Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Travelogue 593 – December 31
And Then, Santa Again, No Snow

And suddenly I’m awaking in Ethiopia. At the Romina Café in Arat Kilo, they are just putting up their Christmas decorations. Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas is the 7th of January. The decorations are strictly European or American in nature, Santa Claus and red felt. There’s a Christmas tree with lights.

I’m jealous of the bits of sunshine that grace this early morning, the first light of day. I’m sitting in the patio outdoors, despite the chill, despite the shadows throw by the trees surrounding the café. The sun is just rising high enough to project warmth, and I’m greedily soaking it in. There are a few spots of it playing in my shoulders.

The street is already roaring with life. Buses and taxis are idling in traffic, spitting out copious plumes of exhaust. People are forming long lines for taxi service, even as they watch the traffic inching forward at half the pace of the pedestrians. Just outside the café patio, the shoeshine boys and the newspaper boys and the parking attendants are goofing around, yelling at each other and dodging cars as the drivers try to maneuver around the narrow parking lot.

There are a few baristas who have been here years. It’s great to see their smile when they see me. ‘Tafah anta,’ they say. ‘you’ve disappeared.’ Yes, Europe has kidnapped me, (or maybe that’s the other way around,) and I haven’t seen much of Ethiopia in the year that’s now passing. I say the addis amat, the new year, will be different. The sun is getting warmer. My face and neck will be bright pink with exposure to the sun by the end of the day. I’m planning on it.

Yesterday, we sat on the tarmac for two hours. The snow was still coming down in Frankfurt. Temperatures were solidly below zero Celsius. We watched from the plane windows as they de-iced the wings. We watched the pink fluids flow down over the windows as they de-iced the roof. Then they seemed to start over. The short and cold and dim German day, the second to the last day of 2014, was spending itself outside, and we remained quiet in our tight little seats.

‘Oh, I forgot,’ says one of the baristas, one of the old-timers, ‘It’s your New Year!’ Yes, I say, it is. ‘Have a good time,’ she says. I will, I will, thank you. The heat is building across my shoulders. Thank you!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Travelogue 592 – December 27
White After Christmas

The day after Christmas is still Christmas in Holland. There’s a first day and there’s a second day. On the second day of Christmas, you might find some places open. Like the Coffee Company at Eendrachtsplein.

It’s one of those holidays within a holiday, half working, half holidaying. There is no Christmas this week in Ethiopia, so they are at their desks in the office. I’m calling on Christmas morning, conducting real work before the family duties of the holiday begin, which duties are supremely challenging: like, eating and accomplishing nothing. The time is made all the more rare and precious by our pregnancy and by the delicate pause between trips. I will be leaving for Ethiopia again in a few days, missing a few more weeks of the rarest of interludes, hidden baby coming, wife glowing, those sorts of things.

On the second day of Christmas, the barista at Eendrachtsplein is singing. He is dreaming of a white Christmas. I ask him and his colleague whether they are sad that there is no white to speak of, and there hasn’t been in a few years. It has been a common theme of conversation in winter in Holland: ‘There used to be snow and ice.’ They debate. It might be four years since there really was a white Christmas in Rotterdam.

It is cold enough for snow. Menna’s fingertips are burning. She’s not used to that sensation. We boldly chose to cycle into town today. It’s exercise; it’s getting out of the house. But there is a price to pay. I’m wearing my cycling gloves, which only go to the first knuckle. They’re the only gloves I have. Menna is suffering. She runs inside while I lock the bikes.

The baristas are dreaming of a white Christmas.

And then, just the next day, we wake up to snow falling. Menna screams. It’s her first snow. We dress as quickly as we can, and we dash outside. It’s a wet snow, clinging to roofs and tree branches and bicycle frames. It’s crunchy underfoot. We have to touch it. We have to make snowballs, and we have to make explode against each other’s jackets. We have to run to the river, and we have to take pictures.

I decide to cycle into town, having learned nothing from yesterday’s ride. I’m wearing the same gloves, and this time it’s worse. I’m really in pain. I’m riding slowly, sliding through the ridges of snow, splashing through the slop. I have no boots; my shoes are soaked after five minutes. Not only my shoes, but my pant legs a good six inches up.

I arrive, and my fingers are past burning. I have to get them back to burning again, holding thumb and finger tips against the espresso glass. They throb with dull pain. I’ve come here to work, but my fingers hurt too much to type for a while. The baristas are no longer singing about a white Christmas. I’m expecting them to be ecstatic about the snow, but they seem unsettled. Maybe they had to cycle in, too.

I watch the morning unfold, while my clothes dry out and my digits regain feeling. I watch the people rush in, smiling, buoyed by the change, exhilarated. They have found something that was missing. They are cold, and they are complete. I calculate the pain I will endure on the way home.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Travelogue 591 – December 6
Northern Solace
Part Four

Necropolis is just the right term for the Cimetière de Montmartre. It’s a city of the dead, wide paved lanes leading among the rows of sepulchers, small alleyways and paths linking one to another, creating little enclaves like quiet neighborhoods. The streets borrow their names from the more famous among the buried.

I pass some of the famous as I explore. I see the poet Heine, the composer Berlioz, the novelist Zola, and the novelist Stendhal. I find the final resting place of one Monsieur Sanson, professional executioner before and during the Revolution, the man who beheaded the king, the man who put over three thousand souls into their graves. His own grave is surprisingly humble and bourgeois. Citizen Sanson might be a shop-owner. Zola’s is marked by an extravagant bronze, imagining for us a leonine visage. It’s clearly a choice that was made well after Emile himself would have had any input.

Nearby, an oversized mask of Jesus sheds tears of stone. And I think of Saint Job again. Wouldn’t his tears be more appropriate? More convincing? I’m thinking that Jesus the Saviour doesn’t have much cause to shed a tear at the death of one Parisian. Shouldn’t he be the one Biblical hero with a smile of reassurance, with even a wink of conspiracy, symbol of all God’s best intentions?

I circle the grounds one more time. I take pictures. I see a few more tourists arriving to join us this morning. They are taking pictures. Everyone is quiet, especially the ones underneath the ground. No one bothers posing. It’s a weekend. Its morning. Most of us are dead. I am not, and I have a train to catch. I leave the new tourists to it, and I pass under the deep shadow of the Rue Caulaincourt on my way out.

I exercise the muscles of legs still oxygenated by a beating heart. I pass again the office of the complacent headstone salesman on the Avenue Rachel, into the cacophony of the city that has forgotten the terrors of Monsieur Sanson’s day. It’s a calm morning; I have no expectation of being beheaded.

We don’t draw pictures of Job. We tell stories about him, and make each other shudder with dread.

I’m reading Hilary Mantel again. The spirits housed in the cemetery, and under the cemetery, might thank her. Given a day to re-order their estates and memories, they might prefer a contract with Ms. Mantel over one with the man on the Avenue Rachel. Ms. Mantel restores something to them. She rescues historical fiction from the vampires and the purveyors of romance and porn.

And yet I wonder if the story doesn’t tell itself. The history is incredible in its nature. Imagining that people lived through it, even made it happen, challenges belief, even as the stories are durable as stone, made to be mythologized. One can imagine how, in a time before writing, these characters would become demi-gods and demons.

I might have wished for an account of my father, Job, wishing for him the voice of M. Danton, who speaks with the truth of tension, about startling events in startling times. (Is every age a wonder?)

The soldiers patrol the Rue de Cordeliers. They point out the house of M. Danton. They eye it with emotion, some with dread, some with admiration. Only two years have passed since the fall of the Bastille, and still it seems as though the fundament of heaven and earth – of Paris – have been disfigured. The time before is hard to recall. It was a dream. The future is dark. Some more of us must die.

The trains are running. The Gare du Nord is the lurid and shattered scene it usually is, people turning as though figures in a broken dance. They check the screens; they run. With the right ignition, they might just scream. They might topple columns and kings. They might loot the pastry stall.

But the crowds part, and I board my train. I cross the frontier without incident.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Travelogue 590 – December 5
Northern Solace
Part Three

The French have left their mark. The capital of Minnesota bears the lasting stamp of the Franks. City fathers were moved to name the outpost after their French solace. In Minnesota, land of desperate winters, solace can mean a lot. And who in the world could ever resist the kind of solace that the French prepare?

Perhaps with genuine gratitude, perhaps with a species of grim humor that months of snow will nurture, the first citizens of the capital wanted to name the city after the local purveyor of whiskey, one Pierre Parrant. The former fur trader had a popular tavern, and he had a bad reputation with local officials, and he did have a catchy nickname, ‘Pig’s Eye’.

One Father Lucien Galtier had other ideas. He provided another variety of French solace in the chapel of Saint Paul. Once the territory of Minnesota had an opportunity to join the Union, (just a few years before the Union was destined to be torn asunder,) and once the site of the capital had been settled upon the young riverside town – a matter decided according to the highest model of rational deliberation, meaning, the physical theft of the draft of a law to situate the capital in nearby Saint Peter, -- the city elders grudgingly acknowledged that the example of the good father might be more appropriate than that of the moonshiner. Saint Paul, it would be, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

So the French left their mark … and left, abandoning the city to the next generation of Catholics, the harder-working Irish. Poor old Pig’s Eye Parrant was forced out of the city, and no one is quite sure where he ended up after that. All possible trails point north. The old French fur trader turned back toward the snows, and lies now in some unmarked spot, perhaps to be discovered under a parking lot like poor King Richard was recently, squeezed into an ill-fitting box, his whiskey-soaked genetic material sampled in order to be strained through some high-science blender and identified as the reprobate founder of the city of Saint Paul.

The temperatures in Paris are more reasonable, the damp more familiar. I’m on my way home to Rotterdam, but stalled by a rail strike in neighboring Belgium. I am staying in a hotel of the Place de Clichy in northern Paris. Just a few short blocks away is the Cimetière de Montmartre.

I pay my respects in the morning, before I have to make my way to the Gare du Nord. The Belgian strike is carried out only one day per week, a show of order and deference that I plan to repay with a tip to the first conductor I see.

To visit the cemetery, one has to walk down the Avenue Rachel, resisting the temptation to follow the larger Rue Caulaincourt. The latter rue rises on steel girders to pass over the cemetery on its way to the butte Montmartre. From the Rue Caulaincourt, one surveys the vast cemetery from above, an opportunity for the harried commuter crossing from one arrondissement to another for healthy perspective, surveying the rows of sepulchres.

