Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Travelogue 515 – August 28

And another one is coming. It announces itself with the same sounds as the last, the whir, the rush like wind, and the characteristic clackety-clack of the train. These are the noises of reliability. They come every few minutes, all day long.

The view out Patrick's window is of this, the curving alley of reliability, like a city canyon lined with brick. It's a river of transit, laid with four sets of tracks, and the trains that pass belong to two lines of the Tube system, the District line and the Piccadilly line.

Across the little valley, brick of sun-bleached red rises high, surmounted by ivy, like healthy green carpets flung over the walls to dry, and above the walls, rows of modest row housing in brick turning tawny yellow, surmounted themselves by the chimneys so English, long blocks made of brick and hosting a row of pipes. They look like thin legos.

This is Baron's Court, Hammersmith in West London. The high street is fifty meters to the right, outside Patrick's front door, and it looks like a village, a country stop for the train, the Tube station looking like a quaint and sleepy old station.

Close by the station is the Margravine Cemetery, a sudden peace of grass and statuary. It's been closed for business since 1951, and been designated by the council as a 'Garden of Rest'. It's main utility now seems to be providing a quiet shortcut between neighborhoods. People bow their heads in preoccupation as they stride forward, heading for the Tube Station.

I'm in London only for a day. It will be a day of meetings. The meetings will take place in South London, in the shadow of London's most talked-about new building, called the Shard. I saw it from the plane, casting its shadow over the borough of Southwark, the neighborhood on the south bank of the city, the borough that hosts the Globe and the Tate Modern, Borough Market and the ancient, flint-faced cathedral, one of my favorites. And I shouldn't forget the Golden Hinde, a replica of Drake's ship – very fun.

The Shard, as one might predict from the name, looks like a sharp bit of glass, like a spike, driven from below through the surface of the city, thrusting its acute angles high into the sky. From the plane, one sees just how high, challenging the skyscrapers of the City, the financial district of London just across the river, seeming to stand in particular contrast to the plummy Gherkin there. One nice touch to the Shard's design is the unfinished, skeletal touch at the top, tugging perhaps at our cinematic imagination, our obsession with post-apocalyptic stories, to suggest the end of civilization, even as it stands tall as a testament to our sophistication, perhaps as memento mori.

The several blocks around Pete's office, though, seem to have taken a pass on any of the romance of the district, preferring to keep their heads down, among the modest and the small, the tired brick in low-roofed structures, like warrens built in and around the elevated railway lines that traverse the borough, century-old viaducts, like sooty Victorian walls against the barbarians.

Clickety-clack, the train runs overhead. One looks up from one's reveries, catches a glimpse of the severe, Babel-like silhouette of the Shard before turning the corner. One returns to the dream. It was a dream of sleeping on the District line, exhausted body abandoned to the rhythm of the tracks, passing by one village after another of London.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Travelogue 514 – August 22
Still Waters

There are worse places to spend an hour waiting. This is a wide hall placed at a back corner of Rotterdam's Stadhuis, or City Hall. It's where one must 'register', a distinctly European ritual. One must attest to one's existence. One must have an address. Behind the address must be a real person, the landlord, with identification numbers and documents. Once one has accepted the imprint of the state's identifiers, he or she suddenly has substance, is seen and recognized on the sidewalks and shops of Holland. I say shops because without an address, one has no right to a bank account, and without a bank account, one has a hard time paying bills. One cannot have a social security number, and one cannot work. And so all is wound together in a tight net.

If the kind reader thinks finding an address is an easy solution to non-existence, I gently advise him to think again. The formula for an address is Europe is alchemy. How does one, for example, pay a deposit on a flat should one not have earned the right to a bank account. Et cetera. These are the mundane challenges of people like us, the ghosts of Europe. One must know people. The ghost must join hands with flesh and blood. One must ask for help from the living and the identified. It's a sweet lesson in life.

But one does have the consolation of the quiet hall at the back of the Stadhuis, where one approaches the gatekeepers at the archives of citizenship. The pillars in this hall are granite. The arches and walls are brick, and much of the ceiling is an atrium of tinted and stained glass, arching overhead and admitting light for the filling in of forms. There is a border of terra cotta tiles running the perimeter of the room just above the height of the arches. Each tile articulates some analogy or theme. They also are dotted with glossy little daisies. The one I keep staring at during the wait depicts Cupid squeezing two big hearts, one in each arm.

