Sunday, March 30, 2014

Travelogue 553 – March 30
Taking the Train
Part Two

Dordrecht is one of the oldest towns in Holland. In fact, it holds the distinction of being the oldest town in Zuid Holland to be granted city rights, back in the day of William I, Count of Holland. Before that the town flits through history, appearing under a number of variations of its name, all looking like phonetic puzzles. Its first appearance in history comes under the name Thuredriht. This appears in a history written in 1120 about the ninth-century incursions by the Vikings. This makes Dordrecht older than its big neighbor, Rotterdam, by a few centuries.

In its heyday, even as the villagers on the Rotte were debating putting up a dam to control the pesky flooding, Dordrecht was one of those high medieval Dutch and Flemish success stories, leveraging their access to waters and more waters to become a trading center for the resources critical to happy life in the feudal societies of northern Europe. For Dordrecht those goods seem to have been grains, wood, and wine.

The city occupies an island formed among the intertwining strands of rivers that make up the marshy delta lands of Holland and Belgium. This little island alone is apparently touched by no less than five different rivers, the Oude Maas, the Beneden Merwede, the Nieuwe Merwede, the Hollands Diep, and the Dordtsche Kil.

It’s fun to consider that, in all likelihood, most people who have approached this town, have done so by water. We rarely think about how our understanding of a place is shaped by the aesthetic experience of the approach. Maybe it’s one reason I love train travel, and by extension, European travel. Swinging through American towns on raised superhighways can be exciting, but it’s clearly different. The impression of the place is infused with the adrenaline of maneuvering among lanes at high speeds.

Coming into Dordrecht from the north is a descent from the heights of the bridge over the Oude Maas, and a slowing descent. You see the Grote Kerk by riverside, a stolid piece of Golden Age work, the tower of which is memorable for its four square clock faces at the top, like the open flaps of a box lid. You see all the historical town bunched in miniature, and you might, surveying the town this way, just feel you know it already. In contrast, I imagine the approach in water, during which the town would loom above. The church by the water might tower properly; streets might open alluringly onto the riverside, enticing by virtue of the veil drawn by perspective. The town would open up at eye level. Disembarking from the train, with the bird’s eye view in mind, you’re tempted to believe in the map in your mind, and the tour is an impatient exercise in connecting the dots.

You glide past the historical district on the train, and on past the long streetside façade of a modern shopping mall, descending to nearly street-level as you go, and pulling into the station. The station here is niets bijzonders, as they say, nothing special, just the long shelters over the tracks and one small station building, neat and clean and functional, but no occasion for celebration.

In Rotterdam, the celebration over the new station subsides. We take it for granted already, the high angled wing over the plein, shining silvery in its metal panels. Actually the new station’s dramatic outline has been in place for well over a year. The opening is a formality; the celebration is a farewell to the construction crews. There is little to remark on about the approach to Rotterdam. The train rolls through plain suburbs, and along flat routes into the city, largely without feature. The impression says ‘city along the way’, perhaps even if it’s your destination.

At least two long-time Rotterdammers are dismissive. We are returning to the station one evening, and they are recalling the long years of construction. The previous station was closed in 2007. ‘It’s all right,’ they say about the new one, with a shrug. ‘We’re happy the construction is done.’ They remember the previous station, built in 1957. They are similarly unimpressed with the old station. Maybe it’s Dutch reserve.

I’m disappointed they don’t recall the old one fondly. I’ve only seen it in pictures, so maybe I don’t have a right to say it, but I kind of prefer it to the new one. It may have been relatively bland, but it fit into the feel of postwar Rotterdam, its concrete chic, best exemplified now by the old Groothandelsgebouw building (photo above), which stands next to the station. It was built in 1953, based on the design of the art deco Merchandise Mart in Chicago. It was one of the first major builds post-war in Rotterdam. It was built on the site of the old city zoo.

Then again, the reserve of the native sons seems appropriate somehow. There’s something about old Rotterdam that invites deprecation. Its civic spirit dresses for grim business, and prides itself on the contrast to frilly Amsterdam.

Dordrecht has less at stake. It gets to be the small town at the meeting of rivers. It has no big agenda for me. I take to the humble streets, and I head toward the Grote Kerk.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Travelogue 552 – March 29
Taking the Train
Part One

The day starts at Fundame. Fundame is a café by the central train station. Well, actually Fundame is a town in the Kembata-Tembaro region of southern Ethiopia. The name of the café is Lebkov. Menna and I go to Lebkov often to study and to work. We also go to the café on the other side of the station, which has a long and complicated name. We just call it Azedebo, which is actually the name of another town in the Kembata-Tembaro region of southern Ethiopia. The two towns are near each other, and host twin kindergarten programs that we have implemented in recent years. It’s nice that we go to Azedebo and Fundame almost every day. We don’t get to see the four hundred children singing songs and reciting the alphabet. But we get nice croissants, which is something we couldn’t do in Ethiopia. All in all, it might be more fulfilling to see the children, but the croissants are a nice comfort.

