Friday, August 11, 2017

Travelogue 765 – August 11
Spui Books, Spui Boys


It’s Friday. I’m completing my second week of teacher training. On Fridays there is a book market in the Spui square. I recognize one of the vendors. He mans a table over in the Oudemanhuis book market by the university, where he offers boxes of paperbacks in English. The Oudemanhuis market is open daily, and has been since 1879, setting up on both sides of a long, narrow alleyway that you access through ornate seventeenth-century stone gateways. On Fridays, the old man joins the Spui market. I take a few precious minutes from my lunch break to browse. I decide on a book by Siegfried Sassoon, the second volume in his ‘fictionalised’ autobiography. Sassoon is known first as a war poet. He signed up for service before the First World War had even started, and he served through the whole war, distinguishing himself for bravery on several occasions. His comrades called him ‘Mad Jack’ for his reckless courage. Robert Graves was his friend, and wrote in ‘Goodbye to All That’ about Sassoon capturing a German trench alone, armed only with grenades. ‘A pointless feat,’ Graves writes, ‘since instead of signalling for reinforcements, he sat down in the German trench and began reading a book of poems which he had brought with him. When he went back he did not even report.’

When, in 1917, Sassoon took a public stance against the war, the army sent him to hospital for ‘neurasthenia’. He was back at the front in 1918, where he took friendly fire, a shot to the head.

The book picks up in the spring of 1916, when the protagonist was in the trenches of the Western Front, in France. The military was gearing up for the campaign that would become the long Battle of the Somme, in which one million men were wounded or killed. The character seems to be sleep-walking.

Headlines from the U.S. being what they are, I think reading about war and peace makes sense. The history of the world wars is pertinent reading for more than military wonks and Nazi fetishists.
I’ve set myself a photography task for each week, (a task made relatively futile, given the poor quality of my little digital). My subject for the first week was the statue in Spui’s central square, a commemoration in bronze of the mischievous boys of the neighbourhood. The statue dates back to 1960. It’s called ‘Het Lieverdje’, which was a term coined by an Amsterdam columnist named Henri Knap, who first wrote about the ‘darling’ street boys in 1947.
It’s nice to reflect that this fun image was first inspired by a writer. During the war, Mr. Knap agreed to write propaganda for the Germans so he could get coded messages out to the Brits. He harboured Jewish refugees in his home. After the war, he became a columnist for the Amsterdam paper, Het Parool. His column was the most widely read section of the daily.

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Travelogue 764 – August 3
Trinkets


I had a dream that I was walking through the train station early in the morning. The mind speaks to itself. I have slept neither much nor well lately. I’ve started my course in Amsterdam, so I wake at 5:30 to wash up, and then I cycle to the train station. I suppose my mind was preparing for the inevitable challenge of awaking.

The dream takes a turn. A desperate man pulls out a gun and takes a shot at another man in the station, catching him in the leg and crippling him. The event unfolds in the slow way these things must do in reality, when the mind struggles to assimilate unexpected violence. The man who is shot is stunned and staggers back in a confused state. The man with the gun takes another shot, hitting the other in the chest. The victim turns to stagger away, too much in shock to run or hide.

I’m observing all this quietly, in something less than shock. It’s more like bemusement. I’m observing, and I’m being observed by the dreamer.

Dreams are very mutable. The stark realism of this one began to warp. The villain decided he hadn’t done enough. He doused the victim in some sort of fuel and then tossed a lit match at him, lighting his hair. This plot twist, I realize, was inspired by my TV viewing before sleep. Ironically, I was watching no action film, nothing suspenseful or violent. I was watching ‘Night at the Museum’. There is a scene in which one of the Neanderthals lights his own hair on fire. There’s no reason I should have carried this forward: I had absolutely no emotional response to the scene. I’ve seen this movie so many times before. If anything, I might have quickly analysed the scene for clues to comedy. The caveman’s hand on fire wouldn’t have been funny. A human being on fire is a risk as comedy, but if you’re going to light anything up, let it be the hair.

The dream never strayed into comedy, at least not in a modern sense. It stayed sober and clinical until it ended, not long after the hair-on-fire incident. Maybe it was ‘comedy’ in Dante’s sense, when he called his long poem the Commedia: not funny at all, treating on ‘low’ themes in a language for the vulgar.

These sorts of experiences are a mystery. I don’t know what type of exercise they represent. Dreams can be woven of such rich detail, detail marshalled to such dubious purpose. They are Hollywood productions for a congress of swallows. I used to be interested in dream interpretation, and have even discovered some interesting minor truths there over the years. But I can’t help feeling as though, after all, I’ve been unable to prevent those little truths from becoming pretty baubles I keep around as souvenirs. They are like precious trinkets I keep stored in the barn. I hear a voice from the chorus, ‘So stop living in the barn.’ But barns have so much purpose, such earthy colour. I have respect for the real world of barns.

In any case, I did manage to wake and make my way to class. We are student-teachers, training for certification. Part of the course is delivering lessons to students of the institute. In our small class, students represent Paraguay, Iran, Poland, Turkey, Japan, and other places. Elaf comes from Syria. She’s very young, and she has an endearing innocence. She often sits with young Mirka from Brno. Their lives are very different, but in class they are friends. They share their whispered jokes, and they share an earnestness for learning.

Elaf is waiting in the hallway. I say hello, and I ask her about Syria. She’s from somewhere near Aleppo in the northwest. I comment that it must be beautiful. She confirms that in a few words. ‘Many trees,’ she says, and even this much is a struggle. I say she must miss it. She replies very quietly that she does, and she’s ready to cry. I’m ashamed. It was too easy for me to be insensitive. I’ve been away too long from my work among the people who suffer. Elaf is quiet now. I stay there, but I hold my tongue. Class starts in a few minutes.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Travelogue 763 – July 31
Rain in Sparta
Part Two


The Sparta Stadium, so close to home, has always seemed so small to me. I pass it every day on my bike, pedalling toward the bridge over the little River Schie. It’s the home to the underdog among Rotterdam’s three football teams, and the oldest of the three, established in the late nineteenth century. But the ‘Kasteel’ is a small and old stadium. I was surprised when I saw it was chosen as one of the stadia for the Women’s Euro Cup this year. I was excited for a good excuse to watch a game inside the historic venue, and I was excited that the ticket prices were cheap, cheaper than for a regular Sparta game.

Inside, the stadium is bigger than it seems outside. The pitch looks nice, perfectly suitable for international play. The teams are already on the field. We were delayed in walking the few blocks to the stadium by one of the day’s quick showers. I won’t complain. It’s because of the rain that we get a second chance to see this game. It was rained out of its original time last night.

We go through security at the gate, surrender our water bottles and allow them to search our bags. And then we start the climb. I was late in booking, and so we keep climbing. As the steps multiply, I become worried. We are near the top, but when we turn and take our seats, I’m reassured. It is a small stadium, after all. The view is fine. We are seated in a corner, near the German goal. Just as we settle in, the first goal of the game is scored by the German women. The flags go up all around us. We have been seated in German territory.

The rains keep coming, though the forecast had given us hope of a change. The clouds scud quickly overhead. The sun shines on the field, and then suddenly it’s pouring. We are happy with our high seats now, as the roof covers us well. Fans with stadium-side seats are running up the stairs for cover, jackets pulled over their heads.

The players don’t hesitate. The hold up admirably well. In fact, the bad weather might just be working to the advantage of the Danish women, who probably don’t train in sunshine all too often. They start to bounce back. Their game, which at first seemed in disarray, begins to tighten up. They come back from the half and score within five minutes. The Germans are scrambling. They create chance after chance, but the Danish defence is formidable. Then, at eighty-three minutes, another goal for Denmark.

We cheer. The Danish supporters cheer. But we are separated from them by half a stadium. We remain among the quiet German supporters. We see the Danish flags waving, and we feel out of place. Menna is afraid to cheer, but the truth is this is a very civilized crowd.

By the time we emerge from the stadium, the rains have passed. Danish fans are gathered by the team bus, waiting for the victors to emerge. We walk home along the canal, resolving as we go that we will take a bike ride. It’s too nice a summer day to let go.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Travelogue 762 – July 30
Rain in Sparta
Part One


We had tickets to the Women’s Euro Cup last night. It was a quarter final game, and it was hosted at the Sparta Stadium, which is less than a kilometre from our house. I had been looking forward to the game for weeks. But it was looking like we were going to have to miss it.

The first reason was because I had had another cycle accident. This one didn’t involve any other cyclist or auto. I was cycling with Menna, riding side by side in a narrow section of bike path, when suddenly I came upon a bit of scaffolding inexplicably set up on street side, but occupying space in the bike path. I would have been all right but for a spur of metal sticking out at handlebar height. I took that bar right in the knuckles. One minute, I was chatting with Menna, and the next tumbling across the pavement. It would have been comic, if it hadn’t hurt so much. I took my time standing, and when I did, I was assaulted by a stinging pain from half a dozen minor scrapes and bruises. But it was my hand that hurt most, so much that I was instantly made nauseous by it. The hand started swelling immediately. I was sure it was broken.

I didn’t go to the hospital until the next day. The evening of the accident, I got back on the bike, and it didn’t seem so bad. In the morning, the knuckle was still swollen and sore. I decided I should stop by the hospital just to check. I caught the 25 tram north to the Sint Francis Gasthuis, where I knew an emergency room would be open on a Saturday morning. I registered at reception, and I took a seat. I sat a long time. I had reading material. Unfortunately, it was a long look into Texas politics, which made for depressing waiting room material. I was interested to see that socialist Europe had been replaced by California as the enemy in Republican demonologies. I suppose Europe has graduated to the unmentionable. I imagined a panel of Texan Republicans, all gunning for Obamacare, observing my long wait in the Dutch hospital’s waiting room, and crying out, ‘See? Socialized medicine doesn’t work!’ They watched me return to the reception window to complain. They smiled to see how unconvincing the woman at the window was, assuring me I was next.

