Thursday, January 30, 2014

Travelogue 544 – January 30
Kazimir and the Cloak Room

It feels like the big city now. Going to Amsterdam, it's not the quaint and historical that I see. I see the crowds and the dirt. I stand impatiently at the tram stops, eye on my watch. On the train, I'm seeing the long strips of corporate parks, and I'm seeing the factories on the horizon, the smoke stacks across the Ij River.

I have business in the big city. Specifically, I need a notary for US-based paperwork. My research into notaries in Rotterdam hasn't turned up much. The few that I find are charging over a hundred for one signature. My only option seems to be the US consulate in Amsterdam. Even with a train ticket, the price is better than anything local.

There's one thing you should know about visiting the US consulate in Amsterdam. They don't allow mobile phones. No, don't just nod and dismiss this one. They really don't allow mobile phones into the facility. At all. Like, you're standing outside on the sidewalk, in the cold, if you are carrying a mobile phone.

Now, I have the advantage going into this of years of experience abroad, dealing with bureaucrats who wear every stripe of stupid. I saw something about their mobile policy on the website, and there was a spark in the back of my mind. They might just be that stupid. In Addis, they will also refuse mobile phones into the embassy, but the guards at reception will kindly let you check them in.

I arrive early at the consulate, and the minute I see the angry faces of people standing outside, shuffling their feet in the old, I know the score. I ask in any case, and I am scolded in a stern police voice. I tell the guard I'll be back.

The consulate is located on the Museumplein, the open park between the Rijksmuseum and the Concertgebouw. There are a few other museums situated alongside this park, including the Van Gogh Musuem. I toss the backpack over my shoulder and start running across the park. The closest museum turns out to be the Stedelijk. I stand in line and buy a ticket. I enter and go straight to the cloak room to check everything in but my paperwork.

The notary process goes fine afterward. I raise my right hand for the notary, and he examines me skeptically. There is something about government service that arouses the worst instincts in people. Can one be on the people's payroll without hating them, I wonder?

So the lemonade to this story of lemons is that I get to know a new museum and a new artist. The museum is the Municipal Museum, (now privatized,) devoted to modern and contemporary art and design. It opened in 1895, a scheme hatched between an heiress, Sophia Adriana de Bruyn, and the city as part of a 'modernization project' dreamed up by the good citizens of Amsterdam as early as 1850. The original building, which one still sees streetside, behind the flashy new addition from the last decade, is typical Amsterdam for its era. 'Dutch Neo-Renaissance style' they call it, high brick walls rising in stripes of red and yellow, set with modest towers.

The new artist is Kazimir Malevich, a big star among the Russian moderns. That I hadn't become acquainted with him before is only a measure of my relationship with modern art, which has always been tense. I resented her pretensions, and she sneered at my ignorance. I used to think that abstraction was an affection – or affectation – of the young. I've come to think differently, and my suspicions are only confirmed by a quick study of the crowd that Kazimir has attracted – and it is no small crowd. The average age is well above mine, I would say, and the old-timers are very engaged. By contrast, the teens brought in on buses are slack-jawed and stunned by boredom.

Mr. Malevich was prolific, producing theories of art almost as manically as he did pieces of art. The theory he settled on in 1915, and the one he is best known for, he called 'Suprematism', and as far as I can understand, was a call for complete and perfect abstraction. The 'grammar' of the Suprematists, according to Mr. Malevich, was to be geometric form. His most famous work seems to have been a black square.

But his collected work displays a much wider accomplishment, rooted in early experiments with realism and Impressionism, Cubism and Fauvism. My favorite is the 1913 opera, 'Victory Over the Sun', for which he designed the sets and costume. In one room we get to view a production of the opera, and it is hilarious, as only the dated avant-garde can be, a kind of sci-fi Wizard of Oz cum Ubu Roi.

Sadly, the savage and humorless new roi of Communism, Mr. Stalin, ruled that abstraction was bourgeois and had Mr. Malevich arrested and held briefly. Mr. Malevich was forced to return to representational art for the remainder of his life, but he carried on heroically nonetheless, until his death in 1935.

I am thus enlightened by the abstruse machinations of bureaucrats. I collect my bag, stowing away safely my stamped papers, and I return to my century.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Travelogue 543 – January 23
Cats at Play

People are faceless shadows at this time of the morning, in this weather. The sun hasn't risen. The city is a play among headlights and the blue and the grey reflected from the clouds. Shards of yellow from the street lights play in the puddles. People are shadows. They run to shelter. They sail along on bicycles, in capes and glistening rain gear. Their faces are cloaked. They move with heads down, hooded eyes set on the road beneath them. There is no speech. They cough.

