Thursday, May 28, 2015

Travelogue 622 – May 28

I hear it again. The clinking of dishes downstairs. It’s Batu, my mother-in-law. She loves that kitchen. And she can’t sit still. Menna is drifting in and out of seep. She has such trouble sleeping these days, for the past month. She habitually spends hours in the middle of the night downstairs in the salon, doing nothing, playing games on her phone. Her stomach hurts. She has heart burn. The baby kicks.

It’s time for me to get up. I resent the kitchen noise, but I’m also grateful. Some mornings, it’s hard to get up. I see outside the window that the clouds have returned. Generally that’s the best measure of how eagerly I will rise from bed in the morning. When Holland is being grey, I will start with melancholy. Is the mind such a simple machine? Sometimes, I’m afraid it is.

Dehnadark, she says with a cheery smile as I come downstairs. Good morning. The smile works; it cheers me a little. I’m facing another day scheduled so heavily that starting feels like leaning into a yoke, feels like I’ll be pushing until bedtime. These days, the sun is shining at bedtime, too.

Menna laughed herself to sleep a night or two ago. I enjoyed that. She was replaying scenes from the day, when we introduced her mother to the city, and to the Metro. First, Batu had to master the transport card. Swipe it and then enter through the gate. The hardest thing with machines is their unforgiving nature. When the gate opens, you must enter. It does not wait; it won’t adapt to the variety of human rhythms. It opens and shuts. Batu was forced to bustle through the narrow gate with a startled look on her face.

Then we had to make it down the escalator. She paused at the top with Menna at her elbow, holding her step in fear, stutter-stepping, clutching onto Menna’s arm, thrusting toes forward and then pulling back, while a line formed behind them. She finally made a short, terrified jump, and she was on the steps. Once she was on, she faced the dismount, and again the machine would not wait. I watched Batu’s face, as she concentrated on the upcoming test. At the bottom, she made another frightened jump, and she was safe on solid ground.

A few of the people held behind her stopped to offer some encouraging words, and Batu smiled without comprehension. The underground train arrived with a rush of wind, and again we were rushing her forward. The doors would not wait. With fresh anxiety, she found herself running. Inside, we breathed again, and we laughed. The train accelerated with a rising hum, and she reached for something to hold onto. She looked at us with wide eyes.

It’s not that transportation in Addis is a picnic. Getting on the mini-buses can be a battle. But it’s a human battle, complete with shouts and elbows. The wayalas shut the van doors themselves, and make sure that everyone and all body parts are inside. There is no impersonal timing mechanism. Here, the people are gentle, and the machines are exacting. It doesn’t matter if only two people are embarking at any stop, that door will shut with the same imperative. The two people will board with the same urgency as fifty.

Batu arrived Monday, after an overnight journey from Addis Ababa. We waited for her in the arrival hall at Schiphol in Amsterdam. And we waited. She called twice, using a phone in baggage claim, the first time to tell us that her baggage was missing, the second time to allow us to talk to an airport staff person. Then we waited again. We drank coffee. We played with the camera. We laughed with a crowd waiting for the parents of a traveller, who were holding up a big, homemade banner and were cheering for everyone who emerged from the baggage claim.

The cheering family were long gone by the time Batu emerged. There was no one left to cheer for her. She emerged wide-eyed, and she pushed a cart piled high with luggage. ‘I found them,’ she said simply. It was time for embraces. We laughed as we walked out of the airport, as she told us the story of being delayed by customs. Habesha travellers regale themselves with stories of what they managed to get through customs. It’s all about the food. Often it’s confiscated. Batu had none taken. She says she looked up at the customs man as he sorted through the contents of her bags, and she said, ‘I’m Ethiopia. We’re a friendly people. We are no trouble.’ She has a sweet smile. She made him laugh.

Now she is already peacefully installed in our little flat. She likes the kitchen. That’s where all her food from Ethiopia is stored. She washes dishes. She puts dishes away. She tidies. Later she will doze in the armchair.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Travelogue 621 – May 14
The Meuse
Part Five

Renting the bicycle was a good idea. A town like Maastricht, a town of medieval proportions, yields itself readily to the tourist on a bike. I’m able to swing around the centrum and catch many sights in the arc of my ride, from the duelling Romanesque basilicas, Sint Servaas and Onze Lieve Vrouw, to the university, to old wall and battlements, and back to the River Meuse.

