Friday, March 30, 2012

Only a Messenger

Eastside Road, March 30, 2012—
BACK FROM A TRIP to find in the mail a new novel by an old friend whom we see too rarely, Sumner Carnahan. I have always liked her writing, but am surprised by her novel: in it she sets aside her post-Burroughs deconstructed style for a fascinating and subtle alteration of a more conventionally narrative approach, weaving together two dissimilar but fluid points of view, touching on the conflict of two quite different cultural mentalities, to deal with matters of environmental and economic urgency, while in fact toying imaginatively with the genre of detective fiction.

Reading it, all kinds of things come to mind while I'm simultaneously caught by the effortless onward flow of the narratives. An intelligent, diffident young American man, David Ambrose Gentry, maintains notebooks in which he records meditations on the names of things, on nature and procreation, and on relationships — particularly one that develops in the course of the novel with an observant, spiritual, utterly believable young Mexican woman, of strong Mayan heritage, whose own diaries are intercut to form the structure of the novel.

An example:
We discuss mining. C. doesn’t believe in removing things from inside the earth. Says that metals and chemicals can be retrieved gently off the surface using simpler techniques.

I explain that civilization would not exist without mining. We wouldn’t be riding in this fine green four-speed half-ton truck just now without the mining of metals and petroleum. And the airplane we will board for San Diego:

"You want it to be made of cardboard and tree sap?"
That made her laugh. She laughed and laughed, almost hysterically, her thick dark hair falling in waves across her face. Then, abruptly, knotting her hair over one shoulder, she stared straight ahead in that way she has of keeping still..

…I see the indigena in her… Mixtec, Mayan? Her heritage is confused. (Whose isn't?)…

op. cit., p. 44-5
I still think of William Burroughs from time to time: also E.T.A. Hoffmann, Carlos Castaneda, Gertrude Stein, Sebald— perhaps because I've already associated some of them with Carnahan's earlier work. She has been an attentive reader as well as an inventive and methodical writer, and if these are influences they seem fully internalized.

Her more avant-garde style frequently used vernacular and commercial styles ironically; here I think she has found a perfect balance between stylistic, even linguistic (taken in a broad sense) universes, producing an apparently artless straight ahead whodunit, with satisfyingly surprising twists, giving the reader subtle esthetic pleasures on top of the entertainment of the plot and the substance of the social and political issues it involves. I like this book; I like it a lot, and I'm glad to say so. I hope she writes more novels: I think she makes an important contribution to the form.

• Sumner Carnahan: Only a Messenger, Burning Books (The Quadrant Series), 2011; ISBN 978-0-936050-34-8

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Hotel blues

Park & Suites Ëlegance la Ciotat, La Ciotat, France, March 18, 2012—

WE HAVE DRIVEN, in the last week or so, about 1500 kilometers, crossing France from northeast to southeast, back up a little toward Lyons, then back down to the Mediterranean. There was a time when I was astonished to hear from a friend, stated almost as a fault of mine, that I was a francophile. I don't think I am. I love Italy and Netherlands first, I think, and my own dear California, I think. My fondness for la douce France is more intellectual than corporeal. When I looked into the bookstore on the Place de Comédie in Montpellier, for example, I was reminded of the considerable intellectual life, at least the vie intellectuale potentielle, of the French, and I was of course envious; I even bought a book. But I am truly not a francophile, to the extent that I would be a citizen of France if I had to change my citizenship tonight.

As I may. We are currently (five p.m.) without a place to sleep tonight. I booked a room, using, at an inexpensive hotel in La Ciotat, choosing the town because we've never stayed there, and I recalled the name from the history of Picasso; and the hotel because it was recommended by previous users of, and was inexpensive. But when we arrived, about four o'clock, delayed by street closings due to a Sunday market — unknown to Our Lady of the Dashboard, about whom another blog, another day — there was no one at the reception.

We weren't the only ones flummoxed. There were two Italian businessmen there, looking all around for some way to get into their room. We all looked around, walked up the street, back down the street. Finally I noticed a, well, notice, posted at the door, with two or three phone numbers. The first didn't answer. The second did, at length, but the woman spoke only French. She asked my name and how and when I'd booked, and then whether I noticed a coffret anywhere nearby. At length I found it, and she gave me its code.

Inside there were a great many envelopes, each with a key inside and a person's name on the cover. One belonged to the Italians, who were pleased with me for having let them into their room. None belonged to us. I mentioned this to the lady on the phone, who said she had taken note of my telephone number, and would look into all this, and would then call me back with further instructions.

Oh well. We walked the few yards down the street to the Quai Mitterand and the Best Western Hotel, verified there was a room there if we needed it (double the cost of the one we'd booked), and gave its bar a try. Three parts gin, I told the boy who seemed the only staff in the huge empty café, one part Lillet, shaken with lots of ice. Oui mussieu, he said with what seemed to me a little hesitation. In a little while we heard frantic cocktail-shaking and soon he was back with Lindsey's glass of white wine and a huge shaker glass full of what turned out to be quite an acceptable Martini, garnished with lemon peel.

Finally I called the lady who spoke only French back. Ah I tried to reach you, she said unpersuasively, look again in the coffret. Wait, I said, I'm in a bar, waiting for you to phone me. Trudged back to the hotel, imploring her not to hang up, looked around, found the coffret, opened it with the numbercode she again provided, no envelope with my name.

Not important, she said (c'est pas grave sounds so much, well, graver), do you see one envelope on the top shelf. Yes, but the name is Carpet, my name is not Carpet. I started to add, Though I've often been called on the carpet, but realized in time this would only complicate matters.

