Friday, May 27, 2016

Travelogue 700 – May 27
The Consulate
Part Two

We have travelled to far and exotic Brussels in order to visit the Ethiopian Embassy. The travel is tortured, requiring a transfer at two different train stations. But we arrive in time for our business. Brussels still feels like a place under siege. Military personnel patrol the train station in pairs, sporting camouflage and big guns, still trying, despite the deadly machinery slung over their shoulders, to appear like friendly public servants. Beyond that, nothing looks to be in out of the ordinary. But there is an anxious feeling in the air, a kind of dissonant note, sad and subdued. At the embassy, I glance through an article in a local magazine about the crisis of faith in the aftermath of the bombing, the sense that the identity of this world city is in pieces. The article comforts and exhorts. They will find their way again.

The embassy is cosy and casual. The Ethiopians working there are friendly and confiding, with only one Belgian national to uphold the age-old embassy tradition of chilly obstruction. The Ethiopian guard waves us in with the minimum of formalities. The Ethiopian visa officer foregoes ample cause to deny us our papers and send us away. He is a chummy sort, who enjoys being able to help.

In the back of the building sits Mr. Teklu, who is assigned to help us with our legal document. Mr. Teklu is a typical type among Ethiopian officials. He is older, reserved and dapper. He takes our paperwork with a stern look, and begins slowly poring over it. He is a careful man, careful as a lawyer. Though there can be no more than two hundred words in this document, and in Amharic script, Menna is forced to sit in Mr. Teklu’s office for two hours, enduring the frequent interruptions of a young and brash embassy officer who is handling the case of a demanding group of Dutch NGO organizers.

It’s not a large office, and whenever this young man rushes in, we have to turn in our chairs to make room. He’s dashing from shelf to shelf, pulling fat books of policy. Mr. Teklu seems bewildered by his exertions. The office is cluttered and drab. The only decoration is a huge map on the wall, which I spend some time studying. I laugh to see that the map is so old that the borders of Ethiopia are out of date.

Finally, as the time is coming precariously close for the embassy to close for lunch, and shut down all consular functions for the day, Mr. Teklu produces some comments on the text of our document. How are we going to complete this in time? Mr. Teklu helpfully pulls out his white-out. He proposes writing in the corrections with a pen. Menna is sceptical.

I tell him I have the document on a flash drive. He hesitates. He shouldn’t introduce a foreign drive onto the embassy computer. But he nods agreement, reaches for the drive. He crouches behind his computer to plug it in, and his forbidding formality begins to break down. When he sits at his desk, I tentatively stand over his shoulder in order to help. I help him find the drive and open it. And when the document appears, I help him spot the changes made. I’m now enjoying this uncharacteristically personable embassy experience. We print the document and sign. He stamps it, and we shake hands, all friends by the end of the ordeal. The friendly guard is urging Mr. Teklu to allow him to shut down, and I sense this is a familiar ritual necessary with kindly Mr. Teklu. We’re the last ones out of the building.

Outside, we are dazzled by even the meagre Belgian sunlight. We start walking down the Avenue de Tervuren, admiring the row of bourgeois residences become embassies and businesses, tidy and quiet. We’re walking toward the arch of the Jubilee Park, and we’re considering taking a walk through the park’s gardens, though we doubt we have the time.

We’re consulting a map near the Metro station when someone says hello. It’s Mr. Teklu from the embassy. He is offering his help again. Menna asks him about the subway, and he volunteers to guide us through the station, helping us buy tickets, and showing us which line we need to take to get back to the train station.

Three hours later we are seating among the outside tables of a bar in Antwerp. We should have breezed through Antwerp hours ago, but the train lines are all tangled today. We could only find a local train heading north, and it turned a half-hour journey into nearly two hours. At Antwerp, our train north has been delayed an hour. We resign ourselves to our unique fate, stranded by the rail system. Our errands in Brussels will have consumed the entire day. We call Batu to have her pick up Baby before daycare closes.

