Monday, April 27, 2015

Travelogue 615 – April 27
King’s Day

‘Happy Holiday!’ I bid Jelle the barista. The café staff is overwhelmed by a mid-morning rush, and Jelle is looking grouchy. ‘Happy?’ he replies. ‘Are you happy?’

I tell him I am. I tell him I’m happy because my wife is happy. There is a King’s Day tradition called vrijmarkt, which allows the good citizens of the city to set up stalls to sell their second-hand goods in squares throughout town. We’ve been shopping early. We’ve found a few nice chachkas for the new flat. I’m happy because the rise of a bitter wind cut short our shopping expedition.

‘It’s too happy,’ Jelle complains about the holiday. He apparently finds it a bit galling. Too sentimental. Or maybe he just resents the intensity of the traffic at the café counter.

But it is a happy holiday, after all. The city center is bustling with smiling families. Many are wearing orange, carrying orange balloons, sporting orange cowboy hats and blown-up orange crowns and over-sized, plastic orange sunglasses.

The Dutch Republic, one of the earliest republics in Europe, celebrates its king. It’s an odd story, the story of the republic that chose to become a monarchy, and that in the aftermath of a long occupation by the Emperor of the French.

But the house of Oranje had always cast a long shadow over Holland, since William the Silent led the old provinces into revolt against Spain in the sixteenth century. A special place was crafted for his descendants, adapted from a medieval feudal role, called the stadtholder, and this became a sort of monarchy.

James Madison had a few words to say about the odd republic built around this collection of rebellious provinces that made up the Low Countries, held in uneasy union by the Stadtholder. It took a drunken boy on the train to remind me that the American Madison had written about Holland. But, however the drunken boy remembered Madison’s words, they weren’t approving. In his Federalist Paper No. 20, Madison described a state mired in ‘discord among the provinces,’ and even ‘imbecility in the Government’.

But it’s often forgotten that, by Madison’s writing, and pre-dating France’s spectacular revolution, the Dutch had already begun a rebellion of their own against the stale rule of the Stadtholder. This rebellion became known as the Batavian Revolution, and the rebels as the Patriots. The struggle was only resolved by the French, who marched in in 1795, and helped to declare the Batavian Republic.

The House of Oranje waited out the storm in London. When the new European order was put in place, two hundred years ago this year, the son of the old Stadtholder became the new king, Willem I, direct antecedent to the present king, Willem-Alexander.

‘Too happy,’ grouses the busy barista. Yes, it does seem as though those two hundred years have eased some of the ‘discord among the provinces’. The children wear orange and proudly they march around the café, shouting their acclaim for the republic and its king.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Travelogue 614 – April 23
What the Medicine Says

‘Read your medicine!’ he insists as he stands to exit. He has been sitting across from me since the Den Haag station, focusing his innocent blue eyes on the stranger. The drunken boy has become innocent again in his revels.

I’m returning home on the train from an evening in Den Haag, and it’s late. The trains in Holland become rather like a moving carnival, people weaving about and singing, shouting to each other in sudden camaraderie.

There are three of them, and they occupy the three seats around me with a rush of boozy air. ‘How are you, sir? Where are you from?’

I fold the newspaper and stow it. ‘Minnesota,’ I reply, and I let them struggle with that for a minute or two. They resolve this mystery in each their different way. Blue eyes just nods and repeats. The hefty boy next to me tells me he loves New York. And the third stares, and finally returns to his demand that I love Feyenoord. I tell him I’m for Sparta. I don’t tell them it’s because my new house is a few blocks from the Sparta stadium. Whatever my reason, they cheer.

‘Where are you from?’ I ask. None of them are from Rotterdam. They are from Arnhem, Breda, and Leiden. ‘Arnhem?’ I’m going to challenge the leader of the pack, the one with the innocent blue eyes. ‘That’s not even Holland. You’re German.’

‘No!’ he protests. The others laugh at him. ‘And you,’ I continue, ‘from Breda. You’re just a Belgian!’ He is the farthest gone of the three, the one who was shouting for Feyenoord. He stares at me with wide eyes that he is having trouble focusing. He will compose sputtering denials for me when he pulls himself together.

‘And here is the true Nederlander,’ I say, smacking the back of the young man from Leiden. He’s the quiet one, sitting beside me. He’s the one looking like a thug, in contrast to the others’ choir-boy-gone-bad style. Suddenly he’s soft-spoken, almost urbane. He starts to explain how his accent is so different from that of the other boys, a rather arcane claim for heritage, but I’ll listen.

