Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Travelogue 583 – October 15
The Moderns

At night we’re still watching the ‘Game of Thrones’. Troy brought these strange people to us inside his little computer, inside his little bag. And now they haunt us with their grim and wretched lives, their sordid pleasures and their desperate intrigues. They share with us the repellent visions of their vicious gods. The stories and settings warp over time, the narratives leaning more and more heavily upon the straining crutches of the supernatural. There are zombies to the north. And to the south are dragons.

I enjoy the show; I won’t deny it. But I’m left to wonder as I watch it at the ways we humans talk to ourselves. ‘The night is dark and full of terrors,’ the characters say. We viewers nod. We mutter in horror at our own mysterious selves, renewing our amazement at our survival. Among all the hazards and the hatred, we survive.

We wonder at our history. It’s my theory that TV shows and films like this are release valves for the world psyche. They can only become more ubiquitous, as the fascination grows for a vanished past. We entertain ourselves with horror stories in which a simple moral is uttered by some dumbfounded everyman, ‘At stake is our entire way of life.’ But what we’re really saying to ourselves is, ‘Gone! An entire way of life!’ Thousands of years of it, washed away quite cleanly. We don’t know how amazed we are, or how anxious.

The first stage was gentle nostalgia, the period pieces, the Jane Austen films, in which we indulged in costume and the carriages. The past was quaint. There were westerns for excitement, or medieval larks, vehicles for Shakespeare and Dickens and the like, studies in passion dressed in robes or top hats. Everyone rode on horses then!

Gradually, the streets in those medieval towns became more alien and more revolting, ankle-deep in mud and the contents of everyone’s chamber pots, the scene of constant brawls and crime. The shadows of those medieval towns became alive with mysteries and secret societies.

There were scares like the Millennial Bug, when we thought we might just be thrown back into the primitive days before computers. The terror inspired was profound. Planes would fall from the skies. The dinosaurs would walk again. But the deeper terror was simply contemplating whether we could live the way we did only thirty years before.

Now we seem to regard the past with unmitigated horror. There weren’t really dragons back then, were there, Daddy? No, of course not. I don’t think so. But who knows, Dad finally says uneasily. There weren’t wizards, were there? Did people really worship fire? Those were dark days, son. Who knows? Maybe they even raised the dead back then. The family shudders to think.

I’ve always had great regard for the moderns, those pioneers of thought and art in the early and mid-twentieth century. These were intellectuals who reveled in the changes. Now I see that they could well afford to celebrate, when the new was new, and when their several generations straddled the gap between the past and the modern. It’s easy to delight in the new, when one still has the comforts of the traditional.

We visit the memorial of one such modern, an unlikely hero of the modern era, a sickly Dutch boy with a penchant for drawing. This is one of Troy’s boyhood heroes, and it happens there is a museum dedicated to him in Den Haag.

M.C. Escher studied in Haarlem, failed in architecture and switched to decorative arts. After school he traveled, and finally moved, to Italy. Here his vision was inspired by what he saw, and his artistic career was launched, producing landscapes and nature drawings. During his youthful travels, he also visited the Alhambra in Spain, and was deeply affected by the geometrical designs of the Moors.

A trip in 1936 through the Mediterranean on ship seems to have sparked that latent fire in Escher’s imagination. He launched upon the phase of his career for which he is famous, the experiments with mathematical art and impossible realities. It’s interesting that this phase corresponds with his permanent break with Italy. Disgusted by Fascism, he moved to Switzerland in 1935, and then back to Holland.

He draws the hands that draw each other. He draws the cityscape among a still life. He draws the stairways that lead up to the bottom and the waterfall that feeds itself upstream. He draws planes of figures that interlock and trade between two and three dimensions.

It’s fun to see the Escher classics on the walls of the museum, and fun are the little thought experiments in mathematics, illusion and impossible realities. But for me the most interesting, as it always is with me, is to see the tools of the artist. We see the lithography stone. I learn about mezzo tints. I can’t imagine the patience in this kind of work.

Seeing Escher on the walls reminds me of my youth. I was fond of drawing as a child, and I was fascinated by his visions. Seeing it again now, his work makes me think of my father. My father was an engineer and a modern in his way, an optimist and a man fascinated by numbers and machines. He was a man of his generation in that way. The future was bright then, and the past was nothing special, nothing so full of shadow.

Sometimes I’ll stop on my bicycle rides through town, stop at a construction site or by the side of a canal where a big ship is dropping anchor or unloading. I will watch the big machinery with something of Dad’s fascination. But more often, I’ll be watching the old man who is spending an hour of his long afternoon watching the machinery.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Travelogue 582 – October 13

I feel like I’m seeing these fields for the second time, though I’ve never been here before. Is it because he has been here? I don’t even know whether Vincent did landscapes of the fields during this period, but nevertheless I see the fields framed and described in brushstrokes, hues dimmed with the passage of time.