For the rain it raineth every day. It might be that late January has its own lessons. Knowledge is a thing hard won. Can one know rain without spending a winter close to the North Sea? I can't imagine I ever knew it before. I could describe it. I could watch it. I could taste it. What is knowledge?

The swans do not run for cover. Their white forms drift among the waters to the right of the bike path. My ten-speed flies along this stretch of smooth path. Water is thrown back at the sky from the spinning back tire. It will paint me a stripe along my back. But, being a citizen of rain, I have made provision. Below my backpack, below the line of my windbreaker, I have tucked a plastic bag into my belt line. The spray will still reach the hard-working hamstrings, but in a diffuse and ineffective pattern. At the end of the journey, the bag will serve to protect the bike's leather seat. Rain people love plastic.

What is knowledge? It's in the skin and the teeth and under the fingernails. It emerges in one's sweat. Hey, ho, the wind and the rain. It will stain one white as a swan, and then it will mask one in shadows. The night stands high on rotting timbers.

Mildly as the gentle rain, one defies it. We dressed up for a night on the town. We unlocked the cycles, and we braved the perpetual mists. I rode behind Menna, watching her cut her way through the dusk and the weather on her little brown Batavus bike, heels on the pedals, her blue Jackie O wool coat, the red cap on top of her wild Ethiopian curls; intrepidly she advances into teeth of the lamps and the sky tears. This is her impetuous strength in sum, and I have to follow.

We are looking for the jazz club. The roads weave in and around the train tracks just east of the station. We test many alleyways looking for the club, passing under the tracks in a pedestrian passage luridly lit. Finally we find it behind some muddy construction. The band is sound testing as we shiver, the door admitting the cold with each person.

If one could portray knowledge as a cat, one that excites a lot of talk by its colors, then the season leads to a riddle. If cats don't like water, how well could they know the rain? Those are different matters, the answer goes. It could be very well.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Travelogue 542 – January 13
Muhammadan Sun

My trip to Ethiopia is going to be a short one. Too short for twos. Troubles come in pairs this month. Since arriving in Ethiopia, I've been sick twice, twice in one week laid low by some stomach bug. One time is pasta, one time is meat. Twice I'm up most of the night with stomach cramps and nausea, spending intimate time with the toilet.

Twice I've been visited by religious holidays, cosmic birthdays. Last week it was Christmas. Today it's Muhammad's turn. The cannons go off at sunrise, as they always do on a Muslim holiday, sounding like a boy kicking a football against the cement wall of my room, a boy with a very regular stroke. The cannons are a celebration. Or maybe they are confirmation that, yes, the holiday is today. Some Muslim holidays are contingent on a sage spotting the moon. I kind of like the corollary ethos that holidays should be heralded by clear nights. But isn't this insistence on blue skies kind of redundant in Arabia? A Dutch religion demanding cloudless skies for sacred occasions makes sense. In any case, we can say there's a big-sky appreciation for the astronomical, which I like. Does that hark back to the pre-Muslim sun and moon religions? I tend to think these are beautiful little features to religion, like the decorations on a Christmas tree.

Not everyone likes these speculations. Do they merit beheading? I'm not sure I've understood well the logic to the beheadings. Is there an index somewhere of sins punishable by beheading? It might be good to publish that. There are plenty of us with good intentions and sentimental attachments to our heads. We don't mean to offend. I work in education. I think education might be a good way to avoid these messy misunderstandings. We like healthy, functioning heads in my field.

In any case, the holy day comes, as it does every year. Every lunar year, I might add. That means about eleven or twelve days earlier than in the last Christian year. This time, it puts Mawlid a week behind Christmas. Next year, it will upstage, coming a few days earlier. Meaning, if my math is correct, that in the European solar year of 2015, the prophet will be born twice. Born again … and so the twain shall meet.

These calendars upon calendars seem to describe time so much better than any one of them by itself, describing disjointed movement, grinding one against another, like gears failing out of alignment. Calendars are an attempt to bring order, and as such, a noble enterprise, but the proliferation of decimal points as we strive and strive for accuracy should make Allah's point very poignantly. 'My ways are inscrutable.' Add here a Buddha smile.

It seems that current archaeology pinpoints the first calendar in Scotland, where the moon may be sighted roughly once a quarter. Aren't calendars more properly the concern of people who need instruments to fly? It's cold and the days are short; therefore, we know it's winter. But damn if we know which day it is. We haven't seen the sun or stars in weeks. Let's dig some pits oriented to the stars. We will set up stones. We will count.