Pas grave, she said, use that envelope. So we did, and finally got into the room, very nice, hot water, bathtub, no wi-fi — that would have to wait for the morning. There were other adventures, of course, involving bewildered machinists from Detroit, two vivacious young maids who spoke no English but were very helpful in French (ou Arabe, mussieu?), and the gouvernante who clarified a few things — again, French only. Well, after all, we're in France. Other adventures, but they'll have to wait.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Einstein at the Berlioz

Montpellier, March 17, 2012—

My old friend John Rockwell said it well, years ago:

“Einstein was like nothing I had ever encountered. For me, its very elusiveness radiated richly, like some dark star whose effects we can only feel. The synergy of words and music seemed ideal. … Einstein on the Beach, perhaps, like Einstein himself, transcended time. It's not (just) an artifact of its era, it's timeless ... Einstein must be seen and re-seen, encountered and savored ... an experience to cherish for a lifetime."

I quote that from the Nonesuch Records website (Google nonesuch einstein montpellier, I can't readily embed links with Blogger on iPhone).

To John's remarks I merely add: the opera is as mesmerizing and transporting now. We saw it last nearly thirty years ago, at BAM; we saw it last night from similarly placed seats — center, nearly as high as possible.

Montpellier's Berlioz Theater is incredibly high, a postmodern version of a traditional European jewel-box theater. Perhaps our seats underscored this opera's unique effect: it was as if we were witnessing the coherent but often enigmatic proceedings of a distant and foreign society, at the same time re-acquainting ourselves with knowledge we'd somehow internalized, perhaps years ago, of the inexplicable yet reassuring meaning of it all.

There were little technical glitches along the way — opening curtain was delayed an hour. But the performances were superb: singing, instrumental, dance, acting, lighting, stagework.

The audience mostly remained seated the entire nonstop four and a half hours, though they were encouraged to come and go at will. They gave the piece a fine ovation, and they were right to do so. I think even Berlioz would have been struck with the beauty, the artistic truth, and the significance of the event.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Where we've slept recently

Hôtel Du Puy d'Alon, Souillac, March 14, 2012—
IT OCCURS TO ME I've written nothing about the hotels. We've stayed in a lot of them, these last three weeks, and there wasn't a one I wouldn't go back to, though one or two would have to adjust its price first. Nearly all of them offer wi-fi, though not always dependably in the room; nearly all have websites. Except for the first, which was chosen for us — and splendidly!— I booked most of them through, which has a good iPhone app but also works well online. For information on the nearby restaurants we chose, see Eating Every Day ( If you don't mind, I'll just mention them in the order we found them:

•Hotel Herberg & Appartementen De Smidse, Molenweg 9, 6285NJ Epen, Netherlands; +31(0)43-4551253. A fine old-fashioned place, two storeys, no elevator, on the outskirts of a village across the road from open fields; good rambling all around; decent simple food in a pleasant dining room, efficient, pleasant staff. Great for a three-day stay with friends.

•Hotel-Restaurant Le Relais, Place du Monument 22, 4900 Spa, Belgium; +32 087 77 11 08. Very pretty spacious room up a flight or two, old-fashioned, okay breakfast, well situated, cheap.

•Hotel Val de la Cascade, Petit-Coo, 1 - 4970 Stavelot, Belgium; +32(0)80/68.40.78. Well off the beaten track and at an amusement park-like development set next to a cascade, I can't imagine staying here except in the depth of off-season, unless you have kids to entertain. Still, the room was big and comfortable, the dining room almost snug and romantic.

•Hotel Ardenne Les Myrtilles, Rue du Vieux Marché 1, Vielsalm, 6690 Belgium; +32 (0) 80 67 22 85. Recently affiliated with the Best Western chain, right in the middle of town, surprisingly good restaurant, comfortable room.

•Hotel Burg Hof, Burg Reuland 43, Burg-Reuland, 4790 Belgium; +32 80 32 98 01. We stayed in a clean comfortable bare-bones room in a new building across the road from the big old hotel-restaurant on the edge of the village, goats and chickens in the yard just outside our window. Nice bar, decent restaurant.

•Hotel Oberhausen, Oberhausen 8, Oberhausen (Burg-Reuland), 4790 Belgium; +32 80 32 94 97. One of our favorite places, partly for the delicious pannekoek, partly for the sweet, airy, comfortable room, greatly for the lusty, good-humored, helpful mevrouw running the place. In a country setting in a tiny border village, another great post for rambles.

•Hotel Daytona, Hauptstrasse 3, 54689 Dasburg, Germany; +49 65501530. The only place for a number of kilometers, this was basically a make-it-work choice. Run by a Dutch couple, it's oriented to motorcycle tourists, and the town itself doesn't have much to offer. Still, the staff were very helpful and pleasant, the room clean and comfortable, and a bus runs right past, two or three times a day, most days anyway.

•Café Hotel de Ville de Bruxelles, 15 Grand-Rue Vianden, L-9410 Luxembourg; +35 2621186547. Don't ask me why a small old-fashioned hotel owned and operated by a couple immigrated from Portugal has a name like this; its not important anyway; what counts is the ingratiating warmth of the people, the pure heart of their work, and the truly excellent bacalhau they gave us. Quiet, comfortable, on the main street of a very picturesque town.

•Hotel Bristol, 11, rue de Strasbourg, Luxembourg-Ville, L-2561 Luxembourg; +352 48 58 29. Small quiet clean room, elevator, decent breakfast, nice (but smoky) bar, easy one-block walk from the train station, cheap. Oh: and friendly.

