Thursday, April 18, 2013

Travelogue 493 – April 18
Winds and Wins

The book is a slow kill, irresistable in its craft but relentless in the methodical torture of its protagonist. I can't put it down, even as it drags me into dismal thoughts. The author is a master, making you laugh as the man drowns.

It's a beautiful evening, at least it if you're inside the Wester Paviljoen, having a strong Belgian beer and gazing occasionally out the plentiful windows. The sun shines insistently on the intersection outside, the confluence of several gently curving Rotterdam streets that are lined with rare, historical Dutch brick – rare for poor firebombed central Rotterdam, home of Erasmus before Amsterdam was more than a tawdry wannabe port, – the confluence of two streets that just here, as they cross, discover themselves as chic, like teenagers awakening one day to their cool. Once upon a time, the old Wester Paviljoen stood outside the walls, on the dirt road to Schiedam.

The sun is shining, so spring-struck Rotterdammers have flocked to the outdoor seating at this and other cafes, even as gusts through at speeds up to 33 mph. I've already been out trying to run, and it was ridiculous. I sit inside and survey their smiling ranks, sitting at the rows of tables, most of them turned toward the sun and toward the street.

I laugh as the man drowns, but I only speak metaphorically. The man doesn't drown; his downfall takes longer than that. I can laugh because the author is Evelyn Waugh, a master of language both beautiful and amusing. The protagonist is losing his wife to a silly affair, and as the marriage unravels, so do both their lives.

I have to lighten the mood of my reading. I'm in the midst of four books, by authors Waugh, Carey, Larsson, and Coetzee. The tally of disaster is considerable: grieving lover, discredited academic whose daughter is raped, girl murdered by her cousin, man losing his wife and home. It gets to you. How many distressing narratives do we take in on a regular basis?

What does a man have when he's far from home, and far from his wife, other than his entertainments? I enjoy the Wester; I enjoy my books; I enjoy the movie theater. Arriving from Ethiopia, these are the primary pleasures: food, access to books, and movies on the big screen. I'll see whatever is in the Imax theater at the Pathe multiplex downtown. Sadly, the latest was a Bruce Willis vehicle, and I'm reduced to a similar sentiment for his career as I have for Waugh's character. I'm not sure what selection process he goes through with his agent, but it seems to me that process needs some tweaking. From recent evidence, I'm thinking that the only criteria in play are that he gets to hold a gun and that there is something vaguely patriotic or vigilante to the story, and I do think those latter two qualities do blend or fuse for Bruce. I'm not sure. Either way, I'm thinking there is more to the forming of stories than vengeance served, and there could be more to his film career than weapons catalogues.

I won't complain. Bruce won the day for me. I enjoyed my popcorn and the big screen sound and fury. And today, the combination of sunshine and Waugh's magic with language is a wholly satisfying one. It's the simple pleasures that do it, like spring arriving in tired old Europe. Every time it happens, the chairs appear on the pavements, and the patrons are quite happy to fill them.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Travelogue 492 – April 17
Profiles of Great Americans

There's a bar with a TV down the street from where I live. It takes up the bottom floor of a corner building in the pretty Delfshaven neighborhood. The buiding itself is historical, and very Dutch, with stepped gables and a brick facade, alternating in dusty red and white, two little tin witch's hats.. The bartender is familiar with me. He knows I'll ask for Chelsea, and I know he will make a face. Chelsea is not a club he favors. But he changes the channel.

Today they are playing Fulham away. It's Chelsea's day. By the half, they've scored twice. One goal is a wonderful kick by David Luiz from at least thirty meters out, sending the ball sailing into the top left corner, past the outreached arms of the goalkeeper.

No scene like that for Fulham, not with Petr Čech on duty for Chelsea. He is in top form today. Fulham has a corner. The ball curves into the crowd in front of the goal, and for a split second one sees only Čech's arm, thrust forward overhand to punch the ball out of the fray and upfield.

He has a rocking stance before the goal that appears awkward, like the kid who has grown too fast and doesn't know what to do with his limbs. But he is all grace and self-assurance when the ball comes near.

Mr. Čech was born in 1982 in the town of Plzeň, in what was then Communist Czechoslovakia. Plzeň is a pretty town, west of Prague, not far from the German border, one of the largest cities in Bohemia. And, it need hardly be said, it is the origin of Pilsener beer.

