Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Travelogue 501 – May 29
Another River

I may not have distilled the spirit of old Glasgow, but I've discovered a few notable places. I've discovered another river, the Kelvin, that winds down through the west side. I've taken a few painful jogs in the early morning, up the very steep hill across Sauchiehall from my hotel, along the high road on the top of that ridge, and to the pedestrian walkway over the buzzing corridor of the M8. On the other side, I'm a few blocks from a higher stratum of residences, just south of Woodside Terrace and the Park Circus, and then I'm into the grassy hillsides of Kelvingrove Park.

I've been fortunate with Scottish weather. The sun makes its appearances, wards off the rain. The hillsides and paths of the big park are blessed with spring color. There aren't many people out. The majority of the ones who are seem to be dog lovers. On both of the mornings I run, I encounter proud owners of whining whippets meeting and chatting in a meadow. I'm not sure if this is a Glasgow fetish, but it's funny to watch the nervous little dogs scampering around. On one morning, I'm almost bowled over by a loping wolfhound, his shoulder higher than my waist.

The park road descends toward the narrow Kelvin rushing among its fringes of greenery, the auspicious, twisting Kelvin that lent its name to the exact quantity of absolute zero – via William Thomson, who took the name Lord Kelvin when honored by the crown. Absolute zero curves through the park in an urgent drive to join the Clyde. On top of one steep hillside is a beautiful Gothic Revival structure belonging to the university, its long facade of red sandstone, its towers and arches overlooking the park. On the opposite side of the park is the Kelvingrove Museum, another Victorian sandstone beauty, three floors of spacious galleries inside. They say that the architect jumped from one of the towers to his death when he discovered that the building was put up backward. Not true: the museum was meant to face the park, rather than the street.

One gallery is devoted to the Glasgow boys. a group of influential painters working in the 1880s and 90s. Their subjects were local, their cause realism and naturalism. Their influences were an odd mix of Whistler, Japanese print, and French Realism. They had a fondness for rural scenes, for portraiture, and for gold on the canvas. Two of them, George Henry and E. A. Hornel made a big splash in Germany with their masterpiece, 'Druids Bringing in the Mistletoe' in 1891. A few years later the two spent time in Japan, studying the arts. 'Druids' is a compelling piece, notable for the faces – the artists studied skulls purportedly Druid for the piece, -- for the textures that would became Hornel's signature style, and for the sculpted gold used for the Druids' jewelry.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Travelogue 500 – May 28
Another Hill

This time I'm high above the Clyde. I'm juggling high-level imaginary functions, overlaying maps across the terrain below, and trying to overlay some history, too. This big old rock I'm standing on was the center of its own kingdom once upon a time, a time forgotten by many people, a time that was not negligible in human terms, some seven hundred years. It was a little territory called Strathclyde, among other names, a start-up after the Roman withdrawal, and continuing on until the Scots gathered the momentum to overrun them. By then, this kingdom was among the last holdouts among the old Britons, along with relatives down in Wales. Set the stage after the fall of this rock for Braveheart and Robert the Bruce.

This rock is Dumbarton. It is one of those vestiges of ancient Scottish vulcanism, (some time before Braveheart … or his species,) a plug of cooled lava surviving the volcano itself, which was scraped away by the glaciers of the pre-Braveheart Ice Age. It's a somewhat ludicrous bit of rock rising suddenly from the silt of the river and from the flat lands close the river, a double humped beast with steep, unassailable sides, perfect for a castle. North of the river are some serious Scottish highlands sneering at the little rock from the vantage of a few miles. But the rock stands proud.

For centuries, it stood with its feet in the river, connected to the northern shore only by a narrow strand of marshland. In fact it was surrounded for some 320 degrees out of 360 by two rivers, one the Clyde, and the other, the Leven, which politely swings around the rock's western flank to empty into the Clyde and its estuary. Now the marshes have been filled in, and a straight road leads to a parking lot near the castle gates.

