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.