Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English by John McWhorter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Like many on Goodreads, I decided to read this book because of Manny’s enthusiastic review. And I am glad I did. As a teacher of English as a foreign language, it seemed high time that I understand something of the language’s history. This book was an excellent choice, since it focused on that aspect of English most pesky to foreign speakers—grammar—while avoiding the too-often-told story of the growth of English vocabulary via French and Latin.

McWhorter begins by focusing on two distinctive features of English grammar: the so-called ‘meaningless’ do (as in, “Do you eat rabbits?”) and the use of the progressive in order to talk about the present (as in, “I am going,” rather than simply “I go”). Not coincidentally, these two aspect of English cause some of the most persistent errors in my students. In Spanish, just like in every other European language I know, there is no auxiliary verb needed for negations or questions; you can simply ask “¿Comes conejos?” Similarly, in Spanish, as in German or French, you can use the simple present to refer to what you are doing now; thus, a Spaniard can say “Voy” to express a current movement, and they reserve “Estoy yendo” for special emphasis.

Curiously, no other Germanic languages have these features. Indeed, they are absent (according to McWhorter) from every other European language, with the notable exception of the Celtic languages (specifically, Welsh and Cornish). This leads him to the quite natural supposition that the indigenous Celtic languages exerted an influence on the Old English spoken by the invading Anglo-Saxons. He musters quite a number of evidences and arguments in support of this thesis, to the extent that I was pretty worn out by the end of the chapter.

To be fair, this idea is considered quite controversial in the academic community, so McWhorter felt the need to champion it in full battle array. Nevertheless I think the maxim “Know your audience” applies here. I presume most readers of this book will be, like me, non-specialists, with little reason to be skeptical of the Celtic influence; to the contrary, it struck me as extremely plausible. So McWhorter’s harping on the point was simply taxing. In any case, if he is looking to influence the academic community, a short popular book is not the medium to do it.

McWhorter’s next chapter deals with the Viking influence, which he holds responsible for the jettisoning of much of Old English’s serpentine Germanic grammar, resulting in the relatively “easy” language we have today. And he rounds out the book by making the considerably more speculative argument that Proto-Germanic diverged in such a distinctive way from Proto-Indo-European because a large number of Semitic speakers (Phoenicians who had made it to Denmark) learned the language. At this point, I admit that I began to have reservations about McWhorter’s method. Despite the reasonableness of the Celtic-English and the Scandinavian-English hypotheses, the cumulative effects of McWhorter’s arguments was to weaken each.

McWhorter’s specialty is researching how languages influenced one another historically; and one begins to suspect that this academic orientation leads him to see evidence for this phenomenon everywhere. To me it is unsatisfying to write a history of English as a series of stories, however plausible, of how it was influenced by other languages. This is because, logically, in order for there to be distinct languages capable of mixing there must first be languages capable of transforming without any linguistic contact. It can all begin to sound like a biologist who insists that the reason elephants have tusks is because proto-elephants mated with proto-walruses epochs ago.

This is an unfair comparison, of course; and to repeat I think his Celtic argument is quite strong. However, the more one reads, the more McWhorter’s method can begin to sound unsettlingly like Just-So stories. Some inconsistencies in the arguments make this clear. For example, he brushes aside the paucity of Celtic vocabulary in English, while citing the many Scandinavian loan-words as evidence for Viking influence (not to mention the possible Semitic loan-words in Proto-Germanic). To me it seems prima facie dubious that Welsh and Cornish speakers were able to fundamentally transform English’s grammar without leaving a considerable stockpile of loanwords. Importing words is the most natural thing in the world when learning a foreign language; I do it all the time, as do my students.

To objections like these McWhorter is always able to point to a case where a similar event occurred as the scenario he is describing. But, again, one surmises that the corpus of available examples is large enough to back up any claim he wishes to impose. McWhorter criticizes other linguists for ignoring the causes of language change. But is invoking the influence of other languages a satisfying explanation? To me this is of the same order as arguing that life on Earth originally came from Mars. Perhaps, but how does life arise in the first place?

Now, it may be unfair of me to nitpick what is, after all, a popular book. But if McWhorter saw fit to include so much argument in favor of his uncommonly-held opinions, I think it behooves readers to be somewhat skeptical, especially since the general reader has no specialized knowledge to ground her acceptance or rejection of McWhorter’s conclusions. For my part, I think a more expository and less polemical book on the history of English would have made for far more pleasing reading. Yet McWhorter is an engaging writer and an original thinker, so it was valuable to learn of his approach to linguistics.



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Review: Letters of the Younger Pliny

Review: Letters of the Younger Pliny

The Letters of the Younger Pliny by Pliny the Younger

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… the work of getting anybody to cheerfully undertake the monotony and drudgery of education must be effected not by pay merely, but by a skillfully worked-up appeal to the emotions as well.

I read this book in preparation for a recent visit to Pompeii; and it was an excellent choice. The ancient letters and the ruined city make for an ideal pairing, as both offer a remarkable look into daily life in ancient Rome. Pliny had a long and eventful career: an orator, magistrate, lawyer, and writer. His correspondence includes mundane details, tender love letters, poetic reflections, philosophical musings, and much else. Whatever the subject, his personality shines through: intelligent, urbane, loyal, if a bit ostentatious and pompous. He is, above all, eloquent; and his letters are without exception written in superb prose.

Though each epistle is a valuable historical document, some are conspicuously noteworthy. Most interesting for me was his description of the eruption of Vesuvius, which resulted in the death of his illustrious uncle, Pliny the Elder. He recounts his uncle’s and his own experience in two letters to his friend the historian Cornelius Tacitus. Here, with an eye to posterity, perhaps, Pliny reaches the height of his literary skill as he relates his escape from the eruption:

We had scarcely sat down when night came upon us, not such as we have seen when the sky is cloudy, or when there is no moon, but that of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights put out. You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognize each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods; but the greater part convinced that there were now no gods at all, and that the final endless night of which we have heard had come upon the world.

The collection is also invaluable for the correspondence between Pliny and Trajan. In these letters Pliny’s style is more restrained and formal; he takes the part of a supplicant and an apprentice. For the most part he is asking the Emperor for a favor or for advice. Much of it is concerned with the proper way to interpret the law and to distribute punishments, or else asking for permission to erect aqueducts, temples, and the like. Most extraordinary are two letters concerning the practice, spread, and prosecution of Christianity. Even at this early date, it was clear that the religion could grow rapidly: “In fact, this contagious superstition is not confined to the cities only, but has spread its infection among the neighboring villages and country.”

In sum, I recommend this book to anyone and everyone interested in ancient Rome. The letters are at once a model of style and a window into the past. Few books offer so much insight and pleasure for such little drudgery.

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Lost and Found in Dublin

Lost and Found in Dublin

“Landed!” I texted my friend, using the airport wifi. “Where you at?”

I had just stepped off plane and into Dublin Airport, Terminal 1. My friend from home, Durso, had also just arrived—from Scotland.

This trip was months in the making. During the summer of 2017, Durso had asked me if I would like to meet up with him in Dublin for a weekend. Well, he didn’t just ask; he gave me an offer that I could hardly refuse: “If you come, I’ll pay for the hostel.” Free things have always been a weakness of mine; and in any case it sounded like fun, so I said: “Absolutely.”

Now it was December of that year. I hadn’t seen Durso, or anyone from home, in about three months.

In minutes I received a text from him:

“Word, just arrived. What terminal you in?”

“Uh, not sure. Lemme check… It’s terminal 1, I think.”

“OK, be right there.”

“But where are you?”

“Terminal 2.”

“I’ll head your way.”

The walk between the two terminals is short and well-marked. It would be difficult to miss somebody coming the opposite way. Nevertheless, I managed to get to the strikingly more modernistic Terminal 2 without catching sight of my friend. When I reconnected to the wifi, I messaged him.

“I’m here, Terminal 2. Where you at?”

But I could tell from the single, grey checkmark that my message didn’t arrive, which meant that he was off the wifi. I waited. The minutes passed slowly. I was a bit nervous. It’s always somewhat stressful trying to find someone without the use of phones, like people did in olden days. And I was also nervous because, though I’ve known Durso for a long time, I’ve never travelled with him. In fact, it had been about a year since I had travelled with anybody. I had gotten into the habit of solo travel after a breakup, and had gotten so used to it that I was convinced that company only made a trip worse. When I was alone I could do what I wanted, when I wanted; but now I would have to compromise. This was a test.

As I stood there, waiting for Durso in the cavernous hall of the terminal, I felt that this experiment was already failing. But soon enough, the trusty figure of Durso emerged from the crowd of travellers—unshaved, dressed in a collared shirt, a blazer, sunglasses, and brandishing his trademark curly locks.

“Bro!” he said, before we hugged.

Airport Selfie

“Hold on,” I said. “I need to take a selfie for my mom.”

That done, we made our way to the bus.

“Why are you all dressed up?” I asked him.

“Man, whenever I’m in Europe, I feel like I’m so badly dressed, so like everyday I get dressier and dressier. I just feel so ashamed around Europeans.”

“Weird. Well how’s your trip been so far?”

“Oh, dude, it’s been awesome.”

And at this, Durso launched into an impassioned and somewhat rambling account of his previous travels. His younger brother, Zach (whom we were to meet in the center), was studying abroad in Galway, and so Durso’s family took a trip to meet him there. Then, Durso had taken his own trip to Edinburgh and Glasgow (he liked the first and hated the second).

“Dude, so I went on this awesome walk in the highlands, after I took a bus to get there. And I was just walking and walking and it was, like, just so beautiful. But it was also really cold and I totally didn’t dress for it, and there were no people around, and I was just walking and walking, and finally the sun started setting, and I was like ‘Oh my god, I’m lost, I’m lost, I’m totally going to die, I’m going to get lost and freeze to death,’ but in the end it was fine, I just found the bus and went back to the city.”

Durso also had very positive impressions of Galway, which he vastly preferred to Dublin.

“Yeah, so, like Dublin is a nice city, but you don’t get a real feel for Ireland there. In Galway there were all these little boats and fishers and stuff, and the countryside was just so nice, so nice. Man I can’t wait to go back.”

The bus (the Airlink 747, a double-decker) wound its way to the city center, and soon Dublin came into view

I had done absolutely no research beforehand, so my only expectations were shaped by my readings of James Joyce. Needless to say, however, Ulysses did not exactly give me an accurate impression of the city. Like many old but economically successful European cities, Dublin is an arresting mixture of old and somewhat dour heaps of stone, and new and shiny towers of twisting glass and metal. And as with many an old city, it is centered upon a river—in this case, the Liffey.

The Liffey with the Ha’Penny Bridge

The bus deposited us right on the riverside, very near to the hostel that Durso had booked. Zach was there, waiting near a Dunkin Donuts (if memory serves). Though I had known Durso for years, and had been to his house several times, this was the first time I had ever really spoken to Zach. In high school, I passed Zach nearly every day on my walk home, as he rode his scooter in front of his house (he’s several years younger than I am). Sometimes I said “hi,” but that’s about it.

Now he was full grown—an athletic build, square jawline—and stylistically worlds away from Durso: pragmatic and understated clothes, close-cropped hair, clean-shaven. And here he was in Ireland, studying something practical like business or economics. Unlike Durso or I, this boy was going places.

We checked in to the hostel. Durso had splurged, and had booked a room right in the center of the city. When I heard the price, I nearly choked. Immediately I felt very guilty for not paying (but not, of course, guilty enough to offer to pay a part of it). It was three of us in a room with three massive, three-story bunk beds—room for nine.

“Oh man, I wonder if anyone else is gonna come,” Durso said.

“Hope not.”

We left to see the city. It quickly became clear to me that Zach was not simply treating his study-abroad as an opportunity to drink Guinness. He had done his homework about his host country, and was brimming with historical facts that he led drop as we walked. Since I was (and remain) shamefully ignorant of Irish history, many of Zach’s facts were wasted on me. But some managed to stick.