The rock-island has one small sloping meadow at water-level, facing out toward the river, where ships with provisions or troops landed in olden days. Now it forms the entrance to the museum that has been formed of the castle. Castle is a hopeful term. There's no real castle remaining, just the governor's house facing the riverside meadow, the fortifying walls along all the heights, a prison from Napoleonic times, and an arsenal on one summit that was bombed by the Germans, when this area north of Glasgow was busy building ships of war.

So, yes, I've made the monumental journey from one side of Scotland to the other. Glasgow and Edinburgh are less than hour apart by train, but they seem to represent the antipodes of Scottish experience, at least to listen to the Scots. I compare it to the cultural divide between Rotterdam and Amsterdam, though Glasgow – the analogue to Rotterdam in this comparison – is the biggest city in Scotland, rather than Number Two. There exists the same impression of one being the sophisticate and the cosmopolitan, while the other is rougher and more working class, more 'real'.

I admit that Glasgow has presented itself as a riddle to me. Where Edinburgh was immediately navigable, immediately likeable, accessible and attractive, Glasgow has seemed dark and lacking center. I don't know which way to walk on my first day. Though there are wide avenues in every direction, adorned with Victorian beauties in red and white stone, though one senses the Clyde just south as an organizing spirit, one never seems to arrive at any one quintessential spot that is Glasgow. In Edinburgh, one gazes up at the castle, one strolls the Royal Mile from castle down the ancient streets of old Edinburgh, one strolls the streets of New Town, where the social and the shopping life of the city are concentrated. In Glasgow, one takes in the notable architecture, spread evenly throughout the center, one discovers one street, another, one discovers an understated riverside district, and one feels uncertain.. Have I seen this city?

My first night is distinctly grim. It's another of Britain's mysterious bank holidays, and the town is so quiet. The rain falls softly; the skies are grey. Looking up, I can enjoy the beautiful architecture. Looking street-level, the place seems seedy. And no matter how many corners I turn, I never find a variation. I settle for an unadorned little pub where I can watch some Championship, or second level British football and eat what is a surprisingly good burger.

I'm on the highest of the two summits of the rock. The weather is perfect, alternating between high clouds and sun. Visibility is far and clear. The mountains of the highlands are etched against the sky, looking much milder than I imagine they are. I'm picturing history, picturing the centuries passing over the hills like northern clouds.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Travelogue 499 – May 26
The Haul

You know I like the smoky, I tell the bartender. He nods. 'And which was the one you preferred, sir?' That was the Ten Laddies, I say. 'That's the one.' He is a young man. Though he has a baby face, a mop of red hair, round baby-blue eyes, and smooth freckled face, he can't be all that young. He says he's worked at Oscar's for eight years. And I would think it takes a number of years of even the heaviest smoking to get teeth like his. Despite the yellow he has a charming smile, which he flashes readily. And despite the hiphop slacker garb, he has a very polite and personable manner. Oscar's is a personable Scottish bar. Everyone is conversating, as my students in North Minneapolis would have said.

By the way, Oscar's is not the real name of the bar. I owe it to a man I never met to disguise its identity. See, I got a tip from a local that a certain local author likes to hang out at Oscar's, and so I spent an hour or two there on my first evening in Edinburgh. That's when Adam the bartender recommended a few brands of Scottish whisky. I've resolved to taste some of the real product while in Scotland. Among the Islays, Ten Laddies is the best. The smoky aftertaste is marvelous. Good call, Adam.

Tonight, the Ten Laddies is celebration. I have run the race. I have finished it. I have even matched my second best time. It was not easy. It was an achievement of will power more than conditioning, since I've had almost a month off. My body attests to it, surrendering itself to such a variety of aches and pains that I actually groan aloud when I enter Oscar's and see that all stools are occupied.

Oscar's is a tiny place. There is barely room for the grubby bar and a row of stools inside the door. There are a few bland breakaway rooms, but I'm not straying from the bar. The clientele seems to be ageing neighborhood types. The conversating is energetic tonight because of the match on the telly. This afternoon, the Hibs and the Celtics are meeting in the final of the Scottish cup. The Hibs are from Edinburgh, the Celtics from Glasgow. When I walk in, the Hibs are down 0-2.

