Ivan De Luce – The Strange History of Amsterdam Street Names

Ivan De Luce
The Strange History of Amsterdam Street Names

My old street in Amsterdam, Pierre Lallementstraat, can hardly be called a street. It’s more of an open alleyway that leads to a courtyard. My old apartment building, a modern, pearl-white student housing behemoth, is one of only two addresses there. In fact, my building is so large it needs two separate front entrances.

Pierre Lallementstraat is named after Pierre Lallement, the inventor of the bicycle. This is highly appropriate considering the Netherlands is a land of bikes. But this tiny backstreet didn’t seem to deserve such a fascinating name. Then again, it seems as if every street in Amsterdam is named after someone. Coming from New York, with our numbered grid system, I’m not used to streets being named after anything. But in Amsterdam, there’s no grid. But there is a President Kennedylaan, a Churchill-laan, and even a President Allendelaan, named after the Chilean Marxist who was overthrown in a coup with the help of the CIA on September 11, 1973. As Social Democrats, the Dutch presumably saw him as a victim of injustice when they christened the street five months later.

There are other streets, too — ones named after Beethoven, Hans Holbein, Richard Wagner, Chopin, Rubens, Michelangelo, Raphael, Bach, Jan van Eyck, Titian, and Botticelli. And those are all within blocks of each other. My neighbourhood, in Watergraafsmeer, is composed of streets named after engineers. James Wattstraat runs along the front of my building. At least engineers are more interesting than grids of numbers.

Amsterdam’s street names started out like many old European streets — they were named after things that happened there, or after some unique feature about the location. But after the 1850s, as the city encroached on the countryside, the Dutch decided to come up with seemingly unrelated names. After 1870, cities began commemorating people by naming streets after them, especially in France.

While Holland was late to this practice, it made up for it by giving every conceivable figure a street named after them. There’s even a Lord of the Rings-themed neighbourhood in the town of Geldrop — take a right onto Laan van Tolkien, and soon you’ll walk along Frodo, Aragorn, Legolas, Gandalf, and more dwarf streets than you can imagine.

But back to our friend Pierre. He seemed to have nothing to do with Amsterdam or the Netherlands, but they obviously owe a great to deal to him. He was born in France in 1843, and in his hometown of Nancy, in 1862, he saw someone riding a dandyhorse, an early version of the bicycle which had no pedals and required the rider to pedal with their feet, like a bike from The Flintstones. He added the chains and pedals soon after, and so the bike was born. He never received the recognition he deserved, however. A Frenchman named Pierre Michaux became known as the man who invented the velocipede, and he was the first to mass-produce them. Pierre L. was probably dismayed, so in 1865 he moved to Ansonia, Connecticut and filed a patent for his velocipede a year later. When he returned to France two years after that, bikes were all the rage, which must have infuriated him even more. Pierre Lallement died poor and forgotten in 1891 in Boston at age 47. Thanks to an investigation in 1993, Lallement, not Michaux, is known to have created the first modern bicycle. Thankfully, Michaux does not have any streets named after him. AQ

John Talbird – Rembrandt’s Drawings

John Talbird
Rembrandt’s Drawings

Perhaps more than his paintings which he is more famous for, the drawings show a mind at work and struggling, a mind trying to connect personal thought to objective image, render two dimensions three, bring life to the white void with nothing more than pencil and eye. When you look at the paintings — especially his portraits with their flesh and earth tones, souls radiating from faces — you can see that he was a genius and understand why the world still loves his work, but I love the rough-hewn drawings more anyway. Rembrandt viewed these as the drafts, the practice runs for his real work, but their comparable simplicity has an electric charm. They put me in mind of a kid sketching cartoons on the subway or a bent old man with a floppy hat sitting on an embankment interpreting the creek that runs at his feet.

In Susanna from 1636, the biblical heroine surprised at her bath tries to cover her nakedness as she peers over her shoulder at we who have stumbled upon her privacy. She’s exposed to the elements — no roof over her head — to our eyes — a scrap of clothing clutched desperately at her groin — to two thousand years of fable, faith, and story. I got chills on the back of my neck when I first saw that painting in the Frick, but it wouldn’t be until much later that I found the sketch that led to it in a book and understood the rawness of emotion, the way it can peer out of the page like a creature hungry for flesh and I was glad that Rembrandt had had the time to temper that sharp outline with the colours of the world.

Bob Ward – Touching the Surface

Bob Ward
Touching the Surface

In Felbrigg Hall, a National Trust property in the east of England, there is a statue of an urchin examining the sole of his foot to remove a thorn. As usual in museums, you are not allowed to touch but, if you were, the sensation would be of cold smooth marble unlike that of a real foot roughened by trotting around without shoes.

The way things feel to our hands, feet, or tongue is an important part of human experience. That impulse to reach out and touch whatever seizes our attention is very strong and similarly we speak of ‘being touched’ by poignant events. We stroke friendly dogs; the physical contact creates a bond. When people are buying clothes, they finger the fabrics to judge what they might be like to wear. After all, the word ‘texture’ derives from the Latin ‘textura’ for weaving. A couple of centuries ago an ancestor of mine was apprenticed to a cloth-dresser, a specialist in improving the surface of newly woven bolts of woollen cloth. In the City of Leeds there were fifty tradesmen practising that craft. However, should you ever be wracked with remorse, one garment you won’t find on an outfitter’s rail is a hair shirt. Fashions change, even among penitent sinners.

Upstairs at Felbrigg the four-poster in the master bedroom is adorned with sumptuous hangings. You need to restrain an urge to let your fingers flirt with the tassels that dangle from the fringes. At a humbler level you might recall that Rupert Brooke in his poem The Great Lover celebrated both

. . . the cool kindliness of sheets, that soon
Smooth away trouble; and the rough male kiss / of blankets . . .

These days we have created a culture of tactile keyboards and touch-screens that makes us even more ‘hands on’. Through our finger-tips we enter the world. Just now my right hand rests on a mouse that controls my computer. But as a photographer I have long enjoyed recording the visual quality of different surfaces beyond what textiles offer. In my pocket I carry a small camera capable of taking good close-ups wherever I go. Etched by salt-water the blistering paint on a fisherman’s tractor can be revealed as an abstract masterpiece. Or I might see the spiky hoar-frost edging dead leaves, or a discarded viper’s skin, part of a creature you otherwise would not dare to contact.

Tree trunks bear close study and appreciation for their subtle variations between species. Scots pines have bark that breaks into islands, richly coloured especially when wet, whereas the bark in sweet chestnuts is incised with dramatic swirling ridges. In my garden there is a kind of birch where, as the trunk expands with growth, paper-thin bark peels off in curls tinted green by algae. In the creviced surface of trees lurk spiders and beetles, often the prey of small birds. Springtime snails venture upwards across this rough terrain in a search for the succulent fresh leaves in the woodland canopy. Ivy, of course, constantly exploits trees as a passage-way towards the light. Even when torn away the ivy’s clinging roots get left behind as tracks across the bark.

Walls too are worth inspection. In the area where I live, East Anglia, bricks were in short supply and those made in the region weathered badly as time passed. So many buildings were faced (and still are) with flint cobbles dumped by retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age. The resulting walls are full of character, supporting small ferns, moss tufts and colourful crinkly lichens.

Text itself literally acquires ‘texture’ on the spines of leather-bound books, where the lettering may be embossed in gold leaf. However, you could say that a printed page assumes a virtual texture arising from the nature of the typefaces used in all their different forms, serif, non-serif, italic, bold . . . Contrast ‘Impact’ with the refinement of ‘Palatino Linotype’ or the eccentricity of ‘Crazy Loot’. As you read, let your eyes, as it were, caress the words. For the non-sighted, they are trained to feel words through the medium of Braille. But in doing so, I wonder, can they ever hear the surfaces they touch by the process of synaesthesia? That’s an attribute known among small children but mainly lost in adulthood, whereby a stimulus to one sense raise a response in another.

By analogy, music may be described as having texture. Performers touch their instruments with their hands or lips and we talk of being touched. How running your fingers across harp strings evokes the ripples in the surface of a lake. Composers meld complex layers of sound, fabric for the ears. Harmony relates to smoothness, discord to rough edges. The ‘minimalists’ Steve Reich and Philip Glass arouse one’s feelings with repeated phrases in constant variation that manage to haunt the soul.

Human sensations are richly textured. Do keep in touch.