“See that?” he said, pointing to a big neoclassical building with columns in front. “That’s the General Post Office. During the Easter Rising, the rebels used that building as a headquarters, so it got bombarded by the British. Here, you can still see the bullet marks.”

The GPO after the Rising

He pointed to a column and, indeed, the battle scars were unmistakable.

Next we crossed the river Liffey on the famous Ha’Penny Bridge—a very pretty cast-iron bridge, and named for the toll that pedestrians originally had to pay. Nowadays, thankfully, there are no turnstiles.

Our first stop was Trinity College, partly because I had insisted on seeing the Book of Kells. Trinity College is the oldest and most prestigious university in Ireland, and its campus has the distinguished look of academic pedigree. Stately buildings enclose a central square, through which students scurry from class to class like so many industrious ants. The Book of Kells is held in the college library. After a short queue (and about 15€) we were inside.

Well, not all of us. Since Zach had already paid to see it, he preferred to wait outside. Durso and I promptly found ourselves in a room full of backlit displays, explaining the history of illuminated manuscripts in Ireland. I wanted to take some photos for my records, but the staff were very insistent that no photos were allowed.

In his classic documentary, Civilisation, the art historian Kenneth Clarke describes the monasteries in Ireland as one of the last holdouts of Western civilization after the collapse of the Roman Empire—when Germany, France, Spain, and Italy were overrun by various “barbarian” populations. Clarke’s view is doubtless an exaggeration; civilization never stopped. Nevertheless, it is impossible to witness the high artistry and craftsmanship of these illuminated manuscripts without a feeling of awe. The Book of Kells was not the creation of a mighty artistic tradition in its prime, but was the work of a few monks on a far-off island during one of Europe’s lowest moments. As a case in point, the book was once stolen by Vikings during a raid.

I am getting ahead of myself. The Book of Kells is a sumptuously decorated collection of the gospels. As with many books during that time—all handmade and mostly religious—the book was decorated with images and patterns. The Book of Kells is special in that it is, perhaps, the most beautifully illuminated book in existence. What first strikes the viewer is the level of detail. The twisting, shifting shapes seem to curl endlessly around themselves into progressively finer and finer scales; it boggles the mind how anyone could have planned and executed such a thing. Kenneth Clarke reminds us that, in those days, they didn’t have television, so fancy patterns were likely the only visual entertainment available.

The text opening the Gospel of John

“Hey guys,” a voice behind us said.

I turned around to find—Zach.

“You came in after all?”

“I just snuck in through the exit. I remembered where it was from the last time. Nobody stopped me.”

“What a badass.”

We proceeded from the informational exhibit to the book itself. It is displayed in a darkened room (for preservation purposes, I gather) and shown beside other exemplary illuminated manuscripts. The 340 pages of the Book of Kells are bound in four volumes, and two of these are displayed at any one time, turned to different pages.

I peered down at the glass display case with reverence. I remembered first seeing the beautiful book in my Introduction to Art History class in college (taken as a core requirement), and being deeply impressed. Now I could see the masterpiece in person. The only problem was the other people. Specifically, one guy was bent down very close to the glass, and refused to budge. He stayed looking at the page for ten minutes, as the people around him jostled for space around the edges. I fully understand why the man would want to make the best of what may be his only opportunity to closely examine the glorious book. I’d love to do the same. Still, blocking other people’s views did violate Kant’s categorical imperative.

Considering the crowd and the dim lighting, you can probably get a better view of the book by simply going to Trinity College Library’s website, where the entire book has been digitized in high quality. But at least I get to brag about seeing it in person.

The last part of the visit is to the library’s famous Long Room. As one would expect, this is a very long room filled with very old books. Two floors rise upward to meet in the circular vaulted ceiling, creating a kind of tunnel of knowledge. Marble busts of great intellectuals line the lower walkway, including one of the great Irish writer, Jonathan Swift. It is a veritable temple of learning, as a library should be. And there was one more item on display: Brian Boru’s Harp.

“So this harp is supposed to be the oldest harp in the world,” Zach said. “It was made in the…  15h century I think? This was the model for the harp on Ireland’s coat of arms, so it’s like a national symbol.” (It’s also used in the logo for Guinness and Ryanair.)

“Nice.”

(Brian Boru, by the way, was an Irish king of the 10th century. The harp was reputed to have belonged to him, but that’s quite impossible, since it was made five hundred years after he died.)

Notice the harp.

When we re-emerged into the city I found, to my great dismay, that it was already getting dark. I checked the time on my phone.

“4:00?” I said in disbelief. “It’s getting dark at four o’clock?”

“Yep,” Zach said.

“In Madrid, the earliest it gets dark is 6:30!”

“Must be nice.”

“Where are we going?”

“Christ Church Cathedral,” Zach said. “It’s free.”

In minutes we were standing outside of a very pretty medieval church building. But when we stepped inside, we found, to our dismay, that you did have to pay.

Christ Church

“Lame,” Durso said. “I’m not paying to get in there.”

“Me neither,” Zach said.

“Oh well,” I said. “What’s next?”

“Well, we can go see St. Patrick’s.”

This is located right down the street from Christ Church. (If you are wondering how there can be two cathedrals so close together, this is because Christ Church is the cathedral for the local diocese while St. Patricks is the so-called National Cathedral. Both belong to the Church of Ireland.) At the end of a string of red apartment buildings, the more imposing, spired form of St. Patrick’s came into view. But, unfortunately, you have to pay to enter that cathedral, too, and my companions weren’t willing—and in any case it was five minutes to closing time. If I had been alone and the cathedral had been open, I likely would have forked over the money, if only because Jonathan Swift served here as the dean.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral

“Yeah, so apparently these two churches had kind of a rivalry for a while,” Zach explained. “Like dueling congregations. Kinda weird.”

It is indeed strange that two grandiose cathedrals for the same church would be built so very near each other. I was also surprised that there wasn’t a more imposing Catholic cathedral in the city, considering that Catholicism is the most popular religion in the country. But of course the Anglicans (of which the Church of Ireland is a branch) have historically wielded the power.

By now it was five o’clock, cold and dark, and every attraction was closed.

“What should we do?” I asked.

“Drink in the hostel?” Durso suggested.

“Sounds good to me.”

We found, to our relief, that nobody else had moved into our room when we were gone. We had the whole place to ourselves—an interior window, a concrete floor, and three triple-decker bunk beds. The beds had too little headroom to sit down in, so we sat down on the concrete floor, charging our phones. (In Ireland they use the UK-style outlets.)

Durso, as ever, came prepared. He had two bottles of liquor stowed away in his backpack, which we passed around. An hour passed this way, chit-chatting and, in my case, taking small sips (hard alcohol never sits well in my stomach), until I had a brilliant idea.

“Hey guys, let’s make fortresses. We can use the blankets from the other beds.”

Somewhat tipsy, we took the spare sheets and hung them from the upper beds, creating a kind of screen surrounding each of our bunks. I remember doing almost this very thing when I was young, pulling a bunch of chairs together in the living room and draping blankets over them to create a “fortress.” Both back then and in Dublin, it was strangely exhilarating; but why? A Freudian would say that we were recreating the elemental womb, seeking the feeling of being unborn. Well, I don’t know about that, but it did help give us some privacy in the bare room.

Now it was time to go eat. We wandered our way into the center, and wound up in a pub. It was then that I noticed how expensive Dublin is. Indeed, it is scarcely less pricey than London. But the prices seem even worse since they are in euros, making them easier to compare with the cost of Madrid.

“I can’t pay 12€ for a soup!”

“It’s good, bro,” Durso said.

I bit my tongue, since I still felt a bit guilty for not paying for the hostel.

I ordered Irish lamb stew. This is exactly what it sounds like—and it was delicious.

“I think they put Guinness in the broth,” Zach said.

I quickly finished my bowl, and mopped up the remaining broth with black bread. Scrumptious, but not nearly enough. I wanted to order more; but I had to save my money for beer.

We made our way to Temple Bar, the nightlife capital of Dublin. This is basically a zone in the center with a high concentration of attractive bars. Its name does not derive from any previous temple, but from a prominent local family or, perhaps, in imitation of a ceremonial entrance in London—scholars are not sure. The place was buzzing with activity; American accents were common in the air; and some visitors looked like they had had enough to drink already.

We went to the most famous establishment, the Temple Bar Pub (it is named after the street and not vice versa). The outside was decorated festivaly with strings of Christmas lights, and the inside was too. The place was totally packed. On the far end a group was playing traditional Irish music: a guitarist, a fiddler, and a singer. This seems to be a common staple in Irish pubs, and is very popular among the tourists. I was amazed to find that Durso and Zach knew many of the songs well enough to sing along. I was lost. Apart from movies, I had never listened to Irish music. And I must admit that, during my experience in Dublin, it all sounded very similar to me and generally failed to hold my attention.

We watched a couple songs, but eventually decided that the place was too crowded to stay at. We got out into the street, braced by the relative quiet and the cool night air. It was then that I had an unpleasant realization.

“Uh, guys,” I said, tapping my body. “I think I left my bag in the restaurant.”

“Oh shit,” Durso said. “You mean your purse?”

“It’s a messenger bag.”

“Word. Was there anything important in it?”

“Not really. Just my kindle. But I’d prefer not to lose it.”

“Ok let’s go,” Zach said.

“Sorry.”

We walked back towards the restaurant. From the street, however, it was difficult to determine which one we had been in, since several nearly identical establishments were located right next to each other. After first going in the wrong one and realizing our mistake, we found our way to the right spot. There, I asked the waiter if he had seen a small brown bag.

“It looks kinda like a purse,” I explained.

“If there is any lost and found, it’ll be a couple doors down, at the hotel.”

The restaurant, you see, was affiliated with a nearby hotel. I walked inside with Zach and asked the front desk.

“A small brown bag?” he asked.

“Yeah, it’s a messenger bag.”

I waited with some slight anxiety as he went into a back room. Meanwhile, a family arrived to check in, with heavy suitcases in tow. Five minutes later, the man arrived with a familiar brown bag.

“Thanks so much,” I said, checking inside. My kindle was intact.

“Got your purse?” Durso said, as we got back to the street.

“Shut up.”

Next we went to a less crowded pub, right alongside the Liffey. It was quite a sprawling affair, with several floors and bars around every corner. Like true tourists, we ordered three Guinesses and picked a seat. On a screen they were broadcasting a performance downstairs of a man playing more Irish music.

“You know,” I said, after tasting the Guiness, “everyone says that Guinness tastes better in Dublin. But this tastes the same to me.”

“Dude, this is way better,” Durso said.

“We’d have to compare them side by side,” Zach said.

A beer and a half later, I was feeling settled in.

“You know what guys? This is awesome. I can’t believe I’m in Dublin.”

“Yeah man, this is awesome. Though Galway is a lot better.”

“Don’t rub it in.”

It was, indeed, pleasant to be in Dublin. Though we had been friends for years, I had never traveled with Durso, and had hardly spoken to his brother. I was nervous that it would be too much; that I would get sick of them, or them of me. But, in the end, it was just what I needed to feel re-connected to home.

Brothers: Durso and Zach

After all, Dublin wasn’t too far off. Like New York, it was cold and rainy; and like New York, everybody spoke English. Even the people looked familiar. Durso, Zach, and I all hail from Irish stock; so walking around the streets felt like getting lost in a reunion of distant family. Most important, though, was the chance to see an old friend and to be effortlessly myself—something that is difficult when in foreign lands making new friends.

After three rounds, we left to get back to the hostel. But there was a snag.

“Hold on guys,” Durso said. “I wanna get almonds.”

