Stone of Remembrance

March 25, 2009

Talk at 9th Lodge of Instruction

Filed under: Commentary, Walter\'s Schedule — admin @ 16:59

Held in Lynn, Massachusetts.

March 24, 2009

European Tour Spring 2009: Day 9/10 – Dortmund, Part 2

Filed under: Commentary, Travel, Writing — admin @ 13:57

I’ve gone to conventions with L. (and with A., since she was born) – but mostly I’ve gone alone since I became a professional writer. One of the things I have noticed is that they tend to run together after awhile: same panels, same panelists, same format. An hour, three or four pros or fans or whatever; introductions, plugs for new work, occasional grandstanding or showboating, a few witty comments. Dealer room; con suite and/or green room; art show, masquerade, gaming, room parties. Hotel rooms all look pretty much the same after a while as well.

Worldcons are the exception, of course, though the majority of those are a regional con writ extremely large, spread over several hotels, with many more room parties, dealers and attendees you might not normally see, a bigger masquerade, generally more more more. Denver last summer was like that, though like most Worldcons we got to see the location, not just the hotels where it was taking place. The Worldcon in Glasgow was a little different flavor (or flavour, if you like), from the parties to the onsite pub – but it was readings, panels, game room, group discussions, dealers, parties . . .

Dortcon was none of those things really. There was some steady programming – a filk track, for example, that featured a talented harp player and an American now resident in Germany; A. and L. both enjoyed that. There wasn’t a game room per se, but there was some sort of ongoing Battletech tournament that I studiously avoided. (Game conventions are popular in Germany, apparently, but it’s a different setting and a largely different audience.) Markus Heitz and I both had hour-long readings, in the main auditorium with a microphone, and Dieter Rottermund (the artist GoH) had a chance to show some of his recent work. (He’s very good. There was no art show, but there was a nice display of his work – mostly book covers.)

We were introduced at the opening ceremonies and given a minute or two to speak: forewarned, I was able to carry it off in German, much to the delight of the audience – it was ther first hint that I could speak the language. Each of the three of us had an hour-long interview with Arno; mine also featured another attendee, Dirk van den Boom, who spent almost the entire hour messing around with me (though he denies it). I refused to be panicked – we got to joking, and again I was able to carry on well in German, and received a lot of applause at the end. (They liked me – but better yet, they understood my German. I realize that I’m going back to that idea a lot, but I was really surprised both on Saturday and Sunday just how quickly it came back and how easily it flowed. Their expectations were low, of course, but I don’t believe they were humoring me: one of the litmus tests for me was always whether, if I’d begun a conversation in German, a native speaker would decide that he or she would rather practice their English on me rather than let me practice my German on them. If they replied in German it indicated that I was doing well.

The toughest challenge was Saturday night. I originally thought I was to somehow participate; but instead they’d chosen a sort of prose/poetry slam format. I sat in the back for three quarters of an hour or so and listened. There were a few very funny bits, but overall I couldn’t really understand it all. It was too damn fast. There’s fluency, and then there’s fluency. I couldn’t keep up. But by Saturday night I’d managed to hit every other mark; talking with fans, participating in interviews and discussions, and everything else.

It Was Too Fast (photo by Peter Fleissner).

There were only a few pros there overall: Heitz, Rottermund, myself, and a couple of others that seemed to be on hand to sell their books (they didn’t get interviewed or participate in panels, which seemed a waste of potential entertainment). It was really all about the three of us, with a few other presentations – one on Doctor Who, one on space travel, one on Jean-Michel Jarre . . . in some ways, the DortCon committee had organized a literary-only convention to suit themselves and had invited a few guests with star power to help enhance the program. Rottermund is very talented; Heitz is prolific and well-known in Germany. I was the recommendation of one of the committee members, who sold the idea to Arno and the others. (How cool is that?)

I think that from me they got more than they bargained for. They expected a writer whose work had been well-received in German translation. The group they’ve invited is a very small one: Norman Spinrad, Larry Niven, Alastair Reynolds, and most recently Nancy Kress – all very good writers – and me. Do I rank with them? In an absolute sense, no, of course not: but the DortCon committee chooses guests to please themselves. They aren’t primarily from Dortmund; Arno and Gabi are from Düsseldorf; others are from elsewhere. They have a Verein, a sort of association that is more like a club than a corporation, and that in turn is a member of a German club federation. They help vote for the EuroCon, and interact with other con groups (some of them attend the con in Leipzig, for example) but DortCon is largely about getting together every other year and having this literary thing with a German writer, a non-German writer, and an artist. It’s not a EuroCon, it’s not a Worldcon, it’s not even Balticon. It’s 15% the size of Balticon. It’s less than half the size of Readercon, which it probably most closely resembles, with its literary bent and Saturday night entertainment. But despite those figures, it’s among the largest cons of its kind in Germany at a little more than 200 attendees. It was good enough to make an online newspaper, though.

