Monday, December 21, 2015

Travelogue 668 – December 21
Another Monday

Christmas is forever approaching, never arriving. The cafes have already abandoned the Christmas music, so faithfully presented every morning last week, two weeks ago.

I imagine future historians evaluating the evidence, what we broadcast and what we print, and determining we were gluttons for holidays. We couldn’t get enough. I feel helpless in being judged this way. No one consulted me. I am targeted rather than consulted. In the public sphere, holidays are a strategy of assault. I am forced into compromises with the insistent sentiment and ritual. How will the historian evaluate the private experience of holidays? I have none. If it weren’t for the jarring shift in music and the sudden closure of my cafes, I might coast safely through these ceremonies, barely registering them.

I’m thinking this will change once Baby gets older. And she is growing alarmingly quickly. She has personality. She knows what she likes. She likes grabbing things, and usually the things you would rather she didn’t grab, the TV remote, the salt shaker, the full glass, the phone you’re speaking into. She rolls forward reaching for one thing or another. You set her right, and she starts reaching again. I’m distressed. I thought these stages came later. Maybe when she was sixteen?

Baby enjoys jumping up and down. Daddy holds her upright, and she starts jumping up and down and laughing until Daddy’s arms are sore. And then she wants more, crying if she doesn’t get to jump. Daddy calls for Mommy.

Baby enjoys jabbering. She has something in her hands. She is kneading it, pulling at it, scratching it, and then she looks up and she starts telling you about it. ‘Da-da-da,’ she says, looking you right in the eye. ‘Yes, Baby.’ The she starts a long series of raspberries.

Just around the corner is a petting zoo. We walk there on the weekend with Baby on my back, set snugly into the contraption we inherited from Jan. The straps dig into my clavicle. Baby seems to enjoy it. She laughs. She stares at cars. She sleeps.

It’s Baby’s first time to see animals. There’s a cow in the barn, chewing on hay. There’s an alarmingly big pig in the yard. Menna doesn’t believe that it’s a pig. ‘Are you sure that’s not a cow?’ There are a few smaller pigs, but ugly ones, with hair on their snouts. There are cute goats and round sheep. There are chickens and turkeys. The animals are taciturn today, so we make their sounds for them. Baby doesn’t listen. She just quietly stares.

I never quite know what Baby is going to do. Tease her one minute, and she laughs. The next time she just stares back. She plays quietly, and then suddenly she shouts. She cries with no warning and no build-up. Then she smiles. The animals were fascinating at some level for her. They held her attention. But I can’t say what she took away from the encounter. It all goes somewhere in the new brain. God knows where.

And today, it’s just another Monday. The baristas have given up on Christmas. I was done with it before I started. I’m working. I’m coughing up green spittle. I’ve been sick since the last trip. Next week, I head off again. I’ll spend New Year’s in Addis Ababa, where it is celebrated as a faranji holiday, a luxury, a frivolity. The Ethiopians celebrated their New Year’s more than three months ago. That sort of ambiguity I appreciate. Any holy day should have only the most tenuous grip on the soul. Shall I treat it as something special? Is it fireworks or is it prayer? Is it quiet? Shall I laugh, or shall I stare?

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Travelogue 667 – December 13

My favour with the sun gods was short-lived. I have little time for the attentions that gods require. I’ve spent too many years watching the rain come and go. Stubborn caprice is the way of things, whether ruled by gods or by physics.

The rain has returned. The days are short and they lack light. Grey streets reflect grey skies. Puddles reappear and spread. Grass soaks in the waters, turns a somber dark green, squishes underfoot, often hiding marshy pools just below the level of their blade tips. Where the water has topped the grass, its black surface lies quietly, disturbed only by the fussy birds, disturbed only by the reflections, bright despite the dim winter light, reflections of what passes in the world above, cars and drifting apartment buildings, and incidental skies. The bricks in the parks take on a sheen of mossy green. Carpets of leaves lay at the margins of things, blown there weeks ago, and now congealed into brown layers of slime.

The texture of all things outside is cold and wet, their colours darkened by the damp. You expect your fingers to come away wet from any surface. You keep your hands in your pockets. People duck instinctively, heads down, shoulders hunched. They hurry toward shelter. The Dutch bred of generations of Dutch take on an aspect of grim and pleased determination, knowing this was what has defined their race. They lean into it; setting shoulders against it. They make a point to mount their bicycles and pedal across town against the wind, a trip they might breezily have made by car or tram in the summer.

My Dutch teacher launches into a mini-lecture about Dutch emigration, how they left by the thousands in the previous century, looking for better weather. We enjoy these lectures because we enjoy Job. He’s a cheerful and also caring sort. He has the booming voice and clear elocution of a long-time teacher. He likes to pause and tell his stories. His command of history is approximate but I appreciate the spirit.

We meet at the small Volks Universiteit on the Heemraadsingel, the canal in western Rotterdam that was once centrepiece of a cosy neighbourhood for the well-to-do. Alongside this canal run strips of green park, and then rows of pretty houses built by the prospering classes before the Great War. The school occupies two of these beauties. Our teacher points out vestiges of Jugendstil ornamentation, in the windows, in the doors and frames. It doesn’t seem like many individual or families are left to inhabit these houses. The houses have been taken over by law firms and design firms. Have the captains of industry all moved to Arizona?

Is there a note of disdain perhaps, when the Dutchman remembers the ones who have left? He can commemorate and admit the complaints in such a way as suggests that endurance is the nobler path. It’s a venerable European trope, suffering reified, made abstract and virtuous.

I insist on getting around on my bicycle. I am not necessarily bred for it, but I must imitate my mentors. I’m Dutch by choice, and so it’s incumbent on me to imitate their virtues. The old bike has seen a few years of service in all weather. The back tire is worn; it slips on the wet brick. I’ve had to replace the lock. The links in the chain were rusted. The lock mechanism was getting cranky. The seat is leather. In this kind of weather, it is more or less permanently soaked through. I have to carry a plastic bag with me to slip over the seat. I take the bag indoors and where possible, slip it behind the radiator to dry.

I sit by tall windows to watch the tides of weather as I work. The day of Sol Invictus approaches, the day that daylight begins its long resurgence. I’ll stand in the rain watching for signs of it dawning.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Travelogue 666 – December 8
Sun’s Out, Let’s Go to the Mall

The mention of the sun gods in my last essay has bought me some favourable attention. The shy solar disc has shown his face more than usual in Holland. True he sleeps in, painting the never absent northern clouds with pink tints of promise no earlier than 8:30, or half nine, to calculate time the way the Dutch do. But he shows his face. I feel his warm hand on my shoulder as I cycle across town.

For this, I owe one of the sun gods an offering. I’m squeamish about sacrifices. Maybe just a prayer, or a thumbs-up. My favourites among solar deities are Helios and Shamash, Greek and Sumerian. I like the Aztec god Huitzilopochtli for his fun name, but he seems too violent to be a peaceful sun god.

I won’t go as far as renouncing any of the storm gods so popular in the last few millennia, particularly Yahweh and Allah. Their followers are too volatile. As followers of a storm god should be. Moreover, in solar systems of divinity, there’s need for exclusivity. Storm gods are welcome at the Olympian feast.

Only a week ago I’m in sunny Dubai. I’m daring an excursion on my sick day. I’m emerging from the metro among crowds of tourists and shoppers heading in the same direction as I am. There is an air-conditioned, elevated walkway from the metro station to the massive mall that adjoins the Burj Khalifa, gleaming spire in central Dubai, the tallest building in the world. I elect to rediscover the sun and avoid the crowds, so, rather than follow the crowd into the tunnel of windows, I take a right turn out of the metro station

I emerge into the humid heat and stare about in a confused manner, like a sick person. I identify the magic spire, and I start walking toward it. I am nearly alone on the street. I pass a few construction workers looking to go indoors for snacks and air-conditioning. I pass a few tourists as misguided as I am. One intrepid soul passes on a bicycle.

It turns out there is more purpose than only comfort for the elevated walkway. Much of the distance to the tower is dedicated to construction of one sort or another. Dubai is reminding me of Addis Ababa, with its forests of cranes, its taste of cement dust. I cross new streets where there is no sidewalk left for pedestrians, only dividers with shrubbery and the high placards that wall off construction sites.

Eventually, I emerge into the sweeping plaza that describes a luxurious arc underneath the Burj Khalifa and, at its farther end, deposits the enterprising tourist at the base of the ambitious mall. Along the way, that tourist will follow the course of an artificial waterway that has the colour and purity of a Bel Air swimming pool. It trips along underneath palm trees, over a few gentle falls and into a neat little lake surrounded by new developments. Individuals scream as they glide by overhead, riding a wire strung between high-rises on either side of the lake. Families stop to take photos with the skyscraper behind them.

I’m sweaty. My lungs are burning. I haven’t eaten. Reluctantly I resign myself to the stream of humanity indoors. Inside the mall, I’m treated to another bizarre dislocation. There is something so alienating to walking the length of a mall in another country. Alienating in its sudden familiarity, invigorating and depressing in the same moment. One recognizes humanity in its universal attitude of comfort, families in slow procession, babies crying, dad in sneakers, hair down. Yes, some hair down even in this Muslim country.

I choose the French bistro at the food court. It’s quieter than the other fast food places. There are salads. Aside from the predictable images of the Eiffel Tower, the décor isn’t busy signing, signing, signing in the glib manner of Dubai. British women come in together, carrying bags, spirits buoyed by the shopping experience. They signal wealth with brand names and manicures and jewellery. There’s a studied ease to them, a demanding self-consciousness that I sense like an aura.

The food hasn’t revived me. I feel overwhelmingly sleepy. I pay and I leave, and I wander lost through the mall in a daze. I end up in a massive book store built in a circling space, turning around some secret, maybe an elevator shaft leading to the top of the magical spire. The shelves curve, and I seem lost in the self-help and business sections, that seem to have merged. The titles tell me I can be richer, I can be smarter, I can be effective, I can be wise, I can be good, I can find myself.

Friday, December 04, 2015

Travelogue 665 – December 4
The Women’s Car

The sun is a revelation. I understand clearly why many of our earliest cultures worshipped the sun.

The sun has risen over Holland, unimpeded by winter clouds, for the first time in weeks. There’s a glory to the sight of blue skies, even chilled as they are. I am moved to ride my bicycle into the center, a morning exercise I haven’t had the heart for in a long time. On the way, I pass among a group of young children being led by their teachers upon some expedition or another. They part for the cyclists, and I pick my way carefully through their ranks as they smile and joke and chatter.

