The sycamores still have green leaves in downtown Brussels. It is December. In a week and a half the winter solstice will be on us. But the leaves hang broad and green in Brussels.
I only know this because lights illuminate all around in this part of town. Last night I arrived, well after dark, and I left my hotel well before dawn to rush to the train station to return to Berlin where, tomorrow, I will catch my flight to the United States. In Utah, I read it is well below zero and ten inches of snow were supposed to fall yesterday.
My taxi arrived, six thirty on the spot, just as ordered. To be honest, I was surprised. Last night it took the taxi driver almost twenty minutes to figure out where the alley way was with the magnificent name of Rue, or street, du Colombier. It is a small, one block long, alley that parallels a main street and has two small hotels on it. The walls of the alley are covered with graffiti, as if to welcome me to town. I had gotten used to graffiti in Berlin but missed it in northern England, where it could only be found in rare, scattered, out of the way places. On this alleyway the graffiti flowered bold and colorful.
I boarded the taxi and went down the pre-dawn street, where small bands of youths still roamed and a few coffee houses and cafes were open. At the train station, vague thoughts of breakfast were playing across my mind, when suddenly I realized I did not have my laptop with me. I had my bags, but my shoulder from which the lap top hangs was empty. I froze in fear. What had I done!
The stairs of the hotel twisted down four floors from the attic with angled ceilings where my room was to the ground floor. It was narrow and tight and I carried my two bags down the stairs carefully, especially since the last sections was not lit and the steps were much smaller than my feet. In my concern to negotiate the stairs and catch the taxi, so to not miss my train, I forgot to slip my laptop case over my shoulder.
I ran out to the taxi stop and a driver was right there. I explained my circumstance and he said “street what?” I was afraid the small street would defeat me. He asked me in French if I knew the street and could direct him? Direct him? But I arrived last night and left this morning in the dark. Could I remember the way through Brussels’ streets where I had never been before last night, tired and in a cab?
Somehow, we found the street, though the taxi driver pulled down the wrong way. I opened the door to run. But... I turned. “What is your number please?” I asked since I could see it no where. “Do not worry. Just go get your computer and I will turn the car around. I will be here for you.” I ran, though stories from Latin America flirted with my consciousness, where people trusted like this and the cab disappeared.
The hotel door was looked and it was dark inside. The clock was ticking. It soon would be time for my train’s departure. And the computer? Will it still be there?
Strangely, I was pleased it was dark, even though I rang insistently. The lack of light meant people were still asleep and no one had probably gone up to the room yet. So my chances were good the laptop would still be in its case on the bed.
A couple came down the stairs and tried to open the door, just as the attendant came out of his room and finished the process to let them out, taking their key. I asked for my key and he fumbled around, trying to figure out which it was. He did not want to turn on the light.
Finally he found it and I ran up the dark stairs to the third floor here and fourth floor in the states. Luck was with me. The room was just how I had left it and the computer was on the bed.
“What I don’t understand” the Taxi driver questioned as we drove the still dark streets back to the train station “is how you could leave your laptop.” We laughed at my forgetfulness and recognized it was a miracle the laptop was still there. Then he turned the radio on to a Flemish station and listened in that language that is so close to Dutch and related to the Plaat Deutsch of the German north. I could understand what the announcer said, mostly, as he read the news about Afghanistan, US policy there, and the search for Bin Laden. The driver was showing me he was a native of Brussels, and not from some where else like my other taxi drivers.
I am now on board the train, rushing towards Cologne where I change trains to go on to Berlin. Once again, I am thrown into the language maelstrom of Europe. In northern England I was fascinated at the subtle changes of accent and language from Liverpool to Manchester, Rochdale and then down the Calder Valley from Hebden Bridge, through Halifax, to Leeds. Each city and town has its own character and language. People here know the different sounds and can identify people as to place and class. (I am talking about English and not the Urdu one also hears. About that I do not know.)