At the closing dinner Sunday night Arno and I discussed the con scene. He in particular, but both he and Gabi, are certainly SMOFs in the broad sense; Arno is an impresario, a master of ceremonies, a fan who enjoys being a fan in the best possible way. I cannot be sure, but as I said, putting us on a first name basis from the first made him very pleased.

The Impresario (photo by Peter Fleissner).

This points directly at my philosophy about this entire pro thing. I don’t think I deserved a spot at the table at cons until I became a pro, but if asked by an unpublished writer-want-to-be, I would say that the difference between us was that I was five books ahead. Until I reach the status of Larry Niven or Scott Card or Jack McDevitt, I’ll always feel that way. Maybe even then. It’s extremely gratifying to be recognized and appreciated for my published work – I’m proud of it. But perspective on these things is very important.

I’ll put up a final post with a few pictures from the con, along with some concluding thoughts. There are a few people who were going to post “after-action” comments on the convention, including Arno; I’ll put links to them. Watch for all of that shortly.

March 23, 2009

European Tour Spring 2009: Day 7/8 – Dortmund, Part 1

Filed under: Commentary, Freemasonry, Travel — admin @ 23:03

We arrived in Dortmund in the late afternoon and were met at the train by Arno and Gabi Behrend, the masterminds of DortCon, which was due to get underway with a dinner gathering on Friday night. They got us very efficiently installed in the Hotel Esplanade, across the street from the Fritz-Henßler-Haus, where the con was to take place; we had a little time to get ourselves organized for a visit to a German Masonic lodge – ‘Zur Alten Linde‘ – ‘the old lime tree’. I wasn’t sure what to expect: they’d made provision for L. and A. to come with me for a family evening, and I assumed that there would be a collation of some sort after the lodge meeting.

The Tree In Question

Instead, the lodge’s Master dispensed with the usual ceremony (a bit of a disappointment, actually: I’d have liked to see it) and instead had an open meeting with the members and their ladies all present. I had prepared a speech, and decided that, if I could manage it, I would give it in German.

And that was the first big surprise of the trip.

We’d been somewhat at sea in Amsterdam, since Dutch is definitely not German: it’s fairly readable, but absolutely unpronounceable (our Scottish friend says that in order to speak Dutch you have to have a lot of phlegm. She’s right.) In Köln we’d gotten on fairly well at restaurants and in shops, since both L. and I had been in Germany as students. It was a long time ago, but it came back more quickly than I could have hoped. In Dortmund, though, I was facing a real challenge: not just ordering dinner or buying something at a department store, but actually giving a presentation in a language I hadn’t spoken every day for at least six years, when we’d last visited Germany for the Junior Year in Munich reunion.

I’d written the speech out in German, with the aid of a dictionary, and it was fairly good; simple, but not much different from the sorts of presentations I’ve been giving in lodges over the last year. And it went well. Really well. I was very nervous, but my diction was clear, my grammar acceptable, and I dealt well with questions. The lodge’s master was right next to me and helped with the occasional vocabulary word, but I was able to respond in German, intelligibly. They understood what I was saying; we had a few humorous moments; they were interested, friendly, inquisitive. It wasn’t all that much different from an English-speaking lodge. Except that it was a German-speaking one.

Afterward, we went to the apartment of a lodge member and had a little social hour. This brother is a Bezirksbürgomeister, a sort of sub-mayor; he’s a philosopher, an artist, and a science-fiction reader :-) who has all of my books and was particularly interested in A Song In Stone. In addition to being a Freemason he’s a member of Schlaraffia – a German-language fraternity that is even more tradition-filled and even more obscure than the Masons. (I’d attended a Schlaraffia meeting in Wellesley a year or so ago; they’re always conducted in German, even in non-German-speaking countries. It was great fun, but this is an organization that is quickly working its way toward obsolescence by its very nature. A shame, really, but they have to decide for themselves how to go forward. I just don’t have the time to commit to it.)

It’s hard to communicate what a rush it is to tackle something as scary as speaking a foreign language in public – and succeeding at it. The excellent experience at ‘Zur alten Linde’ was an encouraging indication of how the weekend would go.