On the Avenue Rachel, one passes the storefront of the man who engraves headstones. You see the man already at his station, sitting at his desk with a complacent smile, a chubby man with small round eyeglasses, waiting for business, checking his smartphone.

Through the gate, one passes under the shadow of the bridge, and into the extremities of that strange contrast; seeing overhead the rush of daily life, those with hearts still pumping hastening with eyes set forward, issuing the hum and clamour of unrepentant life.

Inside the cemetery, there is repentance and there is introspection. One finds leisure to wonder about the lives of all who have ended up here, the thousands buried here since the foundation of the cemetery in the mid-nineteenth century, on the site of a gypsum quarry. It was a site already associated with the dead, being site to mass graves during the Revolution.

It is quiet. The family vaults crowd together among the paved lanes, seeming to jostle for position. Some rise high with grandeur and high-minded design. Some hold back in humility. Some names stand in vivid relief, some are already faded into obscurity. And still, among the strident cries for attention, all is terrifically still.

One strolls in reflection. And one thinks of the complacent man selling grave stones. How did he sell this one, the full-scale copy of the Thinker? How did he sell this statue, looking like an Indian scout with a hand up shading his eyes? The older monuments trade on traditional motifs, safely neo-classical or Gothic. But who sold the widow this garish face of Christ with tears in his eyes? These are some of the recent gravesites. With all the resources of the belated, we unfortunate have ample opportunity to make the worst choices. And which shall we repent more, bad behavior or bad taste? When memory of our lives fades, the memorial remains.

Or doesn’t. Once upon a time, there was a rude cross, branches hacked with a bowie knife and tied together with a stretch of leather thong. There was no need for a plaque. The woods being the only witness, there was no need to memorialize. The birds would know this as the resting place of one Pig’s Eye Parrant, French founder of the American state capital … and distiller of some fine whiskey.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Travelogue 589 – December 4
Northern Solace
Part Two

The weather has moderated somewhat. On the day that I disembarked from the aeroplane, temperatures in Minnesota were topping out at zero Fahrenheit, which I have discovered is equivalent to minus eighteen Centigrade. Minnesota temperatures don’t scare me anymore, but that does not mean I’m immune. They don’t serve to shock, but still they hurt. I’ve lost some tolerance. And, moreover, I’ve lost some of my heavy-duty winter gear during the years in milder climes.

I’m thinking again, the French came here for the margin on a few furs. Really? That is cold ambition. Advancing the line of a frontier into the extremes, chasing little animals for their carcasses. Did they wonder how far the temperatures could and would fall? In an uncharted world, wouldn’t there by reason be uncharted pain? I guess you can only freeze once. It hardly matters the exact value of the temperature that got you, unless rugged Catholic explorers might feel entitled to final bragging rights beyond the grave.

Me, I’ll defer that case of frostbite for another day. I dash into the bookstore. I have escaped the snow. I have escaped the distracting sting among the digits. But there’s still a draft to remind me to keep the coat on. I contemplate the brittle layers of masonry protecting us from the weather, the flimsy insulation, the box around our ears that represents the frightening, the decisive ratio, freezing space outside to sheltered space inside.

Winter anxiety. Perhaps it’s the mind that freezes first. Escaping the snow I find easier than escaping the thought of snow. It’s the mind that needs solace in winter. I’m in the right place, among rows of plentiful books. Protected, distracted, there is no threat from the wild atmosphere.

Would the French explorer sneer at our luxury? Would he stand in the bookstore and stamp his feet and shout? Would he challenge us from within his furs? Would distrust the warmth, thinking it would sap him of his best hopes for the afterlife? Or would he smile and shake off the snow, browse the French language shelves and look for an easy chair?

Would he tell stories? Would he recount the meeting with Ojibwa scouts at the river crossing? Would he detail the complex negotiations at the villages? Were there bandits? Was there combat? Could he paint the picture of the moonlit woods on the coldest night, or paint his terror of the wolves? Would he tell us about the long passage across the ocean? Will he go back some day? Is he buried here? Would the explorer have known the way to French heaven from the skies above the Mississippi?

What unsigned graves are there in the ample lands of the Upper Midwest? Might we be standing on one or two here in the Mager’s and Quinn? Am I browsing the grave sites even as I browse the shelves above earth?

Shall I browse the graves? Once back in Paris shall I browse the graves of the explorer’s compatriots, the safe ones, the ones who never left home and hearth, those who did nothing more adventurous than write essays or take up music, code high symphonies.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Travelogue 588 – December 3
Northern Solace
Part One

I was in Minneapolis last week. It was a short trip. I was there only for one week. It was a work trip, and so I was confined for most of my days to the neighborhood of the office, in Uptown. The office is located at the west end of Lake Street.

Lake Calhoun looks to be nearly frozen over. The sun is suspended inside its tight and very low arc over the southern shore of the lake. Snow has blown over the surface of the lake in uneven patches. It is a desolate bit of space, so appealing to me in its emptiness. I’m driving west, where Lake Street curves around the northern shore of the lake, where the street gets bottleneck busy with traffic heading out of Minneapolis and toward the suburbs,

When I leave the office and I want to walk, I walk toward Lake and Hennepin. That intersection is the heart of historic Uptown, a neighborhood so resilient and so stubborn in its identity. I have seen it through a number of phases in almost thirty years. It was renewing itself when I discovered it. It is renewing itself now. The place feels old to me, but must feel new to young residents. That’s a feature of identity the place will not relinquish, no matter how stale perpetual youth may become, no matter how rising property values dress the youth in brands ever more exclusive.

For me, the intersection has one enduring feature in Calhoun Square, the mall built on the busy corner just a few years before I first moved to Minneapolis. It’s rather bland and blandly ahistorical in its appearance, even though built around a few salvaged older buildings. The project was opposed in proposal phases and later while being built, as being an offensive incursion of suburban style into the aspiring urban neighborhood, an area known for its youth and arts cultures. But it did get built, and still it stands.

I’m surprised to see that now Calhoun Square hosts H&M, a chain I’ve become accustomed to in the Netherlands. In Rotterdam, one may just be lucky enough to find multiple H&M outlets on a single block. Now here it is in high-rent Uptown, across from the Apple store. I stand and regard its familiar branding, standing on Hennepin Avenue while a light snow falls. Certainly the old mall has experienced its share of tenant turnover, as it has of facelifts, but somehow I’d become accustomed to thinking that nothing European ever came this way. I take a stroll through the store, and I find racks of familiar styles. They haven’t bothered to Americanize anything, if there is really such a process anymore.

I’m more interested, ultimately, in crossing the street and walking a few storefronts down to the old Mager’s and Quinn, a shop that opened on Hennepin across form the mall some years after I made my own first appearance in the city, and which became a regular hangout. I can certainly recommend this as a stop for any book lovers visiting the Twin Cities, a kind of chapel to an old cult of the independent sellers.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Travelogue 587 – November 30
One Stick

It’s a funny little bend in the road. The road winds down the hill like a lazy stream, arranging meetings with its cobblestone tributaries at small plateaus like this one, where the ways conjoin at a curve, washing around a sharp point of pavement, on which stands a narrow building that houses a restaurant That narrow promontory surrounded by cobblestones plays host to a small patio under an awning and sided by plastic sheeting. Tables with ashtrays stand protected by the awning and plastic. Outside, on the last bit of kerb, a few more tables stand exposed to the elements. Crossing the small street there, one crosses into a small plaza occupying the curving space near the gate into the hillside park. This plaza is sided by three other restaurants.

She sits at one table with two friends. Everything she wears, except her tall boots, is purple. She has one cigarette, and she has one mobile, both held high, She wraps up one conversation, singing, ‘Merci, merci, ciao bella, au revoir.’ After that she has one hand free, which she returns to her fruit tart. Her attention she returns to her friends. The man with the long and well-tended beard is talking now. He is leaning forward, shoulders bunched. He has one cigarette, which he holds low, as though holding the collar of his dog. He is laughing without laughing, and that could be what he is doing all day.

Along the left side of the restaurant, the road drops quickly down to busier avenues. I have climbed up that same hill, and I needed a pause. My body is aching. Last night, I felt the advance of some infection, and today, a day of travel, my muscles are sore. I have to slow it all down. I have to rest.

I won’t enter into the park until I’ve taken my rest among the ashtrays, no matter how much I want to make of the last light of the short day. The sun casts intriguing, dappling shadows, its light becoming entangled in the leaves of the trees in the park.

I’ve been reading Foucault, preparing for post-graduate research, and I feel both smug and embarrassed opening to the words of the great French philosopher while sitting on the train to Paris. I’m flying out of Charles de Gaulle tomorrow, flying toward Minnesota. But I get my few hours to enjoy French genius on French soil. In one hand, he holds an argument like one ball of yarn that unravels under the influence of gravity and, falling, tells a spiraling story about power.

I get one evening to stroll around Montmartre. The gate into the park leads to another steep incline, a paved walking path that switches back up the parks’ hill, and on this last spur deposits the pedestrian at the foot of the steps below the white-domed church on the hilltop, the hilltop where cannons were seized by the hungry and rebellious mob. That was half a century before Foucault was born.

The boy in sweats hangs by one hand by the struts of a street lamp. With his one free hand, he holds aloft a spinning basketball. The ball doesn’t spin on a finger, but on one small stick that he holds straight while turning his body around line of torque defined by his hold on the pole. He has the muscle to swing his legs around, in a slow break dance in the sky, while he keeps the ball aloft. The sun is setting now, but there are many people passing. There are still people to hold their phones up in tribute.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Travelogue 586 – November 15
Sint Job
Part Three

I’ve been running this route for a long time. I remember discovering this little pier that opens onto the River Maas. I remember the appeal of the open water. It offers some space, some forgetfulness. Again I reflect on the perpetually renewing nature of free water. Does free thought, free spirit, renew just so? Doesn’t the cage drown the song?

I have chosen this place. As my father chose L.A., choosing to live on with the choice, years afterward, with the suffocation of his job, with the suffocation of the polluted airs of the L.A. Basin, as his blood continued to pulse even as he drove down the grey highway day after day, highways built to defeat aesthetics, as though aesthetics were the enemy of productivity, despite the assault of doubt on happiness, he stood by his choice; in this way I must show the courage of my volition, even as the mists gather, the mists that somehow absorb the ghostly impressions of all reflection, condensation of soul and psyche, even as they sow in their very grey damps the seeds of melancholia, reaping the harvests as well, bearing them on as grafts onto water made light enough to drift above the sand. I live with my choices.

