Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Travelogue 562 – May 27
Rosslyn Chapel

It’s a place of magic, located among the shallow valleys heading east among rolling hills toward the North Sea, just south of Edinburgh. The chapel was built by William Sinclair (or Saint Clair), earl and baron, descendant of the Normans, in the middle of the fifteenth century.

This was no trivial project for the earl. He imagined a much larger edifice than we see now, a standard cruciform church with a tower. He spent ten years after winning the charter for the new church just building the village to house the craftsmen. That was before construction ever began. By the time of the earl’s death, they had only managed to erect the choir and the chapel behind the choir, the ‘Lady’ chapel. Foundations were laid for the apse and transepts, but Sir William’s son didn’t have the heart or the funds to continue.

The little chapel’s magic seems to be its power to fire the imagination. Dorothy Wordsworth, William’s sister, wrote a poem, ‘Composed at Roslin Chapel During a Storm’, published in 1831.

“The wind is now thy organist;--a clank
(We know not whence) ministers for a bell
To mark some change of service. As the swell
Of music reached its height, and even when sank
The notes, in prelude, ROSLIN! to a blank
Of silence, how it thrilled thy sumptuous roof,
Pillars, and arches,--not in vain time-proof,
Though Christian rites be wanting! …"

A young Queen Victoria visited in 1842. She was so impressed by the chapel’s beauty she declared that ‘so unique a gem should be preserved to the country.’ Restoration began, and the chapel had a new lease on life. Centuries had passed with the chapel either abandoned or only marginally in use. The Catholic Sinclairs had moved away once the Reformation had begun in earnest.

Modern times found new inspiration. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it was a post-post-decadent-Gothic taste for the fabulous, for histories that sparkle with meaning and portent. The chapel harbors secrets about Jesus, secrets only our time could solve! These are the kind of mysteries, it should be said, that are not really mysteries. Rather, this is mystery of the type authors build airport novels around, in which we know we will be satisfied in short order, symbols decoded, clues deciphered, and wonders revealed.

I must say I do enjoy post-modern mythologies, like the ones that grew around Rosslyn Chapel, stories that re-fashion Jesus into a Jungian shaman whose profound union with Mary Magdelen merged universal animus and anima and inspired generations of priest-soldier-bankers to stand guard over their heritage. In fact, the holy couple’s heritage leads -- in rather wrenching ways -- right to old Sinclair himself, a descendant by blood!

The tour guides dismiss the stories in a way that strains to be playful, but of course telling the tale is telling the tale, even when you tell it in jest, and visitors can’t help glancing about among the shadows of the little chapel that has inspired such speculations.

The tour guide relates another old tale, the one about the Apprentice Column, one, briefly put, in which the naïve but talented young apprentice pays with his life for having carved the magnificent column during his master’s absence. Behind the story is a suggestive glimpse of old Sinclair himself, who has based a design for the column on something he has seen in Rome. He has been a crusader. Some say he has was more. Some say he reached the shores of North America some half a century before Columbus. The story tells us he sends the master craftsman to see the original column in Rome. Apparently the story itself owes much to one Annie Wilson, landlady of an inn in Roslin, who told the story over and over again to visitors that included Samuel Johnson, James Boswell, Sir Walter Scott, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and Robert Burns.

Beneath the shimmer of the mythos is the chapel itself, the dusty local sandstone itself, rich in reds and yellows, quarried, carved, and arranged by men more than five hundred years ago. There is the enduring little temple itself, leaving itself as a message, and in truth the kind of message that confounds rather than explains. The building is a manifestation of a man’s and a time’s religion. He built it so that prayers may be said in perpetuity for himself and his family.

The religion of his time is just as confused as philosophies of our own times, philosophies that blithely weave psychoanalytical imperatives with the rigid fibers of ancient religion. In Sinclair’s case, it’s a Christianity that has been grafted onto pagan ritual and traditions. The most obvious and prolific examples are the many ‘green men’ carved into the walls and pillars of the chapel. The green man is a symbol of fertility; he has vines and leaves growing from his mouth and feeding a rich bed of growth surrounding him. There is also the Dance Macabre leading up one of the arches, a solidly contemporary Christian tradition, but one that smacks of the primal and ancient.