The rental bike rattles on the cobblestones. I weave along the middle of the lane, looking everywhere but where I’m going, quickly dodging students on their bikes. The lanes curve, and they change all the time, among trees and sudden canals, buildings rising from history, connected by the modern.

I’m back to the river, and I walk the bike up a flight of stairs to the bridge. On the other side there is a complex of modern buildings built around a spacious square. There is an outdoor café there, and I have to stop. The clientele is an international one, from the over-sized blonde Dutch women loudly reviewing paperwork, to the hilarious Australian cyclists who use the f-word with jarring regularity, to the prim Englishman in a suit, who seems proud of his accented Dutch. Across the square comes a line of students pulling suitcases, heading for the bridge. Are they returning from a vacation, enrolling in a summer session? They are so relaxed

I have one more destination. It lies south on this side of the river. I swing onto the bike seat and coast across the square toward the riverside. There is a promenade, and I coast along by the water for a while, until the promenade ends and there is a single narrow walkway still following the river. The city buildings have become progressively more bureaucratic in style, less corporate, and they are growing older, too, by the decade, not by the century. There is an island in the river, a very small one, connected to the riverbank by one slight bridge that I pass underneath. On the island there is a group of brown buildings built in a self-aware style common among international institutions, melding dignity with 80s futurism, high angles to lend scale to small structures.

This is where the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992. The treaty created the European Union and the euro. I’m the only tourist here. The European Union is not so popular these days. Elections for the European Parliament send in anti-European members. The re-elected British prime minister is promising to re-negotiate Britain's EU membership in the EU.

It’s amazing to think how quickly things developed in those days. It had only been a few years since the wall had fallen in Berlin. Helmut Kohl was on a union crusade, first uniting Germany and then Europe. Mitterand in France saw his opportunity to anchor the energy of a renewed Germany in a greater Europe. He pushed for an accelerated timeline for the united currency.

We live with the consequences of those heady times, one euro crisis after another, only enhancing the power of the German chancellor over Europe. It’s an interesting dilemma, living with the after-shocks of good intentions.

So I visit this signal place in the history of a new Europe, and I’m alone in contemplating it. Just past the island and its government buildings there is parkland along the riverbank, and a quiet trail leading south through the woods and toward Belgian border. It’s awfully tempting to steer the bike back the way I came earlier this morning, but I have to get back to the train station.

Rotterdam is still a part of the Meuse family of cities, though even the Meuse itself must be defined more loosely the closer it gets to the North sea, where the Rhine and the Scheldt mix in a general rush toward the sea, where rivers unravel like string into thread in the massive delta system. In Rotterdam, the feeling of the calm river valley has given way to the stormy clime of the sea. Green hills have given way to the flat and windy lands of the delta.

Much of the Dutch port of Rotterdam, the biggest in Europe, is called the Europoort, product of a project that predates Mr. Kohl and his union.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Travelogue 620 – May 13
The Meuse
Part Four

There’s a moving carnival set up in the square of St. Servaas. I think I recognize it from Rotterdam, particularly the ride called ‘Das Omen’ set up just below the great basilica of Sint Servaas, the ride’s imposing horror film set façade welcoming children into the ride, the trailer truck behind containing the ride or experience itself, whatever it may be. This is a much more prestigious locale than the one they occupy when they’re in Rotterdam, where they move into an open asphalt lot beside the river near Delfshaven. Every spring they come, and they block my running route by the river. Now we’ve moved into a new flat, I won’t be running by ‘Das Omen’ anymore.

There aren’t too many people around. It’s early. I’m not sure the carnival is open. The weekend is over. I’ve caught the train out of Visé, checking out of the hotel by 7am, standing on the one long platform that serves both directions, waiting with a few early birds for the train to Maastricht. At the train station in Maastricht, I’ve rented a bicycle. I’ve pedalled across the Sint Servaasbrug over the Meuse – this bridge said to be the oldest in the Netherlands -- and into the old center, up the medieval-made-modern street to the Square of Sint Servaas.

There I see the sleeping carnival, set up just under the twin towers and the curving apse Of Sint Servaas. I take a tour around the outside of the church, starting from the accompanying baptistery with a high red tower, called Sint Jan, of course, after the ‘Doper’, or the Baptist. I stare through the protective glass at the famous ‘South Portal’ of the basilica, where the archway features original sculpture from the twelfth century, kings and saints seated in mounting order toward the pointed arch above. I’ve walked along the western wall, the wall become one high brick side of a narrow way, and I’ve emerged on the north side, by the public entrance to the basilica, inside which a booth is set in the cloister and manned by a forlorn lady with a German accent, waiting to collect fees from any visitor. I debate entering, but I have a lot I want to see this morning, including the basilica’s rival church downtown, the Basiliek van Onze Lieve Vrouw, or Notre Dame if they were to speak French here, like they do only a few kilometers away. But they don’t.