Fortunately, the sun is out. We sit at the table closest to the street, outside the shade of the patio’s canopy, catching the sun’s warmth. We are within sight of Antwerp’s grand central train station. Our friend Chuchu and his family show up. We have called them in our distress. The three year-old sits at the table and eats the remainder of our fries. The one year-old stares at me from vantage of the sling against Chuchu’s chest. We stay as long as the summer’s evening sun hangs above the roof line of the street’s shops. When it descends, we return to the station to complete our long trip.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Travelogue 699 – May 26
The Consulate
Part One

It was a day of trains, unfortunately. We were up early because we only had until 1pm to conclude our business. The consular hours are very precise.

We dressed Baby while she slept, and we dropped her off at day care, where she awoke suddenly, and cried in despair to be left behind. We hurried off, ignoring all the alarm bells that her crying triggers in our mortal parents’ nerve centres.

We bought our tickets, but the clerk told us that the next train was cancelled. We groaned with such hopelessness, the clerk started typing in a search for alternatives. We had been trying to get this business in Brussels done for so long, and always there had been a hitch. First there would be a Dutch holiday, and then an Ethiopian holiday. Then some urgent homework would come up for Menna, or some deadline in the spiralling misery of my job. This was to be the day to complete the tasks that have lain upon our conscience for months and months. And we had to travel to Brussels to do it. For, you see, there is no Ethiopian embassy in the Netherlands.

The clerk managed to patch together three trains to make up for the one cancelled, and we were on our way. It took two and a half hours to get there, and we had to catch a taxi in order to get to the embassy in time.

Brussels is a town I never see much of, passing through or stopping only briefly, and what I see doesn’t tell me much. Sometimes it looks like a poor cousin to Paris, exhibiting some of the beauty and flashes of the panache, and then at other times it has the grubby nonchalance of the darkest corners of Antwerp, where the architecture on the chaotic streets is a hopeless jumble and people mill about as though lost.

There are times Belgium feels like a failed state, poorly tended and chaotic, Belgians referring to themselves and their sagging national identity with a kind of gritty irony. From this perspective, it may be the perfect capital for a beleaguered European Union, with its porous borders and secessionist states, with its parliament paralyzed by bureaucracy and manned by delegates elected to discredit the institution.

The Ethiopian embassy is a pleasant stop, recommended for anyone who has travelled a lot and who has suffered in a number of world embassies. The building is a fine old residence on the Avenue de Tervuren, a short walk from the monumental arch of Jubilee Park, a vestige of a time of high nationalism. The nation wasn’t even one hundred years old then, and already exerting itself in the imperialistic rush on Africa. Within another generation, the Germans would launch their first of their devastating campaigns across the territory of the small nation.

Inside the humble residence, one still sees the ornamental plaster work on the high ceilings. One sees a few old tapestries on several of the walls. There are only a few rooms on the ground floor. A guard greets you at the entrance and writes your passport numbers by hand in an old ledger, and you pass into what must have been the salon, where a woman sits at a reception desk, very ready to ignore you. She’s the only Belgian national working there, and the only one with a traditional embassy attitude. There is a TV in the salon, broadcasting ETV, the most Ethiopian element to the atmosphere. In Ethiopia that broadcast is something nearly impossible to escape.

We have a few tasks to accomplish, so we separate and work with two different officers. The officer in charge of passports and visas is in the front office that opens off the salon. He is a small and jovial man, whose first response to any query is a loud complaint. “Where is your form? Where are your photos? Why didn’t you fill this out properly? Look here.’ Then he nods in confidence like a friend, and he tells you he’ll take care of it. And he does!

Friday, May 13, 2016

Travelogue 698 – May 13
Donald in Wonderland
Part Three

And so the controversy continues. Mr. Trump has secured the nomination, but not the love of his party. He meets with Republican leaders, and he succeeds in keeping his name in the papers, if nothing else. The controversy serves.

Outrage and negative publicity is like oxygen to the fire, and this candidate needs a blaze that never goes out. In starting fires, Mr. Trump had the best of mentors early in life, in his lawyer and friend Roy Cohn.