•Hotel Central, 2, rue Victor Millot, Beaune, 21200 France; +33 0380247724. Another very old-fashioned hotel with a pretty, quiet room overlooking a quiet street just off the central place and close to good cafés and a quite good restaurant (Ma Cuisine), with a nice bar and a friendly staff.

•Hotel Restaurant Le P'tit Monde, 54 Rue Du 4 Septembre, 24290 Montignac, France; +33 0553513276. Perhaps the grimmest of the hotels we've slept in lately, but clean enough. The price seemed unnecessarily high and the staff a little cool, but there's a fine restaurant (La Chaumière) right down the street.

•Hôtel Du Puy d'Alon, 1 Rue De Pressignac, Souillac, 46200 France; +33 0565378979. A kilometer from the center of town, thus the nearest café, bar, or restaurant; a pleasant room with stenciled wallpaper; quiet; comfortable.

Sunday, March 11, 2012


Hotel Bristol, Luxembourg, March 11, 2012—

Historical Luxembourg. Red: present-day Luxembourg; two blue areas at bottom: lost to France; blue upper right: lost to Germany (and now in German-speaking Belgium); mauve: lost to French-speaking Belgium.

Walking through rural Belgium and Luxembourg I've been thinking about Small Local in the context of International Community, as evidenced by language, gesture, adaptation to terrain, and such things. And I've been thinking about these things in the context of History, because it is so present here; and in the context of some provocative comments made by a funds manager to a journalist writing about global economy:

Daniel Arbess, quoted in "Magic Mountain," a fascinating article describing the scene at the Davos gathering of the World Economic Forum, written by Nick Paumgarten and published in the March 5, 2012 of The New Yorker:
"Kids who are twenty or thirty years younger than we are have a totally different experience in and manner of absorbing and processing information," he said. "How will this generation make decisions? How will they understand the big, looming debate about the legacy of entitlements and debt left by their elders? How do they understand the economy?" It was his suspicion, from his conversations here and elsewhere, that they may not understand it very well, or at least that polarizing rhetoric fostered by social media, amplified by a cynical political class may be corrupting their ability to discuss it in terms their elders can understand or abide.

"There's a lot of intellectual confusion about the causes and culprits institutionally of the mess that we are in," he said. "The language and the thinking that have evolved after the financial crisis have had an impact on the way young people think. All this talk that companies need to change, and so on — it's a misconception of the role that companies play. Shareholders risk capital. Banks intermediate capital. This is what keeps an economy going." He went on, "The root cause of everything we're experiencing is a failure of holistic thinking in a world of increasingly complex, fragmented, and ubiquitous information."
Then today I was told that one of the fundamental assumptions about the Luxembourg state, as it was determined by William II, was that it would be officially bilingual, in French and German. And yet the country people spoke Luxembourgish among themselves, as they still do. Luxembourgish was not recognized until the 1980s, as I understand it, when suddenly linguist took an interest in it, declared it endangered, and began promoting its retention and even expansion.

It was declared a third official language, and began finally to be taught in the schools, which had until then not only not taught it but had actively discouraged it. A problem immediately arose: it had never been a written language, and orthographical rules had to be invented for it.

As I've mentioned, we've run into people in both Luxembourg and Belgium who spoke only the local language, Belgian German or Luxembourgish. They've been older people and country people, for the most part, who perhaps never did learn French or German as well as they might have, and who have lost it through years of neglect. They seem to me to be speaking Luxembourgish.

I've always thought of language-speaking as a fairly simple affair: one's monolingual, like me and most other Americans, or one's functionally bi- or multilingual, like most of the Dutch. I see now it's not that simple. Languages are intrinsically complex mediations of divergent individual and social urges and demands, always in flux, always compromising between intent and the possible. How often I've wound up saying not what I wanted to say but what I could (or thought I could).

There are monolinguists, and polylinguists, and localinguists, those who speak only a small local language, enough to converse with the neighbors about matters of local import, but at considerable disadvantage when it comes to communicating with other nations, or cultures, or times.

Charting the use of language in three dimensions, the X and Y coordinates are simple enough; language follows human social geography. In this land between Meuse and Rhine, Germanic (and Gothic) sounds prevail in the east, French (and Romance) in the west. As we've traveled south from Zuid-Limbourg, the Dutch corner east of Maastricht, our lips and tongues have moved from Dutch to French and back more than once, though, because of the third dimension of time, as many of these territories have been moved politically from one sovereignty to another. (For a long time, in fact, Luxembourg was ruled by Spain.)

And as lands move back and forth politically and, more reluctantly, linguistically, so does each of us. I once asked my father-in-law, who was born in a small mountain town in northwest Italy, near Torino, whether his parents, who settled in the United States in 1914 or so, spoke English or Italian at home when he was a child, and he seemed surprised: Italian! Why, I didn't learn Italian until I went to school! We spoke what we spoke. (Most speakers of this particular form of Italian Piemontese think of it as a dialect; I've recently come to realize that in fact it is a language, Langedocian, fairly widely spoken across southern France from the Pyrenees east to his valley in Piemonte.)

Speaking and thinking seem so closely connected that argument continues whether they are mutually necessary. (I think not, but then I think instrumental music is a form of speech, recording nonverbal thoughts of its composers.) The deliberate national decision to recognize and encourage the teaching of Luxembourgish is the recognition — belatedly! — that the Luxembourgish desire, stated in the nation's motto, "We wish to remain as we are," is a national social value worth respect.

