Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Travelogue 717 – September 27
The Moestuin

The river feels like an improvisation. We see it from the surface today. I haven’t seen it this way before. The banks of the river south of Rotterdam are crowded with industry, huge warehouses, rusting plants of one sort or another, trash and barges. Then every so often, there is a field that opens up, humble space of trodden green, more space than green. Ugly as it is, there is still sweetness and peace. There is something about water, something generous.

Holland is generous with water. In the short distance we cover, the water divides and twists around the land. We pass two confluents; we pass islands. The river itself changes, from the Nieuwe Maas to the Noord River. We make no turns, but one river becomes another.

This is the magic of the sprawling delta lands. The waters twist and wind among each other. They change names, sometimes after only a few miles. The short span of the Noord River comes to a sudden end at the confluence where historic Dordrecht juts its head into the waters. There, the Noord meets the Beneden (Lower) Merwede and the Oude (Old) Maas.

Riverbeds are, of course, improvisations on the part of Nature, so our improvised names seem only fair. The map as we know it came into existence in (relatively) recent memory, during the great floods of 1421. The courses of these huge waterways changed then and never changed back, something staggering to imagine. Little Dordrecht occupies an island now. It didn’t used to. Dordrecht was a minor power in those days, and the floods broke up a lusty feud with a neighbouring town by the name of Geertruidenberg. After the floods they were divided by the Nieuwe Merwede and the Biesbosch, miles of wetlands. The war was forgotten, and great Geertruidenberg’s glory diminished.

We disembark in little Dordrecht. If you walk straight ahead, you will stroll into the pretty historical district. We turn left instead. We stay close to the water, (now the Beneden Merwede,) walking among quiet apartment blocks, until we reach the Villa Augustus.

The hotel is visible from water bus station. It was a water tower once, built in 1880s and abandoned some time in the last decades of the twentieth century. The hoteliers took it over more than ten years ago, converting it to its present use, cultivating a pleasant little garden between the hotel and the restaurant, where they grow vegetables and herbs for the kitchen. The Dutch call this kind of kitchen garden a moestuin. I learned that in the restaurant’s bookstore, where they proselytize for gardening and healthy foods. Even more interesting is the bakery next to the bookstore, where we can invest in real meringue, not so healthy.

We have eaten. The hotel is surrounded by lawns and gardens, and the whole is surrounded by a brick wall. The grounds make for a pleasant stroll after lunch. We’re thinking how quiet the small town is, how worthwhile it was, our long trip down so many rivers.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Travelogue 716 – September 24
Autumnal Rests

It’s a fine fall day, and it’s the weekend. I’m out early. I’m always out early, cruising on my bicycle along the bank of the tiny Schie River. I’m returning home from a session at the café, where I spent time hammering out phrases in the rough-hewn old memoir that has eaten up so much of my life. I’m hoping to publish it this fall as an e-book and let it go. It will be a part of my past, a book about the past finally free to fly into time, one gull released to scavenge among the tidbits of sentiment.

This morning, the gulls are calmly riding the calm swells of the river. The slight breezes are forgiving. The birds are left to rest.

Nature is many parts rest. Everything rests. Only humans see rest as a false promise, as the quarter note rest among the anxious chords of effort.

I’ve been working at the café on the Eendrachtsplein. As I unlock the bicycle there, ready for the return home, a group of teens is disembarking from mom’s car. It has to be a heart-stopping commotion. They see each other, and nothing else. Mom is devotion and smiles. The boys are rowdy in anticipation of … rowdiness. They are proud of their healthy surfeit of energy. One tall boy is shouting at the others, who are three meters away. He drops his skateboard to the pavement with a clatter. This is youth, and the anticipation of battle.

On the bike path I see passing faces. I see a very young man with a blonde beard, in Civil War fashion. He coasts by with a sleepy look of complacency. I sense that the beard is his signal achievement. He must exhibit it. I see a young woman ahead. She is on roller skates. I see the posture from far behind, legs spread and toes pigeoned. She eats up the entire bike lane. I pass her delicately, and she doesn’t notice. She’s alone, and I sense the stubborn decision to have fun that rarely results in fun. It’s merely assertion.

There is a line of barges moored in the river at the place called the Lage Erf. That means ‘Low Place’. One barge is full of sand. There’s a man sitting on a deck chair in the sand, his bare feet and a cold beer planted in the sand. His dog lies beside him. People on bikes smile to see him as they pass, and he has only a sour face for them. He wants his peace.

Out in the river, the gulls float on the rippling waters. They are silent. They are spread randomly in a band across the surface. They ride the calm swells of the river. They seem to be watching us. They are the advance drones for Nature, the eyes that watch and record. I’m feeling the regrets of the species this morning. Why so restless?

Maybe it’s the work on the memoir. Today it’s 2005. The capital city is in the grip of the country’s oppressive regime. Police are shooting at children. I’m transported into the debilitating tension of that place. Living in the developing world taught me more about angst.

I have read Kierkegaard too young. Kierkegaard was too young to read Kierkegaard. He died when he was forty-two. He should have lived to be a hundred, and started writing when he was eighty.

I went to Ethiopia because someone died young. I wrestle with the restless violence of this world. I want to craft something good. I want to create a place of peace.

Today, the fine weather surprises us and pleases us. Autumn is invigorating. We want to take it into our hands. We want to play it like a flute. We can’t help ourselves. And we can’t stop once we start. The song must obey. It must be busy. It must go on with the persistence that characterizes the species. We stood mature on Nature’s savannah, and then we pushed back against the sky.

