Saturday, April 26, 2014

Travelogue 557 – April 26

It’s King’s Day in Holland. It’s the first opportunity the Dutch have had to celebrate a King’s Day in well over a century. For that many years it has been Queen’s Day. Three queens in a row ruled this country, three very healthy women. It’s a healthy family. The new king, Willem-Alexander, is only the seventh since the monarchy was established in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo. And monarchy was just a formality for the family that has ruled Holland since the mid-sixteenth century. Beatrix, the king’s mother and former queen, is still alive and well. Presumably, she just decided it was time to retire, perhaps to raise tulips.

The Dutch would not normally strike an American as particularly patriotic, until King’s Day. Suddenly the flags come out, as do the orange Ts and the orange hats, the orange ribbons and the orange crowns. The colors are worn in good fun. For most young people, I would imagine that the color orange arouses more football loyalty than nationalism, and I can’t at all imagine what being Dutch means to them. Is it a lifestyle more than a history, a smug civic philosophy more than a sense of blood ties?

In Europe or America, a holiday is a holiday, an excuse for a party. The crowds move slowly along the Oude Binnenweg. The bars are packed. Where the outdoor tables fringe on the brick walkway, the crowds slow even further. Spirits are high. In front of our café on Eendrachtsplein, there is a troupe playing drums. They are calling themselves African, though there is only one who is not white. Still, they rattle and thump their way on for hours intrepidly, and with commendable rhythm. Every so often one of them stands and dances in an approximation of African. The best is a white guy in a red T. There is nothing orange on him as he dips and steps with his arms spread wide. Menna is African, and she likes his dancing, so I’ll take that as a mark of authenticity, though it should be said that it’s only since we came to Europe that Menna accepts being called African. Usually Ethiopes resent the term. And it should also be said that dance looks nothing like this in East Africa. Or north, I dare say. When we outside apply the term African to music or dance, we know what we’re talking about, and it’s a quality that originates somewhat west of center, down there around the crook in the fat arm. Not by the elbow of the Horn.

A holiday is a holiday, and a party is a party. The night before we are visiting Den Haag. In party land traditions, the eve is always more important. Neither of us had registered the date, and so were surprised by the activity on the streets. There were guards at mall entrances. One young man directing us to the one sanctioned entrance explained. Things will get crazy, he says. Boys will get drunk. Cars will be turned over. It happens every year.

The walk back to the train station was entertaining, By then, night had fallen. Bands of patriots hooted and laughed and wended their merry way toward the city center. Boys on bikes turned in wobbly circles and stood the little machines on one wheel and then on the other, and they braked with a sneaker on the back tire. Interesting pee kiosks were set out for the men, four little sockets per hub. The sound of live music radiated from side streets. Groups of teen girls giggled as they looked for danger. The station was alive with activity, but our train home was nearly empty. The capital was clearly the place to be on King’s Day.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Travelogue 556 – April 12
Derrida and the Pelikaan
Part Two

I’m on course for Dordrecht again, but today I am not traveling by train. I’m cycling. I’m on course for old Dordrecht, but today I’ll stop short of the ancient river town. My destination is a town called Zwijndrecht, located just on the Rotterdam side of the Oude Maas, across from Dordrecht. I’m on a mission today, to see the Pelikaan side take on the boys from Alblasserdam, a village just across the Noord River.

The ride is about an hour. I‘m familiar with the way because of last year’s explorations. Last spring at about this time, compensating for a foot injury during training, I got up at dawn and cycled for hours. I know to cross the big river at the Erasmusbrug and head south, passing by the Feyenoord Stadion, and passing by the mighty A16 Bridge, staying to the long bike paths southward, beside the highway, passing by rows of lonely housing developments, by rows of flower greenhouses, and finally by nothing but open fields.

I’m not cycling at dawn this time. It’s a Saturday afternoon, and there is the usual weekend traffic on the bike paths: weaving teenagers, creeping old couples, gaping scooter boys, and of course the sport cyclists, whirring by, bent over their labours. The glances of the latter linger on me, trying to put the pieces together, the old bike that could almost be racing material, the pace I’m keeping though I’m not wearing the right clothes, in fact the carelessness of my ensemble, the polyester sweat pants and the runner’s jersey, the long hair under a runner’s beanie. I’m an odd notion in the flesh.

By the end of the ride to Zwijndrecht, I have ample evidence that I am no cyclist, intangible stuff, lodged mostly among the muscles of my buttocks. There is some of that in my knees, too. I coast into the sport complex, spacious, active. There are a number of clean pitches, and some smaller fields side by side, devoted today to girls’ field hockey.

I’m confused: there are a number of games to choose from. I decide it must be the one with the electronic scoreboard, the one with the turnstile and the ticket price. I pay my five euros and enter, walking by the temptation of the outdoor pub, straight to the sidelines, where we are separated from the pitch by only a foot of grass and a steel railing. A few meters behind us, boys are sprinting back and forth in an intense youth game.

