Friday, July 31, 2015

Travelogue 637 – July 31
Summer Reading

‘Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier, …’

It’s the last day of July. I have to remind myself it’s summer. It feels as though autumn began weeks ago. But no, it’s summer by the calendar.

The calendar says it’s Menna’s birthday. Baby seems to know. She’s in a good mood. She gets all limbs pumping, and she’s laughing. She’s making new sounds, a kind of gurgling dialogue. She looks at us, and she says. ‘Aaa-ooo.’ Since she’s half Ethiopian, we can call that her first word. ‘Ow’ is Yes in Amharic.

I’m leaving in a few days for Ethiopia. It will be my first trip away from Baby. I’m feeling the heartache of separation already.

I think instead about which books to pack. My summer reading has been diverse, from the frivolous to the serious, from mysteries to Hunter S. Thompson to biography. I’ve been reading about great politicians of the nineteenth century. That’s my idea of summer fun. First there was Bismarck. Now I’m reading about Gladstone and Disraeli, duelling British prime ministers in mid and late nineteenth century.

For the sake of expediency, I’ve chosen biographies written more for popular consumption, the kind in which authors veer suddenly away from the defining work of their subjects in favour of family gossip, Victorian celebrities, Victorian lifestyles, or Victorian sex. I learn more about their summer houses than their policies. I’d rather read about the policy. Perhaps that only reveals how sedate I’ve become. The drama I want is the parliamentary kind. Of course, Parliament in the nineteenth century was no placid tea party. Debates were fierce.

I’m coasting downhill on my bike, down the far side of the big bridge over the little River Schie, and I’m feeling the sting of the early morning chill. The calendar says summer, so I stubbornly dress in shorts. The weather of the day is written across the sky, a scrolling in vast circles of condensation, written in a generous looping hand, sets inside sets of clouds rolling across the sky still blue behind. The wind is in my face at once, at my back next. Seagulls are calling. It’s their kind of weather.

My backpack has all sorts of work inside. The important piece of cargo is, of course, the little computer, indispensable index of personal knowledge. I’ll set it up at the café, and I’ll devote a few of the day’s first hours to work. I also have space for the odd book and notebook. I have my dictionary, Nederlands-Engels. I will set ten minutes aside to browse the day’s paper, deciphering bits of text in the language of my hosts. It’s a good practice, good for the heart.

I wonder whether it’s all the fault of the authors that policy seems so shadowy and elusive. I realize how full career perspectives of the great politicians can be confusing. It seems the game is a steady renegotiation of position. The great coup of a parliamentary politician may consist of nothing more than choosing the right moment to surrender … and making a great speech about it.

Still, one theme does emerge. Parliament is battling over free trade. The nineteenth century sees the broad transition from economies based on ownership of land and protectionism to industry and trade. The great ministerial proponents of free trade, Robert Peel and William Gladstone, between them an influence on most of the period between Waterloo and the First World War, were both sons of the new order. Peel’s father was a textile manufacturer, and Gladstone’s a wealthy merchant and slave trader. They set an agenda that should be familiar to us in these days of austerity: cut taxes, cut budgets, cut tariffs.

Among those scarce strong oaks of policy, the politics sway like reeds in the wind. Members of Parliament reluctantly debate the ‘Eastern Question’, the insoluble issues of the grasping Russian Empire, the decaying Turkish one, and the Balkans in between; the nagging ‘Eastern Question’ that would ultimately drag the whole nineteenth century system down, like a tangling string caught in the machine and eventually choking it. In response to every crisis, the politicians improvise. Sometimes it’s treaties; sometimes it’s war. The solutions conform to the policy fashions of the moment, and are forwarded as bargaining chips in larger debates. I will trade you one punitive expedition against the Russians for one …

I’ve had my coffee. I trade the computer for the newspaper. One the cover is a story about Russia. It takes some labour, but the sentences do pull together. Dutch syntax is absurdly obscure, but there is a logic to it. And that’s the wonderful things about language. It has logic quite independently from the content of its sentences.