‘He once told me,’ wrote Mr. Trump, ‘that he’d spent more than two-thirds of his adult life under indictment on one charge or another.’ That has an impact on young rich boys. With his usual strangely flat affect, Mr. Trump wrote, ‘That amazed me.’ It did more. It inspired.

Mr. Cohn about himself: ‘My scare value is high. My area is controversy.’

‘I confess that I am an agitator,’ wrote Lewis Charles Levin in the nineteenth century. ‘What storms are to the atmosphere - what tempests to the ocean - the agitator is to the political world.’ The words of the first Jewish Congressman, whose political program consisted solely of persecuting Catholics.

Spectators enjoy these sorts of arsonists. They celebrate them as ‘winners’. Winning is the light and the heat. The details are left among the ashes.

Sixty-five years ago, Cohn was an ambitious young lawyer working his way up through the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan. He landed a place on the team prosecuting Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for sharing nuclear secrets with the Soviets.

While there was never much doubt about Julius Rosenberg’s guilt -- an operative for Mr. Stalin, he recruited spies and arranged the theft of secrets, -- the case became something more than the sum of its parts. Mr. Cohn crafted it into a political performance piece. There had to be symmetry. There had to be climax.

It seems Ethel Rosenberg had very little to do with the espionage. But that didn’t serve the aesthetics of the case. Mr. Cohn pressured a key witness to falsely testify against Mrs. Rosenberg – in order to protect the actions of the witness’s own wife, as it turns out, -- and make of the villains a husband and wife team. The two were convicted, and then they were sent to the electric chair. Mr. Cohn boasted later that it was his influence that had led to the death penalty.

He wasn’t even twenty-five yet, and he had reached these heights, professional and moral. He had attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover, and the great man recommended him to the junior senator from Wisconsin. It was a career begun with much light and heat, leaving people’s lives or careers among the ashes, and on it went for decades as he represented corporate overlords and Mafia bosses, always with much sound and fury.

In 1986, he was disbarred. One of the four cases against him sounded like this: ten years earlier, he had entered the hospital room of a dying multi-millionaire and forced a pen into the old man’s hand so he could sign a codicil to his will that would have made Mr. Cohn and the old man’s granddaughter executors. The signature was found by the court to be indecipherable.

‘He was no Boy Scout,’ Mr. Trump shrugs. But he was a winner.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

Travelogue 697 – May 7
Donald in Wonderland
Part Two

Europe is on the move. The people respond to sudden summer as though called to rally for the nation. Maybe it’s the spirit of Liberation Day on the 5th. They are out and mobilized. Bikes crowd the bike paths with purpose. Trams and trains are ringing with determined celebration. The massive hall of Central Station is occupied by swirling groups of summer partisans. In the cafĂ©, we stand next to three policemen with guns on their hips. It’s a reminder that the terroristas may find the weather just as exciting.

In the U.S., Mr. Trump starts up with some midsummer night’s rhetoric, conjured from mysteries and fancy. He accuses Clinton of planning to repeal the Second Amendment of the Constitution. (How does one person do that?) And he adds, ‘The government has no business dictating what types of firearms good, honest people are allowed to own.’ I’ve never applied for a gun license. I’m nervous I wouldn’t pass the ‘good and honest’ test. Is it a blood test? A colour on the tongue?

Mr. Trump is combining ideas here in a creative way. His opponent will abolish the right to bear arms, and will also restrict choice of guns for the good and the honest. I’m failing my license test: I don’t get it. Is the Second Amendment a guarantee of consumer rights? Do we need a Constitutional Amendment for every consumer item? Shall we guarantee the right to beer? I would vote for that. I will not have my choice of beers circumscribed. We can’t go back to the days of 3.2 monopoly.

It’s cases like these that mark politics as an arcane science. I will sooner understand quantum physics. I had imagined the Second Amendment as an early sign of American paranoia, perhaps more justified in the days when we were a tiny republic of farmers who had recently pissed off a powerful empire.

