Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Travelogue 593 – December 31
And Then, Santa Again, No Snow

And suddenly I’m awaking in Ethiopia. At the Romina Café in Arat Kilo, they are just putting up their Christmas decorations. Ethiopian Orthodox Christmas is the 7th of January. The decorations are strictly European or American in nature, Santa Claus and red felt. There’s a Christmas tree with lights.

I’m jealous of the bits of sunshine that grace this early morning, the first light of day. I’m sitting in the patio outdoors, despite the chill, despite the shadows throw by the trees surrounding the café. The sun is just rising high enough to project warmth, and I’m greedily soaking it in. There are a few spots of it playing in my shoulders.

The street is already roaring with life. Buses and taxis are idling in traffic, spitting out copious plumes of exhaust. People are forming long lines for taxi service, even as they watch the traffic inching forward at half the pace of the pedestrians. Just outside the café patio, the shoeshine boys and the newspaper boys and the parking attendants are goofing around, yelling at each other and dodging cars as the drivers try to maneuver around the narrow parking lot.

There are a few baristas who have been here years. It’s great to see their smile when they see me. ‘Tafah anta,’ they say. ‘you’ve disappeared.’ Yes, Europe has kidnapped me, (or maybe that’s the other way around,) and I haven’t seen much of Ethiopia in the year that’s now passing. I say the addis amat, the new year, will be different. The sun is getting warmer. My face and neck will be bright pink with exposure to the sun by the end of the day. I’m planning on it.

Yesterday, we sat on the tarmac for two hours. The snow was still coming down in Frankfurt. Temperatures were solidly below zero Celsius. We watched from the plane windows as they de-iced the wings. We watched the pink fluids flow down over the windows as they de-iced the roof. Then they seemed to start over. The short and cold and dim German day, the second to the last day of 2014, was spending itself outside, and we remained quiet in our tight little seats.

‘Oh, I forgot,’ says one of the baristas, one of the old-timers, ‘It’s your New Year!’ Yes, I say, it is. ‘Have a good time,’ she says. I will, I will, thank you. The heat is building across my shoulders. Thank you!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Travelogue 592 – December 27
White After Christmas

The day after Christmas is still Christmas in Holland. There’s a first day and there’s a second day. On the second day of Christmas, you might find some places open. Like the Coffee Company at Eendrachtsplein.

It’s one of those holidays within a holiday, half working, half holidaying. There is no Christmas this week in Ethiopia, so they are at their desks in the office. I’m calling on Christmas morning, conducting real work before the family duties of the holiday begin, which duties are supremely challenging: like, eating and accomplishing nothing. The time is made all the more rare and precious by our pregnancy and by the delicate pause between trips. I will be leaving for Ethiopia again in a few days, missing a few more weeks of the rarest of interludes, hidden baby coming, wife glowing, those sorts of things.

On the second day of Christmas, the barista at Eendrachtsplein is singing. He is dreaming of a white Christmas. I ask him and his colleague whether they are sad that there is no white to speak of, and there hasn’t been in a few years. It has been a common theme of conversation in winter in Holland: ‘There used to be snow and ice.’ They debate. It might be four years since there really was a white Christmas in Rotterdam.

It is cold enough for snow. Menna’s fingertips are burning. She’s not used to that sensation. We boldly chose to cycle into town today. It’s exercise; it’s getting out of the house. But there is a price to pay. I’m wearing my cycling gloves, which only go to the first knuckle. They’re the only gloves I have. Menna is suffering. She runs inside while I lock the bikes.

The baristas are dreaming of a white Christmas.

And then, just the next day, we wake up to snow falling. Menna screams. It’s her first snow. We dress as quickly as we can, and we dash outside. It’s a wet snow, clinging to roofs and tree branches and bicycle frames. It’s crunchy underfoot. We have to touch it. We have to make snowballs, and we have to make explode against each other’s jackets. We have to run to the river, and we have to take pictures.

I decide to cycle into town, having learned nothing from yesterday’s ride. I’m wearing the same gloves, and this time it’s worse. I’m really in pain. I’m riding slowly, sliding through the ridges of snow, splashing through the slop. I have no boots; my shoes are soaked after five minutes. Not only my shoes, but my pant legs a good six inches up.

I arrive, and my fingers are past burning. I have to get them back to burning again, holding thumb and finger tips against the espresso glass. They throb with dull pain. I’ve come here to work, but my fingers hurt too much to type for a while. The baristas are no longer singing about a white Christmas. I’m expecting them to be ecstatic about the snow, but they seem unsettled. Maybe they had to cycle in, too.

