Sunday, June 24, 2007

All Alone

Amber went to the U.S. on Saturday June 16th, which has had the unintended effect of leaving me all by my lonesome in Hengelo, city of bright nights. While she is cavorting in the land of fastfood and all-night shopping, I am watching the moss grow on our always rain-soaked patio. Stuck in Europe, that beautiful graveyard, that tattered sleeve of ghosts. Woe is me.

But this, naturally, is not the whole truth. In fact, just five minutes after seeing Amber off at Schipol airport, I had in my hand a 3 euro trian ticket to Leiden, a twix bar, and a baguette. I spent four hours in Leiden walking along its canals, which are of varying sizes and shoot through the city at various angles. Their market was strung out along both sides of one of the main canals, and it was the largest market I have yet seen. I could not resist ordering a giant stroopwafel, but I was actually dissapointed, because the syrup was more of a molasses than a caramel. I was forced to discard over half of it in a little trashcan along the main shopping pedestrian zone, just as the sky broke into a short rain.

Particularly impressive are the 15th century Hooglandse Kerk and the 14th century Pieterskerk. The former church is now largely empty inside and very plain, but its gothic style allows for a breathtaking elevation as light pierces the emptiness in a way the generates a feeling of peace and clean. The latter church was not open due to major restoration. Its massive size is impressive and it is knotted into a neighborhood that has grown up around it, even onto it like barnacles on a hulking anchor. One could almost hear the echo of the way the community must have pulsed around this church - but even now in such a secular age it seemed yet alive and essential - if you were to pull it away, the whole sweater of Leiden would come unraveled.

Also of note in Leiden are the poems painted on the sides of buildings in all sorts of languages - Japanese, Russian, Spanish, French, Latin, and even Dutch. The city is home to a great university founded in 1575 by William the Silent (William of Orange) as a reward for the city's heroic defenses against the Catholic Spanish the year before.

Hugo de Groot lectured at Leiden University. He was a key figure in the development of modern philosophic liberalism - developing the principles that he hoped would put to rest the religious wars ravaging Europe (it is about such matters that William was said to be "silent" - a position that would come to be known as modern liberal democracy) as well as grease the cogs of a budding international commerce led by the Dutch East India Company. Hugo de Groot foreshadowed the radical Thomas Hobbes, who finally let slip the shiny blade of modernity across the throat of the old world. And it was here as well that the old world catapulted itself into the new. In the early 17th century, some of the Pilgrims congregated in Leiden prior to their crossing over to America. I was especially struck by this, because at that very moment as I was standing at a plaque commemorating the deaths of some of the Pilgrims, my Mom was in Plymouth, MA for a meeting. And Amber was in an airplane over the Atlantic.

The next day, Stu and I did an abbreviated "a bridge too far" tour, by visiting the towns of Nijmegen and Arnhem. The 1944 allied Operation Market Garden proceeded through Eindhoven up to Nijmegen and on to Arnhem in hopes of capturing the three bridges in those towns in order to secure a pathway for a final offensive into Germany. At Nijmegen it was getting hairy. Soldiers were forced to paddle frail boats in open water - many were picked off like sitting ducks. But with unimaginable bravery they prevailed and took that bridge. It was, however, taking too long, and the unmatched courage of the British first airborne could no longer hold out. At Arnhem they were eventually swallowed under by the Germans. The town was obliterated. On that bridge stands a plaque honoring their sacrifice. There is also a very small and humble monument in a patch of grass in the middle of a traffic roundabout.

If there is one thing Europe can teach an American it is that the present must live with its past. It is often so jarring to my sensibility, but I come from a place that is still biting into virgin land. Here, there is no choice but to build atop the bones, to drink, to wed, to live like almost weightless flies atop thick layers of sedimented humanity.

2 comments:

Bob said...

I read with awe as a mind so young writes with so much feeling and understanding! Hurray!

Elizabeth said...

Adam, thanks for that awesome description. I can tell from your writing that you are indeed a poet and an academic at the same time, and it was refreshing for me to read the two styles together (I've been reading a lot of stodgy academic work lately....).

And you're right about living with the present and our history at the same time. Someone said the other day that Washington, DC operates by thinking only of the present and the very near future, and completely forgets the past. I think this rubs off on the collective mindset of U.S.-Americans in general and affects our ethics, our relationships with each other--individuals and larger groups, and so many other things. We definitely miss out on some important parts of our current and future stories by ignoring our pasts.