It would be fun if we could pick up and go to Ethiopia, spend the day. I could pass on the croissants for a day. I was supposed to have gone about three weeks ago, but my dental meltdown pushed that off the calendar.

I like movement. Maybe that’s why I like hanging out around the central station. I like seeing the trains coming in and heading out again; seeing the people rushing to their platforms, eager for their journeys; reading the display of departures; reading the names of destinations.

And the station is a pleasant place to hang out now. After years of construction, Rotterdam’s Central Station is finished. The city celebrated its grand opening a week or two ago. The city planners have achieved their new, space-age look, and I hope it brings them the distinction the city deserves. But to my mind, the greater achievement is the convenience and comfort. The extensive plaza in front of the station is suddenly free from impromptu fences and holes, free of the men in orange and yellow work suits, free of the resounding clamour of heavy machinery. Just in time for spring, there is wide open space and places to sit beside grass or flowers, all with the prospect of downtown’s buildings at arm’s length.

Underneath that plaza is a vast parking ramp just for bicycles, space for several thousand bikes. Cyclists park in racks on the ground or in raised racks, in which individual slots roll out like drawers and tilt down so bikes can be rolled up and into position. The dry parking space is another attraction, living in a place as wet as Holland.

I usually get going early in the morning, and I take refuge somewhere like Fundame while the tremendous wave of morning activity overtakes the city, the good burghers of Rotterdam stirring and racing to their stations of daily service to the economy. I like movement, and weekday mornings are a study in the mass release of energy, croissants and coffee converted into fuel and fire, into a fury of intent. I’m working, and I’m watching. The lines at Fundame’s counters suddenly swell. Voices weave together into a chorus of subdued enthusiasm.

I like movement, and sometimes the temptation of the trains is too much for me. Today, after the comfort of my croissant, after one long work session, I stroll over to the ticket office. I’m going to take a short trip, just to feel the train pull away from its platform, just to watch the sun take us window by window as we emerge from under the vast shelter of the station. I love the gentle motion of the train. I love the spaces it accesses, letting go of the buildings and the streets, taking the track that bursts from the confines of the architects. I see grasses. I see rivers. The see the unfolded sky, the birds wheeling there in their flocks.

I’m going to neighboring Dordrecht.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Travelogue 551 – March 18

Just as the signs of spring have overtaken us, flowers blooming and the smiles so like the awakening of babies; just as the first ducklings appear among the grasses beside the canals and the bicycles multiply on the bike paths; just as the bars see their roadside tables fill with new crowds of a Sunday afternoon and casual runners find the pale legs to propel them unsteadily on and past; just then the signs also abound that the season of elections has come to the city. One doesn’t need to know the candidates, the parties, the issues. One recognizes the signals. In politics, the signals are common across all cultures, I think, the bold acronyms in primary colors; the faces blown large but without fashion, without sex; the language of symbols that are favored by the political classes, bound in ribbons and banners; and the simple commands hung in empty spaces. ‘Stem!’ the signs say. ‘Vote!’

‘Stem’ also means voice. Speak! There are billboards saying, in Dutch, ‘In Rotterdam, we speak Nederlands.’ I’m assuming this is a conservative voice in the dark, shoring up anxieties that whisper, ‘We are losing our country.’ This is a potent appeal everywhere in the world, and lately it has special power in Europe. It means little that the history is available to provide perspective: there was only fleetingly ever a country for anyone to feel ownership over, especially the more tightly one attempts to define that country. It is true that Dutch represents one of the oldest manifestations of the Germanic languages that moved in during the time of the Romans, probably closer to the Ur-language than High German. But the lands with which that language have become associated have never been united. The Lowlands, in fact, have historically been those marshy delta lands in between other important places, through which all types of people have traveled in pursuit of trade. It has rarely, in two millennia, been a place that could afford to snub the speakers of foreign tongues.

But there’s little I can say with credibility, especially in Nederlands, because my own language studies have made excruciatingly slow progress. I, who used to excel in languages, have made a poor showing during the years I’ve lived overseas, when a facility with languages would have provided so much benefit and comfort. My own language is such a formidable stronghold and haven. ‘In America, we are stuck with English.’ We find it hard to explore.