Four-poster bed hangings, Bob Ward, photograph, 2017

Bryan R. Monte – My Calling

My Calling
by Bryan R. Monte

As a lecturer of English language and cultures at a Dutch polytechnic, I watched for years as some of my freshmen struggled to declare a major and choose an eventual profession. For me, however, this important decision came quickly, easily and by accident at the very beginning of my education.

When I was in the first primary school class, I came home every evening and taught my younger sister that day’s reading lesson. I helped her learn how to sound out the words using the examples from my Fun with Phonics book. “Hs,” I told her, “were the sound you made after running hard and had to catch your breath. Ss were the sounds snakes make as they slithered through the grass.” I was so happy to share what I was learning in class that was helping me to start to decode the newsprint my father read every night as he argued with the television news announcers. With my help, my sister was soon reading the simple texts tacked above her kindergarten classroom’s chalkboards and recognising words and phrases from the books her teacher read to the class. So at the age of five, I discovered I could not only learn how to do new things, but I could act as a conduit for this new knowledge. I could pass information onto others and check, whilst I was doing it, if they grasped what I was trying to teach.

Sometimes, though, in later life, I wondered, as some of my undergraduates did, if I had made the right career choice. Even though teaching seemed to be my calling or beroep, the Dutch word for profession, it was also a very labour-intensive, low-paid profession in comparison to other specialist and similarly complex and continuously-certified professions that work with the general public, such as pharmacists, (my father’s and next younger brother’s choice) or audiologists. I wondered if teaching was perhaps the best expenditure of my time and energy and if there was a measurable, social return on my efforts.

In addition, I wasn’t able to teach every year after I left college with my MA in English and writing. I taught for one year in exurban New England where I felt perhaps I’d been chosen for the job because my name, as the other teachers, ended in a vowel. Here, the male and female teachers sat at two, separate tables and I felt I would only be accepted if I married, produced children and lived there for a generation. In addition, every Friday evening that winter it snowed heavily. By midnight, the roads were impassible, making a foray into Cambridge gay society for the weekend impossible.

I knew there was a place in America where you didn’t have to worry about blizzards or being gay so, at the end of that school year, I moved back to California where I had obtained my BA at Berkeley. Here I never had to worry about spending an hour digging my car out of the snow in the winter before I could drive somewhere. I could also chose from scores of gay places and organizations for society. I did, however, discover I had moved back to an area that had a glut of teachers. After applying for dozens of teaching positions, I ended up getting a job in an insurance company because I was literate, organized and could file, retrieve, update and print computer forms with ease. I stayed in insurance because I discovered that most of the teaching jobs available in the Bay Area were free-lance and without benefits, including most importantly, health insurance during the AIDS epidemic. So I held a weekly writers’ workshop in my living room and taught technical writing classes at the UC Berkeley Extension one evening a week every other semester to keep my teaching skills sharp and my CV updated.

I did learn something meaningful, however, when I worked at one of the insurance company’s divisions that had underwritten a lot of “bad business” that year. Due to the losses from these new accounts, which outstripped the earned premiums, the underwriter at the desk next to mine remarked that if the company had shut its doors for a year and we had just sat at our desks and read our continuing education insurance books and not written any new business, then the company would have made a bigger profit.

But insurance as well as education, has a social benefit that is largely discounted these days by companies and governments driven by short-term profits or objectives. And I could enumerate and measure these educational and social benefits as clearly as I could my incoming freshmen’s English fluency seven years later in the Netherlands. At the beginning of the college year, I administered the same standardized tests in writing, listening and reading, whose scores dipped consistently overall by a percentage point (two points for reading) each year for over a decade.

Despite this, though, I could see definite progress in my students’ spoken English once they were in my class. At the end my of my first class of freshmen English, the students left the classroom complaining to each other in fluent Dutch (usually unaware that I could understand their every word) that they had too much homework. After going on their freshmen and sophomore excursions to London and Dublin, visiting museums by day and pubs by night, however, the value of English and my small talk conversation drills became more than apparent as they suddenly discovered they wanted to chat up that handsome or beautiful British or Irish young man or woman at the bar. (My coach drivers for these excursions also complimented my students saying they were the only group who consistently showed up on time and who took their rubbish with them). By their senior year, these same students left my classroom at the end of the first class complaining to me in fluent, polite English, using the persuasive phrases I had taught them, that they had too much homework. Then I knew all my time and energy as head of English had not been wasted, that it wouldn’t have been better if I’d stayed in the teachers’ room and spent most of my time reading books and planning curricula as some of my predecesors had done. I knew that due to my efforts, I had managed to change the world, even if by just a little, for the better. AQ

Jim Ross – The Substitute

The Substitute
by Jim Ross

Nearly every country, culture, and school system uses substitute teachers to fill in for occasional teacher absences or for longer time periods while schools seek permanent teachers. Almost universally, substitute teachers are mocked and reviled by students and by schools, which accord them a status equal to a mayfly.

For four years, I eked out a catch-as-catch-can living as a substitute teacher. I knew the priority was keeping students reasonably safe, but I clung to the illusion I might occasionally get to teach.

After being certified in social studies, my first call came from a self-contained, special education school. On arrival, I was told I’d be teaching blind primary schoolers. When I reached the classroom, I found eight smock-clad students spread out on the floor, engrossed in finger painting. The teacher watching over suggested I let them continue for thirty minutes, handed me a lesson plan, and smiled knowingly.

I hadn’t laid eyes or hands on finger paint since I was five. I squatted down as the students smeared colours from their papers to the floor and back.

“What are you making?” I asked.

“Snow man,” one told me.

“Man walks on moon,” said another.

“Big mess,” said a third.

Fearing for the floor, their clothes, and my job, I encouraged staying on the paper. Then, one by one, I ported the children’s masterpieces to safety, walked each artist to the sink, and then situated them at desks.

The teacher’s lesson plan: Review latest Braille lessons. We conducted a round-robin reading from Braille to English. Whenever Stephen read a long word, he said, “Midnight.”

I checked into the office before leaving. The vice-principal asked: “How’d it go?”

“Through a glass darkly,” I said.

“Perfect. You free tomorrow?” he asked.

Next day, I had deaf students. My background with deaf people was seeing deaf students on the subway when I was in high school. How they communicated via sign language, gestures, and facial expressions fascinated. When I reached class, the students were wearing headphones.

“We’re not teaching sign language,” my escort explained. “We’re trying to tap what’s left of their residual hearing. You’ll communicate with them using this microphone. If they don’t hear you, hike up the volume.”

Thirty minutes later, the principal announced over the PA system that the entire school was departing imminently for the White House. I herded my twelve students onto a bus. Once students disembarked, we tried to keep track as they scurried across the White House pasture, blending in with students from other schools. On signal, I drew my deaf students as if with magnets to a row of folding chairs and observed them fidget to the Youth Orchestra’s beat. After the orchestra’s performance, a White House rep invited the assemblage to approach for cookies and punch. Running amok, students crumbled cookies over the lawn. Eventually we coaxed them back onto buses. I’d hardly begun debriefing my class about their field trip when the dismissal bell rang.

Most mornings I’d wait by the phone with my cup of coffee, bowl of hot raisiny oatmeal, and the newspaper, catnapping. More often than not, between 7.00 and 8.00 AM, the phone rang. The waiting game resumed from 3.00 to 5.00 PM. When I answered, I probably sounded like Helene, from Kurt Vonnegut’s short story, “Who Am I This Time?”

The first two months made me question why more teachers didn’t come unglued.

      •   I observed eight 4th grade girls shove two scrawny boys into the girls’ room. There they beat up the boys, then called for help claiming the boys had barged in and attacked them. Jumping to the boys’ defence, I said, to the contrary, the girls had forced the boys into the girls’ room. Said the vice principal: “Some of those girls were angels … until today.”
      •   I’d been told that if 3rd grader Robert cried, I was to send him to the office. Robert’s Valentine to Mike reached the wrong Mike, who tore it up. Heartbroken, Robert cried. Instead of sending him to the office, I let him lead the game at recess.
      •   Two 6th grade girls fought in the hall, drawing a crowd. The loser’s friends sought asylum in my class, blood streaming from nose and mouth.
      •   As I was teaching French to attentive high school students, rocks came flying through the windows. Glass shattered; students scattered.
      •   When a junior high school girl kept disrupting class, I sent her to the office, where she alleged, “That man tried to stick his worm in me.” The office staff’s refusal to take her seriously gave me cold comfort.
      •   On May Day, I escorted a Russian class onto the school’s front lawn to plant their Russian flag. Thinking I was a student, two passing students offered me drugs.