I’m coughing as I go. My nose is running, stimulated by the exercise and the chill, and I’m spitting up horrible substances. It’s rush hour, and busy commuters are vigorously pedalling past me. I’m happy to extend my time under the sky, rather than speed it up, and so I turn the wheels in leisurely rhythm.

Was it only days ago I was sweating under the Arabian sun? Sick then, too, and coughing, but recovering something in the sun, like my solar battery had been run low. I am dazed from lack of sleep. I drift down the street, regretting the long sleeves. It’s humid. There is a sweet scent to the air. It’s shisha. The streets are a jumble, broken frequently by driveways leading into alleys and leading into parking lots. The storefronts are a relentless miscellany. Arab cities are like extended shopping malls, open air markets brought indoors, into concrete stalls. The streets chatter and bark with prolific, unsentimental commerce. One sees it in the Arab quarters in Europe, the hard rows of shops packed to the rafters with randomized goods.

I’ve decided to be adventurous. I’m going to take the subway. The boys at reception have offered me the vaguest directions to the nearest station, clothed in many words and gestures. Outside the hotel there is a white pedestrian bridge over the busy road. There are no steps. You walk three levels up a zig-zagging ramp and three levels down on the other side. Then you wander along narrow streets broken repeatedly by driveways and ramps, with all space between occupied by tiny ‘supermarkets’, tiny appliance shops, tiny outlets to serve all smart and mobile phone needs, tiny shisha cafes. And there are tiny hotels. It could be my imagination, compromised by illness, but it seems like everyone coming out of these ad hoc hotels is Russian. They are burly Russian men travelling in threes cackling like they have mischief in mind.

I finally find the metro station on the next busy avenue, the entrance hidden in a shining conch-like metal shell. At the bottom of a long escalator is a spacious, modern and gleaming new metro station. I buy the day’s ticket and I pass through the turnstile. I descend to the platform for the Red Line toward Jebel Ali. Everything still feels new. Dubai opened its first metro line in 2009. The cars are automated, driverless. There is air-conditioning. There are doors on the platform, like I’ve seen only in a few stations in London. One doesn’t stand exposed on the platform edge as the train approaches.

I rush onto the train with the crowd. I find I’m in a first class car, plush seats and room to slouch. I make my way back to the next car. We are underground. I stand and watch the tunnel shadows fly by, spacing out, surrendering to the sway of the underground train. But some thought is nagging, trying to break through. I awaken, and I begin to scan the faces of my companions in the metro car. Lots are Asian. Lots are women. Aha! The alarm breaks through into consciousness. Women in Arab countries -- danger. I look around with closer attention. There are no men. The alarm grows. I see the sign on the panels above the doors, ‘women and children only’. There is a fine for being male here, one hundred dirhams. And that is actually calming. One hundred dirhams is not exactly Sharia law. I was momentarily picturing something much messier.

I make my way further back in the train. I stop at the edges of the crowd that includes males of the species. There isn’t much space left. My destination is farther than I expected. There are half a dozen more stops.

The train runs on an elevated track. I watch the white and yellow sun-splashed neighbourhoods go by, fortunes locked up in thousands of tons of cement – I think of the proliferation of cement factories in the countryside of Ethiopia. Red roads and grey roads cross underneath the train tracks, and run the other direction toward the gulf, a blue line in the distance. It’s a big city.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Travelogue 664 – December 1
Night Cough

I’m home now in Rotterdam, home a day already and still coughing. I’ve returned to my family. I’ve returned to the same clouds I left. The same rain come and goes, and everything is always damp. When I leave the house in the morning, it is night. I’ve come from light, from desert light, to darkness.

This was my experiment, flying Emirates to Addis Ababa, taking long layovers in Dubai. I have to be at the Dubai airport at 5am. It’s 3am, and I haven’t slept because of a persistent cough. I picked this up in Addis. My throat is raw; my chest hurts. I haven’t slept in days. One ear is still plugged from the last flight.

If I were flying home, I could rest. But I’m flying to London, arriving midday, and I’m scheduled for meetings into the evening. I can’t do it.

At 3am, I go down to the lobby. The elevator is glass and faces out into the open interior of the hotel, and so I can turn and count the elliptical balconies as I descend, watching the carpeted lobby rise. The lobby is still alive at 3am. There are hotel guests returning from their revels, but there are also people strolling through the lobby and its little mall, window-shopping as though it were a Saturday morning. At 3am, I’m asking the young men at reception to help me change my reservation.

The boys at the desk are busy tonight. There are three of them even this late, behind the black marble desk in their tidy uniforms. They seem to be south Asian. I start with one whose accent is so heavy, I’m struggling. He is helping me while he has a phone receiver pressed against one ear. He earnestly stares at me through thick glasses, and asks me questions I don’t understand. He pulls up my reservation at the hotel. No, please don’t mess with that, I say. I need help with an airline reservation. A colleague comes to help. He dials a number on speaker phone, and we navigate the automated menu together until I’m put on hold. He clicks off the speaker phone and hands me the receiver. I stare back at the first young man, mirror image frowning with the phone receiver pasted to my head.

I’m done. I’m back in my room and still I can’t sleep. The cough comes back to me in timed charges, going off whenever I might be dozing. I get up, and I pace. I run in place to move the blood, move the mucus. I setup the computer again, and I work.

I crack the composition book I bought in Minnesota. Inside is page after page of lists. I find the latest, and I start tapping wrathfully on the laptop keyboard, tapping out the words required, the words like Dutch rain, pooling into lines and paragraphs, feeding the greedy soil of perennial work. The screen light burns me. I glare at my hateful work. When the cough starts, I stand and I pace and I run in angry exorcism, summoning all the disease to show itself. I spit.

Exhaustion eventually beats even pain. It falls like night, falls late but inexorably, falling over me like suffocating wool, falling even as the first hints of light are rising in the warm air outside, rising like clouds of sparks from a new fire. Even the cough can’t resist it, steadily robbed of its vitality until it’s only a spike of pain remaining like a pulse inside a restless dream.

It’s midday. I’m moving. It’s not like being awake. There’s an unreal quality to the sunshine. Outside my window, I can see the city’s famous skyline, dominated by the Burj Khalifa, the once (and still?) tallest building on the world, where once Tom Cruise hung his crafted body out the window like a handkerchief to wave for the fans. I must go down there, I’m thinking.

The sun seems almost to stand between us.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Travelogue 663 – November 24
By the Gulf

I’ve been called back to Addis suddenly. Impatient government officials are asserting their prerogatives. I’ve decided to try a new airline.

I laugh to write here about airlines. I’ve observed how much expats love to talk about airlines, at least in Ethiopia. The travel choice is an interesting calculation, balancing price with comfort with timing. One rarely gets everything. Some time ago, KLM cancelled their direct flights to Addis, and I’ve never quite settled back into any happy routine. My default choice has been Lufthansa. But it’s an uncomfortable compromise. I could recite a few complaints, but the biggest one is that I’m stuck with overnight flights. My body can’t take it.

Bole Airport in Addis late at night is bleak. It has become Purgatory. It is crowded. Hundreds of Chinese men spill out of the smoking area. The hallway smells. The lights are dim and sickly yellow. I will wear mourning the next time.

I’ve decided to try Emirates. I’ve heard goods things. If I spend the night in Dubai, I can fly in daylight.

I’m standing at the window just as the sun rises over the buildings in the east. The sky is yellow. Behind me in the room, the décor is simple, everything yellow and brown, like the painting above the bed, a brilliant piece of Arab kitsch, in which elders sit around the ancient divan in the days before oil, old fishermen and traders in long gowns and high turbans singing along as one of them plays a lyre-like instrument.

The scene out the window is instantly familiar. Years ago I worked in Kuwait. The buildings seem the same, the close clusters of stacked concrete, flat roofs to the sky. It’s the same Gulf sun, seeming to rise at full power. I can see the street below. There aren’t too many people out, a few men walking to work.

The Dubai airport is like a cavernous temple to celebrate the city as a kind of miracle state, to celebrate commerce, and of course to celebrate the Sheikh Mohammed, Emir of Dubai, the author of all this success. The lobby is a good half kilometre of slick open tile under high pillars covered with reflecting silver. Once you pass through passport control, a surprisingly relaxed procedure, you enter the real palace, multiple high-ceilinged storeys accessed by an open escalator surrounded by glass and light, revealing all storeys at once. On the third floor, there is a long gallery of duty free shops. I stop at a Costa Coffee, a chain I associate with London, and I watch the waves of people.

I’m reminded how truly diverse the populations are in the Gulf. Their terms of engagement are complex, of course. I doubt the U.A.E. is paradise for the workers from south Asia or Africa. But I’m a visitor. The world walks the gaudy halls of the airport in sunlight. I’m escaping the grim paranoia in Europe, experiencing peace and diversity in the Middle East.

I’ve missed the cultures that believe in courtesy. It’s refreshing. My cultures seem allergic to anything that might be taken as corny or sentimental. To this sort of adolescent mind set, the courtesies of older cultures seem naïve. But they are ancient and have evolved for a purpose, even if only aesthetic. I’m sure it’s more.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Travelogue 662 – November 16
Lacking Enemies

On Monday morning the wind is blowing. Our clothes on the line outside are in disarray. My running shirt has fallen to the ground. The wind screeches suddenly as it finds a crack in window or door.

It’s dark when I get up now. I leave the house while the wind is blowing, while the clouds in the night sky pick up the lights of the waking city and reflect them back in colours like war.

The bad boys from Brussels have done their work. There are calls for war now. France is closing their borders. One questions in both cases, ‘against whom?’ My job has made a project manager out of me, and I can’t help asking for detail.

It was easier for the boys from Brussels. Their objectives were very concrete. We will kill and cause mayhem, they said over their martyr’s whisky. That was a manageable project. It had become somewhat divorced from its originating principle. Just as France’s principle has the most tenuous connection to task.

It seems to me that history has become like an untethered balloon in the winds above my city, buffeted wildly among the clouds. The dark winter sky obscures.

There is plenty of war in our world, and yet it’s a beast without purpose. Since World War II, it’s awfully hard to craft rational narratives for our myriad wars. They surge and they halt, and they run rampant, and the witnesses wonder at the psychology of the beast. Was it religion? Then why is it so bloodthirsty? Was it a political program, a ‘freedom’, a ‘democracy’? Then why the strange gleam in the eye, the relish, and the lapse into chaos when the wall is down?