They speak Dutch here, and so I feel that little bit more comfortable ordering at the cafe around the corner. I sit outside, facing the square, the square littered with carnival. It’s still a pretty square, in a pretty town.

Maastricht is a small town, but it bears itself with an imperial sauciness. It became Roman with Caesar. The city’s first bridge was a Roman project from Augustus’s time, and they say there are still a few bricks from the original in the old Servaasbrug. Much later it was an imperial city in the heart of the empire of Charlemagne and his heirs. As such, it breathes Holy Roman air, and did for a long time, even as the Middle Ages waned and its power with them. The city thrived in the fluid days of the high medieval, when cities and church, landed aristocracy and kings all played each other in a fantastically complex game of authority, before the religious wars tore the system apart and nationalism marched in. This is the time of Jan van Eyck, the painter, who was born near Maastricht, the time when artists travelled the roads between the various imperial cities, studying and vying for commissions and for court favour.

Cities like Maastricht and Bruges can still boast a lot of flair passed on from that era, when art and architecture were like plumage for the leaders of society. We still enjoy it at our leisure, in these days of cappuccinos and corporate stoicism. We look for the signs of it behind the banners of the carnival.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Travelogue 619 – May 12
The Meuse
Part Three

It’s only fifteen minutes or so on the train to Liège. I’m going to go just long enough to see more of the countryside, and to stroll around the city. It’s Sunday. I don’t expect to see much going on.

It’s a beautiful afternoon, but it is spring in a wet country and clouds are never far. As I wait on the train platform, we are beset by a quick sun shower, clouds piled up in one corner of the sky and shedding their light rains while still the sun shines. By the time the train comes the shower has passed.

The ride south alongside the Meuse is pretty as expected, but the character of the valley changes as we go. The bluffs beside the train, on the left, the eastern side, grow and crowd the track. They stand over houses that seem also to grow in stature, as though there may have once been good reason for the rich to live here. The bluffs advance, and then they recede, having spent their aggression. They ease away, and there appear brick villages that remind me again of the Upper Midwest. There’s something of the same working bourgeois sturdiness to them. The villages that pop up seem crafted in an age of industry.

And indeed, I have entered what is called the Sillon Industriel, Belgium’s historic industrial zone, the first in continental Europe, concentrated along the river valleys of the Meuse and the Ourthe, where steel and coal reigned through much of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth.

The name of the city Liège evolved somehow from the Latin Vicus Leudicus, which seems to mean something like Village of the People. It’s a city with an upstart history of rebellion, starting with an uprising against the bishop Engelbert in the fourteenth century, and the rise of a unique guild system of governance. And history carried the People on into many causes for rebellion, through the idealism of the French Revolution, the rebellion against the Dutch, resistance against the German, and finally into the era of strikes, which the French-speaking Europeans do love so tenderly. Liège came to be known, somewhere along the line, as la cité ardente.

The city is quiet today, as the train follows the Meuse into town, following the nearly ninety-degree turn toward the west that provides a panoramic introduction to the city that is pocketed in that corner of the river, among the bluffs along the east bank that form a kind of stadium effect. The train station stands there below the highest bluffs, a dramatic new construction for the modern city, high white arch and capping brim that rises over an expansive plaza fronting the station. I stroll slowly across the plaza, enjoying the open space and the view it affords of the city among the hills of the river valley.

I dive in among the narrow streets. I don’t find much. La cité ardente seems something less than ardente on this Sunday. I just stroll among its quiet avenues, looking for a sense of who it might be. I don’t get too far. It feels like a variety of other cities, like Antwerp for a minute, and like Köln for another. But decidedly French-speaking. The whole region is. The border just south of Maastricht is a real border, run across it as we may in the course of a weekend jog. It’s a border, and quite suddenly, one hears French everywhere.

I find these passages uncanny. There’s a ruthless species of beauty at play here, the concentration of language. We call borders natural. Then we call them necessary. And then there is simply the gauge of the blade that divides people. One might imagine a soft linguistic blur across such a mellow landscape, but I suppose the people have sorted themselves centuries ago. Step left here, speak Dutch. Step right, speak French. It’s funny.

