Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Travelogue 784 – December 26
The Three Johns

It’s the second day of Christmas, another quiet day of closed shops and families taking to the streets with their strollers. Now that I own a few strollers myself, I greet the holiday with some defiance. Whereas I was simply annoyed by holidays during my long service as a bachelor, now I inhabit them with some pride. And truthfully, a fair share of real appreciation. I was moved this year to essay some modest traditions – tree and gifts and stockings, -- a set of rituals that might withstand the pressures of our schedule and survive to the next year. This effort proved surprisingly successful, and even more surprisingly gratifying. The Scrooge in me suffered a severe blow.

It certainly is nice that there are two days of Christmas in Holland. It allows double the time to meet our obligations to this gilded feestdag, debts to family as well as to that monkey on our backs, entertainment. Either we must entertain or be entertained, or we must simply partake in some artificial entertainment. My wife and I like to make an appearance at a traditional Dutch pub and watch the old-timers surrender to their spirits and dance, if it’s late enough even weaving through the bar in a human chain. It’s not the carols that trigger them, but Dutch pop classics, still sounding to me like modern elaborations of oompah music.

I can’t say it makes much sense, two days in celebration of one birth. Perhaps it was a long labour. In the liturgical calendar, the 26th is also Saint Stephen’s Day. Maybe it became a comfortable habit, holiday after holiday. In England they call it Boxing Day, named for the small gifts for the servants on the second day of Christmas. I like to think of it as Boxing Day. The name has the right degree of obscurity mixed with English silliness.

England has been on my mind. I have one pressing reason for that, which is the approach of my half marathon in Bath. I am in distressingly poor shape, never getting the time for proper training. Though I worry about the race, it’s pleasant to have the calendar’s geography cycle around again. In a couple months I’ll be crossing the Channel again.

If I had the time to make it back to London, I would walk the map of the houses of the Forsytes, those infamous Victorians of Galsworthy’s books. The second volume came with a map, numbering the fictional family’s houses in districts of west London too posh now for Victoria herself, St. James, Mayfair, Hyde Park, and Knightsbridge.

I would also stop by a pub in Angel that I had the honour of visiting last time I was in London. I met Patrick there, along with some of his friends, classmates in his PhD program. We had a good time and the setting was this classic corner pub, one spacious room under a moulded tin ceiling, with wood panelling below brick walls. Inexplicably, there was a portrait of George Washington on one wall. I couldn’t help taking a moment to contemplate the image of that old statesman, the odd drunken meditation in London.

I was just reading about one of Washington’s portraitists, Mr. Charles Willson Peale. The painters of his generation were discovering a new subject, the contemporary revolutionary hero. Historian Joseph Ellis makes the point that painters of the era were influenced by an Enlightenment aesthetic that still colours our perception of the American Revolution, making it a gentleman’s conflict, fought by heroes in serene Acadia, as though war could be fought in stillness, with nothing but one’s dignity. These painters were pioneers in a genre that would become quite sophisticated, starting with Jacques-Louis David during the French Revolution, who could make of stout little Napoleon a hero the Romantic Period.

I had no idea of the history of the Three Johns pub that evening. As it happens, this old watering hole opened in the days of the French Revolution and was still open for business for a stubborn group of Russian exiles in 1903, a group that was meeting to define a revolution they were going to bring to the Romanov Empire.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Travelogue 783 – December 24
Why We Have Holidays

The grey skies herald a day of quiet peace. It’s Christmas Eve. There’s a gentle mist in the sky. The streets are quiet. The cafe is quiet. The Christmas music has been shelved, and we listen to jazz. The shopping frenzy seems to have subsided.

Work deadlines still haunt me, but their voices have withdrawn into the aural shadows, out of respect for the holidays. I’m able to breathe. I sit and listen to Baby tell me stories, recounting some cartoon she’s seen, recalling the characters and their words, and I am not beset by the nervous energy that every day urges me to hide somewhere with my computer and ‘take care’ of things.

I took Baby on our first walk together yesterday. No buggy and no destination. We just put on our shoes and jackets, and we went outside. We walked along the canal behind our building, and we took time to quack back at the ducks. Baby was fascinated by the gravel on the path. She picked up one tiny black stone and held it up for inspection. It’s a rock, I said, and she repeated. She bent over to find another, this time white.

I never tire of these exchanges, these short and essential dialogues, though sometimes I wish I could. They are so deeply satisfying that they are heart-breaking. Each is so brief, and each passes, as though time were looking over my shoulder. I want to hold each like I hold my child, with tenderness and a with a fierce sense of protectiveness, against age and decay. But time has an ally in my baby. She wants to embrace life and growth. So I let go.

We circled under the railway and by the school. There’s a small speeltuin hidden away there, a playground. We entered and found we were alone, a singular luxury in the crowded Netherlands. Again, I found my breath coming back to me, my lungs extending in the rare, relaxed full inhalation, enjoying the damp winter air. Standing behind Baby in her swing, I gazed into the cloudy skies to watch the birds charting their erratic courses. Baby caught sight of the black wings against the soft grey background. ‘Birds!’ she shouted and pointed. She likes naming things.

It’s approaching midday, and still the cafe is quiet. The tables are sparsely occupied. Couples murmur to each other, freed from the stridency of work days. I have some research I need to do for work. I follow a few links, and stumble upon a few engaging items. I read, but only lazily. It’s when the baying hounds of the office calendar are shaken for an interval that you find the fun in the work again. You taste of it, and you put it away. The sights out the window are inviting, people in their coats strolling together, the bikes in repose, the half-light of winter set with a whisper upon the old rooftops.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Travelogue 782 – December 14
The Blizzard

There remain a few vestiges of snowmen, much reduced globes of snow, just the bases of the sculptures assembled by exhilarated families during those two days of snowfall, slowly wasting away now in corners of the courtyard of the apartment complex. In the darkness of pre-dawn, they are mysterious patches of light, glowing with an elfin spirit of deep winter.

If Rotterdammers were once equipped to handle snow, they have lost it during a generation of climate change. Snow now seems to be a once- or twice-per-year phenomenon that consists of a light dusting, children quickly running outdoors to run in circles, look up at the sky, collect snowflakes on their tongues. If an inch falls they frantically collect as much as possible before melt starts, making anaemic snowballs and snowmen.

But this Sunday, it looked like Minnesota here. The snowfall was thick and constant. It left several inches on the ground. The next day, it snowed again. I haven’t seen this type of accumulation before in Rotterdam. The city was overcome. By Monday afternoon, most institutions had thrown in the towel. My school closed at 2pm.