Leiden is quickly drowned out by the others. No, I say, trying to shush Breda, you don’t get to root for Feyenoord. You’re closer to Eindhoven, where the local team, PSV, is in any case outperforming Feyenoord. ‘No, no, no!’ he shouts. What’s so bad about PSV? ‘I don’t like them. They’re arrogant,’ he replies. It’s what they have already said about Ajax, Amsterdam’s team. All the good teams are arrogant.

Blue eyes is going to defend Arnhem. But they have run out of time. They are getting off the train in Delft. Delft is a big university town, but somehow I don’t think this is an academic visit. Blue eyes makes one point as he goes. ‘Read medicine!’ he insists. ‘Read medicine!’


‘Your father. Your founder.’

‘Oh, Madison. My father, James Madison. …Really?’

‘He wrote about Arnhem. He loved the republic.’ And the boys are gone.

The republic of Arnhem? I’m stunned, and intrigued. How mysterious the mind of drunken college boys. I try to follow this lead, to read my medicine, but the only reference I’m able to find at this short notice is a relatively uncomplimentary essay about the Dutch republic among the Federalist Papers, written in 1787, written on the eve of the revolution in France that would destroy the republic. And no mention is made in the essay to Arnhem at all.

Well, so it goes with fathers. We cling to their spare words, exaggerating the hint of praise inside them, making them in our memory into personal encomia to share with strangers on the train.

Cheers, boys. And long live the Republic!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Travelogue 613 – April 17
The Strength of Suns

The afternoon verges on evening, and the Locus Publicus is positioned fortunately on the Oostzeedijk, its streetside window turned just the perfect degree west, so that while I sit at my table I feel its touch on my shoulder. Sometimes it seems like this might be the real narrative to my life, the thread that connects moments in the sun.

Jamie and I are talking about suns, but just for a moment. We never talk about anything for more than a moment. To do so would be a disservice to the seriousness of God’s creation. We have been discussing movies, and the films for the moment are ‘Interstellar’ and ‘Sunshine’. We have been analysing the physics in each story, the terrible power of gravity in suns dead and alive. In Interstellar, the hero must survive a descent into a black hole. In Sunshine, setting a bomb off inside the sun should save it. Each movie tries to evoke a sort of mysticism from the experience of deep space. ‘Sunshine’ was probably the more successful, weaving a scary spell around the light of the sun and gravity at close quarters.

With surprising perspicacity, Jamie and I demonstrate that the science in the films is faulty. How much more impressive is this show of intellect, I’m thinking, when neither of us has studied physics.

We move on to the coming premiere of the new Avengers film. Though we must speak about it with some reverence, Jamie does feel he must set the record straight on how the characterizations diverge from those in the comic books. And I must make sure that the pub realizes that, though the Avengers movies are fine creations, they will never measure up to anything by Christopher Nolan.

These pressing matters settled, we are free to open the beer apps on our phones, and log our choices. I have chosen British beers for the night, perhaps in tribute to Jamie, who hails from Bath, one of my favourite places on this sunny globe. Sadly, I have to assign poor marks to tonight’s choices. While I like British ales and American IPAs, it would seem that British IPAs are not going to be the right compromise.

The Locus Publicus is a bar proud of its beer selection, in the hundreds. Last time, I devoted myself to Belgian blondes and triples, and I was well pleased. The pub is small enough that they could probably line the walls with the menu in bottles. Instead, we are presented with a variety of blackboards, beers listed in a baffling sort of order that began as alphabetical, muddled by erasures and additions, new As and Bs appearing among the Ms.

Above the working area of the bar, there are scenes in ceramic tile that are very Dutch, farmyard scenes painted in a cheerful, glossy style onto large panels made of palm-sized square tiles.

The beer app has stalled, as it so often does. Jamie’s does, as well, and he tosses the phone onto the table. We are left with only the real beers. Last time we were able use the apps to research the beers, find provenance and family, find recommendations for the next round.

Sandra and Wouter show up just as we are resorting to ‘Game of Thrones’ for conversation, talk of the Imp, and so forth. Wouter is Dutch and Sandra is French, and they conduct their relationship in English. I find that amazing, and certainly a sign of the times. I’m sure that would never have been the case before, even thirty years ago. The thought of this language play makes me recommit to my language study. All sorts of wonderful things are possible in this world, all sorts of wonderful ways to misunderstand one another, and all in the name of culture. The two are a study in stereotype, Wouter laconic and literal-minded, Sandra vibrant and laughing.

Sandra tells how their first fight was over a night out, and the misconstrued meaning of ‘night out’. He took her to a pub, and she didn’t talk to him for a week.