We survived our fragile beginnings. One might think that that would have bolstered confidence. But it seems we became more scared with every generation. When Senator McCarthy suggested we were being betrayed by Communist agents within our government and our army, the good and the honest people responded with panic.

Mr. McCarthy took charge of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. During the next two years, the subcommittee held 169 hearings. There were a shocking number of Communist agents in the government. It might have taken Mr. McCarthy three of four more terms to root them all out.

But then the mysterious properties of quantum politics interfere, and I don’t feel competent to follow the logic of it all. The subcommittee takes a detour. It becomes interested in prosecuting homosexuals, as some sort of ancillary threat. Mr. McCarthy’s chief counsel on the subcommittee is a homosexual. He doesn’t publicize the fact. Does that make it better? The chief counsel is Mr. Roy Cohn, a somewhat brutal litigator who had just participated in the Rosenberg trial.

All seems to be going swimmingly, all sorts of dangerous people paraded before the subcommittee, until Mr. Cohn decides to take on the Army. It seems Mr. Cohn and Mr. McCarthy have developed a very close relationship with one G. David Schine, pretty boy and heir to great wealth. Mr. Schine has been recruited to advise the subcommittee because he wrote a six-page pamphlet excoriating Communism. Mr. Cohn and Mr. Schine have toured Europe together for ten days, inspecting Voice of America libraries for pernicious Communist influence, one more light moment in Euro-American relations.

But there is a complication. Mr. Schine has recently joined the Army, and he is upset that he has been forced to start his military career as a private. Mr. Cohn feels his friend deserves better. He makes calls. He cajoles and threatens. He declares he’ll ‘wreck the Army’ if they don’t promote his friend. The Army eventually threatens back with legal action. Mr. McCarthy declares the Army’s accusations a scurrilous campaign motivated by Communists, and the game is on.

The Senate creates a special subcommittee to hold hearings, since Mr. McCarthy can’t chair in his own case. The proceedings are televised, and somehow the chemistry of the situation changes. Mr. McCarthy starts to lose support. He is finally acquitted of charges, but the damage is done. He has lost so much credibility that the Senate turns on him with a censure. He dies in relative obscurity only a few years later.

Mr. Cohn’s career, however, is just getting started. He goes into private practice, and he represents many wealthy clients with a singular ferocity and flair for playing the press. He carries on for several decades, leading a flamboyant and controversial public life in New York City. He never moderates his aggressive style. The one inspirational quote I can find online attributed to Mr. Cohn is, ‘Go after a man's weakness.’ Among the good and the honest he represented: mafia boss John Gotti and Donald Trump.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Travelogue 696 – May 3
Donald in Wonderland
Part One

But, hey, ho, the wind and the rain, the rain it raineth every day. Even as the sun stages its resurgence, even as Christian Ethiopes celebrate the resurrection, I’m struck down again by the same virus I’ve been fighting for weeks. And so winter stays with me, lodges in my throat and shuts down my voice, makes every swallow an ordeal.

I think my little baby girl, half Ethiopian, is my new Ethiopia. I escaped the country itself, where I was repeatedly ill. But now my Ethiopian baby brings home all the choice viruses from day care. I don’t stand a chance.

'Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate. It seems Mr. Trump has secured the nomination. He celebrated a latest string of victories with another strange speech, sounding his own quirky note of optimism, declaring about Hillary Clinton, ‘the beautiful thing is women don't like her, okay?’

It’s a form of oratory, I suppose. Or it’s a modern American innovation, an anti-matter to rhetoric. For millennia, the demagogue relied upon powers of oratory. Now it seems that nonsense and buffoonery are the demagogue’s best devices. It’s a modern twist for the religious conservatives, perhaps, a demonstration of faith. At every challenge to the candidate’s logic or sanity, the supporters flock to him with greater vehemence. He dismisses the opposition. He declares his Mexican wall will be so high, you won’t see the ground from its apex.

Mr. Trump breaks from tradition with his Wonderland rhetoric. He breaks from it with his breezy manner. The presidency is just a part of his legacy. Daddy had set it aside for him in his will, set it aside for the Donald’s seventieth birthday.