We are called. We approach the window. We are met by the bland and round face of a functionary, his gaze inside the thick glasses directed away toward nowhere. We present our papers. Fortunately, we have a representative from Menna's school behind us, ready to translate when the paperwork does not meet exacting standards. We were presented only a week ago with forms that needed to be signed by our landlord. Our landlord is on vacation. It's August. Who is left in town to sign forms in August? Our landlord is a nice guy. He arranges to take pictures of the documents, of his signature, of hs own ID. The functionary will pause over these. The school official will step up, and lead with gentle words.

To celebrate the day's triumph – admittedly an abstract sort of victory, the submission of papers – Menna and I cycle into town after dinner. Menna has been making a serious study of the bicycle, and doing very well at it. Only a month or so ago, I was holding her up on the cycle, and running alongside her as she gets a feeling for the launch, for the tricky balance on two wheels. In the next stage, she took a number of spills, banging up her shins. We took pictures of the multiple bruises. She wants to show family. Now she coasts along on her white bicycle with the basket in front, and the town is her own.

At the Wester Paviljoen, we find Ato Moges. Ato Moges is often at the Wester. He has been coming to the Wester since his days as a university student some thirty years ago. We invite our new friend to play some cards and he agrees, though with reservations. He feels a fatherly duty toward Menna, and reminds her that card games are a distraction. She won't be able to do this once school starts. But once we have acknowledged the moral peril, the game unfolds genially. He takes an early leading the score, laughing and teasing us about our poor card skills. We order Ato Moges another biertje.

On the ride home, we remark on the quietness over the water of the canal near home. The Dutch winds have been so calm, the evenings so peaceful. Coasting without pedaling, watching the still water, it feels like I'm not moving at all. And I'm wondering if this still moment isn't an arrival of sorts. I've lived off of the thin gruel of goals for so long, always working toward something, always pedaling, I may have forgotten what it feels like to be somewhere. We just wanted a home.

Its a simple snapshot, isn't it, the water and the city and the night sky, the water so peaceful and the sky so quiet, like the elements are all in acceptance. The water takes the sky. The sky takes the city. This will be a mess for the paper men at the Stadhuis.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Travelogue 513 – August 8
The Seine at Night

Now we're going to walk. We've had dinner, and not just any dinner. It's Menna's golden birthday, and we have dined at a restaurant that served the Obamas in 2009, a restaurant a short walk from the Eiffel Tower in the San Germain district of Paris. We have taken our sweet time at our outdoor table, savoring every bit of the food and the place, and of the red and redolent Brouilly. Regarding the food, I would need Carolyn's commentary. I can barely pronounce the names of it – there was a terrine and a foie gras, I know – but the flavors were magnifique.

The place was humble in its furnishings. One's only clue to its status in the world of restaurants would be the insolence of the waiters – we are giggling and apologetic. The setting is not at all dramatic. The restaurant occupies one corner of a very small square. The square has an odd, sculpted centerpiece that must have once been a fountain. Our table is underneath one arch of the little peristyle that runs around the pretty little piazza. Across the street are buildings not unusual, but beautiful, in the Parisian style, with ironwork balconies, gold and cream stone turned out in layer upon layer of neo-Classical ornamentation, and up high the green Mansard roofs.

We have shared a bottle of the Brouilly, and have entered the silly part of the evening. Menna is making videos of our crumbs, of the wine glasses, and of me paying the bill, with grim determination on my face. The sun has begun to set.

Now we're going to walk. Our days in Paris are long walks. Our hotel is within sight of the Moulin Rouge. Once we get going in the morning, we walk across the boulevard and up the hill, looking for good pastries. We like climbing the heights. The up keeps going up past the Moulin Rouge, well past the beautiful cafes and the beautiful people along the Rue des Abbesses, until we see the moulin that presumably inspired the satire of the Rouge, the Moulin de la Galette, site of one of my favorite Renoirs, which we see in the Musee d'Orsay. And still there is some up, until one reaches the steep white dome of Sacre Coeur, calmly overlooking its stunning prospect of the city. Menna tests the panorama function on her new camera.

