the varieties of human artifice fencing them in. They don't mind my starting and laughing at them. I always think of their cousins in Ethiopia, scrawny and beat, pushed around and whipped by boys with sticks, tossed on top of taxis when necessary, roped down and legs tied together. These guys have little to worry about. I'm the nearest human, and while it can't be nice to be laughed at for their laziness and their plump figures, I am soon pedaling away again.

Past the highway is a long, idyllic stretch beside the river-canal. When I part ways with the Schie, or the remnant of the Schie, or the canal that became a river, I turn west and cruise through wide-open land, the green and always been green of Holland's fields, underneath the big skies of the purely flat.
Now it's the cows I have to laugh at, so perfect the image of cows, brown spots on white and blinking their long lashes. I won't laugh at the horses, grazing and romping inside their little pastures, bordered by what else but stagnant water, water with lily pads, water that feeds lines of wild flowers. The horses are bred for beauty and strength. Athletic high school girls ride them along woodland paths, and they tower above the frivolous passing cyclists.

There's a park of sorts south of Delft, a tract of land preserved from the greedy teeth of livestock and from developers and farmers. Among small shimmering copses and untamed grasses there are gravel paths, and I pedal slowly down one of these until I find a solitary bench facing into the late afternoon sun. I lean the bike against the back of the bench, and I pull out a book. This is where I will sit, with the sun on my face, laboring through a sentence or two before I stop to breath in the late summer and to watch the occasional family on a walk, trailing groups of silly dogs behind them, dogs intent on their sniffing. A few dash up to me for a sniff, but won't stay for a pat on the head. They must be about their business. These walks come with demanding agendas, and they could wish for more sympathy from the humans, who are content with their unattended and random steps, and the noises they make to each other, and the carelessness with their odors and the odors around them.

Careless, I tell them, is my highest aspiration. The dogs don't have time to listen to that. I'll sit by myself among the grasses and the last heat of the day, misunderstood by every passing dog, and I'll practice carelessness until my mobile sounds in its pocket in my backpack, calling me home.

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Travelogue 516 – September 3
Still Summer After All
Part One

When I'm overwhelmed by work, my tonic is work. I unload my trusty Target backpack – this model of backpack has been discontinued, precisely because it is so heavy-duty, so durable; daily, for years, this thing has carried absurd amounts of stuff, and across three continents – I unload the pack, cutting down to the basics, basics that will include a book and one or two of my notebooks, my phone and long sleeves. Long sleeves because it's September now. I'm preoccupied and haven't noticed what the weather is like outside. The computer is most definitely jettisoned. I leave it charging on the desk.

I keep the cycle indoors these days. I forget whether I've reported in this space that Jan's clunker has been stolen. Yes, the grey beast was spirited away one night while Menna and I were inside the Cinerama downtown. I will never be sure how to interpret the act, and the discernment of the thief. Could he really have seen how cool Jan's clunker was, below the bruised exterior? Or was the action as random as all that? I comfort myself at nights thinking that the thief has special sight, and now cherishes the clunker.

My replacement is an old-fashioned ten-speed I found advertised online by a man whose life is crumbling. It's a very large and well-built man who answers opens the door to his apartment block and introduces himself in a strangely meek manner. He says he has been sick, and I examine the bursting pecs skeptically. It's been years since he's been able to work, he says. He's selling everything. I decide I can detect something around his wide and sad eyes, signs of decay, some unhealthy pallor to the skin. Or can I? Either way, I discover it's awkward to buy a sick man's last possessions. He senses that and takes charge. 'Come this way,' and he leads to the building's parking ramp, where storage lockers are located.