The next morning we had breakfast with Arno and Gabi and took off to see the town. We went to a natural history museum a little way out of town, which A. really enjoyed; L. liked it too, but it was definitely chosen with our daughter in mind. We then found our way into the pedestrian zone of Dortmund, not much different from most German cities; our first stop (at Gabi’s eager suggestion) was a Belgian chocolatier, where we bought some great presents for folks back home; then we had a nice lunch, and went back to the hotel.

That evening there was a dinner (a sort of ‘pre-con’ meeting) with the principal con committee folks, as well as our friends M. and T., who had come up from Munich to be at the con with us. M. was on the Junior Year program eight years after me, and we’d met at the reunion in 2003; at the time she seemed more cynical and less happy than I thought she should be: but this time she’d brought her friend T., whom I immediately dubbed ‘der berühmte T.’ – “the renowned T.” – since I’d heard a lot about him. They were great together, obviously very close. M. seemed very, very happy.

As for the committee . . . I met a number of folks who seemed to know my books. (How cool is that? As I always say, it’s the third coolest thing, after L. and A.) There was a considerable amount of eating and drinking; nothing wrong with that. The committee folks, including Arno and Gabi, seemed very pleased that L. and I could speak German, and as the evening went on, it was clear that we were not only capable of speaking the language, but actually were pretty fluent. I’m not surprised that most guests from overseas aren’t fluent in German: there are 100 million native German speakers in the world – 1 1/2% of the world’s population, if that – and it’s not what you’d call a trivial exercise to learn any foreign language, let alone an inflected one with some serious grammar issues. It’s easier than English, but only because it actually has rules (rather than mostly exceptions). I guess I’m not even surprised that most of their overseas guests don’t speak any German, or even make much of an effort.

They, on the other hand, were stunned and really very pleased. Again, my fluency was interrupted by occasional missing vocabulary words, but most of the committee and regulars spoke some English and some (like Arno) were actually quite capable. Considering the level of English some people speak in America, they’d get on quite well.

That, along with putting myself immediately on a first-name basis with everyone (Gabi started by addressing me as ‘Herr Hunt’, and as far as I could see spent the entire con addressing Markus Heitz as ‘Herr Heitz’; I immediately insisted on ‘Walter’, and first names for L. and A. as well) placed us on a friendly footing from the start. I perceive that as having been a critical part of the congeniality that I enjoyed the entire weekend.

It was unlike any con I’ve ever attended, and I’ll tell you all about it in the next entry. Dortmund is not exactly a tourist destination, but my memories of it will always be very good.

European Tour Spring 2009: Your Gaming Interlude

Filed under: Commentary, Games, Travel — admin @ 22:46

If Euro games hadn’t become quite so easy to get in the United States due to the valiant efforts of Rio Grande Games and a bunch of retailers; and if it wasn’t for the dissemination of info by the Geek, a trip to Europe for us would have been all about scooping up lots and lots of Eurogames to take back home. With a limited amount of luggage space, though, it was hard to take advantage of the amazing selection – and there are lots of games we could have bought that are just as readily available back home. But imagine walking into a department store in the USA and finding a display like the one shown below. It was like being a kid in a candy store.

The Candy Store

That was the main wall. There were four smaller aisles, and a big display of best selling games, including Settlers, Keltis (the Spiel des Jahres), and other titles that Eurogamers would recognize. We took advantage of a sale – lots of things were marked down: sometimes as much as 40% or 50%. Our collection is already fairly big – so we settled on the following:

  • Siedler von Catan – Deutschland: a fixed board with twelve beautifully-sculpted famous buildings from various places in Germany; hadn’t seen it in the States.
  • Alhambra: a non-first-edition copy, at about half price, with currency in green color (to replace the dark brown of the first edition we have. They had the enormous box with the base game and the first four expansions, but that would have been too much to carry and was big and bulky.)
  • Volle Wolle: A Zoch small box game that L. and A. really like and that I’d somehow overlooked;
  • Sushizock im Gocklewok: The new Zoch tile-and-dice game that belongs to the Hickhack and Heckmeck family, something I’d actually been looking for; and
  • Siedler von Catan: das Würfelspiel: the Settlers dice game, which certainly isn’t Settlers, but for 5 Euros on sale it was hard to pass up.

A friend was also able to deliver me three copies of the EnBW edition of Funkenschlag (Power Grid), with the Baden-Württemburg special map. One is for our collection, one is for MVGA, our game club, and one is – for trade or sale. (Drop me an email if you’re interested.)

It’s reassuring also to have one’s impression of a game reinforced. I acquired a copy of Elasund, a Settlers building game, gave it a few plays, and sent it away because I was fairly unimpressed by it. Turns out they can’t give it away at Kaufhof in Köln, and that they bought a whole pile of them. 10 Euros will barely get you a beer and a sausage in Germany (though they’ll be a good beer and sausage, to be sure.)