There were no snow ploughs to see. There was very little salt thrown down. Before the first inch had accumulated, Minneapolis would have resounded with the scrape of massive ploughs against the asphalt and the crunch of salt underfoot. Not here. Once the snow turned to rain on Tuesday, the pavements became a lumpy mess of slick and hardened snow. People skated and crept forward toward their transit stations.

The date of our youngest’s first birthday party fell on the first day of snowfall, and by the hour guests were due to arrive the snow swirled outside the windows like another curtain, a kinetic screen of white and silent motion. Our intrepid guests did arrive, stamping feet at the door, folding umbrellas, sniffling and shaking. We did our best to warm them up right away, serving tea and sweets. The girls did their best to entertain. Big sister ran and danced. Once shy with strangers, she has developed a new tendency to ham it up. She performs her new ballet moves and waits for applause.

The birthday girl, by contrast, was peaceful as a judge, surveying the festivities with mild curiosity. She’s awfully cute, this little one-year-old, but there is something of the scientist to her at this age. She walks ceaselessly around the downstairs, picking things up and examining them. She smiles often, but rarely laughs. She plays no games. Her one passion is her big sister, whom she watches with devotion.

Our intrepid guests stayed a while, left gifts, and ventured back out into the weather, our gratitude trailing after them. It was so kind of them to brave the weather that official Holland had chosen to ignore. Fortunately, the snowfall had slowed by the time they left. Down in the courtyard, the resident children were turning circles of wonder, looking up in the sky, collecting snowflakes on their tongues.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Travelogue 781 – December 4
The Season

Tomorrow is Sinter Klaas. This is a Dutch holiday that celebrates Old Saint Nick on his own day, separate from Christmas. In a year in which even Christmas can generate who-cares controversy in my home country – whether saying or not saying ‘Merry Christmas’ is more offensive – this holiday continues to spark real controversy in Holland. The reason is Sinter Klaas’s little buddy, Zwarte Piet, a diminutive black servant in seventeenth-century gear, who clowns around at the old man’s side. During the holiday season, it’s not unusual to encounter people in black-face, dressed up for children’s events or parties. It can be startling at first.

Not too surprisingly, Dutch people of colour feel uncomfortable with this tradition. More surprisingly, lots of white Dutch seem very defensive. There have been efforts to soften the tradition – frame the black-face as soot from the chimneys, or propose a multi-colour Piet, which I think is more fun – but old-style Dutch nationalists insist that Black Pete must be black as Al Jolson or else the foundations of the nation might truly be shaken. I try to avoid these topics in polite conversation. I find it hard to know how exactly to respond to nonsense as doctrine. It’s not my country yet, and when I’m confronted with sentiments about Zwarte Piet, I simply nod like a psychotherapist.

Aside from the little black elf, Sinter Klaas is a great holiday for the children, and if I were organised enough to celebrate anything at this time of year – when, often as not, I’m horribly sick and staggering under piles of corrections from school, - Sinter Klaas it would be. But, sad parent always caught unprepared by the calendar, I have nothing. Instead, Mama and I have been preoccupied with the second baby’s birthday, which occurs a few days after Sinter Klaas, and now always will. I foresee perennial issues. But please, I ask the dull winter skies, just let me get through this first year.

We did manage to take Baby to her first ballet lesson. She has found inspiration from the cartoon ballerina, Angelina the mouse, and she practices turns and foot positions constantly, often looking for our applause. So it is we found ourselves in the ballet studio on Sunday, among a dozen other families. We struggled to keep up with the Dutch of the instructor, and found ourselves alarmed to find out that, during this trial lesson, one parent was invited to participate with the child. Menna quickly withdrew from the field. I stayed. Because I love my daughter profoundly, I stayed, and yes, I turned and flexed my toes and pranced around with her, and with the dozen other little girls, in front of a wall of mirrors, sweating profusely because in the humid atmosphere of the studio. Baby was elated. She couldn’t decide which was more fascinating, the elegant instructor telling stories and demonstrating simple routines, or the other girls, some of whom could not focus at all on the lesson. In the end, she was a wonderful student, showing incredible skill and grace. That is said with all the objectivity of a dad who danced ballet with his baby girl.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Travelogue 780 – November 27
Part Two

Suddenly I wake up with a cold. I call into work sick, and I stay home, dosing and, in between dreams, watching the clouds scud overhead, measuring the splash of rain on the windows. I’m dreaming, as I often do, of absent friends. (They might be saying, ‘You are the one who is absent. You moved away.’) I dream of meetings, and there are so many decisions being made. Everyone is proud. I’m traveling again. I’m staying in rooms that will not stay still. Outside are green hills. When I’m awake, I check the windows, spotted with rain. I worry about my family catching this cold. I imagine Baby’s new possessiveness: ‘Papa’s cold; Baby’s cold.’

My sick book is a collection of mysteries by Philip Kerr, set in late-30s Berlin. The city is in the grip of the Nazis, and the hero is a detective who has to navigate a landscape controlled by the Gestapo and Heydrich’s security forces. He’s tough and sardonic, smokes too much. He takes his lumps at the hands of the bad guys, but still prevails. He’s hard as mails but sensitive, etc. In other words, everything the detective hero should be. He hates the Nazis and doesn’t hide it, but he doesn’t try to fight them. The author takes every opportunity to bring to life the brutality and corruption of the Nazi regime.

It’s hard to believe that only forty years separate the worlds in my dual-track reading. I’ve started the second of Galsworthy’s books about a London family of means in the 1890s. Could the Victorians have imagined a time like Hitler’s, and so close at hand? In their time, royalty and nobility still appeared at the helm of societies across Europe, playing with their alliances, their cavalries, and their navies in preparation for the war that would be their undoing.

The oldest generation in Galsworthy’s fictional family has largely moved on. The second book opens with reference to several funerals. These serve as portents, in a work of fiction replete with portents, of the decline to come. The books are dismal with their continual foreshadowing of decline. It occurs to me there is nothing more modern than this gloomy narcissism with which the bourgeoisie narrates its own imminent death. This and the counterpoised roar of those declaring the new thousand-year regime, whichever fleeting one it may be. Neither voice ever seems to make true its prophecy, nor ever to waver in its unappealing song.

The question of the bourgeoisie and its place in history is still a fascinating one. This sturdy, grey creation of medieval cities and commerce, grown to be the definition of modernity, the property-owning middle class, it survives, despite some of the worst press since the Mongols, despite unreserved contumely from above and below, and despite a long, public and self-indulgent contempt for self.

Have we ever figured out what made them so unbearable? Mussolini condemned their ‘social games, five o'clock tea, vacations, compassion for Jews, preference for armchairs, desire for compromise, desire for money’. These are intriguing polemics to deploy, as though perhaps Tolkien’s hobbits were the army of the Antichrist. And yet, it’s no less than history.