Football league structure is deep in Holland, teams upon teams. It starts at the top with two national professional leagues, the Eredivisie and the Eerste, and runs down through one semi-professional league, the Topklasse, and through seven amateur leagues, starting with the Hoofdklasse. The Pelikaan club is in the Tweede Klasse. There’s no press coverage. There are not even bleachers. The crowd comprises just enough people to line the side railings, one row deep, and to populate the pub tables down by the home team goal. But the locals seem loyal, following the play with devoted attention and the proper cries and hurrahs. The pitch is fairly nice, immaculately kept, higher quality than most playing fields in America below the major leagues.

This is how the Netherlands remains in contention in world play, year after year, unlikely competitors among the perennial powers, among teams from places where football is like religion, like Brazil and Spain; among the football machines like Germany; among teams with salaries like Wall Street, like those in the English Premier League. The Dutch succeed by supporting strong local play.

Today’s game is entertaining, and there is talent on the pitch, as far as I can tell with my unpracticed American eye. The Pelikaaners are handily defeating the boys from Alblasserdam. They score two unanswered goals in the first half. There are some decent players among the opponents, but the sum is unequal to the parts somehow, and after every feverish advance the ball ends up in Pelikaan possession, without even a shot at the goal.

I only stay until halftime. I was able to resist the chill in short sleeves as long as I was cycling and keeping the blood moving. But the breezes have an edge to them. April has turned its face back toward winter. Standing on the sidelines, I’m losing body heat. I’m enjoying the game, but I came to see my barista buddy, and he’s not playing. I wonder if I’ve picked the right game, but it has to be. He said he might not be chosen to start. He must be reciting Derrida to his teammates, but I don’t see him on the bench.

I’m back on the bike, and it is painful. The cold has penetrated into sore muscles. And it takes a few miles of pedaling to warm up again. But I do. By the time I’m re-entering the city, I’m encouraged; I’m thinking about my race in May. I reach the neighborhood. I reach Het Park, and my endorphins count is up. I park the bike, and I start running. I’m going to do some speed drills around one of the fields.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Travelogue 555 – April 10
Derrida and the Pelikaan
Part One

The sweet April spring is in abeyance. The winds are up, and I arrive home with saddle -soak from the bicycle seat. I can wait out the brief showers, but my cycle is parked outdoors. The temperatures have fallen, but not to winter standards. It’s chilly, but not cold. The air is fresh. The birds give me heart, the sea gulls crying and the swans taking baths in the calm waters of the Schie. These things lift my spirits.

Menna was up before sunrise, retreating with her textbook to the other room. Exams are coming too quickly. She studies all the time. My race is coming too quickly. I train every day. The race will be a morning race. I need to shock my body into morning performance. Menna has woken me at a painful hour. No pain, no gain. I suit up, and painfully make my way down the steep staircase to the street.

I take to the banks of the Schie, jogging like a man who’s been in bed for six days rather than for six hours, jogging across the bridge and then around to where the Schie joins the Maas. It’s not until my last straightaway along the Maas that I feel something reminiscent of grace in my stride. It’s humiliating.

The day starts at the old café, my café from former times. I’ve had to take a leave of absence while they went through a minor re-brand. It’s been an awkward transition for them, and none too convenient for the regular.

The barista today is the football player. He’s a husky guy, blonde and good-looking in farm-boy style. He’s older than the other baristas. Most unusual is his good cheer and the way he engages in conversation. I’ve learned not to expect much from the Dutch in the way of personal engagement. But when this guy turns his attention on you, it’s with an intense sort of thoughtfulness.

Our first conversation was about Golden Earring, the Dutch band that produced ‘Radar Love’ in the 70s. I know my look makes people here think I’m a musician. He was testing me. I knew the song, though I hadn’t known the band. I approved his taste, and he was pleased, singing the song and bobbing his head as he worked the espresso machine.

This morning, his mood is sour. The oven is not working. He has been forced to apologize: there will be no croissants. I force myself to take it gracefully, though in fact this is a major setback for me. He is shaking his head. His English is not strong, so he has to take a few runs at the explanation: the cord can’t take the voltage of the oven. This re-brand has been rough.

I’m philosophical. He rewards me with philosophy. He tells me about a French film he’s seen, a film that featured the philosopher Jacques Derrida. This pop philosophe was speaking about paradox, and happy it would seem to manifest it in himself, protesting throughout against the authority being invested in him by the format of the film. I have no special knowledge he says, and then he lectures.

I laugh to be suddenly talking about Derrida. One discovers Europe in the oddest places. The jock barista is quoting Derrida. I’m grateful for that. I ask him how his season is going. He’s member of a local squad, based in Zwijndrecht, close to Dordrecht. ‘Okay,’ he says, qualifying it with a thoughtful pause. He has had some injuries this year, and he wants to tell me how he hasn’t regained all his strength yet. ‘I don’t have my body,’ he says, and he shrugs with discomfort. I know how he feels, when you can’t find the old ease and grace, when your movement is clumsy. I know it. ‘I’m sorry, Mister Barista.’