The gulls don’t have the sense to know the day is beautiful. They know the winds are calm. They rest. They watch. Without much interest, they watch.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Travelogue 715 – September 18
The Ramones

It starts with the bass, in a drilling beat. The drum comes in to support, driving the punk rhythm forward in a sound like 1979. The barista has worked at my old morning café quite a while. I’ve been coming so long I have seen generations of them. There is only one that dates to my first visits, the philosopher-football player. The philosopher is now teaching at Erasmus University part-time, while still making coffee. This one is new. He has been here only a few years. He says proudly, proudly irreverently, ‘I started my study, but after six months, I said fuck it.’ He has repeated this line almost verbatim before. It’s obviously an important point in the narrative that feeds him and his music. He has a way of talking, with a laugh and a carelessness, that can be off-putting. But you get to know him, and you see there’s nothing behind it. He’s having fun. Fun is his life and his identity. At my age, I am tempted to feel paternal, concerned and sentimental about his innocence. His punk innocence. Punk looking like 90s Grunge. He wears his hair long, to the shoulder, and uncombed. He is unshaven. He is thin and has a posture made of irreverence, slouching and hunched, but still nose high in the air. He has a deep voice, but he speaks in a kind of nasal parody of a pothead accent. Everything is a posture of silliness.

The recordings are pretty good. They are surprisingly good, given the methods of recording he describes. The voice is clear, and if I spoke Dutch well enough, I would actually know what he’s saying. Our barista is the bass player, writer and singer. The first song on this EP starts off with the bass, driving immediately with the rapid and sharp strike of the pick against growling bass strings. They transition from one short song right into the next, seeming to record in one long run. Every song sounds alike, but that is part of classic punk sound. I congratulate him on an accomplished and tight performance. He said that he and the drummer had played no instrument before a year ago. Classic punk M.O. I tell him it reminds me of Brit punk. He says they listen to a lot of Ramones.

I remember the Ramones. I remember them when they were at their best. And the Ramones at their best never added up to much for me, though there were a few songs one couldn’t help liking. And I could never forget their movie, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. I was in high school myself when it came out, and my friends and I snuck into the local movie theatre three times, one time lugging cases of beer through an emergency exit, so we could drink beer through straws and then rush the stage in the old theatre and thrash about in punk style there, prompting the projectionist to stop the film. And it is true that our sentiments in those chaotic years was very well captured in the Ramones lyrics, ‘I want to be sedated’. But back then I thought my tastes were more refined. I was sceptical of my punk friends. I still thought that talent was expressed in the guitar solo. In college, I would change. Grow?

I think about the students in my classes at the college. They’re 17 and 18, and they seem happy. I want to say happy despite the conspicuous uniformity of their lives. But maybe it’s because of. They like festivals. They like beer. The boys have all played football. The music is hip hop or house or metal. I should smile indulgently, and I should mean it. Youth is best savoured while being wasted. They are enjoying it. But instead, it strikes as being desolate. I am apprehensive for Baby. Is this to be the extent of her satisfaction in her life?

The boy barista is laughing in an embarrassed way. He’s happy for the praise. His eyes are glowing. I’m surprised by how tight the musicianship is. Even in songs this simple, that’s impressive. I want to call it ‘accurate’, because, in the end, it feels like an academic exercise, he has so correctly captured the sound and spirit of a time long ago. Music is like a text to these kids. They read it for their passions. They listen day and night. They have encyclopaedic command of the artists and acts out there. They know the history. When they declare their tastes in music, it’s with a touching formality.

I ask when I can see his band play. He says they don’t play out. They’re waiting until they’re good enough. And just like that, the spell is broken. The age of punk is indeed far away.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Travelogue 714 – September 11

The white cockatoo refuses the call. ‘Kom op,’ insists the man, and he holds out his arm. Instead the small bird with the crest on its head, flapping in the stale air of the café, gracefully maintaining position there a moment, decides for a perch among the dishevelled morning hair on the man’s head. I find it endearing, but the man is not happy. He frowns and he coaxes the bird off to begin again. The bird flaps to the back of a seat. ‘Kom op!’ And the tiny parrot lands on his head again. The man is frustrated.

We’re on the second floor of the café. I saw the couple when I came in. It was a warm family scene. The man shared his pastry with the bird, setting the croissant on the left page of the newspaper he’s reading. The bird pecked, and pored over his articles. Everyone smiled as they pass.

When the man climbs the stairs to the bathroom, the cockatoo rests on his shoulder. I nod in familiar greeting. I’m sitting and writing. This is my table. This is where I have sat since my earliest days in Rotterdam, sat and done my writing, to the bemusement of staff and regulars. What does a writer look like? He looks like a guy typing for hours. The colours may be bright in the mind, but the exterior is cool and static.

Not for the first time do I envy the choices of friends like Troy, Wes, and Ben, whose choices in artistic expression are so much more engaging. What is there not to love about watching a painter work, seeing the eye and hand move in creation, the colour and shape immediate? And what is there not to love about the immediate warmth released at the touch of a guitarist’s fingers on the strings?

On the way back down, the man and bird stop to adjust. And now the bird is not happy returning to the shoulder. He flutters there in mid-air, a kind of moment’s ornament hung over the floor of the café. Then he bolts, swinging over the balcony rail and sweeping over the counter and toward the door. The man swears and runs to the stairway.

This vignette has an element of the summer to it. Maybe it’s the fluttering beat of the white bird’s wings, sustained over our heads. Maybe it’s the sober whimsy of the man and cockatoo reading the morning paper. The sun outside has been strong for weeks, Indian summer on the North Sea.

The bird didn’t escape. I’m sure it didn’t want to. It was just thrown by the space, like we all are sometimes, distracted by the opening of the sky, and driven to wild runs for the horizon.