Monday, June 23, 2014

Travelogue 566 – June 23
Dreaming Minnesota
Part Four

It’s sundown. It’s rainy season. The evening reads like a vision before sleep. The damp cold makes you sleepy but also keeps you moving.

Just outside the gate to my household compound is the road, made of stones set in mud. The road climbs relatively steeply toward the asphalt road, just below the embassy. Less than two hundred meters up the road from my gate -- clicking it shut makes the girls who have passed look over their shoulder and giggle at the sight of me, -- the road crosses another neighborhood street. The intersecting road is a wide one, laid with cobblestone since last year, when we were visited by one of the crews sweeping through the city, chipping stone and digging, setting the stones like bricks in herring bone patterns.

Just here this cobblestone road crests a small rise, and there is in the intersection a small plateau, a wide and clear space in which one sees four ways. Toward the north, the mountain slope stands in a rainy season mist. The road bows upward in the middle, pushing the houses and their makeshift fences, overladen with climbing greenery, back and down, underscoring the image of road as Road, and underscoring the impression that the road leads right to that mountain slope.

People are passing, ambling slowly down the middle of the cobblestone way. The young men of the neighborhood like to gather here, on one side or the other, sitting on stones or kicking a homemade ball around. They comment, they laugh. There is an old woman who reminds Menna of a witch, who stands in front of one of the gates near the intersection and mutters to herself, glaring at whoever looks at her as they pass.

I can’t help the pause in my step whenever I cross this intersection, slowing to take in the scene, the peace of the mountains and the boys and their cackling. Once across, the stones and their puddles resume. I watch my steps. I make way, where the way narrows to one line of stones among the puddles, for a passing matron carrying groceries. I reflect on the enveloping damp, and on the gathering dusk. The season and the hour combine to create a singular atmosphere, something primeval in its darkness. The stones underfoot are slimy. Everywhere is mud.

How does one mark one’s next step in this season? The next relates to the last, I suppose. It arises in mud and falls in mud. The rocks are slimy. One climbs with one’s head down. At the top of the hill is the street. There the car can sweep me up, raising my shoes from the mud.

There is mud on the cement floors of the classroom. The children are seated at their low tables, heads in hands, some drawing in their notebooks. We are touring, and we are taking video of a few little stars up front. Away from the camera, I’m asking one boy with muddy feet to tell me about his drawing. He swivels his head to grin up at me. He does that a few times before he answers. That’s a house. That’s a ball. That’s a cat. It’s a familiar catalogue of items. It seems to round out the lives of the children table to table. That’s a flower. She swivels her head to look up at me. She has a grin and a giggle. I pick up the stubby and dull pencil, and I draw a quick star on the page, just to see something new. I take her drawing hand in mine, and she finds all this novel.

I climb into the back of the 4X4. I will be sorted there, shaken and filtered layer by layer as we cross the city one side to the other one day, one side to another side the next day. I will be sorted road by road. At each destination, my feet will swing from their perch to be set in mud. We are sorting. We are cataloguing.

We have arrived at muddy Jan Meda early one morning. The coach is standing alone in the damp air, tall and forlorn. He is looking old and so suddenly. He greets us with his natural graciousness. He points out the athletes, a thinning group in the distance, rounding a corner of the field. They will return to do calisthenics drills on the grass. Little Leyla, Ethiopian from America, will want her picture taken with some of the women. Ultimately, she finds herself more interested in the horses grazing in the field.

I have come round to the measure of the visit, and necessarily the steps turn round to the airport. Here, the foot falls on tile, tile laid over concrete. I know this place. I know how desperately depressing it is at night. There is no help for that. The flights home originate from nighttime. The lighting in the cavernous Bole terminal are yellow and perpetually fading into shadows of stale bardo, stretching on like rooms in opposing mirrors.

There is no space, every hall and every corner occupied by lines and clots of the hardy and the rosy-cheeked, the gee-whizzers and the har-har drinkers, dervishes of the arrested moment. Among them thread the intent labor pilgrims to Dubai. When those don’t pace with fierce purpose, they gather in cross-legged crowds on the floor, among their gowns and their piles of wretched luggage to chitter like flocks of birds being circled by predators.