Dare we say that the terrorist program is already bankrupt? Was it conceived to scare the governments of the West into withdrawing from the Middle East? Are the terrorists encouraged by some sign that the rest of us have missed? They terrorize the people but can they terrorize the governments? In fear, the people support government’s security measures and the calls for war. Just as the people were tired of the expense and the cynical grind of foreign wars, the terrorists show up to provide new fuel.

Little wonder that conspiracy theorists think the terrorists are inventions of the victim governments. Unwitting tools, maybe. I’ve always been sceptical about the drunken shouts of ‘genius’ when talking about boys with box-cutters or about the desperate boys with clogged arteries in Washington.

And so the animal with horns reels this way and that, yielding to the martyr’s whisky and the seduction of wild action. It feels so much like purpose.

Pity the rest of us, whose lives are so much less romantic. Lacking enemies we have only families. Lacking glory we have only the ride into work of a morning. I read the stories about boys and their glory while I read the Metro into town. I have the bilingual dictionary in my lap. I do this every morning. I read and I study. It’s something to do when you have no one to kill.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Travelogue 661 – November 5

I pull the car door shut behind me. ‘Shimeles! Indemen adark? Good morning.’ The day starts. Shimeles pulls away from the kerb and into the wide sweep of asphalt that, at this hour, serves almost exclusively the taxi vans roaring downhill from the communities on the Entoto Road. Shimeles doesn’t need to ask where I’m going. I’ve been following the same routine every morning, a routine dictated by dependence on reliable internet. I have to put in a few hours of work on the computer before I show up at the office in the Kebena district. I’m going to the Radisson in Kasanchis.

The Radisson is located on one of those streets in Addis blessed by a sudden chic, where the hotels and the construction cranes suddenly soar, where traffic suddenly clogs, where money seems to pool and eddy in its wild course across the city. Shimeles curses as he maneuvers among the slow streams of traffic. He pulls over and glances back with an anxious look. The traffic is stopped behind him, and one of the hotel guards is already on his way over. I know to get out as fast as I can. Shimeles is moving as the door shuts behind me.

Inside, the guards salute and smile. Two of them stand inside the sentry post set in the barrier separating the hotel from the street. They run my backpack through the x-ray machine, and one sweeps my body with his little beeper. This is standard in the new Addis. The hostesses in the lounge greet me. They know to place my order for English cake and espresso, for the largest bottle of water they have and the limes to go with it. The lobby is something modern. We’ve emerged from a quick succession of styles signifying luxury, from the Hilton era, luxury as inherited from the late Selasse era, 70s California, through the flashy Arab period, and through the explosion of Ethiopian kitsch, to this, the understated and anonymous. I might be in Europe. The floors are marble tiling and brown carpet. The arm chairs are solid and comfortable. The tasteful black-and-white photography on the wall is Ethiopian in theme, but only if you look closely. The big screen placed at one end of the room is pointedly not tuned to Ethiopian TV, but instead to an international swim meet in Qatar.

My seat is closest to one corner, furthest from the TV, closest to an electrical plug. The waitress brings me the day’s internet code, and I am ready to go.

In Hawassa my destination is the Haile Resort by the lake, and my ride is the three-legged bajaj. From my new hotel, the place of echoes, I have to walk half a kilometre down one of those extravagant new city roads one sees all around Ethiopia these days, wide enough for three lanes each way and divided by a high-kerbed meridian, where often there are only bajaj drivers and horse carts to sparsely populate the macadam.

It seems as though there has been some unionization among the bajaj drivers. They don’t want to negotiate anymore, and the prices are relatively uniform. I try to haggle, just for nostalgia’s sake, but I pay the driver’s first price, and I swing myself into the back seat. He revs the buzzing little engine, and away we go, cruising at bajaj speed (something less than lightning) across town.

I’m not always so lucky with internet at the Haile. But I can’t imagine it’s better elsewhere in town. When the connection is working, it’s quick, and I can catch up on a lot of work. When it’s not, I fiddle with some documents, and I look around the vast lobby. The ceilings and the windows look to soar some twenty meters above us. It’s sparsely furnished to emphasize this feeling of space. Outside is a garden and the lake. You can see the whole lake. The opposite shore is indistinct in the morning mist.

It’s Yenebeb who says it best. The place seems to reflect Haile’s character, or what we think we know of it, the perfectionism, the dedication to excellence. So many luxury hotels have been built in recent years, one might think the craze accounts for all the new construction in Ethiopia, every crane in downtown Addis lifting new shower stalls to the sixth storey. But the standards are questionable. The fashionable hotels one year are very often the fading beauties the very next year, dirty, chipped and peeling, those beautiful showers malfunctioning. But there seems to be a pride in the workmanship here at the Haile, some substance and durability. Even the garden is still neat and ordered. There is sculpture. There is an interesting variety to the plants and trees.

I step outside, and I descend the garden steps toward the lakeside. There are fishermen among the reeds just off shore. They are standing, and it appears for the moment as though there must be a shoal underneath the reeds, but the fishermen are standing on small bamboo rafts.

There are still morning colours in the water. There are boys swimming in the water, off the plot of land next to the resort’s. They are shouting and splashing. Some are washing. At this hour, the outdoor tables are deserted. I sit and watch the waters. A Chinese man appears and slowly crosses my field of vision. He is stalking a heron. He’s holding forward an expensive camera.

A young couple arrives, clearly Diaspora, both in sporty hats, his a fedora and hers a huge sun hat. They are laughing and leaning into each other. They pause at lakeside for some posed, pouting pictures. Tourist photos are supposed to look like sly jokes these days. They stroll off, back toward the hotel, holding hands and still giggling, while I check my watch. It’s nearly time to go.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Travelogue 660 – November 4
Under Construction

The sun is up in Addis Ababa. Shimeles and I are travelling down the hill into town. Even this early, the lines have started for taxis in Arat Kilo. It’s only in the past few years you see these lines. There are too many people, too few taxis. They stand patiently beside the side of the busy road, thirty or more people deep. Even as there are more cars in Ethiopia, travel around town becomes more difficult. Even as the city launches the babur, the light rail, transport in the city is stalled. If anything the light rail did more to stop the town during its construction than to get people moving.

The light rail project has changed the landscape of Addis. Mexico Square has disappeared down a circular well of dirt among remodelled roads and the elevated railway. An elevated line bursts even into the solemn space of Meskel Square at the center of town. This particular line isn’t running yet, so the pillars of this strange viaduct stand silently, casting shadows over sections of town, feeling like an accusation. You make us do this to you.

Change is the norm in Addis now. There are streets wholly dedicated to progress, districts ordained a fashion by new asphalt, where rows of hulking buildings stand unfinished, fitted with eucalyptus scaffolding and covered with torn shrouds of grey tarp that make them look like creatures from Harry Potter.

One day I’m lost among a legion of these monsters searching for an old haunt, the quiet café called Kabu. It has vanished, and vanished so completely that I have to pace back and forth along the whole stretch of road to find clues to where it had once stood. Eventually I do identify the monster that swallowed my café. I survey the row of them, effectively just slabs of concrete stacked on bare supports like toothpicks.

Hawassa in southern Ethiopia is another city under construction, suffering the shocks of hasty development. I’m staying at a hotel that used to be a standard of class in the parochial old town. Even at this late date, Masresha, Hawassa native and man about town, suggests meeting in the restaurant of my hotel, which at one time was clearly the best. After only a few minutes, just as we’re getting comfortable at our table, the lights go out. They are gone for the rest of the evening. The waiters express surprise, assure us the lights will be back. But their movement in the dark is rote. Candles are brought to select tables, where somber men in suits are being served, and the waiters are suspiciously adept at serving while holding their mobile phones in their mouths, flashlights forward.

The food arrives. We enjoy the evening, even with the lights out, sitting outside in the balmy air of Hawassa, air aromatic with the flowers below in the terrace, humid from the nearby lake, and full of the chatter from the street.

The next morning I awake to an alarming racket. It sounds like glass being ground under foot and raked across concrete, screeching with bell-like tones. At the end of the hall, they’re renovating a room, tearing up the tile and sweeping it together.

At the end of the day I return, and my room door is open. They’ve ripped the room apart. The concrete floor is bare. The floor tile has been removed and the pieces gathered in one corner. In another corner, the furniture is piled in a mass, partially covered by a tarp. Everything is abandoned to dust and dejected silence. No one is around. No other room has been touched, though I don’t remember seeing any other guests.

It takes us an hour to locate my things and to negotiate a refund. And then we are forced to search town for another room. We settle on the Enjory, which at least has the benefit of electricity through the evening. But it’s a hotel cast in the usual mould, concrete chambers set around a square courtyard in an architecture that an acoustical engineer could do well studying, inside which the most trivial sound is preserved and amplified to all corners.

The hotel guards and the cleaners have a nice relationship. They chat until midnight, clinking and thumping through their final duties. All the room doors are closed, they reason, so the place is deserted. They are free. Finally, they carry their laughter to the street, where they join the rest of the celebrants. We are in Hawassa, they say. We are the lucky ones.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Travelogue 659 – November 3
She’s in Russia Now

Maybe it’s my night time reading. Maybe it’s Le Carré and his 60s narratives triggering memories. I awake in the morning from a dream about my mother. She’s in some foreign place. She’s unrecognizable, and apparently I am as well. It has been so long. Still, we do see each other, and we talk.

I’m awake at five. I realize this is my best chance at a shower, so I drag myself out of bed. It’s chilly, and it’s pitch black in my little flat. Outside the churches have begun their songs. I turn on the light in the bathroom, interrupting the night-long party of the roaches and spiders. ‘Sorry, boys. Morning always comes too soon.’

I’m more than a week into my Ethiopia trip. I feel the fatigue throughout. I’ve just returned from a four-day trip to the south of Ethiopia, to Hawassa. The ache of van travel on rough roads lingers. Hawassa is about five hours from Addis. Some will say less, but they haven’t ridden with trusty Tamrat. I encourage his relaxed style and pace. Even if he is tempted to speed, his vehicle won’t allow it. The old 4x4 will start shuddering sickeningly.

Road time is helped enormously by the new expressway from Addis to Mojo (and beyond). It’s a toll road bypassing the horrible old Debre Zeit road, and the asphalt is new and smooth and wide, and we drift along it in a kind of dream. Could this be Ethiopia? After lunch in Mojo at the old Daema Hotel -- unexpectedly the best fish of the trip, even though we spend four days by Hawassa’s lake, -- we rediscover the familiar Ethiopia, the road south broken and pitted. One really benefits from the seasoned driver who knows the road intimately. He swerves with an uncanny prescience around chains of nasty potholes, predicting the behaviour of erratic drivers oncoming, the rash youngsters ferrying travellers in battered vans, the screaming Isuzu flatbeds, the middle class frivolous on holiday. The high-speed daydream of American road trips is not the norm here. Very rare is the stretch of uniform speed. One brakes for crossing herds of cattle. One slows to pass horse carts using the highway.