One can hardly blame the mythologizers for being attracted to a place like Rosslyn Chapel. The carvings are so elaborate, so careful, so abundant in reference common and arcane and even accidental; the camels and the gargoyles and the grains that look like corn; the square, styled stones set among the arches that inspired one writer to claim they were code for a song; the angels pointing to open books, closed books.

Outside, the meadows are quiet as ever. The Chapel is a short country-road stroll from the high street of the village of Roslin. I’ve arrived at Roslin by city bus. I wasn’t going to cycle the whole way so soon after the race. But I do cycle part of the way. I want to explore a little.

I’ll stop first at my new Caffe Nero, where the mom and her eager daughter stop for sweet fortification, where the girl collects last crumbs of mom’s attention, and so does mom, looking into the compact mirror. I’ll climb the slow hill toward New Town’s summit, skirting Charlotte Square and dodging through workaday pedestrian traffic, across the hectic interchanges and onto the Lothian Road. I’ll continue on to the Meadows, a vast park that lives up to its name, open grasses criss-crossed by pedestrian paths. There I’ll look back at the Old Town from a new perspective, from the south.

I’ll leave the Meadows to pedal south on Morningside Road. A mile or so later, where the road looks like it will indulge in steep hills, I’ll lock up the bike, and I’ll catch the next Number 15 bus, ascending to the second storey in order to enjoy the view. The road does start to roll over and down the rounded hills, taking us through the southernmost stretches of the city, and then beyond, into the countryside beyond, where the hills and meadows roll east toward the North Sea.

Rosslyn Chapel will be a short stroll from the high street of the village of Roslin. The road will be narrow, lined with trees, and I’ll feel like I’m lost in time, partaking of an ordinary Sunday stroll, until the chapel emerges, across its busy parking lot, behind the glass-paned modern entrance, cut into the old stone walls.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Travelogue 561 – May 26
Some New Parts

I have found this bike path near Ferry Road. It cruises for miles under canopies of green leaves, trees and undergrowth so rich and so vibrantly green it is dazzling, even to someone used to green places. I coast along this path on my rented bicycle, and I breathe in the damp, vegetal air in deeply. I absorb the light rains as they come. I absorb the rare sunshine when it comes. Living in this pinwheel of weather can feel like a week passing in the space of an afternoon. The path more or less follows the channel of the Water of Leith, Edinburgh’s river that resembles a busy brook. As the channel winds away from the harbor, it picks apart a few quiet Edinburgh neighborhoods, digging into the earth and leaving little rocky gorges to negotiate.

The café hasn’t opened yet. I’m kind of happy to find a Caffe Nero here. This is my favored coffee shop chain in the British Isles. A staff person is bustling inside, putting order to things behind the counter. Lights are on, though not all of them. The sidewalk sign leans against the inside of the door, as though propped against intrusion. But it will open.

There is a light rain falling, but it’s not a discouraging rain. It’s not a rain that drives one under awnings. I cross the street to the park. It’s a park that runs alongside the Water of Leith. I follow it, admiring the steep and rising bank on the other side, admiring the slabs of stone in the shallows of the river. I come upon a nineteenth-century monument, a columned gazebo with a statue of Athena inside. I walk on, as the land and path change pitch, slope upward. I walk until I’m just about under the inspiring heights of the Dean Bridge, finished in 1831, rising in four arches more than one hundred feet above our little river.

The café is open, and life is beginning to stir in Dean Village, Edinburgh. Everyone is making their way somewhere. Some pause in the café. There are a mother and daughter who stop here every morning. The daughter is uniformed in prep school plaid. The mother spends her time touching up her face. The daughter is eight or so. She tells her mother stories with wide-eyed urgency. Some people are making the brisk walk up the hill beside the café already. Turning one’s back on the Water of Leith, one has a choice among a few turning cobbled roads that take steep runs at the hill behind the café. Mounting that hill, one enters New Town from the west, behind Charlotte Square and the Albert Memorial.

