Friday, February 21, 2014

Travelogue 549 – February 21
Old Sint Baaf, Part Three

The Esco Bar is open again. It’s open early, while the city is awakening. It is re-opening, actually. The proprietors were on vacation when we first arrived in town. I stood sadly outside the window on that day. Today I get to sit inside, beside the window, watching the traffic on the narrow street outside, on the Quellinstraat, Antwerpen. I drink coffee from a dainty porcelain cup, lifting it from its saucer by the delicate handle, too small for my finger.

I assume he is the owner, the man behind the counter. He is tall. He wears the garb of a modern hippie. He wears a short, black beard. His smile is genuine. It is what they call ‘disarming’, a term that suggests the danger most of us feel lurking inside sincerity. What’s more, it’s a smile that may never fade. One feels obliged to turn away, maybe only to protect him. The name of the place suggests a Latin theme. Our sunny owner has Latin worked into his dress. He drops salsa into his playlist. And yet, one can never forget one in northern Europe. Perhaps it’s precious porcelain ware; maybe it’s the neatness and domestic comfort of the interior.

The place bustles, perhaps with the energy of renewed activity. Suppliers are bringing in piles of crates of fruit and dairy products. The window-washer has arrived. Clearly everyone has accustomed themselves to the smile. They are friendly and cheerful in ways that make you realize you’ve never wondered before about the emotional life of the blokes behind those huge handcarts, shoving their way in and out of the doors of convenience stores and restaurants.

So I revel in the Edenic peace of the Esco Bar, and I review the sights in Ghent, paging through the guide book I invested in yesterday. These low-end guides are masterworks of rushed editing and cheap production, items of instant sentimental value and of real aesthetic value, I’d say, kitsch reflections of our dreams of escape, of travel, of history. They make the places we go significant. They validate the expense of travel. They confirm the drama of our heightened impressions, and they do all this with perfect correspondence to the callow sensibility most of us bring to the enterprise. They’re wonderful.

At center of sight-seeing in Ghent is the old Sint-Baafskathedraal, Gothic cathedral with a tall square tower, a structure almost three hundred years in the raising. Inside are familiar high stone vaulting, radiating chapels behind the altar, and a beautiful carven choir before the altar. Coming upon the cathedral from the station, from behind, it seems as though it was set down at an inconvenient angle compared to the rest of the town, turning the orientation of the town toward the Leie River, toward the old Gravensteen fortress, and toward history.

There is art. There is a Rubens with the conversion of Old Saint Baaf as its theme. And there is the great altarpiece, which is these days kept behind glass in the front chapel. When it was painted, Ghent was at the height of its powers, though standing unknowingly at the threshold of its decline, already suffering from the distant rages of the stale Hundred Years War, and the bitter War of the Roses, both occupying English energies and dampening the free flow of wool and cloth.

When the van Eyck brothers were at work on the altarpiece, the cathedral was in its second stage of growth, being built above and around the old Romanesque structure from the twelfth century. The first part to go up had been the choir section. Now, while the altarpiece was in progress, so were the radiating chapels at the back of the church. The altarpiece itself took a dozen years, a process that had to survive the passing of the older brother and draftsman of the piece, Hubert, and the return of the younger brother, Jan, from diplomatic missions on behalf of the Duke of Burgundy in Spain and Portugal. The altarpiece was finished up just in time to take its place in the Vijd Chapel, which was to be its home for nearly four hundred years, before the time of conquerors. Jodocus Vijd, merchant and loyal Burgundian, was patron of both the chapel and the artwork. On the day the altarpiece was consecrated, the Duke’s son was baptised in the cathedral.

The van Eyck retable is perhaps the finest and best known among Flemish masterpieces of the period, one of a few select pieces that may be said to define the period in art history, the great Ghent Altarpiece, or the ‘Mystic Lamb’, as they advertise it here. They call it that because the center panel features Christ as the Mystic Lamb, who stands on an altar and pours blood from his chest into a chalice, while holy men and women stream in from all corners of the earth to witness.

It should be noted that this is the first major oil painting in history. Before this, the favorite medium was egg-based tempera paint. It could be that Jan meant this as a showcase for the new technique. Every bit of the twelve panels of the art piece is endowed with van Eyck craft and detail, with a fine subtlety allowed by the oils, and with a shiny gloss that excited wonder.

The retable, or reredos, serves a religious purpose, standing behind the action on the altar, where everything at the heart of Catholic worship happens. All evidence indicates that the Van Eycks took this very seriously. The older brother, Hubert, had probably taken orders. And they were adept enough at mystical symbolism to fascinate study for centuries, even tickling the strange fancies of Mr. Hitler.