I watch the morning unfold, while my clothes dry out and my digits regain feeling. I watch the people rush in, smiling, buoyed by the change, exhilarated. They have found something that was missing. They are cold, and they are complete. I calculate the pain I will endure on the way home.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Travelogue 591 – December 6
Northern Solace
Part Four

Necropolis is just the right term for the Cimetière de Montmartre. It’s a city of the dead, wide paved lanes leading among the rows of sepulchers, small alleyways and paths linking one to another, creating little enclaves like quiet neighborhoods. The streets borrow their names from the more famous among the buried.

I pass some of the famous as I explore. I see the poet Heine, the composer Berlioz, the novelist Zola, and the novelist Stendhal. I find the final resting place of one Monsieur Sanson, professional executioner before and during the Revolution, the man who beheaded the king, the man who put over three thousand souls into their graves. His own grave is surprisingly humble and bourgeois. Citizen Sanson might be a shop-owner. Zola’s is marked by an extravagant bronze, imagining for us a leonine visage. It’s clearly a choice that was made well after Emile himself would have had any input.

Nearby, an oversized mask of Jesus sheds tears of stone. And I think of Saint Job again. Wouldn’t his tears be more appropriate? More convincing? I’m thinking that Jesus the Saviour doesn’t have much cause to shed a tear at the death of one Parisian. Shouldn’t he be the one Biblical hero with a smile of reassurance, with even a wink of conspiracy, symbol of all God’s best intentions?

I circle the grounds one more time. I take pictures. I see a few more tourists arriving to join us this morning. They are taking pictures. Everyone is quiet, especially the ones underneath the ground. No one bothers posing. It’s a weekend. Its morning. Most of us are dead. I am not, and I have a train to catch. I leave the new tourists to it, and I pass under the deep shadow of the Rue Caulaincourt on my way out.

I exercise the muscles of legs still oxygenated by a beating heart. I pass again the office of the complacent headstone salesman on the Avenue Rachel, into the cacophony of the city that has forgotten the terrors of Monsieur Sanson’s day. It’s a calm morning; I have no expectation of being beheaded.

We don’t draw pictures of Job. We tell stories about him, and make each other shudder with dread.

I’m reading Hilary Mantel again. The spirits housed in the cemetery, and under the cemetery, might thank her. Given a day to re-order their estates and memories, they might prefer a contract with Ms. Mantel over one with the man on the Avenue Rachel. Ms. Mantel restores something to them. She rescues historical fiction from the vampires and the purveyors of romance and porn.

And yet I wonder if the story doesn’t tell itself. The history is incredible in its nature. Imagining that people lived through it, even made it happen, challenges belief, even as the stories are durable as stone, made to be mythologized. One can imagine how, in a time before writing, these characters would become demi-gods and demons.

I might have wished for an account of my father, Job, wishing for him the voice of M. Danton, who speaks with the truth of tension, about startling events in startling times. (Is every age a wonder?)

The soldiers patrol the Rue de Cordeliers. They point out the house of M. Danton. They eye it with emotion, some with dread, some with admiration. Only two years have passed since the fall of the Bastille, and still it seems as though the fundament of heaven and earth – of Paris – have been disfigured. The time before is hard to recall. It was a dream. The future is dark. Some more of us must die.

The trains are running. The Gare du Nord is the lurid and shattered scene it usually is, people turning as though figures in a broken dance. They check the screens; they run. With the right ignition, they might just scream. They might topple columns and kings. They might loot the pastry stall.

But the crowds part, and I board my train. I cross the frontier without incident.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Travelogue 590 – December 5
Northern Solace
Part Three

The French have left their mark. The capital of Minnesota bears the lasting stamp of the Franks. City fathers were moved to name the outpost after their French solace. In Minnesota, land of desperate winters, solace can mean a lot. And who in the world could ever resist the kind of solace that the French prepare?

Perhaps with genuine gratitude, perhaps with a species of grim humor that months of snow will nurture, the first citizens of the capital wanted to name the city after the local purveyor of whiskey, one Pierre Parrant. The former fur trader had a popular tavern, and he had a bad reputation with local officials, and he did have a catchy nickname, ‘Pig’s Eye’.

