Thursday, August 25, 2016

Travelogue 713 – August 25
We Do Make It After All

I’ll remember this week through the autumn. I’ll remember the heat, almost overwhelming. I’ll remember the stars at night. The sky has been clear for days on end. I’m surprised to see the stars. It’s like unexpectedly encountering people you had forgotten about. You don’t know what to say. You are swept into the feelings of being a younger person. You are swept into memories of another place. Like Ethiopia.

It was almost too hot to go to the beach. But when the summer gives us one more opportunity, so late in the season, we feel it would be wrong to refuse. Troy is in town. Baby needs to see the sea. She was only a month or two old the last time she did.

It’s no easy trip. It’s one of the last weekends of the summer. The Metro to Schiedam is crowded. The train to Den Haag is so crowded we have to stand. The tram to Scheveningen doesn’t run as normal. We have to disembark halfway and board a hot and stuffy bus. People are politely allowing Menna to sit, thankfully.

And then we are crossing the hot sand. We sit, and we spread ourselves out. In the glare of the white sand, it’s the kind of heat that makes you apprehensive. It weighs on you like it might have mass. It constricts and oppresses. Baby starts fretting. She doesn’t like the sand. She recoils from it, and she cries. She protests against the sun tan lotion. We wrestle with the umbrellas, angling them for most shade.

When we are finally able to lie back and enjoy, the effort becomes worthwhile. The sky is clear and bright. The sea is reflecting all the intensity of the day, white light bursting from its surface. There is a boat offshore with all its sails unfurled, presenting itself in perfect profile. The nineteenth-century Kurhaus hotel glows under the spectacular sun. The longer we lie idle, the more our body temperatures adapt, and the less suffocating the heat becomes.

We take Baby to the water. She is fascinated, but she’ll have nothing to do with the wet sand. We’ve brought a little plastic shovel, but she finds it far more fun to wave in the air than to plunge into dirty sand. I carry her out into the sea. Menna wades out behind us, her big belly before her. She bobs up and down in the surf, and Baby laughs. I take Baby out far enough that incoming waves wash over her legs. She starts to enjoy it. She kicks at the water.

The sun sinks lower in the west. The heat dissipates as the afternoon light softens and becomes golden and beautiful. People are packing up. We stay long enough for another dip in the water. The water is never anything but cold. Now the breezes are cooling off.

We are walking back toward the long boardwalk. I see the white Bungy Tower off the pier, with its irregular, encircling staircase, and ‘Bungy’ in big black letters on the side of its crowning deck. There are people ready to jump, huddled on the platform suspended off the projecting crane, silhouettes against the evening sky. One lets go, just a shadow, and momentarily reaches the limit of its leash, rebounding up into the sky in a way startling even from this distance, and humorous. That’s a person there, submitting the body to wild gravity, bouncing like a ball, held in the sky.

Night approaches, and, after the long ride home, I will see Cygnus and I will see the Dipper. I’ll stand on the balcony outside our flat, admiring the constellations. It’s a privilege of summer.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Travelogue 712 – August 19
Russians at Sint Job’s

I’ve returned to Sint Job’s Pier. It seems ages since I ran here. For a while, I was here almost every day, following the perimeter of the pier, matching my pace to the grey and wet flagstones underfoot. I didn’t live far away then, and this was one of my favourite stretches of the running course. I could look out over the waters of the wharf and then the river.

Once in a while I would have to contend with groups of sarcastic boys of about high-school age. Now I know where they were coming from. Down at the end of the pier is the STC building, ‘the Periscope’. Its odd shape is a hallmark of the Rotterdam riverside skyline. It looks like a crooked cubist creation, checker-boarded in blue and pushing one asymmetrical piece out at the top to hang over the pier. STC is the Shipping & Transport College. This building is only one campus of a huge institution. It teaches ten thousand students from secondary up to post-grad levels.

I’ve started taking on some hours as a free-lancer in English language tutoring. As it happens, there are a few secretaries to the board on the top floor of the crooked building who would like to improve their English.