The last span of road into Hawassa we undertake at night. I’ve done this before, so I know what to expect but it’s still unnerving, the sudden silhouettes of families on their horse carts in the headlights, the boy standing with the reins in his hands, the family serenely occupying their portion of the narrow road, even while cars converge from both directions. It pays to have the calm hand of Tamrat on the wheel.

It’s 5am in Addis Ababa. There is water. I submit to the warmth of it. I stand without moving, hoping for some renewal, hoping to coax the fatigue out of me, into the streams going down the drain. It’s unwise to wait too long; the water may waver.

I wonder what my mother and I had to say to each other. I don’t remember much. The encounter had the feel of a chance meeting of old barflies in an obscure watering hole overseas. I dream often of Russia, a country I’ve never seen, a landscape drawn for me by Dostoevsky, I suppose, in ethereal code for depression. I carry a fantastical miniature of nineteenth-century St. Petersburg with me, a geography of abandonment. Mom slouches at the bar, her head shaved in gulag style. She has a companion, a kind of Nick Nolte dishevelment with no real definition. They cackle in the way of drunks, needing no humour. When I talk to her, she is sober and someone else, a third, not my mother nor the barfly, and we talk about books.

Shimeles, my regular taxi man, will be at the top of the hill at seven. I was up before dawn to catch the water. Now I lie back again on the bed. I won’t sleep, but I can rest, watching the colour in the curtains slowly change, glow with new born daylight.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Travelogue 658 – October 28
The Second Half
Part Three

Baby usually wakes late. She has had a feeding time very early, and then she sleeps again. Once she wakes, she is in a good mood. It’s her best time of day. She lies in bed, and she smiles sweetly. We make her laugh. Today I have to listen to her laugh over the phone.

This morning, she is far away. She is back where the days are constricting, where winter is coming. Here the daylight is still strong. It comes on at nearly the same time as it always does. The birds have begun with song. The priests and the imams have joined in with their song. I was blessed with water, and I have had the privilege of a hot shower.

By the time Baby wakes, and by the time her mommy is tickling her and kissing her, I’ve already been up and busy. I’ve closed the gate to my old house just as the guy across the dirt road does. His house is set only a meter or less behind the crooked and battered fence of corrugated iron. He wears the same shiny grey suit today as he will tomorrow. He carries in one hand the worn, black briefcase. In his other hand is the phone. He speaks into it with a grave urgency. ‘Where are you?’ he asks in Amharic. It’s 7am.

Addis is a city of business. The buildings keep rising all over town, rising among sea of neighbourhoods like ours, among the mud and tin and stone villages that make up the aggregate city. I’ve walked up the neighbourhood hill to the asphalt road, from village to city, where I am to meet Shimeles, my driver. A couple of young men up there are cautioning everyone, there are electrical cables down. They lie across the sidewalk and across half the road. A speeding taxi van screeches to a halt in front of the cable, which is only visible at the last minute.

Last night I read about Europe, about post-war West Germany. Le Carré has created the story about an Embassy man gone missing. The story is a pretext for Le Carré to explore a bit of obscure history, the history of post-war Germany. It’s a fascinating time, but one that has gone dark. We prefer the history of the war to the history of the reconstruction. Reconstruction doesn’t have the adrenalin appeal. It’s hard and steady work during times of deprivation. There are nameless, hungry mobs of displaced persons, and refugees are unpopular these days. They gather at the borders and they selfishly ask for jobs. Reconstruction is a time for quiet civil servants who problem-solve, and we hate those sorts, too.

We can say that the saving grace of the period is the Cold War, at least in terms of entertainment value. It’s a time of spies, people who work in the shadows to keep things stable. There’s something psychologically appealing about the concept of the spy. The tightly bound energy of the Cold War seems best expressed by that gritty image: the person who works in the shadows. Little matter that most spies spent their careers pushing paper.

I’m only halfway through the book, and enjoying it more than I’m likely to later. The mystery is at its most tantalizing. There is no urgency to move the plot along. There is room for speculation and for exploration.

The downed electrical cables have fallen just where I usually meet Shimeles. I circle round the danger, and walk down the hill. I walk a while, passing the neighbourhood shops, the sidewalk cafes, the meat shop, the tiny hair salon. There is a steady train of people on their way down the hill with me. Every morning this is the course they walk. It occurs to Shimeles isn’t coming. I start watching for other taxi drivers.

He doesn’t speak much English, but he’s eager to talk. He wants to know where I’m from. He wants to know what I’m doing here. I answer, and he needs a few minutes to formulate his next question. He’s enjoying it. We speed along the roads toward the busy center of Addis, where on every side rise bare concrete supports overhead. It’s a city experiencing new youth.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Travelogue 657 – October 27
The Second Half
Part Two

I’m getting used to seeing only the first halves of movies. After that, the distractions at home are too much. I can catch bits and pieces of second halves. I manage to get to know the characters, understand the set-up and the premise for the plot, the conflict and where things must go. And then I have to piece together the rest from fragments. Or I leave it unresolved.

The conclusions generated in Hollywood are rarely satisfying, anyway. Sometimes I think the movie industry is in the business of sabotaging good ideas. One sees a genius in the parts and a failure in the sum. I imagine it’s the amount of money involved in making a major film. It discourages risk-taking. The writer takes risks, on his or her own, before any major investment has been made. Then the studio takes charge. First halves show the original innovation. The second halves show the estimation of the market.

We’re watching ‘The Tailor of Panama’. The plot has opened up into the middle game. The tailor has told fabulous stories to the ruthless intelligence agent. The agent has parlayed them into riches. There will be hell to pay. First to pay will be the tailor’s friends and family.

Baby is inconsolable. She stands in my arms and she cries. She looks in my eyes in distress, with such trust in me, as though I could make everything all right. And I would, at that moment, fix the world if I could. I tell her she just wants to sleep. The tailor will be fine.

It’s a story about story-tellers and the trouble they cause. Stories can be blunt instruments when wielded by the literal-minded. The tailor makes up stories, because that’s what he does, and Pierce Brosnan sells them to the highest bidders. The stories are wound tightly around their purpose. Before they can unravel, the rogue agent escapes with the money.

I hold Baby just under her arms. Her legs are strong enough to stand, her feet planted on my legs. She is making a pouting face and looking at me. It will be all right, sweetheart. You’re going to sleep soon. We’ll put you in the crib. While you’re sleeping, you’ll grow some more. One day you’ll stand on your own. You’re going to walk. The story gets better and better.

And now I’m waking in Addis Ababa. I’m awake at four. That seems my default time for waking when I travel. The city is silent, except for the waves of barking from the dogs, moving across the neighbourhoods, moving toward the mountains.

I’m listening for the birds. They are just getting started. I’ve been here so many times. I first slept in this tiny room in Addis six years ago. I awoke, and I listened for the morning birds. It’s always been a sign of hope.

Today I’m hoping for water, and I’m building resolve to go and check. It’s usually my best chance at a shower, before the sun has risen. I’ll listen a few more minutes. The first human sound is usually the calls to prayer, Muslim and then Christian, voices amplified to rise above the valleys of the city.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Travelogue 656 – October 26
The Second Half
Part One

I wake from a deep sleep with the impression that I’ve been sleeping on a train. I don’t know where I am. It comes back slowly. I’m in my house in Addis Ababa. The night is dark; I see outlines among my small bedroom space, the edges of the bed, the cabinet, and the door. I lie back again. I listen to the dogs barking in the distance.

I’ve been in Addis only one day. It’s been one day overshadowed by fatigue. I didn’t sleep at all on the overnight slight. The sun, once it was out, was hot. I sat in a hotel courtyard much of the afternoon, doing my best to concentrate on a set of documents I have to read through. I’m not doing very well with them.

I miss Baby terribly. When I think of her, I realize I suffer from a real poverty of imagination. I cannot get the measure of her, what she is, so suddenly, in my life. What she is, in sum or at length, even as she grows so quickly, escapes me, and therefore it has escaped me what it is to be human. Something terribly fleeting.

I’m reading. Before sleep I’m reading Le Carré. I like his early stuff, the suffocating accounts of human folly, his shrewd eye for detail. This one is set in Bonn, the old capital of West Germany, fog-bound and small, now a center of international intrigue. Old Germany and new are circling each other here. It’s a time of student rebellions, and a time of reaction against the West. A staff person from the British Embassy has disappeared.

Le Carré is a good story-teller. A few of his stories have made it into a film. One is on the TV in Holland one night before I leave for Addis. We have a habit in our house, surviving from times before Baby, of watching the 8:30 movie before bed. It’s an empty ritual now. The TV is on, but Baby requires attention. There is something in her that fights sleep. I find that intriguing, having reached an age myself when I hunger for sleep almost always, some days from the time I wake.

Baby is a light sleeper. She lies on the sofa next to Mommy, and she holds her blue ball with both hands. She tries to bite the ball. She tries to stuff it into her mouth, but it’s almost as big as her head. It’s a hollow ball, made of a kind of web of durable plastic so she can hang on to it. She’s frustrated she can’t bite her toy. She starts up with a low-grade whine. She is sleepy.

The film is ‘The Tailor of Panama’. Geoffrey Rush plays the tailor, a caring and loyal old man who happens to be a compulsive fraud. It’s a fortunate compulsion for a tailor. He’s entertaining, and he’s gracious. He has created a comforting back-story, as a London tailor trained on Savile Row. In truth he learned his trade in prison. But the fiction works for everyone, and his suits are the best in the city.

The story opens, characters and premise are introduced. Conflict is introduced, and with that the arc of the plot. In a two-hour movie, there is only time to open up all the possibilities, hold the tension for the duration of a few scenes, and then quickly spin toward resolution.

The conflict comes quickly, with the arrival of Pierce Brosnan, playing the new British intelligence agent in town, looking for dirt. He wants some juicy intelligence, and he wants it fast. He’s a rogue, assigned to Panama as a kind of demotion after scandal. He needs something good. Who better a source of dirt than the tailor to the rich and powerful? He applies pressure. The tailor, always eager to please, begins telling stories.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Travelogue 655 – October 14
The Glow
Part Three

So poor old Gerard Philips cuts no dashing figure, but his idea is the foundation of a corporate empire, and the organising principle for the story of a city.