One Father Lucien Galtier had other ideas. He provided another variety of French solace in the chapel of Saint Paul. Once the territory of Minnesota had an opportunity to join the Union, (just a few years before the Union was destined to be torn asunder,) and once the site of the capital had been settled upon the young riverside town – a matter decided according to the highest model of rational deliberation, meaning, the physical theft of the draft of a law to situate the capital in nearby Saint Peter, -- the city elders grudgingly acknowledged that the example of the good father might be more appropriate than that of the moonshiner. Saint Paul, it would be, Saint Paul, Minnesota.

So the French left their mark … and left, abandoning the city to the next generation of Catholics, the harder-working Irish. Poor old Pig’s Eye Parrant was forced out of the city, and no one is quite sure where he ended up after that. All possible trails point north. The old French fur trader turned back toward the snows, and lies now in some unmarked spot, perhaps to be discovered under a parking lot like poor King Richard was recently, squeezed into an ill-fitting box, his whiskey-soaked genetic material sampled in order to be strained through some high-science blender and identified as the reprobate founder of the city of Saint Paul.

The temperatures in Paris are more reasonable, the damp more familiar. I’m on my way home to Rotterdam, but stalled by a rail strike in neighboring Belgium. I am staying in a hotel of the Place de Clichy in northern Paris. Just a few short blocks away is the Cimetière de Montmartre.

I pay my respects in the morning, before I have to make my way to the Gare du Nord. The Belgian strike is carried out only one day per week, a show of order and deference that I plan to repay with a tip to the first conductor I see.

To visit the cemetery, one has to walk down the Avenue Rachel, resisting the temptation to follow the larger Rue Caulaincourt. The latter rue rises on steel girders to pass over the cemetery on its way to the butte Montmartre. From the Rue Caulaincourt, one surveys the vast cemetery from above, an opportunity for the harried commuter crossing from one arrondissement to another for healthy perspective, surveying the rows of sepulchres.

On the Avenue Rachel, one passes the storefront of the man who engraves headstones. You see the man already at his station, sitting at his desk with a complacent smile, a chubby man with small round eyeglasses, waiting for business, checking his smartphone.

Through the gate, one passes under the shadow of the bridge, and into the extremities of that strange contrast; seeing overhead the rush of daily life, those with hearts still pumping hastening with eyes set forward, issuing the hum and clamour of unrepentant life.

Inside the cemetery, there is repentance and there is introspection. One finds leisure to wonder about the lives of all who have ended up here, the thousands buried here since the foundation of the cemetery in the mid-nineteenth century, on the site of a gypsum quarry. It was a site already associated with the dead, being site to mass graves during the Revolution.

It is quiet. The family vaults crowd together among the paved lanes, seeming to jostle for position. Some rise high with grandeur and high-minded design. Some hold back in humility. Some names stand in vivid relief, some are already faded into obscurity. And still, among the strident cries for attention, all is terrifically still.

One strolls in reflection. And one thinks of the complacent man selling grave stones. How did he sell this one, the full-scale copy of the Thinker? How did he sell this statue, looking like an Indian scout with a hand up shading his eyes? The older monuments trade on traditional motifs, safely neo-classical or Gothic. But who sold the widow this garish face of Christ with tears in his eyes? These are some of the recent gravesites. With all the resources of the belated, we unfortunate have ample opportunity to make the worst choices. And which shall we repent more, bad behavior or bad taste? When memory of our lives fades, the memorial remains.

Or doesn’t. Once upon a time, there was a rude cross, branches hacked with a bowie knife and tied together with a stretch of leather thong. There was no need for a plaque. The woods being the only witness, there was no need to memorialize. The birds would know this as the resting place of one Pig’s Eye Parrant, French founder of the American state capital … and distiller of some fine whiskey.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Travelogue 589 – December 4
Northern Solace
Part Two

The weather has moderated somewhat. On the day that I disembarked from the aeroplane, temperatures in Minnesota were topping out at zero Fahrenheit, which I have discovered is equivalent to minus eighteen Centigrade. Minnesota temperatures don’t scare me anymore, but that does not mean I’m immune. They don’t serve to shock, but still they hurt. I’ve lost some tolerance. And, moreover, I’ve lost some of my heavy-duty winter gear during the years in milder climes.