I turn again to the Goncourt brothers, who committed to paper their artist’s complaint against the bourgeoisie of Paris as early as 1860. ‘When society had a hierarchy of orders,’ they wrote, ‘the nobleman, deeply conscious and proud of his rank, did not feel jealous of the man of letters; he conversed with him on familiar terms, because talent did not encroach on his rank or offend his vanity. … A man of letters was a rare bird, whose intelligence and verve tickled delicate, sophisticated minds. Easy-going hospitality, a friendly welcome, flattering attentions did not strike eighteenth-century society as too high a price to pay for the pleasure of a writer’s company.

‘But the bourgeoisie stopped all that. The grand passion of the bourgeoisie is equality. The man of letters offends it because a man of letters is better known than a bourgeois. He arouses a hidden rancour, a secret jealousy. Moreover, the bourgeoisie, an enormous family of active people, doing business and making children, has no need of intellectual discourse: it is satisfied with the newspaper.’

Monday, November 20, 2017

Travelogue 779 – November 20
The Victims of Our Fictions

We took our youngest to the doctor yesterday. It was nothing serious. She’s so eager for life, little one. She started walking absurdly early, and now she walks nearly all day, waddling round in circles, picking up things and handing them to us with a big smile made achingly cute by her one small tooth. She walks so much, she has developed a curve in her small legs, like a tiny cowgirl. The doctor says it’s nothing to worry about. But that’s what we do. It’s virtual definition. We worry. And little one is so eager for life.

I leave so early in the morning, it’s dark. All our windows are dark. I lock the door behind, double-locking it as I turn the key. Facing outward, I breathe in the morning air with child-like eagerness, but, looking back, I worry. I check the door again.

These children are precious things. It’s society’s job to protect them. And still, as I’ve noted, I see imagined children put in harm’s way with disturbing consistency by our writers for TV and film. I can think of half a dozen dramas I’ve seen lately that had threats or harm to children as a central device.

My wife is furious. We’ve made it to the tenth episode in this new series, and things have taken a turn that she didn’t appreciate. The story begins with a child murder, and moves forward from there, every subsequent action a reference to the original murder. The writers cleverly manipulate their audience, wrenching our sympathies first one way and then another. By the end of the season, we are – spoiler alert – tempted to side with the murderer in his struggle with the father, who has become something of a monster. My wife is furious that the father is so relentless. I have to remind her that his boy had been shot and killed.

The star of the series is one of my favourites, Tim Roth. He brings to the role both the blunt force and the ambivalence that make it continually fascinating. One is never quite sure what he is capable of.

Still, it’s the innocent who must suffer, even in fiction, some suffering at the hands of their own callous and mercenary creators. Some suffer at the hands of more delicate creators. I’m finishing the first in the Forsyte series of novels by Galsworthy, the book I’ve written about before, the first in his study of the slow decline of the Victorian bourgeoisie. It’s an oddly cool narrative, built though it is around a passionate extramarital affair. The point of view is removed, placed among family and never with the lovers, often among the eldest generation of the family, who are the ones who built the family fortune. And here too, -- spoiler alert -- a character must finally be done away with, and discarded rather pointlessly, having been maintained at such a distance already by the narrator. It’s less tragedy than riddle. This character was no child anymore, but young.

An interesting, and possibly redeeming, effect is created by the affection of the eldest Forsyte for his small grandchildren, some of the only warmth in the novel. It’s a kind of meeting of innocence, the natural innocence of the children drawing from the old man a vestigial complement. The grandfather, led thus into a purer state, intervenes finally in a touching way, during a long epilogue to the novel, which the author calls an ‘interlude’. It’s actually a beautiful piece, and admittedly not possible without the long and cynical tale of the novel proper.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Travelogue 778 – November 15
Oliphant’s Ear in Old Stamboul

Baby is putting names to the world. She’s gathering her vocabulary. She’s putting simple phrases together, and with these she narrates what she sees. The words come with urgency. She shouts at me to listen. ‘Papa! Papa! Mama’s standing!’ If I repeat, then the observation is confirmed and she is happy.

We watched ‘Ice Age’ last night. She was very taken with the characters. She pointed in her excessively cute way – eyes wide, leaning forward and finger extended in the way of an admonishing teacher, -- and she named the characters upon every time a new scene opened: Oliphant and Baby and Tiger. She learned ‘Sloth’, but wasn’t too confident with it.

The layers of teaching blur for me here. I’m teaching my college-age students the ‘th’ sound. ‘Bite your tongue’, I shout, and they smile with embarrassment. They know me now; they know I’m going to drill them in pronunciation, no matter how much they squirm. I’ve made my apologies. Adult students enjoy pronunciation drills, but adolescents feel too keenly the shame of having so recently been children.

Baby is experimenting with possessives. ‘Baby’s shoes!’ she shouts until I repeat. The baby she refers to is her little sister. ‘Mama’s shoes! Papa’s shoes!’ Corresponding to this bit of grammar is the discovery of relative size; it offers her another point of leverage in her battle for identity. ‘Too big for baby,’ she points out helpfully, pointing to her shoes and her dress. She sings it. ‘Too big for baby.’ And she swings her head left and right in a slow negation.

We watch her movie. ‘Oliphant’s ears!’ ‘Tiger’s ears!’ Yes, yes, we say, affirming all good things. She finds it fascinating. Her wonder awakens ours. Wonder at all the ears in the world. Wonder at our patience.

Mama and Papa made it to a film recently, and that film featured no sabre-toothed tigers, but instead one heavily bewhiskered Kenneth Branagh, performing as Hercule Poirot. The story is a classic, the famous mystery set on the Orient Express. The glamorous sets and costume were fun. The plot twists amusing, and the performances entertaining. But I found myself surprisingly pulled in by the unexpected pathos. Poirot is portrayed as man exactingly and stubbornly principled. It’s a caricature, but still somehow moving. Murder is an abomination and accounts must be settled.

Spoiler alert! Central to the plot is a murder predating the one in the film, and it’s the murder of a little girl. The murder on the train is avenging her death. For me, this becomes a particularly affecting device, pitching Poirot’s principles against the justice performed against another abomination.

Maybe I’m becoming sentimental, but I was grateful to Mr. Branagh for affirming that morality is more than a dry court case. It’s a struggle in the heart. Since becoming a parent, I’ve been upset by the shows and movies and books in which children are harmed simply to heighten dramatic effect. These are ‘only’ products of fiction, but, as I’ve remarked before, I find something to censure there, when an author has no love for his or her creations. I can’t help but lose faith, no matter how fine a wordsmith he or she may be.