In 1891, this Gerard Philips set up a factory for light bulbs in Eindhoven, financed by his father, Frederik, who was a banker. When eventually they brought in Gerard’s bright young brother, Anton, the company prospered, became Philips Gloeilampenfabrieken, and expanded into many other electrical products.

By mid-century, Philips was an innovator, having pioneered electric razors, radios in the 20s, and later television, audio tape and CDs. It was led by Philips family until 1971.

The Philips family was very loyal to the town that gave them their start. The company did more than provide jobs. They built and they donated.

In 1913, Gerard and his brother Anton founded the Philips Sport Vereniging, PSV, the football club that would become a force in Dutch football, and even, during select periods, European football. I ask the taxi driver about Memphis. That’s the name of a PSV star who became famous during the World Cup with a few key strikes. He is currently on loan to Manchester United, and I’ve watched him in a few games playing well in tandem with Rooney. The taxi man says Memphis has let his fame go to his head. He tells a story of Memphis balling up a parking ticket and throwing it on the ground. He shakes his head, and I’m thinking that among American athletes this looks like good citizenship.

Yes, suddenly there’s Anton. Gerard did have a younger brother. And Anton may be the reason Gerard gets so little press. The fact is, Philips under Gerard’s leadership was a failing enterprise. A decade after the company’s founding, Anton is invited in, and things start looking up. Gerard is good for one idea, or rather for the one critical task that made all subsequent history possible, convincing Daddy that investment in light is a smart move. Sadly, Daddy’s gone by the time Anton starts making it a thriving business, but I’m sure he didn’t regret the indulgence. (Is it important, or just weird, that Daddy’s first cousin is none other than Karl Marx?)

Anton’s son, Frits becomes something of a folk hero. When his elders fled to America ahead of Hitler’s advance, Meneer Frits stayed behind to run the factory. He was held in a concentration camp during 1943 because of a work shut-down in the factory. He protected the lives of 382 Jews who worked in the factory.

Frits became president of the company in time, and became Meneer Frits to the town. They loved him. He didn’t hold himself aloof. He mixed with his factory workers, attended football games regularly, sitting with the crowd rather than in the business lounge. Though he stepped down from leadership of the company in 1971, he survived to see his hundredth birthday celebrated by the whole city.

On the way to our hotel, we pass the Evoluon. Built in 1966 according to a sketch by Meneer Frits on a cocktail napkin, it looks like a landed UFO. It was meant to be an educational center for science and technology, and for a while it was. Now it functions as a conference center. They’ve embraced the weird place, taking it as symbol of their brainy city.

Menna has taken a liking to this town. It’s smaller, seems friendlier than Rotterdam. She’s taken a liking to the Market Square in central Eindhoven, host to a tall bronze statue of Meneer Frits. It’s a likeable square, combining elements of the historical with the urgency of modern commercialism. This weekend it’s the scene of considerable drinking, a line of bars there filling all their outdoor tables with runners and family and friends. There were already quite a few full marathoners celebrating during the half marathon. The course passed through the square during the last two kilometers, and it narrowed to a tight channel delineated by ad hoc barriers holding back the crowds of weekender fans, surging forward in tottering, bellowing support while we, the suffering few, elbowed each other for space in fevered and impatient anticipation of the finish line.

I had to remind myself that this was the race of the many false finishes. I’m judging my progress solely by my watch. Every quarter kilometre or so, there is another balloon arch, and a few optimistic souls surge forward, only to pull to the side in winded disappointment when the colourful display offers no finish. I make it to the finish, completely spent. That’s a good feeling, only because it means I did my best.

A few hundred meters on, I see Batu standing with the baby carriage amid the swirling crowd, looking somehow perfectly composed among the chaos. Menna is somewhere trying to take a picture of me. I laugh. I lean over sweet Baby. I make her laugh, lightly pinching her cheek. ‘What do you think, Baby? What do you think of the town that light bulbs built?’

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Travelogue 654 – October 13
The Glow
Part Two

Authorities can agree that the light bulb was not invented in Eindhoven in North Brabant in the Netherlands. But beyond that it becomes hard to say much with authority. It’s one of those stories in history we’re getting used to, qualified by so many asterisks that one wonders if anyone ever gets an idea alone.

I’m guessing we have to settle for the simple answer, no. No one person could have invented the light bulb. Things technical require a series of ideas. Even something small like the mundane light bulb. Or the gloeilamp. Even if one person came up with the idea complete, there is no context. The light bulb requires an electrical network. The light bulb in all its glory requires apparatus to support it. It requires a commercial process to make it economically viable. And what sense is something like the light bulb if it can’t be sold in the market? Before that could happen, dozens of minds had to fiddle with the details, the vacuum inside the bulb, and which kind of filament to light up.

The inventors of the early nineteenth century were tinkerers, in the tradition of the eighteenth-century gentleman scientist. There was one Humphry Davy, cast in just that mould, chemist and tinkerer and mad scientist, born in Cornwall and apprenticed to a doctor and apothecary. Inquisitive and irrepressible boy and man, he never stopped playing with chemicals, and he seemed charmed in his chain of acquaintance, quickly making impressions on the likes of Watt and Coleridge, Southey, and Priestley, graduating to sharing nitrous oxide with this group of worthies. He became lab supervisor at the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, graduated to the Royal Institution in London, and then to the Royal Society. He became a famous lecturer, known for sensational demonstrations of chemistry in action. Among his incessant experimentation, he managed to discover a number of elements, most notably sodium and potassium.

In 1802, Davy exhibited a burning filament of platinum in the Royal Institution. This was probably intended more as a demonstration of the power of his homemade battery, the most powerful in the world at the time. Light didn’t seem a primary preoccupation of his set. They preferred the sizzle of funny compounds in the lab. And yet, here stands Mr. Davy as an early milestone in our story of the light bulb. He did go on, in 1806, to demonstrate an arc light between two charcoal rods. But after that, he left it to another generation to continue the work.

Stories like the light bulb’s need their celebrities like Davy and Edison. And then there are the grey soldiers in between, whose parts are limited, due to either misfortune or lack of ambition. Brilliance doesn’t presuppose natural star power or ruthless intent.

There are the walk-ons, like one John Starr from Cincinnati who filed the first U.S. patent for an incandescent lamp, in 1844. He travelled to Europe to market his idea, and he contracted tuberculosis and died. He had the ambition, but he had no luck. Before him, there was one Scotsman, James Bowman Lindsay demonstrating a constant incandescent light for a group in Dundee in 1835. But he didn’t follow up, being more interested in pursuing his ideas around wireless telegraphy. He apparently had a number of ideas well ahead of his time, but little of the drive that would have cemented his achievements in the public mind. He had his own priorities. He poured years into compiling a dictionary of fifty-three languages, and he never finished. He turned down a post at the British Museum in order to care for his ageing mother. And history passed him by.

And so it is that, after the flashy achievements of Edison and Swan and Tesla, that there comes along another flavourless character, one Gerard Philips, who convinces his dad the banker, that there is a future in mass producing light bulbs. Though he seems singularly uninspiring – it’s hard to find more than a few paragraphs of biography about him, -- his little company went on to be the biggest producer of light in the world. And he started it in a factory building in little Eindhoven – not even a decade after Vincent Van Gogh lived in nearby Neunen and painted some of his early masterpieces.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Travelogue 653 – October 12
The Glow
Part One

Last year when we went to Eindhoven, Troy and I took a bike ride out toward Neunen in search of the glow trail laid in honour of Vincent Van Gogh. We only found the turned up earth where we guessed the bike trail would be laid. We did also find the watermolen, the old mill, that Vincent painted in 1884.

I suppose it’s in remembrance of that great expedition that the psyche presented me with a dream last night. Troy and I were performing in a band at an art fair. Troy was calling himself Pez, and he was center stage. He was on guitar, and I was playing bass. The composition was a good one, the bass melodic and the guitar providing metallic abstractions. No one was listening because it was an art fair, of course, but the music was impressive.

We’ve returned to Eindhoven, but without Troy this year. The Eindhoven half marathon is the close to my annual cycle of road races.

Menna likes Eindhoven. It’s a city that feels like a small town. That’s precisely what the taxi driver says about Eindhoven. We’re asking him what it’s like. ‘It’s like a village. You leave your house in the morning, you see people you know on the street. It’s nice.’

The city is small enough that Troy and I were able to ride our clunky rental bicycle from the center of town out past the city limits, out into the countryside and all the way to the edges of the town of Neunen. The flat fields, lit by yellow rapeseed, were still modelling for nineteenth-century painters. The broken clouds were flying low over the horizon, and the autumn sunlight seemed attenuated.

Menna and I, Batu and Baby are staying in a hotel outside the center. It’s far enough out that we can see some fields, though only a fifteen-minute city bus ride from the center. It stands on the opposite side of town than Neunen; otherwise I would be tempted to rent a cycle and try again. Maybe the glow trail has been laid. What would Vincent have thought, coming across a glowing path by his rustic water mill?

The race itself almost defeats me before I’ve begun. Roads are blocked all over town, and the buses are diverted. And I only piece that together on the morning of the race. I have to call a taxi and hope for the best. We arrive as the race is starting, the driver pulling up as close as he can. I’m pulling sweats off in the front seat, then pinning my number to my chest. I’m out of the car and running toward the back of the pack up ahead. Once I reach them, it’s ten minutes before our section passes the starting line. It’s a big crowd. I spend almost the whole race surging through the mob, trying to find my place among runners at my pace.

The taxi driver is proud of his town. He says it’s a city that feels like a village. But it’s got a lot that a village doesn’t. There are many big businesses centered here. It’s a center of tech and design. He says there is a huge international school. Menna likes that.

I’m enjoying his civic pride. We discuss PSV, the Eindhoven football team, the best in Holland. He tells us about Meneer Frits.

Eindhoven is a corporate town, and it must be one of the oldest corporate towns there is. It’s with genuine sadness that the taxi driver tells us that Philips has been in the process of moving out for some time. Philips was founded here over a hundred years ago and the company has given the history of this town definition.

And the story begins with the light bulb, that strange little invention with such impact on the life of the species, glass bulb filled with gas, tiny carbon filament set in the middle and super-heated until it glows. In Dutch, it’s called a gloeilamp, a glow lamp.