The promenade along this side of the pier is paved with small, square flagstones, about four inches per side, made of grey composite. I enjoy my two minutes on this straightaway, a couple hundred peaceful meters from end to end. It’s an opportunity to surrender to steadiness, steady footfalls, steady breathing. I monitor the matrix of waves in the water to my left. I watch the tiles under my feet. They were uniformly manufactured, but the place has marked them with identity, weathered and stained them, so that they tell stories. Something has soaked them, maybe water, maybe oil, so that dark areas trail across the surface in rivers and islands. Some areas are dry and bleached. The same stones, laid some time not long ago, each changed, diverging since the first day they were set in mortar.

In exercise there is a sense of power. It is suitably limited, a reminder of one’s limits. One enjoys the articulation of muscle, feeling every step with a refreshing sense of being the motive agent, even while knowing that companion to power is fatigue and hunger, knowing that, among the tomorrows, one has the privilege of witnessing the deterioration of muscle tissue. Nothing is more repetitive than exercise, and yet each step, copy of the last, is still a minor liberation, a paper ship set out upon the river.

The stars are out. The damp air is cool. It’s fresh. I couldn’t do without this taste of Creation. The Creator gets nostalgic for beginnings, too. ‘When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy,’ He says to Sint Job. Have we decided we don’t need to shout anymore? The stars have been coming up for so many years. The many clouds have made me appreciate the stars when I see them, and I love seeing them. I don’t shout, but I love them.

‘Where wast thou?’ He asks, and it’s a challenge. I barely know where I am now, Lord Creator. Where I was yesterday. Where I was in spring. Where I was one summer, then another summer. How I’ve gathered so many. My skin is like the crust of these flagstones, grey but tarred by time. Sint Job has moved on, and there is only me here on the bike path at 5am, heading home. I love the stars, but I don’t shout. Maybe once I’m gone, it will all be a little bit quieter. Maybe it doesn’t matter how many people there are, the loss of each adds to a great silencing.

And if Job had lived in the time of the existentialists? Would his family have survived? Would the Accuser have tormented him with thought? It might have been enough. It’s a different age. Foucault says we live in the time of confessions. When nothing stings like the open sore of identity. Many people died on the cross. But one of them cried, Eli, Eli lama sabachthani.

Naked came I out of my mother's womb, says Sint Job. I’ve provided the day’s sweat, like the oils for the sacrifice. There’s a moment’s regret I have to stop, when I pause in front of the apartment door, in the gathered silence of the old, old city. But then I turn to enter, I return to the shower, to wash the sweat. I return to the mirror, to the curse of ever-lastingness. It’s uncanny how identity persists. The city is the city and the sky the sky. The mirror bears its marks, the signs that time has made its passing, the chips, the residues of washing, and still it utters the same name every morning. Uncanny machine that stretches the one line upon the earth with such a steady hand.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Travelogue 585 – November 14
Sint Job
Part Two

It’s five in the morning, and I’m running alongside a small harbour built early in the twentieth century and named for Saint Job.

And I’m wondering how the name for the harbour came about. Among the complex economies of the human mind, it is rare that a name comes from nowhere. There is always a thread linking stories and names. It could be that the location had long had some association with the old, old man. It might have been some vaporous linkage in the mind of an engineer, a fragile connection that has evaporated in time. The human imagination is so rarely capable of the true random, the free thought.

‘Can you loosen Orion’s belt?’ the mad god shouts.

And I wonder how young my Dad was when he discovered his fascination for the stars. Was he just a boy in Colorado? I don’t think it would have come from his own daddy, who was by all accounts a shell-shocked WWI vet, and a drunk. But who knows? A drunk and a dreamer, perhaps, who stared into the skies as evening turned to night over the plains, watching the stars emerge and showing them to his boy. ‘One day, …’ he might say, the alcohol fueling a fleeting sense of hope for the race of humanity. And the boy may wonder, the boy who would live to see rocket ships travel to the moon.

I imagine that he was young when he discovered he could not loosen Orion’s belt. His was a youth made of labor, caring for the family abandoned by his trauma-crippled father. His time was a time of labors, a span stretching across the middle of a tumultuous century, a life fostered in poverty and spent reaching for a place among men that commanded respect. He was a grandson of immigrants. He would be the first to earn a college degree. All that would come after the war.

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? cries the god in rage.

Before there was an earth, I must have been in space. But the fact is, I don’t know. I don’t even know enough to say I was nowhere.

I’ve moved to live in a place where the stars are obscured. My father, in contrast, kept moving south and west, until he landed the family in southern California. It could be that in the back of his mind, there was a devotion to starry skies driving him to the driest climes. He wanted unimpeded views.

How close a match are those L.A. skies to the ones once rotating over Sumer or ancient Arabia, where Job lived a life renowned for sanctity and for God’s favor? He may have spent evenings sitting on the porch and watching the stars emerge, and giving them names for the benefit of his sons. Look, there’s the great shepherd. He follows his flocks across the whole sky. See how dedicated he is? He never strays.

For the Greeks, he was the Hunter. Could the name Orion have once attached to a living man, someone so known for his feats as a hunter that he survived in stories? Names are so rarely made up. They are required to bring significance even to the identification of a hero or a monster or a god.

They say Job was likely to have been a man once, before he was a memory for the race, a memory of riches and devotion to God, ‘perfect and upright’. Many years later, a poet borrowed the semi-mythologized figure of Job for a story. The poet wanted to formulate a philosophical query into a story, the query behind a world of theory called theodicy. He invented a scene on Olympus, in which the Accuser is offered a seat at the banquet. And the Accuser offers the obvious challenge. Well, yes, he says, successes and devotion to the Creator are a salubrious mix. In borrowing the character of Job, the poet employs a sort of shorthand. The name was already associated with the archetypal good man. Is it no accident that Job is rich and he’s pious?

And who hath stretched the line upon the face of this earth? God challenges.

I would be born in the place of clear skies, and eventually reverse the direction my dad took, describing an arc in my travels that would end at just about the place where his youth exploded in a shell burst, sacrificed to the war. His new home in America would be an army hospital. In heading east, I undertook my journey in some spirit not too alien from his, I would imagine, not too alien to that of a majority of people. I look for something that fits, and makes sense. Skies that explain something, even in their obscurity.

We try. But we must fail, and we did when we endeavored to stretch the line into space. We stood upon the moon … and we retreated. Such frightening hubris. Now we tell ourselves it may have been a conspiracy, a bit of theatre in a NASA studio.

It’s hard to say whether this, the slow decay of the space program, would have been one my dad’s greatest disappointments, with more immediate regrets to face in his final years, but it must have struck a plangent note. It must have seemed a clear failure of hope

At river’s edge, as I round the end of the pier, the wind is at its strongest. It usually blows in from the direction of the sea, which puts it in my face. The surface here along the river is laid with uneven cobble stone. The combined effect is one of a sudden loss of momentum. The river opens its grey space, now to the stars, in a few hours to the new light. The sun will be rising behind me, the wind in its face.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Travelogue 584 – November 13
Sint Job
Part One

I don’t get to see the stars too often in Rotterdam. The city lights wash out the weaker specimens, and the clouds wipe out the rest. Most nights I don’t even think about them anymore.

In Ethiopia, the stars were like family. I saw them almost every day. I got to know their names. I made time for conversation.

I’ve been sleeping well until last night. At four, I was up suddenly. The brain was going to be put to anxious work. I didn’t fight it. I opened the computer, and got to work on a nagging project.

I worked for an hour. The gesture made, the conscience appeased, my anxious energy could be directed into proper, more enjoyable channels. I put on the running gear. It was cold enough to wear gloves. I emerged into November’s long night. It’s now the season that Menna dreads: the sun turns away from us. The temperatures are dropping at a taunting rate. Morning light and morning warmth come ever later.

I see Orion! Setting my warm-up pace alongside the Schie, and glancing over the waters that are surprisingly still, I see stars. I see familiar patterns among the stars. I am reminded how fragile is knowledge, and how fragile are relationships. My stars are distant. They have withdrawn into space.

I grew up watching Apollo shots, my dad watching with the anticipation of World Cup fans, breathing and sweating hope, drinking his Manhattan as though it were the future itself. The launches were a luxury of boredom for me. There was little of my dad’s amazement, though now I appreciate his solicitous need to impart enthusiasm and perspective. I grew up with an almost genetic appreciation for our achievements in space.

No generation has had such an awareness of ‘space’. I grew up looking at the sky differently than any boy could have in any previous generation. I had read stories about distant galaxies, other planets, alternative dimensions. I’d seen the stories in television episodes. I had watched as the rockets launched. When I looked into the night, I looked into ‘space’, into dimension, into open territory that had now been given dimension by human beings. I was gazing straight out into frontiers and aspiration. We traveled into ‘space’, and then, I vaguely became aware, we stopped.

Orion, rising in the early morning hours at the beginning of winter, himself stands for other, older types of aspirations. The constellation was myth and god. He heralded winter. For some he stood for regeneration. For the Hebrews, he was hope of winter rains. Further: thirty thousand years ago, a member of race carved what is considered Orion’s first portrait into ivory of mammoth. It may be he was associated with the miracle of childbirth because his term in the sky synchronized fairly closely with the period of pregnancy, even to the term of a best-case pregnancy that ended in summer.

For the Babylonians, he was a shepherd. To medieval Muslim scholars he was known as the Giant. To the less imaginative Chinese he was the ‘Three’, named for the stars in his belt. For the Greeks, Orion was the hunter.

Before the Schie empties into the Maas, it flows through a lock, over which two street bridges cross. Beside the second bridge there is a police station. On one side there is a fenced lot for their cars. On the river side, there is a mooring for their boats. Some of the officers are already stirring. They watch me go by. I turn the corner by their station and down the pier that forms one side of the harbour. It’s a favorite straightaway of mine, heading out into the Maas, and into the winds.

The stars are bright here. One catches a taste of their freedom over the sea. Not far from Orion -- it looks as though he hunts in the territory of the Crab, -- the moon is suspended, more full than not, waxing or waning I can’t tell. She’s strong with light.

On the other side, the pier bounds the haven of Sint Job. I’m running by condos on this side. On the land side of the small harbour is a landing for water taxis that travel as far as Dordrecht. On the other side is a maritime school for youngsters. Sometimes I see the students bobbing in rowboats on the Schie, learning some obscure trick of the waters. They shout joked to one another. A teacher with a bullhorn struggles for their attention.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Travelogue 583 – October 15
The Moderns

At night we’re still watching the ‘Game of Thrones’. Troy brought these strange people to us inside his little computer, inside his little bag. And now they haunt us with their grim and wretched lives, their sordid pleasures and their desperate intrigues. They share with us the repellent visions of their vicious gods. The stories and settings warp over time, the narratives leaning more and more heavily upon the straining crutches of the supernatural. There are zombies to the north. And to the south are dragons.