The lamb faces the viewer. If a lamb may be said to have an expression, we would call this one impassive, even as blood pours from its breast. The wound is a voluntary sacrifice. The chalice accepting the blood is tantalizing real. It reminds us of the power of the Holy Grail. Above the Mystic Lamb scene is a traditional ‘Deësis’, featuring the figures of God the Father, Mary and John the Baptist. God the Father, (who might just be Jesus – it’s been a controversy through time.) Each figure is drawn to fine specifications of symbol and ritual. The brothers had an advisor in theology, one Olivier de Langhe, who was prior of the Ghent church.

But the artists felt they had room for religious purpose and also for detail to the mundane, the real, the human. God the Father is wearing a jeweled robe and crown that are painted with amazing clarity. His eyes are steady, measuring, compassionate. Side panels feature musical angels, a popular theme in the jolly Middle Ages, and you can tell which angel sings which part. The medieval organ is faithfully, accurately portrayed. In the fields around the lamb’s altar, there are forty-two varieties of flowers represented.

We leave the cathedral, and we drift across the square, still under the spell of the masterpiece. We will have to re-enter our time gradually. We walk toward the river, past landmarks of Ghent’s medieval prosperity, the Belfort tower, the cloth hall, Sint-Niklaaskerk, sights that the van Eycks might have marveled at during their own first visits to Ghent. They were small-town boys, after all, even if they were children of gentry. Small town boys made good.

Would they have wondered at the sources of this wealth? Most likely they would have accepted it as part of the order of things. In the way Christ the Lamb did not flinch when he offered up his life’s blood, the peasants and the humble traders offered up their taxes, and the knights suited up for war.

The French are bouncing back, they say, inspired by the visions of a peasant girl. The English had her burned as a heretic, just last year. But will that stop the French? At stake is a crown. It’s been crafted for one head only, bedecked with precious stones, adorned with precious metals. It is worth a fortune in itself. How many harvests would it take to buy? How many shiploads of English wool?

The walk back to the station leads through the modern parts of town, by structures that represent far greater absolute achievements in human civilization than even the Sint-Baafskathedral, if one thought about it. The engineering is more impressive, in aggregate, the credit and the benefits more equitably spread. But the eye still dazzles at the productions of the past, when resources were strained through the tightest channels of power, and the results were things impossibly concentrated and fine.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Travelogue 548 – February 20
Old Sint Baaf, Part Two

The night after the burglary, we find it hard to sleep. There is something jarring to the psyche, I suppose, waking to find a stranger in the room, and a stranger who means you no kindness. I’m waking on a regular basis through the night last night and peering around the room.

In daylight, I’m shrugging and looking at the burglary as an episode of income redistribution. Someone now has money for drugs. I have a little less with which to create the meager art called my life. So it goes.

In its day, Ghent had recourse to income redistribution, though none of the equalizing varieties. Rather, generations of town fathers set themselves the task of making sure the wealth of the region passed first through their hands. Various privileges accrued to the city in the High Middle Ages, granted by an assortment of lords and councils. It was a fertile period, during which the many players in an increasingly complex society were breeding all sorts of innovation in the name of self-interest. It was the towns that were the engines of most innovation, with guilds, churches, nobility, laborers and merchants vying for influence and lucre.

Business theory presumes a level playing field, but business practice never allows one. One must talk free trade while one labors relentlessly to undermine it. In the Middle Ages, privileges were the devices of choice to gain advantage.

Ghent stood at the confluence of two rivers, and it became a center of trade early on. But there were plenty of towns with geography. Ghent had the advantage of favor.

In its heyday, Ghent had some handy privileges to assert the town’s advantage. One allowed them to force ships containing grain to store a quarter of its load in one of their own storehouses in the harbor. The local bakers and brewers had first dibs. Then what was left could be sold at market. Another privilege, called the ‘lastbreken’, forced ship owners who were not members of the local guild to load their freight into the boat of a Ghent sailor to bring into town. The guild had monopoly over the Rivers Leie & Scheldt, & the canals Sassevaart & Lieve.

Ghent was in fact an industrial city. Most of the workers of the city belong to one of four guilds, a type of union, in fact. These were the weavers, the fullers, the shearers, and the dyers. These were in constant conflict with the rich bourgeoisie, (who, in all likelihood were the ones who arranged for the privileges that earned everyone a nice living). Strikes were common.

And meanwhile the profits were spent to make a beautiful city. It is success that paid for the pretty buildings and success that paid for the Flemish revolution in art, success protected by cunning and diplomacy and muscle. Does that temper one’s appreciation? Does it perhaps heighten it?

