Dear Friends

FEATURE by Ben Maddow


Nothing is more boring than someone else’s travels; on the other hand, nothing is more urgent than the need to tell. A pleasant way to get around this dilemma was discovered by the Japanese poet Basho, who spiced an account of his dull journey from one Zen temple to another, with delicate haiku, which are simply, short, epigrammatic poems:

The old pond

A frog jump in

The sound of the water

He was classic and lyric, but more to my present taste was the poet Issa:

Having slept, the cat gets up

And with great yawns,

Goes out love-making.

This kind of haiku is more accurately called senryu:

Oh snail,

Climb Mt. Fuji,

But slowly, slowly!

Of course, I do not quite compare myself to these masters. In fact, I’m more in the class with the nice lady in the front row, (at a Symposium on Theatre: Whither? or some such thing) who handed a note up to me on the platform, which I assumed to be a solemn question, but, to my delight, it was a perfect haiku:


Move your chair in

It’s too close to the edge

It worries me.

I could not hope to match the brilliance of this lady’s last line, but I’m determined to try. What follows, then, (in case you want to crumple this up right now) is a trivialized account of our travels this autumn. There is, for example, the ritual of packing:

Women have purses

As deep as China,

But a man will lose

Things forever

In his eleven pockets.

Because one invariably forgets the one absolute essential:

True power in Europe

Is forbidden to Americans

Unless they remember

The right plug.

It’s true, that no matter how exhaustive a schedule one plans, the fact remains that you spend 25 hours out of 24 in a hotel room that smells of some else’s tobacco. These little jails, with their dim lights, mini-bars, local T.V., bidet, blow-dryer, and a view through the window of a concrete wall, have one thing in common: they have no shower curtains. In fact, a good practical definition of a five-star, deluxe European hotel is one with a shower curtain, even if it doesn’t reach the bottom. And even then, and in Paris, naturally:

This shower is historically interesting

Since it was specially made

For the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

On the other hand, the hotels in Belgium and Holland were particularly selected to be next to a picturesque canal, which has its problems:

There is no such thing

As one mosquito.

Of course, most of the world is water and nowhere does it dominate life as much as in the average hotel room:

Everywhere we stay

The noise of water

Invisible in the wall.

Is it, like Kafka,

Only for us?

As you can see, mild suspicion ripens easily to guilty fear:

Stumbling to the bathroom

Wet underfoot:

Bad plumbing,

Or oneself?

Oui, en Paris, where we had a garret room (previously inhabited by Beaudelaire?) with a standard view of chimney pots, fear did not vanish with the daylight:

The walls of this six hundred franc room

Slant inward

A little more each morning:

Foretaste of eternity?

Ah, Paris, the eating capital of the world, where we had a memorable non-dinner:

Seating us in a blind corner

Then vanishing like a bird,

To brush with his sleeve

A glass to bits on the floor

Then further off pale and staggering

With a glass of red in his hand,

Our waiter is plainly drunk.

Which reminds one of the Low Countries, where everything, except the meals, is scaled down for human consumption:

The great hurricane of October

Blew into our room at Bruges

Bits of geranium.

One dare not, for fear of offending the great eyes of the cows, go on a diet:

Delicious fat,

Cream the color of coffee,

Yet the Dutch are lean

As the seat of their bicycles.

Bicycles, indeed, are the one universal exuberance in Holland. Everyone rides them. One sees heads go floating by, vigorous old ladies, babies wrapped in baskets, mountains of laundry, -- and only later does one realize there are wheels somewhere down below. They furnish a relief in the midst of order:

Even the forest

Grows in straight lines,

Through which one may glimpse

Though at a great distance

Wild bicycles.

Chaos, at last, has been held off by a system of dikes, thick cream, and serenity:

A Sunday canal

One fisherman

No fish:

Dutch paradise.

And the great, greedy feasts of Breughel are reduced to order:

The prize pig of the year

Ends up in a museum café,

Sliced as thin

As Japanese paper.

Everything in Holland is quite nearby but also very far away:

In Delft one gets

The latest world news

At ten every Tuesday.

And also:

When stocks

Plunge in New York

Can Delft be far behind


Why were we confining ourselves to the Low Countries? Actually, not for chocolates or Belgian fries, but for gourmandise of the Arts. It was a pilgrimage not without its problems, because:

Whatever can be shut

Will be shut.

Not to despair

It will open again

When you’re gone.

For example:

The greatest collection of Mondrian in the world

Is locked in the basement:

A truly abstract experience.

Nevertheless, one manages to see a great deal of Memling and Rembrandt and Van Gogh and Picasso and Van der Weyden:

One sees everywhere

Van der Weyden women.

They have changed

Clothes but not

Their virgin foreheads

Nor their swollen, sleepy,

And lascivious eyes.

We are haunted even today by the Jewish Bride, that golden meteor over Rembradt’s exile in the ghetto. The great images live in one’s head, but refuse to give lessons:

Both Haydn and Picasso

Loved to joke.

This proves

Absolutely nothing.

But the Mannerist paintings in the renovated, boastful, chauvinistic, badly lit and overcrowded Musee d’Orsai (formerly a railway station, and they should have left the trains) can at least amuse:

The cupids on the ceiling

Fire crooked arrows.

Love is not virtuous,

And neither is art.

Finally one becomes saturated with images, and this leads to curious insights:

Why is thunder

Always Cubist?

But travel is its own corrective. One has only to take a train, break the language barrier, and smile at strangers, and one is in touch with life again:

A very pretty girl

Ate my apple

And fell asleep.

The man with one earring

And a radical Flemish weekly

Keeps careful surveillance

Of her long black legs.

On the train from Rotterdam to Paris:

A dermatologist told us

“Laughter cures pimples.”

Advice sixty years too late.


The same bearded doctor

Conducts session on the floor.

His patients stare into little mirrors

And are instructed to laugh,

Though some, unfortunately,


And then there was the little man on the train to Bruges, who goes to flea markets in obscure towns with gutteral names in search of his Holy Grail:

A young Belgian collector

Of Nelson Eddy records

Agrees that Jeanette McDonald

Is also charming.

Semi-finally, did you know that Albert Einstein wrote a haiku

I love travelling

But then one always

Finally arrives.

He also wrote:

The eternal

Mystery of the world

Is its comprehensibility.

But we won’t go into that.

And anyway, there was good old renovated New York at last, and a newborn grandson:

How serious new babies are:

They don’t yet know

How hilarious it really is.

So, in this seventh year of the Ronnie Ice Age, which is about to break up, we send you:

Love, and happy triple holidays:


Freda and Ben