We walked to a SPAR (which, if you don’t know, is a chain similar to 7-Eleven) to search for Durso’s desired snack. The store had an impressive array of nuts on sale. But no almonds.

“This is crazy,” Durso said. “Like, they have everything except almonds.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah, man, I checked everything.”

“Well, want some peanuts?”

“No, no, I want almonds.”

“But they don’t have almonds.”

“I know, I know.”

Durso searched the store with the air of a desperate man.

“Jesus, what should I get? They don’t have almonds. I don’t know.”

He held up a container of California rolls from the fridge.

“Maybe this… Do I want sushi?”

“Dude, don’t get sushi, man,” I said. “It can’t be good.”

“But they don’t have almonds.”

“Look, Durso,” Zach said. “How about this?”

And he handed Durso a pack of rice cakes.

“Hmmm,” Durso said. “Yeah, maybe, maybe this.”

We made it back to the hostel. Our room was at the end of a long hallway, whose walls were painted with cartoonish murals of famous celebrities. We passed Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles. Meanwhile, Durso stayed in character.

“Help!” he said loudly. “Help me!”

“Shhhhh,” I said, as Zach laughed.

“I’m going to end it all! Death is the only way!”

Durso has a morbid sense of humor.

Back in our rooms, we had one last drink and a few rice cakes.

“Look what I nabbed,” Durso said, taking a glass out of his backpack.

“Did you take that from the bar?”

“Yep.”

“Dude!”

“What? I always take a glass.”

“You’re a kleptomaniac, bro.”

Then, we showered, brushed our teeth, and went to sleep in our little forts.

§

The next morning was grey, cloudy, and cold. We were headed to the beach.

To get there, we walked along the River Liffey on the north side. This took us through the more modern part of town—where, I suppose, many of the companies which make Dublin an economic powerhouse are located. We also passed by the Irish Emigration museum, which I would have liked to have visited if I had had more time, since at least half of my family line come from Ireland. A more gruesome site was the Famine Memorial, statues of six malnourished and spectral Irish (and an underfed dog), staring with hollow eyes to a hopeless beyond. Last we passed the impressive Samuel Beckett bridge, a cable-stayed bridge designed by Santiago Calatrava (a Spaniard) to look like a harp.

One thing which I barely noticed, but which I most certainly passed, was the Royal Canal. This is a 145 km (90 mile) stretch of water that extends from the Liffey in Dublin all the way to the River Shannon in Longford. It has long since served any serious function in transport or industry; but it has been revived as a kind of vertical park. The reason I mention this humble piece of watery infrastructure is because once, on a flight from New York to Madrid, I found a very short documentary about the canal on the plane’s entertainment system. Well, it was not exactly a documentary: two Irish Olympic athletes, mother and daughter, take a leisurely stroll along the canal while scholars and artists meet them along the way to tell them about its history. You see, I was tired but I couldn’t fall asleep; and this documentary seemed to be the most promising soporific short of chemical aid. So I turned it on and attempted, unsuccessfully, to drift off. In any case, it’s a lovely canal.

Samuel Beckett Bridge

When we neared the mouth of the Liffey we crossed to the southern side and begun making our way through several attractive neighborhood blocks. Yet I am afraid that the quaintness of this part of town only called to mind Monty Python’s “Every Sperm is Sacred” (which, by the way, was not filmed in Dublin at all). Finally, after passing through a small park, we arrived at the beach: Sandymount Strand.

Well, it had sand and an ocean, so I suppose it qualifies as a beach, though I could not imagine happily wading into the water on that stretch of coastline. For one, the looming Poolbeg Generating Station—a gargantuan gas power station with two towering smokestacks—did not inspire confidence. But Durso did look great modelling on the sand.

“The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea,” I quoted. “James Joyce wrote that. The man was a genius.”

“Did he really write that?” Zach said.

“Yeah, it’s one of my favorite quotes from Ulysses. And now I finally had a chance to use it.”

My outstanding literary taste displayed, we were ready to head back into town. After another long walk (and a stop for sandwiches and coffee) we found ourselves at Dublin Castle. This is more of a government complex than a castle nowadays, although originally it did have that function. Now only one turret remains from the erstwhile medieval fortifications; it is attached to the Chapel Royal, a church used by the British leader of Ireland until the establishment of the Free State in 1922.

“There’s a river running underneath it,” Zach said. “Once on a tour they showed it to us.”

(This would be the River Poddle—which, as it happens, is the source of Dublin’s name. A stretch of the river was known as the “dark pool,” which in Irish is “dubh linn.”)

After this we took a detour through a lovely park—St. Stephen’s Green—to get to our next destination: the National Museum of Archaeology. This is part of the National Museum of Ireland; and like every branch of that institution, entry is free. Walking into a museum without a queue or a fee must be one of life’s great experiences. Other countries should take note.

The museum is housed in a grand, cavernous structure that looks as if it used to be a train station. Its collection spans from prehistory, through the Bronze Age, to the medieval period. And there is quite a lot to see.

There was a logboat made in the early bronze age—a huge hollowed-out log that people would paddle through bogs; indeed, it is only because it got stuck in a bog that the organic material was preserved at all. In the center of the museum there is an extremely fine collection of Bronze Age gold objects. Many of these take the form of body ornaments, buttons, bracelets, or collars, and they are remarkable for the extreme skill of their craftsmanship. Collecting and shaping metal in such a way is no mean technological feat.

Aside from these highlights there were stone tools, clay pots, medieval swords, bronze axes, and information on migrations, diets, burials—the list goes on. But what interested Durso the most was the section on the Vikings. I found him near a replica Viking ship, eagerly reading a timeline.

“Why do you like the Vikings so much?” I said to him, rather rudely.

“Dude, they’re awesome.”

“No, they’re savages. They just went around raiding and raping.”

“But their lifestyle was just so amazing.”

(Durso had seen several Viking television shows.)

Probably I was too hard on the Scandinavian vandals. After all, nobody can doubt that they possessed a civilization of sorts, far outdoing their contemporaries in seafaring skill. Nevertheless, I still remain dubious of the Vikings, if only because I have imbibed the Hollywood image of them as predators on more peaceful and sedentary peoples. I am sure the historical reality is more interesting.

As Durso continued to scan the Viking timeline, I moved on, going through the Middle Ages and eventually finding myself in a small room dedicated to Egypt. Every archaeology museum must have at least a few mummies to be properly legitimate. Then, thinking that I had seen everything, I doubled back to find Durso. But he was nowhere in sight. This was odd, since from my vantage point on the second floor I could see the whole museum. As a case in point, I quickly spotted Zach, and went downstairs to meet him.

“Hey man,” I said, “do you know where your brother went?”

“No idea, I was looking for him too.”

“Alright. I think I’ve seen everything. Wanna find him?”

“Yeah, I’ll check over here.”

“Ok, he’s not upstairs, so I’ll look this way.”

And then we did what every horror movie counsels us not to do: split up to find a missing member of the party.

As I looked, I soon discovered that I had been mistaken about the dimensions of the museum. There was an entire wing that I had missed; and it was the most memorable part.

I found myself in a large space subdivided into little chambers, as in a maze; and in the center of each chamber there was a glass case containing a body. These are the famous bog bodies, corpses that have been preserved in Ireland’s peat bogs, many for over 2,000 years. The common hypothesis is that these people were ritualistically murdered, leading some to hypothesize that they were kings of a sort, since many were found near hills used to inaugurate rulers. Well, king or commoner, they are a morbidly fascinating sight. Their skin is leathery and reddish, their muscles and bones still plainly visible. Some even still have hair and clothes.

I think this was the first time in my life that I had seen a genuine corpse in person, and it was unsettling. It is impossible to examine the bodies without wondering what kind of people they were. Each was an individual, more or less like me, yet living in a radically different world and culture.

I grew so fascinated with the exhibit that I completely forgot that I was supposed to be looking for Durso. Finally I reached the end of the display room and turned around, only to bump into Durso right as I walked out.

“Hey dude, did you see those bog bodies? Totally awesome.”

“Yeah man.”

“Wait, where were you?”

“You know, just looking around.”

“Man, you’re just like my grandma, you have to read all the little signs and captions.”

“I wanna learn, bro.”

We quickly found Zach and then left the museum for our last destination: Glasnevin Cemetery. It was now well past lunch time, and the amount of available daylight was quickly running low. It was about an hour’s walk from the museum to the cemetery, most of it unremarkable, though I do remember passing over the Royal Canal.

On the way there Zach gave us another one of his fun facts:

“The Catholic church prohibited human dissections for a while, so that there was a kind of black market of human bodies. It was a big problem. Right after someone was buried, bodysnatchers would come, dig him up, and then put the body in a barrel of whiskey. This kept it well-preserved, and also it let them move the body without getting caught. Finally, they’d sell the body to whoever wanted it—like medical schools—and then they’d sell the whiskey.”

“Jesus.”

“That’s gross.”

When we arrived, Zach had many other facts to share with us.

O’Connell’s tower

“So, for a while there was a lot of prejudice against the Catholics. This guy, Daniel O’Connell, who was a big nationalist politician, campaigned for the opening of a cemetery where Catholics could perform their rites without being bothered. That’s why he’s buried under that big tower over there.”

He pointed to the round tower, which stands near the entrance to the cemetery. O’Connell must have been quite the figure to merit such a monumental tombstone. Indeed, it would be difficult to overstate his role in Irish emancipation.

Collins’ grave

Another hero of Ireland’s fight for independence was buried near the visitor’s center: Michael Collins.

“So, this guy is a bit more controversial. He fought in the Easter Rising [which is what damaged the post office building], and then he fought in the War of Independence. Eventually the British were like, ‘OK you guys can be free, as long as you swear loyalty to the queen. Collins said that it was a good idea, since it was a step towards being totally free. But other people thought it was like giving up, and then the Irish started fighting each other, and eventually Collins got killed.”

“Jeez.”

“Yeah, but a lot of people think of him as a hero. I did a tour here, and the guide said that there’s a woman who comes once a year with, like, a ton of flowers and leaves them on the grave without saying anything. And they don’t know who she is. She’s been coming for years.”

The last national hero whose grave we visited was Charles Stewart Parnell. I already knew something about Parnell, since he is featured prominently in a Joyce short story, “Ivy Day in the Committee Room,” in which canvassers discuss Parnell’s legacy on Ivy Day, a former holiday that commemorated the politician’s death. He was noteworthy for being an Irish Protestant able to work within the parliamentary system, alongside Catholic nationalists and English Whigs, to advance Home Rule. Yet like so many politicians, his career was cut short by a scandal: in his case, an affair. Joyce, like many, believed that he could have achieved Home Rule without violence had he not been abandoned for frivolous reasons.

Yet even if you don’t know anything about the man, you can tell that he was famous just from his grave, since it reads simply:  “Parnell.”

Aside from its distinguished bodies, the cemetery was lovely in itself. I am, perhaps, inordinately fond of cemeteries, since I grew up near a beautiful one; but I think nearly anyone would find Glasnevin a wonderful place to walk about in. Attractive tombstones were thickly scattered over the green lawn—crosses, busts, weeping angels. In an older section many of the tombstones had tumbled over, making the cemetery look like a ruined battlefield. Crows circled in the air above, one of them landing on a mournful statue of the Virgin Mary. Nothing could have looked more bleak under the grey December skies. Yet even in their most desolate moments, cemeteries possess an alluring tranquility: the peacefulness of our common destiny.

By the time we left the cemetery the sun had almost set. And by the time we made it back to the center the sky was black. As expected, we spent some more time at the hostel, drinking the remains of Durso’s liquor and wine.

“Hey guys,” I said, a few swigs in. “I’m trying to start a religion.”

“Oh yeah?”

“It’s called Lotzism.”

“Lotzism,” Zach said, “I like the name.”

“What, do we just worship you?” Durso said.

