Thursday, August 30, 2012

Birthday Thoughts: Age is Relative

Several years ago, a bug-eyed comedian named Dennis Wolfberg spoke about his age. “I’m in my very late 30s,” he said. “I’m 43.”

Tomorrow, I will once again reach my very late 50s. So I’m thinking about age today.

How do we talk about age or think about age? George Carlin noted that when you’re young, you use half-year designations or the word “almost.”  You’re “6 and a half” or “almost 7.” Not too many people would say, “I’m 52 and a half” or “almost 53.” Well, I’m in my very late 50s.

More on age:

Audrey and I were watching Kim Clijsters at the U.S. Open the other night and wondered how old she was. Pulling out the trusty iPad, I discovered that she was born in 1983. That meant that she was one year older than our daughter Amanda. I didn’t have to think about Amanda’s age (to me she’s always around 16 or 18 or 21, though I recognize that she is older and is quite mature for whatever her age; she always has been). I just considered Kim Clijsters to be practically the same age. I do that a lot: comparing the age of writers, actresses, Internet moguls, or ballplayers to that of my children. Sometimes this does not make me feel good about my own age, I must admit.

When I did think about Amanda’s actual age—28—I realized that she is coincidentally the same age as our dog Tess, who turned 4 two weeks ago. That’s 4 in dog years and 28 in relative human terms. If this seems convoluted, so what? I’m in my very late 50s.

Amanda and Tess today

(and Amanda in my mind)
Reaching this age has put me in the position to celebrate another milestone: the 50th anniversary of my Bar Mitzvah. And so I am. Come to the Glen Rock Jewish Center next Saturday morning, and you can hear me lead the services, chant my Haftarah, read a small amount of the Torah portion, and even deliver a speech. And I will be using mostly the same tunes that I used 50 years ago (they still resonate in my head). The speech is new, however. Luckily, my voice is better than it was 50 years ago, when it had a lot of trouble deciding whether it belonged to an alto or a baritone, or occasionally to both at the same time. But my memory is not as good. And I have many more memories to try to hold onto.

More on age:

My mother will turn 93 in January and seems more positive about her life than I have heard her sound in years. Our friend Til, the skier and gardener, recently turned 80. Bob Dylan is 70 and just released a new album in which he growls like Louis Armstrong or Tom Waits. Our biking group in Belgium featured as many 70- and 80-year olds as 60-somethings. So there is hope even for someone reaching his very late 50s.

I figure that this ramble should end with something literary, so here goes:

When I Was Your Age

My uncle said, “How do you get to school?”
I said, “By bus,” and my uncle smiled.
“When I was your age,” my uncle said,
“I walked it barefoot--seven miles.”

My uncle said, “How much weight can you tote?”
I said, “One bag of grain.” my uncle laughed.
“When I was your age,” my uncle said,
“I could drive a wagon--and lift a calf.”

My uncle said, “How many fights have you had?”
I said, “Two--and both times I got whipped.”
“When I was your age,” my uncle said,
“I fought every day--and was never licked.”

My uncle said, “How old are you?”
I said, “Nine and a half,” and then
My uncle puffed out his chest and said,
“When I was your age… I was ten.”

-- Shel Silverstein

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Two Sides of Brussels: Rubens and Magritte

We ended our Belgium adventure in Brussels, which we entered first on a subway instead of a bike. I’m not sure what I expected of Brussels. We knew about the waffles and chocolate, or thought we did. It is hard describe just how dominating waffles, chocolate, and other sweet delicacies are in the area around the city’s central square, the Grande Place. The sugary smell, the colors, the salivating mouths (ours). 

The sweet side of Brussels
But sugar wasn’t the first impression I had of Brussels, and it’s not my lasting memory. What really overwhelmed me was the Grande Place. We had seen miniatures in Bruges, Ghent, Mechelen, and even Antwerp—a large town hall accompanied by a dozen or so smaller, charming guild halls. This town hall was huge and gave off a golden glow in the afternoon sunlight. I tried to take a picture but soon gave up. I couldn’t get the whole building in a shot and still capture its grandeur. This was something to really impress visitors and intimidate enemies. I kept coming back to it in the two days we spent in the city.