His club, called Pelikaan, has an important game coming up on Saturday. I tell him I’ll try to show up.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Travelogue 554 – April 3
Taking the Train
Part Three

The train settles into the station with a small groan, with only that sound, and otherwise so quietly. No one says a word. The doors hiss as they open, and I step out. The station is spacious and sun lit. The station is Leiden, university town. Just outside the station doors is a wide brick plein, in which people stand and drift and smoke, and they sway while they chat, and they fiddle with phones and music players, and they walk briskly toward destinations clear in their minds, and they study each other with silent hostility, all the things people do when they have space. There is a bike path painted in white lines across the plaza, lines painted right on the brick, but no one observes the rule. Lone bikes cross in every direction.

There is a collection of high buildings around us, set in a loose line along the rail line, demarcating another of those dead zones left by the bombing in WWII, but raised in none of the neat order of Rotterdam, and lacking the depth among them to really say ‘city’ properly. They stand around the station as heralds of a somewhat transparent modernism, failing to mask the enduring quality of the town, symbolized by the eighteenth-century windmill standing preserved not far from the station, now a museum, perhaps a source of irritation to the architects of the modern. The fact is, Leiden has the most extensive Golden Age town center outside of Amsterdam. And those narrow streets, set among a prolific network of canals, begin only a few hundred meters from the station.

I’m wondering today, stepping along the uneven brickwork of the street, how the architecture has survived our politics. Humans are creatures transfixed by their psychology. Every crisis is a flaw in the lens, playing itself out in the world outside the window. Politics is the passion play. We create beauty and we destroy it all as caprice. These are the same lands that saw the iconoclastic furies during the Reformation, when mobs broke into churches and trashed all the art there that smacked of idolatry.

These little houses, (now shops and now sandwich places,) were signs of status, and now they are signs of heritage. They might easily have been seen simply as signs of bourgeois complacency, symbols of class oppression, decadence and clutter. They are, after all, the vestiges of one of the world’s first independent bourgeois classes, a nation of merchants who warred against feudalism, as represented by the Spanish crown. In turn, they might have been upended by a new working class order. This is a university town, home to all sorts of political fancies.

Maybe it’s my own irritation that narrates these scenarios, as I make slow progress among the crowded streets. There is only room for two abreast on the tiny pavements of the tiny streets. When a bus passes, all foot traffic is made to pause. A truck unloads, and cyclists are desperately trying to see around the obstruction, slowing, stopping, blocking other bikes.

It is a pretty city. I’m here for an appointment, and only have time afterward for a short walk along one canal and another. I steer quickly away from the busiest streets. It’s just enough of an interval to quiet the thoughts of busy days, calm the strife of the mind. The tonic lies among the modest charms of the small Dutch town, modest lines of gables curving along canals, canals in gentle motion among their manmade banks, small bridges spanning them at intervals.

The streets were not built to ease the minds of overstimulated moderns. If anything, these streets were intensely active ones for the time. Farmers coming to market would have found them very exciting. The gabled houses are pretty, but to claim a universal aesthetic might be mistaken. If the architects built to an aesthetic, it was different than ours, triggering different pleasure responses than ours. It’s an alien setting, admirably adapted to modern needs.

Last week I was in Dordrecht, another set of pretty alleyways, but somehow more dim and more contained, as though the sun hadn’t penetrated quite as far into the brick as in Leiden, as though the brick facades in Leiden are healthier, rosier. There is a feeling of optimism in Leiden, as though it invites the sky in.

Trade is the reason for any medieval town’s success in the Lowlands, but for Leiden a new purpose was devised in the sixteenth century, with the establishment of the university. In Dordt, (as the Brits took to calling Dordrecht in centuries past,) identity is defined as sharply as the town itself has been by its surrounding rivers. Though it may be an island, though I have seen so much of it from the elevated train, the distances confound my exploration.

Just outside the Dordt station is the modern city. The way to the historical center is clear. It follows first the wide boulevard, which leads to the shopping street. Most Dutch towns are furnished with some version of Amsterdam’s Kalverstraat, the pedestrian way dedicated to brand name clothing chains, boutiques, parfumeries, and all. In Dordrecht it’s not so high-end as all that, making way for department stores and fast food. From there the smaller streets branch off, the brick streets, and the buildings shrink into age and lean in toward each other.

I’m looking for the Grote Kerk, passing peaceful plazas next to canals that are set deep in brick channels. The spring is young. The outdoor café tables facing the memorial statues in the squares are mostly empty, though the morning couldn’t be nicer. I am marching down long streets, by art galleries and antique dealers, and by places dark and abandoned. The narrow ways allow no vantages to see beyond. I must stumble upon the big church, led there solely by the logic of small town streets, coming upon it suddenly, from behind, as though I’ve stalked a massive animal. The ancient brick walls behind the altar are set in graded sections of a half circle. These are the oldest existing walls. That becomes clear as I make the tour around the whole edifice, the brick therein a fairer pitch of pink, many of them chipped, many eroded, some replaced in different colors, the wall a puzzle with pieces forced in from the intervening centuries.

In front of the church, under the funny, squat, unfinished clock tower, there flows the river, where the boats of merchants would have drifted in, looking for harbor. They would have sighted the tower from miles away, and they would have said, ‘We’ve made it.’