Until a generation ago Luxembourg was one of the poorest nations in Europe; now it is one of the richest in the world, its per capita income surpassing that of the United States, surpassed only by a few oil-rich emirates on the Persian Gulf. To remain as one was, in the face of so sudden a change, seems impossible and misguided, if perhaps understandable: but then one remembers the Council of Vienna, and the Treaty of Versailles, and that of Maastricht, and one realizes these cataclysmic nation-changing events are in fact fairly regular, hardly a normal human lifetime doesn't see two of them.

And in fact as Daniel Arbess points out the fact that we see iPhones in use everywhere we go is the sure indication of another social (therefor linguistic and economic) cataclysm, in which the three dimensions of social interaction house what seems a complete jumbling of local and national, class- and subcultural-based strands, often thought fairly separate and identifiable — erroneously, it's evident.

Even in the age of archery such moments have made changes faster than their natures could have become evident: how much more urgent is such comprehension now. Lacking such comprehension one can only shake one's head, as the old lady I was "conversing with" in Rodeshausen the other day, and agree de welt ist kaput. I can't help thinking that she lacks the language to investigate and consider that world; it has largely eroded away. On the other hand, she seemed cheerful, happy with her lot, content to remain as she is.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Le Château

Vianden, Luxembourg, March 8, 2012
UP PAST THE WALL and to the Château today. The Romans built a fort up there late during their Empire, and throughout the Dark Ages its ruins stood as a reminder I suppose of the good old days. by the time the early Middle Ages rolled around civic pride and perhaps an enhanced local economy led to improvements, and by the 15th century the place had become quite palatial, near what you see above.
Then hard times set in again. Vianden had been the capital of its fiefdom, but times changed. By the middle of the 19th century — odd:how recently I would have written that "the last century" — the two main gates in the town walls had been pulled down and the château itself had lost its roofs and interior carpentry. How, I don't yet know: fire, I should think. In any case, it was again a ruin, this time not Roman but Romantic.
In the 1980s, though, miraculously, the enthusiasm, technique, and above all money was found to restore the place. The result seems quite persuasive to me. There were of course plenty of descriptions and sketches and engravings to go on, and, I suppose, analogous buildings elsewhere (though not many of this caliber, I would bet). We spent an hour or so wandering the galleries, the huge rooms, the kitchen, the residence — I took thirty photos or so: masonry, carpentry, fascinating photodocumentation, scale models of the building at three different epochs. And we were entirely alone.
Lindsey read in a travel website that Vianden is to be avoided on summer weekends, when the town is overrun with Dutch, Belgian, and German tourists. I can believe it. But in these early days after Ash Wednesday most of the hotels are closed and the town is given back to its 3,000 or so residents. Curiously, many of these seem to be Portuguese. Our hotelkeep is, for example; my other blog will soon report on a bacalhau.

Four men were roofing one last part of the Château when we were up there, in beautifully fish-scaled overlapping curves, cutting each rectangular tile with a mason's hammer against an anvil spiked anew into the wood substrate as each course advanced. I thought the material must surely be synthetic ti be so even, but when I asked the crew flunky what it was, C'est ardoise, monsieur. I knew that was slate, but then asked sythethique? Ah non, monsieur, c'est naturelle.

Is it from here, then, I pressed. Ah non, monsieur, il vient d'espagne. I looked at him a little more closely: Como Usted, creo. Ah si, Señor, he responded, smiling.
Spanish slate, Spanish skill. Portuguese inn (Auber would be pleased). European community at work. Not so different, I'm sure, from what obtained during Roman times.
We had walked up to the château following an itinerary outside the town walls, laid up four feet thick and quite high of local flags of shale, I think — I'm no geologist. Towers are placed every thirty feet or so, an easy arrow-shot apart, close enough that no sentry-walk was needed for further protection. The towers are curious: often four or five stories high, they're open toward the town side: no infiltrators would have hidden in them! It's a shame the main gates were pulled down a century and more ago, but a greater wonder the walls themselves are nearly intact. They anchor the medieval taste the entire town seems to maintain, with its lack of permanent signage, sidewalks, asphalt, visible wires…
And yet I write this in a café-bar-club devoted to cinema; Sinatra and Billie Holiday and Jo Stafford provide the background music; my Martini is to my specifications, and very good…

Back to the bus

 Hotel de Ville de Bruxelles, Vianden, Luxembourg, March 8, 2012

YESTERDAY , AFTER HAVING WALKED eighty-five kilometers on the GR-5 from Spa to Oberhausen — not bad, about what I'd hoped to cover, given that I'm carrying a heavier pack than usual, and developed a nasty cold along the way — yesterday we walked a mere three kilometers, down the steep hill from our German hotel to the bridge across the river Our, then along the river, on a national road, to Rodershausen.

There we waited a little over an hour for the thrice-daily bus — morning, noon, and night -— that would take us to Vianden. It was quite cold, a little above freezing, but there was a bus shelter with a bench. I read the latest New Yorker — I'm so glad I broight the iPad on this trip; it's useful for much more than writing these reports! — and stomped about a bit. National road or no, there was no traffic. Next to the bus shelter stood a small church, locked up tight, curiously low, sunken into its plot of land behind a retaining wall, as if the entire country had risen around it by eight feet in the centuries since it had been built.

Across the road, a single row of connected houses, then a vacant spot or two, then, a little further down, another building incorporating two or three attached houses. In the larger of these two rows there was a café-restaurant, closed in spite of its posted hours. We saw a woman's face in her window directly opposite us; she seemed intent on ignoring us. After a while an old lady emerged from one of the houses down the road, looked at us curiously — the curiosity of old-timers seeing strangers in their villages — dumped a jar or pitcher, I wasn't sure which, and went back inside. Birds sang in the bare branches of a tree behind our shelter, in the green field stretching down to the river.