One of the conversators is talking down the Hibs with wit and with some vehemence. He's keeping the locals laughing, even as he draws their playful scorn and insults.

My celebration is short-lived. I can only stand so long. There are thirty minutes left to the game when I arrive, just enough for the Celtics to score one more goal. There's a general dismissal of the local team among the drinkers, and they return to local topics.

I'll need some food. I'll need a chair. I knew I was in for some pain by the second mile. I could sense that I had the power for the race, but not the depth to do it gracefully. Muscles were tired. The old injury settled inside my foot, though with a dull rather than shooting pain. And the effort was all effort, little flow. That said, once I found the resolve to finish, I locked in and enjoyed. The sky was cloudless. The course led us under Arthur's Seat, and after Mile Four, we were running alongside the Firth, running into the warm sun. The sun was too hot for locals, and I listened to some complaints after the race, but it felt great to me. Until Mile Eight, I even entertained hopes of breaking my record. My pace was solidly ahead of record pace. After Mile Eight, I realized how sorely I needed that last month's training, how sorely I needed the flow and the grace. Rugged effort wasn't going to be enough. I finish.

Being solo on these race trips, I realize how some of the hardest work is post-race, when one must make one's way back to the hotel without a ride, without assistance or company. But in Edinburgh, they want to push the endurance test to its limit. There is a twenty-minute walk from the finishing area to the shuttles back into the city, and a good portion of the walk is uphill. Once back in town, I have another fifteen minute walk to the hotel. By that time, I am moving like the tin man after a month of rain. After a hot shower and some stretching, I'm ready for the evening.

'Next year,' I say as I wave good-bye to Adam. He winks and flashes a smile. 'Next year.' Go Hibs!

Friday, May 24, 2013

Travelogue 498 – May 24
The Hill

It's 7am, and I'm taking crazy risks. I can not be held responsible for my behavior at that hour. Don't tell me that I have no right to call an hour early when the sun has been up for hours already. Yes, that is indeed the case. This is the farthest north I've ever been on this silly planet, while silly Europe quickly closes in on summer solstice. It occurs to me I haven't seen the night in a long time, maybe weeks, retiring early, never rising early enough. I haven't seen the stars; I haven't seen moonlight. Strange.

Maybe it's the lack of quicksilver moonlight that has unsettled my mind. I rise at 7am, and I start putting on running gear. A part of me is anticipating some common sense, but it never comes. I leave the hotel in my running gear. I'm setting one hesitant foot in front of the other. I'm running. I pass down my block of Georgian facades, eventually circling around to the back of the hill, climbing its brick roads, its paths, climbing above the city until madness passes for an instant, and I stop at the hilltop, having suddenly achieved a perspective of the northern side of the city and of the estuary.

This is Calton Hill. It's always been here in the middle of town, in the middle of history, but its evident history traces back a few centuries only, and a quirky history it is here on Calton Hill.

I've traveled to the site of my race, unsure whether I'll run it. The foot is still pierced by a needle of pain, though the fiery heat of it may have diminished. Some days the pain fades to nearly nothing. I have had successful trial runs in recent weeks, and some that aren't so successful. I retreat from running to the cycle for days at a time. The night before my flight, I'm debating whether I board or not.

Some 200-250 years ago, the summit of Calton Hill became the playground of a generation or two of inspired city leaders who embraced the ideals of the Enlightenment and made them their own, imbuing them with qualities distinctly Scottish, pragmatic and utilitarian. Engineering, philosophy, high science, and architecture flourish. So does poetry. As the Scottish Enlightenment stretches in span well past the end of the eighteenth century, it should be said it acquires a rosy Romantic glow. Burns and Scott are set beside Hume and Smith and Watt as local Enlightenment figures, and during the monument fever that overtakes this generation and that sweeps over the summit of Calton Hill, these two Scottish authors inspire some of the grandest of the memorials.