We walked away from the square and into the surrounding streets, which were lined with tee-shirt and souvenir shops; jewelry stores; restaurants and cafes; and, of course, waffle and chocolate emporiums. Rolf, who was guiding us on foot instead of bike this time, was leading us toward the “Manneken-Pis,” a statue/fountain of a small boy peeing. The fountain is said to be 800 years old and has a long and glorious history, which seems pretty ironic considering what he is doing. One story is that the statue/fountain commemorates a young soldier who wouldn’t stop fighting against the enemy oppressors (Dutch, Spaniard, German, French?) even to take a leak. He simply peed on the battlefield without putting down his arms (well, probably one arm). Copies of the statue are everywhere in Brussels, some even molded in chocolate.

We returned to the barge for our last night aboard in our “stateroom,” with plans to come back to Brussels the next morning to complete our vacation there. Most of our group departed for the US or other places in Europe. The four of us (Phyllis, Harvey, Audrey, and I) moved into a small hotel near the Grande Place.

The hotel in Brussels is a step up from our barge accommodations

We toured for two days on buses and on foot, and even contemplated (not too seriously) renting bikes near our hotel. There is much to see in Brussels, and the city has a certain schizophrenia about it—it can’t decide if it is historic or ultramodern. For me, that bipolar personality came through best in a pair of museums connected to each other not far from our hotel. One is devoted to Belgium’s most famous modern artist, surrealist Rene Magritte. The other houses many of the Flemish masters of the 15th–18th centuries, including Brueghel, Rubens, Bosch, Dirk Bouts, and more. Ironically (or perhaps fittingly for Brussels), even the Magritte Museum is housed in a building several centuries old.

Our small group had all intentions of seeing the Magritte Museum, which was fascinating and easy to cover in a few hours. But I was the only one pushing for the Old Masters. One of our barging companions had recommended skipping the Beaux Arts museum entirely “because you have probably already seen enough crucifixion paintings.” (I know that sounds politically incorrect, but I’m just quoting.)

As it turns out, I cannot get enough of Rubens’ religious art. The sheer size of the paintings is amazing. And so is the fervor with which he obviously painted. Was it religious fervor he was feeling or just power—the knowledge that he could capture something on canvas that was so colorful, dramatic, emotional…and big!  He also obviously made a good living at his trade, as we had learned from touring his impressive house in Antwerp. 

This triptych is in the cathedral in Antwerp. Photography was not permitted in the Brussels galleries.

Here's a professional shot of the painting for full effect

So I dragged Audrey to the Beaux Arts side of the building (I think she agreed in part because we could get 2-for-1 tickets at a special price for senior citizens—those over 60—another reason to like Belgium). Harvey and Phyllis left to explore the modern side of Brussels, especially the futuristic Atomium, which was unveiled at a world’s fair in 1958, while I remained comfortably ensconced in the 1500s. 


The museum itself is a wonderful place to see art. The floor is carpeted in such a way that there is a bounce to it. You can stand and view for hours (and I’m sure Audrey was afraid I would test that idea). But I moved through quickly, for me, feeling just a little rushed but also exhilarated. 

The rest of Brussels is kind of a blur. We managed to find the Victor Horta house, not an easy thing to do, as it turned out. Horta was the founder of the art nouveau movement, and his house offers a range of offbeat treasures, many of which he created and others of which he bought or received as gifts from colleagues and followers. We saw another impressive cathedral, of course, and walked through a serene park, which was the site of a 12th century abbey.

We also had a memorable dinner at the Saint-Hubert Galleries shopping mall, the oldest in Europe. It was memorable not so much because of the food (I had mussels and frites again!) What was memorable was when Harvey asked our waiter how you say “split the check” in French or Flemish, he replied, “50-50.” We laughed so hard that when he suggested that we add an extra tip for him when we paid, we agreed. Who says Americans are tough to win over!

A day later we were on a plane back to New Jersey, wondering where to bike to next year. It may not be an easy decision. We have to figure out what other flat areas with level bike paths there are to explore. Or we have to bite the bullet and agree to be moderate bikers who can climb an occasional steep hill. I used to amuse my children with stories of my youth in Savannah where I walked to school, uphill both ways and occasionally traipsing through snow. Now I’m looking for bicycle paths that go slightly downhill both ways. After all, I qualify as a senior citizen (at least in Belgium), even if I don’t plan to act like it.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Visiting Breendonk Part II: The Camp Tour

Jewish men and women of my generation (those born not long after World War II) have an almost visceral response to the words “concentration camp.” We picture packed cattle cars and lineups, we shudder at the thought of shower rooms pouring out gas instead of water, we imagine a giant tote board on which numbers of the dead are added up until the totals reach nearly 6 million.