We've climbed the Eiffel Tower, at least to the second floor, climbing the stairs inside one of its legs, following the crowds in single file, sweating and wishing we had gotten here early enough to find a sane line waiting for the elevators. We settle for the stairs line, which is only 45 minutes. The view from the second level is amazing. We walk around to each corner. Menna has the camera pasted to her face. We wonder what the view from the top could be like. Would we see Rotterdam?

We will climb to the Pantheon, on a day that could be the hottest of all. We'll have to stop in a series of cafes to regroup, to wipe the sweat from our brows and rehydrate. We will have set out from the left bank of the Seine, reluctant to leave the grand Musee d'Orsay, pausing to admire Notre Dame again, and then heading south. Even as the afternoon wanes, the heat will not relent. The Pantheon stands silently on its hilltop, surrounded in its circle of broad streets by solemn university halls, scarred by scaffolding but maintaining its dignity despite the rude restoration, and despite the dearth of tourists in this exhausting heat.

But tonight, the heat has abated. Tonight it's the valley we follow, the ease of the river banks. The City of Light has been ignited. Across the Seine, some building is awash in twinkling lights, and we stand at the wall above the bank mystified. Maybe it's the wine, but the lights seem somehow impossible. What is that? We turn back to our promenade, swaying and laughing and stopping to overlook the river and its doings. People are gathering along the banks, sitting by the water with bottles of wine, having picnics, making little parties. We make it to the Pont Alexandre III, turn-of-the-century beaux-arts beauty, and Menna pauses to have a heart-to-heart with one of the enormous cherubs there, whose smiling mouth is a little agape, as though he is absorbed in Menna's confidences. She tells him to remember her, and he nods in that way that statues have. His blank eyes glint in a sly way. You'll be back, he's saying without words. We'll talk again.

We stop in the middle of the span, dazzled again by the sight of the Eiffel Tower. It has begin to sparkle with a light show of its own. I hadn't known there were lights that powerful. It twinkles with Christmas-like cheer and color. And it stops. We look at each other in wonder. We ask the cherub at the other end of the bridge, 'Does that happen every night?' This little angel is going to keep his counsel.

By the time we reach the Grand Palais, my stomach is roiling. Tonight's rich cuisine has triggered some sympathetic residue of Addis Ababa in my gut. I sit in the shadow of the great edifice, built to celebrate Paris's grandeur at the end of a dramatic century, a century that had begun under the reign of the first Napoleon; a fortuitous moment before France is forced to leave behind the concept of grandeur forever, before being forced to steer between the treacherous pillars of fascism and existentialism. The cherubs still frolic.

I sit in the shadow of empire, on a cold step leading into the palais, leaning over the pain in my stomach. I sit in the shadow of Paris in heat, wrestling with the chilling legacies of travel. In time, the tremors in my gut relent, and the night becomes quiet again. We rest; we wait. We look into the stars above the sand castles.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Travelogue 512 – August 7
The Case for Hands
Part Three

' … and after all, you're my wonderwall.'

What is a wonderwall, I wonder yet again. Our pub singer pitches it out to us with such confidence, because someone else wrote it, and because the song is an anthem. There are a couple of Americans sitting at a table underneath the stage, and they're singing along as they raise their beers. Their smiles say, 'I'm in Antwerp, and I'm singing Wonderwall.' Maybe it's relief. Maybe it is wonder. The American singer is relieved to have a few fans for the night. 'Thank you, everyone!' He waves his right hand, as though to a stadium crowd, his left hand preserving a chord on the guitar.

'I've been proud,' Chuchu says. He is telling of his first year in Belgium. He has taken a certification course with some major computer company. A recruiter comes around, looking to fill a job that many in the class feel beneath their skills. Chuchu and another student decide to apply, a bird in the hand and all. The white student gets the job, and Chuchu doesn't. His instructor explains why. 'This job is for a field technician. You're going to people's homes.' Yes? 'Well, if they don't let you in, the company loses money.' Ah, I see. Chuchu throws it over, gets a job in a restaurant. 'I've been proud,' he laments.