I returned to the waiting room, this time to watch the TV. Interestingly, there was a documentary being aired on 60s rock photographer, Jini Dellaccio, who died only a few years ago, at nearly one hundred years of age. Smugly I made a mental note for the sake of my Texan auditors that I was in fact enjoying my long stay in the waiting room at the Sint Francis Gasthuis. The fact is, I have few points of comparison. I had scarce opportunity to see the inside of American hospitals, during all those years I was uninsured.

Eventually, the doctor did call me in. He felt my hand tenderly, searching for pain, and he asked his questions. He used the word ‘contusion’, and he said to give it a few days. I told him I would have no chance to visit him again, as I started my certification course on Monday. He was confident that it was fine. I returned to the tram station, set above the road, at the level of the abundant leaves of the trees set on the hospital grounds and in the nearby park. It was a peaceful morning.

Rain was coming. It had been a wet week, and this afternoon was going to be among the wettest. The rain was destined to be the second reason we wouldn’t be able to attend the Euro Cup game. By the time the stadium lights were raised in the evening, shining into our flat’s eastern windows, the rain was drumming steadily on our roof.

We stayed home. We watched the two little sisters play with each other. Tiny Baby is crawling. She’s laughing. She adores her big sister, and watches her constantly. Baby condescends to play with her little sister. She crawls, giggling, leading Tiny Baby around the room. They stop and Baby chooses which toys Tiny Baby is allowed to play with. We admonish her to share.

When she is free to play her own games, Baby indulges in quiet story-telling. Our water bottles become characters in a fable about family. The large one is Papa bottle and the small one is Baby. Papa and Baby eat together. They play games. When Baby does something she shouldn’t, Papa says, ‘No, no’. The two go for a walk. They stroll around the perimeter of the coffee table, and then they float away toward the kitchen. They say, ‘Bye!’ as they go. A minute later, the two return, saying, ‘Hi, sweetie,’ which is what I always say to her when I walk in the door.

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Travelogue 761 – July 6
The Koreans


They’re an elderly couple. But they are fired up. They speak quickly and with passion, interrupting each other. They are planning so many interesting events in the coming year. There are things to celebrate. These two are patriots. They are internationalists. They are also responsible for the founding of a peace museum here in the Netherlands, in the Hague. And it all leads back to one of those Hague Conventions over one hundred years ago.

There was a second Hague Convention. This one was actually first proposed by Teddy Roosevelt in 1904. The idea was quickly picked and promoted up by Nicholas of Russia. The Russians were desperate for peace. They weren’t to have it. It would be a bloody century for them. In fact, the peace convention had to be postponed because of a Russian war, in this case with Japan.

Everything is connected, it seems. It is Japan’s victory in its war with Russia that cleared the way for its takeover of Korea. The emperor of Korea appealed to international opinion. He sent three delegates secretly to The Hague Convention, which finally took place in 1907. The Brits and the Japanese took a stand against admitting the delegates.

Among these delegates was a lawyer named Yi Jun. He and his colleagues traveled two months to get to The Hague, traveling on the new and unfinished Trans-Siberian Railway. Upon arrival, they were shunned by most of the diplomats. Bertha von Suttner and others argued vehemently for their admittance, but to no avail. It wasn’t long after his arrival in Holland that Yi Jun was found dead in his room at the Hotel De Jong. The cause of death is still disputed, and the subject still a tender one among diplomatic circles. When the Korean Secretary General of the U.N., Ban Ki-moon, visited The Hague last year, he turned down an invitation to visit the peace museum at the Hotel De Jong.

It was the elderly couple sitting at our dinner table in the Bertha von Suttner building that established that peace museum. It was their son, apparently, who had re-discovered the site of that hotel and had opened negotiations with the owners of the hotel. It took a long time, but the hotel was acquired and the museum established. It’s at once a monument to Korean history, and a monument to the long struggle for peace.

Suddenly the premise of our play has shifted. Our sponsors had wanted something short abut Bertha first. Now they’re thinking the story of Yi Jun might be more exciting. We listen, and we make a pitch. It could be fun. He’s an idealist. He’s a martyr. He links Bertha and the idealists to the violent world of realpolitik. He’s too human and also a symbol. It could work.

The meeting breaks, and we leave the building devoted to peace, descending onto the streets of modern Den Haag, where more people are thinking about their summer vacations than are thinking about peace. In fact, there are few overt signs of peace on these streets, as the drivers of autos are waging war on the cyclists; as the native pedestrians battle the tourists. Is peace natural, we briefly and silently ask the stormy North Sea skies. No answer. We bid each other good night and go our separate ways.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Travelogue 760 – July 5
Peace Palace
Part Two


My encounter with peace begins by chance. There’s a small NGO dedicated to the support of peace museums, and they would like to commission a theatre piece. We are invited to a presentation at the Peace Palace. The original subject of the theatre piece is also the subject of this presentation: a remarkable woman in the late nineteenth century, contributing much to the mood of optimism during those final few decades before the First World War, when peace and progress seemed natural results of human evolution.

After the publication in 1889 of her novel, ‘Lay Down Your Arms!’ Bertha von Suttner was recognized as a leader of the peace movement. She went on to found and lead organizations and publications devoted to peace. She participated in both Hague Conventions, won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905, and was pushing for the next international peace conference when she died, only a few weeks before World War I broke out in 1914.

The occasion at the Peace Palace is the release of an English translation of von Suttner’s book about peace in the skies. She lived long enough to witness the birth of flight, and she was concerned about the prospects for warfare. She more or less accurately predicted the destruction that could be rained down on cities from above.

So the plan was a short theatrical piece to highlight this remarkable person’s life. Matteo and I had already discussed a few ideas. I was most fascinated by the impulse that may have moved her to think deeply about peace and decide to write about it. She spent ten years in Georgia, it turns out, in a sort of exile from her native Austria because her family disapproved of her marriage. There she was witness to the devastation of war on the front with Russia. She and her husband contributed stories to Western publications as journalists. She was primarily an intellectual, reading widely and always writing. This was how she was going to work out her experiences and the intellectual problems raised by them. She published her novel about war once she had moved back to Austria, and the public reacted with hope. The novel was compared to ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in its illumination of an issue. People looked to her for leadership. And she rose to the challenge. She seems to have been tireless.

After the event, we walk back to the office of the small NGO that has invited us. We speak at length with one member of the organization, an elderly man who is a historian. He tells us quite a bit about von Suttner, and about the times. She was quite engaged with the ideas of the times. She was influenced in particular by Henry Thomas Buckle, a historian now largely forgotten, who had made a sensation in mid-century writing about the science of history, claiming that culture and the great men of history were mere by-products of history, that civilization moved forward according to inexorable laws that could be determined scientifically. I’m guessing Von Suttner corresponded with him. She maintained an impressive correspondence.

We arrive at the office. It’s housed in a building that apparently is devoted to peace organizations, offering subsidized rent to them. I’m surprised there are enough organizations to fill four floors. We meet in the kitchen on their floor, members of the organization and their guests, to share some pizza. Sitting around the table are people from Austria, Peru, Korea, and the U.S. The Koreans at the table have an interesting story.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Travelogue 759 – July 4
Peace Palace
Part One


The Peace Palace: it sounds like it should be some cheap stop on the California coast, where someone has strung Christmas lights and placed plastic statues of Krishna, a place to order Vegan and chat with the quirky gentleman who once studied in a monastery in Thailand.

But the Peace Palace is real and legit, an impressive structure built in The Hague in 1913 to house international institutions dedicated to peace. It stands as a monument to an age that considered peace as a natural by-product of progress. It was a subject of serious for negotiation and legislation.

The nineteenth century was in love with the idea of progress. It seemed only natural that progress was a governing principle of life in the modern world. To the generations closing the nineteenth century, there was no reason to question the basic propositions of the Enlightenment. The world was far from perfect, but reason would prevail. Their confidence in the principle is best measured by the trauma engendered by World War I. European civilization was sent into such deep shock that all sorts of monstrosities became possible.

Before 1914, hope was the rule. There were, indeed, significant steps taken toward international codes of peace and war. Abraham Lincoln issued the Lieber Code in 1863, only three months after the Emancipation Proclamation, protecting civilian populations and prisoners of war.

During the same year, the Red Cross was being established in Geneva, and that movement led directly to the calling of the first Geneva Convention, which sought to regulate the treatment of wounded on the battlefield. Notably, this was a distinctly ‘continental’ convention. The powers represented were few and mostly from central Europe. England wasn’t present. The British Red Cross was formed later, in 1870, in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. The American was founded in 1881, by Clara Barton, who had served as nurse in the Civil War and then in the Franco-Prussian War.

By the end of the century, the discourse about peace had become more sophisticated. In 1874, the first attempt at a multilateral declaration on rules of war was drawn up in Brussels, attempting to go further in the protection of prisoners of war and civilian populations. Representatives of 15 countries attended the conference, and considered proposals submitted by the Russian czar, Alexander II. In the end, not enough countries signed on to make the declaration binding.

It was another Russian emperor who proposed the 1899 convention that resulted in the building of the Peace Palace. Those mischievous Russian leaders do like to pop up at the most interesting moments. It’s doubtful the motives of the czars were pure ones. They were forced to represent the weakest of the major powers contributing to the precarious balance of power in Europe. Whatever the reason, they did keep the cause of peace alive. Czar Nicholas II proposed the peace conference that led to the first Hague Convention, in 1899. This conference was successful, culminating finally in the first binding multilateral treaties on the conduct of war.

The Hague Convention of 1899 was a peace conference. It didn’t limit itself to rules of war, but considered mechanisms of peace. The convention established the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which was to be housed in The Hague. Andrew Dickson White, president of the American delegation to the peace conference, -- ambassador to Germany, and co-founder of Cornell University, -- convinced Andrew Carnegie to donate $1.5 million to build the Peace Palace to house the court.