The Russian delegate to the U.N. rather dully votes Nay. The press captures his image. The story can describe but it can’t explain.

‘Ow,’ says Baby when I return home. And ‘Ow,’ I reply. It’s always Yes with my baby if it wins me a little smile.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Travelogue 636 – July 30
Summer Politics

‘How now, spirit! whither wander you?’ says Puck.

The headlines this morning in Holland are all about Russia. One paper has the photo of the Russian delegate voting in the U.N., raising his hand to say ‘Nyet’. Despite convincing evidence that pro-Russian troops in the Ukraine shot down a passenger flight over the Ukraine last summer, the Russians vote against renewing the investigation. The flight originated in Amsterdam, and many Dutch nationals died in the crash. The Russians say a UN tribunal would be ‘premature’ and ‘counter-productive’. Mr. Putin has never had the lightest touch.

It is still midsummer, though it can be hard to tell here in Holland. It’s become a summer of caprice. In the morning, the clouds are high and dramatic. Temperatures are below fifteen C, and the air is autumn fresh. Some time mid-morning, the winds pick up. There is a dark shower, sweeping in quickly, tapering off. The rains clouds are cleared out quickly by the gusting winds. The rest of the day is uncertain. You look to the sky a lot, always gauging. You are sure to get wet if you’re outside, but it is impossible to predict when. If your mood responds to the weather, then the day is a bit of a carousel.

Politics is a funny merry-go-round. It’s timing over substance. I imagine one gets into politics for the substance, and then becomes hypnotized by the complex dance of opportunity. Everyone manoeuvring for a moment’s primacy. One dreams up long sequences of cause and effect, all to catalyse the cherished moment. One imagines the intense satisfaction.

The Russians blame the Ukrainians, laying it at their door like a threat. The families of nearly three hundred mourn. Who takes aim at a passenger plane, one wonders?

Every so often, the clouds capture my complete attention. I stop and turn, to take in the whole sky. The clouds are an inspiration. They say to me there are bigger things in Nature. When we enter the sky, the daily affairs of humanity become small, shrink away, like the landing strip when we take off.

I want to write a story for Baby. The sky has everything in it. It has rain for the green things and sun for the lizards. It has wind for the birds, and it has clouds for the dreamers. There is lightning for people who need kings. And at night, there’s the bright moon for Baby, like a mirror. Every day is a show.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Travelogue 635 – July 20
Midsummer Dream

So we’ve taken a seat at the prow of the ship, the ship that is the Wilhelmina Pier in Rotterdam, where the jetty juts out into the river in the direction that the sun, still high, will eventually set. We sit on the patio of the New York Hotel, once headquarters to a shipping company, and gaze out over the afternoon light playing on the river waters. I have brought my group of Ethiopians here, even the half-Ethiopian who sleeps in her buggy, peacefully sleeps, her arms thrown back in her preferred position for abandoned sleep. Baby abandons herself to sleep. With what other spirit can a baby face the new world? It all must be arms outstretched.

Tati has introduced the city to her mother as ‘real Europe’. We quietly contemplate that now. We are tired from the day’s long tour. All around us is water. The buildings of downtown stand across the river, symbols of modernity. They might be abandoned. What else could we do in the light of our new world?

It’s a bright day, weather perfect. I’m reminded of a previous visit to the New York Hotel, in which I so briefly sketched out the history of Holland for the ladies. Napoleon joined arms with Willem the Silent, and they marched forward, leading toward the future with gestures high over their heads.

The blue of the sky seems almost miraculous. Sunny days in this part of the world are absurdly cheerful. They stimulate some lobe of the human brain to a giddiness like a flavour in Belgian ales. My Ethiopians are immune. They turn away from the sun, facing into all the European faces turned toward it. In southern climes, the sun is something different, power and majesty. Could we imagine a Belgian Moses, a Solomon born in Elsinore? Conversely, how do you explain ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ to a classroom of undergraduates in Ethiopia?