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Travelogue 777 – November 7
Side Trip

Three-quarters of a moon hangs over Orion’s shoulder. Maybe it’s less. It’s been waning quickly since the last full moon, a moon that I thought I saw full only yesterday, rising over the city in promise. I regret that I’ve lost touch with the cycles of the night sky. Life in Holland is too busy, and the weather too routinely inclement to feel connected to the lunar phases.

The city lights have washed out much of the heat of the stars. It makes them seem even farther away. The lights have washed out most of the detail among the constellations, but I can still make out the bold outline of the Hunter. I can see a few of the stars of Taurus, which lie in the path of the moon. I see the twin stars of Gemini, and the blazing one of Sirius. I scan quickly for the familiar companions of the North Star, the Bear and the proud queen of Ethiopia. I regret that I don’t get to watch the stars circle on a more regular basis. It reminds me, in fact, of Ethiopia, where I took more time to watch the skies.

Now I’m always on the move. Even this quiet morning, I’m taking in the view of night skies while I walk, already on my way to work. We’ve entered the season in which night intrudes upon the day, draws close to us and becomes familiar again.

The neighbourhood was so silent, I was self-conscious about turning on the lights, as though the incandescence might send an echoing report across the courtyard and wake all those souls dreaming behind the black windows. I held off, and I dressed in the dark. We hold darkness in reverence in the northern latitudes. We feel reluctant to challenge it.

As it happens, I’ve left my bicycle at the central station. The weather has been so unreliable this autumn, and my tolerance for rain so low -- dropping in inverse proportion to the seasons accruing to my body, in fact, accelerating as the Dutch seasons pass, -- that I find myself abandoning the bike here and there for collection later. Here I am, strolling up to the tram station, joining the early commuters converging on the resting trams with all the shuffling, blinking energy of the undead.

The café that stands across from the train station feels like it’s a lone outpost, and its clients like sad refugees. One man waits silently for his order, his head bowed in dejection. Another silently stares at his laptop screen. All the tables are empty. Night stands close to the windows, and only the baristas have the energy to defy it, awake in motion. One whistles ‘Qué Será Será’.

My bike is below the station, where I left it, in the echoing vaults of the bicycle ramp. I unlock it, rescuing it from its cold exile among the hundreds of others stacked like aluminum puppets. I join the stream of cyclists outside, everyone pedaling blindly forward. Light has begun to dawn, and the new day presents itself most dramatically by the river. I arrive there by a route past the Havenziekenhuis, and the spaciousness opening over the water comes as a relief. The wide river meanders east, clearing a course to for sun, which is about to rise.

I follow the river side for half a mile or so, and where the road turns away, I follow. But I do break away, to find some peace. I turn off the busy road and pedal though a park to a quiet bike path that rides along the top of a berm, a grassy strip of piled earth like a dyke, but there is no water below, only the tracks of another tram line. I’m coasting alone along this path, and a moment alone outside is such a rare pleasure in Holland, I refrain from pedaling to prolong the interlude. The parked cars below have thin layers of ice on the windows. There is a low fog hanging over the football pitches in the distance. The sun hasn’t risen but its light teases a rich palette of colours from the sky and earth, the windows and the leaves.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Travelogue 776 – November 1
Part One

Now I’m reading John Galsworthy. It’s another book that straddles the turn of the twentieth century. It was written in 1906, but the story is set in the 1880s. It recounts the decline of an upper-class family in Victorian England, and it’s called ‘The Man of Property’. That seems fitting: my extended meditation on Maugham last month produced a question about ownership. Do we own the artist? Do we own their stories? Do we own our own stories?

The man of property in the book’s title is the middle-aged scion of a wealthy family. Members of the Forsyte family seem to have developed over a hundred years of success a uniquely distilled bourgeois consciousness, a psychological lens that measures all in terms of monetary value and possession. The wife of the man of property is dissatisfied. She acquiesced to the man’s marriage proposal in a moment of weakness. Her values are at variance with his, and he is ill-equipped to understand. He resents her restlessness. There’s a new generation coming of age in London, and they value passion. And so on. You see how the Forsytes are being set up for a fall. I haven’t decided whether the author has any love for his characters. He’s rather sarcastic in his narration of their thoughts and dialogue. I usually have little patience for an unsympathetic narrator or author, but something has kept me reading. I like the author’s language. I appreciate the slow build of suspense, even if it’s all too clear who must be sacrificed as grain to the grinding mill of the plot.

The bourgeoisie are hard to like. Certainly we get that by now, and even Galsworthy’s contemporaries must have been well-versed in the principle. The nineteenth century saw the consolidation of the supremacy of the European bourgeoisie, even as the thought of the period represented one long recoil from bourgeois culture, beginning with a revulsion released in the French Revolution. By the time of Galsworthy’s worthy effort, contempt alone was not novel. The task of authors had evolved by then into capturing something of the inevitability of the fall of the hated class, and the decadence that the fall revealed.

It’s made me wonder who can be said to have filled the void left by the bourgeoisie? The proletariat? Was the twentieth century the century of the masses? Would that be demonstrated by the phenomena of fascist Europe and Stalinist Russia, and by the rise of unruly mob called America?

Apparently, the artists of the nineteenth century had reason to hate the bourgeoisie. I came across this passage in the journals of the Goncourt Brothers, dated 1860. Speaking about the lifestyle of their friend Flaubert, they wrote, ‘This forced bearishness of the nineteenth-century man of letters is a strange phenomenon compared with the worldly life of the eighteenth-century man of letters, a life spent in the midst of society, and riddled with approaches, invitations, and connexions, the life of a Diderot or a Voltaire, whom the society of his time went to see at Ferney, or of lesser men, fashionable authors such as Crébillon fils or Marmontel. Approaches to the writer and interest in him ceased to exist with the rise of the bourgeoisie and the proclamation of equality. The man of letters no longer forms part of society, no longer reigns over it, no longer even enters into it. Of all the men of letters I know, not a single one goes into what is called society.’

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Travelogue 775 – October 24
The Same Street

I remember this guy. Tall and gaunt and stooped, dark-haired and now bearded in a rough way. He’s wearing a red plaid cap with ear flaps, and I don’t think he’s going to take it off today. He’s warming up the espresso machine when I arrive. It’s the start of the day, still night outside, in fact. The weather has taken a sharp turn toward winter. The margin above freezing temperatures is uncomfortably thin. As I stand outside, waiting for the café to open, I relive many Minnesota winters, condensed into that one lonely moment, the sky so vast and void of warmth.