“No, no. Well, yes. But it’s more than that. The idea is for everyone in the world to slowly become me.”

“Woah.”

“The first step is to read everything on my blog. It’s the Bible of my new religion. But eventually we could use some kind of genetic technology to literally transform everybody into a clone of myself. ”

“What’s the point of that?”

“Well, then everybody would think like me and nobody would disagree with me, ever.”

“I like it,” Zach said.

“To Lotzism!” Durso said, and we toasted.

For dinner we went to what is supposedly the oldest pub in Dublin, the Brazen Head. According to its website the pub dates back to 1198, though I am somewhat skeptical. In any case, it is an attractive establishment. The seating is something of an exercise in Social Darwinism: survival of the fittest. We were lucky and found a table. I ordered bangers and mash, which seemed too English to be eating in Ireland, but it was absolutely delicious.

After that we made our way to a bar for out final collective drink. I had my flight the next day, and Durso and Zach had to return to Galway, so we couldn’t stay out very late. We found ourselves on the top floor of a rather large establishment, sipping Guinness.

“Man, I still feel so ashamed of my first night here,” Durso said. “I was in Galway with Zach and my mom and my sister and Zach’s roommate, and we went to this bar. But I just drank, like, way too much, way, way too much, and eventually people started going home, and it was just me and my sister and Zach’s roommate. And I think I went to the bathroom, or they did, but somehow I got separated. But I thought that they had, like, just abandoned me, and so I ended up walking out of the pub and into the street, but I went the completely wrong direction and I ended up getting totally lost, and eventually I just called Zach at like 3 in the morning, like so pissed, like ‘You abandoned me!’ And he was like, ‘Where are you?’ And I said, ‘I dunno, I see a McDonalds.’ And I’d gone like a long ways in the wrong direction and Zach and his roommate had to come out and find me.”

“Jesus, dude.”

“Yeah, honestly it was pretty shitty of me.”

We finished drinking and went home, but not without having a long, philosophical, and slightly bitter conversation about love. The next morning we woke up, loaded up on the hostel breakfast, and went our separate ways—Durso and Zach to Galway, me to Madrid. But all of us would meet again, soon, in New York.

Review: Gotham

Review: Gotham
Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 by Edwin G. Burrows

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Time is not a carousel on which we might, next time round, snatch the brass ring by being better prepared.

When I began this book, I thought that I would speed through it in a summer month of dedicated reading, while there was little else to distract me. Yet after four weeks of slogging I had not even gotten a third of the way through. Worse still, I never felt fully engaged; every time I returned to the book it required an act of will; the pace never picked up, the writing never become effortlessly pleasurable. So I put it aside, to finish at the end of summer. When that didn’t work, I put it aside, to finish during Christmas break. And when that didn’t work, I bought the audiobook, to finish the remaining chapters on my runs. Now, 261 days later, I can finally tick it off my list.

Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace set an ambitious goal: to write an authoritative, comprehensive, and accessible history of New York City. In their words, they want to include “sex and sewer systems, finance and architecture, immigration and politics, poetry and crime,” and that list is only the beginning. The amount of research required to assemble this vast and teetering edifice of knowledge is almost nauseating. When you consider that this book, heavy enough to serve as a deadly weapon, is the condensed version of thousands of smaller books, dissertations, papers, and studies, you cannot help but feel admiration for the many hours of sweat and toil that went into this pharaonic task. And in the end they have accomplished at least two of their three goals: the book is authoritative and comprehensive. But is it accessible?

This is where my criticism begins. Burrows and Wallace attempt to gather together so many threads of research that the final tapestry is confused and chaotic. In a single chapter they can pivot wildly from one topic to another, going from department stores to race riots to train lines, so that the reader has little to hold on to as they traverse this whirlwind of information. The final product is an assemblage rather than a coherent story, an encyclopedia disguised as a narrative history. Granted, encyclopedias are good and useful things; but they seldom make for compelling reading. What was lacking was a guiding organizational principle. This could have taken the form of a thesis on, say, the way that the city developed; or it could have been a literary device, such as arranging the information around certain historical figures.

Lacking this, what we often get is a list—which, as it happens, is the author’s favorite rhetorical device. To pick an entirely typical sentence, the authors inform us that, in 1828, the Common Council licensed “nearly seven thousand people, including butchers, grocers, tavern keepers, cartmen, hackney coachmen, pawnbrokers, and market clerks, together with platoons of inspectors, weighers, measurers, and gaugers of lumber, lime, coal, and flour.” Now, lists can be wonderful to read if used sparingly and assembled with care—just ask Rabelais. But overused, they become tedious and exhausting.

This is indicative of what is a more general fault of the book, the lack of authorial personality in its prose. Perhaps this is because Burrows and Wallace edited and rewrote each other’s chapters, creating a kind of anonymous hybrid author. Now, this is not to say that the prose is bad; to the contrary, I think that this book is consistently well-written. If the book is dry, it is not because of any lack of writerly skill, but because the prose limits itself to recounting fact rather than expressing opinion or thought. Again, the book is an encyclopedia without the alphabetical order, and encyclopedias are not supposed to contain any speck of subjectivity. Unfortunately, even the most masterly prose is dead on the page if there is no discernable person behind it.

I am being rather critical of a book which, without a doubt, is a triumph of synthesis and scholarship. If I am disappointed, it is because I felt that I could have retained much more of the information in these pages had it been presented with more coherence—a larger perspective, a sense of overall order, an underpinning structure. As it stands, I do not have that satisfying (if, perhaps, untrustworthy) feeling that an excellent history can provide: that of seeing the past from a high perspective, as a grand and logical unfolding. Though not exactly fair, I cannot help comparing Gotham unfavorably with another massive book about the history of the city, The Power Broker, which forever changed how I look at the city and, indeed, at the nature of power itself. Yet after finishing this, I am not sure if my perspective on the city has been appreciably changed.

But I should end on a positive note. This is a well-written, exhaustive, and thoroughly impressive history of the city. And despite all my complaints and headaches, I liked it enough so that I will, someday, drag myself through its sequel.



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Review: The Decameron

Review: The Decameron
The Decameron

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

… nothing is so indecent that it cannot be said to another person if the proper words are used to convey it…

I did not think that a collection of tales from the late Middle Ages would be so raunchy and ribald. While artisans were busy erecting gothic cathedrals—symbols of humanity’s insignificance before an omnipotent deity—Boccaccio was busy writing this most human of books. Indeed, the Decameron can be seen as the humanistic reply to Dante’s Divine Comedy: a celebration of our very worldliness. In Boccaccio’s world, the keystone virtue is not holiness nor piety, but cunning; and those who lack it are sure to be the victims of those who possess it.

Seen from the present day, Boccaccio’s masterpiece seems progressive in many respects. For one, he treats of nobles and peasants indifferently; and in the final (and incredibly sadistic) story he even asserts that these distinctions are of no importance compared with personal merit. More shocking is Boccaccio’s frank portrayal of female sexuality, something that would be taboo for much of European history. At times Boccaccio even seems like a proto-feminist: Women are central to the book, as Boccaccio frames the collection of stories as a diversion for women who have been forced into idleness by their social position. To be sure, there are many regressive and even alarming views about women mixed in with his more “advanced” ideas; even so, he does a better job than, say, Dickens often does.

Another surprising feature of these stories is Boccaccio’s open anticlericalism. The way he speaks of monks and nuns would be scandalous even now. There are many moments in the book in which he seems to be advocating a kind of hippy-ish tolerance for the pleasures of the flesh, condemning all opponents to sensual delight as hypocrites and fools. He even portrays homosexuality as an amusing foible rather than a deadly sin. Considering all this, it is difficult to imagine the reaction if it had been published considerably later. It seems that tolerance does not progress in a neat line.

Boccaccio’s chief virtue as a storyteller is his ability to manipulate plot. In this he is the exact reflection of Shakespeare (one of Boccaccio’s borrowers), who had every gift except plot. Boccaccio’s characters are never round nor indeed memorable; they can for the most part be interchanged at random. But each of these 100 tales, with very few exceptions, is thoroughly charming for having all the elements of a good story: a setup (inevitably involving a man and a woman), a problem (normally somebody trying to sleep with someone else), a clever trick to solve it (and a dunce to suffer as a consequence), a dramatic climax (the heroes are almost foiled), and a satisfying conclusion. All together, these 100 stories are a treasure trove which every responsible storyteller must pilfer mercilessly. If you are going on a camping trip, you could do much worse than to bring a copy of the Decameron along for the evenings.



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Review: The Incomplete Book of Running

Review: The Incomplete Book of Running
The Incomplete Book of Running

The Incomplete Book of Running by Peter Sagal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of all the people on the face of this green earth, I never thought I would be the one reviewing this book. Indeed, I began this year by writing a blog post about my new year’s resolutions, confidently predicting that, whatever happened, I would not begin to exercise. Yet a month later I found myself in a sportswear store, perplexedly looking at running gear. What happened?

Nothing, really. Unlike Peter Sagal, my foray into running has not been the product of any personal troubles or existential crises. I am 27, too old for my quarter-life crisis, too young to be worried about entering middle age. I haven’t gotten married yet, and so have not had to endure any difficult divorce. I haven’t even had a bad breakup recently. I just decided to try something new, out of a sense of curiosity.

When I was in high school, you see, I dreaded the day when we were made to run a mile in gym class. It seemed like such an impossibly long distance. I was chubby and out of shape, so I could never make it the whole way without walking a considerable portion. Later on, at the ripe age of 17, I had to go to physical therapy for my knees after overstretching in Tae Kwon Do classes. These experiences convinced me that running was not my bent. But last February, feeling experimental, I decided to see whether walking a lot in Europe had inadvertently made me capable, finally, of running a mile without stopping. And it had.

Judging from this book, my experience was not typical. Running seems to be one of those hobbies, like meditation or prayer, that people pick up after some sort of acute trauma. Sagal got into running as he entered his forties, facing a midlife crisis which was to include a difficult divorce. As a comparison, it took the Buddhist author, Pema Chödrön, two divorces to become a celibate nun and celebrated teacher. (Lacking this experience, I am neither particularly enlightened nor especially fast.) Indeed, Sagal’s divorce haunts these pages as a kind of bitter undercurrent which seems to put many readers off. For my part, I do not require radio comedians to write about their ex-wives with saintliness.

I doubt I would have enjoyed this book half as much if I had bought the print version. Sagal is a radio personality, and the audiobook has his skillful delivery and signature voice. Using the audiobook also means that you can listen to the book while running. This is what I did, pledging that I would get through the book’s five hours and twenty-five minutes in five runs or fewer—and I succeeded. Listening to bald man who has struggled with his weight, and who had little natural talent to begin with, was great motivation as I shuffled my own soft body through Madrid’s Retiro Park. Now, here is an athlete I can identify with.

Apart from recounting some of his marathon experiences—which included the 2013 Boston Marathon, where he witnessed the bombing—as well as a few other running anecdotes, Sagal offers a bit of advice—all of it very sensible, and most of which I do not follow: don’t over-train, run with a group, eat healthy, etc. Most interesting to me was Sagal’s advising runners to go without headphones, in order to experience their environment and to mindfully monitor their bodies.

In fact, the way that Sagal describes running often reminded me of meditation books I have read. Both practices involve spending a considerable amount of time alone, paying attention to one’s breath and one’s body. Both practices are supposed to relieve stress and make one generally happier. And, as I mentioned, people tend to turn to these practices when they are having a problem. It is curious that focusing on the body can have such strong therapeutic effects.

One major difference between running and meditation is competitiveness. Runners are relentlessly challenging each other and themselves. This may not be wise, but it is fun on occasion. This foolhardy spirit of competitiveness has led me to sign up for Madrid’s half marathon on April 27. If you are standing near the finish line that day, and you wait long enough, you may see a tall, sweaty, teetering American stumble across the finish line. Wish me luck.