I enjoy the show; I won’t deny it. But I’m left to wonder as I watch it at the ways we humans talk to ourselves. ‘The night is dark and full of terrors,’ the characters say. We viewers nod. We mutter in horror at our own mysterious selves, renewing our amazement at our survival. Among all the hazards and the hatred, we survive.

We wonder at our history. It’s my theory that TV shows and films like this are release valves for the world psyche. They can only become more ubiquitous, as the fascination grows for a vanished past. We entertain ourselves with horror stories in which a simple moral is uttered by some dumbfounded everyman, ‘At stake is our entire way of life.’ But what we’re really saying to ourselves is, ‘Gone! An entire way of life!’ Thousands of years of it, washed away quite cleanly. We don’t know how amazed we are, or how anxious.

The first stage was gentle nostalgia, the period pieces, the Jane Austen films, in which we indulged in costume and the carriages. The past was quaint. There were westerns for excitement, or medieval larks, vehicles for Shakespeare and Dickens and the like, studies in passion dressed in robes or top hats. Everyone rode on horses then!

Gradually, the streets in those medieval towns became more alien and more revolting, ankle-deep in mud and the contents of everyone’s chamber pots, the scene of constant brawls and crime. The shadows of those medieval towns became alive with mysteries and secret societies.

There were scares like the Millennial Bug, when we thought we might just be thrown back into the primitive days before computers. The terror inspired was profound. Planes would fall from the skies. The dinosaurs would walk again. But the deeper terror was simply contemplating whether we could live the way we did only thirty years before.

Now we seem to regard the past with unmitigated horror. There weren’t really dragons back then, were there, Daddy? No, of course not. I don’t think so. But who knows, Dad finally says uneasily. There weren’t wizards, were there? Did people really worship fire? Those were dark days, son. Who knows? Maybe they even raised the dead back then. The family shudders to think.

I’ve always had great regard for the moderns, those pioneers of thought and art in the early and mid-twentieth century. These were intellectuals who reveled in the changes. Now I see that they could well afford to celebrate, when the new was new, and when their several generations straddled the gap between the past and the modern. It’s easy to delight in the new, when one still has the comforts of the traditional.

We visit the memorial of one such modern, an unlikely hero of the modern era, a sickly Dutch boy with a penchant for drawing. This is one of Troy’s boyhood heroes, and it happens there is a museum dedicated to him in Den Haag.

M.C. Escher studied in Haarlem, failed in architecture and switched to decorative arts. After school he traveled, and finally moved, to Italy. Here his vision was inspired by what he saw, and his artistic career was launched, producing landscapes and nature drawings. During his youthful travels, he also visited the Alhambra in Spain, and was deeply affected by the geometrical designs of the Moors.

A trip in 1936 through the Mediterranean on ship seems to have sparked that latent fire in Escher’s imagination. He launched upon the phase of his career for which he is famous, the experiments with mathematical art and impossible realities. It’s interesting that this phase corresponds with his permanent break with Italy. Disgusted by Fascism, he moved to Switzerland in 1935, and then back to Holland.

He draws the hands that draw each other. He draws the cityscape among a still life. He draws the stairways that lead up to the bottom and the waterfall that feeds itself upstream. He draws planes of figures that interlock and trade between two and three dimensions.

It’s fun to see the Escher classics on the walls of the museum, and fun are the little thought experiments in mathematics, illusion and impossible realities. But for me the most interesting, as it always is with me, is to see the tools of the artist. We see the lithography stone. I learn about mezzo tints. I can’t imagine the patience in this kind of work.

Seeing Escher on the walls reminds me of my youth. I was fond of drawing as a child, and I was fascinated by his visions. Seeing it again now, his work makes me think of my father. My father was an engineer and a modern in his way, an optimist and a man fascinated by numbers and machines. He was a man of his generation in that way. The future was bright then, and the past was nothing special, nothing so full of shadow.

Sometimes I’ll stop on my bicycle rides through town, stop at a construction site or by the side of a canal where a big ship is dropping anchor or unloading. I will watch the big machinery with something of Dad’s fascination. But more often, I’ll be watching the old man who is spending an hour of his long afternoon watching the machinery.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Travelogue 582 – October 13

I feel like I’m seeing these fields for the second time, though I’ve never been here before. Is it because he has been here? I don’t even know whether Vincent did landscapes of the fields during this period, but nevertheless I see the fields framed and described in brushstrokes, hues dimmed with the passage of time.

The colors seem right, the stripes of rapeseed among somber greens, and the soft grey of the skies. The humility and stillness are familiar. Am I seeing with my eyes, or with sight inherited from the painter?

We’re outside the town of Neunen, which itself is a satellite town of Endhoven. We’re on rented bicycles, following the traces of a new Van Gogh trail, first pedaling down long avenues in Eindhoven, following the train tracks until we are leaving the city, jogging north, discovering the dedicated bike path. We follow a spur of the path that is no more than dirt. There are tractors and earth movers left inert by the side of the trail. Troy has heard that a section of this trail was to be lit by innovative glow-in-the-dark paints. While a light rain begins to fall, we search the dirt for signs of an experiment, turning over bits of clay and pavement and blue plastic. Nothing glows. We return to the existing trail.

We discover the Collse Watermolen, almost passing it unawares. It lies off a bland rural road, to the right as one crosses the bridge over the millstream. We backtrack, and we find a little dirt drive up behind the water mill. All is quiet. We read on a sign that the wooden mill is still functional. Volunteers work here occasionally, still producing flour and oil. We read that there’s been a mill here since the fourteenth century. But what persists is this vision from 1884.

Van Gogh is still discovering himself as a painter. He has come to Neunen, where his father is minister, to regroup after a fairly disastrous stay in Den Haag. He has started using oils in Den Haag. He is experimenting in Neunen with landscapes and character studies of local peasants. His father dies in March of 1885. Some time during the same spring, he finishes his first major work, ‘The Potato Eaters’.

I’ve come to Eindhoven for very different reasons to Vincent. I have a race to run. The city is now the third largest in the Netherlands, and it touts itself as the world’s smartest city. It’s a tech center, and a design center. It sponsors one of the country’s winningest football teams. I am ready to add one more superlative: it sponsors one of nicest half marathons I’ve run. The Den Haag half in September was refreshingly small, and the course was pretty. It’s Eindhoven’s spirit that makes the race memorable. There are bands all along the course. There are people cheering. The course volunteers don’t just offer cups of water. They have fruit, and they have sponges soaked in water. (It’s an unusually warm day.) For nearly the last two miles of the run, through downtown, the roads are packed with cheering crowds. (The downside is a disorienting sense that the finish line is just around the corner. This false impression is not helped by the multiple balloon arches over the road, advertising one sponsor or another, looking each one like the finish. I see runners repeatedly fooled into a strong finish, only to find it’s not the finish. I’ve never seen so many runners stopping within the last kilometer, having spent their reserves. Fortunately, I have monitored my watch. I know my pace, and know very well I haven’t reached the end yet.)

We have also come here to find traces of the young artist. Later and later is the sun rising now, autumn full upon us in its dark glory. I am groggy and sore from the race, but I am still up before anyone else. I make sure Troy is awake. I have to convince him once more time that it’s a good idea, even though the sun hasn’t risen yet. His idea. We must get to the train station and rent our bikes. A half hour later, the sun is risen, and we are pedaling east along streets unusually quiet. It’s already worth the pain of awakening.

Smart as Eindhoven has become, the countryside looks the same as I imagine it ever did, populated sparsely by regular farmers of average intelligence. I look out over their fields with my own average thoughts, conditioned by the smart people who have preceded me. It’s as though I’ve carried a heavy frame with me on the bicycle, only to hold it up in front of me once I’ve reached Vincent’s scenes. Could I see them without the frame? What would I see?

I think again of Bloom’s anxiety of influence. We are born so late. But perhaps it’s not all bad. Everywhere there is significance because of their stories. These are our songlines, making our landscapes sacred.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Travelogue 581 – October 3
The Boys Are All Right

Jan is riding ahead of me. He’s riding a typical Dutch bike, on which one sits comically erect. We’re heading down the south side of the long Erasmus Bridge, high above the river. The bridge is the biggest hill for miles around. You lose all hill conditioning in Holland, and then huff and puff up the steep bridge. On the other side, you coast at an exhilarating speed. The wind whips Jan’s baggy white pants. It makes his sporty jacket flutter like little pennants at his sides.

Jan cycles with a controlled abandon that is natural to him as a Dutchman. He knows exactly how far to push it. It’s hard to gauge for a foreigner, especially among crowds. And the closer we get to the Feyenoord stadium, the more crowd there is.

We’ve come to watch local heroes Feyenoord play their Europa League match with Standard Liege from Belgium. Jan had found a deal on seats, called me at the last minute. We are arriving just in time. Inside the stadium, fans are roaring. We lock our bikes to a pole behind the trailer selling hamburgers, and we walk around to the back of the stadium for our entrance.

Life in the stands is something very different than life outside. I’ve seen the finesse with which Jan weaves bike among bikes, missing, pressing, never actually touching. The complexity among all the insect-like machines is fascinating. Among the football stands, the complexity dissolves, and finesse is abandoned. There is little effort to preserve space. People are jostling one another as they move, as they stand, as they sit. It’s not an event in which people eventually settle down into their seats. In our section, the seats are for standing on and walking on. The Dutch are a large people. They bring some weight to their jostling.

Football seems to appeal to the rowdier sort. These are not the clientele of the Hopper café. These are people I’m more likely to see working in the port or populating the local ‘brown’ bars, as they’re called, small pubs in in which a squinting crowd of old-timers and brawny young men with booming voices sing into the night.

They’re singing tonight, ‘Feyenoord, Feyenoord,’ and trains of words that even Jan can’t make out. One section waves at another and then they serenade each other. They hold up one finger to the incredibly boisterous section of Belgian fans, who are jumping and roaring all through the game, waving huge flags, and sounding a terrible, echoing beat on the metal side s of the balcony and rattling the fences around their section. Security people in neon are lining up on all sides.