I turn around, and I follow the Water of Leith toward its terminus, eventually veering off the bike path to wander among the streets north of Ferry Road until I can discover the waters of the firth. I find them beside an expanse of neglected asphalt and concrete. There are barren piers stretching out beyond chain link fences. There’s one ship moored out there, clean and silent, its tidy lines a testament to life in the abandoned harbor.

I turn circles on the asphalt, parting tiny waters with the rubber of the cycle tires, splashing among the puddles. There are still drops of rain falling, but lightly and randomly, as though they have been fashioned one by one, like bits of tender glass, and dropped as they are finished. The sky has broken open. The clouds are shattered and reeling one way and another, broken by morning sunlight. The delicate rain drops are spun by winds, and then they make their marks on the puddles of the asphalt field. They make their fleeting marks out on the firth, too, grey mass from here, stretching maybe five miles across to the bluffs of county Fife on the other side.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Travelogue 560 – May 25
Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain

Was renting a bicycle in Edinburgh the best idea? I am standing in the stairwell outside a department store on George Street in New Town while rain pours into the streets, running into fierce streams that spread from the gutters toward the middle of the avenue. People caught in the downpour are trying to leap over the streams, trying unsuccessfully and limping on in shoes soaked through. Teens run screeching and laughing, wet clothes clinging to them, hair plastered to their foreheads.

I came to Scotland wearing my Dutch winter like a hard-weather badge. I know about rain, I tell myself. But it doesn’t take long to be humbled by Scotland’s climate. The clouds scud along low and quick. They are more mercurial than even the Dutch variety.

The bicycle is meant to solve one logistical problem. My central purpose in coming to Edinburgh was to run the half marathon. I was late booking my hotel, and so I am stuck with a hotel on Ferry Road, a good ways from the starting line. The race is on a Sunday. Most of the buses don’t start running early enough. I realize the bicycle solves another challenge, how to warm up for the race without running more miles, adding more road impact to the legs than necessary.

I came to Edinburgh to run the half marathon, my second year in a row. Last year, the weather issue was too much sun. Runners were overheating. This year, it’s Scotland resurgent. I’m lucky enough to make it to the starting line on the bike without incident. There is no rain. But two minutes before the starting gun, the rain starts, at first a drizzle. I’m looking into the sky with dread. The one blessing is the moderate temperature. I haven’t brought a jacket. In cold temperatures, the rain would have been devastating. The gun goes off, and we start.

Yes, off we go, thousands of us, shuffling together in a tight crowd, forward toward the line drawn across the road, all of us set on our perpetually silly quest for the finish line, for a time, for the huff and puff, for the heart-busting and leg-pounding challenge of an exact set of forty-two grueling kilometers of paved and cobbled roads, laid before us to be conquest of the will, by eccentric will, by quirky human will. It’s like an exercise in mass futility, and we revel in it. Bring the rain, bring the wind, we say. And we make jokes, and we jump at the prompt of the starting gun.

The first few hundred meters are a walk, crammed in among the crowd. The first mile is a negotiation, a few steps forward, a few aside, some stutter-steps, and all the runners jockeying for position. We’re in tight quarters. It doesn’t matter that I avoid the puddles. The guy next to me doesn’t, and he sends a cascade of cold water across my shoe. There is no escape from the fact of rain. I will be carrying that extra weight in my water-logged shoes and water-logged socks.

As we pass beneath the bare green hill leading up to Arthur’s Seat, I look up beyond the ridge into the rain clouds. The rain is gathering force. So is the wind. By the time the race’s course emerges beside the wide grey waters of the Firth of Forth, at about the fifth mile, when the wind hits us unimpeded, pushing me a step to one side and making me gasp with the chill; by the time we can see the small but steely waves of the firth, I’m feeling the strain of leaning into the elements, feeling the bruise of the chill on the forward bits of skin, my forehead, my knuckles and forearms, and along the front of my thighs. I know I can’t beat my record this way, but I push back, and push into it.