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Belgium: Brussels, Bruges, Beer

Belgium: Brussels, Bruges, Beer

The train slowly creaked into motion, taking me away from Amsterdam Centraal. My hand was still a little bloody from cutting it on the bicycle; and my stomach was full of kebab (I haven’t properly visited a city unless I sample the local kebab), which is never an exactly pleasant sensation. Soon we were speeding through the Dutch countryside. What was most striking about the scenery is how amazingly flat it is (being largely recovered marshland); the only thing that broke the skyline were distant church spires.

I was on my way to Belgium. Now, this modest member of the Low Countries has a special significance for me. Growing up, I had a close friend from Belgium. His parents worked for the United Nations and so they ended up living in Sleepy Hollow, New York. I didn’t know anyone else from Europe, so my impression of the continent was shaped by my experience with my Belgian friend and his family.

They were an impressive bunch—tall, blond, active. I remember once witnessing the parents have lunch; to my amazement, they were eating salads! (My friend took every opportunity to eat junk food when he visited my house.) I heard strange stories of tasty waffles and french fries (which, the Belgians reminded me, weren’t really French). Finally, in my last year of high school, my Belgian friend had to move with his family to Tokyo, and I was permanently left with a hazy impression of a far-off land where everyone lived in cozy little houses eating salads and waffles. Now I could finally see Belgium for myself.


Brussels

My train rolled into Brussels, and I got out to find my Airbnb and to explore the city as best I could in the remaining hours of daylight. Brussels cannot help but be at least a little disappointing to someone who has just finished visiting Amsterdam. While the Dutch city is full of personality, Brussels immediately struck me as bland and anonymous. I felt as if I could be anywhere: Germany, France, Italy, Spain… Was this the place I had been dreaming about all these years?

My impression of the city considerably improved when I found my Airbnb. It was near a street full of attractive restaurants (yes, including kebab), and it was a surprisingly beautiful apartment for the price I had paid. The host, who spoke excellent English, worked in the movie industry; so the flat was decorated with many posters and other movie paraphernalia. This was some real European culture.

I had arrived somewhat late in the afternoon, so I didn’t have a lot of time to explore the city. After checking in I hightailed it to the main attraction of the city: the Manneken Pis. I wonder how the Brusselites feel that the identifying sculptural icon of their city is little peeing boy. Perhaps they have a good sense of humor, as the statue seems to indicate. In any case, I confess that I did not feel the profound sense of awe and wonder that the statue can inspire. But maybe this was because someone had cheekily dressed the statue up for winter, so his impishly naked form was buried under heavy fabrics. (Apparently this is the usual state of affairs. In the post-war European recovery and boom, the relieved and happy Belgians took to dressing their iconic statue in an ever-increasing assortment of traditional costumes. The young urinating rascal apparently has a wardrobe several times bigger than even a dedicated shopaholic.)

Five minutes from the “little pisser” is the central square of the city, the magnificent Grand Place. This expansive plaza contradicted everything that I thought I had observed about the Brussels. For it is not plain, generic, or blandly modern. It is, in fact, one of the most beautiful central squares that I have ever seen, comparable to the Marienplatz in Munich and Prague’s Old Town Square. It gives the visitor that unmistakably pleasurable sensation of being, without a doubt, in Europe.

From upper left to bottom: Town Hall, King’s House, guild houses.

Dominating the Grand Place is the old gothic Town Hall, which looks strikingly similar to the New Town Hall in Munich or the Town Hall in Vienna. And this is no coincidence, since both of those neo-gothic edifices take their inspiration from this genuinely gothic construction. The hall has survived fires and bombardment to serve as an archetype for the secular gothic style. Facing the Town Hall is the King’s House. This building—an administrative building that now houses the city’s museum—gets its name from the King of Spain (specifically, Philip I of Castile, the first Habsburg king in the Iberian peninsula); and thus it serves as a strange reminder of the erstwhile dominance of this Lowlandish nation by the Mediterranean country.* Apart from these two imposing spired structures, the rest of the plaza is dominated by guild houses, which look like ornate apartment buildings. One of these is called Le Roy d’Espagne, and could very well refer to me.

*You might be interested to learn that the word “flamenco” means “Flemish” in Spanish, and in the past was used for anything deemed extravagant. Thus it came to be applied to the genre of music, which of course does not come from Flanders.

My next and last stop (the sun was already setting) was the Cathedral of Brussels—or, more formally, the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula. It has only been a proper cathedral for sixty years or so, since Brussels falls within the diocese of Mechelen; and that city already had a cathedral. Oversized church or a properly-sized cathedral, it is an attractive building—made in the formidable French gothic, with its two towers standing like bulwarks over the city. The inside is correspondingly impressive, though little stands out for comment besides a resplendently decorated baroque altar. In sum, it is a worthy cathedral, and its front porch offers an attractive view of the city—especially during sunset. The worst that can be said of the building is that, like so much of Brussels, it blends in with other parts of Europe so seamlessly as to lack character.

The spire in the center is Brussels City Hall

My short time in Brussels was spent. The sun had set, and every attraction would be closed. I had decided to spent the next and final day of my trip visiting Bruges, so it seemed unlikely that I would be seeing anymore of the nation’s capital. This meant that I would not see the enormous Atomium, a steel sculpture of a unit of an iron crystal (and not, as some wrongly say, of an iron atom). I would also miss the Museum of Fine Art, which is so good that W. H. Auden dedicated a depressing poem to it. Indeed, I would not see any of Brussels many fine museums—which include those dedicated to trains, musical instruments, and comic strips. I had to choose between all this and Bruges, and I chose Bruges.

I ate dinner in a fish and chips shop (Bia Mara), bought some Belgian beers (Leffe) in supermarket to drink in the Airbnb, and then walked back to drink delicious beer by myself and to post photos (edited for extra saturation) on Instagram. Obviously I was having a great vacation.

But before I leave Brussels, I wanted to share some of what I learned about Belgium during my time there. I found, to my great surprise, that the country is still a monarchy; and the old royal palace (now unused by the royal family) stands in the city center—a palace which, if I can judge from the photos, is as bereft of character as the rest of the city. I also learned that Brussels is the unofficial capital of the European Union, with much of the organization’s offices located here; indeed, sometimes “Brussels” is used as a synecdoche for the EU. The presence of so many thousands of native and foreign bureaucrats in the city has not helped its reputation as a tourist destination. Perhaps this helps explain why the city gives such a strong impression of being anonymously European—it really is at the crossroads of Europe. NATO also has its headquarters here, only adding to the mix.

Yet it is not only Brussels that has something of an identity crisis. The whole country is split strongly and starkly along linguistic lines. In the south there is Wallonia, the French-speaking part of the country; and in the north, the Dutch-speaking Flanders. Brussels straddles these two regions uncomfortably, situated somewhat north of the Wallonian border and yet predominantly French-speaking, although it is nominally bilingual. From what I understand, those in the French part of the country rarely learn Dutch, and vice versa, leading to little intermingling and consequently little feeling of camaraderie between the two regions. The result is a strangely bipartite country, almost as if two smaller countries had been uncomfortably welded together.

This inner division expressed itself in the famous attempt to form a governing coalition that followed elections in 2010. After a record-shattering 589 days without a working government, the Flemish and Wallonian parties—who, you will remember, typically do not speak one another’s languages—finally managed to form a working alliance and elect somebody. Under these circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is a strong independence movement among the Flemish. Much like Catalonia in Spain, Flanders is the most affluent area of the country; and there are some who think the region would do better if not attached to Wallonia. After all this time, it seems that many Europeans still have not learned to live with one another. Unfortunately, when Europeans do live together, the result can be a city like Brussels.


Bruges

The train ride to Bruges was, if anything, more flat and watery than the trip from Amsterdam down to Brussels. I had never known why the Netherlands and Brussels were referred to as the “low countries” until this trip. There is hardly a hint of elevation to speak of. To pass the time, I read a selection of the works of John Ruskin, the eccentric Victorian art critic who was obsessed with the Alps; and he even went so far as to suggest that the inhabitants of flat regions have little notion of true grandeur. Clearly he had never been to Bruges.

When the train pulled in to Bruges’s station—taking slightly over an hour, and passing Ghent along the way—I could hardly contain my excitement. Bruges is one place I had never expected to visit. Indeed, even the day before I was unsure whether I should visit Bruges or stay in Brussels. Rewatching a few scenes from Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges convinced me that I should opt for the first option; sassy Irish hitmen seemed a welcome improvement over European bureaucrats.

Bruges is among that small class of cities, such as Venice or Toledo, whose every corner is picturesque. It is an adorable place. The downside of such places, however, is that they quickly become overrun by tourists. Though I was there during the off-season, I did not get a strong sense of local life; there seemed to little more than tourist attractions, gift shops, and overpriced restaurants. Still the city is worth it. I don’t know when exactly humankind lost its ability to make such splendidly pretty places; nowadays we only build such quaint dwellings using CGI.

I was delighted with everything—the narrow cobblestone streets, the brick houses with step-gabled roofs, the canals crossing this way and that. I just wanted to walk into one of the little houses, build a fire, start a family, and spend a happy life eating waffles and drinking beer. But I contented myself with taking lots of mediocre pictures, which is at least less of a commitment.

Why is Bruges so beautiful? The answer, as in so many cases, is money. Bruges spent the late middle ages as a commercial superpower, strategically situated near the English channel between Germany, France, and Spain. Merchants took advantage of a channel which led from the city’s harbor out into the ocean. Yet the good fortune was not destined to last. As with Seville’s equally lucrative river port, Bruges’s channel silted up and commerce, not usually loyal, moved elsewhere. This led to a long, slow, grinding decline, which was only broken centuries later when tourists realized that, as a result of this process, the city’s beautiful building had survived intact. Two World Wars also left the city unscathed, giving the contemporary traveler a time-capsule of a city.

Bruges Cathedral

The skyline of Bruges is dominated by three towers. The first I encountered was the city’s cathedral, St. Salvator’s. For such a stately purpose, it is a fairly homely building—at least when compared to such gothic monsters as the cathedral in Brussels. Built of brick and lightly decorated, its inside is restrained and calming. The next tower is that of the Belfry. This enormous protuberance stands proudly over market square, the central plaza, sprouting out of a lower building like an oak from a grassy field. In Bruges featured the tower in a starring role, such as when Colin Farrell tells a group of pudgy Americans that they shouldn’t try to climb to the top, and that he’s “not being funny.” As an out of shape American myself, I took Farrell’s advice and admired the Belfry from the ground.

The Belfry. Image by Graham Richter; licensed under CC BY 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

The last and tallest tower belongs to the Church of Our Lady (Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk), a mostly gothic church which nevertheless, like the rest of the town, is mostly built of brick. But the church is more famous for what it contains that for its tower. First there are the gilded tombs of Charles the Bold and his daughter, Mary, the Duchess of Burgundy. Charles the Bold was cut down in battle and initially buried nearby; but his great-grandson, Emperor Charles V, had him and his daughter moved to Bruges. Strangely, however, modern researchers have been unable to find Charles’s body—though Mary’s corpse did make it to its intended location. In any case, the tombs are impressively lifelike and appropriately resplendent for noble bodies; and it was gratifying to find the forebears of the family which would one day come to dominate Spain: the Habsburgs.

Yet most people do not pause at the tombs for very long, since in the next room, in the center of an altar, is a work by Michelangelo. Few works by the dour master can be seen outside of Italy, and fewer still in such a small city as Bruges. The subject is simple: The Madonna and Child, with Jesus resting tranquility on the Virgin’s knee, who is looking just as pretty and angelic as she does in the Pietà in St. Peters. If you are familiar with Michelangelo’s work, it is not difficult to spot the master’s touch here. Every element is just so finely executed—the poses, the fabric, the composition—that the statue immediately calls out to the viewer.