The guy’s colleague lets me in, and she takes my order. The guy tinkers away at the espresso machine. I’ve been around coffee to know this is a sacred ritual to those who love the bean, the calibrating of the Italian machine for its first shot. It requires all his concentration. And if it makes him seem forbidding or gruff, I know better. Once the taste of the coffee is right, and once people start queuing for his delicacy, his manner relaxes. He jokes with the regulars, and he moves to the music. He’s a cheerful man with the face of a Serpico.

When I plan for a trip back to Minnesota, the café drifts into the mind’s eye. And it comes with faces. I actually look forward to seeing these baristas. Of course, it’s a profession with much transience. There was a day when they would have remembered me and asked about Ethiopia. These days, my visits are too far and few between. Faces change. One or two carry forward between two visits; then a different one, one of the new ones, carries forward to the next.

The café doesn’t change. It’s been a remarkably steady quantity. My usual seat doesn’t change, the high table in a corner, beside the brick wall. Once I’m seated, my prospect is the same, the bar and counter to my left, and the row of benches along the wall ahead, leading toward the high windows with their view the avenue outside. Outside, the seasons cycle. I’ve seen that street under snow, under the green leaves of spring, and, as it is now, under the turning leaves of fall.

In the same complex as the café is a bookstore. Since my last visit, the bookstore has traded spaces, moving from a small space around the corner that faces a quiet side street to the larger storefront space next door, facing the big street. And, so the owner tells me, they are planning a second move, north along the same street to a space in the busier neighbourhood by Lake Street, looking for ever more shelves and more traffic. I was encouraging in my words, but I regretted the move. The new space was not as inviting as the old. The used section had shrunk. Apparently, it’s the new books that make for profits and legitimacy. That’s business, and, ultimately, city space is business.

Some cities are instruction in this point, space as commodity, cities like Addis Ababa, where the skyline is dominated by cranes, and whole streets by scaffolding. The landscape is in constant metamorphosis. Neighbourhoods appear, and then they are subjected to renovation before the plaster has dried on the first set of walls. Rotterdam has that feel sometimes, construction popping up with bewildering spontaneity and frequency, overtaking whole city blocks for weeks at a time. Minneapolis, by contrast, has always felt the most reliable of settings. I drive the same street; I feel the rare peace of constancy.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Travelogue 774 – October 22
Red Leaves

There’s colour everywhere. I saw it first from the plane, descending quickly over downtown Minneapolis on Friday afternoon. I could look down over the neighbourhoods of the city, and each had its sprinkling of red treetops like small scarlet explosions, maple trees in high autumnal bloom. On the ground, the colours are even richer. The residential streets, so mundane in any other season, are this week like galleries of rare art, or like small church halls lit by the sun through its stained-glass windows. I had forgotten to expect this, preparing for my trip to Minnesota. I was preoccupied, and so the bookings all took place in a vacuum. The calendar was a stark grid without associations. I arrived, and it was autumn.

I took a break yesterday to run. The quiet streets in the quiet neighbourhoods, each with its canopy of turning leaves, became a private running course. I followed each direction for six blocks or so; I didn’t have much time. The peace of the afternoon was penetrating, entering my lungs with the chill, weirdly calming and disorienting at the same time. My current life, with family at home and crowds in the streets of Rotterdam, had made solitude unfamiliar. All this beauty at hand and I was alone with it.

It’s my second full day here, and I’ve seen two or three of the region’s seasons. It was summer on Friday. The sun was out, and I had to stow my jacket and long-sleeves in my bag as I navigated the town on bus and light rail. Saturday was gloomy autumn. The clouds were heavy. Chilly showers started and stopped. I shivered in the coffee shops. This morning, the skies are lighter but there is a deeper chill in the air, a crisp quality that is so familiar to me, even though I’ve lived abroad for years. It’s the feeling of winter coming. And it’s not the sense of dread you might expect, but a feeling of anticipation. You look into the skies for the first snow.

It’s Sunday morning and the café is very busy. There are kids and families and old regulars. It’s a comfort. I know that when I walk outside, the street will provide a stark contrast. The pavements will be empty, the roads silent except for the sound of passing cars. That’s how this town is, and it’s a small dose of culture shock for me, every time I visit. The lack of pedestrians makes the city seem desolate.

This was my town once. One minute, I recognize it, coasting down Hiawatha without a thought, navigating the city effortlessly, and noting familiar sights as though I saw them daily. Then the sensation turns quickly into wonder. The leaves have turned red again. And I never saw them green, not this year’s growth. Is it possible these leaves were never green? Or perhaps the green leaves were a different set, and the red ones have just taken their place.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Travelogue 773 – October 10
The Scales

So we leave Somerset Maugham and his anti-hero in the shadow of their shadows. Maugham scented archetype, and went in pursuit. Shadows are elusive game, and the author can be excused for losing track of his motives. Was it a search for meaning or just a quest to tame nature? In any case, the story is done.

Baby has become a story-teller. Her language is incomplete. She has some of our words, and she has words of her own. When she is moved to tell a story, she mixes them readily. She doesn’t hesitate. I admire her her fluency. She tells stories about what happens around the house, about blowing bubbles, about the time her little sister took a fall and bumped her head. She tells about her visit to the zwembad. She stands in front of me with wide eyes. She recounts how she jumped into the water, and she performs a little jump to illustrate. She tells me how surprised she was when she ducked her head under the water. She tells me how she learned how to kick. When she runs out of things to say, she tilts her head to one side and she purses her lips. She starts over. And I am so honoured that she wants to share with papa.

We search for meaning, and we tell stories. One day, about a month ago, I spotted a rainbow. It stretched over my apartment complex, and it stopped me in my tracks. The rainbow was a messenger for the ancient Greeks. I wait for the message.

I’ll tell a story I heard once. A friend told a group of us about his search for meaning, and how it led to the libraries. He was seduced by the idea of all that knowledge on the shelves. He read and read. But the more he read, the more disillusioned he became. He found the knowledge unsatisfying. Looking at the shelves again, he saw false comfort. Abundance had become famine and falsehood. He turned to spirituality and said he saw in death and in the other world the abundance and hope he had initially seen on the shelves of the libraries.

Once I realized how different my friend and I were, the story became a touchstone. I saw how there were two types of passion. There’s the passion that sees in the world a desert, and there is a passion that sees fertile valleys. Each view inspires a kind of exaltation, and each can inspire its own species of depression.

One question has occupied me for a long time: how do you take it all in? It’s one question with many variations: How do you hold everything? How do you love it? How do you appreciate it? I appropriate the word, ‘appreciate’, and I make it carry more than bland gratitude. It has to mean some deep evaluation of its object.