We play guess the baby’s name. Sandra will not give up, after I have told them that we have chosen a French name. There are a lot of French names, we realize, and most of them have English cognates, which we have to explore. Finally I have to go, mystery unsolved. I won’t tell them; it feels like a jinx.

It takes longer to cycle home from city center than it used to. The sun is still up, though angling for its exit, radiant just above the horizon. I am heading more or less west, following the long curve of the River Maas, past my old neighbourhood, Delfhaven, and out toward Schiedam, aiming for the three square buildings that standing alone as road signs toward Marconiplein, the western edge of Rotterdam, where our apartment complex stands. I’m speeding along with great enthusiasm. It’s a perfect spring evening.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Travelogue 612 – April 12
A Song of Comfort

The little angel is dressed in white. Still he doesn’t mind lying full-length on the floor. He’s searching for his car under the sofa.

The little angel is dressed all in white because today is Easter in the Orthodox calendar. It’s traditional garb, silky little shirt with sash and straight-legged slacks. He somehow keeps it all clean, despite slithering across the floor. It’s a testament to his mother, no doubt, pregnant with an angel’s brother and still industrious.

His name is Rufael. He’s named after an angel. Angels are made to work, and he has a lot to accomplish today. He needs to stamp in place for a while, watching his bare feet strike the panelling of the floor. He needs to run up and down the passage outdoors and watch his shadow as he’s running. He needs to explain to guests exactly who Dusty the airplane is and what he can do. He’s got to fish the red car out from beneath the sofa.

It’s a special day. He’s in his whites. His mother has put on traditional dress, and she makes coffee for guests. People are stopping by. There is doro wot, the holiday dish in Ethiopian homes.

This is how the holiday goes. I have seen a few more than Rufael has. I know the drill. We will gather in front of the television, where Ethiopian music videos are looping. Conversation spirals round a few familiar topics: where to shop and how much to pay. There are a few new topics, such as how to treat the aches and pains of pregnancy, and what the big day, the day of delivery, will look like. Rufael is expecting a brother about the time that we are expecting our little girl. He tries to look up his mommy’s dress when they talk about his brother. Then he lifts her hair and searches into her ear. Where is he?

This little family communicates in three languages, blending them continuously, shifting mid-sentence, one language feeding the right word when the others fail. ‘Opstaan, Rufi. Na. Come here.’

All this I’m used to. The kaleidoscope of languages, the chatter, and the food. I’m used to the full and over-full feeling after the huge meal, and the sleepiness. I’m used to the collapse into sofa cushions while the coffee is being prepared. On TV, well-fed Ethiopians dance on American streets. ‘This one,’ daddy tells me. ‘He is famous now.’ This dancer and his colleagues have already appeared in a few videos this afternoon, videos for very different singers, singers from diverging styles and different generations. But there they are again, lined up and smiling on sunny American lawns. The famous one is sincerely happy. He moves with perfect assurance, sinuous and muscular. And he smiles as if he sees you. ‘Have a good holiday,’ he says with a wink.

We share a secret, don’t we, famous one? The secret must emerge cathartically, during the meal. ‘Things are getting worse.’ I have to nod in affirmation. I’ve seen it myself. Things are becoming even harder for their countrymen back home, for the countrymen of Rufael’s family, for the countrymen of the dancers. I see it more often than they do.

Daddy attempts to draw a picture of it, how, emerging from a restaurant where altogether your bill amounts to over a thousand birr, emerging after a long meal and many beers, you are confronted by a gauntlet of boys begging, boys who have not ten birr between them, boys who sleep in the streets. He tells us emphatically, urging its truth. There is a horror to it, a sentiment alloyed with shame and fear. Are we not here, a shudder of panic, are we not here at this Easter table? Touch wood. Steady oneself at the table.

Rufael doesn’t find any of this frightening. This is his home. And Rufael is his name. He will bear the name of his angel. He will carry it forward through a lifetime of stamping on floorboards, laughing about it.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Travelogue 611 – April 10
An Easter Song

From a distance, the map of the apartment compound seems to spell ‘HE’ in merged block letters. The map is printed on little tin plaques that are hung on the yellow brick walls at several corners, and in the stairwells.

We moved into a new apartment this week. It’s been a lot of work. We have no car. Until the day a friend shows up with a van, I’m carrying duffel bags on my bicycle. It’s not too far from the old place, thankfully. We have no furniture, so the great shopping spree begins. Menna is having fun.

Everything becomes the move. It’s an occupation. Other things sink into a haze of weary confusion.