In the final lines, we all become sullen and aggressive. There is a kind of angry hope in line. There might be an end to the yellow night. I have just skimmed an article about a study suggesting we will choose pain over boredom. Maybe that’s all it is, the story behind stories among us children of the mud.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Travelogue 565 – June 19
Dreaming Minnesota
Part Three

At first, it looks just like the café I left last year. Peace Coffee occupies the same brick-lined interior on Minnehaha, midway between Wes’s neighborhood and downtown and a few blocks off Lake Street, in one of those ambivalent zones of Minneapolis, in which subdued (resigned, and beaten?) domesticity mixes with understated hipster lifestyle, mixes with bitter-sweet immigrant stories, and mixes with mild industry, and everyone shares a kind of winter-stunned silence, staring, even in June, from pale and lined faces.

This seems a Midwestern brand, this unregulated threading of survivals into taciturn streets, into an intuitive map among the city blocks, every type of defiance wrapping itself in worn brown flags behind clapboard and brick.

But it’s not the same. For one thing, Andy tells me he’s leaving. Andy has always been there to open the café and start the espresso machine. He has remembered my name, even when I’ve been away for months. He has said hello, asked about things.

Andy has allowed himself the indulgence of ageing, trading over time the slight frame and spry energy of youth for the slower and more sober, gaining a few pounds on his frame and surrendering the luster of his fresh cheeks, trading the long hair for a plug in his ear lobe.

He’s moving on now. He says it’s just for a change of pace. He’s moving to another coffee shop that I haven’t heard of yet. I tell him I’ll stop by some day. ‘Great,’ he says, simply. ‘Though I’m not trying to steer people away from Peace,’ and he’s nodding in that uniquely American way, leaning lazily to one side, smiling easily.

Andy’s moving on, practicing the Minnesota art of sublime humility, making of a life change the most subtle of twists in narrative, as though something more would be vain dramatics. He will shift a mile or two into a new coffee shop, and hope that he hasn’t angered the snow gods with his self-indulgence.

It’s another chilly day. I had been anticipating a taste of Midwestern heat and humidity, but it’s just not to be. There are low clouds instead, and a persistent chill. I start with a long walk in the park, leaving the car in the abandoned lot close to the wall of trees. I follow the paved bicycle path into the forest. I follow the first dirt path that descends quickly away down toward the river and away from the asphalt cycle path. The earth is damp and soft. The trees encircle and hold me, forming a time of their own. I want a perfect dawn silence, but there is no such thing There is only the deceptive stillness of the trees. The never-ending buzz and the song of life are in full throat. There is no silence, only different types of noise.

I’ll catch my first glimpse of this year’s World Cup at Grumpy’s on Washington. Our board meetings are at the Open Book on Washington, just a block away, a perfect meeting for an agency dedicated to literacy. At our lunch break, the board wants Ethiopian food, and I want a Grumpy’s tuna melt. Grumpy’s is a bar committed to changelessness. It’s a comfort. Still the plain tables set amid black space; still the pool table to one side. Still the four TVs in the center set to face outward toward the patrons sitting at the central, rectangular bar. I see Mexico, and I sit. Mexico is playing Cameroon. My loyalties are divided. I feel I should support the African teams. That will be a thankless job in this year’s tournament.

A young Latina will sit next to me after a while. She will be rooting for Mexico, though her first loyalty is to Costa Rica. It’s going to be much more rewarding cheering on the Latin teams this year. She works for an NGO, an NGO that supports NGOs.

It is everywhere. Charity occupies the seat next to you on the plane. Charity drinks whiskey at obscure bars in Addis Ababa. Charity cheers the other team when no one else in the bar cares, when you have only stolen away for a tuna melt. Charity is a stealthy entity, and ravenous, girdling the world, becoming part of the definition of the world it endeavors to help.

I’ll take a quick walk. A few blocks away is the Mississippi River. There is a prospect there, above the Guthrie, from which one can see the Stone Arch Bridge, the 130 year-old railway bridge in tan limestone. There will be an art festival this weekend at the bridge. I’ll be able to see the activity there, as people set up their canvas tents. They will raise an itinerant encampment, artisans spontaneously chartering a new neighborhood. I’ll be reminded of the markets outside of churches on saints’ days in Ethiopia, goods on tarps and blankets along the road, merchants squatting beside each, and the milling crowds in white. It’s a scene that looks like forever, like sculpture, and then it melts away by the end of the day.

Sometimes you long for stillness. A city is made of silent buildings, but there is never silence, only different types of noise.

Below the bridge, the Mississippi will be high with the spring rains. There will be more white water than usual. The river is testing its banks.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Travelogue 564 – June 18
Dreaming Minnesota
Part Two

I’m drifting along the 55. It’s a diagonal across the map of Minneapolis. It used to be an avenue called Hiawatha. It’s as straight a shot from the airport to downtown as there is. It threads a lot of neighborhoods along the way, including Wes’s neighborhood, quiet rows of houses in the wedge between highways 55 and 62, just behind the massive VA complex with its green lawns behind chain link fences.