They greet me cheerfully every morning. They offer me tea. We take over a conference room, and we practice our morning small talk in English before the lesson begins. ‘Did you have a nice evening, Lonneke? Did you go out again? Yes? And where did you go this time?’ Oh, to be twenty-one again. Or not to be. She exhausts me with her social life.

I cycle to Sint Job’s pier in the morning. I get there early so I can stand by the river a while, meditating. There is much to meditate. There’s the river itself, and the barges already wending their way inland and to sea. Across the river, the horizon is dominated by the first of the ports that take over the river all the way west, almost to the sea.

There’s almost always a ship moored here at the end of Sint Job’s. Today it’s a three-masted sailing ship, pictured here, looking to be the restoration of some historical vessel. It’s a loose interpretation, if so, judging by the carvings along the bow, modern and humorous, possibly depictions of the crew. I don’t see a soul on board. It’s painted here and there with mysterious inscriptions in the Cyrillic alphabet.

I walk alongside the boat, wishing my cousin Paul were still in town. He visited three weeks ago, after officiating at some sailing races on the IJsselmeer. We saw a few similar boats at the yacht harbour downtown, but he didn’t seem too impressed. He has sailed in many places around the world, but even so, I think he’s probably seen everything there is to see right at home, in San Francisco. Me, I’m impressed. I have the enthusiasm of the unschooled.

Nearer to home, I took him to see the Delft, an eighteenth century schooner being reconstructed in Delfshaven. It was a warship sunk by the Brits during the Napoleonic Wars, sunk off the Scheveningen shore. The ship was originally built in Delfshaven, so now the project has been brought home. There is a museum, with bits and pieces of the original retrieved from the sea. Again, I’m impressed.

That’s my morning meditation. It’s time to turn away from the water again. I enter the crooked building and head to the elevator. I start with the English phrases in my head, preparing for the lessons. ‘There once was a man from Uz, ….’

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Travelogue 711 – August 17

We are experiencing summer this week. It’s almost too much responsibility. You watch the sunny day approach day by day in your forecast, and a part of you hopes a North Sea front blows it aside.

But this one has held steady, the sunny symbol of good times in the ten-day Google forecast. We must enjoy it. We breathe deeply and try to gather some energy.

We have been discussing a trip to the beach all summer. We’ve made it to the beach every year, and every time we’ve had a great time. It’s a lot to live up to. Now we have a rowdy toddler, and a baby on the way. Menna breaks into a sweat when we talk about having fun.

So we have decided to stay close to home. We want to have a picnic in Het Park in our old neighbourhood. We have a soft spot for the green lawns and the flower gardens. We used to run the paths together, before Menna was pregnant. We ran around the little lake and by the trimmed hedges of the small English garden by the quaint old clubhouse where the wedding photos are taken. We ran underneath the high Euromast, Rotterdam’s monument in 50s wowee style, a space-needle-type tower that rises on a massive concrete column and supports an observation deck and restaurant. In summer you occasionally see people repelling down the side of it.

We have chosen a picnic in the park over a trip to the beach. It’s simpler, but it still it takes a long time to pull together. We don’t get to the park until four. Baby was crying the first time we try to prepare for departure. Then suddenly she was asleep. Then suddenly Menna was asleep. I carried on with work at my desk, quietly typing. We packed what we can underneath the buggy. We set out at our snail’s pace to the tram station.

Jan is able to join us. His office is close, on Westzeedijk. I stop by his building on the way. He’s in shorts and looking molto bronzato from his summer trip with the family to Napoli. He scrolls through photos on his iPhone. His wife stands by a stone wall overlooking a prospect of green valleys. The children stand beside one of the short mules that carry supplies up the narrow switchbacks to the villages above. The children are making mule faces.

Baby loves the outdoors now. She struggles to get out of my arms. Once on the ground, she strides forward, throwing her arms up and squealing with delight. There’s not a lot of separation anxiety there. She doesn’t hesitate. She doesn’t check to see if we are behind her. She just keeps going. One of us has to jog to catch up. She’s standing over a couple who have been enjoying their own company. We apologize.

Oma Batu sits on the blanket in the shade. Jan lies on his side in the grass. He remarks on my bike. ‘The same bike.’ It’s true. I’ve had it for years now. And it’s true that every time I see Jan, he’s riding a new cycle. He says they’re stolen. I think he just wears them out. He rides like a happy boy. Often enough, he has all three children on the bike, front and bike.