All of those thoughts were going through my head as I walked through the gates leading into Breendonk. I don’t believe that any in our group—most of whom were not Jewish and were probably not having the same dark thoughts as I—had ever heard of concentration camps in Belgium before. Germany and Poland, definitely. We also knew about the Czech Republic, because Audrey and I had walked through Theresienstadt several years before when visiting our daughter Amanda in Prague. But Belgium? Wasn’t that too far to the west for the Germans to hide its existence from the rest of the world?

We soon learned that there had been two camps in Belgium, but that their purpose was not primarily to hold or exterminate Jews. These camps were reserved for imprisoning and torturing labor leaders (some of whom may have been Jewish), communists, socialists, and resistance fighters. Even a group of nationalistic postal workers were thrown into Breendonk. Most of Belgium’s 100,000 pre-War Jews were rounded up and forced into Mechelen, that charming city we had visited only a few hours before. There, they were packed onto cattle cars (see dark thoughts above) and transported east to places like Auschwitz, where most were simply eliminated. At Breendonk people weren’t killed in ovens; they were mostly starved to death. Some also died after trying to augment their meager diet with grass, insects, and dead vermin.

I expected Breendonk to resemble either Theresienstadt or Auschwitz, but that wasn’t the case. There was no sign reading, “Arbeit Macht Frei” [“Work will make you free,” that lovely German euphemism] when we entered, and no separate barracks buildings. There was a train car perched on a hill above the fort, but there did not seem to be any tracks leading directly into the camp. Instead, we were led into a gray, stone fortress—dark, foreboding, and ugly—by our guide, a youngish man named Kevin who spoke excellent English with some mild type of European accent. No one asked him where he was from, and he didn’t volunteer the information. Later, one of us asked if he was a historian by profession. He said that history was his hobby. From his comments, I decided that he was originally a sociologist or even a clergyman.
A cattle car stands above the fortress with its moat

Kevin was very serious as he welcomed us to Breendonk. He spoke the name in grave tones several times as we entered the building. Each time the word sounded darker and more ominous. One strange sidelight: Kevin was all business and very solemn in those first few minutes, yet he stopped to greet several fellow workers who were leaving for the day, calling each by name and offering each a cheerful expression that he quickly removed from his face after they had passed.

We were led into a small courtyard where Kevin demonstrated how new residents to Breendonk were treated upon their arrival. He asked one of our group (Pete volunteered) to step forward and face the building wall, from about one foot away. While Kevin spoke, Pete was expected to stand silently and unmoving, which he did for nearly five minutes. We all felt uncomfortable for him. Kevin explained that the actual Breendonk newcomers might have to stand there for many hours until their paperwork was processed and that movement or speech would be punished by a beating or worse. That was how Kevin set the mood for our visit to Breendonk. It was theater and a little more.

Our group enters the fort
The courtyard where new prisoners lined up
The theater continued throughout our tour. The message Kevin wanted to convey was that Breendonk was a place where evil dwelled for the four years it was in Nazi hands and where, presumably, evil was still in residence. We walked through narrow, dark, dank hallways and into dark, crowded, dank rooms used for barracks. We heard about what prisoners ate and how they washed the outside of their bodies and got rid of wastes from the inside into small buckets or onto the floors themselves. We saw photographs of evil capos (prisoners put in charge of other prisoners) who misused their power. We saw photographs and heard stories of the commandant and his Napoleonic sergeant, who was the real terror monger of Breendonk. I thought I heard his name as Schultz, but that was probably just my imagination. Certainly this Schultz would never say, “I hear nothing! I see nothing!” like the one in Hogan’s Heroes.

Camp staff: "Schultz" is on far right
The highlight was a torture chamber at the end of a long hall. We were told that the room had no doors, so that the sound of the torturing could be heard throughout the building. Breendonk was a place for teaching lessons to those who didn’t want to learn them.

The torture chamber with its ominous hook

I found it impossible to take out my camera through the visit. My camera is fairly large and conspicuous. Audrey snapped a few photos with her much smaller and less showy one. I’m not sure who else took pictures. I’m also not sure that we wanted any real keepsakes from Breendonk.

After we completed the tour, I rushed to the modern bathroom in the visitor center to soak my bee-stung hand and take a few Advil. I also wanted to separate myself from the prison/fort before we got back on our bikes.  