And so, there it is, this rather spectacular Neo-Renaissance palace in the heart of The Hague, reminding us all of an idealism that seems antiquated, even repudiated by intervening events. World War I broke out one year after the Peace Palace opened, and the course of the century was set. Peace lost its privilege as a natural result of progress and became the subject of sombre meetings, like the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949, in which war-weary delegates were confronted with one recent atrocity after another, such as the German execution of Belgian villagers en masse as retribution for resistance. (Now a war crime according to Article 33. Go figure.)

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Travelogue 758 – June 28
Sandy Feet


This is Baby’s third summer. She’s only two, but was born in summer. We took her to the beach within her first months of life, to the beach at Scheveningen. We sat in the sand and held her. Last summer, we travelled with Troy, and we rented deck chairs and umbrellas. We sat for hours and enjoyed the sun. Baby was curious about the sand. She stood in it with uncertainty. She tried rubbing it from her hands. She cried when she couldn’t.

We went early this year, still only June. The waters were cold. Menna and I jumped in anyway, gasping at the shock. There is that exquisite pain that comes with an icy water dive. I was breathing through it and shouting all the way out past the other swimmers. I wanted to find that place of silence, where I could tread water and look out to sea, feeling momentarily lost. I was finally accustomed to the temperature. It’s only from here that one can study the sights in silence, the blue horizon and its ships, the beautiful old Kurhaus hotel by the beach.

I carried Baby out into the water. I stood against the incoming waves, and we both were soaked by the spray. She watched the water intently. This is the personality that Baby is developing. She is very serious about her fun. If I brought her back to the sand, I knew she would hold her arms up in appeal. She would want to go back. That’s how she is with her friends who live downstairs. She is quiet and staring. She finds her own toy and seems oblivious to all else. But when it’s time to go, she cries. For days, she repeats the name of her best friend, as though she is bereft.

She does have those moments, though, of heart-breaking sweetness, when she picks a small daisy from the lawn and offers it to a friend.

Menna and I jumped into the water, despite the cold. When you live here, you take every opportunity at sun and fun. That wasn’t even a week ago. Already it seems surprising we had such a hot day. The chill and the clouds resumed almost within hours of our beach trip. Today, there’s a mist. The air is cool and crisp. It’s only June, but we worry that summer is already over.

I held Menna in my arms in sea waters up to my neck. She’s still learning how to swim. I held her, and she lay horizontally at the surface. She was buoyant. There were cycles of stillness and cycles of waves. When the water was quiet, she rocked happily in my arms and we could hear each other talk. When the waves came in, she screamed and we laughed. We held each other tight.

We could see Baby playing in the wet sand at the water’s edge, overseen by Oma. She was digging with her plastic shovel and pail. She was making piles of sand and then pushing them down. She had that expression of concentration. I could see that from our place in the sea, and I could tell she was having fun.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Travelogue 757 – June 20
City Steeples
Part Three


Cycle wheels keep on turning. Bikes are streaming past at all hours now, summer in full stride. We wake up in the heat, blue skies in the western windows, sun beating against the eastern ones. We jump on the old bikes, and we join the stream.

I had forgotten how hectic the teacher’s life is just before the summer break. There are piles of documents to review. There are meetings and meetings, assessments and planning. The sun taps at the windows, reminding us of the time.

Still I find the occasional hour for the Pelgrim, claiming some time to sit under the steeple of the Pelgrim Fathers Church in Delfshaven. It’s as near perfect a summer spot as I can imagine. Canal side you face the brick lane and the canal in the afternoon’s final sun. Customers sit under parasols that become useless as the sun angles lower over the gabled roofs across the canal. In the back is the shaded courtyard, all churchyard peace. The beers are brewed right here at the church. It’s a refreshing taste in summer. The history of the place among the cool brick is good company, faithfully present but quiet while I read.

I have been writing about last month’s visit to Copenhagen, about my trips up and down the towers of the town, up and down the map. At the northern end of the city map is an area called Østerbro. The theatre is there, the stage where we perform Matteo’s little piece. The neighbourhood provides a stark contrast to where I’ve been staying. Giuseppe lives in a western district that lies at the end of a long road that seems exclusively dedicated to doner kebab places. Finally, far to the west, you mount one long, lone hill and the atmosphere changes, and you feel as though you are in the suburbs. I arrived early on my first day and I searched the neighbourhood for somewhere to sit. There is nothing. Off the doner kebeb road, there is only residential desolation. I am seized by suburban panic, an involuntary sympathetic response, in which I am isolated here for life with nowhere to go.

Østerbro, by contrast, is well-to-do and replete with food and entertainment. The streets are lively, and there is no impending sense that I may be stranded without coffee or company. The theatre is located across the street from a football stadium, a massive sport facility that seems both monolithic and irrelevant, in some strange way. Stadia like this usually dominate their surroundings, but this neighbourhood has its own spirit. On the other side of the theatre is another lovely park. The theatre itself looks like a humble park building or community centre. The posters are the giveaway. Prominent is the poster for the fringe festival. We travellers are the internationals. We enter the back door and set up in front of the long mirror.

I’m happy for the excuse to cycle around town. It must be said that the cyclists in Copenhagen are the politest I’ve encountered. It may be more accurate to say they are law-abiding. The Dutch are more liberal in their interpretation of the law. They drift through lights and around cars. The Danes, from my observation, pride themselves on their decorum. They wait patiently for the lights. There are even turn lanes for bicycles.

The trip up to Østerbro takes me by the old fortress, or Kastellet, near the mouth of the harbour. It’s one of the best preserved in northern Europe, I have read. It’s a star fortress, with five stone points. Inside, there are lots of sombre old military buildings, quiet now but retaining their dignity in the midst of the big park that the Kastellet has become. There is a beautiful church, St. Alban’s, that reminds me of Southwark Cathedral with its walls of knapped flint.

Of course I visit the Little Mermaid, the iconic statue of the character from the tales Hans Christian Andersen. There is a crowd gathered to take pictures of the sad little mermaid staring wistfully out to sea. She is separated from her admirers by a gap of only a few metres, set just outside the Kastellet. She languishes there on her stone in the harbour, day and night, no one to protect her. She has been victim to an unusual amount of vandalism since she was set at there in 1913. She’s been decapitated twice. She’s lost an arm. She’s been bathed in paint many times. She’s impervious, longing for her prince and her eternal soul.

I bid the mermaids good evening, and I set the wheels turning again. The long afternoon has spent itself, and I have a plane to catch in the morning. I’m traveling south to join again in the sloppy bicycle traffic of the Dutch. I’ll bike to the Pelgrim church, and I’ll reminisce about Denmark in the pleasant courtyard of the brewery.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Travelogue 756 – June 2
City Steeples
Part Two


The most recognizable landmark in Copenhagen’s Latin Quarter might be the round tower. Another project by the great Danish king Christian IV, the tower was built to be an astronomical observatory. It was completed in 1642, and serve as an observatory until the nineteenth century. It’s squeezed in among the busy streets and university buildings, a beautiful specimen of the glory years of old King Christian.

I admired the tower during my meandering tour of the district, but I didn’t know I could make the climb. It was a nice bit of good fortune that I found the tower open one evening, after the climbing theme had clearly emerged for this trip.

I’m cycling across town, and I’m circling under the tower, when I see the door open for a group of uncertain tourists. I shrug and stop. Their uncertainty works to galvanize me. I pay for the ticket, and it’s not much. It’s a worthy stop, after all, ascending one more height in steeple-happy Copenhagen. It’s a worthy stop, if only for the fun of running up the circling ramp that takes you up to the top, best done on a summer evening with a pint of good beer rising to your head and feeding an exhilarating dizziness.

Memorable are several stops on the way up. There is the window niche near the top, where you look out over the peak of the tiled roof of the old church that adjoins the tower, and over the city beyond that. Nearby, there is the small chamber with a floor of glass, in which you can look down the entire depth of the central core of the tower, the central column you’ve been circling on the ramp. The tower is an observatory, but I never saw any stars, even the cartoon stars of exertion. The tower isn’t really so high. The view from the top was enjoyable was not overwhelming.

A better view of Copenhagen comes with the spontaneous climb up another tower. This one is over in Christianshavn, the neighbourhood I visited on my first day, the city’s settlement on the other island in the harbour, in the waters between the big islands of Zealand and Amager. Here, not far from the café where I stopped for warmth on my first day, the Church of Our Saviour rises above the neighbourhood of canals built to mimic Amsterdam. This church (and the neighbourhood) also date back to the busy reign of Christian IV, though the majority of the construction happened after his passing. The steeple I climbed wasn’t finished until the middle of the next century. The steeple was built to a daring helix design, with an external staircase turning anticlockwise. The direction of the stairway apparently fueled speculation about the orthodoxy of the architect. The seventeenth century was fond of its demons, and artists seem as vulnerable as children in the lore of the times.

It’s a beautiful day, and there is a line to climb the stairs. We have to climb all the way from ground level, a total of four hundred steps. Initially, we are climbing up a tight internal staircase, steep wooden steps originally the territory of lonely sacristans. We pass by caged little niches like small neighbourhood attics, where pieces lie in positions of neglect, plaster angels and church bells.

Then we are outside, climbing the final hundred fifty steps, steps that narrow as we approach the gilded globe at the top. The winds are blowing, and all that stands between us and flight is the small gilded railing. We stand close to that railing to let people pass on their way down. I’m surprised by the nonchalance of parents letting their children run ahead up the tight spiral.

It’s exhilarating. There’s a wonderful view of the city and harbor. I stand a while at each corner of the compass, letting people squeeze past. Fortunately, the temperatures have risen considerably since my first day. Finally, I pull out the camera. I ask someone to take my picture, profiled against the free sky and Copenhagen’s horizon, my hair blowing in the persistent wind.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

Travelogue 755 – June 1
City Steeples
Part One


The spokes are turning, and I’m still humming the song from ‘Joshua Tree’. I can’t remember where I picked it up, but I haven’t been able to let it go. And I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. The refrain seems appropriate somehow to long bicycle journeys in new cities. I’m perpetually on the lookout for something, a pleasant cafe, the perfect photo, a bathroom. It’s a restless profession, tourism. Human and on vacation: biology, curiosity and the appetites all vie for attention, and none are set aside with complacency.