The sunlight is still strong as I board the train for Visé. We’re beginning to enjoy the long days of summer. I sit by the window to watch the river go by again. Three young students of international law take the seats around mine. They have an interview coming up, it seems. They study in Masstricht. They speak in English, though none are native-born English speakers. One seems French, another Eastern European. They seem absurdly young to be interviewing to be lawyers. They discuss wardrobe. They discuss upcoming tests, how many times they have been through the text entire, studying and studying. The River Meuse slips by.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Travelogue 618 – May 11
The Meuse
Part Two

Visé is so close to the Dutch border we could run there. We do run there. In the course of our half marathon, we are able to slip across that invisible barrier and back again. There’s even a remainder of race distance to allow us to pass back through Visé and head south toward Liège. And so we get a luxurious tour of this rural section of the peaceful Meuse.

I’ve seen somewhere this river described as one of the oldest rivers in the world. That’s a rather mysterious designation, old river, prehistoric river; and a mysterious operation behind it, attaching a sticky note of time to the moving water. How does one do that? One studies the geological features of the river’s course, I suppose, and proves that water has run just this way for many, many years.

If age makes for peace and wisdom, then I might see some corroborating signs in the general amiableness of the Meuse. It makes for an unusually pleasant journey. The river valley is pretty in that gentle way that gets under your skin, proves disarming, endearing. At first, it seems not so different from the Mississippi River valley in southern Minnesota, in summer, friendly meadows stretching over low-lying hills, humble farmlands, and the occasional small town that seems both bland and inviting. But there is something unique here.

After the race, I indulge in a Belgian beer at a brasserie on the Rue College. I’m reading a book, something I just picked up a charity shop, but it’s a leisurely attempt to read, achieving no more than ten pages in an hour. Instead, I’m people watching. I think it’s only fair, since I’m being watched with such acute attention by the locals. It’s a small town, and quite evidently not used to large events in their town yet. They attach curious and assessing gazes on the strangers. When I step inside and ask the awkward young waiter if he speaks English, it inspires no few snickers from the ageing couples sitting just inside the door with their drinks. The young waiter blushes, though he does make a serious go of communicating with me. Later, when I come back to settle up, someone croaks, ‘Do you speak English?’ with a cackle, to make the young man blush again.

It’s a Sunday, and it’s a beautiful afternoon. The town is on promenade. I have sat next to a very popular old man, it seems. He waves at just about every passer-by, and they wave back. Cars slow; the drivers wave. He doesn’t miss a beat in his conversation with his plump wife. The two of them speak French. On the other side of me, two couples visit with each other, chatting effortlessly in two languages. They switch from French to Dutch with such easy fluidity that I have a hard time tracking each. That seems odd, given how different the languages are, but the Flemish variety of Dutch can have a slushier quality to it.

Friends meet, and they exchange kisses on the cheek. And that goes for men meeting men, as well. They seem genuinely content. They continue non to do some window shopping along the Rue College. I stay where I am. I study the onion dome of the building across the central square, covered in the slate grey shingles of the area. The exotic dome sits atop a building very Flemish in character, red brick framed in white stone quoins corners.

Strolling away from the brasserie, and its street of cheerful Sunday commotion, I decide I have time for a short sight-seeing trip. I head toward the small train station.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Travelogue 617 – May 10
The Meuse
Part One

By the vineyards, by the orchards. It’s noontime, and the air is thick with moisture. Not a breath to be had.

I’m nearly halfway through the distance. I’m making good time. Maybe it’s the heat. I feel a flutter in my breast, and I am having trouble accessing catching my breath. I drop the pace, just for a moment. But it’s enough. Enough both to regain my breath and also to break the rhythm I’d built toward my best time.

Maybe it’s the heat, maybe it’s just the leeftijd. Don’t forget your age, the body says. You don’t escape that, despite the exhilaration of the race. Each moment of life comes tagged with time and context, like hidden code. Yes, the body says, you have done well in adapting these muscles to the sport. And yet, there is the ageing heart. There are the lungs made tired from years of pollution in Addis Ababa, years of recurring asthmas and bronchitis.

I’m a long-distance runner. (We weave our sub-plots. We rebel against the imperatives of narrative. Diverting as they are, there is no escape.)