When Feyenoord scores, all remaining space collapses. People are jumping and shouting. One fat man rushes down the aisle, and I manage to preserve only half my plastic cup of beer. The rest is soaking through my shirt. ‘Waar is het feestje? Hier is het feestje!’ the boys are shouting. The guy in front of me feels an urgent need for the Belgians to hear this message. He is becoming hoarse, though the maniacal glint in his eye does not flag. ‘Where is the party? Here is the party!’

After the game the dangerous web of bicycles among bicycles is even more intense than it was before the game. Fans launch their bikes into the street without a care, and the drunken pelotons weave fantastic patterns among the cars and trams all the way back to the bridge, among shouts and songs. Jan is chatting all the way, swerving, braking and charging forward without a thought. I’m struggling. I pull up beside him and breathe, ‘Yes, yes,’ until I need to brake and swerve again, suddenly. Jan keeps talking. ‘Yes, yes.’

Safely home, I sigh. All in all, it might be less work being on the pitch than in the stands.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Travelogue 580 – October 2

It’s morning. The sun is not shining. Sometimes it feels like there isn’t enough sleep in the world to make up for what I need. Even if I could nip a little from everyone I see on the bike paths, five minutes of the sleep belonging to each person at the café.

It wouldn’t be fair. There are plenty of people at the Hopper café. It could that none would miss five minutes of sleep. They are many and they are diverse, suits and beards, dreads and pigtails. This bakery and café is located near Beurs in the city center, and near Witte de Withstraat. Beurs is a central business and shopping district, and Witte de Withstraat is a street lined with galleries and clubs, two different aesthetics only blocks apart. If you head south past Witte de Withstraat, you pass the big eye hospital, and you pass a spacious playground full of children from the schools and pre-schools that encircle the square.

Yesterday I saw Babise here at Hopper, meeting with a dozen other moms whose children attend the schools down the street. Babise is my landlord’s wife. She is a lawyer, and she marches toward my café table like a lawyer.

It wouldn’t be fair. Children need their sleep. Mothers need their sleep. I can suffer for their sake.

It has taken so long to get going this morning. I could not move. When I could move, it has been only to turn over. I might have simply slept again, but my mind has awakened more quickly than my body. It might have been the physical sense of helplessness; it might have been the gloomy weather and the lack of light, but I found my thoughts becoming anxious. Not about useful items, not about my agenda once the blood is coursing, but anxious about the nights ahead.

Troy has brought us ‘Game of Thrones’ from America, a series about struggles for power in a fantasy world, in which dragons and zombies are only mild distractions from human conniving. We joke about the lack of light. Is there any happiness in this fantasy world? Who will be slaughtered in this episode? I don’t need much encouragement to expect the worst.

I have another race coming up. I’ve scheduled two half marathons only weeks apart this fall. I’ve already run in Den Haag, a race along the beach and through wooded parks. The day was perfect. Troy and Menna met me at the finish. We ate breakfast at an outdoor café with a view on the course.

Next week’s race will be one year after the 2013 race in Köln. The temperatures were near freezing then. This year, mild summer lingers on. The sun comes and goes, but a gentle warmth remains to color another day. Forecasts have slipped into calm eddies of repetition.

My morning thoughts, while I’m lying helpless in my bed, have leapt, unaccountably, to thoughts of Twain and Tom Sawyer. The Mississippi spreads its wide waters across my imagination. I see Midwestern hills carpeted with summer trees. I’m seized by a longing for the dust and the brush of quiet countryside.

Twain had captured something of the essence of childhood. I’m swimming for a moment in the expansiveness of it. When the summer sun is shining, the nights are so far away. It’s coming to me very palpably, how irretrievable is every day. I have to get out of bed.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Travelogue 579 – September 12
Panizzi in London

More than two hundred years after Ashurnasirpal, his empire was still pre-eminent in the region. The capital of the empire was now in Nineveh. His throne had been inherited by one Ashurbanipal. Ashurbanipal was not his father’s first son, and so he was not raised as heir to the throne. He had been raised as gentleman and courtier. He was taught to read. When he succeeded to the throne, ahead of even a surviving elder brother, he became the first – according to legend – Assyrian king who was able to read. Being literate at that time meant reading the cuneiform scripts of Akkadian and Sumerian. It so happened the young scholar was also a leader of some skill, popular with his people and effective as a military man, and extraordinarily cruel with enemies, it seems. He ruled for almost fifty years, and was the last great king of the Assyrians, perhaps being all too effective and too cruel as a conqueror, reducing his enemies to a state in which they had little left for tribute or tax. Within a generation of the great king’s death, the empire teetered and fell, over-extended, broke, and victim of an alliance among the many harshly-treated subject races, close to home, including Babylonians and Medes and Chaldeans. Is this the consequence of knowledge from books? Perhaps it’s the hubris of the third brother, smarter than the rest, given the world?

More lasting than empire was perhaps the great library founded by Ashurbanipal, who was proud of his scholarship as he was of his conquests. It was the first systematically collected royal library in history, the great king having devoted himself to owning all great tracts of history and legend and science. The library might have survived for centuries. Alexander is rumored to have seen it and been inspired. He had a vision of an Alexandrian library. The vision was taken up by one of his generals, Ptolemy Soter, who would become king of a revived Egypt, centered in the new city of Alexandria. The library of Ashurbanipal was re-discovered in 1849 by young Henry Layard. About thirty thousand texts were dug from the ruins.

The Reading Room at the British Museum is closed for repair and inspection when I visit. That’s a great disappointment. My first visits to the great library remain vividly in my memory, like visits to a holy place, and I want to see it again. There is something magnificent about the great libraries of the world, a sense of arrival when one walks in. Even when one allows how much has been written and catalogued that might have been better forgotten, the prospect of encountering all surviving recorded thought in one place is awe-inspiring. And the circular space was been designed with suitable reverence by the architect Sydney Smirke and the librarian Antonio Panizzi, opening in 1857, its walls lined with books under a dome painted sky blue, sober brown reading desks radiating like spokes around the room’s center. The room served for 150 years, serving such luminaries as Marx and Gandhi, Woolf and Wilde.

Panizzi was librarian for the British Museum from 1831-1866. He was a controversial figure, vain and strong-willed, but extraordinarily committed to the task of administering the library. He is thought by some to have been the greatest in this occupation in history. He wrote a set of ninety-one rules for cataloguing that have formed the basis for all subsequent systems.

Panizzi had started as a lawyer in northern Italy, and as a supporter of Italian unification and democracy. His politics won him few friends among the powerful, and eventually he had been forced to flee. Arriving at last in London, he survived as a language teacher until he won the friendship of the future Lord Chancellor, Henry Brougham. Brougham was able to find placement for Panizzi at the University of London and then the British Museum.

The British Museum itself began life as a collection, a collection without a home, a collection that included more than forty thousand texts. This was the collection of one Dr, Hans Sloane, physician and happy eccentric, who willed his collection to King George II. The king okayed the creation of the British Museum, and Sloane’s library was joined with several other venerable collections, including, in 1757, the Royal Library. The Museum was settled in the Montagu House by Russell Square, bought by the government for twenty thousand pounds, and opened to the public in 1759.

One of the rights granted to the Royal Library, and transferred to the British Library, was the right of legal deposit. Newly published books were to be deposited into the national collection. Panizzi revived this principle during his tenure, and pursued the library’s right to books relentlessly, building the collection to become the world’s largest, at more than half a million volumes.

The website of the British Museum tells us, rather starkly, that ‘the Museum is now consulting widely about the future use of the Reading Room.’ Obviously the library survives, having been transferred to its new site at St. Pancras. And the world’s knowledge seems more secure than ever, stored in dozens of great libraries around the world that would make Ashurbanipal’s jaw drop, stored electronically, deeply among the circuits and cables strung across the surface of the planet, and backed up in drive after drive. So secure that we are led to question the purpose of the Reading Room.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Travelogue 578 – September 11
Ozymandias and the Law Clerk

Even mighty Ashurnasirpal must be dug from under the sands of unforgiving earth. And the dig is a story in itself.

It’s the time of Britain’s supremacy. Only a few decades earlier, Lord Elgin has arranged to rescue the marbles of the Parthenon from the Turks. (Read ‘rescue’ where there might be pages of controversy. Be grateful.)

In the 1840s a young man named Henry Layard is bumming around the Middle East. He had been on his way to Ceylon, a young man with promise, born into a family of civil servants, lawyers, and physicians. He had spent six years in his uncle’s London law office, and now he was breaking away, looking to follow in his father’s footsteps in the Ceylon civil service. But he never makes it past Mesopotamia and Persia, where he wanders and explores, at one point coming upon the excavations of one Paul-Émile Botta, French consul at Mosul, appointed to the post in order to carry on the explorations for Nineveh for the French crown, at one point coming across the ruins of Nimrud, which Botta didn’t think much of.

He returns to Istanbul, and works a few years for the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, one Stratford Canning, trading his knowledge of the Middle East for work that keeps him traveling around Turkey and the Middle East. Eventually, he persuades Canning to support an expedition to dig at Kuyunjik and Nimrud. He spends several years there, living in camps, directing the massive digs. There is no budget to finish, to do everything, collect everything.

He returns to London and publishes his findings. He leverages his preliminary discoveries into a commitment from the British Museum to support a new dig. It will be this trip, in the early 1850s, that produces much of the work that we see in the museum today, the work from Ashurnasirpal’s capital, the great winged guardians and the wall sculptures in relief.

Again, Mr. Layard devotes several years of his life to the desert, to the work, to his little ad hoc town he raises near the Tigris River, dedicated to digging. There are sketches and paintings that survive from Layard’s expeditions. There was an artist assigned to him to document, and Layard himself produced many drawings. One sees in the drawings the mechanics of excavation, the tunnels dug among the ruins, the local laborers standing beside statues, and even Layard himself, posing in costume or sitting and sketching. There are hopeful reconstructions of Nimrud and Nineveh, Roman cities with Oriental detail.

This time, sculptures are carried away. The winged guardians, each nearly ten tons, are loaded onto a wheeled cart towed by 300 men. They are loaded onto a barge, padded with 600 goatskins and sheepskins to keep it afloat, and sent down the River Tigris.

By 1855, Botta and Layard had found all they were going to find. Layard returned to England, where he launched a political career, serving as member of Parliament and Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs. Botta went on to serve in Jerusalem and Tripoli, only returning to France at the end of life. There have been no Assyrian discoveries on that scale since.

For 150 years, the winged guardians have stood sentry in the halls of the museum, perhaps as long as they watched over Ashurnasirpal and his family. IN 722 BC, Sargon II moved the capital away from Kalhu. A generation later, another king moved it to Nineveh, where one of the last kings, one Ashurbanipal, would build a great library.