When I first came here twenty years ago, the buildings’ walls were dirty with the grime of time and residue from industrial smog. The Industrial revolution took place here, as spinning mills then weaving mills sprung up through many of the valleys that pierce the stark moors. A canal was built from Leeds to Liverpool to make transporting the product and shipping it abroad easier and more economical. Later the rail line crossed this upland close to the canal.
Halifax, the city near which my grandmother was born, was almost black. Its limestone walls darkened around its hundred thousand inhabitants. Now the walls are cleaned, but they are slowly darkening again. Near here is a heartland of the British, nationalist right wing. It is also an area with a large South Asian population. People from Pakistan and India were brought as the last set of workers to man the mills before they closed leaving them abandoned in the harsh north, where the wind screams across the moors.
My family left, though relatives and friends remain. The area has been undergoing a revival. Many new and whimsical glass and steel buildings have transformed the Manchester skyline. On Saturday, my friend Valerie, her daughter Sascha and granddaughter Claudia and I went to Manchester. Its metropolitan area creeps ever outward. Rochdale, where Valerie is from, now forms part of it. On the other side of the uplands, Leeds creeps outwards and soon, if not already, Halifax will be part of its metropolitan area.
Claudia went to Manchester to ride the ferris wheel, in practice for a school trip to London. The wheel, called the “Eye”, rises in the heart of the city, close to Victoria Station where we arrived. It is a permanent part of the cityscape, unlike the ferris wheel that rose, as part of a Christmas market, by the mall and train station at Alexanderplatz in Berlin.
The German Christmas markets spread to Manchester. Much of the downtown had the wooden kiosks and kitsch that I had seen in Berlin, as well as the glühwein, the krakauer wurst (Krakow sausage), the bratwurst, stollen and various marzipan offerings.
Young people in colorful and creative costumes danced and begged through the crowds collecting money for charity while choirs and brass bands pumped out Christmas carols.
As the light in the sky began to darken in early afternoon, as it does this far north, a red flag with the image of Che Guevarra greeted us on Victoria Square, along with an intense Polish man in his thirties who was campaigning against the US holding cuban political prisoners. I suspect many Americans are unaware of how people outside the country apply this label to various prisoners in our country. He and I talked for a bit, or rather I listened while he lectured and then invited us to a film.
Just beyond him drums pulsed in the impending gloom. A group of Africans were drumming, dancing, and singing praises to God. No one spoke to me, but a man came up to Valerie and invited her to visit them. Although the rhythms were contagious, very few people stopped, but we stood there for a while moving slightly to the rhythm.
Then we moved on. In the heart of the square, a complex of snow related offerings rose: a tubing slope, a place to get your child’s picture taken with snow, among others.
On the street, at the edge of the square, a man with fire in his eyes stood by a box and was preaching damnation. His partner approached me and we talked. I did not see anyone else talk to them while we were there, or even circle around to listen. After a while the preacher joined us.
They are Evangelicals, nondenominational “Christians”, who preach against the corrupt and worldly West that has forgotten Jesus Christ. He said the United States was a little better when he noticed my American accent.
“Have you been in the United States?” I asked. They had visited Iowa and Michigan, parts of the Bible belt, but did not know the rest of the very complex continent that is the United States. The geography of travel fascinates me. People do not travel at random but move along paths that have some relationship to their social worlds and their experience.
“Where are you from?” they asked. “Utah” I replied. “Are you Mormon?” They had already asked if I was a Christian and I replied I was not an Evangelical. I responded “I was raised Mormon” and they tensed and moved away. So I thanked them and said my goodbyes.
Inside, though, I was thinking. Not about the Evangelical distaste for Mormons; that is old stuff. Instead I was thinking about this kind of evangelical, missionary religion that originated in England and has now spread throughout much of the world. I wondered how it fit with the social changes of the industrial revolution that raised the buildings all around us and the slavery and rum that was important to the nearby port of Liverpool. Somehow this fierce religion must have been forged, in part, in the social chaos of spinning and weaving along with the global trade in people and commodities of which it was part. Now though it is a marginal remnant here. The preachers no longer draw crowds as Brigham Young or Parley Pratt once did. Instead they become hoarse with frustration at the lack of reception, and that seems to motivate them more to witness stridently against passersby.
