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.