Interestingly, one of the patron saints of Ghent was Saint Bavo, or Sint Baaf in Flemish. His story seems written as a Christian answer to the Buddha story. He was the son of a rich Frankish lord in what would become Belgium, born in 622. He was a reckless lad, selfish and undisciplined. He became a soldier and led a dissipated life.

There was a famous monk making the rounds then, converting the hapless pagans of the Frankish kingdoms. He has come to be known as Saint Amand. He was a big hit in northern France and Belgium, responsible for many new Christian communities and monasteries. He was not a man to mince his words. In 630, he was temporarily expelled from France by an angry King Dagobert I, whom Amand had called upon to repent for his many sins. Later, Amand was recruited to convert the heathens of my own beloved Slovakia, but apparently was not received well there. They are such a hospitable people, I can only blame Amand’s lack of tact and, no doubt, humor.

Saint Amand had a message for young Bavo. After hearing him preach, Bavo converted. More, he gave away all his wealth to the poor, and he followed the preaching saint. He addressed skeptical crowds in France and Flanders. He settled as a hermit in the countryside around one of Saint Amand’s monasteries, and when he died he was buried there. The abbey became known as Saint Bavo’s and the pilgrims came to see him.

In the 800s, the Vikings came along, and they laid waste, as those Vikings enjoyed doing. The abbey was rebuilt in the 900s. The first count of Flanders also built a fort on the river. The Ghent we know and love began to take its shape, commerce awakening, guilds forming, privileges sought and won.

On our way from the train station into town, we walk by the grounds of old Saint Bavo’s Abbey, or what’s left of them, the cloister garden and a few buildings that are among the oldest in town, old grey stone under the grey sky. In a strange twist of fate, Saint Bavo’s Abbey was ordered torn down in 1540 by Ghent native son, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to make way for a castle full of Spanish troops. Some of the buildings survived, but the institution was destroyed.

It’s a good 20-30 minute walk into the center of town from St Pieter’s train station. We aim for the church towers, and we arrive at length at Saint Bavo’s Square. Now the center of town, it was no more than a sandy hillock in Bavo’s day. Little more than that in the day of the first count of Flanders, when the first structure was begun, the humble, wooden Chapel of Saint John the Baptist.

Two hundred years later, this chapel was expanded in a Romanesque style. Three hundred years later, work began on the cathedral we see today. The work itself took three hundred years, coming to completion in 1569, some thirty years after Charles V had had the abbey destroyed. Loyal patriots renamed Saint John’s for the dishonored patron saint. The church became Sint-Baafskathedraal.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Travelogue 547 – February 19
Old Sint Baaf, Part One

I’ve never met a cat burglar before. It’s a funny experience to wake up and see someone you don’t recognize in your room. I’d been enjoying some nice dreams, the first good dreams in a long stretch of bad ones. It had been weeks since I’d had a chance to smile at a dream. And then I had been listening to some shuffling across our floor. There was a moment of confusion as I figured out that Menna was still in bed beside me. I looked up, and there was a guy bending over an arm chair where I had carelessly flung some clothes. I didn’t recognize him, an unremarkable young guy in a puffy jacket. He could have been Ethiopian, the way he looked. There was a pause as I regarded him and tried to put the picture together. When that didn’t happen, I woke up altogether, and I shouted. Our cat burglar was a bit slow. He turned and apparently was stunned himself. It seemed to take him a good couple beats to lean into his escape. Ill-advisedly, I jumped up and gave chase. But not too far. I returned to the front windows to watch him run across the street and down the stairs there that lead to another street below.

Maybe it was the adrenalin but I found the incident rather comic, tempted to laugh out loud once the lad had run; that is, until I found that all my cash was missing from my wallet. My discarded pants were the first thing he had found. Nothing else was missing, including my shiny, still-new iPhone, sitting openly on my work table. ‘Wasn’t that weird?’ I say with a smile, settling back into bed. Menna didn’t find any of it amusing. ‘We have to leave this place,’ she says. She’s scared.

We have just returned to this place. That’s what makes the incident so strange. We have just spent a few nights at a friend’s in Belgium. My first thought was that the guy in our room was my friend getting ready for work. But the elements weren’t adding up. My friend, but in our room, in the wrong town. This isn’t Belgium.

We had a mission in Belgium. Travel always has a mission. I mean a mission beyond the pleasures of seeing good friends like Yohannes, and enjoying the company of his lovely wife and new baby, Hilina. It was Christmas the last time we saw them, and Hilina was so much younger then. Antwerp was colder and darker back then. There had been something more ancient about her, as though Europe were drawing herself into its cloak of ages against the gathering winter.