I’d Rather Have the Beer and Sausage.

We only poked our heads into a couple of actual game stores, one in Holland and a few in Germany, and mostly saw the array of Carcassonne and Settlers games: didn’t see a copy of Power Grid, Puerto Rico or Agricola anywhere.

March 22, 2009

European Tour Spring 2009: Day 6/7 – Köln

Filed under: A Song In Stone, Commentary, Travel, Writing — admin @ 18:00

With the Eurail pass, we had the ability to take just about any train we wanted, and chose to time our departure so that we could arrive in Köln (Cologne) in the early afternoon. Thus, we packed up our affairs in Amsterdam on Tuesday morning and boarded an ICE train headed for Germany.

Those who travel in Europe don’t need to be told about the ubiquity and sophistication of European trains. This isn’t something we really have in America, at least not anymore; we are wedded to cars, and travel long distances by airplane. But traveling by train is really civilized: you can sit at a table; you can get up and walk around; you can even get a cup of coffee. (In fact, there are people who walk through the train and bring it to you.) IC and ICE trains are about as nice a way to travel as there is.

Service With A Smile

It took us about two and a half hours to travel from Amsterdam to Köln. Holland is flat, mostly; it starts getting bumpy in the south and west, and really acquires terrain features once you cross into Germany. When the signs appear in German you know you’ve crossed the border; within the EU there is no passport control, so we’d not have noticed otherwise. The last stretch of rail into Köln takes you over the Rhine River, not very far from where the Romans crossed it: they built the town and gave it its name – Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinesium – in the first century AD, after Varus lost his legions to the Germans. You cross the big railroad bridge, flanked by statues, and then you see the cathedral, the biggest thing in the entire city – the Kölner Dom.

Biggest Thing.

It’s right next to the train station. Our hotel was just on the other side of the Domplatz, a short walk (with rolling suitcases.) It wasn’t very expensive, and it was very central – the Rhine was down the hill, the Dom was across the street, and the central pedestrian zone was around the corner.

Köln is an interesting city. It’s very old: an archepiscopal seat. one of the places that elected the Holy Roman Emperor, built on an old Roman town, built over Germanic ruins, built over a Neolithic settlement. Lots of stuff came to light as a result of the extensive bombing to which it was subjected during the Second World War (in all, it was struck more than 260 times by Allied air raids); when they went to build the new City Hall in the 1950s, they discovered the foundations of the Praetorium, the original administrative building for the Colonia. In the picture below, taken during the war, the area where the ruins were found is in the upper left corner (the Dom itself is of course in the center). The place where our hotel was located is top center.

Cologne: Ruins, Created and Uncovered

This is now a <a href="wonderful museum, along with the extensive remains of a Roman villa located right next to the Dom. We toured both on “Kombi-Tickets”: they’ve done a lot of work to illustrate life in Roman times, recovering and reconstructing. L. really loved it (A. and I walked through the displays, and then waited for her to finish.)

The highlight of the visit to Köln was, of course, the Dom itself. The foundations were first laid in 1248, and it was under construction for six centuries – on and off. It’s a beautiful church: a Gothic cathedral, like the ones in A Song In Stone, ogival arches and all. This isn’t the carving-filled setting that Rosslyn is – it’s much more traditional, wide nave flanked by huge stone piers, high-windowed triforium, ambulatory around the high altar, narrow crypt. (On the steps down to the crypt, there was a unicursal labyrinth on the floor. These places all have their hidden secrets.)

Gothic, Ogival Arches and All

A. and I decided to pay the fee to climb to the top of the tower. It turns out, to no one’s surprise, that this is an activity which should be left to young people. 509 steps on a narrow circular staircase at 12-year-old’s speed is an undertaking for 50-year-old knees.

About three-quarters of the way up, there’s a side passage that leads to the bell chamber. This is a key thing to see; there’s a little kiosk there, where a guy will sell you a postcard that reads “I climbed Köln Cathedral Tower – Only Available Here”. He goes up those stairs every day to sit in the kiosk. (I asked). There are a dozen of them; I hope the guy in the kiosk has earplugs. We stopped for a few pictures, then climbed the rest of the way to the upper chamber, where there was a steel staircase that seemed a little too unsteady for either of us; I drew the line at that, pronounced myself satisfied with the climb, and we made our way back down. My knees and legs shook for an hour afterward.

There’s no good way to photograph the Dom in a way that gives perspective. I decided to lay on my back on the side of a large rectangular stone fountain, so I could take a picture of the building against the sky. The picture below gives a nice view, but doesn’t really do it justice. You just have to step back way too far for that.