The primary architect of the time is William Henry Playfair, himself the nephew of a prominent Enlightenment personality, the mathematician John Playfair. William Henry is fond of Greek motifs, as befits any artist with Enlightenment credentials. The Calton Hill monument to Burns is inspired by the Athenian monument of Lysicrates, circular temple of nine columns, tripod on top, etc.

My favorite is the incomplete national monument, which was designed to be an exact replica of the Parthenon, meant to commemorate soldiers lost in the Napoleonic wars. It is incomplete because they simply ran out of funding. Since then, it's been derided by some as 'Scotland's Disgrace', though I don't see that it lacks grace. In its unfinished state, grass gathering around its base, the stone colouring and weathering with time, the monument carries forward from its day to ours dignity and philosophy. It's a kind of riddle, perhaps only asking, 'What were they thinking,' but perhaps also, 'Why do we put stone upon stone?'

I've arrived at the top of Calton Hill, and without significant injury. I look out over the Firth of Forth on a sunny morning, and I ask myself, 'Why not?' I think I'll do the race.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Travelogue 497 – May 13
The Hump
Part Four

So our new bicycle has been impounded. I have unwisely challenged authority – parking in a pedestrian zone near the station – and so I've lost the bike.

This is Holland. When the cycle goes missing, I don't even think about theft. That's a novel sensation. It's so much more likely to be gentle authority. Anxiety is further blunted by the certainty that I'll be able to track it down via internet in a day or two. Indeed, within two days my bike pops up on the city website. 'There he is!' the beat-up Union standing in profile against a grey wall for his mug shot.

Even being stranded without a bike is the smallest inconvenience. A few blocks away, I catch the tram home. I probably make it home quicker. And I still have Jan's old creaker parked at home. That will be my transport for a few days.

I find the impound lot on the old internet map. It's walking distance, thankfully, up the local canal to the Spaanse polder, an unattractive little district, raised from the marches in order to serve as ugly repository for warehouses and shipping offices and city impound lots.

I welcome the chance to walk. In a city so transport-friendly, I rarely get opportunities to walk for any distance. I'm looking for chances to rehabilitate the afflicted foot. As certain as I am that the new king of Holland would not hesitate to run the quickly approaching half marathon – on one leg if he had to – my resolve has been severely tested. Every attempt to train has been occasion for more pain and for self-doubt.

I don the running shoes, and I set out. It's only a couple miles, maybe twenty minutes along the canal and then down the innocuous streets of the Spaanse Polder. It's one of those nondescript days, clouds high and temperatures just chilly enough to wear long sleeves. It might rain, but probably won't. Instead the skies indulge in the occasional harmless mist.

The foot is feeling fine. I'm encouraged. Though ... what are these other aches and pains? After months of steady training, the body has become used to it. Dropping the routine so suddenly throws the system off. Now just walking a few miles will trigger all sorts of knots and kinks. Age doesn't respond well to stops and starts, even as it necessitates them.

So again, I am forced to face the thing that can't be faced, a fate worse than having a bicycle impounded, a fate worse than cold rain while you're cycling into town. I would have to say it's worse than spending the day in Spaanse Polder. The thing worse than Spaanse Polder is a decision: must I, on my own initiative, cancel the race I've been anticipating for half a year, a kind of concession to age? I'm not ready.

The impound office is every bit as dreary as might be expected, as the neighborhood would suggest. But the staff greets me with a good cheer that admits none of it. There's no hint of the surliness or defensiveness that one would brace oneself for in America or Ethiopia. This is Holland, where consequence is a neutral and impersonal. Beneficial! Where would society be if we all parked on the pavements? What is democracy but a collection of fallible cyclists who make their mistakes and pay their fines? Life is wonderful. Do you have your claim number? Yes, I do, collected from the website when I found the mug shot of my poor machine. Good! I pay my fine, and I'm cycling home through a new rain in ten minutes.

Pedaling into the wind and the rain, I ask myself, will I make it through this awkward middle phase to my trip? And what will survive to the end of it?