Our visit to Theresienstadt several years before had been very different. That time, we felt both sadness and anger. The anger was personal, especially when we learned that Audrey’s grandparents (her father’s parents) had been transported there from Germany and both died there six months apart, one in mid-1942 and one in early 1943. Breendonk didn’t inspire anger. It was too quiet and brooding. It sat hidden in western Belgium (after all, look how much trouble we had finding it), where it accepted rather than welcomed visitors. I understand that many Belgian schoolchildren come to Breendonk each year. I hope that they are not so much frightened by the place as disturbed by what it represents. I hope they hear and feel Kevin’s lament that there was once evil in Breendonk and that evil continues to exist in our world unless we choose to change it.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Visiting Breendonk Part I: Getting There Is an Adventure

On the night before our fourth day of biking in Belgium, we were all surprised to learn that we would be visiting a German concentration camp the next day. A few of our group were more than surprised; they were uncomfortable with the prospect. Rolf had to do some quick thinking about how to split up the group when it was time to head to Breendonk, which was the name of the camp.

I will write about the camp itself in my next post. This one will detail our adventure just getting there. And a strange journey it was!

Nothing went according to plan the next day. Harry, our barge captain, planned to set sail at 6:30 and figured it would take as much as four hours to get through the canal locks and begin transporting us to a stopping off place to begin our biking. We would eat lunch on the barge (which was unusual) and then bike for several hours through the countryside and to the small city of Mechelen. Then we would double back and head to Breendonk. Or perhaps part of the group would go to Mechelen and the rest to the camp. Or some other variation that was not yet clear.

Captain Harry

The boat did indeed set sail at 6:30, but we breezed through the locks and then, pushed by the outgoing tide, ended up around three hours ahead of schedule. (Why this surprised Harry seems pretty surprising to me. After all, he was an experienced captain and knew all about tides. Yes, it may have taken 4 hours two weeks before, but tide patterns change.) In any case, lunch was moved up to become a mid-morning snack, and the entire group headed to Mechelen afterwards. We maneuvered on the side of highways this time, crossed the road several times to follow the bike paths, and passed what appeared to be either nightclubs or strip clubs. Did Mechelen have its own “red light” district on the outskirts?

When we entered Mechelen, we were pretty surprised. Not that it was charming; most Flemish towns were that. Nor that it was open unlike many other towns we had passed through in early August, particularly on a Monday. Mechelen was bustling and featured stores that you wanted to visit, though how to transport your purchases on the bikes might be a problem. Best of all, Mechelen had a very inviting ice cream shop! We indulged and began exploring.
Mechelen's central square
An hour and half later, we remounted and retraced our path toward the barge. Reaching the canal about a half mile from the barge, we split up. About a third of the group headed home; the rest headed toward what we figured would be a depressing (but necessary) place to visit, Breendonk. Just repeating the name seems to bring trepidation or drama to my mind!

We had gone about a half-mile, when Rolf stopped to study his map. He looked troubled. He spotted two locals in front of a store and began speaking a mixture of German and English. The two obviously didn’t agree on the best route to follow to reach Breendonk, because their hand gestures indicated different directions entirely. Rolf made his choice, and we continued riding. Then we stopped some more locals in a residential neighborhood. One had no idea where we should go; the other made a suggestion. We rode on, only to reach a dead end. We doubled back and, luckily, Rolf spotted a middle aged man on a bike and posed his problem once again. The man gave a little sigh and signaled for us to follow him. He led us on a winding route through town streets, around houses (we figured he might be taking us to his house for a little refreshment), and then through a narrow dirt alley. There, a swarm of angry bees decided to attack one of our party—ME! I let out a curse in English and began shaking one stung hand while trying to maneuver my bike with the unwounded one. Not an easy thing to do! When we emerged from the alley, we spotted a sign that announced a national historic site ahead: Breendonk. We were there at last.

Most of us were laughing and sighing with relief. One of us (ME) was still feeling pain and a little indignation at his mistreatment by those bees. As we rode into the parking lot of the monument, we straightened our faces to assume a serious expression and prepared to take in another sober lesson about the evil that men have done to men. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

It's Hard to Find on a Map

As we pedaled along the Schelde River from Temse toward Antwerp, our guide Rolf (who was familiar with Belgian roads but not its history) brought us to a stop in tiny Rupelmonde. We had just bumped over a cobblestone path leading into the town and were glad to stop and literally rest our butts.

Rolf noted that there was little of interest in this town except for a statue that dominated a square in front of an impressive old church. The statue featured a bearded Renaissance scholar holding some charts in his hand. We were too far away to read the plaque below the figure.