Image by Elke Wetzig; licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

It seems strange that this should be so. I have seen hundreds of statues of this same subject, many by masters of their craft. How could Michelangelo take something that so many able men had been trying to do for so long, and do it better? This is the mystery of genius, I suppose. But could he have created such superlative art had not so many artists paved the way before him?

I should mention that this statue has been stolen and replaced twice: first during the Napoleonic invasions, and second during World War II. Luckily, violence and greed have so far left the statue intact, and have restored it to its rightful place.

It is difficult to write adequately about Bruges, I find, since you cannot give an accurate impression of the city by going through its parts, one by one, as a writer must do. So much of the experience of visiting consists in being lost in picturesque streets, surrounded by ever-changing views on all sides. Focusing on individual sights would detract from the impression of the whole. Nevertheless, there are some areas of the city that are worth singling out. One of these is Markt, or Market Square, the center of the city. This is where the famous Belfry can be seen. On one side of the square, the neo-gothic Provinciaal Hof (Provincial Court) rises in brooding majesty; while on the other, a row of pretty, brightly colored apartment buildings lightens the city’s aspect. In the center of the square is a statue of two Flemish heroes, Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck, who helped lead an (unsuccessful) uprising against the French in the 1300s.

Another important plaza is the Burg Square, where Bruges’s City Hall is located. Compared with that of Brussels, this city hall is rather unprepossessing, though it is yet another excellent example of secular gothic architecture.

The Basilica of the Holy Blood. Image by Matt Hopkins; licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; taken from Wikimedia Commons

Near the city hall is Bruges’s most impressive church: the Basilica of the Holy Blood. Though ornately decorated, the church does not look like very much from the outside; indeed I hardly noticed it at first, since the rest of the city is just as attractive. But what I found up the staircase took me by surprise. This is the Chapel of the Holy Blood, dedicated to a vial of Jesus’s blood-stained cloth—supposedly picked up during the Crusades. If memory serves, there was a line of the faithful waiting to do reverence to this holy relic, and so to obtain divine favor. I didn’t join in. But I did admire the church. A vaulted, wooden ceiling focused all attention on the far wall, which is decorated with a colorful 20th century painting of the bloody scene. The walls on each side, and the ceiling above, are decorated in pleasing geometric patterns; and the stained glass, too, is of high quality, only adding to the swirl of color in the space. It is a rather cheerful place for worshiping blood.

I realize that I have come this far without mentioning the canals. The city is criss-crossed with watery channels, another legacy of its days as an active port; and this has earned the city, like Amsterdam, the nickname “Venice of the north.” As you can imagine, the constant presence of water only adds to the city’s considerable charm. The canals prevent Bruges from feeling constrained and claustrophobic, like so many medieval cities. One of the most photogenic spots in the city is the bridge crossing the Minnewater—a sort of pond that used to serve as a mooring-place for ships. From there I spotted a band of roving Spanish musicians, dressed in capes and strumming guitars. Were they street musicians, or just on vacation?

My last stop for the day—and what turned out to be my best experience in Bruges—was De Halve Maan brewery. (I thought that the name meant “half man,” but it means “half moon,” which I think is somewhat less cool.) This is a historic brewery, going back to the 1850s, right in the center of the city; and they give tours. I signed up for the next English group, waited a bit in the gift shop, and then embarked on a journey of discovery. Photos were not allowed, so I can’t give a detailed account of the tour; however, it was 45 minutes well spent. Our guide, a deadpan Flemish woman, took us from the modern brewing equipment on the ground floor, then up several steep and slender stairwells to rooms displaying antique brewing equipment. (Some of the staircases were so precipitous that my life flashed before my eyes; the tour is not well-suited to those with mobility issues.)

This was my first brewery tour, so I was eager to learn how this marvelous liquid is created. The process of making beer is at once extremely complex and beautifully simple, consisting of four natural ingredients (water, barley, hops, yeast) mixed, strained, heated, cooled, and aged in such a way that the end-result is a fizzy, bitter, refreshing and slightly intoxicating substance. I was certainly inspired to have a drink—and, luckily, the tour comes with a beer at the bar downstairs. As another added bonus, the view of Bruges from the top of the brewery is excellent, and photos are allowed. I left the brewery quite impressed with the company. They still make all their beer on site (though it is pumped through an underground tube several miles away for bottling).

The Cathedral is on the left, the Church of Our Lady is on the right

What makes Belgian beer so special? Well, I am not exactly an expert in the subject. But even in my dilettantish tasting of Belgian beer, a definite flavor emerges: rich and sweet, almost like brown sugar. In contrast to many English and American ales, the bitter, floral flavor of hops is never very pronounced. Instead the beer is heavy and scrumptious, like a good dessert. Much of the brewing culture in Belgium dates back to medieval monasteries, a tradition which has led to the country’s beer culture being listed as UNESCO intangible world heritage. Without doubt Belgian beer is one of the treasures and pleasures of Europe.


So ended my day in Bruges. Now it was time to return to Brussels and then to Madrid. Thankfully I took the time to examine my Ryanair boarding pass that night, or else I would not have realized that (of course) Ryanair does not fly out of Brussels’s primary airport, but out of the South Charleroi airport—considerably more difficult to get to. But who could complain about early flights and inconvenient airports when Belgium is the reward?

Amsterdam: the Beauty of Everyday Life

Amsterdam: the Beauty of Everyday Life

I arrived at my Airbnb late—almost midnight—after illegally riding the bus to the outskirts of the city.

I can never get used to these transport system where there are no turnstiles for the metro and where you cannot simply pay the busdriver. Instead, you must buy a ticket beforehand and validad it yourself. This makes the temptation to ride for free very difficult to resist, especially if it’s late and you don’t know where the ticket machines are. In Madrid or New York, if you try to ride a bus for free the driver will kick you off; and if you jump the turnstiles you can get a big fine. But in Amsterdam, you will only face consequences if the metro inspectors catch you. And what are the chances of that?

My Airbnb host was a relaxed fellow. I suspected that he enjoyed the free availability of marijuana in the city. In any case, he very kindly offered to lend me his museum pass, which allows any resident of the city to get into the museums for free. Unfortunately for me, I had foolishly planned ahead and bought my museum tickets online. The money was spent—and for nothing. This was the last time that I travelled responsibly.

It was a cold February night and I was hungry for dinner. The only place open was a kebab restaurant—not fast food, but genuine kebab. It was delicious. Biting into the spiced meat, I knew that Amsterdam was going to be a special place.

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I woke up early the following morning and set off for the Van Gogh museum. Instead of riding illegally again, I decided that I would take the time to walk through the city. The weather was cold, grey, misty, and threatening rain. Despite the circumstances, however, and even though I hadn’t had breakfast, the city immediately caught my attention.

Amsterdam is among that small class of cities whose every avenue announces its identity. Even outside of the historic city center, it is impossible to forget that one is in Amsterdam. For one, there are the bicycles. There are thousands of them—hundreds of thousands. It is said that there are more bikes than people, and what I find online seems to confirm it: the population is around 820,000, while there are over 880,000 bikes. Why anyone would need more than one bicycle, I can hardly guess. Nonetheless it is an inspiring sight. Every corner of the city is crammed with pedalled contraptions; and there is more traffic on the bike lanes than on those for cars. But pedestrians have an extra worry when crossing the street.

The style of architecture is distinct, too. In the center there are the crow-stepped gables—creating the Netherlands’ distinctive skyline. Also distinctive is the use of brick. Everything seems to made of the baked clay blocks, giving the city a dark, brooding, and quasi-industrial feel. Certainly it is impossible to mistake a single street of Amsterdam for one in Madrid.

But perhaps the most distinctive touch of Amsterdam are the canals. Like much of the Netherlands, the city itself rests on what was previously swampland. The canals were used to redirect the water, thus making the land available to build on while providing convenient transportation within the city. The canals have also, historically, been useful in the city’s defense. The Stelling van Amsterdam is a system of forts surrounding the center, with low-lying ground that can be flooded to create a watery barrier too shallow for boats. Unfortunately for the Netherlands, this system of defence, however elegant, was rendered obsolete by advances in military technology—such as bombers.

Nowadays, the canals are mostly just pretty to look at. And they are plentiful. There are 165 canals, which is more than even Venice has; and well over a thousand bridges are needed to connect all the isles of land floating between them. Personally I found the constant presence of running water to be extremely charming. The canals make the whole city seem to breathe in the open air, counteracting the somewhat cramped aspect of the city’s narrow buildings.

The final result is a beguiling mixture: wide vistas and narrow alleys, crowded footbridges and bustling bike lanes, historic brick husks concealing modern interiors.

As I walked, listening to the soundtrack of Phantom Thread, I was lost in an aesthetic reverie—marvelling at every new perspective afforded to me. Each shop window and city street gained a strange significance, each one a kind of monument to past and present lives. The cold and the dark gave the city a melancholic hue; but it was a sweet sadness, the kind of sorrow one feels at all beauty, knowing that it is temporary. This, then, was my first and final impression of Amsterdam: the beauty of everyday life.

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My first stop was the Van Gogh Museum.

Few museums dedicated solely to the art of one man can be ranked among the great museums of the world, but this is one of them. The institution is situated in a sleek, modern building in Museum Square. The museum received its collection—the largest in the world of Van Gogh’s works—from the artist’s family. After Vincent and his brother, Theo, passed away, his unsold work fell into the able hands of Theo’s widow, Johanna. She, in turn, left the collection to her son, named after his uncle, Vincent. The museum only opened its doors in 1973; before that, Van Gogh’s works were held and displayed in the state modern art museum, the Stedelijk.

No photographs are allowed inside the museum, which is likely a good thing, since otherwise there would be far too many selfie-takers clogging the halls. Thus, I will have to rely on my memory. On the ground floor there is a series of Van Gogh’s self-portraits. His oeuvre is particularly rich in self-portraits, perhaps because he was prone to melancholy self-examination, or perhaps because he simply could not afford other models. In any case, they are milestones in the history of art: an attempt at introspection whose nearest literary equivalent is, perhaps, Montaigne’s Essays. When the portraits are arranged chronologically, one can see the progression in his style, from lumpy forms of dull browns and greys, to bright blues and yellows in dashing lines. His best self-portraits achieve a mesmerizing stare about the eyes, comparable to the intensity in Michelangelo’s David.

The Gleaners, by Jean-Francois Millet

Next, the visitor ascends the stairs to enter the main collection. The exhibit begins with some of Van Gogh’s influences. One of the most important of these was Jean-François Millet, a French social realist who often painted rural scenes. Van Gogh was himself a passionate believer in painting from life; and in his early years especially he was fascinated by poverty and peasant ways. Many of his early sketches (which are on display) are of workers in a field or townspeople attending a mass. Van Gogh got a relatively late start in the craft (27, which is good news for the rest of us) and his early work displays no technical brilliance, to say the least. But it does show, if my eye may judge, a keen emotional sensitivity to the world around him, especially to the toil, drudgery, and misery of life. There is nothing in his work that can be called frivolous.

I came well prepared, since I had just finished reading a collection of Van Gogh’s letters (highly recommended). You may imagine, then, how much of a treat it was to see the artist’s work laid out chronologically after I had worked my way through his life. Again, what most strikes the viewer about Van Gogh’s early work is its lack of color. He seems to have had almost no interest in pigment. This is epitomized in his early masterwork, The Potato Eaters. He shows us a scene of peasants eating a humble meal. It is not an inspiring sight. The men and women have heavy, almost simian features, reminiscent of Goya’s black paintings (though I do not think Van Gogh ever saw them). The oil lamp illuminates the hovel with a sickly light, which reinforces the ill and withered look of the painting’s subject. Van Gogh shows us an ugly truth, horridly naked, and yet made monumental in its composition.