The café-restaurant continued to be closed; its proprietor must be away. The old lady stood out in front of her house again and I went down to say hello. She was small and pert, missing a few teeth but beautifully smiling, wearing black stockings, a patterned apron, a dark knit sweater, her thin grey hair close to the skull. She seemed to speak only German, and that in a dialect, but with gestures and my poor Dutch we managed the courtesies, the banalities about the weather, and reassurances that yes, the bus would come, half before one o'clock.

Later, say twenty minutes before the bus was to come, the younger woman whose face we has seen earlier was out in front of her house, barefoot, putting trash in her rubbish-can, and the old lady hailed her in a surprisinly healthy voice. Clearly they were used to familiar conversations called acoss the eighty meters or so separating their doorsteps. I couldn't make out a word; their language was completely unfamiliar to me. After a time, though, Younger Woman stepped out her door and addressed us, in Dutch: would we like a cup of coffee, or tea?

Yes indeed, thank you very much, it's rather cold today, isn't it; how can you be standing there without shoes?

She smiled and indicated that she was used to it, and indeed her pretty feet seemed completely free from the disfigurements so often caused by years of wearing shoes. We stepped into her kitchen, a small square room whose door opened directly onto the street. A small table, two stools, and an ironing board completely filled the room. We were offered three choices of tea: rooiboos, camomile, rose-hip. The woman seemed to be in her late forties, rather pretty, blonde. The room was warm; she was lightly dressed and barefoot. 

She apologized that she spoke only Flemish — she'd come here from Belgium a number of years ago — and a little "what they speak here." The ironing board was big and sturdy, and seemed to have a built-in steamer: at one point she murmured an apology, leaned past, and turned something off, and the padded cover of the board gave a little sigh and visibly relaxed, as if it had been stetched above continually blowing air. Ah: that's why the kitchen's so warm, and she can work barefoot all day. Her iron was a huge affair with a steam-hose apparently connected to the table, and a big laundry-basket nearby was filled with what looked like sheets and pillowslips. I complimented her on her professional setup, and she smiled and said her husband had bought it for her a couple of years ago.

The bus came, empty, driven by a smiling little man who maintained an occasional telephone conversation while guiding the bus around tight curves. Gradually the landscape changed until suddenly we were next to serious operations that seemed at first to have something to do with mining: wide galleries had been drilled horizontally into the rock to our right, the Our still running fast on our left. The driver explained that this was not mining: it was a huge hydroelectric operation, profiting from reservoirs on the plateau high above us, and it was being considerably enlarged.

He dropped us in the center of Vianden, where the Grand-Rue rises west from the river Our, ultimately to the huge fortified palace above the town. Our hotel is just up the street to the right. We set our packs down in its café, explain that we've reserved a room, and settle into a cappuccino. Before we know it someone's carried our heavy bags up to our room, a cheerful one on the second floor, its windows looking out across to grassy terraces below spruce forest across rooftops on the Rue du Ruisseau.

It's such a pleasant little town, with so many curious corners, that after visiting the Victor Hugo Museum we decide to stay an extrra night, giving us a full day to explore. We go out for a stroll, a Martini, ultimately for dinner, and return to our little hotel happy with the choice. The WC and shower are down the hall, but there are nice new terrycloth bathrobes — from Ikea!— in our closet, and we're the only guests in the hotel. It seems like we've lost thirty years.


Monday, March 05, 2012

Painting and pannekoeken

Evolution of stegosaur to elk:

Children's mural on retaining wall, Welchershausen, Germany

Oberhausen, Belgium, March 5, 2012—

WE STAYED IN today, for the most part. That's allowed: this game has no rules. I put on my coat at one point and sat outside the front door to clean the mud off my boots. The sky was light grey, as yesterday, and tiny snowflakes occasionally lit on my sleeves. A faint croaking turned my eyes skyward: scores of birds storks perhaps, quite distant and ungainly, flew determinedly north in three huge loose V's. it's cold: I quickly finish the boots and carry them back upstairs to wax them. 

Almost irrational, my fondness for these boots, bought four years ago for a trek across the French Alps, worn hundreds of miles, good as new. They treat me very well, so I respond in kind. Sharp rocks, persistent mud, even ankle-deep water don't faze them. Sometimes I think their cruelest assignment is to put up all day with my feet, and I often stuff them with cloth and leave them out overnight for air. Next morning, every morning, they're soft and supple in my hands, embracing and consoling on my feet, ready for another day of it, like a familiar animal, eager to ready me for another day of it.

After a late-lunch pannenkoek — these are among the best, perhaps the best, that I've eaten anywhere — we braved a cold wind to walk a kilometer into Germany, across a one-lane bridge over the fast, narrow ricer Oure, attracted by the promise of a unique museum. Welchenhausen is a tiny town, hardly more than four or five widely separated farmhouses, but its museum, advertised as the world's smallest, is open night and day, seven days a week. It's in a bus shelter, hardly needed for its original purpose since the bus doesn't come any more. 