Mercator the Elder

Looking behind me, I spotted a second statue, much smaller and rudely dwarfed by an electrical repair truck that, incongruously, featured an American flag. The small statue bore a plate reading “Jonge Mercator.” It was easy to figure out what “jonge” meant—young. But “Mercator”? Perhaps this small town, which barely rated a place on a map of Flanders, was some kind of haven for mapmakers.

Jonge Mercator

Then Rolf solved the mystery by explaining that Rupelmonde was the birthplace of the famed cartographer Gerardus Mercator—the man who coined the term “atlas” for a book of maps and was one of the first to superimpose parallel lines of longitude on his maps to help sailors plot their courses across the seas. [How do I know all of this? Wikipedia, of course.] What he didn’t explain (or perhaps didn’t realize) was that 2012 was the 500th anniversary of Mercator’s birth in Rupelmonde, and that Belgium was celebrating that birth throughout the country. There was even a big Mercator map exhibit in one of the major museums in Brussels.  

Ironically, Rupelmonde didn’t seem caught up in the “Mercator madness” or had chosen to stay low-key about its most famous son. There were no banners, no posters, and surprisingly no souvenir stands. You can’t picture an American town (or even most European ones) acting this way. I later read that Rupelmonde had celebrated on March 4, Mercator’s birthdate, but that was nearly five months before, and the “furor” had obviously died down. We bikers would certainly have enjoyed celebrating with some birthday cake featuring Belgian chocolate!

Why am I going on so long about all of this? Mostly because I felt Mercator and his birthplace deserved more respect from our biking party, and I feel bad about the way we treated him. Of course, I’m just as annoyed by the way the town was treating the statue of the Jonge Mercator. And I want to apologize to both the young and the old Mercator. Sometimes Jewish males have to invent reasons to feel guilty.    

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Bunch of Flatlanders

Last year, when we announced plans to go on a bike and barge trip to the Netherlands, friends of friends, who were “serious” bikers, said that they were saving that trip to be one of their last—more than implying that a biking venture in Holland was something to reserve for one’s dotage.

Belgium, our destination this year, is probably also not the place that "serious" bikers might choose. And, at first glance, our group that gathered at the Brussels airport in early August seemed to back up that idea. All of us were post 60, and a couple were post 80. Even Rolf, our German guide, was 73 and had been leading these trips since his retirement as an air traffic controller for the German military in his 50s.

One woman, Carolyn, was using a cane. A cane? It turns out that she had had a hip replacement less than two months before. But she was still planning to get back on the bike. We learned that her husband Peter had ridden in the senior Tour de France in his early 60s. He had climbed many of the same steep trails that the biking champions did in the “junior” competition. Retired now, he still maintains an office at the company in Michigan he once directed and goes in most days just in case he’s needed. Except when he and Carolyn are off on biking trips. They came with their friends Vonnie and John, married only a few years before after both being widowed. They knew they were right for each other after joining in several biking adventures.

There were Wendy and Michael who live an isolated but satisfying existence on the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound. They warned us not to come visiting if we thought we would find flat trails near their home. Plus, we had better know the ferry schedule if we even wanted to get to their island. We should also plan our trip there in advance since they also spend time away from home doing good deeds on non-biking jaunts to places such as Nepal and Ethiopia. Their description of a harrowing adventure that involved staying huddled overnight at 15,000 feet because of fear that they could not safely get back to base camp at a placid 12,000 feet was the stuff of both wonder and nightmares.

They were joined by their friend Roxanne from California, who added a new grandchild to her family during the trip. Believe me, she didn’t ride like any grandmother I’ve ever known!

Two women from Massachusetts, Maureen and Sheila, who have been biking and traveling together for many years, kept assuring us that we could graduate from Easy biking trips to Moderately Challenging ones in places like Southern France and Eastern Europe because they had been on those many times.

Mae and Bob from Blacksburg, Virginia, where Bob is the biggest booster for Virginia Tech (having sent all four of his children there and having never missed a home football game in years) are also veteran bikers of both easy and hard trails. They even sported backpacks with built-in water tubes. Were they suggesting that making a stop, even to drink water, was a little too easygoing? Personally, I love those stops. I might even vote for more of them.