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Travelogue 652 – October 6
Bill Retires

I’m running beside the water of Teatown Lake, blue waters thick with lily pads, blue waters reflecting the clear and the dark blue skies, autumnal Atlantic skies of the Hudson River Valley. There are touches of red among the leaves of the trees.

Now I’m running on the water. There’s a stretch of floating boardwalk, and as I run, it creaks and it bangs section against section. Just above the nearest bank is the road. There are houses. A few neighbours are watching me. At the far end of the boardwalk, the trail dives back into hilly woods, and the lakeshore recedes. I have to watch my feet here, the trail leaping over roots as thick as heavy nautical rope left uncoiled, and leaping over ridges of exposed grey stone.

It’s been a good workout. I’ve done two circuits around the lake, supplemented by long digressions down woodland trails. This run has certainly worked the ankles. Every step has to be carefully placed, and none was the same as the last. It’s exhilarating. It keeps you alert. I’ve missed the trails in Ethiopia. The dance within the run keeps the body and mind young.

And it’s peace. The water stares skyward in an attitude of waiting. I’ve been lucky this trip, finding opportunities with nature. In Minneapolis I returned to Fort Snelling State Park and run the trails by the river. Now this at Teatown. I’ve missed that America. The sky quietly returns its blue to the water of the lake.

After the run I look for peace again, this time in Rick’s back yard. I rest my aching joints and muscles in the hammock in Rick’s yard. I’m looking up through the encircling branches, some oak, some fir. I’m listening to the birdsong. I’m awake but I would like to be drowsing. The jet lag has made sleep uneasy.

I’m allowing the busy circles of the previous weeks to echo and spend themselves among my thoughts. I would need weeks in the hammock to allow the time to unravel, trivial scenes rising like bubbles in their solution, ready each to burst with their small load of tension. Last week was Minnesota and the annual rituals of business.

I’m waiting for my number in the surprisingly comfortable DMV office downtown in the Hennepin County courthouse, Minnesota. The receptionist is a friendly man, quick to help. I’m there to renew my driver’s license. He produces a number. The chairs are upholstered comfortably in soothing colours. There is a play area for children in one corner. A Hispanic dad lifts his little daughter onto the plastic play set there. The whole space is designed to calm. I watch the screen for my number, and my thoughts bubble and pop. As the minutes pass, and I am forced to stay put, I feel my body relax. By the time my time approaches, I’m regretting having to move. I withdraw my new glasses from their case. The last time I was here, I barely passed the vision test. I remember the kind elderly woman behind the counter, how she let me try again. I place the glasses on the bridge of my nose, and I wait to be called. I’ll be next.

Another morning dawns in Westchester County. I’ve returned to the Starbucks in Chappaqua where I can wait for the appearance of Bill and Hillary. The windows are fogged. The streets of little Chappaqua are wet. Inside it’s cosy, almost absurdly so. I’m watching the people coming in, and I’m wondering about them. Are they all children of privilege? What are the signs of it? I’m not sure what I should be looking for. They do seem cheerful. Is that a bad sign? Chappaqua was a town founded by the Quakers. Has the philosophy of peace suffused the place, becoming a part of the green landscape? Is that what has drawn all the optimists?

Taking a minute to glance at the headlines of the New York Times, I see Mr. Putin is misbehaving again, charging into the china shop in Syria just because he can.

They say Peter the Great attended Quaker services when he visited in England, but did he take any home with him? Did he invest them with any colonies to build into outposts of affluence for future generations, places where retired kings may share a coffee with the common man? The sect was built upon the notion, after all, of a priesthood of believers. In peaceful Chappaqua, you could still believe we are chosen, ‘an holy nation, a peculiar people’. If only Mr. Putin had such a legacy, maybe he wouldn’t be afraid to retire. He might trust that there was a hammock in the yard even for the old czar.

Monday, October 05, 2015

Travelogue 651 – October 5

We’re sitting by the pool. I’m asking Rick about the trees around his yard, the trees we can see surrounding us in his expansive back yard. I’m thinking I’m seeing fir and pine, maple and oak. He confirms, and he tells me more. There are ash. There are some cedars. He says this used to be a white cedar swamp. He points one white cedar out to me, but I don’t see anything distinct about it. Rick dreams of planting more and resurrecting the natural habitat, but he fears the zoning restrictions. Rick knows nature. He used to manage nature centers in New England.

I’m visiting Westchester County, New York. We’re sitting outdoors on a sunny afternoon. We’re relaxing in the sunshine out by his pool, even as the squirrels cavort among the highest branches of the oaks above us, raining down upon us a regular bombardment of heavy acorns. They strike the cement of the patio with a thud. They bounce a man’s height. They plunk into the pool.

I’m learning that the white cedar is also called ‘arborvitae’, tree of life, because of its purported medicinal qualities. I’m trying to imagine these hills in their virginal state, something Rick can picture quite readily. The woods and swamps would be nearly impassable. I wonder at the labour expended by those hardy colonizers of the seventeenth century.

Yes, I’m back in New England, where America has real history. I mean a history that is palpable, lives cohabitant in our space. I’ll include Westchester County in New England, since we’re only a few miles from the Connecticut border. I hope they don’t mind. The roads are certainly New England style, narrow and winding precariously among the wooded hills. Rick is commenting on the roads as we drive them, noting which follow trading routes dating back to the colonial days. Some routes are over three hundred years old. It’s true, some are clearly in need of repair. But still, how does one summon the powers of imagination to see this for what it once was, a Sleepy Hollow wilderness with mere trails for passage?

Even as they are, the roads seem hardly passable. At the least I can say they are unnerving. I see everything through a runner’s eyes, and I see myself perishing on the crumbling shoulder of any one of these curves.

Rick is the prefect host. He drives me to a state park for one day’s long run. I’m not sure that it isn’t a practical joke. Kim is along for the ride. He warns me that the trails may be hard on the ankles. I boast that I’ve run trails in the mountains of Ethiopia. Of course, only two hundred meters down the first trail I twist my ankle, and not lightly. I push through the pain, as I’ve learned well – yes, on the trails in Ethiopia, -- so that I don’t allow the ankle to swell. But I slow down, reminded now that I am in New England, and the earth is hard and gnarled as the roots of the dense trees.

This is Teatown Lake Reservation, where the forests and wildlife are protected, and where children learn about nature. There is a pack of them there to witness my fall from grace. I’m thinking as I run that this must be a New England hazing ritual for visitors. The trail is faint, barely discernible in places. Fortunately the routes are well-marked by coloured reflectors. The leaves have fallen over the rocks and roots, so one must be vigilant in protection of one’s ankles. I am led through thorns and over hunch-backed boulders, deposited onto asphalt roads at intervals, where I have to search for the trail on the other side. I run through marshy spots, where the trail is a series of boards laid in disjointed lines. I am led up one relentless hillside, slick with fallen leaves. There is no view from the summit, the trees being too thick. Eventually I make it back to the central lake. It’s a humble body of water. It is small, its placid waters distributed among a few fingers. It looks cold already, dark blue against the heavy green of the forests.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Travelogue 650 – September 30
Dreams Made Real

My first book event was a small event. It was little more than sitting at my friends’ dining room table holding the book in my hands, talking to a group of half a dozen. It’s my book. I touched it for the first time yesterday. It’s an object. It has weight. There are so many pages. I feel writer’s block just looking at it. How did I come up with all that to say? I feel a quick sense of panic, as though I have to say it again.

And then I’m holding it in my hands, talking to a circle of friends. It’s Westchester County. It’s been raining. We can hear the waves of rain against the roof.

In some sense, I haven‘t arrived yet. I’ve been in the States for a week. I wake at four every morning. Four in Minnesota. Here in New York, that’s five in the morning. I sit up in bed, and I talk to Menna on Viber. It’s midday for her. I listen to Baby attaching sounds to her first thoughts. Outside, the sun is shedding its first light.

The rule is, the dream never looks the same, beginning to end. I’ve had the good fortune in this life to shepherd a few toward realization, and they never look on earth the way they did in heaven.

Making a book is such a long process, one can be forgiven for forgetting what the original thought was. I hold the book in my hands. The slight weight of it, the texture of the cover, the name on the front cover, the features of it are still new to me. It operates as an object of magic.

The event is an informal occasion. We are gathered around the dining room table. I have a few minutes to frame the topic. Yes, I did this, and it’s a source of wonder to me. I’m telling you about it as though it were someone else’s story. Friends are asking questions about Ethiopia and the work. ‘I don’t know what NGO means,’ David says. A few others jump in helpfully. I laugh to hear the definitions.

Ultimately we must talk about grief, and the nature of those events that change lives. Most everyone has something to say. The stories branch. I still hold the book, fascinated by the feel of it.

Our journeys are long ones. Still everything is sudden. Sometimes it seems like the vocation of the species is recovery from the shock of transitions. I’m getting sleepy. I’m still exhausted by the travel. Later we’ll drink in celebration; then we’ll sleep. I’m alone on the floor of the vast living room. The windows are black. The rain doesn’t let up.

In the morning, I’m writing all this down at the Chappaqua Starbucks. The place is cosy in green, trademark fashion. Irritating and cosy. The people streaming by my table are alert, their chatter like birdsong. The windows are fogged from the abating storm. A few locals are commenting about power outages. It’s just another day in a rich small town, where quiet streets wind among wooded hills. Houses have New England pillars. Up the ascending street opposite the Starbucks entrance is the house of old Horace Greeley. Horace ran for president against Ulysses in 1872. Ulysses won.

I’m scanning the quiet streets outside for signs of Bill or Hillary. Chelsea is due to speak at the town library tonight.

I have these vigils in life, posts beside the trails of history. I hope to witness something. I know I won’t see Bill; I won’t see Horace. But it’s the setting, a pedagogical form of its own. History happens in places, and the places impart a knowledge, a sense of the imminent.

I’m reading the New York Times. Putin has decided to intervene in Syria. Obama meets with him, and he has put on a darkly stern expression. Obama looks like this a lot lately, during his final years in office. Would he run again? Does the White House look like it did in 2008? What stories will he tell in retirement? What would Bill say if I saw him this morning?

Friday, September 18, 2015

Travelogue 649 – September 18
Rules of the Road

I’m at Schiphol Airport, ready to fly to Minnesota. For a few weeks, I’m on the road again. The rules change, as soon as I enter the airport. I’ll pay €3.75 for a bottle of water. I’ll pace bright hallways in search of latrines. I’ll find bookstores. I’ll browse news shops. I’ll map the places to sit. I’ll make my way through an entire newspaper. I’ll be topically informed again, versed in the surface news of the day.