The colors seem right, the stripes of rapeseed among somber greens, and the soft grey of the skies. The humility and stillness are familiar. Am I seeing with my eyes, or with sight inherited from the painter?

We’re outside the town of Neunen, which itself is a satellite town of Endhoven. We’re on rented bicycles, following the traces of a new Van Gogh trail, first pedaling down long avenues in Eindhoven, following the train tracks until we are leaving the city, jogging north, discovering the dedicated bike path. We follow a spur of the path that is no more than dirt. There are tractors and earth movers left inert by the side of the trail. Troy has heard that a section of this trail was to be lit by innovative glow-in-the-dark paints. While a light rain begins to fall, we search the dirt for signs of an experiment, turning over bits of clay and pavement and blue plastic. Nothing glows. We return to the existing trail.

We discover the Collse Watermolen, almost passing it unawares. It lies off a bland rural road, to the right as one crosses the bridge over the millstream. We backtrack, and we find a little dirt drive up behind the water mill. All is quiet. We read on a sign that the wooden mill is still functional. Volunteers work here occasionally, still producing flour and oil. We read that there’s been a mill here since the fourteenth century. But what persists is this vision from 1884.

Van Gogh is still discovering himself as a painter. He has come to Neunen, where his father is minister, to regroup after a fairly disastrous stay in Den Haag. He has started using oils in Den Haag. He is experimenting in Neunen with landscapes and character studies of local peasants. His father dies in March of 1885. Some time during the same spring, he finishes his first major work, ‘The Potato Eaters’.

I’ve come to Eindhoven for very different reasons to Vincent. I have a race to run. The city is now the third largest in the Netherlands, and it touts itself as the world’s smartest city. It’s a tech center, and a design center. It sponsors one of the country’s winningest football teams. I am ready to add one more superlative: it sponsors one of nicest half marathons I’ve run. The Den Haag half in September was refreshingly small, and the course was pretty. It’s Eindhoven’s spirit that makes the race memorable. There are bands all along the course. There are people cheering. The course volunteers don’t just offer cups of water. They have fruit, and they have sponges soaked in water. (It’s an unusually warm day.) For nearly the last two miles of the run, through downtown, the roads are packed with cheering crowds. (The downside is a disorienting sense that the finish line is just around the corner. This false impression is not helped by the multiple balloon arches over the road, advertising one sponsor or another, looking each one like the finish. I see runners repeatedly fooled into a strong finish, only to find it’s not the finish. I’ve never seen so many runners stopping within the last kilometer, having spent their reserves. Fortunately, I have monitored my watch. I know my pace, and know very well I haven’t reached the end yet.)

We have also come here to find traces of the young artist. Later and later is the sun rising now, autumn full upon us in its dark glory. I am groggy and sore from the race, but I am still up before anyone else. I make sure Troy is awake. I have to convince him once more time that it’s a good idea, even though the sun hasn’t risen yet. His idea. We must get to the train station and rent our bikes. A half hour later, the sun is risen, and we are pedaling east along streets unusually quiet. It’s already worth the pain of awakening.

Smart as Eindhoven has become, the countryside looks the same as I imagine it ever did, populated sparsely by regular farmers of average intelligence. I look out over their fields with my own average thoughts, conditioned by the smart people who have preceded me. It’s as though I’ve carried a heavy frame with me on the bicycle, only to hold it up in front of me once I’ve reached Vincent’s scenes. Could I see them without the frame? What would I see?

I think again of Bloom’s anxiety of influence. We are born so late. But perhaps it’s not all bad. Everywhere there is significance because of their stories. These are our songlines, making our landscapes sacred.

Friday, October 03, 2014

Travelogue 581 – October 3
The Boys Are All Right

Jan is riding ahead of me. He’s riding a typical Dutch bike, on which one sits comically erect. We’re heading down the south side of the long Erasmus Bridge, high above the river. The bridge is the biggest hill for miles around. You lose all hill conditioning in Holland, and then huff and puff up the steep bridge. On the other side, you coast at an exhilarating speed. The wind whips Jan’s baggy white pants. It makes his sporty jacket flutter like little pennants at his sides.

Jan cycles with a controlled abandon that is natural to him as a Dutchman. He knows exactly how far to push it. It’s hard to gauge for a foreigner, especially among crowds. And the closer we get to the Feyenoord stadium, the more crowd there is.

We’ve come to watch local heroes Feyenoord play their Europa League match with Standard Liege from Belgium. Jan had found a deal on seats, called me at the last minute. We are arriving just in time. Inside the stadium, fans are roaring. We lock our bikes to a pole behind the trailer selling hamburgers, and we walk around to the back of the stadium for our entrance.