Almost no teachers left lesson plans. Some left terse notes like: “Have students draw their emotions using charcoal.” At best, they left busywork. Teachers who left scant or no instructions sent an implicit message: ‘Use your creative discretion.’

A 3rd grade teacher left instructions to randomly assign each student a required spelling word. The students’ task was to write a sentence using their assigned word and incorporate the sentence into an Earth Day card. The teacher would forward the cards to the White House. Eduardo drew the word “smother.” I expected a cautionary tale about how to keep a baby warm while avoiding tragic over-diligence but hoped for Maya Angelou’s recipe for smothered chicken. Surprising only me, 8-year-old Eduardo articulated the poetry of protest like a young Langston Hughes:

         My, oh my
         Do they smother
         Our cry?

I often wondered, did the White House write back? Did Eduardo keep asking questions? Did anyone hear him? Or did someone just shut him up?

After four feast-or-famine years, I quit substituting. Believing I might make a difference made quitting hard, but seeing capable, compassionate teachers become worn down and afraid helped set me free. AQ

Stephen O’Connor – “Lalla Roohk” and the Great Slide

“Lalla Roohk” and the Great Slide
by Stephen O’Connor

My grandfather, John O’Connor, once told me, in definitive tones, that Thomas Moore was the greatest poet in the English language. I was a boy, and when my grandfather made declarations, I set them down in the book and volume of my mind as facts, as infallible to my young Catholic understanding as papal bulls, and I remember many of them to this day. Besides, if anyone knew poetry, it would have been “Papa,” as we called my grandfather, for he was a great lover of verse. He often boasted that he had won an oratorical contest as a lad back in Ireland for a recitation of “Bingen on the Rhine.” The sponsors of the contest were supposed to have sent him a prize—a major award, no doubt. “I’m still waiting,” he would say, leaning toward me as we sat in the wicker chairs on his porch, slapping my knee or pushing my shoulder and laughing.

There was a tremendous thick tome on his bookshelf called The Poetry and Song of Ireland, edited by John Boyle O’Reilly. It was a literary mainstay of Irish American households, and held within its sacred pages the complete poems of Thomas Moore. A frontispiece depicted Cathleen ni Houlihan, the beautiful woman who was the embodiment of Ireland. While her people bore the yoke of foreign bondage, she was the Sean Van Vocht, the poor old woman, but whenever the Irish took up arms and shed their blood in the cause of freedom, she was transformed into the Gile na Gile, the Brightness of Brightness, the lovely Cathleen. Under the depiction of this radiant queen was a line from Thomas Moore, “Rich and rare were the gems she wore.” Papa gave me the book, and it sits in front of me on the desk as I write, one of the granite blocks in the foundation of my identity.

Papa, who was born in Rathkeale, County Limerick, in the late nineteenth century, was not alone among his contemporaries in his estimation of Moore’s greatness, or in his certainty of the genius of his chef d’oeuvre, “Lalla Rookh,” published in 1817. The Norton Anthology of English Literature states that the three thousand pounds that Moore was advanced by his publisher was the largest sum ever offered a poet for a single poem, and this at a time when Byron and Shelley were household names. Before Moore’s death in 1852, “Lalla Roohk” had gone through twenty editions.

I was reminded of all this the other day as I was thumbing through a copy of Huckleberry Finn, and noticed that Huck mentions a Mississippi riverboat which he refers to as “Lally Rook.” The poem is also mentioned in Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Schuman wrote music based on scenes from the work. Moore’s “Lalla Rookh,” it seems, along with Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Les Miserables, was one of the most popular works for soldiers to read “by the bivouac’s fitful flame” during the Civil War.

Papa had declared “Lalla Rookh” a masterpiece, and since the verses he recited from memory had such a rich sound rolling off his Irish tongue, I was eager to read it. I must have been about thirteen, so I hoped that it would be a tale of mighty Irish heroes like Cúchulainn and Conall Cearnach, or The Fighting Prince of Donegal, whose exploits I had seen in the film of that name at the Strand Theater—still the only movie in my life that I sat through for a second showing. When I finally sat down in the rocking chair in my room with the heavy book opened in my lap to “Lalla Roohk,” I was immediately puzzled by the subtitle: “A Persian Tale.” It was a work of what is known today as Romantic Orientalism.

Let me be honest with you, and hope that my grandfather is not listening from a perch in heaven. I never did read the entire poem. In fact, I’ve never read most of the poem. The reason is that no one ever held a gun to my head and forced me to spend the hours that it would take to plough through all the maidens beckoning the brave to their bowers, or the descriptions of “the crimson blossoms of the coral tree in the warm isles of India’s sunny sea.” Three pages of this stuff would cure the most obdurate insomniac. The footnotes alone would keep the Prisoner of Zenda busy for months. On the first page of the poem, there are twelve explanatory footnotes drawn from atlases, treatises, mythologies, Persian miscellanies, and dictionaries.

Now I will not say that none of this is interesting; in fact, in some respects the footnotes are more interesting than the poem. Who knew that a “bulbul” was another name for a nightingale? But what I find truly interesting—fascinating, really, is the simple fact that throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, such a dense and verbally ornate poem was enormously popular. It was not read by graduate students, (if graduate students even existed, they must have been rarer than a bulbul in February); it was read by a lot of people like my grandfather, who was a house painter with a grammar school education. Melodrama is out of favour, but beyond that, would anyone today have the attention span required to read a heavily footnoted, book-length poem? Most modern readers, including me, would not get beyond the first sentence of Moore’s introduction, which begins, “In the eleventh year of the reign of Aurungzebe, Abdalla, King of Lesser Bucharia, a lineal descendent from the great Zingis, having abdicated the throne in favor of his son, set out on a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Prophet, and, passing into India through the delightful valley of Cashmere…” Is your mind wandering yet?

My point here is not just that such works have gone out of fashion. What strikes me forcefully is that people in the past, those who could read, possessed an extremely high order of focus, comprehension and expression relative to the modern reader and writer. Even the illiterate groundlings relished Shakespeare’s elaborate word play. And we need not go back so far. In the grammar schools and high schools of our grandparents, or in my case even aunts and uncles, American students still committed great swaths of Longfellow to memory, verses from such epic poems as “Evangeline,” (which sold 36,000 copies in the decade after its publication), “The Song of Hiawatha,” (50,000 copies within two years of its publication), and the ever-popular ballad “The Wreck of the Hesperus.”

Memorization of poetry? I’ve been teaching high school for twenty-seven years; when other teachers find out that I’ve had my students memorize “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” they look at me as if I had required the youngsters to put away their pencils in favor of a quill and inkwell. The last professor I had who expected students to commit poems to memory was another Irishman, Augustus Martin at University College, Dublin, who seemed to have the complete poetical works of Yeats at his fingertips, and in 1980, his fingertips were not connected to a hand-held device.

“Mnemosyne—Memory, is the mother of all the Muses,” he would remind us in that sonorous Richard Burton voice of his. “Memorization” in the modern educational lexicon is often coupled with the culpatory adjective “rote.” Why would you want a head full of poetry when you can google whatever you need? But what if knowing things, rather than just knowing where to find things, is a formative experience? What we know, what we memorize, lives in us, becomes part of us. The words return to us as we witness the beauty and tragedy of the world around us; they lend depth to every scene and illuminate every experience. I found strength in the words in my head as I spent time with my terminally ill father. The lines that always came back to me, as his days dwindled, were from Sonnet 73:

           This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
           To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

There are no longer popular poems which most Americans can quote. As a child, I used to look at a framed needlepoint my great aunt had done, which hung in the parlour. It depicted a homey cottage above the lines: “Let me live in a house by the side of the road, and be a friend to man.” Many visitors recognized those lines from a poem by Sam Walter Foss, “The House by the Side of the Road.”

Such popular poetry no longer exists in America, and popular reading is synonymous with light reading. It was not always so. While watching a documentary on the Mexican American War recently, I was surprised to hear that many of the American soldiers in that conflict (or invasion) carried Prescott’s 1843 Conquest of Mexico, which they read to pass the tedious hours between marching and fighting. Now I happen to have inherited a copy of Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico, or I should say copies, since the work was published in two volumes. Opening volume two at random, I read, “Cortes reflected on his own impotence to restrain the fury of the Mexicans, and resolved in spite of his late supercilious treatment of Montezuma, to employ his authority to allay the tumult, an authority so successfully exerted on behalf of Alvarado at an earlier stage of the insurrection.”