I had my brush with history the other day. I wasn’t travelling, but I was passing through the central train station. I wanted to replenish my travel card. There was a policemen at the entry way saying there were no trains. I shrugged him off and entered anyway. Only later did I notice all the police around the station. Only then did I question why there were no trains.

As it happens, there was a man who had to be dragged out of one the train’s latrine. Shutting down all train traffic through Rotterdam seems like a strong reaction, but this is only weeks after a man pulled out guns and knives on a Thalys train to Paris. Police are jumpy.

I’m reading a headlines in Dutch lately, with dictionary at my side. I never get too far that way, but I get the idea. The front pages have been dominated for what seems like all summer with news of the vluchtelingen, the refuges from the Middle East and Africa and the Balkans assaulting the borders of Europe. It’s been surreal, the reading thereof in a foreign language. It’s a ready reminder that I don’t belong here any more than they do. I’m a legal immigrant, but the building resentment against the outsider in Europe makes my status feel little more secure than the status of these refugees,

Earlier this month, the government in Hungary shut down the train station in Budapest, while tension mounted among the thousands of refugees encamped there. Hundreds of them decided to walk the hundred miles or so to Austria. I don’t know what happened to them, don’t know whether they made it. I imagine many ended up in one or another of the receiving camps being hastily erected around frontline countries.

I have time for an espresso in one of the cafés next to the train station. There are two on other side of the station. Menna and I call them Azedebo and Fundame, after two school projects in Ethiopia. I’m in Fundame, and at the next table are a young couple. They are from somewhere else. Are they Romany? They are clearly disoriented. The woman walks outside to consult with a taxi driver, and apparently without satisfaction.

When she walks, it’s with a curious, cautious shuffle, taking very small steps and leaning backward. She fixes her wide eyes on her target and she shuffles forward. She leans into the taxi window, and it’s no quick consultation. It takes a while, but when she shuffles back it’s only to sit again in silence.

A policemen visits Fundame for a coffee. The Romany woman fixes him with her wide brown eyes. She stands and she shuffles, and she accosts him with a long list of questions, delivered in a soft but deliberate voice.

In contrast, the policeman has a strong Dutch voice. ‘What are looking for?’ She whispers. He takes them outside, and points. They enter, and the woman hovers close to him, fixing his face with her wide-eyed gaze. She asks again.

The policeman says, ‘Bring you? No, I’m not a taxi service. You have to do it yourself.’

He is enunciating for them Dutch philosophy in its several words. All are equal. The rules are for equals. There are no exceptions. One wins no concessions with charm or money in Holland. Romany’s big eyes melt with confusion and hurt feelings.

He softens his stance only so far as to say, ‘It’s easy.’ ‘Come,’ he says, and he takes them outside again, pointing as though he could brush a line of colour down the sidewalk and onward for five kilometres ahead.

The policeman leaves. The Romany couple stands outside. They light cigarettes, and they discuss strategies. They look longingly down the road, along the route painted with the policeman’s eyes. They pull on their cigarettes slowly and thoughtfully, staring together.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Travelogue 648 – September 10
Meet Brad

Home in the evening, tired from the trip to Tilburg, we sit to eat and listlessly we watch TV. There’s a film on tonight, a classic from 1998. It stars a young and sultry Brad Pitt, cast opposite Anthony Hopkins. ‘Meet Joe Black’ it’s called. Joe Black is Death in disguise. He looks like Brad Pitt. Anthony Hopkins negotiates for a few more days, and Death uses this opportunity for a vacation among the mortals.

I’m wondering about the persisting trope in human thinking that makes humanity a destination for deities and supernaturals, who are drawn to visit for sentimental reasons. ‘You’re a fascinating species,’ they will say. And then they incinerate us.

I’ve always liked Brad Pitt, but here he’s too young to have been matched with Anthony Hopkins. The result is happy one for humanity, in that the human is by far the more interesting study. It could have been Milton’s Satan again, the alien more sympathetic than the people, liberated from convention and fear to be playfully, excessively and attractively human.

But Brad, perhaps at the bidding of an uninspired director, reaches only as far as the deadpan alien, a kind of mildly amused Vulcan on reconnaissance, settling for the occasional cheap laugh in a clumsy naivete. He loves peanut butter. There’s a bit of Chauncey-Gardiner-style truth-telling thrown in, casting Death in a light of innocence, an angle that has a spark of potential to it, but is wasted in the cheapest effect.

So we’re going to be disappointed. The whole premise has such great potential for perversity. I can’t help thinking that the later Brad Pitt would have had much more fun with it, smirking through it all with a provocative chill and detachment.

Instead, he is outclassed by Hopkins, for whom the highest compliment is going to be that everything he does makes sense. In a plot that challenges logic, and allows itself a few too many turns toward the silly, his choices are consistent and absolutely correct. He’s going to die, and what is more, he’s trapped in a sort of cat-and-mouse game with Death himself, whose behaviour is wildly erratic. The man is mourning. His life is being trashed by this visitor. He struggles to maintain dignity. He is finally forced into standing up to this terrifying entity. The potential here for great narrative and cinematic moments is untapped. One senses that the writers and director have grabbed an idea by the tail and been unequal to the project.

Along the way we are treated to one more unbelievable movie romance. The actress works very hard to play against her lifeless partner. She forces this hasty love in the best way she can, and we are disappointed for her. She deserves better. She deserves real evil before this listless affair. Pitt the Elder would have proven game, would have charmed her, with all the worst intentions.

Hopkins plays a man of honour. But he has made a deal with Death for a few more days. That Death then wreaks havoc should be a morality tale. We should be allowed to watch in horror as the life of the good man is trampled underfoot. At the end Death will shrug and take him away, the man’s last view of life is the prospect of ruin, everything he had worked so hard for laid waste, even his beloved daughter poisoned by agency of his one weak moment.

Or even more fun would have been to free the scenario into the chaos beyond our consciousness, which can only appear evil at first contact. The divine, or the god-like, must be fearsome and terrible. It was something the ancients understood better than we have, as delicate as we have become. We’re more afraid of each other than of the powers in the shadows.

Paint a scenario. ‘Why me?’ asks Hopkins’s character. Pitt the Elder replies simply, ‘I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto me.’ Could be good. Instead we struggle through the attempt at a happy ending and turn off the TV, feeling restless.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Travelogue 647 – September 9
The Tilburg Ten
Part Three

I’m slipping back through memories. It’s a wonder we don’t lose track as we get older and collect more memories, lose track of the directions on the compass. It’s sometimes like boarding a train at an unfamiliar station and having to guess which direction the train will go. There are seats facing both ways. I’ve noticed how much people hate to face backward. I wonder why. Others don’t care. They’ll be staring at their phones the whole way, anyway.

There’s lots of time to think when you’re with family. Baby needs feeding. I’m sitting across from family at our booth at the pub in Tilburg. I’m staring out the window, studying with half my attention the light post across the street, pointedly experimental, artistic in its design, with a thick base panelled in light wood, tapering toward a pointed top and set with three huge, flaring spot lights. The wood, I notice, set against the rose-coloured brick of the building behind is perfect in colour tone. Dutch design, a product of Brabant.

I get some precious time to space out. I’m rewinding through the race, and more, through the training that fed the race. I see, as though out the train window, my long training routes, where I’ve put in hundreds of miles, up along the Schie toward Delft, along the city’s northern canal, along park paths, through the Zestienhoven Park, though the Roel Langerakpark, through the Vroesenpark, past the city zoo, past Sparta stadium. Some days have been long and slow, in summer’s humidity and some days in light, misty rains. Some days, I’ve added sections of speed, pushing.

I tell myself I could have done better.

It’s the curse of once having been young. I can still remember how easy it used to be. The memory train skips a blur of years, and another ten-mile race comes into view. I’m attending university. That was Santa Barbara. The course followed the beach. The race was a lark. I hadn’t trained very intensively.

When I first came to the university as a freshman, I had tried out for the cross country team. I’d been accepted, but I was far from qualifying for varsity. Ultimately I wasn’t serious enough, something the university coach made clear in the few disparaging remarks I earned. And then I sprained my ankle in a weekend basketball game. The coach had shrugged. That was the end of it, my career as a competitive runner.

The detail isn’t sharp as I remember the race. I don’t remember the streets. I don’t remember the water stations or mile markers. I don’t remember the finish. I don’t remember the time exactly, though I remember it was good. What I do recall is the feeling, the ease. I feel the pace, fluid and strong and natural. The miles melted away. It was exhilarating.

When I tell myself, years later, that I have to push harder, it’s this dream I’m chasing, There’s no record I need to beat. Race times are arbitrary markers in time, they are tools for training. But the emotion is there, in the exultation in the body liberated for a while from its mundane function to express free spirit, running without purpose. Racing.

I pause in my memories to taste the Belgian beer. It’s been a long time since running felt like that. I still enjoy it, but it never ceases to be work at my age. I’m never free of some drag, some fatigue, some aching joint. I do it for fun, but it’s a different sort of fun. It’s a chance to breathe the autumnal air, redolent these days with lavender, and find nature’s restless kind of peace, the sound of the wind.

But when I tell myself to push harder I’m confusing my motivations. As one ages, I suppose he must cure himself of living in multiple moments.

There are things at any age that come easily, that have the flow of a liberating mastery. I must appreciate those experiences. Maybe it’s simply the grace with which I taste and measure this beer. Maybe it’s the ease with which I admire my family.

We walk slowly back to the train station, strolling down the humble street in the humble town. My legs are sore, pleasantly sore with achievement. We find our track, climb the steps to the platform, and as we emerge we hear applause. It’s coming from across the tracks, from the platform for the train going the opposite way. There is a group of runners wearing the same medallion as I am. They are saluting me. I wave. I hold up the medallion.

I’ll be back in Brabant next month. My next race will be in Eindhoven, city of genius, for my second run of the Eindhoven Half.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Travelogue 646 – September 8
The Tilburg Ten
Part Two

After the race we walk slowly along a quiet brick street, away from the station. We’re pushing the buggy with sleeping Baby. We’re only a mile or two away from the race, on the other side of the station, and the streets are sleeping. The occasional cyclist clatters by. If we see others, they are wearing the same medallion I’m wearing around my neck.

Places like this are calming for me, the brick modesty of northern European streets. There’s history, but a humble sort of history. Beauty, and a humble sort of beauty, accommodating the budgets of aspiring bourgeois merchants and bankers and tradesmen and civil servants in the bourgeois centuries before Hitler. There is just the right pitch of variety inside the uniformity. Every construction has individuality, but the sort that doesn’t clamour for attention.