Baby is rarely silent. Even while she sleeps she emits a sighing song with her breath. Sometimes she smiles with a dream. Sometimes she moves her lips, mouthing a bit of dialogue. We are all just ‘mechanicals’, she says, meeting in the woods to rehearse. ‘We will meet;’ says Bottom, ‘and there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously. Take pains; be perfect: adieu.’

I’m feeling a right Bottom myself this summer. ‘Let me play the lion too: I will roar!’ I try it all, with summer giddiness, and like the fool of the play, I fail but fail in delightful ways.

The smoke alarm in our apartment needs a new battery. It trills with a double tones every few minutes, and it has been doing that for days. It sounds alarum, and we let it go. We become used to it. It becomes a part of our thoughts. ‘Beep-beep,’ say the fairies in Baby’s dreams. ‘Beep-beep.’ She chuckles, and she tries to whisper a spell. The fairies form a circle in the moonlight.

I’ve been thinking that there is a shadow of medievalism persisting in the psyche of the northern Europeans. The Romantics believed it. The Nazis did, too. They play with Masonic signs, they leave bread crumbs for fairies. When summer approaches there are still the May pole rituals. The best things come in fits of madness.

The time has come for Tati and her mother to make their way back to the Central Station, catch the train home. It’s with some regret that I pay up and get ready to leave. The sun over the river is too sweet a vision. It’s like a view into wordless revelation. It imparts evaporating wisdom, and makes us thirsty.

We say good-bye to the Ethiopians. It’s supposed to rain this week.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Travelogue 634 – July 19
The Real Thing

‘This is the real Europe,’ she keeps saying. Tati’s mother leaves home for Ethiopia next week. She takes her mother on one more little trip before she has to go. She brings her to Rotterdam to visit us for a day. She wants her mother to see ‘real Europe’, and apparently we have a piece of it here.

Tati’s mother is very nice. She is gracious. And she has adapted well to Europe, judging by her breezy summer clothing. I don’t see the usual Ethiopian reserve in clothing. She is comfortable in the loose fitting summer pastels. I ask her how she’s enjoying her trip as we take the tram toward the house, but she doesn’t speak English. She smiles and waits for the translation.

Tati points out the architecture of Rotterdam. She wants her mother to see the highest buildings. This is Europe. I’m not sure what her agenda is. I would have framed it all quite the opposite, if, for example, I were taking one of my compatriots to her town, Antwerpen in Belgium. Here you see the real Europe, I might have said, gesturing generously toward the architecture, King Leopold’s legacy along the avenues near the classic train station, and to the medieval houses gathered around the cathedral and the beautiful Stadhius.

How do our needs diverge, as we look for a frame of reference? We are two alien residents in Europe, coming from far away. She needs to show visitors a place rich and modern. I need to show visitors a place old and still living with its long history. Is it as simple as the contrast between Ethiopia in its rush toward the future and America, suffering from its own long, mad rush toward the future? Future as hope, future as product?

Ethiopia is an ‘emerging’ culture, ‘emerging’ market in just about every sense. The Ethiopians ‘emerge’ everywhere in the world, wonder and hope in their faces. And at home, growth and opportunity are bywords. Politically, the forces at play seem simple enough, essentialist in nature, repression versus democracy, freedom versus authority.

I accommodate Tati’s agenda. After some coffee at home, served in the ancient jebena, we set out to find a real Europe; that is, a city of gleaming, high buildings, a city of business. But there’s no reason we can’t see it from a pretty angle. I take everyone down to the riverfront. We start at Blaak, where the reconstruction of Rotterdam began, renewal embodied in those block houses that have become a symbol of the town. We walked over the canals of the Wijnhaven and to the River Maas. For the stretch of half a kilometre or so we get the face of a successful city, high buildings and the promenade. The flags of the world line the avenue by the river, and we look for Ethiopia’s. Across the river is the Noordereiland, long and narrow island presenting the faces of a more historical town, a line of traditional Dutch house and shop fronts.