The Potato Eaters

Vincent’s style underwent a dramatic change when, after enduring years of isolated poverty and estrangement with his family, he moved in with his brother, Theo, in his Paris apartment. Theo was an art dealer, and Paris the art capital of the world, so Vincent was well-positioned to take stock of the dominant artistic currents of his time. In Paris he saw the work of modern masters like Monet, Seurat, and Cezanne, and befriended many other prominent artists (most famously Gauguin, who later came to stay with Vincent until they had a quarrel). The most immediate consequence of this exposure was Vincent’s discovery of color. Compared to his earlier work, the paintings he started to produce were bright and joyful, though still burning with intensity.

I would also like to add a curiosity I learned on my visit: that Van Gogh was enamored of Japanese art. Like many artists of the time, he collected Japanese prints. He even went to far as to copy them, producing his own versions of works by Hiroshige. His copies, though lacking the lightness and clean execution of the original, are well done. And he even went so far as to write Japanese all around the border of the painting (though I don’t know if it is proper Japanese, since I do not think he could read the language).

Unfortunately, Van Gogh’s years in Paris are some of his worst documented, since he was living with his brother and so had no need to write him letters. Nevertheless, it is clear that the artist was busy practicing his craft. The Van Gogh museum even has a study that he made of an object (I remember it was a small statue of an animal, but I cannot remember which). Van Gogh’s distinctively heavy brushstrokes also begin to make their emergence at this stage. In another room, a recreating of one of his paintings is on display under a microscope, so that the visitor can see the swirling textures of the master’s paint up close. This habit of daubing on pigment in glooping quantities caused his paintings to have an almost sculptural feel, something that no poster or print can capture.

The Yellow House

After two years Van Gogh left Paris for more the amiable climate of southern France. Here is when his real mature period begins. While his early works tend to focus on humans in action, his mature style was more focused on scenes: buildings, rooms, landscapes. One painting which epitomizes the change is The Yellow House, depicting the building in which he rented an apartment with the naive hope of turning it into an artists’ colony. Far from the center of focus, the people in the work are anonymous shadows, only serving to illustrate the city street that is his main focus. Van Gogh also painted his room. Here the painter’s expressionism is especially obvious. The perspective is warped; it is not quite believable as a space. But the bold yellows and light blues convey a sense of joyfulness and peace, which is nevertheless somewhat belied by the faint whiff of poverty one senses from looking at the barely furnished room.

But Van Gogh’s most famous painting from this period is likely the Sunflowers. Van Gogh made multiple versions of this painting; the most famous of these is at the museum. It is a masterpiece. The painting has the strong and instantly memorable visual impact of the best graphic design. Yet it is better than any design, of course. With his thick and skillful dabs of paint, Van Gogh makes the sunflowers almost tactile. Though more abstract and more beautiful than any real sunflower, one almost feels that she can reach into the painting and grab one. But the emotional effect of the painting goes far beyond its obvious visual properties. As in all of Van Gogh’s best work, the dominant feeling is joy, immense joy, struggling with and overcoming equally intense feelings of despair. During his stay at the Yellow House, Gauguin created a valuable image (also at the museum) of Van Gogh at work on the sunflowers.

Paul Gauguin, The Painter of Sunflowers

Needless to say his dreams of founding an artists’ colony failed. Van Gogh was hardly the figure to command a movement, not least because he was tetchy and unyielding. For example, he constantly clashed with Gauguin over the necessity of drawing from nature. Gauguin believed in letting the artist’s imagination run wild, free of constraint, but Van Gogh insisted that great art only resulted from close observation. In any case, their falling out had as much to do with Van Gogh’s worsening mental state as with his opinions. According to Gauguin, Van Gogh attempted to attack him with a razor; later this same night was when Van Gogh famously severed his ear.

This led to Van Gogh’s hospitalization and eventual suicide—and also to the most productive and extraordinary phase of his career. It is still unclear what ailment plagued the artist in his final years. His lifestyle—smoking and drinking heavily, frequenting prostitutes and possibly contracting syphilis, eating scantily and sleeping sporadically—no doubt contributed. The museum has a display of various hypotheses: Freudian theories of repression, bipolar disorder, sunstroke, digitalis poisoning. Likely we will never know for certain. Whatever the explanation, Van Gogh struggled heroically with his worsening condition, creating an oeuvre that rivals any in the history of art.

Almond Blossoms

One of these remarkable late paintings is his Almond Blossoms. The twisted branch of an almost tree in bloom stretches across the canvas. Beyond is the blue sky, as if the viewer is below and looking up at the boughs. It is a painting of extraordinary calm. One wonders how a man recently admitted into an asylum could conjure such a tranquil image of nature in its simple beauty. And here, once again, we see the artist’s talent for reproducing the emotional effect of nature, rather than nature herself. For the painting is impossible to mistake with a photograph; the brush marks are visible, the flowers are not finely detailed. Yet the painting gives the sense of lying on grass, looking up at an almost tree—the cool breeze, the gentle sun, the fresh smell of spring—better than any photograph can.

Wheatfield with Crows

Among the final paintings on display is Wheatfield with Crows. This is commonly said to be Van Gogh’s last completed painting—though no reliable record exists of it being so—and so critics are apt to see in it signs of depression. Certainly these are not difficult to find: the brooding, stormy sky; the windswept field; the black birds heralding death—and all in a style of extraordinary intensity. But to me this is not the work of a man tired with life, bent on leaving this world. Indeed, though it is hard to argue that the painting is happy, I still sense in it the same joy that one feels in Sunflowers: the awe in the face of a natural spectacle, the wonder at the basic scenes of everyday life. That the same man who painted this would, shortly later, shoot himself in a similar field, beggars my imagination.

Van Gogh’s self-mutilation, confinement, and eventual suicide form an essential part of his myth. No doubt he was dogged by a serious illness, which at times sent him into delusional fits. Yet it is very much disputable the role that Van Gogh’s mental illness—whatever its cause—played in his painting. Some have argued that it contributed to his creativity, giving him a unique vision. One can equally well argue that his art was a way of staying sane and fighting off his demons. Personally, I am averse to this modern tendency to diagnose everyone who seems odd, different, or eccentric with a mental disorder, equating different forms of genius with conditions or illnesses. Such diagnoses strip the individual of his agency, and even of his individuality. More importantly, post mortem diagnoses are impossible to prove.

This did it for the Van Gogh Museum. I can say without hesitation that it was one of the most extraordinary museums that I have had the pleasure of visiting. Fortunately, another one was just around the corner. So after a quick sandwich in Bagels and Beans—a local chain, very tasty—I was on my way to Amsterdam’s other major museum: the Rijksmuseum.

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The Rijksmuseum is the Netherlands’ national museum, comparable to Louvre in Paris or the Prado in Madrid. Founded in 1800, the museum is located in a grand, palatial building—appropriately Dutch in design—right in the center of the city. In it can be found some of the finest examples of Dutch art, including many famous paintings by the Dutch Golden Age masters. It is a necessary visit for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of art.

Aside from a small collection of Asian and Medieval art, the museum’s collection really begins in force with the Renaissance. Here we see the beginning of portraiture as we know it: the attempt to capture the personality of one ordinary individual through a close concentration on their features. We see characters of various sorts—the proud, the crafty, the self-indulgent, the vain—at times ridiculous, yet rendered iconic through the painter’s brush. It is one of the great mysteries of art that it can transform the unique into the universal by emphasizing what is most unique. Perhaps this is because we are all different in the same ways.

The museum does not only contain paintings. There are also ornate chess-sets, statuettes, altarpieces, and even what were supposed to be unicorn horns (in reality, the tusks of narwhals). And there is a fascinating section devoted to colonial art—both art collected from, and inspired by, the Dutch colonization of the Indies. Here we find ornate cannon barrels, one with the head of a dragon, as well as small dioramas depicting colonial life. Also on display are delicate luxury items, such as furniture, candelabras, and mirrors—even an ornate harpsichord. Nearby are the 19th century paintings, among which are excellent examples of Dutch landscapes and portraits.

Yet the museum’s most valuable treasures are gathered together in the Gallery of Honor. And just as Velazquez’s masterpiece, Las Meninas, occupies pride of place in the center of the Prado, so does Rembrandt’s iconic The Night Watch dominate the central gallery.

This painting is justly famous for its revolutionary take on a group portrait. Traditionally, a portrait of this kind—not of nobles, but of the local militia—was a formal and static affair, with the participants lines up in rows according to their rank. Rembrandt cracks this convention wide open with this work. Every person is individualized, and everyone is engaged in some sort of action. As a result the group portrait is full of bustle and even confusion, as each character is busy loading their riffle, having a chat, or gesticulating heroically. It is difficult to imagine this chaotic rabble of men marching in formation, but easy to imagine them relaxing in a pub. Only a master of portraiture such as Rembrandt could have put together such a marvelously memorable image out of such seemingly unpromising material. And if any evidence was needed of his technical ability, examine the foreshortening on the lieutenant’s spear in the foreground.

The Night Watch

Another, somewhat lesser-known master of the Dutch Golden Age was Jacob van Ruisdael, who was the preeminent landscape artist of the period. One might think that the Netherlands is an unpromising land for landscape painters, since the Dutch countryside is so flat and domesticated. But Ruisdael has shown us otherwise. Personally I find his use of color and texture mesmerizing: the fluffy clouds floating in the light blue, the varying greens of the trees and the dull browns of the dirt—it all comes together in such a way that the ordinary beauty of daily scenes emerges. I particularly like his Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede for its brooding, grey sky silhouetting a lonely windmill—perhaps an ironic comment on the force of technology as compared to that of nature.

Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede
The Milkmaid

My favorite painter of this period, and the one that most perfectly captures my impression of Dutch life, is Johannes Vermeer. Here we see something almost entirely new in the history of art. Rather than focus on the forces of nature, the royalty, aristocrats, or wealthy merchants, we have a focus on the most absolutely ordinary of daily, domestic scenes. The most famous example of this is The Milkmaid, which shows us a serving woman engaged in pouring milk. Again, it is the most typical and unromantic of gestures; and yet Vermeer, with his fine attention to daily, manages to imbue into this gesture an extreme pathos—an elemental poetry.

The Little Street

Another one of my favorites is The Little Street, which shows us a typical, middle-class street in the city of Delft. The buildings are in the homely, Dutch style, made with step-gabled roofs of brick, and they are a little bit worn by the weather. Inside Vermeer allows us to spy on a woman at work, washing clothes. Nearby, seated in a doorstep, another woman is sewing; while two children are searching for something (or playing a game?) underneath a bench. Again, the painting is poignant for its very ordinariness. Vermeer shows us the quiet nobility of these neighborhood scenes, normally taken for granted and yet necessary for life to go on. And in the process the artist has created an image more impressive than the full-length portrait of Napoleon, dressed in the most pompous of imperial outfits, in another gallery of the museum.

In a word, I found in the Rijksmuseum what I had also found in the Van Gogh Museum, and indeed in the city itself—a celebration of the beauty of everyday life.

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My next destination was Amsterdam’s infamous Red-Light District. This is so-called because of the red lighting used to advertise a prostitute’s service at night. The area is famous, not only for the working women displaying themselves in shop windows, but also for the many peripheral sex-related businesses: sex shops, sex shows, and even a museum of prostitution (which was what I decided to visit).

Ironically, perhaps, the red-light district in Amsterdam is in the most historic and beautiful part of the city. Canals criss-cross this side of town in a circular pattern, making all foot-travel a labyrinth of alleys, narrow streets, and foot-bridges. Hardly a street goes by that does not reveal another picturesque view of the city. It was a clear February afternoon, with the blue sky gradually turning pink in the sunset, and shadows gradually extending across the canals. I was there before dinner, so the area was fairly quiet. Indeed, apart from a few signs, it was difficult to know that I was even in a red-light district. No scantily clad women graced the windows overlooking the street. This meant that I could take pictures without fear. From what I hear, the women get angry when people photograph them, and may even leave their perch in violent pursuit.