I call to Ethiopia this morning. I’m talking business with Yenebeb, even though I hear the baby in the background. He says, in his mild way, ‘Okay, okay.’ And then, ‘You know today is a holiday, right?’ Oh, is that right? I had retained in a vague and detached way that Orthodox Easter was this weekend. But then there are the extras. There is Good Friday. ‘I’m sorry, Yenebeb. I can’t keep track of all these Christian … things. I’ll talk to you Tuesday.’

I’m locking the apartment door, and I’m turning to walk along the outdoor walkway encircling our courtyard. I spot the sign across the enclosed space, on the wall opposite. ‘HE.’

It’s a beautiful day for a remembered crucifixion. Spring has arrived in a glorious way, the sun breaking through and lighting the past two days as though he were thinking of summer in Spain. Spirits are high in the streets.

We love the new flat, four rooms in the top two floors of the four-storey complex. The building is a renovated beauty from 1922, a complex built as worker’s quarters. It’s a solid, modestly art deco complex of yellow brick, set with quiet squares inside with lawns and places to sit.

Ours is a sunny flat, big windows allowing sunlight in one side in the morning and in the other in the afternoon. There’s a big window in the bathroom that lights my face as I stand at the mirror. I am suddenly confronted with all that was hidden in the former flat, which was lower to the ground and full of shadows. I see the fine wrinkles that have spread across my face. I see the grey that has spread among my hair. And these are only the most flattering developments in the intervening years at old Buytewechstraat.

It occurs to me that Jesus never had this pleasure, the very refined torture applied by Time, the experience of watching oneself decay. What must it be to be whole in the moment of death? Does one protest? ‘But I am beautiful. I am strong.’

Having served some years past my prime, I wonder what a person is, what a biography is, without the losses.

But it’s a time for celebration. It’s spring, and we have moved into a new place. I turn from the mirror. I massage the muscles that ache from the continual, domestic labours, supervised by the woman of the house. She has surprising stores of energy for this undertaking, carrying baby and willing to carry more. ‘Put that down,’ I say, and then it’s on me.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Travelogue 610 – April 5
Spring Song

There’s a boy standing in the doorway of the flat. The doorway opens directly onto the pavement, some three meters of flagstone to the bike path. I’m passing on my bicycle. The sound is surprising, like a wheezing engine, like a carnival. The boy is blowing on his harmonica.

The two of turn to look, two men on bikes. The other has just started out from his own flat. He is wobbling along the flagstones. As he brings the old bikes thumping over the kerb and into the bike path, he’s laughing. He’s delivering exclamations to me. He’s telling me his father used to play harmonica. I know enough language to understand that.

It’s a day to make songs on a harmonica. The sky is clear blue, and the sun warm. This is the outcome of a blustery week with winds gusting so powerfully they stop you as you turn the corner. It was a week of dramatic clouds racing, patches of sunlight sweeping by, tantalizing in their hints of warmth.

There is no need to chase the sunlight today. It is abundant; it is free. We celebrate with our songs. A boy stands in his doorway playing chords on his harmonica. The man on his bike is laughing. He’s riding beside me now.

‘Sorry, I don’t speak much Nederlands.’ I tell him

‘Where you from, mate?’ He hunches over his handlebars. He has a raffish look to him, tousled ginger hair and his eyes a cloudy blue harbouring racing thoughts. He assures me he has been to America. ‘And I’ve lived in England for three years.’ In Plymouth, he says.

He smiles with yellow, neglected teeth, and I do think of England. ‘I worked on the Rotterdam-America line for years, mate. I’m a cook.’ He announces the latter with much pride. I admit that it sounds like fun, cooking on the trans-Atlantic cruise ship.

The bicycle is too small for him. His knees, clothed in corduroy, swing to the sides. He hangs over the handlebars. He wears a puffy jacket in colours of combat green. He pushes the pedals with flat soiled sneakers. He makes the pose look like repose, even as he pushed the reluctant little vehicle forward, in sidling lines never straight, but like the line left by slackened rope.

‘Where you from, mate?’ he may well ask. I’m not from here. What’s more, there is no here that I’m from. There was once, but I don’t feel it. Does he say ‘mate’ because he fancies himself a sailor, or because he fancies all English-speakers as portside Brits, or all of us Aussies? I do somewhere inside me bear a pocket of blood from the British Isles, but much more of me is descended from the landlocked middle of Europe and from landlocked American tribes far from the sea.

We part ways after we cross the bridge, he heading forward on the Binnenweg, and I turning to follow the Schie a ways. I have no purpose for the moment. I left the house only to cool off from a busy day. I’m cycling north, staying with the river, staying with the light.