We’re crossing the Erasmus Bridge together, and it’s one of those summer days again, in which the sky seems to aspire to something beautiful. The sun is generous host to clean clouds. The wind off the sea is mild. The river is wide and sparkling. We stop for many photos. On the other side is the Wilhelmina pier, site of vital burst of city renewal. Our destination is at the end of the pier, the piece of history among signs of Tati’s ‘real Europe,’ hundred year-old vestige of the cargo and cruise shipping line to America.

Tati is entranced by the KPN Tower on the other side of the bridge, a high building with one side leaning forward like a book cover and held in place by one support that is little more than a blank pole. This side of the building is divided into a grid that could be a game board. There are knobs there that are also lights.

Batu, my mother-in-law, seems unmoved by the architecture. She is having fun, if only because of the company of Ethiopians. She stops for photos. Batu has aged well; she is till pretty. She isn’t so easy with new fashions as Tati’s mother. She is dressed well, but dressed in the mould of most ‘modern’ Ethiopian women her age, meaning she has graduated from traditional Ethiopian cotton gabis, but not ventured much beyond the conservative sense of half a century ago.

Our destination is the New York Hotel, of course. Menna and Batu enjoy this spot at the end of the pier, where one feels as though one might be at the prow of a ship facing into the river, moving toward the sea.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Travelogue 633 – July 11
Twelve Years

It’s Zaterdag, and the weather is nice enough. But the day seems flattened. The cause is anxiety. Today I have yet another operation scheduled for my mouth. I have to get another root canal. I’m keenly aware of the Dutch macho sensibility about matters of medicine. Don’t hide from the pain. And this is what anxiety does to the weather. It places one big, flat palm against each end of each dimension, and it squeezes. Three dimensions squished. There’s no room to breathe. The colours of the world are condensed and robbed of value.

Despair and depression do the same thing. I recall the days after Leeza died. The world was like a slab of cloudy glass. The sky was pressing against my shoulders. The pavement kept rising toward me. Every direction was uphill. This state lasted a long time.

It’s twelve years today since Leeza passed away, meeting up with her event, the fatal accident, the event that god-sized hands pass back and forth, fingers turning it as though to decode. One clean dozen years, a round and decodable number, since the innocent met her Fate and met circumstance, one clean incidence of violence. She was gone.

I have been left to wonder where she went. I have been left to wonder what my role was in the event. I helped her choose that car, the space in which she died. As she drove, I waited at her destination. I am a part of the magnetic field, destination to departure. Was I the unstable pole in that field? Was I the malignant influence?

A dozen years later, Baby stirs. It’s time to eat. You can see that hunger is a sensation that dawns on her like a fresh discovery each time. She is lying on her back, on a blanket on top of the bed. I am enjoying some time with her, just watching her, mercurial Baby. The moments overtake her, one by one, each with its restless energy and restless mood.

She has been looking, the way she does, into some fascinating space, toward the window or just up into a corner of the ceiling. She occasionally kicks, swings an arm around. She works her mouth, mood after mood. Then a shadow crosses her face. She starts to fret. Her feet kick with more urgency. She pumps her fists above her. She opens her mouth to bawl. She looks up into my eyes in mounting distress.

This is the way the future moves for her. It is upon her, and it is urgent. Anxiety has no dexterity in the fingers yet. The past gathers, a drop at a time, like dark coffee, dark and undecipherable. We don’t know what kind of impurities are gathering there, among the grounds of coffee, like particles of indigestible sand.

There’s nothing to be done. I must meet up with that event. I must show up at the dentist’s office at my appointed hour. He is prompt, this grim-faced man with overgrown grey eyebrows. He slouches inside his ill-fitting white uniform. His eyes meet mine in that unflinching way of the Dutch that seems calculated, impertinent, but is a variety of friendliness.