And our friends Phyllis and Harvey, who were making their first overseas biking jaunt but had long experience jaunting at home. Phyllis trained for the trip by going to spinning classes five times a week. When we tackled the Hudson River paths from the GW Bridge to Battery Park together, she wanted to keep going to Governor’s Island, which we luckily talked her out of. What would be next, I wondered, the Verrazano Bridge? The training must have prepared her well because she noted that she stayed in 8th gear (on our 8-gear bikes) almost the entire time we were riding in Belgium, except for one steep climb over a bridge near Wetterin when she was forced to drop down to 7th.  Sure, she was bragging a little, but she was just revealing the truth. (To be truthful, I must confess that I rode in 6 or 7 most of the time, and on that bridge I dropped down to 4. I think Audrey had to drop gears, too, but she had better excuses than I—after all, she was wearing a knee brace to support the healing MCL she had torn skiing in February and a back brace to strengthen muscles and bones in her lower back. My excuse—too much belly and occasional cramps or gout in my feet that called for healing daily applications of Advil.)  

Audrey and Phyllis, still smiling

Audrey and I had chosen to make the trips to Holland and Belgium not to see how many miles we could cover in a day or how quickly we could cover them. And we understood our biking limitations. We wanted, as risk-free as possible, to see a country from close on the ground and have direct contact with people in even small settlements, the kind of thing you can’t do as well on bus or train trips. (For example, we had coffee among a group of Flemish-speaking locals in miniscule Temse under a big bridge that we had puffed across and entertained by a dog of horse-like proportions. And we were probably the biggest lunch crowd seen in a while by a tiny but well supplied deli in a town not far from Rupelmonde, the birthplace of Gerardus Mercator of mapmaking fame. We even walked and rode through an underground tunnel to get from one side of the river to the other and enter Antwerp.) 
Bring on Antwerp!

Sure, you could call us “flatlanders,” but we traveled with high-minded biking veterans, and none of us are doting (except, maybe me).

Friday, August 17, 2012

More thoughts on Belgium: A local hero 

We started our third day of riding in Belgium following a path that was more natural than paved from tiny Baasrode to tiny Sint-Amands. Then we made a quick stop, which was pretty unusual. Those first few days we mostly rode quickly and pretty far between stops. Rolf, our guide, had two things to show us. We were at a particularly wide bend of the Schelde River that he wanted to point out. We were also standing in a small square dominated by the statue of Sint-Amand's most famous citizen, the poet Emile Verhaeren.

Not surprising, very few Americans have probably heard of Verhaeren, but to the Belgians he's pretty special. He even came close to winning the Nobel Prize in 1911 (or so I found out from Wikipedia). You can find more than 300 of his poems on the PoemHunter website, most in their original French, which was the language in which Verhaeren wrote, even though he grew up speaking Flemish. He was part literary giant, part Belgian nationalist, part pacifist in World War I, and a large part Romantic. Ezra Pound called his death, by falling under a train in the Rouen station in November 1916, "one more note in the tragedy" of the war. Here, translated, are the last few stanzas of Verhaeren's optimistic poem "La Joie" ["Joy"]:

To me all seems
One thrill of ardour, beauty, wild caress;
And I, in this world-drunkenness,
So multiply myself in all that gleams

On dazzled eyes,
That my heart, fainting, vents itself in cries.

O leaps of fervour, strong, profound, and sweet,
As though some great wing swept thee off thy feet!
If thou hast felt them upward bearing thee

Toward infinity,

Complain not, man, even in the evil day;
Whate'er disaster takes thee for her prey
Thou to thyself shalt say
That once, for one short instant all supreme

Which time may not destroy,
Thou yet hast tasted, with quick-beating heart,
Sweet, formidable joy;
And that thy soul, beguiling thee to see
As in a dream,

Hath fused thy very being's inmost part
With the unanimous great founts of power,
And that that day supreme, that single hour,
Hath made a god of thee. 

Of course I didn't know any of this when we were viewing the statue. What I saw was a solitary figure, holding a sheaf of papers in his hand (perhaps his poems or a fiery speech) and pointing either toward the Belgium or Flanders flag, depending on the angle from which you looked.

photos by Rudy Picke

And I remember wondering, if my friend Steven Jay Griffel has a few more novels published, will they put up a statue of him in Bayside?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A country with a sense of humor

Sitting at lunch in the tiny Flemish resort town of Donk, we had a funny exchange with our server—a bubbly young woman born in Belgium, raised in Spain, and back in Belgium to study graphic design. “The schools in Belgium are much better than the ones in Spain,” she explained. 

Then she asked us whether we liked Belgium. We, of course, told her, “Yes, very much.”  “How?” she replied. “It rains every day, and the sun doesn’t often shine.”  To prove her point, it was indeed drizzling pretty hard outside the restaurant, where we were indulging in far too many mussels and Belgian fries that she had served us.