‘Can’t get no satisfaction,’ the 60s generation famously sang. It was a call to action. By the 80s, the anthem had softened into a wistful and wise ‘still haven’t found’. Relate this to travel – and life is travel: we never quite recover from our first trips, the highs and the disappointments. Some of us perennially chase the highs. Some of us give up travel, in pouting surrender to the disappointments.

I’m still cycling. Even after the cold start on my first day, I’m still on the bike. Cycling really is the best way to see a new city. You are free to meander and stop anywhere, which is especially useful when the guide books or sites recommend an area of the city, as opposed to single sights. There is the Latin Quarter in Copenhagen, for example, ‘Latin’ for its association with the medieval university. It’s fabled to be colourful and eclectic, medieval and modern, full of cute cafes and shops. Fabled and true: general recommendations leave one unsure how to capture the place. Have I seen the most colourful and chic cafe, or is that hidden over on the next block? Shall I check? When do I know I’ve seen it all?

I have seen a good slice of it. I’ve pedalled along a number of quiet streets adorned with colourful old houses. I’ve stopped in a few cafes with character. I’ve found a bar-in-bookstore that feels like a university study hall. I’ve stopped in the fifteenth-century St. Peter’s church, a pretty church in a picturesque, walled-off compound. The original church interior was lost in a fire, but interesting is the old Dutch painting of the sixteenth-century leaders of the Protestant movement. The church became German Lutheran during the seventeenth century, and was a centre for the Germans in the city until the nineteenth century, when a unified Germany became a threat to Denmark.

The church building has a striking steeple. Church towers in Copenhagen are unique. They spiral and they rise in intriguing elaborated sections, sometimes incorporating gilded spheres like shiny ball bearings set in a ring and holding up the rest.

The church-steeple tour of Copenhagen will eventually lead you to Slotsholmen, the privileged little island in the harbour, separated from the city only by canals now, the site of the city’s first fortress, and where the centre of Danish government has resided for centuries. Christiansborg Palace has another distinctive steeple, with three crowns and a set of those ubiquitous revolving golden spheres. Slotsholmen has another, far more intriguing tower, within sight of the palace. This one rises above the seventeenth-century Danish bourse, a steeple made of the intertwining tails of four dragons.

It’s an occasion for climbing heights and plumbing the depths, this trip to the flat capital of a flat land. My hosts have recommended climbing the tower at the Christiansborg Palace for a magnificent view of the city. I stand in a line a while, but I lose patience. Instead, I go the other direction. Underneath the palace, as it happens, are ruins form the first two fortresses built on this site, discovered in the beginning of the twentieth century. The first was built by the warrior bishop Absalon in the twelfth century. The second was built several centuries later, after the jealous lords of the Hanseatic League torched the first one. Soon afterward, in the fifteenth century, the castle became the principal residence of Danish kings.

So there in the basement of the kings, tourists can amble among the remains of the stone walls of the city’s first buildings -- essentially, remains of the city’s emergence from nature and from the forgotten quarrels of local tribes. Absalon was a steely character, the type who, if he survives his own aggressive exploits, leaves his stamp on the map. And this Absalon did. It takes a bit of imagination to interpret the broken walls, dull stones abandoned in the dark under the palace. That’s the challenge posed by all ruins. But here was the birth of the city. These are the traces of history. It’s humbling and inspiring both.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Travelogue 754 – May 24
Capital of Bikes


Those rattling bicycles tripping over the cobblestones of Europe, they make for an unlikely modern charm. We visit for Old World visions, and we watch the bikes. They can be especially mesmerizing for Americans, whose streets are either huge rushing rivers or barren gullies in silent neighbourhoods. Here, they are woodland streams, always lively. The banks crowd in with growth. Communities are visible.

Where do you suppose you will find the most bikes? In Amsterdam? According to my reading, no. The Number One cycling city is the capital city of the happiest people on Earth, Copenhagen in Denmark.

The day I arrive is cold and wet. I emerge from the central station and gaze up into the light rain with regret. I’ve decided to cycle around town on a rental, but the trip came so suddenly that I had little time to research. My regret is having made no reservation for a bike. I will have to walk the streets in the rain in search of a rental shop.

Immediately outside the Copenhagen train station is the Tivoli Gardens, something unique in European capitals. It’s an amusement park – as it happens, one of the oldest amusement parks in Europe. Maybe this accounts for the edge Danes have in the happiness market? Me, I’m not so happy having to make my way around half the perimeter of this oddity before I can search for a bike. The park is not too entertaining from the outside, just a long wall, though at one point I am looking up into the bowls of the roller coaster. Without knowing it, I am passing on the right the great Glyptotek. (There will be more to say about that museum later.)

The hunt for my bike is a short tale of misery, starting in poor planning, persisting in poor luck and misdirection, and finally ending in a tiny and suspect basement shop not so far from the Nørreport Station. I am cold already, doubting my commitment to the cycling idea, and (justifiably, as it turns out,) doubting the integrity of the shop-owner. But I know I must score my transportation soon, as I am due at my host’s apartment in a few hours, and I want a chance to see some of the city.

There is a lot to see cycling around the centre of Copenhagen. It’s a picturesque town, first settled as a ‘merchant’s port’ (origins of the city’s name) some eight hundred years ago, built at water’s edge and crossing the gap between several islands.

There are architectural beauties at every turn, but my capacity to enjoy the sights is severely inhibited by the sudden regression into winter. I’ve packed no gloves. My hands are burning with the cold. A light rain is falling, a rain that doesn’t feel so light while moving on the bike. I pedal through the centre of town and across the strait of the inner harbour to Christianshavn. This district sits on an artificial island built by King Christian IV in the seventeenth century. This island occupies old harbour space between the two greater islands, Zealand and Amager, the original homes to old Copenhagen. Christianshavn is often compared to Amsterdam because of its canals. The likeness to the Dutch city isn’t entirely coincidental since Dutch engineers and architects participated in the design of the island.

I find a café. I thaw my hands, and I consult the map. I lay a course to my host’s neighbourhood, kilometres away in west of the city.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Travelogue 753 – May 23
The Royal Theatre


I’m going onstage in an hour. Menna and I are grabbing a snack at a nearby pub. We’re talking about what happened in Manchester, and I have no words. She didn’t hear the news, and I am at a loss how to describe it without losing myself. I confess I am victim to a cold and consuming rage when I hear about children being targeted. I don’t say that with pride. Better the saints and activists who can do something about it. Me, I can’t find the words, particularly with the mother of my girls. It’s a short conversation.

True, I am also trying to preserve the tatters of my voice. I don’t say much in this play, but what I do say, I say with a big voice. I play an officer of the law in a dystopian society, so I get to stamp my feet and yell. It’s a fun part, a short bit in a short play written by a friend. Tonight is our third performance in our third venue. We get to take the stage at the Royal Theatre in The Hague.

The trouble is, I’ve been struggling with a bad cold. My throat has been terribly sore for days. I can barely contain a violent cough. I have stopped at a drug store at the train station and bought an assortment of medicines that might help, based on a dubious scanning of labels in Dutch. I’ve put down a variety of pills with two quick espressos, and I’ve left the Hague station for the station. It’s not far.

The whole square in front of the station has been dug up and fenced off. Holland is feeling like a playground for construction firms. Rotterdam is an obstacle course. Every week, I find a new project blocking my way. Detours are a lifestyle. I walk around the perimeter of this square and cross the street into the park. I stroll alongside the duck pond. It’s a lovely evening, and the park is full of smiling people. Take the first left out of the park, onto Korte Voorhout, and just past the Ministry of Finance is the Royal Theatre.

Matteo, who wrote the play, lives in The Hague. Since this is our only performance in his city we’ve attracted a good crowd. It’s a full house. There are many of Matteo’s compatriots, reminding me what an international city it is. They are laughing loudly in the lobby when we open the theatre doors. One of my duties in my role as Officer is to harangue the audience, setting the mood for the short play. I line them up for entry into the theatre, and I inspect them. The Italians are up to the game, saluting and talking back. It reminds me that Trump and Berlusconi are characters from the same comic book. We Americans are not alone in our love of dark burlesque in the chambers of power. Oppress if you must, but by God, make us laugh.

It strikes me that northern Europe is a long way from being fertile ground for fascism. There certainly are a lot of Europeans busy hating immigrants, -- in fact, succumbing to all manner of biases, -- but I can’t imagine any tyrant surviving the cynicism. There’s a stubborn and unforgiving egalitarianism here, operative in even the most trivial institutions. There is still a royal in Holland, of course, but strictly Dutch in his understatement.

I make it through the performance, though I have no voice left for the celebrations afterward. I’m nodding through short conversations in the lobby, tears in my eyes as I fight off the cough. At the earliest opportunity, Menna and I slip out and start the journey back to Rotterdam.

Menna enjoyed the play. She enjoyed seeing me shouting orders from the back of the house, startling innocent audience members. The play has had a good run. We played in rich Wassenaar a week ago, and before that in Copenhagen.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Travelogue 752 – May 15
Champions!


Feyenoord has clinched the Eredivisie title. It’s the first time in eighteen years. While they are regularly among the top three football clubs in Holland, it has been a while since they’ve won it all.

Feyenoord secured their title in a game yesterday with a club called Heracles. They botched one chance to clinch last week, against one of the other two teams from Rotterdam, a club called Excelsior. Since Excelsior is struggling to stay in the top league, no one has complained too bitterly.

It seems, after all, picturesque to win in a triumph over Heracles. We take down a demi-god, and we are champs. As it happens, Heracles the club hails from a town called Almelo in eastern Nederland, a place I’ve had to look for on a map. It lies north and east, in a border region called Twente. It’s a club with some history, founded in 1903, and twice league champs.

Yes, Feyenoord has won. This is no small matter to the Rotterdammers. Crowds poured into downtown yesterday to watch the game together and then to celebrate. I stayed home, intending to avoid all mayhem.