This time the town has gained in light, and the light reveals some Parisian grit among the jumbled Flemish architecture. I’m exploring the streets some more, the streets between Yohannes’s nondescript northern neighborhood and the city center. The streets and the pavements are narrow, the pavements are uneven stone. One passes one’s neighbors in single file, close to the sides of the buildings. These buildings are not high, just a few storeys; the rare Flemish sunshine still has purchase.

But Antwerp isn’t the secret mission. This time the mission is Ghent, a half hour’s train ride west. Old Ghent, happy Ghent, a town that saw its heyday some six nor seven hundred years ago, when wool and cloth were king, when the meadows around Ghent were dotted with fat flocks of sheep.

One is forced to wonder, tracing the history of art and thought, at how dependent and how vulnerable culture is to the ebb and flow of business and politics. Great beauty arises in prosperous towns, a plum to be stolen, marks of status funded by the food taken from the mouths of the weak.

The patrons with the most distinguished taste were still no more than patrons, powerful and gluttonous men who all too often came to blows with other powerful men. One discovers it in the biographies of artists, whose lives are often unsettled. They are gypsies, moving often as they follow elusive peace and elusive prosperity. In the early fifteenth century, one monitors their peregrinations among Den Haag, Maastricht, Ghent, Bruges, Dijon and Paris.

The big dog among patrons during the second quarter of the century would have been a man known as Phillip the Good, the most powerful in a line of dukes that ruled one of the most powerful realms of Europe in that day, a color on the map that has since disappeared into history, the realm of Burgundy. This wonderful patchwork duchy, stretching from the North Sea to the Mediterranean, lasted in this form only as long as the reign of three Dukes, grandfather, father, and son. Some perspective might be achieved by noting that, while Phillip might have been ‘Good’ – even though he handed over young Joan of Arc to the Brits for judgement – both his father and son were called ‘the Bold’, as though only the Bold had any shot of making a go at a venture like ‘Burgundy’. As it happens, when Charles the Bold dies in battle, Burgundy was dissolved and parceled off among France and the Germans. And one immediately sees the utility of a fairy tale kingdom of Burgundy, if only it could have held France and Germany at bay for another five centuries.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Travelogue 546 – February 6
Tricking the Bomen

The phone calls home are sounding similar themes. The winter in the U.S. has been a rough one Everyone I talk with is enduring some stage of siege, their towns set upon by snow, by bitter cold. They grin about it. Here, I tell them, the thermometers have had little work to do. The snow ploughs have stood idle.

It's almost ten degrees this dark morning, and the people of this good city are being pulled forward by headlights, by umbrellas, by the bright square lights of their phones. They have been deposited in tram cars that are lit inside. It might seem as though humans would be inert otherwise, shadows dropped roadside, like the cars and bikes there, like the poles and the poor bomen, the trees. The pigeons might have more color to them, more twitchy life. One sees, in dim weather like this, how humans have no light to them, no luminescence to skin, fur, or feather; no lanterns in their eyes like wolves. They manufacture light, assembling it with their magic hands.

The poor bomen, or trees, are guided by the simplest signals. They don't take counsel with anyone, and their decisions have a fateful finality to them. This warm spell, defined by the drift of only a few degrees, has tricked them into sending forth buds. The citizens of the city are worried for them. They don't have as much fodder for weather talk as my American colleagues. They reminisce about colder years. They worry about the bomen.

Menna has made me a doctor's appointment, and I have even shown up to it, led like a trusting specimen of livestock. I have no specific complaints to make. I have symptoms, signs of uncertain glitches and misfires among the systems. I tell the doctor rather stupidly that it is the season. My age seems to dictate some form of care. He nods. His English is halting. He peppers it with many jarring interrogatives, 'ja?' jumping out of sentences like a sort of bad code or virus.

He is telling us why certain tests cannot be administered in Holland. He tells us why certain ones will be. He is giving me a vial for stool, along with an big plastic envelope in which to hide it. He is giving me a checklist of tests for the lab, which is closed today. I have to come back next week. I can't eat before I come in. And I mustn't forget my sample.

We emerge from the clinic into the gloom of the day. This is Menna's clinic, close to the university. We are not far from the river, where the Maas makes a big turn around the southern bank of the city. We stand above the water and look at downtown. It's a funny angle. Though we're beside the river, the tall downtown buildings rise beyond the turn in the river, marching in a dry line heading off along a forty-five degree angle toward the left. Perspectives make surprises.

One of those buildings stands on the southern bank. It's called the Vertical City for some reason. The one building is three, rising up in an imposing manner, and incorporating staggered overhangs so that it appears that the gap between buildings shifts halfway up.