Home again, and drying off. I stretch – an act of futility. I pick up one abandoned running shoe from the floor. Alas, poor Saucony. Etc. This is killing me.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Travelogue 496 – May 12
The Hump
Part Three

The weather has turned, and emphatically so, as though in northern European renunciation of the soul-abasing luxury of excessive heat and light. The winds have picked up, and they blow the clouds forward in waves, relentless fleets to storm the beaches. The sun beams through the breaks in the rolling banks of grey conquest, teasing the soul so recently celebrating the graciousness of spring.

Cycling across town and over the Swan Bridge is a test of the will. The winds are capricious and strong. One might find oneself pedaling only to stay upright. I have an appointment at Stadion Feyenoord. It seems that the Secretary General of the Ethiopian Athletics Federation is in town. I'm to tour the stadium with his delegation, who are conducting research in preparation for final opening of a new stadium in Bahir Dar.

Kismet follows me with such steady devotion that I wonder if it is actually just the order of things. Was there ever such a thing as strange coincidence? Or does this simply describe everyone's life? We marvel over the crossing lines of chance, the events that defy odds and explanation, and maybe we separate them out. These things don't happen, we say. But they do, and maybe they happen with the same bizarre regularity for everyone, but we agree to share in head-shaking wonder.

I spot my crew right away. For me, there is almost no mistaking an Ethiopian. That may sound like a weak claim, identifying Ethiopians in white Holland. But Holland is not so white as it once was. And even among African races, I find the Ethiopian distinctive. Furthermore, I can spot an Ethiopian official with chilling accuracy. There is a look to them. I'm in a mood to be charitable, so I'll refrain from detail.

In this context, the officials are friendly enough, They are on a sweet little tour, Holland and then Vienna. The pretext is research. They have a newborn stadium project in their tender care; they want to nurture it properly. The architects are Slovak, and therefore the trip to Vienna. The trip to the Netherlands is a sort of sampling of facilities in rich and football-mad Holland. I find out quickly that there is no plan at all guiding the Feyenoord stop. Why I should have thought differently escapes me. Their guide is Mulugeta from Amsterdam. He buys tickets for the tour, and away we go.

Feyenoord is Rotterdam's biggest team. It is routinely one of the top clubs in the Eredivisie league, and it enjoys a wholesome, long and bittersweet rivalry with Ajax, Amsterdam's team, the way that the Dutch cities #1 and 2 have for many years. I think that Рin the way of most #1s Рmany Amsterdammers would act very blas̩ about the rivalry. But not the Rotterdammers, stout city patriots. Their sentiments seems summed up best by an old saying that Rotterdam makes the money while Amsterdam spends it.

The name of the football club comes from a district of Rotterdam, properly spelled Feijenoord, that lies just across the river from the east side of the city centrum. In building the 'new' stadium (circa 1937) the team abandoned its old neighborhood but kept the name. The team still lives on the south side, but due south and about a mile from the river.

If one doesn't (a) get tingly standing next to the pitch of a legendary club, or (b) find some pleasure in a tradition of sports architecture and art, then a Feyenoord tour probably wouldn't be his cup of tea. But I will say there are some nice touches in the stadium: mid-century stained glass depictions of the towns round Rotterdam, funny artsy-cartoonish murals of football in action along the walls of the stadium bar (from 1961, if I understand my Dutch properly,) and odd 30s bits of sculpture here and there, kind of consciously clumsy in a vaguely Cubist way.

I have done my duty. I've met my high official from the national athletics federation. And I've had some fun in football reveries. I cycle back home through the spectacularly deteriorating weather, against prodigious blasts of wind – and I have learned living here that wind is really the defining meteorological phenomenon of Holland – and into the pinpricks of rain, pushing Jan's poor old nag of a bike to its limits, and I reflect that the cosmic WED, the hump, the unanswerable koan of this trip stretches on into mid-May.