It’s Monday morning. I have a long ride on the bicycle to get to work. It’s my habit to wake early and bike halfway to work, stopping at the Coffee Company at Eendrachtsplein to have my coffee and do some work. I haven’t been sitting long before I see the first of the fans passing outside, red and white team scarves round their shoulders. They’re walking up the brick, pedestrian alleyway called the Old Binnenweg. They’re heading to the Coolsingel, Rotterdam’s Fifth Avenue, where the team will parade in triumph at noon, passing City Hall and saluting the fans in the Hofplein.

As the stream of fans grows, I retreat to the bike, and I pedal quickly toward school. I’m swimming upstream, schools of fans in red and white stripes ambling in toward the centre. At work, the halls are eerily quiet. Student attendance will be one sacrifice to the glory of Feyenoord. Teachers are smiling good-naturedly about it. It feels like a holiday. The teachers are watching news video of the growing crowds.

An hour after midday, I am back in town. I had an urgent errand, but had to give it up. All the shops are closed for the afternoon. I take refuge in a cafe in the Blaak neighbourhood. Today, the kilometer separating Blaak from the Coolsingel provides no buffer. Even here, the crowds have claimed the streets, squares and bars even this far. They have ordered sandwiches at this normally quiet place at such a rate that the baristas are distressed. They tell me my order will be the last one they take. The ‘kitchen’ behind the counter is a mess, pieces of crumbs and cheese and bits of rocket strewn everywhere.

I’m indoors, but the celebration is all-consuming. The noise is general, hanging in the air with the smoke of the firecrackers. It extends far beyond our boys in the courtyard. It’s a sustained roar above the city, punctuated by whistles, and outbreaks of song.

It’s a demonstration of the mystery of sport. I know it’s phenomena like this that excite hostility. Many of the fans here today are simply enjoying the chance to cheer. Parents bring excited children who get to exercise their enthusiasm. Then there are the contingents always scouting for the chance to drink and fight. How to relate these riots to lives of athletes, the pursuit of excellence, the performances of grace and skill? Is this a reward for the athletes, or outburst of self-indulgence? Hard to say. Tomorrow, the athletes are back in training. The students are back in class.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Travelogue 751 – May 11
Reading


I’m standing at a window in Amsterdam. It’s only the third floor, but I have a view over rooftops for several blocks toward the west. It’s like a platform in time, looking back. The roofs are steeply gabled and tiled. They look pretty much the way they have for hundreds of years.

The neighbouring roofs could be close enough for the leap. The streets below are invisible. They are so narrow they hardly exist. I could dance on the tiles, like a jolly chimney-sweep in ‘Mary Poppins’, except that the roofs are too steep. There is no flat roof, no central stage. And, in fact, the backdrop is all wrong. The Industrial Revolution hasn’t happened yet. The scene in old Amsterdam is altogether too peaceful and cheerful. The irony of the sooty-faced clowns would drain silently into the canals.

I’m waiting for an interview. It’s not a job interview, but an entrance interview for a certification course. I’m hoping to devote one whole month to this during my summer. So, yes, I’m undergoing an interview for the opportunity to spend my own money and my own time. These days you have to qualify to spend money, as much as to make it. But I’m happy. It’s a beautiful little corner of the world. I can spend some of my summer here.

By happy chance, the school is located in one of my favourite neighbourhoods of the city, the Spui. (Pronounce it like ‘Spow’, but with a Canadian twist, like the sound of ‘about’ in Toronto.) There is nothing to recommend the Spui over dozens of other neighbourhoods in Amsterdam. I just happen to like its ambience. Of course it’s an old corner of the city, still within the circles of the original canals, not too far from the Dam. I’m always going to need history; that’s just how I’m programmed. These quiet roofs testify to the age, the elapsed time, the settling dust of history.

Down in the Spui square, you get a sense of the character that makes this neighbourhood unique. The two main storefronts are bookstores. One of them, the Athenaeum, is my favourite in the city. I make time for a visit every time I come to Amsterdam. The other is the American Book Center. It’s a decent bookstore, especially if you’re a genre reader. There’s a university building fronting the square. And otherwise, the majority of doorways lead you into traditional Dutch cafes, awnings and cheap Parisian-style chairs out front, and wood-panelled nonchalance inside. Before my interview, I’ve stopped in one cafe, the Zwart, for a shot of espresso. I’ve seen it mentioned somewhere as a literary café. These sorts of reputations dwell in the shadows. You won’t see any signs of it at nine in the morning.

Instead, you enjoy the atmosphere of old Amsterdam. You watch the bikes go by, always with urgency. They rattle as they take the bricks. The pass the befuddled tourists, bent over their maps.

Thursday, May 04, 2017

Travelogue 750 – May 4
Profile of a Mystic


I’ve been thinking about community, and when I can I pursue my cursory read of the writers of the ‘Age of Reason’. Then I encounter an article in the New Yorker. It’s about the author of ‘the Benedict Option’. I know nothing more about him or the book than what is mentioned in this article. I haven’t never heard of him before. I can only examine the article alone as an artefact of our culture; I’m not interested in learning more about him. He seems to me a familiar sort of amateur mystic, insistent on mythologizing himself and everything he encounters. If so, it’s just another seduction.

More interesting to me is the appeal in the article to that powerful trope of the American conservative mind: the spectre of corrosive moral relativism. He cites an influence in his thinking, one Scottish philosopher, Alasdair MacIntyre. You’ll see why this caught my eye. The author of article says modern societies have experienced a breakdown in the ‘ability to think coherently about moral life.’ Apparently, it’s the Enlightenment to blame because the Enlightenment ‘put individuals in charge of deciding for themselves what was right or wrong.’ Now that is a damning charge!

The conclusion for the profiled author/mystic is that Christians need to retreat from a society that has succumbed wholesale to this nightmare world of individualism and set up communities that will quietly survive until … (when?) until the pendulum swings back to ... (what?) back to a resurgence of Christian societies. I sort of lost the thread there. Are we implicitly being led again to the Rapture?

I stress that I only have the author of the article’s interpretation of both MacIntyre and the author of ‘the Benedict Option’. And I have no interest in pursuing a deeper acquaintance with either of them. Standing alone, I still find the profile an amusing puzzle. How does one end up in intellectual cul-de-sacs like this one? And what happens when you lead whole crowds into those tight spaces?

In weak moments, we all hunger for authority. It’s an attractive notion that we might surrender to a greater wisdom, particularly one ‘revealed’ or one from ancient sources. It would be a comfort to have things decided for us. It is exhausting to think. And yes it’s true that, almost by definition, thinking does not ‘solve’ metaphysical or moral issues. If solving it all is what started us thinking, we will some day realize that the real utility of thinking is something else entirely. By shedding light, it may even reveal more problems that we had initially intuited. But the adult lives with contradiction, uncertainty, tension, and adversity.

What is steadfastly refused by the simpler-minded advocates of faith is the role of choice. There is still individual choice at the centre of every decision and act of faith, every commitment. The choice of an intentional community is still the choice of every individual involved. The choice of a Christian morality is still an agreement among people, a ‘social contract’ in the words of one Enlightenment devil.

And what these advocates will resist with even more vehemence is the admission that any moral formulation by a community is modern. No faith or thought or community is the replication of an earlier one. Full stop. The more one tries to force it, the more warped the result.

Morality is a dialogue. Grow up, and begin the dialogue: with the people you share this world with. Every generation discovers morality in dialogue with others and with tradition. There are no shortcuts. Or, I should say, there are shortcuts – like voluntary ignorance, – but they will invariably lead to conflict among stunted and immature individuals.

The article offers a profile of one fan of the profiled mystic. She is complaining: ‘If I say, “Oh, I can’t make it, [my husband] and I have a thing,” that’s normal. But if I say, “Sorry, I have to go to church,” that’s weird.’ These are the deep intellectual reservoirs being tapped. Substitute almost anything for ‘church’ in that little monologue – theatre, book club, football, ballet, Fight Club, bocce ball, -- and you understand something. You understand the how petty the platform can become, even for a great and profound religion.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Travelogue 749 – April 28
Marking the Calendar


The baristas are giddy this morning. They worked yesterday, on King’s Day, and the cafe was a madhouse, as it always is on King’s Day. By afternoon, the lines were long, and they were managing drunks and families and the crises of impatience. The morning after is a relief. They are free to be careless.

Another April is ready to pass into memory. This one is passing on amid colder temperatures than those that brought it in. The skies are dark, and the lanes glisten with the last shower. It’s cold. I ask if I can close the window on the third floor that allows all the heat out. My fingers are moving slowly over the keyboard. The barista only laughs.

Calendars were conceived in ritual. Seasons cycle round; nature’s events seem to recur. The day is much like one a year ago. We remember. We celebrate, commemorate. We observe. We purge. We let it go again. It comes again. Spring is a fun time of year to welcome back.

April has a light heart in Holland. The weather breaks. The trees blossom. The black bird with the lovely voice settles in the courtyard. The April calendar starts for me with the local marathon. I ran this year, as part of a relay team from work. I was one of four, and I got to bring it home and cross the finish line. It sounds exciting, but the reality looks more like zigzagging among tired and nearly hopeless people. As I’ve said, April has stood on its head this year. Warm weather blew in early, and then the weeks slid back toward winter until cold King’s Day. Early April is summer-like. These poor, pale runners, bred for cold, were suffering in the heat. I had a good race, feeling light and ready to run. The weather was gorgeous. I flew by them all, and I felt guilty for it. I snuck across the finish line – though, yes, with arms raised in triumph.

April closes with King’s Day. It may sound like a sober state holiday, but it’s a day meant to be fun. It is simply the celebration of the birthday of the monarch. Holland has been blessed with long reigns since the nineteenth century, and one of those healthy people was blessed with an April birthday. It so happens the new king is also an April baby. Grandmother and son were born only three days apart. (Mother retained her mother’s birthday as Queen’s Day.)