The bicycle has a frame for a large man. Standing with the bike, the frame's bar is positioned very snugly, I might say precariously, in the groin. But lifting myself up on the pedals, onto the seat, I'm instantly happy. I grew up on ten-speeds. My dear machine left behind in Minneapolis, sorely missed, is a ten-speed. The sickly owner eagerly digs up a wrench in his car – also for sale – and adjusts the seat. I test it again. It rides so smoothly. For a moment we look at the cycle, leaned against a supporting concrete column, examining it with doubting eyes, and yet knowing the sale is made. We take our leave from the ailing man at the door of his apartment block, and the forlorn look he leaves us with could be loneliness or it could be accusation. We are the fortunate; we are the healthy.

Today, I set aside the extra weight, pulled from the backpack, lining it up on my table beside the charging computer, the trusty work machine that I fondly nickname 'Plague'. The little netbook is very reliable. Too reliable. It delivers all too promptly every day's pile of work and correspondence. I pause for a moment in nostalgia for Ethiopia's inconstant internet and spotty electricity.

Outside, I discover that I have no need for the long sleeves. The sun is providing a summer day's wattage, even as it slides toward the day's last hours. I set out, relishing the smooth turning of the pedals on the sick man's cycle, the lightness of its tread, the healthy ease with which it accelerates. I ride among the brick streets of old Delfshaven, toward the bridge over the canal behind our building.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Travelogue 515 – August 28

And another one is coming. It announces itself with the same sounds as the last, the whir, the rush like wind, and the characteristic clackety-clack of the train. These are the noises of reliability. They come every few minutes, all day long.

The view out Patrick's window is of this, the curving alley of reliability, like a city canyon lined with brick. It's a river of transit, laid with four sets of tracks, and the trains that pass belong to two lines of the Tube system, the District line and the Piccadilly line.

Across the little valley, brick of sun-bleached red rises high, surmounted by ivy, like healthy green carpets flung over the walls to dry, and above the walls, rows of modest row housing in brick turning tawny yellow, surmounted themselves by the chimneys so English, long blocks made of brick and hosting a row of pipes. They look like thin legos.

This is Baron's Court, Hammersmith in West London. The high street is fifty meters to the right, outside Patrick's front door, and it looks like a village, a country stop for the train, the Tube station looking like a quaint and sleepy old station.

Close by the station is the Margravine Cemetery, a sudden peace of grass and statuary. It's been closed for business since 1951, and been designated by the council as a 'Garden of Rest'. It's main utility now seems to be providing a quiet shortcut between neighborhoods. People bow their heads in preoccupation as they stride forward, heading for the Tube Station.

I'm in London only for a day. It will be a day of meetings. The meetings will take place in South London, in the shadow of London's most talked-about new building, called the Shard. I saw it from the plane, casting its shadow over the borough of Southwark, the neighborhood on the south bank of the city, the borough that hosts the Globe and the Tate Modern, Borough Market and the ancient, flint-faced cathedral, one of my favorites. And I shouldn't forget the Golden Hinde, a replica of Drake's ship – very fun.

The Shard, as one might predict from the name, looks like a sharp bit of glass, like a spike, driven from below through the surface of the city, thrusting its acute angles high into the sky. From the plane, one sees just how high, challenging the skyscrapers of the City, the financial district of London just across the river, seeming to stand in particular contrast to the plummy Gherkin there. One nice touch to the Shard's design is the unfinished, skeletal touch at the top, tugging perhaps at our cinematic imagination, our obsession with post-apocalyptic stories, to suggest the end of civilization, even as it stands tall as a testament to our sophistication, perhaps as memento mori.

The several blocks around Pete's office, though, seem to have taken a pass on any of the romance of the district, preferring to keep their heads down, among the modest and the small, the tired brick in low-roofed structures, like warrens built in and around the elevated railway lines that traverse the borough, century-old viaducts, like sooty Victorian walls against the barbarians.

Clickety-clack, the train runs overhead. One looks up from one's reveries, catches a glimpse of the severe, Babel-like silhouette of the Shard before turning the corner. One returns to the dream. It was a dream of sleeping on the District line, exhausted body abandoned to the rhythm of the tracks, passing by one village after another of London.