Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
I was recently in Venice for the third time in my life: it seems that, without so planning, I go to that most splendid city once every decade.
When we miss a destination or decide to skip it, we always say “next time” or “it’ll still be there.” But Venice actually may not still be there by the end of this century. A city of marble built on a lagoon, there is a very good chance that by then it will be underwater, a modern day Atlantis. Mere days before I arrived, the city had suffered terrible flooding. The interior of the iconic Basilica di San Marco was knee-deep in water.
And that’s only as far as our climate projections go. Projections never say what happens after 2100, as though climate change will magically stop the moment the clock ticks over, because we neither can nor want to contemplate the possibilities. Look around Venice and you see the celebrations of the achievements of past centuries: wings in the magnificent galleries are devoted to the trecento then the quattrocento then the cinquecento — the 1300s, 1400s, and 1500s — down to modern times. But there will probably never be a Venetian art of the 2100s. Not only is the time horizon of our climate projections pathetic when compared to the reckoning of the earth, but it is pitiable even when measured against our own humanistic achievements.
I made the decision to come to Italy on the fly, the same way that I generally decide where to go nowadays. Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.
Only after arriving in Rome did I remember that it was twenty years ago, almost exactly, that I first came to Italy. Not only that, but it was the first time that traveled without my family and hence, in that sense, actually traveled.
Italy bowled me over then. I was a high school student then, and I had come to Italy to represent New Zealand at that year’s International Physics Olympiad. The competition itself was held in Padua, but we made our obligatory stops in Rome and Venice and played tourists. How could we resist, five teenagers from New Zealand, the land of majestic landscapes but rather less culture?
I was recently reminded of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Maybe it was because Game of Thrones ended, and somehow I started comparing the two. And frankly, A Song of Ice and Fire doesn’t hold a candle to the level of intrigue and the vast and vivid cast of characters in Three Kingdoms.
Since its composition in the 14th century, Three Kingdoms has always been counted among “the Four Astonishing Books,” the most significant works of prose fiction ever produced in the language. The others are the Proustian Dream of the Red Chamber; the picaresque Journey to the West; and The Water Margins, a kind of Western featuring outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, only there are 108 desperadoes, not two.
The Western work that has always struck me the most direct parallel of Three Kingdoms, however, is not A Song of Ice and Fire. It is Homer’s Iliad.
Last year in Athens, I came upon the tomb stele of Dexileos, an Athenian cavalryman who died in the Corinthian War in 394 B.C. The relief carving showed Dexileos on horseback fighting a Peloponnesian hoplite on foot. The image struck me as obviously similar to the Eastern Orthodox depiction of St. George and other warrior saints, such as St. George on a white horse spearing a dragon and St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki on a red horse striking down an enemy. I posted photos of the stele and an icon of St. George side by side on Facebook, suggesting that one was descended from the other.
Well, I was wrong.
Playa del Hombre lay a bit less than halfway between Gran Canaria’s airport and its main city, Las Palmas. So I decided to go there straight from the airport before continuing on to the city.
Doing so, however, meant carrying my luggage on my shoulders while marching under the blinding Canarian sun. From the nearest bus stop on the main road, it was a good 25 minutes on foot to Playa del Hombre. An elderly man with a cane tried to point me in the right direction. A desultory cafe in the corner stood empty and yawning. The roads here weren’t particularly built for pedestrians, and cars whizzed by me angrily. A trio of teenage girls tried to waylay me after I’d barely started. When I pretended that I didn’t understand them, they switched to broken English: “One money,” they cried, “one Euro.”
Playa del Hombre was not a noted destination on Gran Canaria, the most populated of the Canary Islands. It was but a small settlement by the sea of a few streets tracing semi-circles around its eponymous beach of volcanic black sand, populated by low houses painted in warm colors to correspond with the sun. But I was not the first one to come here. Instead I followed a trickle of others who looked much like me, Chinese or Taiwanese visitors who came to see the former home of the famous Chinese/Taiwanese writer Sanmao.
“You know the Japanese word for ‘thank you’?” Ricardo asked me.
He was missing a surprising number of teeth given that he was four years younger than I. And his hair was already verging on salt-and-pepper. But he spoke with youthful enthusiasm on behalf of all things Azorean. Azorean, not necessarily Portuguese — he favored independence for the islands. His own darker skin tone he attributed to Moroccan descent. The other side of his family was Dutch, he said, reflecting the complex ethnic mixture here.
“Yes?” I said. “Arigato.”
“You know it’s borrowed from Portuguese ‘obrigado’? Apparently the Japanese didn’t have a word for ‘thank you’ until they met the Portuguese.”
In December 1400, just in time for Christmas, the emperor of Byzantium, Manuel II Palaiologos, arrived in England on a state visit.
A professional historian tells the full story better than I can on her blog. In short, Manuel came to Western Europe to solicit aid against the Ottoman Turks who were encroaching upon his territory. He had already stopped in Italy and France, and now he sought the friendship of King Henry IV of England.
Henry welcomed Manuel warmly. But after the emperor’s departure, England (and France and the Italian states) gave the Byzantines very little assistance. The immediate crisis for Byzantium passed because of an unlikely ally: Timur, or Tamerlane, from today’s Uzbekistan, attacked the Turks from the east. But the reprieve was temporary. Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans in 1453.
For no particular reason, certainly not because of the politics of our day and the new UN environment report saying that we have twenty good years left, #sarcasm, I have had the end times on my mind.
It was in this frame of mind that I visited ancient Mycenae the other day. I first saw pictures of the Lion Gate and Cyclopean Walls when I was in high school and read the mythology surrounding this place. Many of you know the story. The three major “tholos” or beehive-shaped tombs here are ascribed to three major characters from that tale: Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Aegisthus.
Helen of Troy, the face that launched a thousand ships, was the wife of Menelaus, whose brother Agamemnon was the king of Mycenae. When Helen ran off with Paris, the prince of Troy, Menelaus and his big brother demanded satisfaction. So Agamemnon rallied the Greek states for a join assault on Troy. But the goddess Artemis commanded unfavorable winds so that the Greeks could not set sail; for the winds to change Agamemnon was required to sacrifice his own daughter. He did so, killing his daughter Iphigenia. The Greeks attacked Troy and finally destroyed it after ten long years. During Agamemnon’s absence, his wife Clytemnestra took Aegisthus as a lover. And upon his return, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus murdered him. His son Orestes then killed his own mother and Aegisthus to avenge his father.
There was tension in the cold, crisp air. Drama, climax.
The sun shone brightly on the ice all around us. Our latitude then was 81°50’1”N, about as close to the North Pole as we would ever come on this voyage, deep into the loose pack ice that had formed over the sea north of Svalbard. The ice was hunting grounds for polar bears. And right now, a female polar bear was slowly but assuredly approaching a ringed seal resting on his belly.
“But where is it?” Silly me, never very skilled at spotting wildlife at a distance, asked my fellow passengers. Chris, a tall young NHS worker from England, pointed me in the right direction.
On a promontory in Oslofjord, a short ferry ride away from Oslo’s city hall, two parallel edifices encase two famous boats and commemorate their respective creators.
On one side is the Fram, the world’s first polar exploration ship, custom-ordered by Fridtjof Nansen specifically to withstand the pressure of ice that would crush any other ship at the time. On the other is the Kon-Tiki, the balsa raft that Thor Heyerdahl built in 1947 according to traditional Native American methods for him to attempt to sail from Peru to Polynesia.
The contrast as well as the parallels between the two men are presumably why the Norwegians have chosen to commemorate them side by side.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."