The days are long. They start at six. When I leave the house, there is sun on my shoulders. I stand a moment in the courtyard relishing the warmth, enjoying the blue sky. I lock the door, twice. It seems that our landlord is a petty thief in her spare time. She hasn't transferred the TV to her house yet, but it's a matter of time. Menna's sister has modified the door so it will accommodate two big padlocks.

The days are sealed from the ones that came before by one day in airports and airplane, breathing the conditioned atmosphere, mixed with sedatives and depressants. The day stretches like drug-induced sleep, stretching calendar days out of proportion. By the time I have arrived, the day has become a week, and the departure point has receded into mists.

Oddly, illness has the same effect. Hours in bed contemplating one's misery has a similar power to warp calendar time. Scottish clouds gather, and one loses track. I'm missing my wife and my home, and it could be that I've only been gone a few days. The clouds won't tell me. It has been a long time. I know it. And so long since I've tasted food.

I think about food. Rice is made from sunlight. Dark bread is made from moonlight. Fruit is fresh water. I am hungry. It's a hunger like love. In my delirium, I see quite clearly how life is made from love.

I think about the prophet's strictures about food. Actually, I don't know what those strictures may have been, in all their wisdom, in all their complexity, but I know about Ramadan, which could be a boon to either glutton or anorexic, depending on whether one is centered in the long, hot day or the plenty of sundown. The only constant is food. I dream about sweet dates.

In the morning I stand outside my front door, soaking up the sunshine. My legs are trembling with the effort. It's surprising how quickly the lack of the food debilitates. I take my time in the healing sun, only hefting the backpack onto my back when I've forgotten the chill of the sick bed. I open the compound gate to the bright eyes of passing neighbors. I step into the lane, the sloping road made of rocks, and I step into a new year. I make my way toward food.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Travelogue 541 – January 7
Christmas Again

I'm listening to Christmas music again. It's my second Christmas this season, a season of doubles. I'm thinking of how I had to close daylight savings time twice this fall. Apparently there is a lag of one week between the change back to standard time in the US versus the Netherlands, and I crossed the Atlantic during that week. I've always had a hard time comprehending daylight savings time. We were saving daylight somehow. But it's still not completely light in Holland until nine in the morning, and it's dark by five. It seems as though we're putting a lot of it in the bank now.

Since the solstice, I've been tracking the time of sunrise and sunset, counting the minutes as they are peeled back from the dominion of winter night.

Last night I saw the sun go down in Khartoum as the plane sat on the tarmac at the airport, refueling, allowing on new passengers. I'm looking at my watch, still set at Holland time, and I'm thinking, this is when the sun is going down in Holland. But I'm two time zones east now. I'm very confused. It's all about latitude, as though there were a cone of light, wide here in the south and constrained there in the north. But here I am, faraway and experiencing sunset at the same time as I would have at home.

I slept in today, until seven. When I awake, the sun is up. That is a change from Holland. The landlord's family is bustling in the yard. I peek out the window. The sky is blue. There are no clouds. That is a change.

I've just arrived, and I have the day off. It's Christmas today, according to the Orthodox Christian calendar. It's just as well. I'm feeling sluggish. I had Menna's sister Mimi take me to the Airport Motel last night. The food on the flight was spare, and I had been forced to start my travel day at five. I was hungry. They make a good, spicy spaghetti at the Airport Motel. I wash it down with just a touch of gin, and I watch Italian football, while Mimi and I catch up on family news and family plans.

What are we left with, after all, but rough meditations about cycles in cycles? It was January the first time I came to Ethiopia, ten years ago. I was coming here to meet family, to grieve with family. This time I celebrate Christmas with Menna's family in her stead. I celebrate the cycle in itself.

The same sunshine greets me as I leave the house, as greeted me ten years ago. I'm setting out with no special purpose. Family time won't be until afternoon and evening. I climb the hill, on the road made with stones. Children are excited to see a faranj, and they run to have a chance to shake my hand. 'I'm fine, thank you, and how are you?' they recite, and run away laughing.

Shimeles is waiting in his taxi at the top of the hill, at the asphalt. We set out. The town is quiet, but never too quiet. We speed along the relatively free roads. Around Urael, the streets are chopped up. This year, the road work is about a rapid transit train system being constructed. Roads that I watched being installed for years are now being torn apart for the train. Traffic in the city is more jammed up than ever. Electricity and water are still as spotty as they were ten years ago. The improvement projects themselves are now the excuse, for the span of an entire generation, it would seem.