This is a closeup.

And as no part of the trip report would be complete without some mention of food, I should mention an excellent meal we enjoyed down near the Rhine – just around the corner from our hotel – at Slavia, which served a combination of traditional German dishes and Croatian specialities. They had an English-language menu, but only on request – it’s the sort of place that bold tourists and German speakers enjoy, but timid tourists miss because they consider the language barrier to be insuperable. Some of the best (and most reasonably-priced) meals you can have on the Continent are where native speakers eat, and Slavia was no exception.

We said goodbye to Köln all too quickly. I think I could spend a week wandering around looking at things – for example, we walked through the Minoritenkirche, where Johannes Duns Scotus is buried: it, too, is a beautiful Gothic church, on a much smaller scale, a Franciscan church that would serve as a good model for several places in A Song In Stone. But our time was short, and the convention in Dortmund was coming up soon. On Thursday afternoon we rolled our suitcases over to Köln Hauptbahnhof, and headed for Dortmund.

A. Says Goodbye.

March 18, 2009

European Tour Spring 2009: Day 5 – Holland Tour

Filed under: Commentary, Travel — admin @ 15:11

We decided to take advantage of the train passes we bought to get a look at the rest of Holland. As one might have concluded, Holland turns out to be pretty small. We had breakfast in one place (Amsterdam), lunch in another (Den Haag), and dinner in a third (Utrecht), while exercising our train passes to go in between. We also enjoyed coffee in Delft and took a walk around Rotterdam, where we had nothing to eat, which kind of interrupts the theme.

Den Haag

The Hague is an hour away from Amsterdam by train. It seems like most every train headed south passes through the two cities. Like Amsterdam, it has numerous canals, but unlike it the city seems much more businesslike and much less tourist oriented. We walked around aimlessly for a while, intending to go to the Escher museum, but like most museums in Den Haag it was closed on Mondays. Accordingly, we took some pictures – including the one below – and settled in for lunch at Malieveld, a nice little pavilion next to the park of the same name.

Someone got paid for this.

My lunch included a sandwich made with zalm, or smoked salmon. You’d think that would be a bit risky to order in a foreign country – but it’s a common enough menu item that I thought I’d give it a try. It was wonderful. L. and A. had sandwiches that were a bit more ordinary, but it was a nice rest stop, on a beautiful afternoon. L.’s comment was that, regardless of our success at seeing any particular museum, it beat going to work.


Postcard Shot.

Less than fifteen minutes by train from The Hague, Delft is the place where all that blue pottery originates. A few minutes’ walk from the main train station walks you past some incredible postcard shots, eventually dropping you into a market square dominated by a huge old church, a huge old town hall, and several thousand souvenir shops selling authentic Delftware – among other artifacts of irresistible tourism. We skipped the church (it’s known as the burial place for William of Orange – not that William, but rather the other one.

Irresistible Tourism.

We bought nothing. I was tempted by a few little Delftware things, but they were very expensive: if I wanted to buy a genuine dish set, I suppose that would be the place to do it – but it seemed like it was just blatant tourism in action.


On the train again, we found our way to Rotterdam – and given the size of Holland, it really wasn’t very far. Rotterdam was a busy port city, but like other busy port cities (Boston, for instance) it’s not what it used to be. Frankly, it reminded me a great deal of Frankfurt am Main, which isn’t what it used to be either – and for the same reason: after it had the crap pounded out of it, it was rebuilt in a much more modern style. (The difference is that we pounded the crap out of Frankfurt; the Germans did in Rotterdam as part of their few days’ campaign in conquering Holland in 1940.)

Rotterdam, 1940

Downtown seemed to be in a constant state of rebuild. Near the main train station, there were several casinos looking to separate us from our money; we resisted, and it wasn’t even a struggle. I took a shot of the immediate area before we got back on the train, and the skyline profile contained a chilling structure – the black trapezoidal thing in the foreground – that looked a lot like the Ministry of Truth building in Anderson’s movie of 1984. (I looked for a picture of it, but couldn’t find it; it does appear on screen in the final episode of Schama’s History of Britain – try YouTube for that one.)

Rotterdam: Ministry of Truth.


Our final stop on our whirlwind tour of Holland was Utrecht, about which I knew damn near nothing (other than about the Treaty, but that was three hundred years ago.) We had visited there briefly in 1990 to clear up a problem with Eurail passes, but stayed no more than an hour.

But it was on the way – relatively speaking. We got off the train late in the afternoon, and stepped into a busy, crowded station full of people ready to go home after a day’s work. It took some effort to make our way out of the station area, but shortly we found ourselves in an utterly charming little place that looked, at first glance as if it were part of the fake German village at EPCOT – except authentic and done right. It was like a different world.