Whether we can appreciate their tastes or their world view—whether we feel that their histories are slanted, their plots incredible, their scenes sentimental, or their poetry flowery—the sheer literacy of our ancestors astonishes me. Look at the works that they read; in 1842, a year before Prescott published his Conquest of Mexico, Charles Dickens visited my hometown of Lowell, Massachusetts, (hardly the Oxford of America), and was the toast of the town as the most celebrated novelist in history. Fans crowded the docks of New York awaiting the next instalment of Martin Chuzzlewit or The Old Curiosity Shop. Yet I suspect that the average modern reader would be flatly incapable of getting through Bleak House, or even David Copperfield. And the difference shows. Read the letters of Civil War soldiers; visit the Nantucket Whaling Museum and read the letters sent home by those rugged men who thrust the cruel harpoon, (one letter I recall recounts that members of the ship’s company were performing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for the entertainment of the crew); read the prose that was written by young women mill workers here in Lowell, who were largely self-educated and often sent their pay home to put their brothers through school. Yet the discussions and debates conducted through their literary magazine, The Lowell Offering, were carried on at an intellectual level far beyond the capabilities of most of today’s college graduates. The magazine impressed Charles Dickens; in fact, Professor Natalie McKnight of Boston University, and grad student Chelsea Bray, have put forth a convincing theory that Dickens conceived of the idea for A Christmas Carol after reading stories in The Lowell Offering, stories written by “mill girls.”

The evidence of a general decline in literacy may be anecdotal, but it is persistent. New examples present themselves continually. A woman told me recently that she read War and Peace in its entirety with her English class at Lowell High School in the 1950’s. When is the last time you saw a high school student sitting in a coffee shop reading Tolstoy? And you never will. Am I nostalgic? Perhaps, but the incontrovertible fact remains that The Hunger Games is not Wuthering Heights, and that the preponderance of what high school students read today is much closer in style and level of complexity to the former than to the latter. Earlier I mentioned Jane Eyre—a retired librarian informs me that for many years, and again, we’re probably talking about the forties and fifties, and probably into the sixties, it was the most frequently borrowed book from our city library, principally by girls and young women. Try to read the novel with a typical high school class today—I speak from experience—and see how many pages are turned before students are yawning and peeking at their iPhones. A couple of years ago, I asked my daughter, then nineteen, what she and her friends were reading over the summer. She responded that most of them were rereading Fifty Shades of Grey because the film was coming out. In terms of the quality of the prose in that quarter, I can only repeat a question that was posed by a reviewer of the novel on Amazon, “Was this book written by a teenager?”

What happened to us? Shall we blame our schools? Was it TV? Was it the cult of self-esteem and lack of self discipline? The proliferation of excuses and accommodations? The belief that education could be had without a price and it would all be just good fun—a group project with crayons? Flannery O’Connor once responded to the assertion that students should be given what they want to read rather than what they should read. Her response was not ambiguous. “Their tastes should not be consulted,” she declared. “Their tastes are being formed.” Score one for Wuthering Heights. But the brave new world requires us all to change with it, they say, and so we continue, as Neil Postman argued decades ago, to “entertain ourselves to death.”

Politicians talk about the need to get the internet in every classroom across the globe, as if it is a given that this will, that it must improve education—a key component of “21st century learning” as they’ve dubbed it. But what if part of the problem is that we have all slipped into the world of the quick link—of “surfing” the web instead of deep-diving into a book. I know that many of the works I enjoyed easily as a young man strike me as dense and difficult when I reread them today. Maybe it’s true that the internet is changing our brains, as a recent book posits. What this will mean for our future, I don’t know, but I continue to swim against the tide, often repeating to my own high school students the simple admonition that John O’Connor, Papa, once used to chastise me for not having read a book of Irish history that he’d given me: “If you don’t read, you don’t know.” I’ve always remembered those words, but I’m quite sure my students have already forgotten them. For the very young, it is a world of distractions, a world of tweets and texts and sexts and posts and Instagrams and likes and downloaded videos, distractions with which even “high-interest” reading books cannot compete, let alone the interior life of Emily Dickinson’s “landscape of the spirit.”

Clearly, an ignorant populace is not a solid foundation on which to build a democracy. Beyond the political implications, I feel a sense of regret for what we’ve lost, for what people of all cultures are losing, for what we parted with all too easily, for what we are not handing down to our children. “It’s over,” an old book dealer said to me recently. She didn’t need to explain.

I’m sure there will always be a silent student somewhere reading Thoreau in the corner of the library—who knows, maybe even “Lalla Roohk,” but the general decline in the kind of deep literacy of a not so distant past is undeniable. We are approaching a time when, for many educated in American schools, our “native English,” will have become, in Shakespeare’s words, “like a cunning instrument cased up, or, being open, put into his hands that knows no touch to tune the harmony.” AQ

Grove Koger – Death of a Tortoise

Death of a Tortoise
by Grove Koger

The morning of June 24, 2012, was a somber one at the Charles Darwin Research Station. Located on the island of Santa Cruz in Ecuador’s Galapagos Archipelago, the station had long been the home of what was believed to be the last surviving Pinta Island tortoise. But that morning his caretaker, Fausto Llerena, found him dead in his corral, the apparent victim of nothing more dramatic than old age.

The tortoise had been discovered on Pinta Island in November 1971 and transported to Santa Cruz for his own good, as his subspecies—known to herpetologists as Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni—had been considered extinct since 1906. Dubbed Lonesome George, he had become an icon of efforts to preserve the earth’s endangered species.

Pinta was once home to untold numbers of George’s brethren, but they were hunted down throughout the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by pirates and whalers. Darwin commented on their decimation throughout the islands during his visit aboard the Beagle in 1835, while noting the suggestive differences among the populations as well. Then fishermen dealt another blow to the surviving tortoises by releasing goats on Pinta in 1959, planning to slaughter and eat them as needed during their long fishing expeditions. Within a decade the goat population had grown to an estimated 40,000 individuals, destroying most of the island’s plant life in the process. It was at the height of this devastation that a scientist discovered the lone tortoise, and in 1972 rangers for the Galapagos National Park transported the animal to the research station.

Over the years scientists introduced female tortoises from a closely related Isabela Island subspecies into George’s pen, hoping to produce a population that, although hybrid, would nevertheless preserve George’s DNA. When it was determined that George was actually more closely related to a subspecies on Española, two females from that island were substituted. But while the females laid several clutches of eggs, none hatched.

After George’s death, his body was transported to the American Museum of Natural History for preservation by noted taxidermist George Dante and a short period of display. “This is absolutely the most important project you could ever do in your life,” Dante says of the assignment. Determined to capture the tortoise’s personality as well as preserve his body, he questioned those who had taken care of the animal. “Everyone you talked to had a different story about George,” he recalls. “They knew every wrinkle on this animal.”

Preserved in a suitably regal and lifelike stance, George’s body was scheduled for permanent exhibit at the Santa Cruz research station where he had lived so long. However, Ecuadorian officials insisted that he be displayed in the country’s capital, Quito, where environmental conditions could be controlled more carefully, and a bronze replica shipped to Santa Cruz.


Questions of extinction aside—and they are certainly profound ones—there’s something about tortoises that appeals deeply to us. “Poor, lumbering creatures” we say, admiring their stubborn patience yet thankful not to be in their place. Of course George is far from being the first individual tortoise to have caught the attention of mankind. Think of Aesop’s fable in which the hare, certain of winning the race, settles down for a nap, while the tortoise—stubbornly and patiently—pushes on to the finish line.

Eighteenth-century English naturalist Gilbert White wrote affectionately of a Greek, or spur-thighed tortoise (Testudo graeca) named Timothy who had been bought from a sailor in 1740 and was eventually given free range of White’s garden at Selborne in Hampshire. (The designation “Greek” refers to the species of tortoise rather than its original home, which in Timothy’s case was never known.) Upon Timothy’s disappearance from the garden in late spring of 1784, White lamented that he “should be sorry to lose so old a domestic, who has behaved himself in so blameless a manner in the family for near fifty years.” Fortunately the old boy was found ten days later in a nearby field. Timothy died at about the age of 64 in 1794, surviving his famous owner by one year, and was only then identified as being an old girl.

