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.