Rather than Nederlands, the commanding voice in recent weeks has been pain. Since the operation that removed one more piece of wisdom from my head, pain has been an insistent voice inside my skull, rarely letting up. The post-op recovery didn’t go so well. I developed what they endearingly call ‘dry socket’, a stubborn wound that will not close and leaves the whole lower jaw vulnerable to the sparking current of irritation. The joys of spring mean little to that voice. It finds all that to be rubbish. It demands fealty, and the fealty is leads to a darker shade in the spectrum of seasons. It harks back to winter; it murmurs of age and failing powers. It represents the stark bare branches, rather than the budding ones.

At the central train station, the partisans are out, wearing T-shirts with party symbols and carrying clipboards in the crooks of their arms. They accost the people of the city as they are rushing to depart or arrive, the commuters and the pleasure travelers. They are cheerful, and they are mild. Politics is a friendly sport. Inside the café, partisans taking a break join the partisans from opposing camps at their tables. They laugh in indulgent ways, possibly laughing at themselves, laughing to message: we’re laughing. It’s all good.

We are fortunate that Nature cares little for the voices of humanity. Whether they speak Nederlands, or whether they say nothing at all, listening instead to the internal rantings of their autumnal pain, Nature will tend the cause of youth, the new leaves and the hatchlings. ‘In Spring, we speak Green.’

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Travelogue 550 – March 6
My Dentist

I have been meaning to lose weight for my race, fast approaching. I suppose my dentist felt she should do her small part. She advised I have a tooth removed, and so I consented, thinking of the extra milligrams I won’t be carrying across the finish line, thinking of the kindness of my dentist.

We’ve been seeing a lot of each other this year, my dentist and I. She’s short and she has small dentist hands, so well adapted to her profession. She understands my aversion to pain. She says reassuring things as she draws up her tray of fine metal instruments. She says them in a French accent, because she is from France. She tells me that Dutch people often refuse novocain. I make sure she knows I’m not Dutch.

Isn’t this a corollary of the Stockholm syndrome, the peculiar bond of trust and sympathy with the person who is forced by fate to torture you? Maybe there’s a more specialized name for those who dig around in your head. I mean, how could many people have been literally inside your head? It’s a story of bonding. The bonding in breaking.

From where I sit in the dentist’s chair, I can see inside my mouth in the mirror overhead. I can also see out the window, see the Mathenesserlaan on a sunny day. Spring has come to town this week. That means only a thaw of a few degrees and some sustained sunshine. It’s been a strange winter, the only thing frozen being the thermometer, holding at five degrees or so for months, and the barometer, holding steady on the threshold of light rain under heavy clouds.

I gaze longingly out the window as the novocain takes effect. I gaze lovingly upon the dirty old street, wishing I would have enjoyed my hours on that avenue more, wish I had strolled the wide pavements like a drunk, like a lover, lifted my head to the skies, let the rain wash my diseased teeth. If only I had appreciated the numbered days I had had with that tooth.

But now, it’s only a matter of minutes. In her caring French accent, the dentist has explained the state of that poor wisdom tooth, a dead and broken wreck now at the back of my mouth, left there at peril to my future health. It will become the bad house on the block if I leave it. There is no choice. The deadening agent spreads through my lower jaw, and I will yield to the cold instruments on her tray.

These are moments in which we console ourselves with unvoiced comforts, vague reminders that we have survived previous procedures, false memories of procedures that turned out to be painless, vivid pictures of what we will do afterward.

This was not to be one of those reassuring experiences, the memory of which will steady my nerves the next time around. The wisdom tooth is reluctant to leave this world. The dying nerves inside the poor tooth fire with the same daydreams as the mind has, reminded of the ephemeral nature of life, longing for the feel of fresh air, for the touch of Holland’s spring rain along its enamel surfaces. The dentist has a struggle with it, finally having to break it into pieces in order to pull it out in bloody bits. It’s one of those bitter leave-takings that leave the bereft only exhausted and unable to rise to any sentiment.

My dentist quietly offers her condolences, and pats my hand with hers, encased in latex. She gives me gauze, and she gives me pain-killers, and she issues kind cautions in my healing. I must not take anything hot or cold; I must not spit.

Outside is the same spring day as bloomed an hour before, but of course advanced by that one crucial step on the clock, shadows grown and light spent. I have left behind my several milligrams. I have emerged with my wound. It’s odd to consider how humans can voluntarily enter into transactions that wound, can submit to injury, armed only with the logic that it is the right thing to do. We make friends of the people who habitually administer this pain. It’s unusual.