My family and I did our part. We dressed in orange, and we set out to the street markets to walk among the crowds and shop. Our market this year was at Heemraadsplein, a busy centre in the west of the city. Our friend Jan has a balcony that overlooks this pleasant park. Today, his children are manning a table in the market selling hot wine and fudge. In a spirit of charity, I indulge.

Menna and her mother leave Baby and me behind, diving into the crowds and quickly disappearing. Baby quickly finds ways to divert herself with other people’s things. I realize that browsing without touching is not a working concept for Baby. I buy a bag of baby-sized plastic kitchenware for fifty cents, and we retreat to a grassy area to play. She enjoys nothing more than pretending to eat and drink. She can repeat the rituals of meal time for hours, and I’m happy to pay along. The cold day is not bad once the sun gains some strength. We sit in the grass a long time, rowdier and older little children running past, stopping in order to smack and trip and push each other. Baby watches, bemused, and returns to her polite repast.

Shopping done, Mama re-appears like a mirage. ‘Is that Mama?’ I ask Baby. ‘Mama!’ We walk to the tram station along the canal, through the busy park, strolling among many other families. We stop to play on the slide and the swings. Baby sits with Mama on the little toadstool seat that turns in dizzy circles on its base. She laughs and laughs. This is what spring should sound like. This is what we commemorate in April.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Travelogue 748 – April 20
Seeing Friends


I’m contemplating communities this month. They’re surprisingly diverse these days, intersecting in funny ways, making us complex interchanges of identity. We become richer in character and judgement, hopefully. I think of my friend the philosopher, who works at the café and plays minor-league football. I enjoy how all this works itself out in his personality. He has a few voices he can employ. I reflect on the communities themselves. They interact there, at the node of the individual, but rarely outside it. The mid-fielder on his team and his closest associate at the university may pass each other every day on the street and never know it. If they met at a party, they may struggle with conversation. Communities intersect for us in time but not in substance, lying like one transparency over another, making the blotter of life a colourful one.

There are communities that intersect across time. My communities now, include runners, theatre people, writers, teachers. My communities across time are those who were with me in college, in jobs, in adventures. They represent places, California, Ethiopia, the East Coast, and Europe.

This month, I’ve had emissaries from several different lives. Howard travelled from the furthest point in time, all the way from our freshman year in university. He spotted me in the café by the train station before I spotted him, though he stood directly in my line of sight. It had been longer than we realized since we had seen each other last. The lines in our faces and the greying hair gave us away. ‘How long has it been?’

It’s been a long time since his son was the age of my girls, but he still knows how to make Baby laugh. He holds Little Sister with no awkwardness at all. He joins the family, and he’s in good spirits. They aren’t the high and unbridled spirits of our first acquaintance, when we were set loose on university property. That reckless community has dispersed. What is left is the enduring friendship, enduring through years of much quieter times. Quiet as they have become, our vocabulary was formed during the wild times. Everything is set beside the dreams of youth, perhaps with irony, perhaps with contentment, but the mould is set. Friendships are legacies of community. They follow laws. After a few days with us, he continues on to Sweden, where his son studies. They have plans to travel to Israel.

Our bonds are memory and vocabularies are hope. Shared partying, shared dreaming.

The next visitor travels from a later time, a time following closely on university, when dreams are careening into kerbs and walls, propelled by our naivete and inexperience. Wes and I met in Boston, but knew each other best in San Francisco and Minneapolis. When we first met, he was a rocker and a college student, and generally too cool to be hanging out with the likes of me. He’s still a rocker, but a family man, and even now, too cool. He has brought his wife and teenage daughter. They are touring Europe, and we are one of their first stops.

Baby benefits again, everyone wanting to hold her, read to her, take her picture. She is laughing, shy and fearless in turns, climbing over her new friends and then retreating into Mama’s arms.

Our bonds are music and culture, the decades we have shared, the things we know about each other by witnessing the struggles. Shared disappointments and lessons.

And now come visiting us are our Dutch visitors. They are co-workers of mine, husband and wife. They have come to meet our youngest daughter for the first time, Baby’s little sister. They bring gifts for both girls. For Baby is an orange dress for King’s Day, and for Little Sister, a crinkly toy. Little Sister smiles, as she so often does. She’s a happy soul.

It’s the present. We sit together in our modest living room, and the day’s vocabulary is woven from work and from the calendar, from the world right outside or windows. Conversation follows simple lines of projection, no less satisfying for their simplicity. Summer is coming. We talk about travel. They are planning on Prague, and tell them about that grand city old in the 90s. It was cheap; it was a celebration. We tell them we’re going nowhere this summer. We don’t hesitate or regret to say it. ‘We’re staying home.’ We’re staying home with the tightest little community, our family. Happy for it. We’ve seen a lot already. And we’ll see more, when the girls are old enough to travel.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Travelogue 747 – April 13
Making Books


Electricity has returned to the wijn bar. Customers cheer. Enough of the Ethiopian experience survives in me to temper my response. All this happens on a different register for the Dutch. The music resumes. Perhaps that is more comfort than the light to generations raised with earphones. The interruption is unsettling; one can’t be sure one is having fun unless the music says so. Ethiopia has been good conditioning for me, a culture of interruption to scramble the programming. It’s liberating for those of us bred to be cyborgs.

I pack away the magazines. The evening is just beginning. I have a ticket to see author Michael Chabon speak at one of the local bookstores. It’s the biggest bookstore in town, meandering across the entire ground floor of a large building facing the busy Coolsingel. It’s after hours; the doors are looked. A solitary employee is stationed by the door to let in people with tickets. We are guided through wide open spaces lined with bookshelves toward a central room set with chairs and stage.

We ticket-holders are a select crowd. We check each other out, with all the affection and hostility of extended family. We are bookworms, writers, and culture junkies. Some of us are comic book aficionados, drawn by Chabon’s forays into that special realm. We chose our seats with care. We pose by the display tables. There is some posing with the interviewer and moderator, a young author who apparently cuts a fine figure among local literary circles.

Once the show gets going, I recognize with a smile the interviewer’s distinctly Dutch style of questioning, brusque and eager for every tangent. Mr. Chabon handles it well, with appealing humility and openness. He discusses his new book, writing styles, his distinct subject matter, and working with his author wife. If it weren’t for his unnerving resemblance, with the coke-bottle glasses and the querulous high treble in his voice, to a particularly repellent member of the board I worked for until recently, I would have thoroughly enjoyed his company.

I reflect on these communities we drift along through and along with, and how these communities define us in pinwheel fashion, giving us our chameleon colours as we progress through our days. I’ve been contemplating this little bit of commentary that takes a look at how politics changes with the multiplication of identities. We are loath to admit how much democracy has historically relied on homogeneous blocks of identity, and how fragile democracy is proving to be in the age of heightened individualism.

It’s a sort of intrusion of politics that finally convinces me to leave the lecture. Chabon is clearly very experienced in interviews. He is resolute in taking no risks. I don’t blame him. I’ve noticed how sensitive people have become, so easy to wound. It has become a persistent danger to anyone in the public eye. It’s as though the enrichment of individuality has only accomplished a taut stretching of our thin skins over more surface area. We are many-faceted targets.

It’s getting late, and I’m thinking about my babies. After his engaging thoughts about the Holocaust in arts – worded with excruciating and exhausting care – I find there isn’t much more to excite me. I slip out of my seat and go in search of the lonely guardian of the door. It’s true night now; there are no traces of the spring sun in the west. I’ve forgotten where I locked my bike. I walk up and down the Coolsingel, breathing deeply of the cool air.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Travelogue 746 – April 12
Making Lists


I cycle down to the Meent. I have some time between engagements. I have a mind to stop in at a favourite wijn bar. What I want is a place to read.

I stop on a quiet street, not far from the cathedral. There is a row of small cafes here, all carrying forward a tradition of simple tastes and quiet relaxation. The décor is subdued, the interiors both dark and light, big windows and dark wood.

I lock up the bicycle and enter. It’s a week night, and there aren’t many people. Something is up. It’s unusually quiet. The few patrons have a stunned look about them. They look at me as though sharing a joke. I take a seat, and I extract my magazines from my rucksack.

I’m slow to figure out what has happened, but it does seep in. They are talking about it, and the language filters in. The lights have gone out on this block. One of the servers is lighting candles and deploying them, though it’s still light out. The barkeep from next door rushes in to assure everyone he has called the city.

I shrug. It’s all the same to me. Spring has brought long hours. There is still plenty of sunlight to read by. Out my window, the sun is hanging over the shoulder of the cathedral.

My first article is an unfortunate choice. It’s enjoyable because it’s well-written, but the subject is loss and grief. I have been spending so much time in this emotional territory lately, I’m vulnerable to the underlying despair.

I set the magazine aside, and I stare out the window at the narrow lane outside. I feel the weight of the subject matter settle inside of me, and I take a minute to acknowledge what I’ve done to myself. I’ll be paying for this for a few days. There’s a nightmare coming.

What’s more, the article was written was written by a woman who has lost her father. This will work to layer my new anxieties about fatherhood on top of the existing layers of grief. I’m beginning to realize there is no ‘working this out’. One premise behind years of scribbling has been proven false. I am still editing pages for publication from among of the hundreds written about this stuff. At least I can take pride in how diligently I have pursued the premise.

The realization has been a very long process, maybe because I have imagined healing to be a long process. By the time the rainbow dissipates, stranding one far from any pot of gold, many irretrievable miles have been travelled. One settles in a new country.

It’s an American publication I’ve been reading. I’m wondering if mood is an American specialty, soul-drenching mood, sorrow and melancholy, rages and fits of insanity. It’s not that other nations have no struggles with the spectre of death, but could it be that Americans of a certain generation have taken it personally? Is it the shadow of our post-war optimism?

I’m discovering that parenthood sharpens this struggle. The stakes are higher. I must teach hope. I have observed that hope tends to reward itself, and hopeful people have happier lives. I refer to real hope, not the hope bred of desperation.

