Ode to Joy

My wife and I visited the Benelux countries — our much anticipated first foreign trip in 2-1/2 years. My biggest takeaway impression: a civilization whose main business is living the good life. What we strove two million years to achieve. The soundtrack playing in my head was Beethoven’s rhapsodic Ode to Joy — the European Union’s anthem.

Bastogne War Memorial

Seeing all those people out enjoying themselves, relaxing in cafes, and so forth, I realized that some experienced, as children, the Nazi occupation. We visited Luxembourg’s American military cemetery, and Bastogne’s war memorial and museum, both monuments to the horrific Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, the Germans’ last great effort to turn back the invading allies, with 76,890 U.S. casualties.

These sites evoked strong emotions. Mindful that both our fathers took part in that American effort to save civilization. And mindful that now, not so far away, dark history is repeating, Russia’s Ukraine invasion replicating so much of the Nazi nightmare. Both wars insane.

Amsterdam is a bicycle city. Sidewalks divided between bike and pedestrian lanes, and one quickly learns that’s an inviolate border. Those bikers go fast. And the streets are lined with bicycle parking areas, filled with bikes as far as the eye can see.

Our second day there we saw the Van Gogh Museum. I realized to what a degree bodily sensations were shaping my experience. The day before, we’d visited the zoo, a lot of walking; and then I’d taken a long solo walk after. My legs were sore, with lower back discomfort too. At 74 my stamina is waning. There was also a dull shoulder ache, don’t know where that came from. Meantime, the night before, I’d taken a sleeping pill — I’ve found that doing that just once on long trips combats jet lag. But it does leave me a bit woolly-headed in the morning. So at breakfast I had a coffee (very rare for me), thinking the caffeine would be salutary. Also two glasses of juice. Yet around 10 o’clock I was feeling awfully thirsty. Looking ahead, having had a big breakfast, I knew I’d eat no lunch, but decided I’d have a coke. And for the next couple hours, almost obsessively looked forward to it. Furthermore, I was much overdue for pooping. So — all that going on bodily dominated my brain activity.

When we finally got to the museum cafe, and I could sit down, that first sip of cold coke was sublime. And I was glad my wife wanted to remain there a while and write.

As to Van Gogh, I was struck less by the art than by the human story. Here was a poor schlub who enjoyed zero success, recognition, or happiness in his short life. I wondered how he’d feel if he could see this solemn temple honoring him! Posthumously, his paintings might well have been forgotten as junk; their artistic merit not actually so obvious. Perhaps it was the psychodrama of cutting off his ear that made the difference. A brilliant career move.

Outside a Brussels bookstore. No, they did not have mine!

In Brussels, our daughter popped over from London and met us for dinner. Only two hours by train! She’s living there now, wrapping up a Masters at University College London, and starting a nice job at an NGO in education development. Plus a boyfriend moving in. I’m in awe at how splendidly she’s doing (forgive the immodesty). And that my wife and I created this person.

The next day we three hiked to the Magritte Museum. Belgium’s Rene Magritte (1898-1967) was a leading surrealist painter. I’ve always found his works enigmatically compelling; in my own surrealist days (early ’70s), I copied one (“Collective Invention”) in hommage, and it still hangs above my desk.

The museum visit was also especially a pilgrimage for me because I so remembered my first date with my wife-to-be. Walking her back from the lunch, I was still undecided whether this young thing possessed sufficient substance. Then she asked me my favorite artist.

“Collective Invention”

“Magritte,” I replied. Haughtily saying to myself, “This callow little girl won’t know what I’m talking about.”

But she did. Knew all about Magritte.

And then I said to myself: “Ooooohhhhh . . . .”

Cue: Ode to Joy.

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