Čech started playing football at age seven for Škoda Plzeň. He played as a striker at first, but soon found his niche as goalkeeper. Before joining Chelsea in 2004, he played for FK Chmel Blšany (1999-2001), AC Sparta Prague (2001-2002), Stade Rennes FC in France (2002-2004).

Honors and records: Voted into the all-star team of Euro 2004 after helping the Czech Republic reach the semi-finals. Best Goalkeeper in the 2004–05, 2006–07 and 2007–08 seasons of the UEFA Champions League. Named in the FIFPro and UEFA Champions League teams of the season in 2006.

Čech holds the Premier League record for fewest appearances required to reach 100 clean sheets, at 180 league appearances. He holds a Czech professional league record, no goals in 903 competitive minutes. During the 2004–05 season, Čech went 1,025 minutes without conceding a goal. He won the Golden Glove in both the 2004–05 and 2009–10 seasons. And so far, Čech has kept 139 clean sheets for Chelsea.

Not bad for the boy from Plzeň. When I asked him for comment, after the Fulham game, he modestly answered in his soft and accented voice, 'Perhaps you know already that my surname "Čech" means "Czech" in translation.' I said yes, I did know that, Petr. And he added, 'So that my situation is approximately the same as that of our doctor in Chelsea whose name is Bryan English.' Picture me nodding, yes, yes.

I ask him about his homeland. 'Almost everybody knows the Czech beer, our product number one, we have very attractive models who manage to assert abroad.'

Okay, so I haven't met Petr Čech, and I only know he has a soft and accnted voice because I've caught BBC videos of him commenting on games. And maybe the quotes above are lifted from the diary page on his website.

But I know we will meet one day , and I will buy him a pilsener, and he will tell me more about Czech models. I'll tell him I'm his biggest fan, and by the way, also a product of Czech blood and heritage.

Until then, huzzahs today's for Petr Čech, shining example of Yankee ingenuity and perseverance.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Travelogue 491 – April 16
The Marathoners

The day before the Boston Marathon is the Rotterdam Marathon. I make a point of stopping by the start, watching thr runners go by. I've missed the first of the pack, the elite runners, but I stand there for ten minutes watching hundreds and hundreds of runners go by.

It's strange that I had read somewhere in the past week that the Rotterdam Marathon was the biggest festival or gathering of people for sport in all the Netherlands, and I had registered at that a slight twinge of dread. I wonder if any Dutch readers would have felt apprehension. Or perhaps it's a particularly American reaction, the expectation of terror. I envy the Dutch, if they can go to a festival like this with only anticipation and pride in their hearts.

The Rotterdam Marathon is truly huge. It takes over the center of town. And I see neither the beginning nor the end of the stream of 'competitors'. These are the mellowest of competitors in world sport, marathoners. Their only aspirations are to finish and to have fun among the thousands of their peers, to enjoy the sense of belonging to something big and noisy and fun for a day. Their only rewards for hundreds of hours of training are pain and a medallion. They travel from all over the world for that. And for the party.

It is a party. The noise at the starting line in Rotterdam is terrific. Speakers are blasting music to inspire. Fans are cheering. An announcer is babbling on, narrating and commenting and encouraging. It's about the noise, and about being together.

I'm wondering as I watch why we all love this so much. And I doubt that it goes much deeper than what I've said, the noise and the camaraderie.

I've been chatting up foreign marathoners that I meet in my cafe. The day before the marathon I met two Irishmen, part of a larger group who just ran the Paris Marathon, then jumped on cycles to make the four-day trip to Rotterdam, only to run in the Dutch marathon two days after their arrival. They are raising money for a children's hospital: challenging themselves, challenging others.

I'm in no shape to run a full marathon, and I have my sights set on the Edingurgh Half next month, anyway. But I did sign up for Saturday's 5K on a whim. If I was looking for a grim reality check on the state of my power and speed, I got it. My performance was an embarrassment.

But, of course, if the performance were the whole of it, very few of us would be out there. No, the joy is in being among the crowd, lost among the mass of people like ourselves, under a big morning sky, everyone jumping up and down to keep warm, everyone having a laugh. The gun sounds, and the mob starts churning, moving forward. It's exhilarating. Later, most of us laugh about our performances, rather than boast or even complain about them. It's a pretext, an excuse for having our time, time for a time.

