Ad Oriente!Posted: January 8, 2012
At sea, January 8
I left Madrid late at night, I spent two days in Barcelona, and now here I am, at sea. On the starboard side you can see the hazy outlines of Corsica, on the port side you can barely distinguish the coastal range of the Ligurian riviera.
The reason I left is because the revolution in Spain is hibernating. It will flourish again, but I’m not going to wait for it. I want to be where things are happening. And the next stop will be Rome. Yesterday evening the March to Athens arrived there, and on the 15th of January a demonstration is called for. It’s going to be a ‘Carnival of the System’. People are not only going to protest, they intend to show that the emperor wears no clothes.
Two days in Barcelona was just enough to enjoy some of the city’s strokes of beauty. It must be a fabulous place to live, and indeed, the place is inhabitated by people from all over the world. As for the state of the 15M movement, I haven’t noticed anything personally. All I know is what I heard from people I met before.
Catalonia is probably the most advanced region of Spain. It enjoys far reaching autonomy over internal matters. Last June the Catalan parliament was besieged by protesters when heavy austerity measures were voted. Health care spending was hit hardest of all.
As a result of this, numerous community health centres are being closed. According to the newspapers at least two people have died who couldn’t be assisted in time because of the cuts. The first victims of the crisis. It’s outrageous. With all the billions of dollars being used to save banks, there are people left to die for lack of medical personel. And we’re not talking about the third world here, we’re talking about one of the richest regions in Western Europe.
The actions of the 15M in Catalonia focussed a lot on the cutbacks in health care, and have being going on at local level for months. I haven’t got any details. The organisational structure of the movement is based on the neighbourhood assemblies. As I heard, there doesn’t exist a General Assembly in Plaça Catalunya any more.
Now the lights of Barcelona have faded away in the distance for some time already, a bright winter sun has risen over the sea. I love it. The ferryboat is definitely my favourite way of travelling. Nothing compares to these glorious floating hotels.
I sit on the deck and I wonder. About Aeneas and Dido, about Odysseus and Circe. Far far away I see the foggy silhouet of the shore. If I had gone east a month ago, which I was seriously planning to do, I would have gone over land. Nothing wrong with that. Everything has a fourth dimension, and I would have told you about Hannibal’s army marching along the shore from Cartagena and crossing the Alps into Italy with 20.000 soldiers and 39 elephants. Or I would have told you about Napoleon’s legendary first Italian campaign in 1796-97, when the 27 year old general took control of the delapidated Armata d’Italia on the Côte d’Azur, and went on to set the stage for his grand Homeric adventure.
But here on the boat, there’s another story that comes to mind. It started in Genoa, years ago. I was there for a few days and I teamed up with an American student from Yale, to discover the traces of flemish master Peter-Paul Rubens. For me it was just fun, but for my companion it was a very serious task. He got to travel all over the Mediterranean to write a paper about a famous American journalist. It’s one of the advantages of an Ivy League education.
“Who was this journalist?” I asked.
“Mark Twain. Do you know him?”
I did, actually. But I didn’t know anything about his memorable trip to Europe.
From the top of my head it must have been the late 1850s, just before the American Civil War, and in the first stages of the final conquest of the West. A newspaper from New York had organised a voyage by steamer to the Holy Land, calling at all of the major ports of the European shore of the Mediterranean. The American jetset of the day would all be there. They were modern pilgrims searching for their roots, and the young Mark Twain was sent along to document the trip.
His account was published under the title The Innocents Abroad. I laid my hands on a copy, and I was glad that I did. Not only is it one of the most enjoyable travel stories I have ever read, it’s also a priceless description of the time.
Just one example. In Venice, during most of the Venetian Republic, the jews were not allowed to live outside of their ghetto. For everyone to fit in the few guarded blocks of the Canaregio islands, the buildings of the jewish quarter were relatively high, reaching up to seven or eight floors. When Twain passes through the ghetto, he is impressed. Nowhere in America had he ever witnessed such ‘skyscrapers’.
Twain paints his fellow travellers with irony, and makes them look more like modern barbarians than pilgrims. They are so used to look towards the open space and the future that they have difficulty to comprehend and appreciate the past. In a certain sense they are the archetype of the contemporary American tourists who come to do ‘Europe in a week’.
As the pilgrim voyagers peal through history from the Rennaisance and the Middle Ages through Roman and Greek Antiquity, down to the Holy Land, the account of Twain tells you as much about the new world as it does about the old.
We have past Corsica. On the port side you can see the lights of Elba. There is a great story here to be told, but not today. In a few hours I will arrive at Civitavecchia near Rome. From there on, I might go looking for revolution further East.