We visited that building the night before last. Jan had an exhibit in the design show in the lobby. We breezed through the show somewhat surreptitiously, because we forgot our tickets at home, and were admitted only to say hello to Jan. The show made for a fun and rarefied atmosphere, everything devoted to style, exhibitors dressing to the task with as much studious care as applied to the art. The exhibits themselves were bits of impractical furniture and challenging décor, all fashioned as a tease, it would seem, but with a delightful sensitivity to texture, as an aggregate ode to odd fabrics and surfaces, metal and wood and plastic. The colors were bold, and the environment stark and clean, like no home or office could ever be, as exercise in art for its own sake, self-aware and celebratory.

Turning away from the river, we will walk back to the tram, passing by the nineteenth-century brick water tower that has become symbol for this area of town, called 'De Esch'. It's nice that a society would devote decorative architectural skills to a water tower. I grew up in towns in which water towers rose like UFOs on stilts, dull metal signifiers of utility. The only decoration might have been block letters shouting the name of the town, the kind of rude declaration one might expect locals to print on big banners to raise upside down at football games. Here the tower of De Esch stands, always elegant tribute to civic spirit.

The tram here is the twenty-one. It's an odd corner of town, so quiet. There is no one at the tram stop. The wind is blowing, and we retreat into our jackets, meditating on the riffling surfaces of the standing pools by the water tower.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Travelogue 545 – February 5
The Hammer Spirits

Spirits were high. We had three days of sunshine. Temperatures were reaching 50 in Fahrenheit. One of those days was a Sunday. People were taking strolls with their prams, with their dogs. The swans in the canals were floating with regal carriage, telling us that the weather was their gift to us. The geese in the park were chasing old women, honking with their long necks extended.

The clumsy spirits of noise were awakened. We live in a row of attached buildings half a mile long. We are on the second floor, between four other flats. At one time or another during the last year, there have been periods of hammering in every one of them. They have overlapped. As this year opened, the flat downstairs had been occupied by a new tenant, who was intent on improvement. And the entire building next door was being gutted.

We were moved to celebrate the days of sunshine. At the Wester Paviljoen, we ran into Moges and Franco. Moges is an old friend, the first Ethiopian I met in this city. Franco is an old man born in Eritrea. He is half Italian. His skin is light. He has a smiling face and a nervous geniality. He greets us with chuckling hellos. We greet in Italian. He doesn't speak Amharic.

Did Mr. Franco make it down to Asmara, we ask. In the fall, he had booked a ticket to Eritrea on impulse. Moges laughs at his friend, and Mr. Franco shrugs with a rueful smile. He lowers a shaking hand toward his glass of jenever. He likes his jenever, a Dutch hard liquor like grappa. He will put away the contents of a number of those glasses. He will shuffle out for frequent smokes while we discuss the topics of the day with Mr. Moges. Will Franco shuffle home and book another airline ticket? We worry about him. Moges laughs.

We were moved to visit the movie house. Our movie houses have been shut for us, hosting the annual international film festival. We were not able to participate in that festival, since subtitles were in Dutch. We were excited to be back, the festival over, but were dismayed to see the doors barred shut. There were no crowds to follow; maybe the town was exhausted with film. We had to work out for ourselves that the side entrance was open. The lobby of the theatre was under construction. Plywood walled off the majority of the space. The place had the gritty feel of a construction site. I had the opportunity to reflect that one does go out to the movies for more than the movie. One expects carpets and high windows and glossy posters. One wants scents more enticing than sawdust.

The movie was despairing, a kind of 'Deer Hunter' for the Obama era. The hills of PA were never innocent. Along the rivers are encampments of rusting iron, shells of old industry, something like the henges of our race, smoking with deadly prophecy. We raise there our sons for sacrifice.

I was moved after the film to remark that this is almost precisely how I feel when I'm in America. Perhaps exaggerated for theatre, but those are the same shadows. It has always struck me as a remarkably sad place, as though sorrow rises like a vapor from the earth.

We were to be reminded again, as we walked out of the theatre, of the builders. One wonders sometimes about the signs that follow him, like talismans. What is this insistent hammering? What have the wizards been trying to tell us? In reality, it is no more complex than Dutch restlessness, a national compulsion to build. The whole country is constructed space. There are no wild hill districts like PA. But in the psyche one crafts stories. The builders are following me. Their hammer strokes are a code. Life is messaging, and this is the text: 'You live inside a wooden frame, and the elves that read the silken threads of Fate are busy with their renovations. You will live inside a new house. We will build it around you if you will not move.'