Our waitress was telling us a truth, but she was not really putting down her country. She seemed to have a twinkle in her eye when she talked about the rain. After all, she had chosen to leave sunny Spain to come back “home” -- rain and all. That playful pride became even clearer when I went into a Brussels tee-shirt shop a few days later. There, in a wide range of colors were shirts bearing the message: “Belgium: Where rain is typical.” I have one of those shirts now—in blue—and I’m enjoying showing it off.

It takes a big country (even if it is small in area) to laugh at itself. So I’m touting Belgium as a great place to visit and bike, sometimes under a rainbow. Plus there are the mussels, the fries, the waffles, the chocolates, and more than 300 different beers. What a country!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Thoughts on Belgium Part 2

A tale of two tour guides

Sometimes your impressions of a place you visit become even more memorable based on the actions of the guide who showed you around. And sometimes it’s not what the guide tells you that is the most memorable; it’s the guide himself (or herself).

Biking from Bruges to Ghent on Sunday, dark clouds hovered over us. The rain finally made its appearance as we entered Ghent, still about 15 minutes from our destination, the town’s famous Gravensteen, “Castle of the Count,” an imposing medieval wonder. We had gotten a late start that morning, and Rolf, our biking leader, was trying to hurry us, so we wouldn’t be late meeting our city tour guide, who was to show us the castle and the other attractions of the town’s main square (Grote Markt). We would soon learn a valuable lesson: you should not piss off a Belgian tour guide—at least not Osvald.

Wet and winded, we arrived at the castle at around 3:30 instead of 3. “We must hurry,” Osvald said. “You have only 2 hours now, and you really need 3 hours just to see the castle, which is the heart of Ghent.”

Ghent's Majestic Gravensteen

Soon, we were scampering up one of the steepest spiral staircases I’ve ever been on and rushing into a Chamber of Torture, among other wonders. All of the time, Osvald was lamenting our too-brief stay at the castle.

Then one of our group really irked him by suggesting that we leave the castle soon in order to spend what time we had left with him on other (implied: better) sites in the city. Osvald seemed horrified but at last complied. He led us outside and took up a place along the canal to tell us about Ghent’s historic buildings and canal, its guild houses, and its trading and warring history. He spoke with great animation, waving his arms and modulating his voice in an almost singing manner. He was wondrous. But he still let us know that we should tell our tour company that if we could spend only 2-3 hours in Ghent, we should just forget seeing the castle, which takes 3 hours to see properly all by itself. The castle was his special domain, and he wanted it treated with respect.

Osvald nearly takes flight

Osvald reminded me of an earlier guide we had enjoyed on a trip to southern Italy several years before. He introduced himself as “Professori” and shared with us the wonders of Paestum, a town founded by Greeks in the fifth century BCE. Paestum has a temple to Athena similar to, but in better shape than, the Parthenon in Athens. We were entertained with great enthusiasm by a man who combined knowledge and ego in equal parts.

When we got back on our bus after leaving Paestum, we asked our own tour guide, who had been leading and cooking with us so excellently all week, in which university the Professori taught. “Professori, eccch,” she said contemptuously. “He is just a tour guide like the rest of us.”

From my experience, a great tour guide is as priceless as a great city you have come to visit and often more memorable.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Biking into Dendermonde, in the Flanders region of Belgium on August 6, we saw a brightly colored sign advertising Little Woodstock outdoor (and indoor) music festival.

The festival had ended the day before. Once again, as in Bethel Woods 43 years ago, I had missed Woodstock. From pictures I have seen posted on a festival website, this Woodstock was cleaner, dryer, and less crowded than the first one. But it also featured Belgian fries and mayonnaise. So you have to take the good with the not so good. The attendees also seemed old enough to have been in Bethel in 1969. Of course, so am I.

In Flemish, Little Woodstock was described as  "een festival met GRATIS TOEGANG voor alle optredens en fuiven!" (With Google's help, the Flemish seems to say it was a festival that was free of charge to enter in which all could play and celebrate.) That's pretty much how the lucky 1969 attendees felt, or so I have been told.

In January, Pete Fornatale, veteran DJ and rock music chronicler, spoke at my synagogue about Woodstock (the original, not the one in Belgium) and his new book Back to the Garden. Sadly, Pete died just a few months later. I miss his unique style of putting a radio show together (no one made a playlist like he did) and his knowledge of 60s and 70s rock stars and their music.  I also regret that I never got the chance to ask him that day which version of the song “Woodstock” he considered the most fitting for the 3-day seminal event – Joni Mitchell’s slow and haunting or Crosby, Stills, and Nash’s upbeat and rocking. I guess it depends on your mood when you put yourself into a Woodstock state of mind.