History moved on, leaving the guardians with little to protect but the reputation of one bearded conqueror.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Travelogue 577 – September 10
Ashurnasirpal in London

The street market is in in full bloom by the time Jonathan is escorting me away from Angel. The cafes along White Conduit Street pump bits of music out onto the street to accompany us in our progress.

Jonathan knows all the crooked ways of North London. We are going to bypass King’s Cross; we are going to stop beside Russell Square and part ways. The next time we see each other, it may be in Ethiopia. From Russell Square, I’m going to make my own way to the British Museum.

The South Entrance of the museum inspires me in exactly the way it was designed to, grandly drawn in Greek Revival, drawn almost two hundred years ago by Sir Robert Smirke. It also inspires in a more prosaic way, stirring a nostalgia for London and for the peregrinations of my early Tesfa years. The last time I visited the British Museum, I was little more than a homeless wanderer, camping out at the Tsegereda school in Ethiopia, camping out on Thomas’s floor when I stopped through London.

I enter. I wander around the Grand Court a while, browsing among the shops and the people, reading directions and looking at museum maps. I find out the Reading Room is closed for inspection and repairs. That’s a disappointment.

I set out for the Elgin Marbles. Just like the last time I visited, I am waylaid by the mighty Assyrians. There is something so arresting in the sight of the huge guardians of the gates, human-headed and winged creatures, one with the body of a lion, one with the body of a bull. I am drawn into the Assyrian exhibit again, all of it sculpture from the walls of palaces. Much of it dates to the reign of one Ashurnasirpal II. Much of it, according to the little museum cards, dates to the years 865-860 BC. That is a prodigious amount of work in five years, the type of work that only a conquering monarch can order.

Assyria was ascendant during the reign of Ashurnasirpal. Ascendant again. Even by Ashurnasirpal’s time the Assyrians had been around long enough to have been through a few cycles of expansion and contraction. This cycle is destined to be their greatest, though. In the coming two centuries, the Assyrians will overrun much of the Middle East, including Egypt. And then, 250 years after Ashurnasirpal, it will all crumble very suddenly, the empire falling before the Medes, who will sweep the board for young Cyrus.

The sculpture speaks with the confidence of empire. The stylistic formulae had been worked out centuries earlier, and it’s clear from later examples in the museum they persisted until the end of Assyria’s dominance. But there’s a vitality in the work from Ashurnasirpal’s reign that mesmerizes. It’s all carved in relief, as nearly all surviving Assyrian sculpture is, but the outlines are so sure, the lines cut into the gypsum so deep, that the work strikes with more force than most relief sculpture. The guardians, in particular, have more dimension because they are curved into two surfaces of a corner stone. Interestingly, one of the front legs standing firm in the front view is portrayed in motion on the side. This works out to five legs carved out for the same beast.

The best of ancient and medieval figure work has a way of rising just above the tenuous line of cartoon and into dignity. It’s a fascinating trick, and one that occupies a lot of my museum musings. How is that effect achieved? It has something to do with the calculated combination of realism and the stylized. See how the musculature of the lions in the hunt, or the lion and bull bodies of the guardians, combine and contrast with the huge staring eyes of the human figures, the precise rows of curls in the men’s beards, the interchangeability of all human figures, who can be identified only by clothing and the weapons or instruments they carry. And, except for the chaos of a few battle scenes -- in which fallen soldiers float in the sky and the king stands with his guardian angels towering over the rest of the rabble, good Renaissance perspective being left for the fastidious barbarians beyond the civilized shores of the Levant, -- the composition of their sculpted scenes always suggest the pageantry of procession, procession through territory, geographic and temporal.

Everything is power and conquest. Boasting is a royal duty, almost a diplomatic duty, as a tactic to keep the peace, perhaps something like all the American films portraying infallible CIA agents and Special Forces supermen.

Portraits of the king are inscribed with long lines of cuneiform, scrolling right across the middle of the stone, describing in standard form his titles and conquests – many battles, many peoples subjugated, not too many orphanages.

Seeing the dates for the artwork, seeing that it was produced in five years, makes me think of the artists themselves. I want to picture one maestro supervising the work in massive workshops somewhere in Ashurnasirpal’s new capital of Kalhu (dubbed ‘Nimrud’ some time later, conflating the god of the temple and the city). The consistency of style over the course of centuries and the sheer amount of work produced don’t really support the vision of one person’s guiding genius. But there is something identifiable about the work from Kalhu, the slightest touch that is unique.

There are plenty of examples in history of genius bringing an idiosyncratic touch to the art of its day, still bound by exacting strictures. Donatello casts one more bronze of David. Buonarroti carves one more statue of David. Here at the British Museum, I’m confronted by work executed by human hands removed at more than five times the distance than Buonarroti’s time. There is no artist’s stamp or signature. I can’t help wishing I knew just one small thing about the sculptors. But whose name do we know beyond the king’s? It’s a society of radical anonymity. Even the portraits of the king reveal little personal character. The sculptors were likely to be considered as part of the priestly caste, trained to serve the state cult. I suppose one might say, with only some exaggeration, that the same applies to the apprentices of Renaissance Italy, detailing the Virgin’s blue robe over and over. But the free-lance model guiding their work eventually made for dangerous eccentricities.

In another four hundred years, after Ashurnasirpal is a forgotten legend, it will be the turn of the Greeks. If the Assyrian king is even aware of the Greeks, I’m guessing it is as an annoying bunch of hillbillies at the fringes of the known world. But in the following century, the poet or poets we call Homer, will compose or record one of the foundational texts of world literature. The Persians certainly became aware of the Greeks, and it could be said that their several expeditions to bring the Greeks to heel were the defining acts of their time, the trigger that freed forces of history, that launched what we used to like to call Western Civilization.

Something will be different with the Greeks. There will still be memorials to battle. The palaces and the temples and will still be tributes to violence. The Elgin Marbles lined the temple of the Parthenon. They featured more processions, more battles. But now there is an artist with a name, Phidias. There is movement, and the figures seem to breathe.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Travelogue 576 – September 9
Wake the Angel

Angel is awakening. Along White Conduit Street, an early riser is making his way to the Tube. He is wearing a blue suit. He hangs his head pensively. He has a man-bag slung over one shoulder. The same shoulder’s hand is holding up a paper cup of coffee. It looks to be from one of tiny local cafes. White Conduit Street is a street of tiny shops, most of them still closed, the steel drawn down over their windows. The storefronts project from the tan and old, three-storey brick all the way down the little street. The McDonald’s is open. It’s open twenty-four hours. And so is the Euphorium Bakery across the street. They play soul in the Euphorium Bakery on Tuesday mornings.

I’m enjoying the Euphorium Bakery. It has an old but clean wooden floor, set in small planks in herring-bone pattern. There is a one long table of thick wood in the center, and few flimsy circular tables set around it. The display case is lit. The goods inside are unreasonably appetizing.

The morning papers are carrying on with yesterday’s cants: polls are showing the Scots ready to split, and the Princess is pregnant with a second heir to the throne. The Scottish poll has inspired pages of analysis, how the economy will reel, what manner of responses the politicians are dreaming up. And further news has it that I am in England just as Angel is awakening. That is time’s uncanny power, to place you suddenly in spots like the Euphorium Bakery. And even as you say, ‘I am here,’ you realize how little reason there is for it.

I’m the worst house guest. I was not able to lie still once I had seen the blue of the sky through the shutters. I needed the chilly and fresh air of the morning. I tapped on Jonathan and Olivia’s bedroom door, timidly, and there is nothing worse than a timid house guest. ‘Sorry, guys.’ I am abashed, but I didn’t want to leave without being able to turn the lock behind me.

A bearded man in sandals is pushing a tall wheeled cart filled with rolled up Turkish –style carpets. They are stood on end in the cart, so that what he is pushing is twice as tall as he is. There is a man whose sparse deadlocks are gathered in a small pony tail. He is slamming the trunk of his black car as I pass. He sets boxes of wares upon his sturdy table on wheels. He has rolled the table to the side of White Conduit Street, placing it the white lines that designate slots for the stalls in the daily street market. He is selling plastic kitchen ware, little bins and buckets and trays. The carpet vendor and the man with the plastics seem to have the jump on the rest of the vendors.

Next to McDonald’s is a tiny optician’s shop. Next to that a Subway, and next to that a chemist. He has a sign set between the two windows on the top floor, a sign that reads, ‘Prescriptions’. The foot traffic has picked up. They head south, they head north, their heads down in what looks like a kind of meditation.

‘Looks like another love TKO’ is coming across the speakers here at the Euphorium. I’m about halfway through my pain au raisin. It could be that Jonathan and Olivia are up by now. I’m thinking they’re not. And I’m about to lose all power on my netbook. I remembered to pack the charger for the computer, but I forgot to pack the adapter. Yesterday I had to search the shops of the

I ask the ginger-haired Polish girl behind the counter if there are any plugs at the Euphorium. She sadly points back to one sad set behind the counter, set into the wall above her back counter.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Travelogue 575 – September 2
The Never Waiting

Here the river turns south, and so does the bike path beside it, and one has for the space of five minutes a privileged perspective of the city. The river Maas itself is very wide here, and the surface placid. A boat or two will be plying the waters, ferrying goods or ferrying tourists. Scanning west, one sees the buildings of downtown on either side of the river. One sees the tower and strings of the Erasmus Bridge. Looking south, the city continues along the banks, on the far bank down to the tall minarets of the Essalam Mosque and the lights of the Feyenoord Stadion. On the north bank, there is the green grass of a park beside the river. And there is the Woudestein campus of Erasmus University.

During the summer the campus was a peaceful place, warm stone set around a reflecting pool. The streets nearby were shaded by rows of full trees. There was a feeling of space and air.

But this is a week of terrible consequence. Vacations are over. Workers have streamed back into town. Students are back. They have gathered in lively crowds at schools and university buildings all over town. The streets are crowded. The bike paths are dangerous.

This evening, the Erasmus campus is full of heat and noise. A temporary stage has been erected on the terrace above the pool, and anonymous bands are covering pulsing pop songs. Crowds are concentrated in formations in front of booths set up to vend food and beer. I have to thread a slow progress through these crowds to reach my appointed place.

I am meeting with the theatre group. We are working on a play. Many of the actors are instructors at Erasmus or next door, at the Hogeschool. I’m directing the play. It’s a silly farce by an American, about a disastrous production of Macbeth. We started rehearsals in the spring, and now we pick them up again. We have two months until show time.