The current show is a series of panels featuring engaging color photos and texts documenting the rebirth of village traditions attached to the calendar: Carnaval and Lent, Easter, May Day, Midsummer day, and so on. The texts and the installation are serious enough to persuade me that this is Anthropology, not merely Tourist Publicity: but of course everything was in German, which I do not read, so I may have been fooled. 

like the Germans, said Mevrouw van Steenbeeck the hotelkeep here yesterday, you have to admire their discipline. I'm sure you're right, I replied, but they seem to enjoy themselves, too. Oh they like to have a good time, she answered. They have their feasts and their holidays. An explanation struck me: They're Catholic, for the most part, no? Yes, she said, and they have their feast days. 

Mevrouw van Steenbeeck herself was born and grew up in Amsterdam, and bought this place with her husband thirty-five years ago, having fallen in love with both building and setting at first sight. Let's see: that would have been in 1977. I thought back to the Amsterdam I recall from those days, rather different from today's, and we agreed a little bit about the changes. Her own quarter, for example, was largely destroyed by the building of the huge theater complex at Waterlooplein, where the legendary flea market stood — I bought a wonderful serious raincoat there in 1974 for a mere five guilders, and it served well until a day when it rained in fact, and the coat dissolved into fistfuls of gooey wadding. 

As we were finishing our pannekoek this afternoon a fellow came in, looked around as if seeking someone… I told him Mevrouw van Steenbeeck was in the kitchen. (There's only her, today, and her husband, who seems to spend a lot of time reading the newspaper.) Ah so, he said, in German. Late sixties, I'd say, certainly Dutch, slim, rather muscular, balding, with curly white hair on each side. He was the only other person in the dining room tonight — yesterday there had been two other couples. 

He smiled at me encouragingly when I got up from table after the soup to stand a few minutes with my kidneys to the fire: I'm too old, I explained, in Dutch, He answered in German, and when I told him I didn't speak German said regretfully his only other language was Dutch — but said that in so thick a Limburgse accent it was very hard to understand. ultimately it began to lock in, or he reverted to the Dutch he'd learned in school.He was a painter, he said; he'd painted the three rather nice landscapes hanging in the dining room. A bit of van Gogh there, I said, in the geometry; I like them. 

He smiled in agreement: van Gogh, but not imitative. Painting like this, well done, shows not copying technique but learning from it, to turn it to something useful today. He's having a show of local landscapes in Reuland in April: I'll look for internet mentions. I come here for twenty years, he said, lapsing back into German. Has it changed in those twenty years, I asked; no, not at all. 

I asked Mevrouw van Steenbeeck later what his name is. Pierre Houden, she said, pronouncing it in the Limburgse manner, with a French "ou" making me misspell the name. That's now they talk in Roermond, she explained, resignedly. Yes, but "Pierre"? Not Piet? Well, she said, he's an artist, he's entitled. And he's nice, nose not in air.

Tomorrow, cold or not, we leave this wonderful spot foe a walk to Dasbourg. That's life, at least as I live it: find, enjoy, move on no regrets. Take the memories with you.


Sunday, March 04, 2012

Lost and found

From Google Earth: the forest in which we were lost today

Oberhausen, Belgium, March 4, 2012—

WE CHEATED A BIT yesterday — you see Curtis, we're not all that obsessed — and we paid for it today. The problem is, overnight accommodations along this stretch of the GR5 are few and far between; you have to plan carefully. Yesterday the shortest walk between our two endpoints would have been a good twenty-five kilometers, over our budget. So we cut nine kilometers by taking a taxi to bypass the first stage. At nine-thirty he was at our Vielsalm hotel, smiling and ready to go; we tossed the backpacks into the trunk and set off.

The ride took twenty minutes or so, partly because our taxiste was in no hurry. He pointed out sights along the way, telling us more about the incredibly evolved techniques for harvesting pulpwood, the mainstay of the local economy: giant robots, guided by remote control, climbing the hillside to clear-cut huge tracts, strip the branches, cut the trees into two-meter lengths, and stack them to be picked up after they've seasoned a bit.

We were curious about hunting. Deer, pigs, and wild goats are taken in November and December, but the trails are safe for us now; hunting is out of season pour la réproduction. The country we've been walking through seems very forest-oriented, particularly at table: venison, boar, and wild duck are often on the menus; forest berries accompany them, and flavor the spirits you take as a digestive, or to warm you on cold evenings.

Taxiste dropped us in Commanster, a pretty little town with a fine stone church, two or three houses, and the memory of an unsolved murder. In November 1955 Arsène Lecope, a man in his fifties who lived with his two spinster sisters on their small farm near the church, was set upon near the cemetery by a large man wearing a black hood as he was returning from his habitual Monday evening smoker with the other old boys in the neighborhood. 

He was strangled, but managed to beat off the assailant and drag himself to the nearest house. The doctor was summoned and reassured everyone that the victim's condition was not serious. He worsened, though, and died a few days later. This precipitated a police investigation, but the locals were apparently not very cooperative, and the case was never solved. I don't know much about World War II, but know of course the fighting was long and heavy hereabouts; I wouldn't be surprised if a long-simmering resentment concerning resistance or complicity were at the bottom of the case. 

The fields around Commanster are beautiful today; it's hard to think how much blood has sunk into them over the years. We walked through them, through patches of forest, through more fields; through the ghost embankment of the old railroad, long since disappeared otherwise, through the villages of Braunlauf and Schirm, always hopeful for a café, always disappointed.We left the GR5 after Schirm and walked down past another imposing farmstead into Grüfflingen, meeting the first human we'd seen since the taxiste, a pretty girl in her 'teens with a border collie at her heels. Bonjour, excusez-moi, est-ce qu'il y a un café dans la village? She looked a little surprised and amused and answered in excellent English, Oh no, no, I'm sorry…

Pourquoi parlez-vous anglais? Nosy me asked next. The answer came pertly, woth a light little laugh: Because I can! And on up the road she and her collie went.And we continued on ours, through more forest and fields, past a bunker and a huge agricultural operation, down into Burg-Reuland and our night's hotel. 