We discover an intersection, five brick roads in five directions, where a few pubs have taken over the brick sidewalks with outdoor seating. We park the buggy and find a booth inside. Baby needs feeding. Daddy needs a beer. Menna is going to teach Batu how to play Connect Four. I found the Connect Four game for one euro in a discount store. It brings back memories of Ethiopia, afternoons with the athletes as they play the game over and over, or sitting by the lake in Debre Zeit with Mark. Batu looks at the game with the same face she brings to anything new, an expression of distaste. She shakes her head in a vigorous negative. Menna insists, and they play.

I’m staring out the bar’s window. I’m thinking about the race. I did get some momentum going, despite the cold start. I held a constant pace throughout, an enjoyable pace, the kind made three-quarters of push and one of cruising. I was passing people the whole way, which is only a measure of how far back I started.

September is nearly perfect for running, the sun magnificent when it’s out, and it’s out intermittently now, after having hidden from us all morning.

The streets of Tilburg were narrow enough that I was never quite free of the crowd. Even in the final miles, we were piling up in places, channelled through bottlenecks made tighter by the cheering crowds. The people have been my favourite part of races in Brabant, the warm welcome. There’s a section in the last mile of the Tilburg Ten that leads between two banks of bars and every outdoor seat is filled with smiling patrons, and more are crowding in and cheering like we were the Tour de France. It’s hard to resist feeling exhilarated.

Friendly Brabant, all peace now. More or less an improvised district during the heady days of great Carolus, and a minor jewel in the ill-fated Middle Francia, it went on to reprise the role contrived for it in its birth, always a middle and middling place to be traded among larger powers, but still somehow retaining its first identity, Brabant, the marshy place. It becomes a duchy, and rises to prominence and wealth in the High Middle Ages. It becomes an acquisition for the Burgundians, the Hapsburgs, the Bourbons and the revolutionaries. It becomes a battleground. The most defining conflict is between the Dutch and the Spanish in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Little Brabant is unable to be saved. Like the throwaway character in disaster movies, she can’t maintain her grip, and she drops back into the sea that is despotic Spain. Spanish Flanders and Brabant don’t get a chance at independence until the great realignment after Napoleon, and even then the new nation of Belgium can only accommodate half of Brabant.

Baby needs feeding. The game is set aside. Still Papa gets some space-out time. I’m enjoying the uneventful big window. I’m enjoying the taste of the Belgian beer. Beer and frites, two of the signal contributions of the region to the world. I’m happy to be doing my part in carrying on the tradition.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Travelogue 645 – September 7
The Tilburg Ten
Part One

We miss the first train. We miss the second train. Travel with family is something I’m still getting used to. On my own, I’m ready in fifteen minutes; I arrive at the race early so I can warm up. Now I have family. I do want them there. So I become accustomed to joining in the mob of runners even as they’re surging toward the starting line, tugging off my sweats as I go. My warm-up is the first five kilometres of the race.

This is the first time Baby gets to watch her daddy run. All in all she seems underwhelmed. Riding in the buggy is soothing. She sleeps. When she wakes, she has all kinds of interesting things to look at. Sweaty daddy is the least of them.

The second train we miss by a matter of minutes, rushing into Central Station three minutes too late, just as a light rain starts to fall. We are rushing, though I know we’ve already missed the train and have a half hour. It’s the energy of the terminal hall, people crossing the cavernous space in dedicated lines. Travellers are unyielding. They are concentrated. Inside the terminal we slow, and we drift. The big hall is made dim by the showers outside. The flagstones inside the sliding doors are dark with wet tracks. We stop and we evaluate. There is a café at the top of the escalators. We have just enough time for a quick snack, though I’m wondering how much I dare burden my digestive tract. Just an apple juice, please. Okay, one small espresso, too.

The train is quiet. The journey is pleasant. Baby is dozing. Tilburg is only three stops. Past Dordrecht, the landscape is open and green. Batu enjoys watching the fields as we pass. She tells us, ‘Yamaral.’ It’s pretty. She deserves the peaceful distraction. Next week she goes into surgery.

The race is underway, and I’m assessing systems. Out of the station, we had to quickly look around for signs to the course’s starting area. We had to follow other runners. I’m among my comrades again, the congregation of weekend endurance athletes, gathered in a communion of exertion. We crowd into the pen for starters, all facing the same direction, though we can’t even see the start. Everyone is bouncing on the balls of their feet, stretching, checking watches. Very slowly, the crowd begins to move. The inflated archway over the starting line appears. The crowd is walking faster. We cross the mats where the timing system records our each chip passing over, and there is room to start jogging. I’m assessing systems, points of resistance, points of pain. I set a pace that is moderate enough to allow the body’s kinks to work themselves out and fast enough to keep me within reach of a decent finishing time.

Tilburg is a nice town. It’s quiet, quiet as a university town can be. It was once one of those centers of wool trade and craft so dear to northern Europe. But there is nothing remarkable about it. I just find myself drawn to the smaller cities lately. There is a feeling of refuge. Even the big cities in the Netherlands feel so much more peaceful than major American cities. Maybe it’s Baby’s influence. I want safe spaces.

This is the province of North Brabant, this peaceful countryside that Batu contemplates from the train, the green fields stretching between calm towns. The peace belies its stormy past. Brabant appears in history during times of empire, when the heirs of Great Carolus, Charlemagne, negotiate ways to divide lands among them. The sliver of ‘marshy land’, Pagus Bracbantensis, becomes a bargaining chip, becomes a part of the failed Middle Francia. Within a few more centuries, it will be elevated to a duchy.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Travelogue 644 – August 24
Vinyl in the Desert
Part Three

Menna and I have taken a bike ride. We have ridden into nearby Schiedam. We are resting now at the nameless bar I’ve inducted into my circle of watering holes. It’s a nice summer spot, with a terrace outside, nestled in a small sloping plaza among the buildings of old Schiedam. At the top of the slope is a narrow shopping street, dreary in its iteration of storefront windows, reminiscent of scenes in England, where streets run on in two-storey monotony. This little space opens up suddenly to one side of the shopping street, and once upon a time it was just a sweeping brick slope down to the curving alleyways below, where small houses squeeze together, shoulder to shoulder. I’ve seen photos from a hundred years ago, people standing awkwardly, the way they did for those old pictures, standing among the same buildings. There is no terrace, but an open and undeveloped space.

One of those houses is now the bar, and the slope has been excavated for the terrace. The patio sits on its disc of concrete balanced in between, a few steps up to the road, a few steps down to the bar. There are placed there the standard European outdoor table sets, with umbrellas and the fake cane chairs. Sitting there, I can see the roof and spire of Town Hall rising above the steepled roofs of the houses on their way down the slope. When I face that direction, the used bookstore is behind me. The shop occupies the bottom floor of a nice little art deco construction with curving face in yellow brick. The bookshop owner sits among his piles of books, looking uncertain. He asks what it is you’re looking for, gestures an invitation to browse. He parks carts of old paperbacks against the railing overlooking the terrace. Across the plaza from the bookstore is a nice old building, straddling the juncture of the shopping street above and the alleyways down below. There’s a drop of almost two meters from storefront on the shopping street down to the other street below. I like to study the building from the side, figuring out how they solved the drop in altitude. There’s not quite enough of a drop to add another complete floor. It’s clear that there must be a break between levels front and back, and I try to imagine where that happens. There are no telling lines among the brick of the exterior, tracing floors or stairs. It’s hard to tell from the placement of the windows on the side and the back, which seem placed rather by whimsy than by plan, small and staggered on the side, long and low in the back, making it look like a shady student flat on the alley. It’s an odd complement to the tidy children’s clothing shop in front.

I start to tell Menna about my encounter with the 70s in the morning, and by proxy, with my brother and his family in their youth. This one song, I say, it makes me think of that time. She doesn’t know the music I’m referencing. She assumes I’m frustrated by that. But I find it refreshing that someone doesn’t have the same song catalogue in her head. ‘Imagine taking a long trip, but everywhere you travel you hear Amharic. You’re in a hotel in Peru, and a man from China is speaking Amharic with the German woman. Then you notice they’re playing Aster in the hotel bar. How would you feel?’ But that’s something totally different, she says. That’s true. There is no very effective analogy to be made.

There are seats and tables placed just before the entrance of the bar. This is apparently where the regulars prefer to hang out. There are two guys passing a guitar back and forth, trading off on picking familiar rock riffs. They are both over fifty, and looking like they were once the town’s aspiring rock stars. One is tattooed and bug-eyed, glancing around conspiratorially, grinning sarcastically. He wears flared bell-bottoms with flaps sewn in in the colours of the Union Jack. The other looks like a long-haired Bill Nighy after years on Skid Row. He has the slightest soul patch, and one thin line for a moustache. He might just have woken. They start quietly spending as much time smoking and staring as they do playing the guitar. They strum quietly, without finishing more than a phrase.

The bar crowd doesn’t mind, and beer emboldens the two. They sing a few lines. A few regulars respond, adding voices. The songs are recognizable. Everyone knows at least a few of the words. Everyone but Menna. She’s enjoying, while also uncomfortable. It’s hard to say what makes her more uncomfortable, everyone singing snatches of songs she doesn’t know or the increasing volume. It’s not surprising that Menna finds white Dutch culture intimidating. They are loud and abrupt. It’s a culture of big, clumsy uncles.

‘My baby, she’s got it. I’m your Venus ….’ They’re laughing, and the guitar changes hands. The young bartender wants to showcase his opening to ‘Stairway to Heaven’. The old rock stars are supportive, give him some quiet applause, take back the guitar.

They play a familiar riff. ‘Ground control to Major Tom,’ one sings, and people are turning from the terrace to sing along. Another haunting song from the 70s. We’re lost in space, and alone.

I’m thinking again of the morning’s encounter with the 70s, time collapsing, the old hopes and sentiments discovered so close at hand. The line between two points in biography doesn’t always pass through the events separating them, but through space. Nothing has been done, no progress charted. One senses the long time again, uncompromised.

‘Here am I sitting in a tin can,’ one intrepid bar fly continues, and he gets a laugh for his efforts. Everyone knows a line or two. I’m marvelling again how unifying are the small tokens of Anglo-American pop culture. It’s wonderful. And then it’s disappointing. Sometimes I’d rather truly be set adrift in space. Maybe it’s what I wanted to say to Menna, that being American is to occasionally feel cheated of the sensation of being lost. It’s a great privilege for the traveller.