We have to take a bus back into Edinburgh after the race. It takes forever, the walk to the bus station and then the drive back into central Edinburgh. The good news is, the rain has stopped. It would feel far worse post-race than during the race. As we’re pulling in at Waverley Station, the clouds are breaking. I have to hike to the bicycle. I’m calling it training for next year, as the muscles set into patterns of complaint.

By the time I pedal back to the hotel, the sun is breaking through. I’m eager to get back out and enjoy it, but after a hot shower, I cannot keep myself from collapsing into a deep sleep. It’s short nap, but in Scotland those windows of weather opportunity are fleeting and unforgiving. I dash outside and sprint toward New Town on the cycle, speeding along the left-hand margins of the narrow and meandering roads of my corner of the capital. I attack the steep hills that guard New Town from all but the most impetuous and impatient cyclists, downshifting all the way, and standing as I pedal, pushing slowly up Dublin Street like I’m marching, and only advancing at about the speed of a parade march.

I’ve just made it onto pleasant gridded tabletop of New Town when the first drops of the next rain come, and the first drops give way quickly to the second, and the third and fourth are angrily pushing the second on, and the fifth and sixth are even more impatient. There is only time to run for cover. I’m waiting out the storm in the stone stairwell of a department store. I’ve thrown the bike against the wall as I dismounted. Now I bide my time, and I watch the less fortunate as they make desperate runs at the street’s rushing waters, hoping for the best, wanting only to arrive somewhere with a hope for comfort.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Travelogue 559 – May 10
The Winds, the Call

Suddenly it’s a blustery and temperamental spring. The clouds are racing, eating up enormous patches of sky and then sailing on with the fleet toward the east. They cast light and chilly showers into the winds, and we run for cover.

Yesterday, it was already midday, and I hadn’t gotten the day’s run in. I figured I had better do it quickly, before the Americans started waking and picking up their phones. I would have to take my chances with the weather. I would have welcomed light rains because they would drive most people indoors and out of my way.

It wasn’t raining when I started. I ran along the Schie, up toward the village of Overschie. This is my route for a quick out-and-back course, when I want to build some speed. I’m feeling all right.

I’m just approaching the big mosque near the train tracks. I hear the call to prayer, and it’s the first time. I’ve passed the mosque, its dome and minarets, dozens of times and never heard the call to prayer. I’ve wondered how they handle that delicate duty to Allah while set in historically Christian countries. The answer is, with perfect moderation. It’s loud enough to hear, but restrained. I’m admiring the song of the call, carried on spring winds, when I see the storm. It’s sweeping across the northern half of the sky. What I see I see through the frame of the bridges over the road and over the Schie. The overpasses are like a doorway. I see the billowing rain beyond, like sheer drapes blowing in hard winds.

When it hits, I have arrived under the first bridge, which bears the highway overhead. I watch the rain hit the pavements with fierce intensity. I’m assaulted by a chill wind. I’m thinking it will pass. I thinking I will be fine; it’s a short run. So I set out to cross the twenty meters or so between the bridges. I’m almost immediately soaked through. The wind batters me; the rain stings. I stop again under the second bridge, a railway bridge, chastened and ready to wait.

It’s a cold wait. I’m stretching, trying to keep warm. The silvery waves of rain swell and break. They are breaking sideways in the blasts of wind. There is lightning. I’m pretty sure this will pass quickly, but I can’t wait so long that muscles get tight. As soon as the force of the rain abates, I set out again.

I’m right that the storm will pass. Weather moves quickly here. By the time I’m on my way home, I have sun on my shoulders. But the storm has a few more cycles to it. I’m not a half kilometer down the road before I get soaked by another wave of hard rain. It’s like being hit by a pail full of ice water. I’m gasping, and pushing forward. The wind is trying to sweep my feet from under me. The rain drops are drilling into my face. My clothes are clinging to me. My shoes are water-logged. They’ll make squishing sounds all the way home.

It’s another day. The rains have let up, but not the winds. Menna and I are on our bikes. Along one street, we don’t have to peddle because he wind carries us. At the big intersection by the hospital, we struggle to avoid being blown into the street. The wind strikes the front wheel, driving it sideways, and it overrides the brakes, as though seized with a will to destroy, like a baby swatting its toys aside. And just as suddenly it’s gone, and we are coasting along safely.