The sun rises over Wes’s neighborhood some time before 5:30, sending dim shadows across the TV room, where I’m camping out on the couch-bed. The expectant silence makes me hungry for the day. I lie with it before I move, before I dress and tiptoe across the creaking floorboards of the house. Outside, hot summer has lapsed into chilly spring.

So close to the highway -- already gathering its stormy energy, -- are the quiet banks of the Mississippi. One sees the whole of the spring here, pooling around the base of trees, the waters teased high by the rains, cutting short the paths that follow the banks of the river. Here the birdsong is brisk, and so is the song of the mosquito. I want to partake in the stillness of the morning but I do so at much risk. I turn back to the paths that climb up the bluff, to the old bike path.

This is Fort Snelling State Park, where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers meet, where Europeans first settled to build an outpost among the northern reaches of the continent’s great river. They stood above the confluence of the waters in a great silence, waiting for the times.

The times were climbing the steps toward Sacré-Cœur. They were lodging in the hearts of the starving workers of Paris. While the Minnesota pioneers were struggling to channel St Anthony Falls and build their first mills on the river, while they were digging silent roads in the snow, Bismark had united Germany under the martial Prussians and had invaded France. The French emperor had buckled. A Third Republic was declared and its ministers tried desperately to negotiate terms, but when the Parisian mob insisted on continuing the fight, the Germans surrounded the great city, starving it through most of the winter of 1870-1871.

I’m standing on the stairway to Sacré-Cœur, overlooking the city historical and modern, well after the drama of the times have passed. The city is like a museum now. Like any good museum, the exhibits spark the imagination. I’m thinking of somewhere far away. I’m thinking of the hills of Shiro Meda in Addis Ababa, smoke from the ‘village’ wafting up against the eucalyptus green of the mountainside. In November, 2005, these hills were one of the first places in the city to ignite in rebellion against the perceived election fraud of the ruling party. Hundreds were to die in this conflict. I remember how the reports of unrest, and even the drifting sounds of it, moved like waves through the city from north to south, from the hills of Shiro Meda to Faransae, through Piassa, and through Kirkos, on into Bole. There were shots from the guns of federal police. There were screams and wailing. The sounds continued into the night, as police fanned out through the district, gathering sons and husbands for indefinite detention.

In 1871, it was a fight over the cannons remaining from the sad siege of the winter that sparked the rebellion that became the Paris Commune. The fight started on the hill of Montmartre. The hill was something of a slum then. There was no towering white church, no trails of tourists, no stands for itinerant artists selling quick portraits. And in March, there were cannons set to face north toward the invaders. The citizens were determined to keep the cannons as proof against oppression. Women and children rushed to stand between the imperial troops and the mob, and the troops turned on their commanders. Two generals were killed by the mob. There was no turning back. The rebellion spread, and within days, the city belonged to the Commune. The Republic retreated to Versailles. The Commune, which was only to last a couple months, declared a program that seems mild in retrospect, abolition of debt; return of pawned assets to the workers, worker ownership of abandoned businesses, and the separation of church and state. Mild, but people in the countryside could not identify. They distrusted the poor workers and the immigrants of the big city. By the end of May, the revolt had been violently stamped out.

It’s interesting that one legacy of the Commune, adamant about the separation of church and state, would be the beautiful but stern basilica at the summit of Montmartre. Tourists are not likely to know the history, and are even less likely to find it compelling. Every generation has its issues. If anything, we seem to be a generation that would fight to rejoin church and state. We recognize the rage in a man or woman a century and a half ago, but we find the triggers inscrutable.

For my part, I find the links among time fascinating. I calculate that the Commune was far closer in time to the French Revolution than to our own time. It happened only some eighty years after the Revolution, and just over twenty after the revolutions of 1848. The harsh treatment at the hands of the Germans preceded the First World War by only 43 years. The string of violent outbursts tells a story, and some of it is about the rights of men and women. Some of it is crazed nationalism. The lines are blurred, as just the example of the Paris mob in the early months of 1871 demonstrates. I look ahead from the Commune and note that Hemingway and the artists of the 20s were living in a Paris only half a century after the Commune. Again, their time stands far closer to 1871 than it does to our own. Memories of the Commune might have been alive for the writers of the 20s. Paris was a city of revolution.