Pride and some steady hands build many things. In the sixteenth century, the proud hands of the butcher's union erected a structure very near to the Steen and near to the Scheldt, a sturdy, and my brother thinks rather gloomy hall for their guild. To me, it looks like a Romanesque church from Pisa or Florence, layered brick and sandstone rising in towers in the colors of bacon. The Flemish cities are hotbeds of guild activity back in the Middle Ages. The guilds are rich, and they can build towers in the colors of bacon. I like the name of the building, the Vleeshuis.

Our first tour of the city ends back in the square underneath the grand Stadhuis. The square is not a square at all, but a kind of lopsided trapezoid, surrounded by tall, gilt guild houses and houses of the rich merchants topped with ships turning in the wind. At ground level, we are offered a rich choice of venues for beer and mussels. We take an outdoor table, and we partake of a bucket of the shellfish, marveling at the city and the warm evening.

Behind us is the city's cathedral, the Cathedral of Our Lady, the largest Gothic church in the Benelux countries, representative of two centuries of construction, begun in the mid-fourteenth century. It lends some height, some drama to the scene, which hardly needs any. We have tried to enter to pay respects to Peter Paul Rubens, but it was closed for tourism.

...Maybe … you're gonna be the one that saves me …

A short history of the city: Silvius Brabo saves the hands of Antwerp by slaying the giant Antigoon. With an industry born of gratitude, the merchants and craftsmen trade and build and build, until Antwerp is one of the biggest and most sophisticated cities in Europe. They build a port and ship, making it an international business center for the centuries. The merchants and the craftsmen build their guild halls, and they teach the generations what to do with their hands. Once they are rich, they raise gilded statues to stand atop their rich homes. They lay the central square with cobblestones, and they adorn it with two huge monuments to the life secular and the life religious, asking us never to forget them. Their descendants build a fine train station to welcome strangers. They boil mussels in the square. They tell stories about their ancestors' hands. And on the sixth day, as the culmination of centuries of achievement, they build a zoo.

The zoo is located next to the train station. Right next to it: strolling among the gardens of the zoo, one sees the arches of the train sheds above, forming one wall of the expansive complex. This is one of the biggest zoos of Europe, so they say. And it does take us half a day to tour it. But then again, we are moving very slowly. So are the animals. The summer sun is beating down on the earth mercilessly, driving most mammals indoors, bipedal or quad.

The lions are panting among the grasses of their enclosure. They are the highlight for Menna. This is her first zoo, and the most important animals for her are the big cats. The lions are obliging, gazing regally over the sparse human life among the asphalt zoo pathways. It's the Bengal tigers, though, that provide some entertainment, playing in the waters of their pen, pawing at some bits of plastic floating there, tearing them with their teeth. They wish for the utile, grasping hands of the monkeys.

The zoo is my last surprise for Menna. On this trip, celebrating her golden birthday, I've managed to line up a series of fun surprises, like … Paris. Like my brother sitting in the lobby of an Antwerp hotel. His is a face she knew only from Facebook.

There's a moment in the zoo, when the heat has forced us to stop, a moment as we sit under an umbrella in the zoo cafe courtyard, when there's a sudden chill in the breeze. We look west to see that a bank of clouds has formed. We have been talking about my family, their homes, their children, their sicknesses, the passings. Now we sit quietly and anticipate the shower.

The barometers inside our heads translate into a variety of languages, including that of calendars, the language of time. They want to alert us to change. I'm confident that each of us in our silence is peering into time, gazing with the calm of lions into the future, thinking thoughts of fall and thoughts of return, perhaps imagining again that we might raise a hand against time, one of these powerful, planet-shaping hands, that we might smite the pirate, that we might consign the hand of the enemy to the waters of the river.

The rain does come, a few fat drops splashing against the pavement around us. Then there is a pause We wait. The pause continues. We check the skies. The clouds are already passing. The rain has past, left us with only the barest relief. We are back in summer. We gather hats and cameras, and we return to our tour. Autumn has been turned away.