Yet another spur-thighed tortoise named Timothy was a well-known resident of the rose garden of Powderham Castle in Devonshire until 2004. Taken off a Portuguese ship in 1854 during the Crimean War, he lived as a mascot aboard various vessels of the Royal Navy until given a home with the Courtenay family. Apparently perturbed by the vibrations of bombs dropping on nearby Exeter during a much later conflict—World War II—Timothy dug himself a shelter under a set of terrace steps. He was 160 or so at the time of his death. His last owner, Lady Gabrielle Courtenay, who was then 91 herself, remarked that “you could call him, and he would come and say hello and have a strawberry.” In 1926 a scientist had determined that, like White’s beloved reptile, this Timothy was actually a female, but the name stuck.

To this day a genuinely Greek tortoise, but one of undetermined gender, lives in the ancient Agora in Athens, where it has become something of a tourist attraction. My wife and I encountered it one afternoon a few years ago as it trudged through the dry grass for a drink at a shallow basin provided by the Agora’s staff, then retreated to a sheltered corner amidst a tumble of ancient masonry. Its life appears carefree, but in the midst of the economic calamity that has befallen Greece, it’s hard not to view its stubbornness and patience—those qualities again!—in a symbolic light. The animal has appeared in several YouTube videos, and may well be of greater interest to many tourists than the ruins it lives amidst.


Today Pinta is goat-free, thanks to a project in which the island’s feral invaders were hunted down, but no more of its once-plentiful tortoises have been found. So is this the end of the line for Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni? Maybe not. After Lonesome George’s death, it was discovered that seventeen tortoises from the remote Volcano Wolf area of Isabela Island (the home, you’ll remember, of the first of George’s would-be mates) actually carry some of the genes of the Pinta Island tortoise, and that one of them is an eighty percent match. Given that five of the seventeen are juveniles, there’s a distinct possibility that purebred examples may yet live in the same area.

Others tortoises from Volcano Wolf carry the genes of the Floreana Island tortoise, also considered extinct. Authorities suspect that the crews of whaling vessels may have captured the Pinta and Floreana tortoises for food but later threw them overboard when they weren’t needed. Over the subsequent decades the animals would have mated with their distant Isabela relatives—or maybe, just maybe, among themselves.

Now efforts are underway to establish a captive-breeding program for the two subspecies, with plans of eventually reintroducing them to their original homes to help restore the islands’ ecosystems. “The word ‘extinction’ signifies the point of no return,” explains Yale University professor Dr. Adalgisa Caccone, a member of the research team working on Isabela. “Yet new technology can sometimes provide hope in challenging the irrevocable nature of this concept.”

And maybe, just maybe, George’s cousins will win their crucial race after all.

Vidya Vasudevan – The Urban Milieu

The Urban Milieu
by Vidya Vasudevan

“Street dog turns savior. Dog which saved child from being run over by car dies despite best treatment,”

ran the headline in the local tabloid.

Just returning from a visit to the local zoo, which offered animals the assurance of meeting their basic needs, medical attention plus security, my thoughts flew to the situation of animals in a different setting, a perilous urban setting with its rapidly paced life and relentless struggle for survival amidst rampant exploitation.

The school was located amidst a not-so-dense forest, one of the last remaining patches of green, within the city limits. The children waited in a long line for the morning assembly to commence. Just above their head, a troop of monkeys atop the banyan tree swung from branch to branch, chattering by the dozen. Were they discussing the day’s news read by one of the pupils?

Another monkey sat on the window ledge abutting the classroom. Was he listening? The children giggled. Chemistry was boring but the monkey seemed interested. Simultaneously, he was learning mechanics, trying to figure out how to unscrew the cap of a bottle he had found.

The little girl in pigtails on the corridor munching a cookie at break time looked back. A soft eyed, spotted fawn followed her with a mournful look. He tugged at her skirt. Turing around to pat his lil’ head, she shared her snack, amused by his persistence.

At the shopping centre located in the forested area, the clock struck 2 pm and the troop arrived on the dot. There stood the fruit and vegetable truck waiting to be unloaded. They waited eagerly, their hungry eyes and long legs, ready for action. The minute the driver left the truck, the simians climbed in ready to grab a tasty bite, only to be chased away by men with sticks. A sly one scrambled off clutching a huge bottle gourd. Shoppers returning with purchases looked around warily anticipating trouble. Some had their bags snatched away and watched helplessly as the culprit drank mango juice from a carton, while another ran up the tree with a roll of cream cookies.

A huge, tame looking stag, showing off his aesthetically designed antlers, wandered in and out of the shopping centre. His target was the big sack containing vegetable and fruit waste placed in a corner waiting to be carted off by the garbage truck.

Moving out onto the road, I spotted a stray dog wagging his tail at the customers at a roadside eatery. He jumped up eager to grab the tidbits offered. Witnessing this was a scrawny tabby on the wall. Her gaze fell on the notice board displayed outside. Was there fish on the menu? A Golden Retriever walking beside his master, held by a leash, looked down upon the street dog as if to say, ‘you are beneath me’.

Ahead on the road loomed a traffic jam. What was the cause? There, standing tall and proud, in the middle of the road, was a gaily decorated horse ready to carry the bridegroom as part of the wedding festivities. He was an old hand, adept at negotiating the long line of traffic. A group of kids, craning their necks through the bus window for a glimpse of the galloping hero, squealed in delight. The disgruntled cop, his hands up in despair, glared at the four legged creature for enjoying the attention. A far cry indeed from those gentle ponies offering soothing rides to kids on the beach.

Another sweaty creature, caught in this melee was the bullock, almost tempted to run away with his cart. He looked around but there was not an inch of space to move.

Finally, with the traffic clearing, we moved ahead only to be stopped by a herd of buffaloes indulging in a catwalk of sorts, down the road, with the desperate owner trying to shoo them away to the side. A trio of bleating goats lifted their legs to brace themselves against the wall, trying to reach the ‘greens’ hanging from a basket on the vendor’s shelf.

Alighting from the vehicle, we had to work our way through a few stray cows relaxing on the pavement swishing their tails, chewing the cud. Siesta time was nearing.

Other occasional sightings include the lone elephant carrying the mahout (handler), stopping whenever a crowd gathered, and lifting his trunk to offer blessings in return for coconuts and bananas. The sight of the washerwoman’s donkey bedeviled by the huge bundles on his back and trucks carrying cattle tightly packed together like sardines meant for the abattoir also form an inevitable part of the city scene.

Good tidings to you! This would be the loud call of a gaudily dressed fortune teller, shaking his Damru (a two headed drum) at our doorstep offering to foretell the family’s future for a fee. He would be accompanied by his decorated bull, emitting a jangling sound every time it shook its head, thanks to small bells tied to its horns. From the smallest to the eldest, every member of the family, would crowd around him, never mind, whether or not his predictions came true. His tame bull was the focus of attraction.

It seems to me that all these creatures have adjusted well to the madcap urban life. And so they carry on, along with Homo sapiens, in today’s urban jungles, some cosseted, others less fortunate, striving to make the best of their current habitat, be it chaotic or luxurious.

Timothy Kenny – Sniper Alley, fate and other vagaries

Sniper Alley, fate and other vagaries
by Timothy Kenny

           There is no such thing as accident; it is fate misnamed. — Napoleon Bonaparte

I know this much: Wandering into war is ill advised.

For those who do, let me say this: Sometimes fate’s your daddy.

I mention this because every reporter I met in Sarajevo or Kabul or some other unsavory spot eventually knuckled under to fate. Few professed godly belief; most reporters I know aren’t especially religious. Besides, fate’s the one you want when people are serious about causing harm. Fate is war’s handmaiden, its memory, its scribe. Fate flips the coin, sings the last song you might hear, whispers in your ear. Fate is the safe one, the unimpeachable one, the one that carries you home if all goes well.

Or not, if it doesn’t.

I say this because while I had briefly covered stories in semi-dangerous places during the first Intifada and Belfast in August 1989, when I ended up in Sarajevo for five days in July 1992, my knowledge of war reporting came from what I had read and who I had talked to, not what I had done. Twenty-three years later I purposely found myself in Kabul for three weeks in May, happy to have made fate’s acquaintance decades before.