Utrecht, Canalside.

Our dinner choice was a tapas restaurant that was located not on one of the streets along the canal, but downstairs right next to it – literally. There are a number of them, right at water level, located in what might have been storage basements. The food was excellent; it took a while to come, but even though we were tired and somewhat hungry, it didn’t seem too bad a wait. Tapas are little dishes, a little like Dim Sum; we chose two each as part of a prix fixe menu and sampled each other’s dishes.

Utrecht struck me as a place I’d like to visit at greater leisure; like Florence, it seemed like somewhere you could stay a month and write a novel. Well, I could, I think.

It took less than an hour to return to Amsterdam, where we packed up in preparation for our departure the following morning. Naturally, all this bopping around had a very If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium feel to it, but it gave us a little taste of the rest of Holland.

March 17, 2009

European Tour Spring 2009: Day 4 – Amsterdam

Filed under: Commentary, Travel — admin @ 18:30

Internet costs in Amsterdam being quite high, we took a day off from net access on Sunday – so I’m a bit behind on posting updates on our trip. I hope I haven’t kept anyone hanging. I’ll be posting our final day in Holland shortly, and will also catch you up on our trip to Köln and our first day here.

First a bit of unfinished business. I’ve been thinking about the previous post for our trip, in which I took up the matter of our visit to the Anne Frank House. Truly, I haven’t stopped thinking about the visit, and everything that went along with it, since we went there – and realized that I might have been perceived as cynical or shallow for having offered criticism. That is the way of things when one deals with the Holocaust, however: those who suffered are elevated beyond normal humanity, and those who survived have vowed “never again.”

So be it. Germans haven’t ever really gotten over Nazism, and the world hasn’t forgotten the Holocaust and, arguably, should not be allowed to do so. The blog posting did, however, bring about an anti-Islamic screed which characterized that faith as the non-sleeping evil of the modern day, which wasn’t my point at all. In fact, with regard to Anne Frank and the many others who did not survive, I find the tragedy compelling and the evil deed deeply disturbing, even sixty years later. But reading about the complicity of the Jewish leaders and the non-Jewish community in Amsterdam makes me realize that the Dutch have not completely come to terms with Nazism either. That uncertainty – Handke’s “Geborgenheit” – is something that should make them squirm in their seats, even many years later. Maybe they had no choice; maybe it couldn’t be stopped. But they lied to themselves, to each other, and to the thousands they let go “East” to their deaths. The Anne Frank House is their penance. It doesn’t say it strongly enough, I don’t think.

Compelling Still.

Anyway. We had one more full day in Amsterdam on Sunday, which gave us further opportunity to tour the city. We did locate the narrowest house in the city, the ridiculously small canal-side house at Singel 7, and had a great meal at November after, once again, being thwarted from going to the popular place (the Café Luxembourg, a few doors down – smoky, crowded, and rude waitstaff). Instead we were treated to a view of the passers-by on the Spui from a nearly-vacant restaurant (opened for dinner only a few minutes earlier) that was staffed by very friendly people. The food was superb and beautifully presented.

Ridiculously Small.

One thing about Amsterdam, particularly in the more Bohemian areas: it’s full of graffiti and art on the sides of buildings. There was one mural that I couldn’t pass up photographing, and I have a wonderfully geeky picture of A. posing in front of it. I’ve also included a shot of the most interesting part – Anubis holding an espresso pot, which is what A. is mimicking in the foreground. Close-circuit to Slet: should this logo appear on coffee shipments by the Guild from Nubia to Adrianople?

Good to the last drop, even in the Afterlife.

It’s certainly a monument to one of the things that is absolutely ubiquitous in Amsterdam (and as the next post will show, Holland in general): coffee shops. The Dutch drink a lot of coffee – strong and oily stuff that I thought you couldn’t find outside of Italy or Turkey. We did our best to represent the American coffee drinking public and acquitted ourselves quite well, I should say.

We saw our Scottish friend off at the train station, and got a relatively early bedtime in preparation for an early start the next day.

March 15, 2009

European Tour Spring 2009: Day 3 – Amsterdam, Anne Frank House

Filed under: Commentary — admin @ 10:58

After we had a late breakfast together, we split up so that A. and I could go to the Anne Frank House. L. and our friend went to see Van Gogh, what A. described as “look at the swirly colors”. She had been, shall we say, unimpressed with yesterday’s tour of the Rijksmuseum; the ladies thought that Anne Frank might be a bit too distressing.