I’m thinking again, the French came here for the margin on a few furs. Really? That is cold ambition. Advancing the line of a frontier into the extremes, chasing little animals for their carcasses. Did they wonder how far the temperatures could and would fall? In an uncharted world, wouldn’t there by reason be uncharted pain? I guess you can only freeze once. It hardly matters the exact value of the temperature that got you, unless rugged Catholic explorers might feel entitled to final bragging rights beyond the grave.

Me, I’ll defer that case of frostbite for another day. I dash into the bookstore. I have escaped the snow. I have escaped the distracting sting among the digits. But there’s still a draft to remind me to keep the coat on. I contemplate the brittle layers of masonry protecting us from the weather, the flimsy insulation, the box around our ears that represents the frightening, the decisive ratio, freezing space outside to sheltered space inside.

Winter anxiety. Perhaps it’s the mind that freezes first. Escaping the snow I find easier than escaping the thought of snow. It’s the mind that needs solace in winter. I’m in the right place, among rows of plentiful books. Protected, distracted, there is no threat from the wild atmosphere.

Would the French explorer sneer at our luxury? Would he stand in the bookstore and stamp his feet and shout? Would he challenge us from within his furs? Would distrust the warmth, thinking it would sap him of his best hopes for the afterlife? Or would he smile and shake off the snow, browse the French language shelves and look for an easy chair?

Would he tell stories? Would he recount the meeting with Ojibwa scouts at the river crossing? Would he detail the complex negotiations at the villages? Were there bandits? Was there combat? Could he paint the picture of the moonlit woods on the coldest night, or paint his terror of the wolves? Would he tell us about the long passage across the ocean? Will he go back some day? Is he buried here? Would the explorer have known the way to French heaven from the skies above the Mississippi?

What unsigned graves are there in the ample lands of the Upper Midwest? Might we be standing on one or two here in the Mager’s and Quinn? Am I browsing the grave sites even as I browse the shelves above earth?

Shall I browse the graves? Once back in Paris shall I browse the graves of the explorer’s compatriots, the safe ones, the ones who never left home and hearth, those who did nothing more adventurous than write essays or take up music, code high symphonies.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Travelogue 588 – December 3
Northern Solace
Part One

I was in Minneapolis last week. It was a short trip. I was there only for one week. It was a work trip, and so I was confined for most of my days to the neighborhood of the office, in Uptown. The office is located at the west end of Lake Street.

Lake Calhoun looks to be nearly frozen over. The sun is suspended inside its tight and very low arc over the southern shore of the lake. Snow has blown over the surface of the lake in uneven patches. It is a desolate bit of space, so appealing to me in its emptiness. I’m driving west, where Lake Street curves around the northern shore of the lake, where the street gets bottleneck busy with traffic heading out of Minneapolis and toward the suburbs,

When I leave the office and I want to walk, I walk toward Lake and Hennepin. That intersection is the heart of historic Uptown, a neighborhood so resilient and so stubborn in its identity. I have seen it through a number of phases in almost thirty years. It was renewing itself when I discovered it. It is renewing itself now. The place feels old to me, but must feel new to young residents. That’s a feature of identity the place will not relinquish, no matter how stale perpetual youth may become, no matter how rising property values dress the youth in brands ever more exclusive.

For me, the intersection has one enduring feature in Calhoun Square, the mall built on the busy corner just a few years before I first moved to Minneapolis. It’s rather bland and blandly ahistorical in its appearance, even though built around a few salvaged older buildings. The project was opposed in proposal phases and later while being built, as being an offensive incursion of suburban style into the aspiring urban neighborhood, an area known for its youth and arts cultures. But it did get built, and still it stands.

I’m surprised to see that now Calhoun Square hosts H&M, a chain I’ve become accustomed to in the Netherlands. In Rotterdam, one may just be lucky enough to find multiple H&M outlets on a single block. Now here it is in high-rent Uptown, across from the Apple store. I stand and regard its familiar branding, standing on Hennepin Avenue while a light snow falls. Certainly the old mall has experienced its share of tenant turnover, as it has of facelifts, but somehow I’d become accustomed to thinking that nothing European ever came this way. I take a stroll through the store, and I find racks of familiar styles. They haven’t bothered to Americanize anything, if there is really such a process anymore.

I’m more interested, ultimately, in crossing the street and walking a few storefronts down to the old Mager’s and Quinn, a shop that opened on Hennepin across form the mall some years after I made my own first appearance in the city, and which became a regular hangout. I can certainly recommend this as a stop for any book lovers visiting the Twin Cities, a kind of chapel to an old cult of the independent sellers.