Thursday, November 28, 2013

Travelogue 534 – November 28
Loods 24

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Travelogue 533 – November 20
Holding Course

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Travelogue 532 – November 16

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Travelogue 531 – November 10
Dutch Winter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Travelogue 530 – November 6
First Snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Travelogue 529 – November 3
Walking the Dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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