The people on the street don't seem to be troubled about it. They gather and they sit, and they amble along as I remember them ever doing, as though Time were as content and anonymous on the street as all the rest, satiated by its raids into the realms of the private. Here on the street we're safe, among all the same people.

Shimeles and I are happy to see each other, though we don't have much to say. I have lost so much Amharic, it's as though I have reverted to the state of my first arrival. I brought with me then only a beginner's knowledge of the fidel, the alphabet, and some phrases.

But I didn't know Shimeles back then. I didn't know his little Lada, its shuddering accelerations, and the clicking of its gears. I didn't know this hill, sloping down from Shiro Meda to Arat Kilo, and didn't know just about every shop front along the way. I didn't know the sounds and smells of morning. I didn't know the quality of the sunlight in the morning, as I do now, and the shadows it casts. That's the slip in the circle, memory becoming knowledge.

Thursday, January 02, 2014

Travelogue 540 – January 2
Explain the Señor

It's 10ºC and the sun hasn't risen yet. The clouds are tentative. They have made way for the beginnings of light, allowing us a primitive shade of blue. I'm riding the bike into town, for the moment riding toward the point of dawn.

I've been in a mood. New Year's is for setting the clock anew, but I've been thinking too much, and thinking evokes the past.

That layer of dark blue is like a fog on the eastern horizon. It represents a new day. But I've got too many old days behind me. One thing reminds me of another, kicking off odd chains of association.

This shade of blue reminds me of Señor Dali. It must be a shade he favors, because it often brings him to mind. I spent some time only a few days ago with the grand Señor, at the Boijmans. But the work of his that comes to mind is housed in Glasgow, at the Kelvingrove Museum. I saw it in May. That piece is the so Spanish, so solemn 'Christ of Saint John of the Cross', in which the viewer's perspective is from above the Savior on the cross.

The shoulders of the crucified man are powerfully drawn – Dalí hires a famous stuntman to hang from a gantry, – powerfully lit by an eastern sun, though not the sun rising over the scene below, which is a lake among bare Spanish hills. The suns, the sources of light, are at variance. Christ's sky is black space, and below are the shades of sunrise. The angles are odd, as though the cross may be flying over the land, foot first.

I see I have made some tactical errors in approaching New Year's, one of them being the visit to the museum. Another might be my decision that we should watch 'Donne Darko' on New Year's Eve. Menna hated it, and it spooked the both of us. Outside, Rotterdam was going mad with fireworks, like a kind of war in the city streets.

I'd seen the film before and enjoyed it. I enjoyed it again. But it doesn't inspire the brightest and most hopeful thoughts. There's something primal that moves inside the production, something I'm not sure the writer-director had in mind. The writer's plot is something fantastical and complex, parallel universes sparking against each other, and so on, but what is really happening seems much simpler and more primitive, a struggle against death, even after the fact.

Can we posit that an artist might succeed unconsciously in delivering an unintended message that is nonetheless powerfully felt by all or most of his/her audience in a common way, even if not entirely comprehended?

Perhaps I have just paraphrased the mission of the Surrealists? Shall we ask the Señor? Some would object if we consult with him. Wasn't he drummed out of the club in the late 30s for being too much of a keener, for being too fond of the spotlight, maybe even for an unhealthy willingness to be decipherable?

It was bright and early in the Freudian day then. And maybe the unconscious seemed like a delightful treasure trove. But it occurs to me that, by definition, the unconscious is an entity that we cannot reference. We cannot choose to speak from it or to it. And it certainly seems to me that, say, Mr. Magritte reveals absolutely nothing about the unconscious when he paints a blue sky in the place of a human face. One can only accidentally give voice to the unconscious. Even once it's done, one feels helpless before it.

Dali's painting was inspired by a drawing made more than three hundred years earlier by St. John of the Cross. The monk had drawn it from a vision in a dream. It's just a change of angle. We are seeing from above. There is something compelling; we can't say why.

As the film opens, Donnie wakes. He has a problem with sleep-walking. He's waking up further and further from home. Here he is in the Hollywood hills, or maybe the Spanish hills, lying in the middle of the curving road, his bicycle beside him. His fate, which has already been fulfilled, is to die in bed. He lies undisturbed in the middle of the road.

I pedal forward into the dawn. The color shifts very subtly. Quickly, I pass beyond the vantage of the long canal and into the city, where buildings block my view of the sunrise. I don't see the colors anymore, except in reflection. It's refreshing to pedal in the cold air. My body knows which way to go.