We retire to one of the two student bars on campus after rehearsal. The chaos has not abated. The music acts are still pounding out their beats on the temporary stage. The bar is full, mobbed by young people devoting the evening to drink. They are on a mission to blot out the native intelligence that brought them to this prestigious university. They bring a commendable singe-mindedness to the task. I’m reminded of many of my own performances during university days. I had a talent for this activity myself, back in the day. The kids are shouting and singing songs and laughing. None of it is remotely original. And that is the beauty of ritual: to the participants it all feels new.

I am going to have a dream later. In this dream, I travel in time, back to my freshman year in college. I’m attending a meeting, but I’m far too distracted to participate. Traveling in time is much like traveling in space. One is far too engaged by the sights, sounds, and smells of, say, Rome, to attend to the everyday. In the dream, I’m aware that I’ve traveled in time, so I’m hypnotized by the familiarity of everything, and I’m marveling at the possibilities.

The dream arises from my visit to the university campus during the students’ revels, during the start-up of the school year. But it will also be encouraged by the movie before bedtime. Menna and I watch Terminator II, Arnold returning to the 90s as the redeemed and redeeming hero, Linda Hamilton all buff and muscling her way out of a mental hospital to save her son. The three of them are chased by a new class of Terminator, the melting man who runs like a machine.

Time as a pliable medium, a substance we swim through, perhaps with some individual volition: it doesn’t seem to have been a concept general to the human imagination. Time travel as a device seems, but for a few strange early exceptions, a nineteenth-century invention. Maybe it required a more mobile society. Shakespeare, model of social mobility in his era, had nothing to say about time machines. The frame of a time machine provides unique opportunities for satire and edification. It can warn us (Wells & Dickens), lampoon the past or the present (Twain).

But modern narratives tend to focus on the power dynamic in time travel. Owning time is owning an advantage, at least if the hero/villain has traveled backward, (as opposed to the lonely prospect of traveling forward into the unknown.) Power seems to be the keynote to nearly every production of pop culture these days. Is that because America more or less owns pop culture, just at a time when America suffers a crisis of faith in its own power?

In my own static and unyielding time, I set out for home from the Erasmus campus. Now the city along the river is outlined in lights against the night sky. It’s a new city, a night city. The same lights are dancing among the waters of the river, like reflections in a dream. Returning students are roaming in packs. I have to dodge the front wheel of one zealous novitiate, who is impressing the ladies in his group by riding only on his back wheel. Theirs is the power of timelessness. They have burst free from anxious chronologies. They trample pasts and futures underneath the tires of their vrijwielen.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Travelogue 574 – August 31
The Experience Waiting

There are no more signs today than on any other day that autumn is coming, but the premonition washes through me like a wave of gratitude.

When you leave the house early on a Sunday morning, the sky opens up above in silence. The Dutch sky gives few clues to the experience waiting on the bike ride.

As has been true for weeks, you can’t tell by the Dutch sky whether your lot is to be sun or wind or rain, even during the course of a twenty-minute bike ride. Will it be the patch of blue sky to the north, or will it be the clouds gathered in the south, holding their portions of rain?

As it happens, today I will have both. Even as the sun touches me, as I’m pushing the cycle onto the bike path, there is also a drizzle hanging in the air. As I’m passing beside the peaceful Schie River, I see the stippling effect on the glinting surface of the water.

The lights past the bridge are blinking yellow. They only do that on Sunday mornings, when the city can spare only an indifferent glance for the early risers. It has spent itself on the previous night. You watch for bottle glass on the bike paths.

Farther down the road, the police are blocking off a length of street with quiet lights turning on their car tops. The police themselves are standing together and chatting pleasantly. Their job, it seems, has been to figure out why there’s a little black car perched on the street’s meridian, windshield shattered and wheels wrenched off their axles. There seems to be no urgency to solving the puzzle.

One kilometer more and I’m at the central station. There is one man standing alone in the great plaza facing the station. He is turning slowly with his phone in camera mode held high. I only notice then that the drizzle has resolved into an uncertain haze.

I have been underground. I have locked my bike up in the ramps there, in the echoing concrete chamber dedicated only to bicycles. There are thousands of them, lined neatly on two levels. Somewhere there is one other person parking. I hear the chain rattling against the rack.

There were mornings last week with more of an autumnal chill in the air. Summer has made an unassuming return, slipping quietly back into the city, with a breath that is humid and mildly fragrant with grass and with old fruit.

I am crossing behind the man with the camera, safely outside the scope of his present shot. I’m wishing suddenly for more space than the square can offer. I’m wishing for the space of a cold beach.

It is only the hush of a Sunday morning, maybe most grave, maybe most light of days. Maybe the germ of the week. You hear the cry of a season inside it. It awakens proper gratitude. It is like the glimpse of gears inside a terrible machine. It’s a kind of comfort.

There’s a couple who pass at a brisk pace, a red-haired chihuahua frisking at their feet, always underfoot. The man trails a suitcase on wheels behind him. They are excited to be in motion.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Travelogue 573 – August 12
The Smithy Revolution

Revolution! Imagine what the ambitious young Peter Abelard might have thought. As popular as he was, followed around the muddy streets of Paris by hundreds of pupils eager for his words, he could only have been a name among theologians and philosophers, who spread his reputation by word of mouth, or occasionally by lending out a precious, hand-copied manuscript.

What if Abelard, king of words, had known Gutenberg, the goldsmith who, some three hundred years later, changed the intellectual world forever? Even that Abelard speaks to us now, after almost a millennium, is largely thanks to Herr Gutenberg. Together, they would have conspired to all sorts of dangerous ambitions.

After Gutenberg’s revolution, humanity speaks across time. Generations pass their wisdom on, and each generation adds to it. The pool of knowledge grows, as does the percentage of humanity that can access it.

Abelard’s revolution, if he had been given access to a printing press, might have looked a lot like Luther’s. Both men were brilliant in debate, and both were intolerant of opposing opinions. There is some paradox in that. It is probably better that the revolution was a tinker’s revolution and not a philosopher’s. There is something analogous to Abelard’s theory of ethics, separating intent and action. Here we separate the medium from the content. As it was, Gutenberg had no more ambitious agenda than to make more Bibles. We should be thankful for his nobility, or for his lack of imagination.

The very neutrality of the delivery system worked toward literacy’s benefit, creating access to literature of every stripe, and providing the incentive to literacy that reformed all society. Reading is not genetic. It must be taught, and -- as we are learning in Ethiopia -- there is little incentive to the task without materials to read. Efficient knowledge transfer needs the raw materials. The printers have provided it. Revolution!

Following in Gutenberg’s footsteps, the printers became workmen, technicians, artisans. They formed firms, formed guilds, and thoroughly commercialized the operation. They prospered. They received commissions from kings. They built urban manors.

There may be no better place to see that than at the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp. The museum was once a house, a house facing the Vrijdag Market in Antwerp, a house for the Plantijn and Moretus families, and for their family business, a business that survived three hundred years. The firm was founded by Christoffel Plantijn in the middle of the sixteenth century. He was not only a printer-publisher of quality but had a canny instinct for survival during turbulent times, when Belgium was embroiled in the Eighty Years War, when Antwerp, the richest city in Europe, became a pawn in the tug of war between the Dutch and the Spanish. Plantijn managed to become printer for a royal Bible project, and leveraged this into status as Philip II’s ‘Architypographus Regii’, printer of royally sanctioned liturgical books. In the next generation, the business was passed to Christoffel‘s son-in-law, Jan Moretus. It remained in the Moretus family until they gifted the house to the city in the mid-nineteenth century.

The first reason to visit the museum is to see the two oldest surviving printing presses, dating back to around 1600. They are placed in the preserved workshop, where the printing took place, where letters were set and pages printed. It would have been a crowded, noisy, and chaotic room in its time, its centuries of time, having the capacity to print something like 2,000 pages per day. Now it has the silence appropriate to a museum, and it’s left to the imagination to sense the overwhelming roar and stink, among more than a dozen workers, that it took to produce a book.

Equally fascinating are the quieter rooms. One worth mentioning is old Christoffel‘s office, small as a modern closet, and almost as dark, preserved in its sixteenth and seventeenth century atmosphere, with wooden beams and walls lined with rare gilded leather. Here, the money was kept and counted. One can also visit the humble room where the proofreaders worked. There is little to see here but their desks, but learning about their work, one realizes how profoundly deep the reservoirs of intellect that were gathered in these printing houses. The houses may have been organized according to profit models, but there is no doubt that they effectively operated as centers of culture and learning, taking the place of the monasteries of Abelard’s day. The editors had to be prepared to apply themselves to works on a variety of academic topics, in any numbers of languages, modern and ancient. I managed to spot some letters cast from the Ge’ez, or historical Ethiopian, alphabet, among the boxes of preserved letters for the presses.

In a room next to Christoffel’s office, one sees portraits of Lipsius, renowned Renaissance humanist, friend to the founder of the house, and star in the firm’s first stable of published authors. In another room, one sees copper plates for illustrations designed by Mr. Rubens, friend to another, later patriarch of the family, one Balthasar Moretus.

Lastly, there is the patrician house itself, an architectural monument to status among the great business families of Antwerp. There is an interior courtyard, and set among the bricks walls are carvings of the family logo and busts of family notables. The two floors of the house are furnished with the self-indulgent complacency of success, commissioned portraits, fine furniture, tapestries, extensive libraries, a map room with man-sized globes, damask coverings. Goldsmiths as the arbiters of academia, goldsmiths bunking in the manor house; here’s the look of the revolution.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Travelogue 572 – August 7
Part Four

It’s another night in front of the TV. The Rocky series continues. Apollo Creed has retired. Rocky has been a model champ, taking on almost all comers. But there’s a fierce new challenger. He has the eye of the tiger.

There’s an ambivalence to the sky outside my window of the little salon, my refuge in loneliness. The humidity seems ready to turn. It might rain. The steady heat may well leak from the sky. Has the time of rains come? That’s always a decent wager in the Netherlands.

When it rains in movies, it is a call from high in the atmosphere for conflict and introspection. There should be some key exchange of dialogue in the street, characters exposed to the weather. Someone walks home, hands in pockets, in melancholy and uncertainty.

I’m wondering how Stallone sees himself in the history of cinema – as his latest oeuvre, Expendables III, hits theatres in Europe. I often wonder how artists describe their careers to themselves. Are there two camps, gathered round two replies to the critics? ‘It’s a job,’ says one. ‘They don’t get it,’ says the other. Maybe there’s a third, those who disavow grand narratives. The artist tries for greatness, gets there once or twice. The rest if fluff. Maybe Stallone just shrugs and says, ‘Hey, I wrote Rocky.’