Menna and I pick a sunny spot, and we play volleyball with Baby’s beach ball. The goal of the game is to keep Menna from falling over. We win, but I’m exhausted.

It isn’t the beach at Scheveningen, with its air of history and summer abandon. We don’t get our annual dash into the cold sea, laughing while struggling with the waves. But we are content. Baby has explored every square metre of grass in our area. We’ve eaten burgers. We’ve absorbed some precious sunlight. All good.

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Travelogue 710 – August 4

Summer might be finished here in Holland. The temperatures have snapped back to their slightly chilled norm, as though the heat were a dangerous indulgence. That may be all right for southern Catholic countries, but here the elastic bonds reigning in wicked summer must be strong. The North Sea winds and the drizzling chill are ascendant again, as they should be. Menna despairs of getting a chance for even one summer trip to the beach. We are on alert. We are waiting for the first day with sunshine and temperatures above twenty.

I’m missing the American heat, particularly the sultry Midwestern variety. I loved it, and I struggled with it. I couldn’t sleep. My skin developing instant heat rashes once I was in Minnesota. I suffered when I got into any super-heated car interior. But there were moments, strolling in the sun, as satisfying as swimming slowly in warm water. This was how summer was supposed to be.

The Air BNB where I started my stay in Minneapolis had no air conditioning. I slept with the window open, the second-floor window looking out over the sloping back yard, and beyond the tops of some trees, the green lawn of the Bryn Mawr Meadows Park. There was only a fan in the other window to cool the room, and it didn’t do much. I didn’t sleep. At sun’s first light, I resigned myself to being awake. I dressed to run.

I didn’t last long in that Air BNB. The owner of the house had very free ideas about living together, ideas that are easy to admire but not so easy to live with. The house was never locked. She came in and out of the bedroom to regulate ventilation on the second floor. Other guests appeared randomly, slept on couches, peeked in the bathroom. I decided I had to give the Air BNB service a rest. I moved to a regular B&B, an historic Victorian house I found in one quick web search. It was a beautiful place. The doors locked. I was served a very nice breakfast every day. No one wrote a review of my behaviour as a guest once I was done.

Coincidentally, this house was close to my last neighbourhood when I lived in Minneapolis. I lived in Northeast Minneapolis, a block from the river, near the brewery, near Dusty’s. Dusty’s was a local bar in its own tiny brick building on Marshall. Dusty’s had been there since the 1952. And it’s still there, though Dawn says the owner is getting ready to retire. When he retires, he will sell the bar. The property prices in the area have skyrocketed, and it’s too tempting.

Dawn recognized me when I walked in. It’s been fifteen years since Troy and I started hanging out there, ordering gin and sitting at one of the few round tables along the wall, playing chess. Dawn worked there then. She looks almost the same, the same military build and the same feathered haircut. Some of the blonde hair has turned white, but there is barely a crease on her face. There’s still the photo of her hanging behind the bar, from her days in the service.

I was astonished that she would remember me. I sat at the bar, and we caught up. I ordered a ‘dago’, which is a sausage and onion sandwich and a specialty of Dusty’s. I have never seen dagos sold anywhere else but Minnesota. I’ve heard it originates here.

Thirteen years ago, Troy and I went to Dusty’s. I was in a mood. I hadn’t heard from Leeza. We were supposed to go out that night, and I never heard from her. Troy and I played chess, and then took a walk down to the river. We sat on the railway bridge, and we watched the aurora borealis. I wonder what we talked about. It would have been a mundane conversation, though it was not a normal night.

If I could time travel, I might like only to eavesdrop on old conversations. If I could listen to my own, I imagine I would be embarrassed. I would discover a lack of wit and a lack of grace. I would find great holes in knowledge and wisdom. Perhaps I was able to demonstrate great enthusiasm, but that faded as I aged. It’s funny we aren’t able to remember conversations. They mark our paths nad our biographies like stepping stones in a garden, everywhere we go, in celebration and in tragedy. We talked of this and that while the world turned.