I'm back at the Coffee Company in humble Rotterdam. The baristas are busy spinning atmosphere, their own, singing & joking for each other, fingers dancing over the tinkling cups & glasses & plates, serving, serving, and their mouths setting an entirely different rhythm. They are singing. They are whistling. This is a merry crew. The mouths of clients are the same, making the room buzz. Outside the windows of the cafe, Holland's sea clouds keep up their steady procession, harmless in the blue sky of summer, reminding some of us of the generations moving through history. Have we made our heroes proud, I wonder, with our frivolous ways? It kind of seems like it, actually. What would Silvius Brabo say to us? Maybe he would call us his wonderwall. Maybe he would order an iced coffee, and maybe he would peer out the windows at the neat rows of brick and the girls in jeans.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Travelogue 511 – August 6
The Case for Hands
Part Two

The Scheldt River seeks its course, neither pushing nor dallying too, too much in its easy progress toward the sea. The clean remains of Roman hands roll lazily in the currents at the bottom. They will also reach the sea in their day, sad digits of the sailors who dared to stand up to the giant of the river, the greedy giant armed with threats and the menacing cleaver.

The Scheldt River is peaceful now. We have paced its shores, or rather the high concrete banks of its shores. The broad waters wink at us, glancing wistfully at our hands set on the promenade's railings. It has seen no piracy in centuries.

Standing as a symbol of the stern vigilance that defeated the pirates, the 'Steen', or 'Stone', stands also as a symbol of Antwerp itself, placed solidly in the center of its city flag. The Steen was first built as a fortress on the shore of the life-giving river. The stones of its first walls were set in the thirteenth century, while the prettier heights belong to the era of the Stadhuis, to the prosperous Renaissance years. As the centuries passed, the fortress became a prison. Facing each other across a picturesque little raised porch inside are a heavy set of wooden doors and an elaborate stone crucifix. This is no accident, the cross being arranged for most expeditious prayers for those sentenced to death, a stop on the way to their appointment with the executioner.

We're feeling as lazy as the grey man, Scheldt. I'm more or less playing tour guide for this city I don't know, and trying to herd this afternoon's group of cats, which today includes my wife and my brother and my brother's friend. Each has a camera, and each camera has its own whispering siren call. Each of my tour group leans in toward his or her machine, receives instruction, wanders further afield, one toward the street, one toward the river, one along the base of the fortress, peeking in its windows, eyeballing its wall, as though to scale it.

Myself, I want to stand at the side of the historical waterway, historical and living, reflecting the fresh complexion of the summer sky, winking, always ready with a laughing wink at the irony.

… all the roads we have to walk are winding,

The entertainer soldiers on, commanding the tiny stage so like a pulpit in the hallowed halls of the Irish pub, describing a curious three-quarters balustraded circle around the corner at the meeting of three long chambers. It's an odd pub, laid out in what might be a crippled cruciform, only three legs to the cross, and none providing a line of sight down any of the others. We sit in what might be the nave, quaffing our 'pintjes', chatting in three languages inexpertly.

'I'm losing my English,' Chuchu is joking. He manages a restaurant, and because most of the staff are immigrants, English is the language of the work place. But it's a primitve sort of English. He demonstrates how he has to talk: 'Now sleep. Tomorrow, early, school, I go. After, work, come. Meet you, kitchen.' Each pause is dramatic, and almost every word is painted with his hands, the pillow, the watch, walking away, pointing, gathering. “I'm forgetting how to make a sentence.'

I see Chuchu as he was in 2004. He was finishing at the university. He was idealistic, sure he was going to make it in big business. And he longed to do some charity work, help children. He approached me then with a proposal for an orphanage project, ten pages of earnest language, and his manner was so deferential. He was hopeful; he was strong. It was his work more than anyone's that led to the opening of the first school.

Chuchu is in a good mood tonight, energetic though he's put in a long shift. It's the same smile as he had ten years ago, still as generous. He is laughing at himself. He doesn't drink often, so when he does, he says, the beer has a quick effect. His friends tease him about it. His wife wants a taste. Chuchu is reluctant, since she is pregnant, but he gives in. She rolls her big Ethiopian eyes.

The singer will sing 'Wonderwall' now. We all turn to watch him, feeling the awkward mix of guilt and regard one always feels for the lone, live musician. He's talented, and he has a flair to him. Without being a virtuoso, he knows his guitar. He knows how to be playful with it, strong hand playing the neck.