I sense – probably wrongly – that Europeans do see things differently. I sense that the world consists of more facts, and is less saturated with mood. I sense that Freud’s (and his followers’) theories were indeed revolutionary, but were processed in the mind first, rather than in the heart. Existentialism fuelled discussion, rather than lonely despair.

I set the magazine aside. I use the balance of my time to write lists. Lists are wonderful restorative devices. Inventories of names are a tonic to depression. Death teaches the insignificance of things. Names teach significance. It is not the job of the void to assign value to things of substance.

Every day Baby learns a new name. I have to keep up.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Travelogue 745 – March 28
Counting Steps


And so I lick my wounds after the half marathon, and I return to my routine in Holland, even as spring dawns. The weather has been a sudden tonic for winter, and people have been beside themselves, making every step a celebration. The skies are alarmingly blue, and the sun brings us warmth.

And so a winter training season ends with a spring run. The skies have broken open. When I ride the bike into work in the morning, the sun has risen. The birds are singing. By the time I get a chance to run, the pavements beyond the protection of shadows is warm. I regret the long sleeves. I have company in new runners, lured by the spring into fleeting hopes of sweaty fun.

I bring the injury back into training, and slowly it disappears, a Cheshire grin of pain. I have slowed the training down, but I must continue. I am scheduled to run another distance for charity, this time as part of a relay team of colleagues in the Rotterdam Marathon. It will, thankfully, be a shorter run.

Running is an opportunity for reflection. I reflect on the long stretches of road in Bath, unusual for England in their straight lines of sight, chosen by the marathon committee to unnerve native-born Brits, who would rarely have run a straight line for miles in this way. There’s something like achievement in turning corners. The sight of distance can drain away momentum.

I had made it to the final straightaway, leading back into town on the second loop, when my hip went into meltdown. In that circumstance, the distance ahead was taunting. I started walking.

I think of the winding roads outside Bath, riding along them in Pey’s car, struggling with car sickness. I’m sitting on what should be the driver’s side, and I’m watching whatever I can see in the high beams of the little auto. Most of what I see is alarmingly close. The landscape is as compact as the car, the little stone walls racing by just beyond the bumper, other cars breezing bay with inches to spare. We are turning, rising and falling, all at once, and I am battling to keep my stomach in place.

We are traveling to Trowbridge, where we will sit in a poetry group. I will sip tea with some desperation for the first half hour, hoping to calm my tummy. But as the nausea recedes and I listen, I discover with some delight that this is good stuff being shared. My memories of poetry readings from my youth has prepared me for embarrassment and boredom. These people are good. They are lively and intelligent, and they know their poetry.

I leave inspired, even if a little disheartened by the prospect of another harrowing ride home. I write every day, even without much faith in writing. This renews my faith. Their faith is contagious.

I write every day, and lately I am rounding off the editing work on a book I hope to self-publish within a matter of weeks. This book forms the second and connecting link among three works that capture some themes from my life, specifically from what forms now the middle part of my narrative, those years begun in Minnesota and carrying me to Ethiopia.

It’s funny. The more I try to narrate ‘life’, the more I think there is no such thing. There are only details. And, as I’ve recently said about sport, one can only take detail lightly in order to take it seriously. It makes no sense as meaning unless dismissed as meaning. One writes and reads about detail simply for the fun of it, and then somehow a sense of import dawns on one. But it rarely unfolds, blooms, (like spring,) into an explicit, simple, readable text.

I’ve returned home with blue skies commencing. I ask the Gryphon to lead me to someone with a story. The Mock Turtle looks at us with large eyes full of tears, saying nothing.

'He wants for to know your history, she do,' says the Gryphon.

'I'll tell it her,' says the Mock Turtle in a deep, hollow tone. 'Sit down, both of you, and don't speak a word till I've finished. When we were little,' the Mock Turtle is still sobbing, 'we went to school in the sea. The master was an old Turtle — we used to call him Tortoise — .'

Monday, March 13, 2017

Travelogue 744 – March 13
Halted Steps


There are those moments in a long road race when you are empowered to make time stand still. You are compelled to make time stand still. It’s meditation forged in a furnace, a deep mining of the present moment by agency of pain.

Except for the first mile and the last mile, the course of the Bath Half pursues a loop west to a bridge that crosses the Avon out past the city limits, where the town has given way to open fields, and following another road back into town. The race completes that loop twice before running by the train station, through Widcombe, and down Great Pulteney Street to the finish. That loop makes for four long straightaways, first west and then east, long and flat stretches of road that test the will.

‘It's always six o'clock now,' says the Mad Hatter mournfully. Time (Him, not It, the Hatter has clarified,) Time won’t allow the hour to advance past six. ‘It’s always tea-time, and we've no time to wash the things between whiles.'

This is the chosen curse of Mr. Time, in the mad science of the Hatter. Make him mad and he will stop the clock. Why do we (more or less) sane mortals daydream about stopping time? Maybe it’s simply because we want to sleep, or read more than headlines. But in Wonderland, this is a punishment particularly galling, especially when you can’t complete tea time to satisfaction.

In our world, runners stop time in order to complete the race. It’s a paradox among endurance sports: we perform feats that are measured by time, so we must dismantle time. The race becomes a set of steps. And each one is a still shot of the asphalt underneath, of that guy just ahead of you, of the furthest visible point ahead. It becomes a chronicle of single, noisy breaths. For an older runner like me, it’s like a medical file, monitoring a variety of systems. How are those ankles, those knees? Lungs, heart, stomach?

And then there’s the recurring question, ‘What am I doing here?’ That needs constant contemplation. There are so many angles to explore. When is sport trivial? When is sport madness? The answers are almost universally matters of perspective. Take it lightly, and sport has merit and meaning. Take it seriously, and become ridiculous. Yes, it’s madness.

They say Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the nineteenth-century Oxford don writing as Lewis Carroll, had a special sympathy for children, particularly little girls. It could be that ‘sympathy’ was not the right word. Either way, he enjoyed the company of children, and enjoyed the kind of repartee that children partake in, the word play, the irreverence, the quick moods and emphatic declarations, the will to subjectivity.

‘We’re all mad here,’ says the Cheshire Cat. ‘I’m mad. You’re mad.’

"How do you know I’m mad?" said Alice.

"You must be," said the Cat, "or you wouldn’t have come here.”

I’m keeping a decent pace. I’m not on course to break my record, but I’m not far off it, either. Then comes Mile Ten. Every long race has its wall. For the half marathon, it’s Mile Ten. I put in many long training runs before the race with nothing more than the spectre of Mile Ten to goad me forward, the anxiety of the imagined pain. But no preparation will save me this time. My hip suddenly starts in with a steady and deep, debilitating ache. I have to stop.

I stop, and I calculate. What am I capable of doing now? The time is gone, but is the race? I walk, testing the hip. I slowly start running again. It’s painful, but if I keep it slow, maybe. I carry on for no more than half a kilometre before I have to stop again. I won’t let myself pull out of the race. I think of my athletes in Ethiopia, and I’m ashamed. I have to finish.

So this is how I make it to the finish line, some 15 minutes off the time I should have had. But I arrive in one piece, and I celebrate nonetheless. Anything less would be madness.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Travelogue 743 – March 12
Many Steps


‘It’s HIM,’ the Mad Hatter says. ‘If you knew Time as well as I do, ….’

I began the day of the race with some drills out in the rain. At seven, I jogged up to Alexandria Park and did a few circuits, alternating between fast and slow, warming up for the ordeal of the race. The park occupies the top of a hill, and there is a circular drive there, about half a kilometre in length. It climbs steeply, then drops. Running round it is a good warm-up. I build up to some speed. Time is, after all, the measure of today’s success.

I’ve been re-reading Alice(‘s Adventures) in Wonderland. The Tim Burton film was on TV before I left for England. Alice’s story seemed rather liberally re-interpreted in the film, but it had been many years since I read the book. In point of fact, I didn’t remember there being much of a story to Alice in Wonderland at all. Hadn’t that been one of its charms?

After my morning drills, I ate with Pey and her family. I took an hour to rest, completely off my feet. I read a few pages from Alice. ‘I dare say,’ the Mad Hatter objected, `I dare say you never even spoke to Time!' The little girl wasn’t sure how to answer.

Lewis Carroll – actual name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson -- published this little story in 1865. Before it was ever written down, the story was told to entertain the three young Liddell sisters (including Alice) while rowing one summer day up the Isis River in Oxford. Mr. Dodgson was a professor in mathematics and logic at the university. That a logician should come up with the age’s nonsense tale seems to me lovely.

I’m here to raise money for my athletes in Addis Ababa, a place far down the rabbit hole of north-south disparity. I’ve set a nonsense goal, a new time to beat an old time. Nonsensically, I allow it to rattle me, to make me nervous. I’ve been training toward this nonsense time for months, and it’s been strangely effective in motivating me. I’m in very good shape.

‘I know I have to beat time when I learn music,’ Alice says. The Hatter warns her, ‘He won't stand beating.’

Pey and I start down the hill toward town. She’s accompanying me to the race start. I’m feeling fragile as we approach the steep staircase down Beechen Cliff. ‘Maybe I could do this thing tomorrow?’ I wonder. Pey advises me that they will disqualify me. Why this day? Why this distance? I ask all the questions that make sport seem genuinely silly. And not only am I running, but raising money for runners and perpetuating the nonsense. So it goes. Life is a very serious matter until one attends the details.

I’m safe among the crowds of runners in the starting gate. The race will begin in five. We stretch and jump to keep warm. We joke with each other and wave to spectators. Phones are raised high to snap pictures of the thousands of competitors. It will take us almost five minutes to reach the starting line, slowly surging forward, and we’re among the first groups to start. In an hour, the same people bouncing left to right and smiling in anticipation will be lost somewhere in the second loop of the course, suffering and urging him- or herself forward with every step, perhaps with a mantra like mine, ‘Never again.’ Every so often, police will wave them to the side to allow passage of an ambulance.

‘Suppose it were nine o'clock in the morning, just time to begin lessons,’ says the Hatter. ‘You'd only have to whisper a hint to Time, and round goes the clock in a twinkling! Half-past one, time for dinner!’