My fears are justified. The dentist says little, dives in. He cracks my jaw open like the recalcitrant rind of a melon, and he jabs my gums viciously with shots of novocaine. He counts off no beats to allow the shots to take effect; he reaches directly for the drill. I am kicking. My hands grip the armrests. All told, the root canal is accomplished in fifteen minutes. I am led out of the operating room before the tears are dry, and led to the payment line. I have to sit a while in the waiting room to recover. I am overcome with pain, more pain than I walked in with.

I was never completely sold on the diagnosis. It was another dentist who made the call on my last visit. He was a young guy, full fashion beard and eyes that questioned while they declared. He pointed to the shadows on the x-ray, saying there was a big hole there, see? And it was too close to the nerve. It’s time the dying nerve must go. We will excavate that nerve, shut it down forever. All right then, let’s set your appointment.

I have little choice, in the end, but to accede to the will of the experts, spokesmen for Necessity. This is the pain that I must commit to.

I’ve taken my pain pills. I can make it to the tram now, make it home. The sunny day is beset by weather of another sort. The substance of the day contracts, drawing everything closer. The tenderness registers everything.

Monday, July 06, 2015

Travelogue 632 – July 6
The Tour de France
Part Two

I expected more people – and indeed, I hear later that roughly a third of the Dutch population ventured out to see the passing Tour, -- but I suppose that’s the beauty of a three-thousand-kilometer course: there will always be plenty of room for spectators. There is a crowd strung along both sides of the road, but no one has to fight to get to the kerb. We are checking our watches. We are dealing with professionals here: they will be right on time, machines in human form, fighting the winds, the heat, the wearying dance of thousands of fans.

I’m surprised to discover that the entourage may be one of the funnest aspects of the Tour. They start flying by a good ten minutes before the cyclists arrive, press vans and motorcycles, police and black cars marked ‘Gendarmerie’, and the fleet team cars with stacks of bikes on top, all racing by with an urgency that is comic and exciting, a kind of celebration. They sounds their horns. We cheer. The most entertaining of the lot are the press cameramen, riding in pairs on their motorcycles. They are like circus clowns, speeding, weaving, circling the peloton, watching for the space to insinuate themselves into the action.

And then the cyclists are upon us. There is one alone. Then there are three together. These have broken away from the peloton, pursuing some obscure team strategy. We all roar for them. There’s a pause, and then the great peloton is upon us, like a Dutch wind unto itself, almost two hundred riders in one tight formation streaming by. I had placed myself among the spectators on the inside curve of the road, thinking there would be an advantage. I might see them coming, with a good view of a half mile of road. But the crowd obscures any preview, and when they are upon us, I realize my mistake, stepping back quickly. The cyclists will use every square centimetre of asphalt, and they are leaning into the curve. We have to make way or get hit.

And they are gone. The crowd stands stunned a few moments, more team cars passing, more police. And they we disperse, cheered by this show of bravura, our lethargy expiated by their intensity. There is a rain coming. I’m actually feeling chilled as I bike away among the many others. Hobby cyclists have gathered by the hundred, in their gaudy gear. They shout to each other and laugh, and they set off with some arcane purpose in mind. They will celebrate with some kilometers of their own, I suspect, heartened by their heroes.

Myself, I am inspired to order an ale at the British pub by the station where an intrepid crowd of non-athletes has gathered to watch the balance of the stage. The cameras of our boys on their motorbikes are now blurred by rain. Above, the press copters take panoramic shots of the flat countryside and we see the sheets of summer rain falling at a slant across the countryside. The green and yellow terrain is divided into farms. There is a thin ribbon of road crossing it at an angle. The camera zooms and we see the brave convoy. We see the small dark masses that are cars and vans. We see the hunched little bees that are out boys on motorbikes, buzzing forward and back. And there, the delicate outlines of the bicycles, strung out in diagonals in their wind formations, wheels and frames just filigree in a finely etched landscape, and in the distance the pewter stretches of the sea, quiet from such a height, but still overwhelming in its surfeit of space and perspective. The copter cam zooms; we sense the movement now, the velocity that was lost among the hectares of land.