It had been an easy day, fifteen kilometers, not much climbing, but we were a little footsore. Still, after cleaning up and changing we went for a stroll around town. The ruins of a fine old fort, burned by the French in the 1790s. A fine city house painted a striking deep red. Houses with small orchards, chickenyards, dogs. From a barn next one of these village houses, the bleating of a hungry calf.

Today, though, ah, today was difficult. The climb up out of Reuland was one of the steepest I've walked, and soon after we'd leveled out and were enjoying a walk down a country road between fields we somehow missed a turn. I don't know how it happened; I think the balissage was missing, and I wasn't sufficiently attentive. The guidebook and its map both clearly show a right turn at a crossroads, but we came to none. 

Finally we came to a mud road leading off to the right, and there stood a huge oak with the only blaze we'd seen in quite a while: the X-shaped cross of red and white stripes that say Go No Further.So we took the mud road. No more balissage. Back to the country road and ignore the X. That way clearly is wrong, map and compass tell me: back to the mud. We follow this until we come to the forest; we enter the forest; we get completely lost. There'd been a heavy mist or very light rain all this time; even in the open it was hard to orient yourself by the light; in the woods I wasn't sure we could count on our GPS. 

Still, I trusted the compass. The right way was far too steep a descent in this terrain, badgerholes, fallen branches, leaves, our heavy packs: we went along the contour and even a little uphill. Finally we came to the clearing and I saw what must be the trail. A hundred meters down a grassy slope and we were on a dirt road; almost immediately we saw the welcome balissage: white stripe over red. From there it was a piece of cake, or nearly. 

We met our first co-walkers of the last four days, and they gave us both advice and a better map. We took a steep climb up to the edge of Luxembourg, then — following our new map — left the GR5 and walked a kilometer or so down an asphalt country road (rarely a car or tractor to be seen) into town. There, in front of us, our hotel, with its reassuring sign PANNEKOEKENHUIS; and there we are tonight — and, for all I know, tomorrow night too, as it may snow tomorrow. We've walked four days now, about sixty kilometers (thirty-eight miles), not bad, given the terrain.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Why Belgium?

bunker in the distance, field near Burg-Reuland

Burg-Reuland, Belgium, March 3, 2012—
I'VE NEVER REALLY understood the point of Belgium. So small a country seems to me to make no sense unless it's to express a uniquely strong sense of unity. Denmark, for example, makes sense as a counter-statement to the rest of Scandinavia. Larger countries like Germany, France, Italy have made themselves nations by integrating smaller communities with the sheer weight of their size, even then not that easily. But how can Belgium justify nationhood, other than by refusing, fraction by fraction, to be subsumed by one neighbor or another?

It was partly in order to explore this that I thought of taking this trek across the Ardennes. The town we're sleeping in, tonight, numbers about 500 citizens, our barkeep-hotelkeeper tells me; yet it's quadralingual: French and Flemish, the two majority languages of the nation; German, which is perhaps grudgingly approved since Germany annexed this area temporarily a while back, and the local dialect, which seems to me to mediate among Dutch, German, and the peculiar language they speak in Luxembourg — a language which is, I think, like Alsatian, really a modern development of Gothic, not merely a dialect of German.

In the last few days I've opened conversations in French, and the usual immediate reply is in an incomprehensible kind of Dutch — Flemish, I suppose, spoken as a second language by people who are just trying to be polite. When I then explain that I don't speak Flemish my interlocutor responds in an almost equally incomprehensible French. This was until today, when in Spa and Stavelot and Vielsalm we were in the country of Wallonia, where the locals seem to prefer speaking, well, Walloon, a strange cousin of French.

English is spoken at hotel desks and to a limited extent in restaurants; it is never seen, not even on menus. When I asked a man in Stavelot for bus information — an old man sitting in the sun on a bench with his dog — he answered in Flemish at first, then switched to French. He asked where I was from: California, I told him. Oh, pas Australien? (I think my hat had misled him to that conclusion.) No, California, I said, in the west of the United States.

He formed his hands into pistols, not letting go the leash, and smiled, and said Wild West! Paf paf! I smiled and said Yes wild west, il faut après tout tuer les vaches, and he smiled, and I walked away.

Great as these linguistic differences are, I don't think they cause the fractionalization of Belgium. I think they rather are one of many results of a single cause, the intrusion of foreign structures on thitherto specifically local societies. Our friendly (not to say loquacious) hotelkeep in Vielsalm told us of a distant ancestor who was peacefully minding his own business in his workshop when Napoleon's army marched through town, informed him he was joining the troop as a sapper, and had no choice but to go with them as a noncombatant (perhaps not trusted with arms), on the Russian campaign, which he not only managed to survive, but even took advantage of to the extent of bringing back to Belgium (as it would become in another thirty years) with a Belorussian wife. Hence the improbable name Bérinzenne, a community outside Spa. These people butcher foreign languages worse than do the Brits.

The same hotelkeeper told us his grandfather had fought on the German side in World War I, having no choice, as after the Germans had annexed Belgium, after only twenty days of war, he was after all a German, and followed orders or else.

When his son received a similar notice a generation later, though, he told his mother he wouldn't obey, and instead left in the middle of the night, somehow making his way south across France and Spain to Gibraltar, where the British, impressed by his resourcefulness, took him in and sent him to Scotland to help train Commandos.