You see no hills flying into Minnesota. What you see is a flat tabletop of land, trees neatly ordered among their houses, all woven together in a carpet rolled out to the horizon. There is one tight collection of towers, set rather arbitrarily among all the silent neighborhoods. That is downtown. One doesn’t notice the fort on the hill above the river. It throws no shadow from the perspective of the airplane. Reality needs feet on the ground. It requires the cool of the shade.

On the ground, the height is real. That’s why there is a fort there. It commands a view over the confluence of the rivers. In 2014, it stands above park lands. It commands a view over bicycle paths. The walls of the fort, erected stone by stone by lonely army men far from home, cap the steep slope above me as I follow the path back toward the parking lot. My only concerns are following the songs of the morning birds and making it to the café by opening time.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Travelogue 563 – June 17
Dreaming Minnesota
Part One

At first, it looks like Paris, a dream of a quiet cité. In this dream, I have traveled. I’m so tired, it’s hard to remember what preceded. I believe there were days in front of my little computer screen, monitoring wild spreadsheets and editing Spartan accounts of children sitting inside their mud-walled classrooms in Ethiopia. Then suddenly I’m emerging from the Metro station at Pigalle. Yes, I seem to have caught the Thalys train from Rotterdam Centraal one Friday midday. That’s how the dream goes.

I’m alone among the tables in front of the brasserie off the Place des Abbesses. The trash truck is idling across the street. The truck has disgorged men in overalls, who are roaming the street. They are sending cleansing water down the gutters. The coffee is right. The croissant is perfect. I am remembering where I am. I am sitting off the Place des Abbesses, where a carousel stands at the base of a hill. The hill leads steeply up to Sacré-Cœur. Facing the carousel is the Church of Saint-Jean-de-Montmartre, art nouveau beauty built at the turn of the last century, the façade a comforting set of bubbling arches and intersecting lines, rising together in brick and tile casing. It is a building proud of itself, first church built with reinforced cement, and example of artistic and architectural courage in a time when city officials could call for its demolition. It was not traditional masonry, and so was almost condemned.

I can see the side of the same church from my hotel window. It’s a tiny room, and there is little to do but to look out the window, from which the view takes in grey roofs and the side of Saint-Jean. There is a deep courtyard like a well at my feet. I can’t see the bottom, but I can hear the echoing laughter of children.

Yes, I emerged from the Metro, and I climbed a steep street toward Montmartre. Then I climbed five flights of stairs to my hotel room. Once I had descended again, I found a street grocer, where I bought two mandarin oranges. With those in my backpack, I could then find the stairway up to the strikingly white and austere Basilica of Sacré-Cœur, nineteenth-century monument to order. It was ordered to be built to ‘expiate the crimes’ of the uprising of the Commune of 1871, which had begun in Montmartre. The archbishop of Paris had been martyred during the uprising. His successor had a vision at the summit of Montmartre, a vision of the sacred heart of Jesus.

There is a carousel in the Place des Abbesses. There is another carousel at the base of the stairway to Sacré-Cœur. Here the tour groups pause for photos before they embark on the ascent to the summit. Just below Sacré-Cœur there are prospects where one can see nearly the whole of the city spreading out below. There is a Korean wedding party on the highest flight of stairs. Tourists are applauding the couple’s kiss.

Below is the unyielding hill of my hotel’s street. I am already descending with my backpack full for new travel. I have a long road ahead, even in getting to the gate for my flight, down the steps to the Metro, and from the Gare du Nord a rattling train with many stops, and then along many long hallways inside the airport, numbered and lettered and connected by whispering shuttles.

I have spent many hours sitting next to a delicate and tearfully silent ageing woman, with the golden locks of a thirty year-old, whose bag is full of pill bottles when the spare stretches of Minnesota appear outside the airplane’s windows. Some clouds are scraping along, close to Earth’s surface. They seem like creatures blind and stubborn. The city has not moved. We find it there, peaceful and resigned to the abrasive attention of clouds, stoic today and impassive. It had waited among its trees for me, at the end of a long, long day, sunlit across the Atlantic, a day still spreading its hand ahead toward the west.

It might be one of those dreams one has after periods of sleeplessness, brief and lurid, too vivid and intense and provoking sharp anxieties before abruptly ending, after which one awakens in a new place, though one never does that, really. It was a trip at a blur. I have only formed imperfect impressions of it, between coughing fits left over from the wet trip to Scotland, among sheer veils of exhaustion, among the plaited mists of motion without rest.

But reality wakes where it left off. I am driving north on 55. The late afternoon is a bright wash across the spaces of the American Midwest.