My parallel to the story of my friend would take longer to tell. It would take a lifetime. It would be the story of each book in succession, none of them the secret to all knowledge, but each a piece.

So one day, about a month ago, I spotted a rainbow. It hung over my apartment complex. It stopped me in my tracks. There was no message, but it was beautiful nonetheless. It hung above us, iridescent, insubstantial, colour made of dew. It was made of nothing but light, but it was real as rain.

I tell the story in much the way that Baby might, with some made-up words, halting and searching, pouting in thought, pouting in the slow trickle of thoughts, wishing I could say more while I have papa’s attention.

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Travelogue 772 – October 3
Artist for the Parlour

I’m left with a few final observations about Mr. Maugham’s ‘The Moon and Sixpence’. Despite the darker edge to my impressions after this latter-day reading, impressions that never would have occurred to me in sunny youth, I enjoyed the visit to the Maugham’s charming old-world style. It’s been a pleasant reminiscence. If there is disappointment, it’s in the dry fact of reminiscence itself. I may have no further crack at the old book, and that’s a factor in the value of art that we often neglect to calculate. Who has time to make that calculation, let alone re-visit all the great reads of a lifetime?

Almost a third of the narrator’s tale in ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ recounts his research after the painter has already died, specifically on a chance trip to Tahiti. (Here’s a glimpse into Maugham’s charmed life, that he should imagine a chance trip to Tahiti as plausible.) He encounters people who knew the artist, and he pieces together the last few years of his life, a story that makes of his raw material – the life of Gauguin – something more picturesque and morally satisfying. Strickland, Gauguin’s fictional stand-in, is redeemed by love and then is taken by a disease appropriately horrific, leprosy. It’s a demise gauged to show Nature’s capacity for cruelty, commensurate to Strickland’s own penchant for the primitive. There were rumours that Gauguin died of leprosy, but it’s more likely to have been something more prosaic, perhaps syphilis, a common fate of artists and writers in the nineteenth century. And the love in Gauguin’s last days? More likely to have been a series of tawdry and abusive affairs.

Interestingly, the narrator discovers one of his sources in Tahiti while searching for a black pearl. This detail, revealed once and in passing, seems very revealing. The narrator would like to set himself apart from the collectors circling like buzzards over the corpse of the great painter. He offers several stories about the small fortunes made off Strickland’s work, about the jaded opportunism of the European arts market. He rather too casually lets slip that he is in the market for a black pearl to take home, dark genius condensed into a very portable state. But it’s too expensive.

Much has been said about art in bourgeois Europe, its role as object and collectible. The narrator has inserted himself into a different market, one more refined and high-stakes, the market for artists and their souls. This grows into quite a lucrative market in the twentieth century. Whether Maugham intended this final twist or not, I cannot say. If he set this up consciously, lens upon lens, Gauguin as refracted through public distortions of his own myth-making, as interpreted by a narrator with mixed motives of his own, then hats off to him. Playing with this many layers takes a certain type of genius, and that achievement would indeed make ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ a great satirical work.

But I’m guessing that the author’s intentions, if they matter at all, were more modest. I would say they more or less reflect the narrator’s, and reflect a real fascination. The book has the feel of a Jungian quest, a shadowy pursuit of archetypes, doomed and, finally, significant in its failure. The narrator declares himself content with every polished sentence, and yet there is too much lost in the end to allow that. The English imperturbability is strained.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Travelogue 771 – September 27
Faust in Tahiti

I’m reading the last bits of ‘Moon and Sixpence’. I read when I can, mostly during short trips on the metro and train. It’s rare that I get the time to stop and read over a pint, like I have been used to doing. And so my sense of continuity in the narrative is broken. My schedule isn’t the only factor. There’s something in the fashioning of the story that conveys a sense of fragmentation. It’s offered as a collection of disjointed memories, first the narrator’s own and then those the narrator has collected in Tahiti. By the end of the book, the connection between the narrator and the ghostly protagonist is so attenuated that his, the narrator’s, seems an increasingly lonely voice.

And this problem of the narrator becomes the central one of the book, finally. His insistent presence is the knot to be untied. If the book were a biography, why isn’t it narrated from the heavens, as is usually done? If it’s a salacious re-telling of the Gauguin of legend, why not simply bang out a lurid novel about the bad-boy artist? No, I believe the book quite self-consciously re-directs away from the painter. I’ve seen the book characterized as satirical, but that assumes that the book is about the painter. I would say it’s more of a lament, and more central than the painter’s story is what lies just below the narrator’s apparent equanimity.

I’ve noted the persistent theme of apology through the work, as the narrator apologizes for himself and how little he knows. He apologizes for his failures as a writer. He apologizes for being a mediocrity. It might seem as though the apologies grow more anxious as he realizes the contrast he provides to the alluring figure of Strickland, a comparison increasingly embarrassing, as though he were the stunted boy introducing the school’s basketball star before the whole assembly.

The deeper anxiety, overriding his self-consciousness, is the moral riddle that Strickland presents. It’s hard to say whether the narrator discovers or invents the riddle, but it clearly claims all his attention.

He says of Strickland, ‘There was in him something primitive.’ He says, ‘I had again the feeling that he was possessed of a devil; but you could not say that it was a devil of evil, for it was a primitive force that existed before good and ill.’ And the quality matched with ‘primitive’, the quality cited with almost irritating regularity, is ‘genius’. This combination of qualities troubles the narrator. Is it wedded to the perception of his own inadequacy? Does he lament his sophistication and morality as much as he does his lack of genius? Is it a deal with the devil that he is wishing he might have been offered? He says of the writer, ultimately of himself, that he ‘recognizes in himself an artistic satisfaction in the contemplation of evil which a little startles him.’

This is what we inherit from those times, the fin de siècle and the beginning of modernism, its complicated stars in arts and literature, contemporaries of Freud: we inherit a troubling ambivalence about our powers. We wish for genius, but we are anxious. We have a suspicion that genius emerges from darkness, the way the Greeks saw Creation as emergent from Chaos. Hell is a place in the psyche and genius is granted by the devil.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Travelogue 770 – September 20
Nothing Could be More Ordinary

There are many things we say we can’t help. It’s a common disclaimer during the course of our days. One thing I’m sure we can’t help is our wisdom. When I first read ‘Moon and Sixpence’, many years ago, I was quite taken with the romance of the story, and I would that I could surrender to that innocence again.