Studying, for example, Mr. Lewis Levin in the mid-nineteenth century, you see a more typical history of frustrated attempts to succeed. What sets the demagogue aside from other failures is the engine of rage that generates boundless energy. Mr. Levin created quite an oeuvre of florid rants in a burst of only a few short years. He rode the momentum of his bitterness into the House of Representatives. He almost succeeded in creating the first nativist political party to operate on a national scale.

One hundred years after Mr. Levin failed in his bid for a fourth term in Congress, the junior senator from Wisconsin rose before a women’s club in Wheeling, West Virginia, and he held high a piece of paper that he declared was a list of Communists working inside the State Department.

The senator had already served three years without distinction. He was a popular orator outside the Senate, but not a very effective legislator. He was looking for a crusade. Oddly enough an earlier attempt had shown a strange sort of nobility, participating in an investigation into charges of torture in the aftermath of World War II. Of course, the defendants were Nazis charged with a massacre of American prisoners, and the senator was already proving himself something of a headstrong sensationalist. He eventually walked out of the proceedings, accusing the Army of a whitewash. Within a year, he had struck gold with his next crusade, holding high that list of alleged Communists.

Four years later, Joseph McCarthy had another go at the Army.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Travelogue 695 – May 1
May Comes

It’s the first of May, and just like that everything looks like May. The skies are clear. People are taking their coffees outside in the sun, even though the morning air is still chilly.

It’s also Ethiopian Easter today, something I might have forgotten were it not for the mass of people in white shawls at Central Station this morning. Most of the celebrants will be Eritrean, rather than Ethiopian, something I can confirm passing near to them and listening to the throaty accents of the Tigrinya language.

I find it an uplifting sight, this sudden evocation of the horn of Africa. I have no memory for holidays, so they always come as a surprise. Today’s surprise is a sunny one, the white shawls in the new light like spring inside spring. There’s something so joyful about Ethiopian and Eritrean celebrations. They have brought us the sun.

The last week of April was a challenge. We were plunged back into winter for a week, and it was more of a test than the darkest days of January. I have a race coming up, and last Tuesday was going to be my last long run in preparation. I knew I was taking a risk. The weather had been awful, but there was no point delaying. The weather was projected to be awful all week. I checked out the window. There were breaks in the clouds. There was no rain falling. I would take my chances.

I was only twenty minutes into the run when the rain started. Chasing the rain was an icy wind. By the time I’d been running thirty minutes, the rain was coming in at a forty-five-degree angle. My face and hands were raw from the cold. The clouds were a solid bank of grey, and there was little hope of a break. I needed to put in another hour of running. I headed toward the Zestienhoven Park. My only hope was the refuge of some high trees.

The strategy worked. I made it to the park, and I followed the sheltered trails there for most of the next hour. I circled a field of green grass, and I wound through the woods of the park, re-emerging by the field of grass. I turned slowly again around the rectangular meadow, so quiet but for the patter of rain.

I kept this up under the gloomy skies, sheltered from the worst of the wind, until finally it seemed as though the rainstorm took a breath. The clouds were allowing some light. I could see that the grey mist was lifting, allowing the high clouds to take shape. This was a sign that the rain was going to relent. I was soaked. My shoes were heavy with water. My hands were frozen. It was just about time to head home.

I was thinking about the people who, for hundreds of years, have ventured out into the cold here. I was thinking about how it feels to age, even as the elements themselves never aged. I was thinking this conflict must be bred into us, hard-wired into our genetic code by now. The winds never became tired. They were fresh every season, even as each of us humans slowed and bowed. The enthusiasms that drove us out into the weather faded.

We’re made to see life as a struggle. We import it to our modern stories, the ones told behind the strong walls we built to break the wind.

I had earned my stripes. My body ached as I eased into my final steps, entering the compound where I lived. I was eager to get inside, get warm. But I paused to stretch, breathing in the last punishing draughts of the chilly afternoon, walking among the puddles, feeling the mix of sweat and rain water on my skin.