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Travelogue 742 – March 11
High Steps


The youngest trees are budding here on Beechen Cliff in Bath. It’s spring. The morning air is still, fresh and damp. I have to stop at the head of the stairs. I pause because the stone staircase down the steep hillside is daunting, I know, from years’ experience how jarring they are, the steps spaced unnaturally. I want to take a breath. I want to stretch. I set my back pack down and exercise my aching back. I’m only freshly out of bed. I was so eager to enjoy the morning, I set out immediately after waking.

I take a deep breath, exercising my lungs. They are going to be put to the test tomorrow, when I run the half marathon. I’ve been having some trouble with those trusty old organs of breathing. I have asked a lot from them in this long life. They have lived in some of the planet’s most polluted cities. They have run. They have performed quite faithfully despite debilitation in childhood, due to asthma and repeated illness. This week, it feels like I have some minor infection, inhibiting full expansion. I stand at the head of the stairs and I fill my lungs. I undertake some easy stretches.

My senses are sharp. I am aware of the miracle of this morning, the concatenation of miracles. For one thing, I am back. I have been writing about return, in my piece about Grace. At my age, life seems like stories of return and recurrence. This place, both Bath and the cliff above it, are sacred places of return. I have been here so many times, standing under the high pines, pausing just like this, to catch my breath on the stairs, to listen to the birds, to absorb the stillness of the small wood, so often free of human disturbance, a place made for pause among the activities and travels.

Another miracle is the sensation of being rested. I have slept eight hours straight! If I didn’t have the race tomorrow, I wouldn’t know what to do with this renewed energy. With twenty-one kilometres to run on the morrow, the answer is, conserve it. Tuck it away and protect it, like gold. And what to do with this clarity of mind? The answer is, calculate how long it’s been since I had eight hours of sleep. I try and I can’t. I will need another eight hours to have full brain power. I’m content to enjoy the hushed scene of slender tree trunks soaring past me into the fog of the early morning. That seems the best use of heightened perceptions.

I pick up the old rucksack again, throwing it over my shoulder. I start carefully down the decline, employing a kind of sideways, swinging gait to minimize the impact of the high steps. I remember the days when I could jog all the way down. Reaching further, I remember days when I could jog up. Age is measured in pain.

At the bottom, I’ll follow the walkway down, through the old churchyard and then to the river. Pey has told me about a great new bakery by the bus station. I will have a huge pain aux raisins with an espresso.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

Travelogue 741 – March 2
Reading


I’ve been editing. I’ve been a long time editing. As the atmosphere condenses, as late winter broods and struggles with itself, wrestles with its shadows and its showers, I’m reading and revising. I have another book to get out the door. Most of the stories I wrote years ago. There’s been so much to do.

The spring birds have begun singing in the courtyard of my apartment complex. I hear them when I leave the flat, as I take my first breaths of the day’s fresh air. I love that one moment of the day. It is unique, and it’s precious, the taste of fresh morning air. It’s the taste of being alive. It renews my choice for this place by the sea, even during times of trial. Now the birds of spring have returned.

It’s less often that I’m leaving the house in darkness. Night is retreating.

I hear the cry of ‘Boek!’ Baby has developed a passion for books. She cries for them, cries if we don’t have time to read them aloud. She sits and recites from them for her stuffed animals, jabbing one chubby finger at the open page.

‘Where is the boek?’ Mama asks, and Baby stops, suddenly alert. She runs to the cabinet where we keep her books. She pulls at the door. We laugh. ‘Panda, panda,’ we read. ‘Wat zie jij daar?’

There are more words. They wrap round me when I’m tired. I want this done by month’s end. I am editing the final piece, a short memoir piece about my mother. Three brothers are there. They stand above the wild surf in Oregon, and they are releasing ashes into the waves, releasing words in memoriam into the salty spray and the roar of the violent ocean. It is all I can do to make this scene cohere.

I’ve written a lot about survival. ‘Survive’ is a transitive verb, whether one uses it as such or not. One survives something, and that something is meant to harm. One survives someone, and that someone did not survive the things that harm. Survival, when treated as an intransitive, is a celebration. I have not overcome its transitive nature. That is survival’s shadow. It casts one in darkness, and in that darkness it can be difficult to concentrate.

The ocean spray, water’s intention cast upon stone, waves disintegrated, lines the boulders with slick sea water. I remember that much. Those stones underfoot have uneven and sharp edges, and the brothers are struggling for balance. In quick flashes, they may observe themselves. It is comic. And it’s also unbearably sad. The one occasion for remembrance is rendered another silly story. It is freighted with detail. But detail is the stuff of living, and it makes fools of us all. There is beauty in being a fool.

It is all I can do to make this scene cohere. That’s the truth, while it’s happening. It never did cohere. The written word gathers the shards and splinters of it, lovingly places them in neat rows and catalogues them. The order achieved is no order. So why?

The rivers surface is choppy. One sees the wind cross over the rippling puddles. And the spray from the sky, leaving ephemeral patterns there, drops quickly passing. The spring is born from such turmoil. I am tired. The wind on my shoulders requires so much effort. I bend to it; I set myself to the day’s mundane journeys. The afternoon is gloomy. It darkens so. The rain catches me before I’m home. I stand outside one extra minute, too tired even to get out of the weather. The birds have retreated to their nests. Inside mine, I stand a moment without shedding even my backpack. Baby comes to look up into my face.

It’s evening. The lights inside are yellow, a low flame held in stasis. We hear the wind outside. Tiny Baby’s fingers are cold.

‘Boek!’ She says. Her voice is sure. Okay, Baby. Come close. ‘Panda, panda, wat zie jij daar?’

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Travelogue 740 – February 21
Two!


Baby says new words almost every day. Yesterday, she repeated her own name for the first time. We were drawing, and I spelled out her name for her. I’ve done it before, but this time she repeated it when I read it out loud.. She said her name.

Her excitement was nothing compared to ours. Mama rushed in from the kitchen. But Baby was already tiring of the game. It’s funny how the little things begin to count for so much. She is saying her own name! And I marvel at it. I briefly wonder what it means to her. Names suddenly appear so ephemeral and arbitrary. How does we take these words to oneself, fashion identities from them?

All words are being re-invented. Some of her first words: cold, lekker (delicious in Dutch,) joro (ear in Amharic). She counts to three now, with some assistance. She and I recite the numbers to each other. She seems most taken with two. She wants to start there. She points at any number, and she says two. I point to numbers and name them. She looks up at me and she thinks. Says, ‘Two.’

Everything she says, she says in a tender baby accent. She wants us to say it over and over, while she repeats it. She plays with the pronunciation. And she never says it quite right. She smiles with excitement.

What is the difference, after all? Five looks like a backward two. Three is the bottom twisted the other way. Eight connects all the lines. Why? Play that game where you repeat some word until the meaning fades and the sound begins to sound ridiculous. I think numbers are most vulnerable to degenerating into nonsense. What is a number? Why do they follow each other this way, each a product of the arbitrary ‘one’? Is there something inherent in the sound or symbol of ‘one’, or ‘two’, that fits it to its place? No, each dissolves into nonsense. And then, as soon as you turn your back, they re-constitute themselves. Numbers are durable as atoms.

‘One … tree,’ she shouts and she jumps into my arms. I lift her up in the air, so she can scream. When I put her on the ground, she retreats and repeats. ‘One … tree,’ and charges. She hasn’t put the names of the numbers together quite yet, but she has discovered the fun of the countdown.

I don’t remember learning numbers. Baby won’t. None of us remember, I suppose. But the numbers enter our minds, and I’m guessing they form there one of the early structures for logic, order and thought. What colours and shapes do these forms take in the inchoate mind of the child? Will two always be yellow, and four green? Do the numbers march in succession, left to right? Or does each appear freely, ballooning like cartoons before the mind’s eye?

Does this zone of pre-thought form one province of the unconscious? Do our precious numbers float there among so many other impressions brought on board before we had thought? Do they always thereafter speak to us of a thousand other ingredients from the dark? As adults, we will return to numbers with some wonder. We will sense a mystery around them, and sometimes form theories that numbers have mystical qualities to them.

I’ve been reading about the Early Moderns in Europe, whose science and mathematics changed everything. They taught us that mathematics was the language for understanding the universe. I find that an appealing thought. I’m sure I’m not alone. We’ve wrestled with the uncompromising laws of maths and found in them something to admire and respect. Life is like that, we think, precise and unbending in its laws. We learn about pi, and we slowly realize that it occupies its place like a monument. And we learn that some monuments have no corporal existence. They are abstract. Civilization shares a mind, and in that mind are monuments of absolute value. How is that possible?

It will be easier for Baby, I’m guessing, having been born into the computer age. Information is a parallel realm of disembodied thought, built from thought matter provided by mathematicians. Maybe abstractions have become easier.

It’s said that René Descartes was a sickly child. The teachers at his boarding school allowed him to stay in bed until noon. He followed this pattern for much of his life. He lay in bed dreaming about numbers. One morning he watched the progress of a fly across his ceiling, and he asked himself how he would describe the fly’s position mathematically. He realized that any position could be described by any two numbers, along a vertical axis and a horizontal one, once you defined one point of reference, say, the corner of the ceiling.

This thought experiment became the basis of Cartesian coordinates and analytical geometry. These, in turn, became a foundation for calculus and then the imaginings of modern physics, drafting geometries we can’t see, pictures of the universe that can exclusively be described by mathematics.

This is how we construct worlds from numbers. These are fantastical dreams. I wonder what the Greeks would have thought of relativity and gravity wells and quantum mechanics, elaborations on reality that describe no phenomenon that any man or woman has ever experienced. Would Plato have decided these mathematical dreams were the incorporeal forms that informed the imperfect world?

Every day, Baby is learning. I can’t describe it. I couldn’t direct it or stop it, even if I had the will. It’s nature, and it’s wondrous. ‘One, two, three,’ and she jumps in my arms.