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 d├ęcor 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.