Wow. The train arrived in Cologne. I stepped out of the station while waiting for my Berlin train and right there was the Cologne Cathedral. Oh my! It rises in mythical Gothic splendor right by the train station. I wish my wait were longer so I had time to go inside and view its art and construction. The absence of this physical majesty among Evangelicals is part of the same social and political processes that led to the many centuries of building this monument.
I did go to Liverpool on Monday, to meet my colleague Sandy who is from there. We met in the Lime Street train station and then went to an old pub with tooled tin ceiling to talk and catch up. Sandy brought up the slave trade, as we were discussing Liverpool, and once mentioned that it had almost as many millionaires as London, as a result.
Many, if not most Utahns, have ancestors who came through this port to immigrate to Utah. They took advantage of routes and shipping developed and made possible by the four-way trade between England, Africa, the Caribbean, and America in people rum and other commodities. I wonder if part of the architectural influences that led to the Salt Lake Temple did not come from Liverpool.
After talking, and then eating at a local cafe, Sandy and I walked although it was raining. She told me about the two cathedrals of Liverpool, the Anglican which rises in a massive tower that looks like a battlement, and the Catholic which is new and round. The old Catholic Cathedral was destroyed in the War and still stands as a hulk.
On one window where we walk, a life-size image of Capt. Kirk asks Mr. Spock if he knows what is going on in the ruined church. It is still a presence in Liverpool. Sandy said that the new cathedral seems to lack sacredness to her and to many other people.
We walked inside, along with a gaggle of school kids who were going to practice for a Christmas play to be held inside. In the large open space we walked around looking at the side chapels and the stations of the cross with their creative imagery.
At the door out, an older woman was seated by a desk and spoke to us, lamenting the lack of light on this rainy day and saying that we must come back when the sun shines to really appreciate the Cathedral. Where are you from, she asked. When I said America she responded “then I guess you can’t come back. It is too bad, the Cathedral is so beautiful when the light shines through the stained glass. This is the largest expanse of stained glass there is.”
Sandy picked up a bit of an Irish tone in her voice. “Are you from Ireland?” “No. I was born here on .... road. Though we were evacuated during the war to Ireland.”
Sandy asked her about the war and she spoke of her family home that was destroyed in a bombing raid. All of her family survived while the entire family next door was killed.
Part of the reason Manchester has so many new buildings is because of the war and its destruction of Manchester’s downtown, as well as a massive Irish Republican Army bomb that exploded there and demolished much. But the older people who lived through World War II and its devastation are now dying. Soon, they and their stories will be gone.
In Manchester, a young man held a sign announcing X-Factor, the British American Idol. On sunday night the finalists were chosen and Danyl was eliminated. Simon had said that Danyl had the best audition he had ever seen. Despite his talent and ability the British public eliminated him. Monday’s paper, left on the train I took back to Rochdale, was filled with gossip and discussion about that decision and its consequences.
In Manchester too, there were a few Sycamores whose leaves were green. They were falling; the trees had only a few left. But they were not like the entire trees with big, fat leaves in Brussels. The trees of the German countryside, through which we are passing stand stark, and naked. They stand in clumps of trees about the same height and the same width, interspersed with fields and houses.
I wonder what it would be like to cross Germany in these snippets of forest. I have spoken with people who hid in the forests during the war, for one reason or another. But I wonder more what the forests were like when first Celts and then Germanic tribesmen came west into the massive forests of Europe.
These are tamed, domesticated, almost crop-like in their limits and uniformity. People have molded the landscape, even though deer and elk probably still roam the woods. Maybe some day I will see the woods when the trees are filled with leaves.