… and all the lights that lead us there are blinding

The place seems empty suddenly, and dim. It seems as though nobody here is Belgian. We feel the miles. Turning back to each other, and have nothing to say for a few minutes.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Travelogue 510 – August 5
The Case for Hands
Part One

I think this music was written for baristas. Their hands are busy, their minds only half busy. The music is busy, but underlying it is a kind of kindergarten refrain. Two baristas are on duty today, the brawny and personable boy with buck teeth and pale blue eyes, and the chunky young lady with multi-colored and curly hair, whose bellowing laughter registers on the wrong side of infectious. The boy is whistling to the song, to the silly piece, like a spring in a cartoon engine that keeps the whole thing running.

The barista didn't miss me. But I'm happy to say I missed my Rotterdam. It was an intense little trip we took.

'Put all those hands together, people. Please,' cries the mock-miserable performer. He's along on a tiny semi-circle of a wooden stage inside a long wooden interior. He's American; he's an African-American on a stage far from home. He's a lanky African-American in a Gatsby hat, a black man with a multi-racial repertoire: Beatles, Marley, Hendrix, Oasis. He's playing in an Irish pub in Belgium. It's Friday night, but the crowd is all outside, enjoying the long summer evening. They're sitting at tables set in rows that extend far into the brick-laid pedestrian avenue that leads on the left to Antwerp's grand central train station, built between 1895 and 1905, one of Europe's finest stations, tall and domed and inside layered with twenty kinds of marble and stone, in back the vast, arching trainshed of iron and glass

Was it paid for from King Leopold's riches? By 1905, the king has owned the Congo for decades, as citizen-imperialist, employing armies and extracting diamonds and rubber from the colony by the shipload. He brings Christianity; he brings discipline. Villages have to meet rubber quotas. If they don't meet the quotas, then villagers start losing their hands, soldiers meting out the king's justice.

Inside the pub, there are just a few of us. After each song, we clap our hands, but we aren't enough. 'This feels like a coffeehouse gig,' the performer says. We're four at our long table. One of us is Chuchu, who was one of the original Tesfa crew in Addis Ababa. He helped put together the first two schools. Then he fled Ethiopia. He has been here five years. He manages a restaurant. He joins Menna and I and his pregnant wife after work. It's already almost midnight. 'Een pintje,' Chuchu says to the waiter. The man on stage has been noodling on his guitar. Now he breaks into 'Wonder Wall'.

Today is going to be the day ...

Earlier in the week, Chuchu has taken us on a tour of downtown. We stand in front of the Stadhuis, or City Hall, built in 1564. It's a lovely bit of Flemish architecture. Flemish and Italian, I should say, all Renaissance in grey stone, all symmetry with lines of rectangular windows, while still Flemish in its gabled centerpiece. That there is a building almost five hundred years old, commanding a square lined with undeniably Flemish constructions, standing side by side, many of them old guild halls, some set with gilded statues at the top.

In front of the Stadhuis is a fountain, in the center of which stands a handsome young lad in bronze. He is holding up a giant hand, throwing it. The statue is a sentimental rendering of the legend behind the town's name. Apparently the awkward name of Antwerp has confounded more than tourists. So why not make it fun?

The naked lad in the fountain is Silvius Brabo, a Roman centurion. They say that at some time among the shadows of ancient history, there was a giant prowling the waters of the Scheldt River, demanding tolls from the sailors and merchants. If they refused to pay, the giant would take a hand and toss it into the river. The giant had the interesting name of Droun Antigoon, probably the source of some childhood trauma that forced him to act out in this cruel way. In any case, his fetish with men's hands inspired traders to call the town 'Hand Throw'. It just trips off the tongue. And the brave act of the naked lad, Brabo, led people to call the region Brabant. Need I say that scholars don't ratify this version of events?

The Scheldt River is peaceful now. We have paced its shores, or rather the high concrete banks of it shores. The broad waters wink at us, coveting our hands. It has seen no piracy in centuries. It has even had to endure the exodus of its commercial activity, as the port moved north to deeper waters, the port that made Antwerp Europe's second busiest commercial center, behind our home, old Rotterdam. Sometimes those waters long for more than domestic peace and quiet. They dream of Druon Antigoon. They miss the excitement.