The day of the Rotterdam Marathon is suddenly warm. All week the weather had been constant, a bit chilly, a bit wet – perfect running weather. Then suddenly, it's sunny and muggy. That lasts just one day. This throws the runners from places like Ireland off their game. I encounter a different set of Irushmen in the cafe on the morning after. They smile and shrug. 'No record this time, that's for sure.' They have bags packed, ready for the train to the plane to the coach home, and they'll be ready for work on the morning after that. They did the other way only the day before the race.

After watching the race-day festivities a while, I return home. The morning is building toward a beautiful sunny afternoon. I want to celebrate the occasion, celebrate the runners. I suit up, I put on my running shoes, and I head out for a long one, following the canals north, out to the edges of the city, where I see elderly couples out coasting on their bicycles and smiling, where I see young girls out riding their horses, where I see other runners. Whenever we runners pass one another, we smile and hold up a hand in greeting and salute. Good to see you.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Travelogue 490 – April 4

There's a light snow in Rotterdam this morning. It has been sent by the gods to taunt me, to remind me that I cheated winter by retreating to Ethiopia for one month. I must pay what is due.

My first night in Europe I spend in Frankfurt. Not in the city itself but in the sprawling environs of its huge international airport, proud hub of Lufthansa and the busiest airport in Germany, staying out where hotels dot the anonymous, circling service roads, roads that run round the runways like dogs behind their fences, roads that slice through tame stands of forest.

I see these odd forests from the plane as we land, partitioned very neatly between bare deciduous and dark evergreen, making for a nonsensical patchwork on the rolling hills roundabout. These look like timid forests, kind of anemic and spindly, and while we are still far from the Black Forest, I expect more confidence from the trees, more somber gravitas. Certainly, they have been granted the respect of a fair bit of land so close to the big city and the bigger airport.

I decide I must inspect these spindly specimens of the not-so-Black Forest. Unfortunately, I decide to inspect them first thing in the morning, dressed in running gear that I discover far too late are inappropriate for the first of April in this part of the world. By 'too late' I mean just as soon as the hotel's automatic doors have shut behind me. The doors are glass, and I feel the eye of hotel clerks and idle hotel patrons on my back, issuing sighs of wonder at my bravado. I can't turn back. I launch in, and as soon as I'm beyond the shelter of the building, I discover the even colder wind. I must see this through. My eyes are tearing up; I'm at a virtual stand-still in the wind; skin cells are screaming. But I tell myself I am demonstrating real heroism.

And besides, it's not that bad. The shock fades, and the sluggish blood finds it courses, and I find some comfort creeping out from the heart to the limbs. I pass some more hotels. I pass a warehouse for airline food – this must be where all flavor is leached away. I take a turn and cross over the highway that leads to the city center. And on the other side, I come to my first stand of noble forest. What I discover there is something much more pleasant than what it seems from the air. It's parkland, cut through with silent dirt roads. The trees manage a bit more grace on the ground, despite the indignities of winter. And for the moment, I'm very content, running through this German forest early one cold morning. The chill is a part of the scene, enlivened by the gathering light of day, moving like the breath of the venerable woods. I return to the hotel in triumph, foregoing the quick and humble entry indoors for a round of stretches performed on the pavement outside.

And once I've showered and eaten, once the heroism has been packed away among my more mundane possessions, it's time to begin the journey home to Rotterdam. It will be a half day's ride on two trains. The airport has a station, and I catch the train north from there, passing through Köln – where I get to catch a glimpse of the great cathedral while we pass over the Rhine – and through unpronouceable Mönchengladbach; soon after crossing the frontier near Venlo, where one tricolor gives way to another, and where I start seeing that funny old Dutch language on street and rail station signs.

And now I'm back in R'Dam. I stare out the window forlornly every morning, realizing that spring is rebuffing me. I have not paid winter its dues. I have cheated Minnesota of its March crescendo, and the Fates will not be denied. There was a certain amount of chill I was meant to absorb, and absorb it I will. I dress for the bicycle, and out I go, into the freeze.