* * *

I lay flat on my back in an open truck that was idling too long at a roadblock along the edge of Sarajevo Aerodrom. The sun was shining and I was comfortably warm lying on the truck’s metal bed, watching a bright blue sky spout clouds. We had been warned that snipers still surrounded the airport. The ceasefire, just two days old, was supposed to mean that planes could land and unload cargo without interference from the Serbian fighters, who had been firing on the airport from the surrounding hills. The city’s 380,000 residents had been cut off from the larger world since May. It was July 2, 1992. Sarajevo was running short of food, gasoline, medicine and electricity, among other things.

There were thirteen of us in the back of the truck, waiting to drive into the city. I figured the sniper could have hit our parked, two-and-a-half-ton vehicle anytime he wanted, but I remained unafraid for some reason, even after hearing the sizzle of that first shot, followed an instant later by the sharp crack of rifle fire.

I had flown from Washington, D.C., to New York to Amsterdam to Sarajevo with other journalists from the U.S. and Europe, the last leg cradled in a canvas hammock-seat that rocked with the motion of the C-130 carrying us gently, if loudly, inside the open, metal belly of the plane. I expected two days of reporting that might edge toward the dangerous, but not turn into real trouble. I’d follow around the American doctors who came to distribute medicine and help out at Kosova Hospital. It was a great assignment, a chance to produce a page one story for USA Today that could explain the newest conflict in an Eastern European country with a bifurcated name that most Americans knew little about.

Our AmeriCares flight, carrying doctors and sixteen tons of medicine into Sarajevo, marked the first time a relief flight had arrived since fighting began in April. Bosnia’s capital was trapped in the tightening grip of what would become a forty-six month siege, the longest in modern European history. It did not occur to me to bring a helmet or flak jacket and I asked few questions of the flight’s organizers. I was more worried that the ceasefire would end before I got to Sarajevo than I was about getting shot. I was lured once more by adventure lust, caught up in a chance to revisit the Balkans, where I had lived for months teaching journalism at the University of Bucharest.

At home in Virginia, my unsteady life was unraveling, my marriage failing. I was deeply depressed, faced with increasing emotional isolation at home and uncertain about how to fix things. Leaving was often my fail-safe choice, always easier than staying. I convinced my boss I should cover the medicine-delivery story, packed one small bag and flew out the next day. I filed several stories about the violence and misery inflicted on the trapped citizens of Sarajevo. I was interviewed on National Public Radio and found more danger than I anticipated. I was never able to file the story about the doctors that my newspaper expected.

* * *

When that first shot buzzed overhead, I dropped from a standing position to lying prone, bewildered, startled, mentally off kilter. It felt like someone had snuck up from behind and punched me in the head. I was perplexed, unable to process the unfolding facts, even though I knew what a rifle shot sounded like and I had heard one clearly, just as I heard two more before we drove back to an empty airport hanger where I spent the night sleeping on the concrete floor. I learned that it’s difficult to process the world when your mind is slowed by jetlag and the speed of life suddenly moves faster than it’s supposed to. I also discovered it’s hard to be afraid when you’re confused. That would change.

* * *

When I could not find coffee the next morning I nursed a splitting headache for hours. After much wheedling I hitched a ride from the airport to the downtown Holiday Inn with a veteran British photographer whose name I believe was Sebastian. He had been working in Sarajevo for months and drove a beat-up, black Audi. He was calm and warned me in a steady voice to get ready as we approached a troublesome section of Sniper Alley, the broad, once stately boulevard littered with dead cars, buses and industrial trash dumpsters. I crouched low in the car’s passenger side, now traveling at roughly 150 kilometers per hour. We heard one shot. I waited for more, for the rifle fire to hit its mark, for Sebastian to suddenly lose control of the Audi and veer into a building or strike one of the bullet-riddled vehicles marooned at the side of the road. We heard more shots.

But none of that happened. Nothing happened, except this:

Fate – bold, stout-hearted, unforeseen – slipped into our car somewhere along the way to un-kink the adrenaline knot in my chest and ease my fear, born of the certain knowledge that this car ride would entertain no teenage joy at the wondrous speed we traveled. However fast we were going, it wasn’t fast enough.

Sniper Alley was always dangerous in its worst places. Intersections slowed by debris were to be negotiated quickly; slower driving meant better shooting. Apparently, it’s not that easy for a sniper to gauge a vehicle’s speed and shoot accurately between buildings; still, plenty of people got hurt or killed along this road.

We arrived at the Holiday Inn, just across from the badly damaged Parliament building, shaken but unscathed. We got shot at again driving into the hotel’s underground parking garage, but then, everyone did. Fate, apparently distracted and aimless, wandered off after we parked the car.

Sarajevo was a complicated, worrisome city in the first week of July 1992, two months after Bosnia’s bloody civil conflict had exploded into life. That first night at the Holiday Inn I watched tracer bullets light up the sky outside my window, probably a half mile away. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of my darkened hotel room, several stories in the air, watching a violent laser show. The city was otherwise black. Two days before I had been in Washington, D.C., working in a newspaper office, going to meetings and sitting at a desk.

The unreality of the moment tripped a switch I didn’t know existed: Either nothing terrible is going to happen or several terrible things are going to happen, but – and this is the epiphany part – there is little I can do about any of it.

* * *

A word of caution: Never rely on fate. Giving yourself over to fate should be avoided whenever possible. There are discernable differences between caution and worry, between irrational fear and true danger. Learning to keep an eye out for trouble is crucial. Fate’s appearances are rare, at least in my case. I’ve occasionally found myself in situations that were not dangerous but had the potential to be. But that’s not when fate arrives. For better or worse, fate typically shows up after options have narrowed sharply.

* * *

Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in 1990 was dark, chaotic, unruly. Tough-looking men wearing black leather coats that hung just below their butts waited outside the doors to the international arrivals area. Russians hoping to pickup passengers stood behind a special, roped-off section set aside for the men wearing leather coats. They walked up to foreign-looking people one or two at a time and asked in accented English, Tocksee? Tocksee? It sounded more like a stickup than a request.

I knew these guys. I had seen them at airports across Eastern Europe. They sold taxi rides to the unknowing. Mafia guys look the same everywhere: hard-faced men used to getting their own way. In Moscow, no one else drove taxis. The money was too good. Driving a taxi in Moscow in 1990 was a license to steal from the unwary. The city was full of foreigners, who often paid double the fare upon arrival. Sometimes people got robbed and beat up, left in a heap alongside some unlit highway en route from the airport.

I had arranged for a usually reliable guy to pick me up but he failed to show. On the sidewalk outside the terminal, taxi drivers of lesser stature leaned against the fenders of black Ladas and reiterated their refrain, Tocksee meester? Tocksee? I shook my head at each invitation, muttered nyet, lit a cigarette and hoped I looked like I was savvy, someone who knew the ropes just waiting for a ride. I had walked past anyone who drove a taxi and was now uncertain how I would get to the Ukraina Hotel.

Cell phones did not exist, of course. Even if I could find an airport pay phone that worked I had no idea how to use it. In my experience, telephones in Eastern European countries usually had local quirks that require a tutorial. My Russian was limited, then as now, to approximately six words.

A slight, unshaven man in colorless clothes, which is to say an ordinary-looking Muscovite, bumped into me as I stood on the sidewalk. I checked for my wallet. I found it. He wasn’t after my wallet.

Follow me, meester, he said quietly. He gestured; he was furtive. Regular tocksee. He seemed to speak English.

He walked to the end of the building and looked back, motioning me again to follow, down to where a puddle of light cut vaguely into the dark. He seemed to be alone. I walked to where he stood. He pointed to an oil-spewing Trabant parked not far away. We set a price, got in, drove off. It was December and the car had no heat. Gasoline fumes filtered inside from the undercarriage. The car rattled constantly and everyone else on the road seemed to pass us, but we arrived at the Ukraina without incident.

Stuff like this happened frequently when I reported for USA Today from Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and when I lived in Romania and years later in Kosovo, and later still when I traveled to Central Asia, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Negotiating with airport taxi drivers was a travel inconvenience, not a danger, a skill to be learned.

It was also important to understand that the simple act of traveling alone could bring troubling complications. If the wrong choice was made, say if I accepted a taxi ride from a stranger in a black leather jacket that hung just below his butt, the end result might be the annoyance of paying double at the end of the ride. Or it might mean getting held up at gunpoint and left alongside a bleak Russian highway. It might mean something worse. Another distinct possibility is that I’d arrive at my destination without incident and nothing would happen. But learning to know the likelihood of uncomfortable possibilities is important.