Yesterday, one day after picking up a second cycle, in anticipation of Menna's arrival in June, I visit a busy coffeehouse in the vicinity of the central train station. I like this cafe for writing; it is – dare I say it – clean and well-lit. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer some of the best people watching. Travelers from all over Europe stop here between legs of their journey.

The station is a black-hole for bicycles; I should have known better. Train stations in Europe are generally centers of city movement and commerce. The bikes pile up around the station like apocalyptic detritus. There is no way that any Germanic people with self-respect would allow this mess to happen.

There will be boxes, defined by well-preserved white paint, within in one must park one's fiets (bike). The consequences will be … not severe, but certain – carried out with firm kindness, or kind discipline. I leave my bike carelessly, randomly, locked up by a pillar of the business highrise housing my cafe. I can almost see it from my window seat.

When I emerge, my new (used) bicycle – symbol of our future in gentle Europe – is gone.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

Travelogue 495 – May 5
The Hump
Part Two

The day comes, the perfect day for sitting outdoors at a cafe table for an hour in the late morning sun. I can't let an hour go without work, so I break out the computer. The spring air does wonders for my sight. I see right through these planning documents. I draw magical organizational charts. My memos are sparkling with insight. I have Ethiopia figured out at last and filed away in my hard drive.

When I should pack up to go, when the sun is becoming strong, when I feel my fleeting brilliance beginning to wane, I pause some moments longer, unable to let the morning go.

I'm sitting at table in Pannekoek Square on the east side of downtown, not far from the channel of the river that gives the town its name. It's a busy little square, surrounded by tiny streets and tiny shops. Judging by the clientele, I am somewhere near a hub of Rotte hipsterdom. The barista today is scruffy and sincere, a devotee of the blues. He swings his head in emotion to the beat of his cafe playlist. Behind the order counter are a few milk crates full of real vinyl.

Abstractly I watch the movement around the square. I contemplate my race, my injury, my bicycle. My bicycle is Jan's bicycle in actual fact, and a true and loyal clunker it is, grey and creaking and crooked. The brakes are squishy. Something rubs against the front wheel intermittently, and I can't figure out what it is. The seat is the popular European wide-body model, which chafes and restricts blood flow to some sensitive destinations. It's hard to get any speed going.

The injury to my foot has stopped me for a few days. But hope springs eternal. I have found myself unequal to the grown-up resolve that resigns to the interdict of Nature. The date of the race rushes forward to meet me, heedless of bruising circumstance. In my desperation, I turn to the resort of every true amateur: cross training. Only a few days after the killer run, I repeat the course, this time on Jan's bike. It is properly brutal. My foot aches, and I fight an unrelenting headwind the entire way out. I refuse to let up, pushing all the way out to the little wooden bridge that arches over the final canal before I stop by the stadium on the outskirts of Delft.

On the way back, I am able to ride with the wind, relax a bit, take a look around, enjoy again the felt tabletop terrain of old Holland, the delicate grid of small canals among the fields, the occasional group of horses, cows, or sheep, looking surreally robust after my years among their Ethiopian counterparts.

What have my cycle rides accomplished? This thorny philosophical question I turn over and over at my table in the sunshine. Where would I be if – wonderful meditations for spring days.

I do think about the new king. I ask myself, what would he do? Jan has thrown me with his acquaintance with the king, with his opinions about his character. But I must conclude, just because he is a king, that he would err on the side of noble persistence, of the college try, of the holding up the flag, and such concepts. I am briefly inspired. I think, at the end of the day, he must approve of this timely sunshine. These are my signs. What do they mean?

I have to report that I found no answer. And tomorrow, I will ride again, not out of considered strategy but from very human impulse and need to move once has gotten used to moving. We are profound creatures when all is said and done.

And so I must say adieu – or 'tot ziens' – to Pannekoekstraat. I must bus my coffee cup, and I must return to my life of diligence and effort. This is what King Willem-Alexander would do, in lieu of anything more concrete, that is. Back to the wars! Lo, trusty steed! Let us to the fight! And please desist that annoying squeak! It's just unseemly.