They were probably right. It’s a very serious experience, a tour through a time and place that we scarcely understand now. Anne had just turned thirteen when the family went into hiding, taking up residence in a small house on the Prinsengracht in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam; they lived there for more than two years, until they were betrayed and, with a single exception, met the fate that most Jews in Europe suffered as a result of the Final Solution.

A walk through the Anne Frank House is supposed to be a walk through history. There are little scale models of the “secret annex”, quotes from the Diary on the wall, little video loops of interviews and narratives of the events. The concentration camp cards for the victims are under plexiglas. So are the remains of Anne’s montage of pictures from the wall. So are period ads for the company that Otto Frank turned over to his protectors and non-Jewish friends that hid them behind that rotating bookcase.

It is like a desiccated pilgrimage site, in and of itself like a plaster saint that weeps false tears. Without much context, it was not terribly moving for A., who is only months short of Anne’s age when her family went into hiding right there, in those rooms. It makes me wonder, too: how much does it mean to anyone that age, or for that matter anyone much younger than I am now? Oh, yes, of course, I am drawn toward the inevitable cliché of imagining myself as Otto Frank and A. as Anne, and what occupied Amsterdam must have been. But that’s seventy years ago, a newsreel of a time that is not this time, people in funny hats conquered by a guy in a funny moustache.

As you descend the final staircase at the Anne Frank House there is a quote from Nelson Mandela, saying that “Some of us read Anne Frank’s diary on Robben Island and derived much encouragement of it.” He said that fifty years later, after having endured another kind of evil in a different place (and with a less horrific result). The diary, recovered after the war by her father, was Anne Frank’s legacy to the world, an account of those two years of concealment. Inspiration – but explanation? Hard to say. It survives, but so do accounts of the day-to-day lives of the evil men that conquered much of Europe, including Holland.

I had considerable context going into the visit. It meant more to me than to A., who was concerned about Dad “going all serious.” I bought a couple of books. I walked out of the Anne Frank House to see the sunlight and breathe the air; my parents’ generation had freed Amsterdam from the Nazis, only a few months after Anne was taken away from it. The further we get from the time, the less we truly understand it.

A plaster saint that weeps false tears. That’s probably a harsh judgement; on the surface, of course, it reminds us of a time that we promised ourselves would never be allowed to take place again. The place echoes a time in which evil walked the earth with armbands and hateful slogans; that sort of evil is never destroyed, but is merely suppressed until it finds its way again to the surface. To prevent it from gaining dominance requires constant vigilance.

My wife and I – long before we were married; we were just students in Europe – took the tour of Dachau, which was a labor camp (not a death camp like Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen or one of the other ones). It was the same: clinical, superficial, an abstraction of hatred and horror because . . . of course . . . what else could it possibly be? That was 1980, when many of the survivors inside and outside those walls were still alive. This is 2009, and most of those people are gone now.

“I am now almost ninety and my strength is slowly failing. Still, the task I received from Anne continues to restore my energy: to struggle for reconciliation and human rights throughout the world.”

Otto Frank died in 1980, but his work brought his daughter’s diary from hiding into the light. I don’t imagine whether I could be him, or if A. could be Anne, given similar circumstances. If I were to meet him I don’t know what I would say. Truly, I don’t know how to reconcile any of it; perhaps that’s the point of being shown this place. To reconcile the idea would be to justify it somehow.

Evil is never destroyed: it just sleeps. Never forget, they say. I don’t think I could.

March 14, 2009

European Tour Spring 2009: Day 2 – Amsterdam

Filed under: Commentary — admin @ 17:39

So we overcame our jet lag by oversleeping. Our Scottish friend turned up at the hotel; we went off in search of adventure.

Amsterdam is first and foremost a walking city. That doesn’t mean that pedestrians have the right of way everywhere: oh no indeed – there are lots of people on foot, but they take their lives in their hands. Cars tumble heedlessly through the broad streets and narrow alleys at about the same speed; there are trams on the major arteries, with their own traffic lanes; and then there are the bicycles (also with their own lanes). Lots and lots and lots of bicycles. And their concept of courtesy to pedestrians is to ring a little bell and rush onward, assuming you’ve got the sense to get out of the way.

Lots and lots.

As A. would say, “good luck with that.”

We decided to make for the Rijksmuseum. L. really wanted to see it; they have a fabulous collection of Rembrandt and are currently showing a large group of Vermeer paintings as well as d’Hondecouter’s pictures of birds, many of them dead. It involved a fair walk from our hotel toward the southern part of the city center.