Life in the stands is something very different than life outside. I’ve seen the finesse with which Jan weaves bike among bikes, missing, pressing, never actually touching. The complexity among all the insect-like machines is fascinating. Among the football stands, the complexity dissolves, and finesse is abandoned. There is little effort to preserve space. People are jostling one another as they move, as they stand, as they sit. It’s not an event in which people eventually settle down into their seats. In our section, the seats are for standing on and walking on. The Dutch are a large people. They bring some weight to their jostling.

Football seems to appeal to the rowdier sort. These are not the clientele of the Hopper café. These are people I’m more likely to see working in the port or populating the local ‘brown’ bars, as they’re called, small pubs in in which a squinting crowd of old-timers and brawny young men with booming voices sing into the night.

They’re singing tonight, ‘Feyenoord, Feyenoord,’ and trains of words that even Jan can’t make out. One section waves at another and then they serenade each other. They hold up one finger to the incredibly boisterous section of Belgian fans, who are jumping and roaring all through the game, waving huge flags, and sounding a terrible, echoing beat on the metal side s of the balcony and rattling the fences around their section. Security people in neon are lining up on all sides.

When Feyenoord scores, all remaining space collapses. People are jumping and shouting. One fat man rushes down the aisle, and I manage to preserve only half my plastic cup of beer. The rest is soaking through my shirt. ‘Waar is het feestje? Hier is het feestje!’ the boys are shouting. The guy in front of me feels an urgent need for the Belgians to hear this message. He is becoming hoarse, though the maniacal glint in his eye does not flag. ‘Where is the party? Here is the party!’

After the game the dangerous web of bicycles among bicycles is even more intense than it was before the game. Fans launch their bikes into the street without a care, and the drunken pelotons weave fantastic patterns among the cars and trams all the way back to the bridge, among shouts and songs. Jan is chatting all the way, swerving, braking and charging forward without a thought. I’m struggling. I pull up beside him and breathe, ‘Yes, yes,’ until I need to brake and swerve again, suddenly. Jan keeps talking. ‘Yes, yes.’

Safely home, I sigh. All in all, it might be less work being on the pitch than in the stands.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Travelogue 580 – October 2

It’s morning. The sun is not shining. Sometimes it feels like there isn’t enough sleep in the world to make up for what I need. Even if I could nip a little from everyone I see on the bike paths, five minutes of the sleep belonging to each person at the café.

It wouldn’t be fair. There are plenty of people at the Hopper café. It could that none would miss five minutes of sleep. They are many and they are diverse, suits and beards, dreads and pigtails. This bakery and café is located near Beurs in the city center, and near Witte de Withstraat. Beurs is a central business and shopping district, and Witte de Withstraat is a street lined with galleries and clubs, two different aesthetics only blocks apart. If you head south past Witte de Withstraat, you pass the big eye hospital, and you pass a spacious playground full of children from the schools and pre-schools that encircle the square.

Yesterday I saw Babise here at Hopper, meeting with a dozen other moms whose children attend the schools down the street. Babise is my landlord’s wife. She is a lawyer, and she marches toward my café table like a lawyer.

It wouldn’t be fair. Children need their sleep. Mothers need their sleep. I can suffer for their sake.

It has taken so long to get going this morning. I could not move. When I could move, it has been only to turn over. I might have simply slept again, but my mind has awakened more quickly than my body. It might have been the physical sense of helplessness; it might have been the gloomy weather and the lack of light, but I found my thoughts becoming anxious. Not about useful items, not about my agenda once the blood is coursing, but anxious about the nights ahead.

Troy has brought us ‘Game of Thrones’ from America, a series about struggles for power in a fantasy world, in which dragons and zombies are only mild distractions from human conniving. We joke about the lack of light. Is there any happiness in this fantasy world? Who will be slaughtered in this episode? I don’t need much encouragement to expect the worst.

I have another race coming up. I’ve scheduled two half marathons only weeks apart this fall. I’ve already run in Den Haag, a race along the beach and through wooded parks. The day was perfect. Troy and Menna met me at the finish. We ate breakfast at an outdoor café with a view on the course.

Next week’s race will be one year after the 2013 race in Köln. The temperatures were near freezing then. This year, mild summer lingers on. The sun comes and goes, but a gentle warmth remains to color another day. Forecasts have slipped into calm eddies of repetition.

My morning thoughts, while I’m lying helpless in my bed, have leapt, unaccountably, to thoughts of Twain and Tom Sawyer. The Mississippi spreads its wide waters across my imagination. I see Midwestern hills carpeted with summer trees. I’m seized by a longing for the dust and the brush of quiet countryside.

Twain had captured something of the essence of childhood. I’m swimming for a moment in the expansiveness of it. When the summer sun is shining, the nights are so far away. It’s coming to me very palpably, how irretrievable is every day. I have to get out of bed.