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Travelogue 494 – May 4
The Hump
Part One

I couldn't ask for fresher spring morning to be out and about. I'm cycling back from an early coffee break in town, coasting along on Jan's creaking old bike under bright blue skies, facing into a fresh breeze with only a hint of the old April chill to it. The city is peaceful this early on a Saturday; the roads and the bike paths (the fietsenpaden – one of my favorite Dutch words) are clear and quiet.

The camels are certainly content. One is rolling friskily on it side. The others are working their loose jaws on Dutch grass, contemplating their good life in Europe. They occupy a tight little meadow between major thoroughfares very near my apartment, confined within a makeshift corral next to the red tents of the circus. It's funny to me how tiny a space this circus occupies, almost as though this were one of its astounding tricks. Two tents, the camels, a few cows, and their trucks are all squeezed onto the slimmest margin of empty land, a very Dutch sort of sleight of hand. They don't set up in a park, or on a spacious plaza downtown, but here in the outskirts, on a neglected plot left without purpose. The camels don't seem to mind. They have room to roll about, stand, chew on spring grass, chew on philosophy. These are Asian camels, woolly and double-humped.

I suppose the occasion for this circus visit was Koninginnedag, though they are still setting up on the morn of the big day. What, you may ask, is Koninginnedag? That is Queen's Day, a much-beloved annual holiday in Holland, always on April 30. Great timing for celebration, if every year's spring is as sparkling as this one. This year's Koninginnedag happens to the last in Holland for a while. The reason is, Holland is losing a queen. This year, Queen Beatrix, queen for 30+ years, will be resigning in favor of her son, Willem-Alexander. W-A will be Holland's first king since 1890. In a sort of actuarial miracle, the Netherlands has had exactly three monarchs since 1890, all women of extreme ruddy health.

The new king is in his mid-40s. He's precisely the age of my landlord, Jan, with whom I celebrate Koninginnedag, meeting up for beers at the festival in the park in front of his house. Jan is the sort of bourgeois leftie that I enjoy. He lives in a gritty neighborhood, and hangs out in the biker bar, completely content in his unaffected way, his look at stark variance to the scene, something like Apple meets Carnaby Street, good-looking and composed. Oh yeah, he's met the new king before, at parties here and there.

He says about the king that he was always soft. He needed to toughen up. His mother and the queens before her were tough, so he says. I sense there's something more there, but our language gap stops us in our analysis at 'soft' and 'tough'. Jan seems to have run into an unusual number of Dutch celebs, but I guess that's what it's like living in a small country. He has a story about being assaulted late at night some years ago by a soccer star at the height of his international fame and powers just now. I've heard a few stories about this guy since I've been in Rotterdam, a guy I'd always thought of as squeaky clean. I suppose it's a part of the soccer culture to prove yourself the tough in youth.

I'm halfway through this trip away from Ethiopia. It gets lonely. One wonders what one's mission is. One of my missions was to be training for my next half marathon, coming up at the end of this month. But Fate had its own plan, Fate and my own excess of zeal, my hubris. The new king, I'm sure would concur: one must know one's limits. Hubris in amateur running is over-training.

My chastisement comes on the day of my longest run to date, a week ago or so, right at the furthest point from home. The thunder bolt strikes as I approach the stadium at the southernmost edge of Delft, just as I am about to turn round for home. It strikes in the left foot. It's s subtle strike, though, and I don't take it seriously. It's a pain that has to settle in and pitch its stubbornness against my own. I run most of the way home, though monitoring this new burden, this barbed message from above. And at last, I have to give in and start walking. Running with a limp is no good for any part of the body. I walk the rest of the way, along the canal. The sun is out; I can't complain. But I'm sad. The race that's been so vivid in my thoughts, now looks to have been a fleeting light, like the glints of spring sunshine in the waters of the canal, though even less tangible than that.

Yes, this is the hump week of the trip, in more ways than one. With my limp, and my missions all halfway up, halfway down, with work accumulating like winter snows back at the door again, after weary weeks of tinny Skype meetings with my one and only, this is surely hump week.