Along the way we stopped for lunch near the Bloemenmarkt, or Flower Market. This isn’t some small-time European square with a few kiosks: it extends a good long way along one of Amsterdam’s many canals. You can buy all kinds of flowers, seeds and bulbs. I passed on a “Cannabis Starter Kit”, I should mention. Might cause problems at Customs.

Flowers, as far as the eye can see.

The Rijksmuseum put L. in heaven. For our friend – as well as A. and I – museums are interesting up to a point; we walk into a room full of paintings, look at each one in turn, admire a few, make fun of a few others, forget the rest. But for L., it was wonder and admiration.

We have great museums in Boston, and my favorite art museum of all time has to be the Prado in Madrid: Tintoretto, Goya and Bosch: beats the Louvre and the Vatican. Compared to these, I was a bit disappointed with this one, though seeing the Night Watch in full was impressive. (Though, interestingly enough, it’s not quite “in full”: apparently it was trimmed on three sides when it was moved to the Kloveniersdoelen.)

The Night Watch: Director’s Cut

We had a good look at all that the museum had to show, then moved on, eventually ending up at an Indonesian restaurant on Utrechtsestraat. We usually try to get in one really good meal during a convention weekend; this was our really good meal for this leg of the trip. We were looking to have Rijsttafel: a sort of all-in-one Indonesian meal with rice, soup, vegetables, and various dishes at a fixed price. Our original goal was a different restaurant a few doors down – but without a reservation we would have been S.O.L. until after 10 PM. So instead we opted for Soenda Kalapa and were very happy with the result. I didn’t get a menu but there’s one at the site: we tried Hidangan Soenda Kelapa, Parahiangan and Batavia – and couldn’t finish it all. But I finished my beer: people in Sumatra are going to bed sober, after all.

Too much to eat.

Just after we got back to our room, the power on the hotel’s fourth floor went out. But the staff was right on it, and while we sat in the lobby we were even brought cappucino. I think I’m starting to like Amsterdam.

And by the way, though there doesn’t seem to be much awareness of the Netherlands’ successes in the World Baseball Classic, it did make it to De Telegraaf – I have the printed sports section. It’s “honkball” here. Maybe I should start referring to Dustin Pedroia as the Red Sox’ “Zweitenhonkmann”. Or maybe not.

March 13, 2009

European Tour Spring 2009: Day 1 – Arrival in Amsterdam

Filed under: A Song In Stone, Travel, Writing — admin @ 16:59

I’m posting this at the end of a long day-and-a-half. It’s 9:30 PM CET, about twenty-four hours after we left home for the airport. We’re in Amsterdam, staying at the Park Plaza Victoria Hotel, just across from the main train station. You can see it from there – except that at this moment there’s a heavy duty construction project going on. Nonetheless, it was a good choice. Damrak (the street where it’s located) is like Kalakaua Avenue on Waikiki – tourist central, with all of the souvenir shops, money changers, and restaurants anyone might want, but the hotel itself is civilized and comfortable. Internet access is expensive, but so are most addictive habits.

Hotel, Idealized

Our flight was smooth and uneventful. Bags made it under the weight limit even though I transported a full carton of A Song In Stone to Europe; they arrived promptly at Schiphol and we were on the train to downtown within half an hour of arrival.

We managed breakfast in the morning, though we were all a bit out of sorts; L. slept most of the flight, but A. and I got almost no sleep at all. Despite being full of energy when we got off the plane, A. was exhausted – and we couldn’t check into our room right away. Some decent food only helped a little; we wandered around the area, visited a couple of department stores (and bought some chocolate, of course . . .) and generally killed time until midday.

But it was great to be back in Europe. Especially in the company of two pretty ladies.

Two Pretty Ladies

Then . . . well, pow. Three hours’ nap or so, interrupted finally by our friend D. from Scotland, who had arrived at our hotel. We had a meal together, then I walked her to her hotel and then back.

I’m just starting to form my impressions of Amsterdam – it’s a cosmopolitan place, with all kinds of permissiveness that goes right past my daughter . . . in five years there are parts of this city that would be scary for a father, but right now it’s all about the chocolate and the weird potato chips (Barbecue Ham? Chicken Pasanda?). The Dutch language is readable for someone whose German is pretty good, but it’s very hard to pick up the accent – like German spoken underwater. Amsterdam is laced with canals – sort of Venice with cheese, I suppose – and crowded with bicycles and cars and pedestrians.

Yes, But What Kind of Meat?

Tomorrow it’ll be about the canal boats and the museums with our Scottish friend. Tonight it’s likely about sleep and recovery from the time shift. In the meanwhile, the scenery is wonderful. It’s great to be back in Europe and to finally be on this trip.

Amsterdam Centraal: Main Train Station

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