With only twenty kilometres or so left, the cameras struggle suddenly with an access of sunlight. The pictures wash into white, and the press men adjust their lenses on the run. The cyclists come into focus again. The puddles in the road flash with summer light. The racers show no sign they notice the caprice of Nature. They pass through small seaside towns, swinging around either side of traffic circles and pushing on, individuals trading positions inside the several attenuated pelotons, creating as they do a kind of whimsical rotation among themselves, stringing colours as though in one long banner snapping in the wind, changing as it flies.

The boys on their motorbikes train their sights on the famous athletes, following them with intensity, even as the athletes themselves have sunk deeply into their concentration, having tuned out the carnival around them, always new crowds shouting by the side of the road, always the hornet-like persistence of the motorcycles, flying forward, falling back, dodging each other and the cars with unflagging enthusiasm.

At the end, in the final stretches of road, as the long bridge that carries them toward the tiny manmade island, whimsical in itself, as they pass over the churning waters that join the sea, the day’s leaders, the specialists in speed, will break into a crazed sprint, manhandling the bikes, swinging them left and right in a push for consummation. Silently, the finish line has appeared, giving us no warning, and all we see is the frenzied dash. Four of them are vying for the day’s glory, and they cross the line together, their places determined by a difference of only centimeters. The rest coast across the line in their groups, showing remarkable tranquillity and cordiality as they roll en masse across the line. There’s an element of philosophy to the Tour, I suppose, because the team interests balance the individual, because everyone has their day – the sprinters, the climbers, the indefatigable endurance runners.

I’ve turned in a fair performance at the bar, putting away a full pint of expensive British ale. I’m satisfied I’ve done my part. Tomorrow the boys will be back at it, attacking the roads of Belgium. I’ll have to leave them to it, following when I can online. The sun will return. Batu will pace. Summer will resume, stirring summer ambitions. People will rediscover each their own contests when they wake. The Greeks and the Germans will shout. Doubtless there will be an excuse for a bomb somewhere in the world. And I’ll get on my bike, if the rain allows, to log a few more slow miles going somewhere important.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Travelogue 631 – July 5
The Tour de France
Part One

The restless ambition of humanity continues apace, despite the summer heat. Baby howls, while Batu paces back and forth, murmuring, ‘Mukat, mukat.’ It’s hot, it’s hot, she says, over and over, as though in a weary trance. I try to taint her. You’re from Africa. How can you complain about the heat? But suddenly her English is at the ready. ‘No, Ethiopia is moderate in climate,’ she chides me. ‘Oh,’ she groans, and she returns to pacing, ‘Mukat, mukat.’

The day reveals its ambitions. I may struggle just to swing my legs out of bed, will wilted in the heat of the early morning; I may have trouble attaching one word to another in my thoughts – they drift like the lily pads in the sun-blasted canals; -- but in Greece, the people are taking to the blistering streets to campaign against austerity and the oppressive regime of the euro. They are ready to thumb their noses at Merkel and her coterie of bankers, no matter the amplitude of the Greek sun.

And in nearby Utrecht, a few hundred athletes start into one of the more gruelling of athletic contests of the year, the Tour de France. They begin with time trials, some sprints to warm up for the three weeks and the three and a half thousand kilometers of territory they will be covering on their little metal steeds, crowding each other the whole way. It has become custom recently for the Tour to start outside of France, and this year, they have chosen cycling-crazy Netherlands. Today, they will set out from Utrecht and cycle all the way to Zeeland on the North Sea.

It’s afternoon. Unexpectedly the day has turned, the accumulated heat collapsing in on itself. There is a sudden wind, and the clouds gather. The riders have set out from Utrecht already. They are on their way to Rotterdam. I have set up in a café not far from their route through town, in case I felt the stirrings of an ambition to move my heavy limbs. I would like to show my support.