Instead what communicates itself most insistently is the regret. There is a lot of apology in this book, apology for mediocrity. The narrator is a writer, and one who confesses his style is dated and limited. ‘I am on the shelf now,’ he admits. Of the younger generation of writers, he says, ‘[T]heir passion seems to me a little anemic and their dreams a trifle dull.’ When he finally sees the artwork of the book’s hero, Charles Strickland, he admits he has no faculty to see the brilliance. He experiences no thrill, though his painter friend, Dirk Stroeve, another mediocrity, has repeatedly asserted the genius.

The contrast to mediocrity is concentrated in the experimental character of Strickland. He’s a force of nature, possessed by creativity, having no choice but to paint. Nominally, Strickland is a sketch or a caricature of Paul Gauguin, who has passed away only sixteen years before the publication of Maugham’s book. But perhaps Strickland is even further removed from Gauguin: a caricature of the myth collaboratively drawn by Gauguin and his public. The narrator prepares us in the first pages. ‘The faculty for myth is innate in the human race,’ he writes. ‘It is the protest of romance against the commonplace of life.’

What follows is something complex. The surface layer is a story about Gauguin. There are grains of truth among all the exotic colours – Gauguin was somewhat wild, after all, -- but the caricature begins to stand free of its source, and the second layer is indulgent. We venture unashamed into the racy tale told by the gossips. Strickland is abominable, but his genius redeems him. ‘His faults are accepted as the necessary complement to his merits,’ the narrator says of popular opinion. We are very familiar with this story template by now.

In this second layer of the story is revealed some loathing for the ordinary. ‘Nothing could be more ordinary,’ the narrator says about the Strickland family on his first observation. He goes on to comment, without provocation, ‘… I felt in such an existence, the share of the majority, something amiss. I recognized its social value. I saw its ordered happiness, but a fever in my blood asked for a wilder course. There seemed to me something alarming in such easy delights.’

Conveniently, Strickland immediately runs amok. He leaves his family without warning and moves to Paris to paint. The real Gauguin did indeed leave his family and paint. But the real Gauguin had already been painting and exhibiting before he left his job and family. Moreover, the stock market hadn’t been treating him so well in his final days there. Maybe the decision wasn’t as impulsive and precipitate as legend had it.

The narrator catches up with Strickland soon afterward. ‘I tell you I’ve got to paint,’ the man says. ‘I can’t help myself.’ The narrator asks him pointedly what would happen if he simply wasn’t any good. The painter replies, ‘A man falls into the water it doesn’t matter how he swims, well or badly: he’s got to get out or else he’ll drown.’

It’s heady stuff, and this could be said to be the theme of the second layer to the book, the intoxication in strong myth.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Travelogue 769 – September 11

I’m re-reading ‘Moon and Sixpence’, and it’s something of a guilty pleasure. This is Maugham’s famous novel based on the life of Paul Gauguin. More accurately, it’s based on the romanticized version of Gauguin’s life, popularized after his death in 1903. The book was published in 1919. I’m sure that Maugham knew the difference between myth and reality. He even travelled to the South Pacific to research. I think his point was to explore, (perhaps to exploit), the mythology of the great artist. It was more of a French phenomenon at the time, the lionizing of writers and painters. Since Maugham was born and raised until ten in Paris, bridging the Channel came naturally. Titillating England with the spectre of the rogue genius must have been good fun.

It’s a guilty pleasure. I’ve described before how I discovered a cache of Maugham at the Oudemanhuispoort book market in Amsterdam, and I couldn’t help indulging. I read him without critical judgement when I was young. Now I’m saddled with some perspective. The disparaging words of one of my heroes, Christopher Hitchens, echoes in my mind. He called him ‘Poor Old Willie’ in an article in the Atlantic, and said his prose was clumsy and banal. Yeah, well, I still the old man. I like the understated romanticism, the reassuring rhythm of his prose.

This morning I’m standing at the door to the stairwell down to the street, standing outside on the first-floor balcony extending around the inside of my apartment complex. It’s early. The sun has risen only within the last hour. Low clouds are flying: the weather has been so consistently inconsistent that I barely register it anymore. If it’s not raining, it just has, and just will. The grounds are wet and the sky is grey. But there, suddenly, arcing above the roofs of the compound, shimmers the full rainbow. It stops me, as a rainbow will. It interrupts routine thoughts and opens a door to something fresh, perhaps even some perspective. This must be the reason the Greeks called the rainbow a messenger from the gods. It has the authority to halt the mundane.

If ‘Poor Old Willie’ – not so old when he wrote ‘Moon and Sixpence’ – was moved to pick among the debris left by Gauguin and pick among the fables Gauguin inspired, wasn’t he just making a record of the appearance of a Greek rainbow, an appearance of the Sublime? That much may seem obvious. The riddle is in deciding what the message may have been. Or, even more intriguing, whether the prism at work is Gauguin himself, his paintings, his persona, his story, shrewd exploitation of the exotic, or the impersonal machinery of myth-making.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Travelogue 768 – September 7
There’s a Wobble

There’s a wobble in my back wheel, and I have to take the bike in to the shop today. I don’t need any further drag as I resume my long commute to work, crossing the full diameter of Rotterdam, along the arcing line of the Nieuwe Maas River. I’m out of shape, after the month of sitting on trains and sitting in the classroom. I don’t need the extra work of a bad wheel. The seasons are changing, and fall brings steady winds from the west. The winds carry in showers. The ride is a long one.

The transition from certification course back to work hasn’t been too bad. It’s just a change in the lessons I’m writing. I’m writing mostly for the first-year students, fresh and both bold and timid. Many are eager to learn. It inspires me to work hard so as not to let them down. I know about the disillusionment built into systems of higher education.

When I’m not writing new lessons, I’m finishing my summer reading. ‘Points of View’ is one of the books I picked up last month in Amsterdam. During lunch breaks in the certification program, I walked toward the old university buildings along the Oudezijds Achterburgwal. I strolled down the narrow Oudemanhuispoort, where the old book market has operated daily since the nineteenth century.

It’s not surprising I found some Somerset Maugham. There’s the whiff of the forgotten about him these days, and yet he’s always there, in every second-hand collection. I discovered him many years ago, and he had his impact on me. His prose was always a pleasure, calm and self-assured. Mr. Maugham knew how to tell a story. With time, the stories came to seem over-ripe, too sentimental for my tastes, but I could still find the prose soothing. It seemed to be composed of common sense. And he was rarely as sensible as he was in his last collection of essays. He wrote about Goethe and about Bhagavan Ramana Maharshi. He wrote about the short story, praising Chekhov and Mansfield, and sniping at James. He wrote about the Goncourts and the French authors of public journals. Maugham had a rare sympathy for the writer, always reminding the reader that the writer had to make a living. That didn’t corrupt the art, but surely gave it shape. And this from an author as famous in his day for his riches as his art.