And so, on a humid European summer evening, I’m reminded of a stretch of Texas desert, dry space broken open, revealing miles and miles of nature’s lazy design in rock. It’s still, and all is quiet, except for a few spare tones from a slide guitar. The notes don’t emanate from an earthly source, so they aren’t subject to the breezes or the vagaries of dimension. They come from the world of the film-maker, and so they seem part of the arch of heaven. There’s a man walking across the desert. We are given a man in a desert. We are given a story.

It’s a tenuous thread of story, a man wandering the desert, a victim of his passion for a woman. But any story is only as good as its telling. This story was picked up by French and German producers, was captured in a screenplay by Sam Shepard, was directed by Wim Wenders, was accompanied by music by Ry Cooder, and was acted out by a fascinating mix of 80s stars, character actors Harry Dean Stanton and Dean Stockwell, with model and Polanski protégé, Nastassja Kinski. A young boy named Hunter Carson turns in a great performance as … a young boy.

The film moves slowly, even meditatively. The story is the telling. The story is desert space; it’s an airport in L.A.; it’s downtown Houston. Just like Rocky, the story must succeed in mood as much as in plot. The narrative turns on long, dramatic dialogues between Stanton and Kinski. She’s behind glass and he is shrouded in anonymous darkness.

‘Paris, Texas’ won the Palme d'Or in 1984. In 2014, it’s enjoying an obscure little revival at Le Champo Theatre in the Latin Quarter of Paris. The theatre itself is a small piece of film history, built in 1938 and being a favorite among Parisian students and cinephiles. In its day, it has served for premieres for directors like Marcel Carné and Jacques Tati. Now it is known for its retrospectives.

Stallone has been to France – most recently, riding through Cannes on a Soviet-era tank with his ‘Expendables’ co-stars. So he must know what film means to the French. They have good reason for their affection. Cinema can be said to have been born here, with the invention of the cinematographe by the tinkering Lumiere brothers. The brothers were heirs to a family photography studio in Lyon, freed by their father’s retirement in 1892 to play with moving pictures. In 1895 they presented an exhibition of short films at the Salon Indien in Paris, in an event commonly heralded as the birth of the art form. Ironically, the Lumieres eventually decided there was no future in film and went on to become innovators in color photography.

Until the First World War, France continued to play a leading role in film, led by such characters as Georges Méliès, the Pathé brothers, Léon Gaumont, and Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female film-maker. It was only during the war that American film moved to California, and started picking up the role in production that it would hold through the rest of the century, filling the gap left by the warring Europeans.

After our film, Menna and I stopped at Le Reflet across the street, a humble little bar with some notoriety of its own, an old watering hole for film lovers and film makers. The signs of its history are the film posters on the walls. I’m studying the Bruce Lee above our table. Was he the first Expendable? Would he have ridden a tank into Cannes? Why not?

On TV, Rocky takes his beating, the blood sacrifice of the hero whom destiny has called to win. The summer sky contains itself, holding in its rains for another day. After the victory, I can turn off the TV. I could take a walk. I could stay lying here and watch the color of dusk change outside my window. It’s summer, the season of idylls and daydreams. Maybe I’ll stay and throw my dreams of boxing and theology onto the wall, pacing ghostly Parisian avenues across the deserts of the Lone Star State. It’s all one, the world title belt on a dancing Abelard, Latin perorations intoned by Burgess Meredith, a taste of wine under the timeless sky of the Contrescarpe, the sound of the adversary’s cheek hitting the mat. We have won, and all is right once again.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Travelogue 571 – August 6
Part Three

And there we were, listening to klezmer. We were having one last coffee for the day, sitting together among the banks of outdoor tables at the café facing the square. We had spent a day wandering among the shadows of centuries past, and we were resting at a café on the Place de la Contrescarpe. We were having a last coffee for the day, as the sun found its place among the western roofs above the Place. We were listening to two musicians who were making the rounds among the hundreds of seats facing the square that is not a square, but the irregular shape described by generations of ancient traffic emerging together from a variety of directions. There were two musicians, dressed with the delicate care of old hobos, one on trumpet and one on clarinet, the cases for the instruments at their feet. The melodies might have played themselves, so well-rehearsed by the long summer days. Occasionally one horn trailed off as the musician behind it made the rounds among the audiences, holding forth his soiled cap for coins. He moved from café to café, among the half dozen or so that encircled the historic square.

And this is what I can daydream about on solitary evenings while my wife is away. The sky in Zuid-Holland is a gentle summer consistency, humid and stirred by mild and cool breezes. I’ve muted the TV while Rocky works up a scene change on a commercial break.

Rocky is muttering in my ear with the sincerity of tireless youth, saying every fight is a good fight. ‘You know, you put up your gloves. Like this. That’s right. You go the distance.’ And I haven‘t even lifted the mute. He is a spirit of fortitude, a companion in solitude.

We have discovered the Place de la Contrescarpe twice. And each time, we have stopped for a coffee at one of the cafes facing the fountain in the square. The first time, we had descended from the Mont-Sainte-Geneviève, having emerged from the law students’ gate at the Sorbonne and passed beneath the sad height of the Panthéon, covered as it is these days by a white trash bag and scaffolding, past the celebrated university library and to the lovely and unique façade of the church of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, where Saint Geneviève herself lies buried. We had entered and reviewed the beautiful stained glass. We had moved on, among the narrow streets of the district, stopping in front of the residences of ghost Joyce and ghost Hemingway.

It’s the Latin Quarter, named for the language of poets and lecturers. And the writers have remained loyal through the centuries.

Stallone has forgotten his Italian. His cousins have forgotten their Latin. He’s composed his stories in the language of a new place called Philadelphia. The story is a morality tale, how losing is winning. He wins an Oscar for the screenplay.

The second time we arrived at the Place de la Contrescarpe, we have been walking south, returning along the Rue Mouffetard, famous clutter of shops and market stalls. We have stopped in cheese shops to count the types of cheese, and to swim in the scents. The name Mouffetard comes from mouffle, Old French for stink. But it’s not the stink of cheese. Rather it comes from the work of skinners, tanners, and tripe butchers by the river Bièvre at the foot of the hill.

The jumble of tiny shops – Orwell wrote of the Rue Mouffetard, ‘. . . a ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching toward one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all been frozen in the act of collapse’ – has led Menna to remark, ‘Now I feel like I’m in France.’

And the writers have remained loyal. Hugo and Balzac honor the area in books. If you go back far enough, you find Rabelais drinking at the Maison de la Pomme de Pin, among the university students looking for cheap wine. Rewind further, and you will find the poet Villon engaging in remarkably similar activities, when the Place de la Contrescarpe was no place, but a muddy meadow outside the gates of the city, where teamsters gathered for business and for pleasure.

I reach further, and I imagine it in the time of our tender-hearted intellectual, young Peter Abelard, who described himself as peripatetic, lecturing as he strolled among the open spaces that undoubtedly described the landscape on this side of the montagne. That he taught while he walked is probably as much a fiction as the one that had Aristotle teaching while he strolled the groves of the Lyceum. More likely he found some church or abbey to host his ‘school’. But I bet he did walk, and I bet plenty of wide-eyed pupils did follow him down the road. Maybe they bought him his wine at the roadside tavern that would mark the spot of the Maison de la Pomme de Pin, just to hear him dissect the ideas of the respected scholars at Notre Dame, cruelly and capably discrediting them and their thoughts. Some of the students could probably afford the bar tab, being second and third sons of nobility, seeking their fortunes in the powerful medieval church.

I’m thinking the young scholar Stallone, scribbling away in obscurity in the mid-70s, might have had a ghostly ally in Peter Abelard. In his Ethics, Abelard contends that moral value resided not in the action, but in the intention. This was a novel contention at the time, to judge by the charges of heresy brought against him. How novel is hard to say. What smithies grumble in the taverns often takes centuries to find its way into philosopher’s tracts. Once there, the most prosaic thought become fodder for political battle. Philosophy is a game of contention, and no one knew that better than Abelard, who was a difficult man to live at peace with. He was too sharp, too smart, and much too ready to prove it. He challenged every teacher he had, and often publicly.

Philosophers are fighters. Channel Seven has been airing all the Rocky movies, and then afterward all the Rambo films. I don’t have the stamina for Rocky and Rambo both, but I catch the beginnings of each one of the Rambo stories for nostalgia’s sake. This is the Stallone that we’ve become more familiar with over the years, laconic and sullen. Stallone of the Rocky era was a boy, eager and sentimental and even verbose. He had trusting puppy eyes then, not the staring and judging eyes of the elder prophet.

Both Stallone characters are innocents, and Stallone’s business has been the writing of moral fables. Whether boxing in Philly or shooting bad guys in Burma, the protagonist of any of the fables is an innocent at war with circumstance. The world is intrusive and demanding. It enters into life of the hero in the guise of some relentless antagonist. They aren’t always bad guys. In the older films, they are just people struggling with their petty ambitions, the redneck town sheriff, the vain world champ. The antagonist appears, and the hero responds to the challenge with righteous action: persistence, honest effort, and generosity.

In later movies, the casualties add up. If intention trumps action, I suppose the body count becomes only a detail. That is the story of action films in the 80s. What counts is the moral.

And this is where the hero of ‘Vanilla Sky’ fails. He kills no one, not even himself, as it turns out, but his intentions are muddled. He is weak, and therefore unforgivable. Morality tales require clear decision and resolute action. It’s acceptable to set aside ten minutes in the script for self-doubt, but ultimately the hero’s instincts are sure.

Morality tales are mirrors, and humans love mirrors. Religion serves morality, and religious art depicts angels in human form. The Bible is parable and story. Even the atheist has a strict code, and his clan has heroes. It’s not the after-life that motivates morality. It’s a keen sense of our own fragility. We have always been animals running in groups, measuring our chances at survival by status in the group. Morality is a code for trust. Survival depends on accurate readings of behavior. Behavior is guided by morality. Rambo may be a killer, but we know very well who he’s going to kill.

In any case, killing was on holiday in the Place de la Contrescarpe that day. We felt entirely safe and relaxed in that assembly of hundreds in a Paris square. The code of that group was in service of an idea called ‘summer’. Our behavior conformed to a code called ‘vacation’. It’s perhaps the highest form of civilization yet. God looked down upon us, as He moved His sun into position to set, and He was pleased. We were philosophers. We were free of both intention and action.