This southeastern part of Belgium belonged to the Royaume of Luxembourg, as I understand it, until those leaders of the free world the French, because 1789 made them republican and egalitarian, not monarchic, and intent on spreading the word Enlightenment everywhere, decided it should be French, and so it remained until the Council of Vienna, presumably not knowing what else to do about Flemings, Walloons, and other such non-belongers, decided to throw them all in together in one tiny buffer state with its own king.

Industrial savvy and a huge, rich African colony — don't ask me how they got that — made Belgium work, more or less, among modern post-Napoleonic countries up until the tragic 20th-century German expansions. Having walked three days through the country and talked to a handful of representative Belgians I feel pretty authoritatively that the country could be self-sufficient; there's good farmland, God knows plenty of trees, and that endless supply of Spa water.

Tourists like to come here for what they lack at home: the Dutch for hills; Germans for food closer to that of the French; the French no doubt to feel better about being French, not that they need reasons; people of all nations, sadly, to visit cemeteries. To me the people hereabouts seem relaxed and secure. The Vielsalm hotelkeeper, as if to explain why he stayed in this little provincial city, said Look, I'm forty-two, I was born here, I love my country, I know it rains a lot and the mud is terrible, but it's beautiful, it's not like anywhere else, and I'd never leave it.

(There must be something in his gene pool, though: he too has a Belorussian wife; I never found out why.)

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, March 02, 2012

Tramping in the Ardennes

Vielsalm, Belgium, March 2, 2012—
WALKING, STROLLING, RAMBLING: those are all very nice. But it occurs to me today that what we're doing here is none of those: it's tramping.

We had a couple of pleasant rambles in Zuid-Limburg with Hans and Anneke, walks of no more than five miles, in a loop beginning and ending in the same place, carrying nothing but our cameras. That's a ramble: an outing whose only purpose is to enjoy the day, the company, the out of doors, the views; the sounds of birds and the brooks; villages; a cup of tea; maybe an unexpected poem out in a pasture.

But yesterday and today we walked with a purpose: to move ourselves and our possessions from one resting-point to another. These trajects are linear. They have purpose. The only thing that redeems that, in my view, is that the purpose is utterly stupid. Today, for example, we walked ten miles, in three hours and forty-three minutes, climbing from 276 to 525 meters and back, much of the time on muddy trails and roads, to get from Stavelot to Vielsalm, when the bus would have got us there in about twenty minutes, for about ten dollars. And my back-pack weighs, I think, about forty pounds!

(I know the walking statistics in detail thanks to a wonderful iPhone app, MotionX-GPS, which records distance, speed, and elevation, and plots the results on a map. You can see the result, for today's trek, at this webpage, at least for the next few months.)

This kind of trekking has become one of my consuming passions. It began, as so many things do, with a chance encounter with a book: Walking Europe Top to Bottom, by Susanna Margolis with Ginger Harmon (Sierra Club Books, 1984).

This book challenged me instantly, and I determined to make the trip, retracing these steps on Europe's Grand Randonée 5 from Hoek van Holland to Nice. I quickly decided to modify the walk, though, substituting a walk on the Pieterpad, through the whole of The Netherlands, Pieterburen in the north to St. Pietersburg near Maastricht in the south, about four hundred miles in all, for the first part of GR5, across Flanders to Maastricht.

We began that walk in 1995, I think it was, Lindsey and I and did the first half that year, returning for the second half a few years later. With Lindsey, and occasionally with friends, or daughters, or both, we've taken other walks in that delightful country, point-to-point walks, carrying only one change of clothing for the evenings, eating picnic lunches, dinners in restaurants, and sleeping in provincial hotels or B&Bs.

All the time I kept thinking of the GR5. Finally I invited a grandson and a friend to join me on its final third, about four hundred miles from Geneva to Nice, an unforgettable four-week walk we took in 2008. (I blogged about it at, and later published a book about the walk, Walking the French Alps)

I felt a little remorse, though, at having skipped the dues you pay, so to speak, for this splendid conclusion to a long-distance trek, and that's why we've been slogging througih mud here in Belgium. Though even here I cheated quite a bit, beginning not at Maastricht but several stages (and kilometers) later, in Spa. The area around Liège just didn't look promising.

Yesterday we walked from Spa to Stavelot. The day began and ended badly: we got lost almost immediately, adding a kilometer and a half — and, worse, a fair amount of elevation lost and regained. The problem was lack of balissage, trail-marking, at a crucial point, where the trail crossed a quick-flowing stream: instead of crossing it, which I now see was the correct maneuver, we walked downhill alongside. By the time I realized the problem it was too late to retrace our path; better to take a parallel path and hope for a cut-across. It worked out, up on top of the hill south of Spa, a hill improbably crowned by an extensive marsh which is in fact the roof of the huge Spa water table.

Things worked out well enough the rest of the day, barring a fall apiece into the mud, thanks to treacherously slippery footing. At day's end, though, we discovered the hotel I'd booked was miles away from the day's endpoint. Fortunately, there was a bus. Unfortunately, the driver forgot to let us off, took us miles too far, then dropped us off to wait for a bus coming back…

Oh well, these things happen. Next morning — this morning —the woman working the hotel gave us a lift into town (Stavelot) and we set out on today's walk, arriving here in good time.

Logistics, logistics. Where to sleep next, and how to be sure the day's walk isn't too long. Tomorrow we'll take a taxi to bypass the first 8 or 9 kilometers; otherwise the day-stages get completely out of sync with the possible sleep-villages. There aren't that many, and much is closed for Lenten holiday.