My readers will pardon my use of the Dutch word for age above. The mind wants to produce the funnest word for the moment. And Dutch provides many fun words, if only for the ringing sound of them, like cute, hearth-side innovations. It’s a perfect little word for age, leeftijd, a time of life. The Dutch have assembled words this way, well before the first local grammarians could have frowned at the practice, and so it is that in the twenty-first century we still communicate with words conceived from an almost childlike instinct. So it is you can listen to everyday language like a song, in any tongue, closing your eyes, setting aside all the signals of the cynicism of the age, and you hear the vestiges of a heart-breaking innocence.

So the leeftijd has its say, and I say that’s fair enough. Running is such a mental sport, I forget once in a while that the body has its part, has its price to pay for the activity. I chop up the steps, slow it down, recover equilibrium, and then resume as best I can.

By the garden, over the cobblestone. We are going to cross the river again. I can see the bobbing coloured running jerseys on the bridge ahead.

The river is the Meuse. The River Meuse runs placidly along through this pretty country, made so green by the spring. It flows placidly through the little town of Visé in Belgium. It’s a town of less than twenty thousand, small jewel of Wallonia, a place with two little avenues running parallel to the river for a mile or two, the Rue College set with quaint brick and chain retail outlets, set with bistros and brasseries. At the southern end of the rue stands the modern reconstruction of the very old church of Saint Hadelin, built first, according to tradition, from a benefice granted by a daughter of Charlemagne. Saint Hadelin had been one of a corps of missionaries converting the Belgians, not much earlier than old Charlemagne himself.

The crowd of runners is thinning out. We form a trail along the country road, leading by small orchards and past the small houses of the families who tend them. We share the road with cyclists, easing by, and with nervous motorists. We are heading north toward the Dutch border.

Friday, May 01, 2015

Travelogue 616 – May 1

Just one kilometre can make the difference. We’re further from the centrum now, and I suddenly there is more drag on the bicycle. I get up in the morning, and I don’t feel the energy to ride in as far as the central station for my first coffee. I do like starting early, and I like starting with some exercise, travelling to my espresso. But how far?

Today I try going further west, toward Schiedam, instead of east into town. Schiedam is a satellite town, the first of a series that follows the Maas toward the sea, toward the Hoek van Holland, or the Corner of Holland, that jutting lip of land that identifies the coast of South Holland.

I had never thought much of Schiedam. It’s a train stop on the way to Delft and Den Haag. But now it’s so close. It’s really only a smooth and straight ride along one bike path beside one road, passing the endless ports on the left, and quiet little blocks of flats on the other. Suddenly I’m in Schiedam Central.

It’s early, and only a few wall-eyed pubs are open, a few dazed men sitting out front with coffee. I stay on the bike, and wander among the alleyways of the town. I discover that it’s not the blank suburb I assumed it was. It has history and character, founded around the same time as Rotterdam.

I take a turn along a curving alley, laid in cobblestone and describing an arc circling around to the station, running parallel to a pretty canal. It passes church and museum, old city hall and eventually the basilica. All of these are signs of venerable age, signs of Schiedam’s success over the centuries as port on the dammed Schie, and later as center of production of sacred genever, gin of the Dutch. It becomes known as place of high windmills, only because men must build high to clear the genever distilleries and warehouses.

Still, circling all the way back to where I started, I don’t see a café. I enter the ‘Passage’, a shabby indoor mall, furnished with all manner of convenient shops. There’s a bakery but the bakery has no tables or chairs. I end up having breakfast in the cafeteria of the Hema store. Hema is a chain of department stores, perhaps analogous to Target in the U.S. My breakfast costs one euro seventy-five, and I listen to the store mix of inoffensive music, interspersed with their advertisements, always preceded by their little whistling jingle, an insidiously invasive sample that corrodes thought with surprising efficiency. I sit at one table among many, nearly all occupied at this hour, by elderly locals and working moms with their kids.

Back in my own neighbourhood, I stop at an Arab bakery. I’ve become fairly knowledgeable, and fairly quickly, about the map of these bakeries in the area. Menna and I have developed a taste for baklava, and there are many varieties to try. The Turks and Arabs are thick on the ground in Rotterdam West, and there are plenty of options to choose from. There are blocks whole and long sections of road that sound and smell like the Middle East. I stand in line with men just leaving the mosque, bearded and robed and chatting happily in some language far from Dutch. I point to my choices behind the display case so the woman in her dark head scarf can package them up for me. I will put them delicately in the backpack for transport back to the house. We’ll have a snack tonight.