We take a short cut through the Museum Park. This is where Menna learned how to ride a bicycle. There is a paved plaza here, set under a big North Sea sky, a huge paved square painted with festive colors in playful geometries. It’s a plaza that exists for fun, set aside for fairs and movies, and for skateboarders. Its most salient characteristic, though, is its expanse of sky. The big clouds are still rolling overhead, intent on their own dramas. To the north, nearly half the sky is seized with a mass of them, black with their intent to storm. The winds are moving all that away, toward the east, so we can safely stand in the open, astride our bikes, and watch the clouds boil with rains caught up from the seas. The sky over us is white in shreds and grey in shreds, painting restless portraits in quick succession, crazy in love with itself, and tossing each pencil sketch aside: Power, Exhilaration, Disdain, Lethe, Light, Loss.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Travelogue 558 – May 4

Yes, it’s true. I saw someone who looked like my dad this morning. It was just a face on the tram, seen from a distance. It was a Sunday morning, and such a quiet morning that anything moving took on special significance. The tram was taking the turn before the bridge, and sending forth that grinding cry that rails make, while the engine hummed. I was glancing through the empty cars of the tram, and spotted the face white at the window, wide like my dad’s was, his hair cropped short. It was a perception like a fleeting spark, leaving a spot on the blue sky above the street after the train had passed, like the dot in an exclamation point.

The gulls are crying over the Schie. They do that every morning. They wheel and they dive. They float on the water and they cast an assessing eye on the activities of the humans. I was on a morning run, a short run between hard training days. The race is approaching. Yesterday, I logged two separate workouts. I’ve been making a point of running in the mornings because the race will be a morning a race.

Sunday mornings are pleasant. The city seems deserted. Today is particularly quiet, as it comes before a holiday. The holiday is Liberation Day, celebrating the end of the Nazi occupation sixty-nine years ago. A lifetime.

Last night we watched a film at the old Cinerama. It was the story of the reconciliation between a British soldier and his Japanese captor and torturer. The film aspired to achieve beauty out of ugliness, and for all I know, it was successful. I did find the performances admirable, and the scenes visually compelling. There was some mystery to the motives of some of the Brits in their middle-aged, post-war years; there were one or two more tears than I’m comfortable with in a Saturday night film, but all in all, it was a well-crafted product. Still, I’m left wondering about the task that artists assign themselves sometimes, to, in essence, be the reflection, be the wonder. I’m not sure how to act with the director sitting right next to me.

A year or two of my father’s life were consumed by the same war, but in the European theater. Apparently he was part of the crew of a plane shot down over France. He was injured, and had a limp the rest of his life. But that’s the extent of what the living know. He wouldn’t speak about it. Somehow, in a life too short but full of moment, a life begun during the deprivation of the Depression, during which his own father, a veteran of the First World War, suffered a breakdown of some sort; a life adorned by post-war successes in school and in jobs; a life blessed and scarred by the fabulous creation and destruction of his own family; somehow I feel like this life my father led was stamped most decisively and indelibly by those several war-time years.

Once when my mother and father were struggling with the marriage, they dropped me off with an aunt and uncle in Colorado, and they took a trip to Europe. The trip was not successful in saving the marriage, but it’s hard to say what other small wonders people might have been achieved. I don’t know what the itinerary was. I don’t know that the anxious couple didn’t pay some tribute to the war experience. I would guess that any formal purpose was unlikely. But was there a moment, in France, when the echoes overcame the present?

I don’t think of dad too often. By now, I’ve spent the majority of my life without him. And my acquaintance with the man came during his later years, when his demons were winning the life-long war for his soul. We were accustomed to regarding him with some disdain. He was not all that, all damage and all rage, but there was enough of it.

Tomorrow, the Netherlands will celebrate liberation. I don’t think I’ll see my dad on the tram again. I can’t say I know what to do with today’s sighting. I have no director in this theater with me.