All of which makes me wonder if Woodstock is not so much an event as a celebration of being young (or not so young anymore) and open minded and willing to get muddy if the occasion arises. Or even to ride a bicycle through central Belgium with 14 other 60-, 70-, and 80-year-olds behind a German tour guide who was always in a hurry and sometimes got a little lost.

In the Introduction to Back to the Garden, Pete quotes Abbie Hoffman’s testimony at the trial of the Chicago Seven in 1969. It's a pretty funny exchange of miscommunication between the generations.

Hoffman is asked, “Where do you live?”

His reply: “I live in Woodstock Nation.”

When asked where that is, Hoffman says, “It is a nation of alienated young people. We carry it around with us as a state of mind.”

When he is pushed by a befuddled prosecuting attorney to explain in just which state Woodstock is located, Hoffman says, “It is in the state of mind, in the mind of myself and my brothers and sisters. It is a conspiracy.”

I love that word conspiracy. I don't think I have ever really been involved in a conspiracy, but if Woodstock counts, then maybe. . . 

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Last weekend, while browsing through the best browsing place I know -- the Book Barn in Hillsdale, NY -- I found a slightly weathered copy of James Baldwin's short story collection Going to Meet the Man and bought it so I could pass along the story "Sonny's Blues" to my son Brett, who spent part of his formative years experiencing the joys and pangs of a musician.

My own musical "career" (clarinet and tenor saxophone in school bands from grades 5-12) was, at best, checkered. But I do remember one wonderful evening when I was 16 and asked to provide background notes for a small jazz group at an academic summer program in Georgia. The musicians in the group set up a dialogue in which they each took a melody line, molded it, refined it, expanded it, and then passed it along -- from saxophone to trumpet to guitar to piano to drums and back. Meanwhile, I played four notes -- middle to high to low to lower and back. I kept my eyes closed and just listened. I couldn't believe I was part of this creation, even in a passive sort of way. I didn't know how music could feel from the inside.

Then I read "Sonny's Blues," which is a story about brothers, love, missteps with drugs, and rebirth, all wrapped in a blanket of music that is both warm and scratchy. It's a loving story and a painful story. It's a story that makes you feel more than think. And it brought back that summer evening to me.

Here is the climax of Baldwin's story, as we English majors say. Or it's the crescendo, as Sonny or his brother might say:
photo by Jef Jaisun

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated, are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

I just watched Sonny's face. His face was troubled, he was working hard, but he wasn't with it. And I had the feeling that, in a way, everyone on the bandstand was waiting for him, both waiting for him and pushing him along. But as I began to watch Creole, I realized that it was Creole who held them all back. He had them on a short rein. Up there, keeping the beat with his whole body, wailing on the fiddle, with his eyes half closed, he was listening to everything, but he was listening to Sonny. He was having a dialogue with Sonny. He wanted Sonny to leave the shoreline and strike out for the deep water. He was Sonny's witness that deep water and drowning were not the same thing---he had been there, and he knew. And he wanted Sonny to know. He was waiting for Sonny to do the things on the keys which would let Creole know that Sonny was in the water.

And, while Creole listened, Sonny moved, deep within, exactly like someone in torment. I had never before thought of how awful the relationship must be between the musician and his instrument. He has to fill it, this instrument, with the breath of life, his own. He has to make it do what he wants it to do. And a piano is just a piano. It's made out of so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory. While there's only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.

And Sonny hadn't been near a piano for over a year. And he wasn't on much better terms with his life, not the life that stretched before him now. He and the piano stammered, started one way, got scared, stopped; started another way, panicked, marked time, started again; then seemed to have found a direction, panicked again, got stuck. And the face I saw on Sonny I'd never seen before. Everything had been burned out of it, and, at the same time, things usually hidden were being burned in, by the fire and fury of the battle which was occurring in him up there. . . .

Then Creole stepped forward to remind them that what they were playing was the blues. He hit something in all of them, he hit something in me, myself, and the music tightened and deepened, apprehension began to beat the air. Creole began to tell us what the blues were all about. They were not about anything very new. He and his boys up there were keeping it new, at the risk of ruin, destruction, madness, and death, in order to find new ways to make us listen. For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn't any other tale to tell, it's the only light we've got in all this darkness.