It’s like Clint says in “Dirty Harry,” You’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?

* * *

I felt fortunate that I could go to Kabul and just as fortunate to return unharmed.

Afghanistan’s capital had been quiet for weeks in May 2010 when I arrived, indicative of nothing really. Violence comes and goes in unknowable cycles in Kabul. I had always wanted to visit Afghanistan. I wanted to see it as my friend Michael had in the 1970s, alone, adrift, fancy of foot, walking Kabul’s dust-choked streets and thumbing rides into the high mountain valleys of the Wakhan Corridor, that skinny strip of eastern Afghan property that sticks out into China.

It was too late for that now. My chance to see Afghanistan arrived when I was 64 years old, married for seven years to a younger second wife, the unexpected father of a four-year-old daughter. I taught college journalism and lived a middle-class life of yard work and car loans and mortgage payments. When a journalism non-profit offered me three weeks of consulting work in Kabul I jumped at the chance, just as I had when offered a trip to Sarajevo decades before. I had occasional misgivings about the dangers that surely squatted on every Kabul street corner every day. Still, I went.

During that trip I found myself in a car driving up and down Darulaman Road, trying to find the unmarked entrance to the American University of Afghanistan. We had driven once before past Parliament, located on the same street. On the second pass, my driver stopped in front of the gates leading to Parliament to ask directions of Afghan soldiers on guard duty, an ill-advised move that brought leveled rifles up to our car windows. Afghan soldiers are not known for discipline and all three had fingers on triggers. Eventually, we were sent on our way, but not before my driver was scolded and pushed roughly against the car by the sergeant in charge.

On the morning of the following day, May 18, 2010, a 1,600-pound bomb killed eighteen people in roughly the same spot, spraying body parts along a wide swath of Darulaman. Six soldiers died in the blast along with twelve Afghan civilians. It was Kabul’s worst attack in months.

En route across the city on another occasion, our car was trapped in a convoy of military vehicles, a dangerous position that threw my worried driver into a controlled but efficient effort to get away. He had been caught in such a convoy the year before when a bomb exploded. His injuries healed; his fear of being trapped near military vehicles had not.

Not long afterwards I talked with an Afghan colleague named Hashimi about fate, without mentioning the word. I told him that I tried to pay close attention when I was on the streets in Kabul, but that I did not think I would die when I went out each day. I stayed in Kabul just three weeks. Hashimi grew up in the city and lived there, a place where everyday life is grueling and dangerous, especially for ordinary Afghans.

For me, every day when I go out I think I will die and not come home, Hashimi told me. I think it is the same for all Afghans.

* * *

I taught journalism for several years at the University of Connecticut. Sometimes students died in car accidents or some other unexpected way. A grieving student came to see me after one such incident, stunned that someone her age, someone she knew, was gone just-like-that. She wanted to know why such things happen, though she did not ask that question. I offered lame explanations about the conjunction of time and fate and how the two often failed to work as we expected. I mentioned how murky the future is.

We don’t have control over these things, I said. I knew my platitudes probably weren’t helpful. As we talked it became clear that this young woman had realized, likely for the first time, that she too could die young. Perhaps she wanted reassurance that an early death would not happen to her.

I wanted to tell her about my five days in Sarajevo, my three weeks in Kabul, and that avoiding bad luck is often better than having good luck, and that it’s easy to assume that places like college carry no danger, and that dangerous places like Kabul can be utterly ordinary at times, and that we all lapse into the mistaken belief that we have as much time as we need.

I wanted to tell her, Look, sometimes fate’s your daddy. But I didn’t. I was pretty sure she wouldn’t understand.

Frank Light – Rotterdam for Amateurs

Rotterdam for Amateurs
by Frank Light

Friday, April 30, 2004. No more March madness. That was Amsterdam. This is April going into May. But it’s still the Netherlands, still daughter Julia’s sports, and with my wife at work, I’m back to traveling on my own. The late-afternoon light, diffused by clouds, darkens the spring foliage and paints the canal-laced area around Schiphol tropical, West Africa or Southeast Asia, as we descend. Inside is of course climate-controlled like any modern airport any time of the year. The mantra is mind your step from the recorded female voice you hear at the end of horizontal escalators in airports throughout Europe. Not that the Lights ever accept those free rides. Leery of slippery slopes, we walk.

The outdoor air feels the way it looked coming in – steamy. The steam has condensed to rain by the time the train reaches Leiden, where I stayed for last year’s basketball tournament. Two more stops: The Hague, host for that tournament, and Rotterdam. At least everything is on time this trip. The flight for the Amsterdam tournament was delayed by fog and the train to Leiden by some lost soul who jumped onto the tracks.

I’m in the upper deck of a second-class car packed with youths in a boisterous mood. Several of them wear tall, foam crowns like the cabin crew sported on the flight in. To honor the Queen’s birthday, they say. Many have on orange T-shirts. A striking exception sits opposite me – a young, black-skinned woman clad entirely in hot pink – shoes, slacks, blouse, earrings, cap. Even her hair is pink.

We’ve pushed ahead of the rain, so I leave my parka packed for the hike from Rotterdam station. I set a brisk pace, as the clouds are catching up. Not so many bikes here as Amsterdam or Leiden. Not much reason to loiter. An ambulance hurries past with siren bleating. Work crews sweep trash and broken glass. The police are out in force. What is it, I ask as two of them step down from a paddy wagon, a demonstration? The people on the street are mostly young. They seem excited, tired, pleased – ravers who got their money’s worth.

Queen’s birthday, the policeman answers. Some celebrate too hard.

My hotel should be around here. But I’m not seeing it. I ask the policeman.

He points behind the paddy wagon. A banner says Hotel. It just doesn’t say which one. Neon in the window advertises a Japanese restaurant.

At check-in I ask how much for the room. 110 euros, the receptionist says. The woman I spoke to on the phone told me 86. She gave that rate when I complained about 110. On leave without pay, I’m free to travel but obliged to watch my budget. Breakfast is included, the woman said. An Internet site touted rooms for 86 euros, without breakfast. None are available, however. Okay, she said, 86. Send me an email, I asked. She didn’t, and now the receptionist wants documentation. I ask if the woman I spoke to is on duty. She’s their point of contact for the tournament. No, she has the weekend off. She’ll be back when the tournament’s over. The receptionist asks for my handwritten notes. I suggest making a copy. The machine’s broken. Okay, she concedes. 86. No breakfast.

They make you work for it.

As I start to unpack I realize I don’t know where or when the games will be played. The school letter gave a web site, but I neglected to check it before departure. Every trip I forget something. I call the girls’ hotel and ask for the coach. They haven’t arrived yet. Strange, their flight was scheduled to depart ahead of mine, and mine got in a half hour late. I ask the receptionist there about the venue. She asks around. The coach of another team tells her and she tells me. But she doesn’t sound sure. Downstairs, I ask the receptionist. This is, after all, the “parents hotel.” Not a clue, and there are no other parents to check with. Last month when I emailed the team photos from Amsterdam to the basketball coach and thanked him for his efforts, he said my wife and I were the first parents ever to travel to the tournament. Well, she’s our only child, a 9th grader, and we are American. We’re also older than the other parents.

I ask if there’s an Internet café nearby. The receptionist mentions a place several blocks away. I ask if it’ll be open this late. 24/7, she assures me.

By then the rain is with us. By the time I cover a block it’s pouring. Lightning flashes directly overhead. I look for a restaurant before everything closes. A McDonald’s already has. I’ll surf the Net later. Drenched but grateful not to have been struck by a bolt from above, I enter a Netless, nearly empty café and order a vegetarian dish washed down with one “whistler” and then another: it’s draft beer in small glasses, like champagne. On leaving I ask the whereabouts of the Internet place. Not a hundred meters. I must have walked past it.

It’s closed.

Rain continues to fall but without the drama – the lightning moved to the suburbs. The phone rings as I enter my room. It’s Sally, wife and love of my life, at home in Denmark. Given her position at the embassy, she’d be my boss if I were working, a nepotistic no-no. That turns me into a dependent spouse, a stay-at-home dad. Usually.

I remove my soggy clothes while we talk. After we finish, I try again for the coach. He answers. They were late checking in because they ate at the airport. Their first game tomorrow is at 10:15. He doesn’t know where. He just gets on the bus.