I’ve been sweating through my portfolio of Sunday work, sedentary myself but making my little computer burn. Then the winds start. I think of the cyclists wending their way toward us across the flat terrain of old Holland, suddenly set upon by these winds. The Dutch windmills turn, and the pedals turn faster. I decide then – assisted by the quickly falling temperatures – that the boys need me. I start packing up.

The second stage of the Tour leads the cyclists right through the city center, leading them into town by the Erasmus University campus and directly to the side of the River Maas. They will race alongside the river to the middle of town, and then they will be diverted for a quick sprint by the Stadhuis and around the fountain at the Hofplein. Then back to the river, and across it on the pretty Erasmus Bridge. From there, they occupy themselves with escaping Rotterdam and heading for the sea. They will finish about an hour and a half later, on a small island in the middle of one of the windblown deltas that eat away at the southeastern corner of the country.

I’ve been hanging out on the eastern side of the city center. I only have to ride my bike a few blocks south to arrive at the river, and at the route of the Tour.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Travelogue 630 – July 2
The Velocipede

I wake, and it seems like the air has not moved all night. The sun has risen above the apartment buildings outside our eastern windows, and it lays a heavy hand on my bare back. Every movement requires an effort. The muscles in my legs and arms feel as though they have liquefied. It’s not even 6:30 yet.

I roll out of bed, and I start collecting the parts of myself, the bits of the workaday self. The clock ticks. I am desperate to get to the front door, if only to access fresh air. Outside, the sky is clear. There is just enough of a temperature differential to fuel the momentum, get me downstairs.

The bicycle is a blessing. With a few lazy turns of the pedals, I have a breeze. I am in no hurry. I make the slowest of starts, setting out along the narrow brick lane outside the building’s gates. The lane runs alongside a small canal with verges of grass. The ducks know better than to stir. They rest among their families in the grass.

When Baby is sick in the tummy, they say we can help her with some gentle bicycle motion. Take her little feet, and turn them slowly. She seems to like it. The machine that is less than two hundred years old was already in our bodies.

I’ve joined the big road that crosses the Schie by Sparta Stadium. There is more traffic here. People are awake, alert, and moving. I’m surprised by the ambition with which some cyclists are attacking the long incline toward the bridge. Where do they find this energy?

The first bicycles were called velocipedes. It was the nineteenth century, and technical innovations were like parlour tricks. Behold the velocipede. It sounds to me like a creature from Jurassic Park, maybe something with many rows of legs rather than only two wheels. But the name was catchy enough to eclipse the more prosaic term ‘bicycle’ for decades. Perhaps it’s right that the precursor to the velocipede was the ‘dandy horse’. The latter contraption looked more like a modern bicycle than the typical velocipede, two wheels of equal size, bar across the top, etc. The velocipede evolved toward the elegant but awkward beast with oversized front wheel. The dandy horse was little more than a sit-down push scooter, which you propelled by running.

Interestingly the dandy horse was dreamed up two hundred years ago next year by a German baron and inventor, who came up with the machine as a response to a crop failure that was starving his horses. Later, Mr. Drais also invented the first typewriter with a keyboard. Later still, he had his title stripped from him because he had declared himself ‘Citizen Drais’ during the excitement of the revolutionary days of 1848. He died penniless a few years later. So much for the ambition of the first cyclist.

I’m over the high point of the bridge and coasting downhill. It feels great, one of the joys of two wheels in the open air. This kind of easy speed is why I will always stick to skinny tires.

It didn’t take too long after chain and pedals were added to the machine before people wanted to race. The Tour de France was launched in 1903 as an innovation to sell newspapers. It was only an innovation in scale. Races had been popular for decades. The ploy was successful, sold a lot of papers. But it was a logistical nightmare and an absolute danger to its participants. The newspaper’s editor wanted to give it up after the second year.

This year, the Tour begins in the Netherlands, starting in Utrecht, and riding through Rotterdam on its second day, on Sunday. Still coasting on the bike, milking every bit of momentum, I can’t imagine the ambition. In this heat, even getting up and out to watch the race seems a challenge. But I will try.