I’m not an author, but I live the poverty of an author. I live some of the joys, too. Last night, we held first auditions for my new play. These we staged at my college. It’s amateur theatre. Two of the people auditioning were students. Two more were more serious, managing the patchwork lives of actors, juggling work with rehearsal and performance. The actors were better, but still I enjoyed the performances of the amateurs more. There’s something spontaneous happening. There’s more communication.

The guy in my cycle shop expresses surprise that I haven’t noticed four broken spokes in my back wheel. He asks if I’ve been carrying something heavy. I say myself. I say my backpack, always stuffed with as much as it can carry. I say sometimes my baby girl, big for her age. My neighbour has donated a seat that sits right above the back tire. The cycle guy shrugs. He asks if I travel over rough roads. I say always.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Travelogue 767 – August 21
Tile and Brick

The Oxford House is an unassuming façade on the curving Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal in Amsterdam, forgivably modern in the midst of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century beauties, built in the 1920s. But it is functional, and it does make some nominal efforts at design. The façade may seem at first to aspire to little beauty, but it has a few touches of near-elegance. The lowest level features a layer of dark stone, grey that’s almost black and almost green. Above it, the exterior brick is a brighter red than in conventional Dutch houses, reminding me of London brick. On the left side, a row of rooms juts slightly outward from the façade, rising from the first floor up to the fifth, in a section with round edges, the width of one office. One enters the building under this overhang of only one metre or so.

The interior is more interesting. I’ve mentioned the Jugendstil tiling on the walls of the steep staircase and flooring of the staircase. It squiggles at the base of the stairs, in white tiles cut into curving patterns, broken with grey spear-like shapes pointing to the stairs. The steps are themselves slabs of tan marble. Underneath them are black tiles with Mondrianesque touches of yellow.

Around the base of the banisters of each landing are laid some nice, small tiles of various colours, some like the iridescent colours of shells or pearl. It’s nice to think someone thought about us, the generations of office workers, students and teachers, climbing this stairway every day, hungering for some colour to the routine.

There are two tiny elevators on either side of the staircase. You enter through wooden doorways, framed so tightly you have to turn sideways to enter. There are tall slits of windows in the door, so you can see people rising in boxes of yellow light. A classmate of mine says he’s been stuck in one twice already. It’s only two storeys so I always use the stairs. I’ve caught sight of his smiling face passing as I’ve climbed.

The centre of the staircase is open, and you can see up to the skylight. Each floor is sunnier than the one below, until one reaches the top floor, where the white walls radiate with the light of summer. The windows look out over the Spui district, revealing the roofs of a city could only be Amsterdam, or certainly could only be Dutch, sharp peaking roofs covered in tin and tile, each at a different height, each in rows turned to their own orientation. Attached to all the roofs, the gables. Amsterdam is a city of gables, steeped and curved and pointed, decorated with white frosting in every variety of theme, with waves and shells and crowns, fish and angels and the faces of burghers. There is heraldry. Nearby, one coat of arms displays a castle surrounded by swans.

There are many buildings in the neighbourhood to love. There is one across the street, dating back only one hundred thirty years, but old, a specimen of nineteenth-century neo-Renaissance, with bay window and chapel-like arched windows, each sectioned into medieval-like small panes. There are two medallions set in the wall with sculpted profiles of two Amsterdam heroes, Vondel and Marius. I think this building is actually attached to the Begijnhof, beautiful inner court remaining from the Catholic city, accessed by the Spui square.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Travelogue 766 – August 17
Where Dreams Go

Well, I never got to go to Oxford, but now, for this one month, I study at the Oxford House. I’ve heard it said that dreams always come true, but always in inexact forms. I suppose this would be one of those instances.

I was a kid with an unnatural respect for academics. I had big dreams, and they were founded on a delusion. I saw scholarship as an honoured pursuit, and, what’s more, a pleasure. Scholars were a lucky set of people. They would find illumination, and they were privileged to share it with the rest of humanity, through teaching and writing. My delusion lasted into adolescence, I’m embarrassed to say, and I dreamed about places like Oxford, places I could neither qualify for nor afford. But I was saved by mediocrity. My tenure at Oxford would have been a terrible disillusionment. Attending the University of California, I could comfort myself with the thought that things were better elsewhere: there were scholars motivated by more than careerism and squabbling. There were great minds eager to mentor their students, and students eager for knowledge.

Anyway, all these years later, well past the white-water descent from childish idealism to realism and the cold comforts of irony, I’m ringing the bell at the Oxford House in Amsterdam in the mornings, entering to climb two flights of old marble stairs set inside high narrow walls tiled in Jugendstil patterns, climbing to the office of the training centre where I study arcane methodologies for teaching language to students from around the world.

The arc makes sense, after all, from Oxford to Oxford House. I love language. Now I’m among others who do, too. We may not be many in number, but it doesn’t matter. There’s an essential utility to language that makes it survive, and in fact fosters its beauty, despite any purpose it’s utilized for. We’re all poets, saying beautiful things when we greet each other in the morning, when we order bagels, when we give directions to a stranger, when we gossip, when we insult and fight, when we boast, and when we cry for ourselves. Even the U.S. president, soulless golem that he is, incapable of spirit or intellect, delivers transporting speeches, glorious in their banality and lack of coherence, magically degrading and hilarious. Language is a miracle.

And so I live the dream. Dialled down, diverted, but the dream. Seen through certain lenses, much of my life reads like this, a text of reconstituted dreams, dreams made humble. Take the several dozen medallions hanging off a peg back home, the desserts of ten years of road races. When I was a kid, I dreamed of medals, Olympic medals. I trained hard for them, but never hard enough. And still, dreams, once conceived, seem to have a life of their own. I train for two or three races a year now, and I bring home the medallions to hang on that peg.

For ten years I’ve been doing my best to support aspiring athletes in Ethiopia. I owned a team. I was manager, cheerleader and coach to runners there, most of them nurturing their own dreams of Olympic gold. Some of them have won medals in Ethiopian championships.

Witness to the lives of athletes, I see how mediocrity has saved me. Childhood dreams are killers. They start so simple and pure. With time, they become harder and harder to maintain. Life becomes as complex as the vision is simple, just to sustain the effort the dream demands. It doesn’t seem fair.

For some of us, adulthood provides a succession of lesser visions that are fulfilling, in their way, and are somehow easier to maintain. They are more complex and less colourful, but they fit. They provide surprising moments of meaning. ‘Less is more,’ is one of the mantras of our trainers. We bring into the building our ideas of what a teacher is, and much of the trainers’ job is to trim those. ‘Let go. Do only what is necessary. Focus on the learners and what they need.’ Yep.

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

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.