The room is too warm to sleep. I find dials that will crank up the heat but nothing to cool things down. Thinking it’s me, can’t see for looking, I call the receptionist. She says there is no air conditioning. I guess it doesn’t get hot enough often enough to deal with. As in Denmark, the natives put the unpleasantness out of mind. The same discipline spares them the trouble and expense of window screens. That would imply bugs.

I prop open the minibar door. Every little bit helps. A sign says turn off the lights before opening the window, or mosquitos will get in. At least the Dutch acknowledge their presence, although I didn’t notice them in the storm nor did I see, hear, or feel any in the room. In the morning I do – on the ceiling, which prompts me to stand on a chair flapping and snapping a towel. If nothing else, the action clears my sinuses, a condition I attribute to the humidity and a pillow that didn’t sufficiently raise my head.

May Day, the storm long gone, the sky a glorious blue. I hit the streets in search of a bargain breakfast. Nothing opens before nine. Chastened, I return to the hotel. The 16-euro charge is a rip-off but better than the 24 I would have paid had breakfast been included with the room. The buffet is typical north European, with cheeses, cold cuts, and jams. Nothing Japanese about it. Maybe that kicks in at dinner.

The receptionists explore the web for me in search of venue. Seems to be off the map. The most they can do is jot down an address. I call the team’s hotel. The receptionist there doesn’t know either. The teams already left for the games. The only thing for it is a taxi. Not many around on a Saturday morning. Finally I wave one down near the central station. The driver doesn’t recognize the address. He drives to the station for directions.

The girls play three games today. Their whole season in one weekend. The international schools of northwest Europe are too far apart to do otherwise. Copenhagen wins their first. In the second game one of Julia’s teammates breaks her leg below the knee. In great pain, she goes into shock. While she lies under a space blanket where she fell, an ambulance coming, her teammates finish the contest on a waterlogged practice field. Meanwhile a girl who attended only one practice all season because of back problems reinjures her back. She cannot go on. Supposedly her parents let her come on the condition she not play. The Hungarian twins didn’t come, either. The reason they gave – tired of losing. I think the real stopper was money – it’s not cheap to fly here. Fifteen years ago they lived under communism. Now some compatriots are getting rich but not those who work honestly for their government. Anyway, the team loses by a goal, and they’re down to 12 players for their last match of the day.

Nothing-nothing going into the last few minutes, Julia and an opponent rush to the ball in front of our net. The opponent stumbles. The referee awards a penalty kick to the stumbler’s team. The ball goes into the nested hands of our goalie and through them into the goal. Final score 1-0. Julia feels terrible. The ref decided the game on a very questionable call. Julia was in that position because her teammates lagged behind and because her coach doesn’t use a sweeper. He likes Julia to keep the other three defenders in a line. She does that, but then it’s usually she who has to chase down the ball every time it breaks through. She did that over and over, played her heart out. She trudges off without stopping for the fries she left with me at halftime. After she collects herself, we talk. Her cheeks are red. I ask if she knows who’s the best passer on her team. She is. But her mind is elsewhere, and that’s fine; not only is her father biased, soccer was never his game.

Her teammates call her over, and the coach addresses them out of my hearing. Life’s unfair, I was going to say. Results don’t always correlate to effort. But you know. Inside, you know. I finish the fries, take a tram to the hotel, make instant coffee in the room, start this journal, open the window, turn off the lights, order an extra pillow, and revisit the neighborhood café. Different crew tonight. The waitress bring me soup, salad, and bread. A couple of whistlers to wash it all down. Ice cream to top it off. Living large. The girls are supposed to be making their own pancakes on a canal boat. Hope it’s fun. They’re good at forgetting.

Sally calls late. She went to the school fair in Hellerup, a suburban town between our house and Copenhagen. Everybody on the board, save me, was there. My membership is almost ex officio in light of availability and relation to the embassy.

The woman who started me on these journals laughs when I describe my own evening. Boring, I admit. The old man is snoring.

But you’re in Rotterdam, she exclaims. It’s not Paris, or London. Or even Amsterdam.

It’s better. It’s now.

Sunday, May 2. Skipping breakfast, I check out early, catch the tram, and take my travel bag to the games. A snack bar sells coffee and pastries that hit the spot. And for way less than at the hotel. At 8:30 the girls play Siegtuna, which has won the tournament seven years running. The only school here from Sweden, Seigtuna played two games yesterday, winning both by a score of 6 – 0. Copenhagen loses 3 – 0, all the goals occurring in the first half. In their final game, for 7th place, the girls continue their stellar defensive play, holding their opponent scoreless through both halves and two five-minute overtimes. Unfortunately they also fail to score. “Penalty” kicks decide the game. Julia looks shocked when the coach selects her as one of the five kickers. She’s never had a strong kick, yet he’s also had her taking the free kicks from the back line. Although the team has no captain, she is the one who meets the referee at the beginning of each game and before the kickoff. She is one of two Copenhagen girls to score in the kickoff. The other team gets three. Still, Copenhagen played well, with just one substitute available. Wonderfully, the girl who broke her leg is up and about on crutches and painkillers.

Siegtuna loses the championship in a kickoff.

Concerned about making my flight, I take a taxi to the station. Sally’s remark gets me thinking about Rotterdam. The largest port in Europe, she teased. I can sense its reach even if I can’t see it. Rotterdam is function to Amsterdam’s form. When I first visited the continent, 1968 on a Eurailpass bought with money saved in Vietnam, the trains must have passed through Rotterdam, but neither I nor any other tourist got off. Amsterdam was – and is – the destination. I mention that to the cabbie, who was born and raised here. Amsterdam’s old, he says, like Europe. I point out the red light we’re running. Sunday, he explains, meaning nobody but us chickens. Rotterdam’s built like America, he adds. It’s newer. It has tall buildings. To me it’s closer in spirit to Amsterdam than America. For starters, the climate’s the same. Same queen, language, shade of orange. But of course the two cities are different. Every place is. Anywhere you go, anything you do, is a tradeoff. Opportunity cost, economists call it. That summer, for example, I’ll leave for three months in Uruzgan, the province where the Dutch would later concentrate their efforts in Afghanistan, though nobody knows that then.

With the airline’s strong encouragement, I try my first self-check-in. It’s the future. I might as well embrace it.

The scanner does not recognize my passport.

No problem, the airline cheerleader chirps. Go to any counter from 9 to 12.

When I get to the front of counter 10, the clerk says go to counter 14. When I get to the front of 14, the clerk says they’re redoing the seating. She seems puzzled. She can’t process me. She asks me to stand to the side. After she handles a few more customers, I go back to her. They are now open for check-in. Just two seats left, she says, letting me know just how lucky I am. You’d never guess I made a reservation and arrived two hours before the flight.

Then on boarding we’re held back from the ramp after our tickets are taken. Finally they let us go. Airline employees push an empty wheelchair in the opposite direction. I feel a twinge of remorse for my earlier frustration. The twinge grows when I see who sits in front of me. It’s Julia’s injured teammate, one seat for her body and two for her leg. Her team’s flight – on another airline – could not spare the extra seats. An ambulance waiting on the tarmac in Copenhagen will take her to the hospital for more X-rays.

On the train into town I phone Sally, who says Julia called from the airport and should have been home by now but isn’t. Before leaving Copenhagen, I arranged for the mother of a teammate to take her. I had earlier asked another teammate’s father, a teammate who stayed home because her mother succumbed to cancer last Thursday. Now there’s unfairness. And perspective. It comes at you in waves. You absorb it in dribs and drabs. The funeral is Tuesday.

At Hellerup station I corral the one taxi driver out of a nearby grille. Julia gets home in due course, unpacks, and repacks for school activity week in north Jutland. At 7 the next morning I drive her to the rendezvous point in Hellerup. We have the briefest of goodbyes, as classmates might be watching. It’s the same for all of them.

I get back in time to see Sally off to work. Last night I forgot to tell her the plane flew over our house. Once home to a famous Danish actor, SS residence during the occupation, it now belongs to the US government. Reportedly we acquired it after the war for a boatload of cloth Danish women were anxious to get their hands on. So big and white you can’t miss it, the back windows looking across the Sound clear to Sweden when the sun shines as it does today. But she has to run. Not me. That’s how journals get written—by people with time, past, present, and future.