Before I relate what I learned in the Museum of Prostitution, I wish first to cover another of Amsterdam’s famous markets: marijuana. Now, you may be surprised to learn that marijuana is not legal in the city; it is decriminalized—or tolerated, in other words. The result is the same, however: a visitor may consume weed without fear of the police, and even buy small quantities with impunity. This is normally done in “coffee” shops. I did not visit one of these during my stay—I was traveling alone, so it didn’t seem like a good idea—but I have heard ample stories of friends smoking too much, or eating too much of an edible, and repenting afterwards. Well, maybe next time.

The Museum of Prostitution is dedicated to Amsterdam’s other great vice: sex. It is right in the center of the red-light district, in a space that was formerly used by call girls. The ticket came with an audioguide, in my case narrated by a Russian sex worker. The museum itself is designed to replicate the spaces used in these circumstances, complete with bathrooms, beds, and chains. I learned some interesting facts along the way. The standard deal is to pay €50 until the man finishes—which normally takes less than 10 minutes. A working girl makes more money with a faster turnover, you see. The guide also told us about some of the dangers that prostitutes face, even in a highly regulated industry like Amsterdam’s, as well as some amusing stories about customers. Really, the most striking thing about the museum was how un-sexy the experience is made to seem, for both client and purveyor.

I especially appreciated the information about prostitution throughout the world. In most of the United States it is absolutely illegal. In Spain, it is decriminalized to be a prostitute, but pimping is illegal. In France it is legal to sell sex but illegal to buy it—a curious situation. In Amsterdam it is highly regulated, with a certain number of legal permits. Window prostitutes only constitute a moderate portion of the business in the country, with street walkers, sex clubs, and escort services rounding out the rest of the market. I have heard people say that STD testing is mandatory, but this is not actually true—though I am sure that many prostitutes regularly get tested, and condom use is universal.

Unfortunately, despite the increase in legal protections, the industry is still rife with problems. Prostitutes are far more likely to suffer abuse or rape. And since prostitution is still illegal in much of the world, and in any case there is a lot of money to be made by unscrupulous people, human trafficking, especially of underage girls, is still a serious problem. This has led to some crackdowns by the authorities. Coffee shops have not escaped this legal limbo, either, since although it is not illegal to buy or possess marijuana in small quantities, it is illegal to grow or buy it in large quantities—which leads one to wonder where these coffee shops get their supplies.

Though I was not inspired to try it for myself, I left the museum greatly impressed by the huge and so often ignored role that the world’s oldest profession has played, and still plays, in society. To pick a relevant example, Van Gogh was a dedicated patron of brothels. At one point he decided to live with a prostitute and her young child—despite the protests of his family and friends—and after his self-inflicted wound to the ear, he delivered the severed appendage to a local prostitute. And this story is just one of millions.

Sex work has been a constant presence in the history of every nation; yet this indecorous profession has consistently been pushed into the shadows. It is something we prefer to ignore, even if we all know it exists. Personally, despite its shortcomings, I think that the Dutch approach is far better than American prudishness. If we simply admit that, one way or another, sex work will continue to exist, we can install the necessary safeguards to make it safe for its practitioners. Pretending it does not exist only serves those who prey on the vulnerable.

§

I only had a long weekend to spend on this trip; and I had decided, perhaps too ambitiously, to visit both Amsterdam and Brussels in the three full days I had available. This meant that, after my long day exploring the treasures of Amsterdam, I had to catch a train the following afternoon. Only the morning remained to see more of this enchanting city.

I decided that my time was best spent in renting a bicycle. Amsterdam is one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world; and if you want to see the city from the perspective of a native, this is the only way to do it. So I trekked from my Airbnb to Centraal Station (listening to Frankenstein on audiobook, whose dark gothic tone did not quite match the bourgeois beauty of the city), deposited my big orange backpack in a luggage locker (they are located beyond the train turnstiles), and rented a bike from a place called MacBike (no relation to Apple).

It was a simple contraption with a few gears and decently working brakes. Somehow, while I was adjusting the seat for my overlong legs, I cut myself in my palm. It did not hurt at all; in fact I didn’t notice until after several minutes of riding; but it bled quite a bit and the scar lasted for months. Thus I bloodily made my way into the city. I was quite nervous at first. My riding skills are reasonable, but I felt intimidated by the rules of the road. I had never signalled, passed on the outside lane, stopped at a stop sign, or dealt with intersections on a bike. And I can hardly do those things in a car in any case. But once I got my biking legs back, I felt marvelous as I drifted down the historic city streets.

Bicycles are one of the most extraordinary inventions our species has blundered upon, and I think many cities could be vastly improved by following Amsterdam’s example and relying more on bike transport. They require no fuel except the food you eat, are fast enough to quickly navigate most city centers, need little space to store, produce no pollution, and as an added bonus promote healthiness and well-being. I remember watching a presentation by Bill Nye while I was in high school in which he told us that bicycles are the most energy-efficient form of transportation known to man. They are also quite relaxing and enjoyable.

As you can tell from this paean to bicycles, I was having a splendid time. But it was difficult to navigate the city, since I couldn’t follow any maps on my phone while I was riding. After several wrong turns and detours, then, I found my way to Vondelpark, a very pretty green space with twisting paths for walking and biking, and a little pond running down the center.

As I rode through this park, I had one of those surreal moments when one seems to be seeing oneself from a distance. I had heard of people visiting Amsterdam and renting bikes back when I was in high school, but never did I imagine that I might do the same thing myself one day. Yet here I was, less than ten years after graduating high school, pedaling around in this beautiful foreign city before my train left to Belgium—another place I never imagined that I would visit. It seemed too good to be true, like I was living somebody else’s life. This was an irrational reaction, since it is not as if biking in Amsterdam is objectively more pleasurable than biking in, say, my old university. What made it special was that, throughout the years, I had unconsciously invested the experience with an exotic, unreachable quality; and now I was finding that, far from unreachable, it was the easiest thing in the world.

In an hour I had arrived back in the train station. It was to be my last glimpse of the city before my ride to Belgium. The experience only confirmed what was, from the start, my constant impression of Amsterdam: the appreciation of ordinary pleasures, the celebration of daily beauty, the quiet contentment with the simple things in life. It is a city of high culture but of little pretense, of hard work yet of an easygoing attitude. I hope to return someday.

Images of Salamanca

Images of Salamanca

There is a legend that, if you see the frog on the façade of the old university building, you are destined to return to Salamanca. Well, I saw the frog on my first trip, three years ago. And sure enough I returned.

Salamanca is without doubt one of the best daytrips from Madrid. Like so many places in Spain, it is extremely photogenic. Here is the evidence.

The passage surrounding the magnificent Plaza Mayor
The plaza
The famed Casa de las Conchas. It is a municipal library now.
From the Casa’s courtyard you can see the Church of the Holy Spirit.
The façade of the old university building.
Can you find the frog?
The old library.
My brother contemplating the anatomy of a lizard.
The main altar of the old cathedral. We took the tour of the Ieronimus tower—highly recommended.
The cathedral’s roof.
The view from the upper floor. It is difficult to capture the sense of vertigo in a photograph.
My friend Holden and my brother.
The old Roman Bridge in the distance, spanning the river Tórmes
The astronaut floating in the façade of the New Cathedral.
We stumbled upon a wedding.
The Roman Bridge, with the cathedral in the distance.
The Casa Lis, an Art Deco museum that we visited. It’s lovely, but no photos are allowed.
A section from El Cielo de Salamanca, a fresco of the zodiac painted on a semi-dome in the Escuela Menores. It’s a stunning work, and free to visit.
The Convento de San Esteban, with is impressive plateresque façade.
The central cloister of the convent.
A very old and a very big book.
The convent church.

Review: Either/Or

Review: Either/Or
Either/Or: A Fragment of Life

Either/Or: A Fragment of Life by Søren Kierkegaard

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of course, a critic resembles a poet to a hair, except that he has no anguish in his heart, no music on his lips.

This is one of those rare unclassifiable books, whose genre was born the day it was published and which has since left no heirs. Kierkegaard gives us what appears, at first, to be a sort of literary experiment: the papers of two imaginary characters, found inside the escritoire by a third imaginary character. These two characters—referred to as ‘A’ and ‘B’—serve as the titular either/or; and their writings are a study in contrast. Specifically, Kierkegaard uses these two personages to juxtapose the aesthetic with the ethical modes of life, presumably asking the reader to choose between them. You might say it is a ‘choose your own adventure’ book of philosophy, except the adventure chosen turns out to be your life.

Part 1, by A, gives us the aesthetic man. We are presented with extracts from a journal, essays on Mozart’s Don Giovanni and ancient tragedy, a study of boredom, and the famous Seducer’s Diary: A’s record of his carefully planned seduction of a young girl. Part 2 is more focused, consisting of two long letters sent by B (who is supposed to be a middle-aged judge) to A, both exhorting the latter to turn towards a more ethical view of life. The styles of the two writers are suitably different: A is excitable, hyperbolic, and aphoristic, while B is more staid and focused. Nevertheless, it is never difficult to tell that Kierkegaard is the true author.

Neatly summarizing the difference in perspectives would be difficult, since Kierkegaard tends to be flexible with his own definitions. Perhaps the best way to capture the contrast is with the book’s central metaphor: seduction vs. marriage. In the first, A is concerned with attaining a maximum of pleasure. He is not a hedonist, and is not very interested in sex. Rather, he is interested in avoiding boredom by carefully shaping his developing relationship like a well-plotted novel, ensuring that each emotion is felt to the utmost. His primary concern, in other words, is to avoid the stale, the cliché, the repetitive. The judge, by contrast, sees marriage as far preferable to seduction, since it is through commitments like marriage that the inner self develops and becomes fully actualized. While the aesthete prefers to live in the moment, the ethical man notes that, even if every moment is novel, the self remains the same. Change requires commitment.

Interpreting the book is difficult. Are we being asked to make a choice in values? Such a choice could have no basis but chance or personal whim, since no pre-existing value could guide us between two incompatible value-systems. This, you might say, is the existentialist interpretation of the book: the primacy of choice over values. Yet other options are available. For example, despite Kierkegaard’s famous opposition to Hegel’s philosophy, this text is open to a Hegelian reading. Specifically, B’s perspective seems in many respects superior to A’s, since B demonstrates that he is able to understand A, while A presumably cannot understand B. Thus, you can perhaps regard B as the Hegelian antithesis to A’s thesis; and perhaps both of these can be united in a wider perspective, such as in Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith—a religious unity of inner feeling and outer obligation. There is also the unmistakable autobiographical element in this writing, since Kierkegaard had not long before broken off his own engagement.

This is just to scrape the surface of possibility. And this shows both the strength and weakness of Kierkegaard’s writing. On the one hand, this book is highly rich and suggestive, with brilliant passages buried amid piles of less compelling material. On the other hand, to call a book “rich” and “suggestive” is also to call it confused. Since no clear message emerges, and since there are no arguments to guide the way, the book can easily yield interpretations consonant with pre-conceived opinions. In other words, it is hard to me to imagine somebody being convinced to change their mind by reading this. But Kierkegaard can perhaps better be likened to a good art critic than to a systematic philosopher, for the value in his writing consists more in illuminating comments than in a final conclusion.

On the whole, however, I must say that I emerged with a distaste for Kierkegaard’s writing. At times he rises to commanding eloquence; but so often he seems to wallow in confusing and repetitive intricacies. More to the point, I find the general tenor of his writing to be anti-rationalist; and this is exemplified in the complete lack of argument in his writings. But nobody could deny that, all told, this is an extraordinary book and a worthy addition to the philosophical tradition.



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