Archive for History
I am currently wandering around Europe in the highly entertaining company of Samuel Clemens, reading his account of the long and complicated trip he took in 1867 and wrote up in “The Innocents Abroad.”
It’s nice to get away from Venice for a while, speaking of tourism. And I’d accompany the famous Mark Twain wherever he wanted to go, even if it were downtown Bugtussle, Oklahoma. Still, his five-months-long voyage of discovery is, in many respects, better experienced from afar. This way you don’t have to put up with the insufferable man he nicknamed The Oracle, for one thing, and also you don’t have to spend any money.
The ideal travel companion, in my view, needs not only a galvanized stomach, an indestructible curiosity and no need for sleep, but a sense of humor more finely tuned than any Stradivarius. To laugh at others and at oneself is harder than it looks, but Twain has got the touch.
More than all that, he, unlike many returning travelers we have all known and tolerated (or not), is usually interesting and occasionally informative and always, ALWAYS amusing, especially when he says something that totally nails the truth.
A fairly well-known example, still worth repeating, is from his first night in Paris:
After dinner we felt like seeing such Parisian specialties as we might see without distressing exertion, and so we sauntered through the brilliant streets and looked at the dainty trifles in variety stores and jewelry shops. Occasionally, merely for the pleasure of being cruel, we put unoffending Frenchmen on the rack with questions framed in the incomprehensible jargon of their native language, and while they writhed, we impaled them, we peppered them, we scarified them, with their own vile verbs and participles.
But that isn’t the best. The best is his portrait of the Old Travelers.
Old Travelers are hard to find because by now everybody’s on the road. Nobody can travel like he did anymore, as we all know, because if we haven’t already been there, we’ve read or heard about it by one of a million means. There will always be somebody who has preceded us to the remotest peak of the Gandakush Pass or some fleck of a barely-populated mini-Micronesian atoll. No surprises left.
But in his day foreign travel was still relatively difficult and expensive, so the Old Traveler was still at large, prepared to ruin the enthusiasm of any honest beginner.
And here is what he has to say about the ones he found in Paris:
The Old Travelers — those delightful parrots who have “been here before” and know more about the country than Louis Napoleon knows now or ever will know …
But we love the Old Travelers. We love to hear them prate and drivel and lie. We can tell them the moment we see them. They always throw out a few feelers; they never cast themselves adrift till they have sounded every individual and know that he has not traveled. Then they open their throttle valves, and how they do brag, and sneer, and swell, and soar, and blaspheme the sacred name of Truth! Their central idea, their grand aim, is to subjugate you, keep you down, make you feel insignificant and humble in the blaze of their cosmopolitan glory! They will not let you know anything. They sneer at your most inoffensive suggestions; they laugh unfeelingly at your treasured dreams of foreign lands; they brand the statements of your traveled aunts and uncles as the stupidest absurdities; they deride your most trusted authors and demolish the fair images they have set up for your willing worship with the pitiless ferocity of the fanatic iconoclast! But still I love the Old Travelers. I love them for their witless platitudes, for their supernatural ability to bore, for their delightful asinine vanity, for their luxuriant fertility of imagination, for their startling, their brilliant, their overwhelming mendacity!
If you are ever tempted to behave in this manner toward a fellow traveler (so to speak), be aware that the ghost of the sage of Hannibal, Mo. will be fleering at you from somewhere on high. It would be safer, and certainly more polite, merely to reply to whatever the less-traveled person may have said with the impregnable response with which H.L. Mencken is said to have answered every letter responding to his editorials in the Baltimore Sun: “You may be right.”
As you might imagine, during the past almost-week the shipwrecked cruise ship has taken over everybody’s thoughts and conversations here (as is probably the case in the rest of Italy).
Yesterday I got what I hope may be my final dose, as I sat in the doctor’s waiting room. Because he only comes to the neighborhood two hours a week (one on Wednesday, one on Friday — no appointments), the room tends to fill up fast. I suspect some of the old dears come over mainly to have the chance to indulge in a good long chinwag. They pretty much all know each other, and it’s better than a cafe’ because you don’t have to buy anything in order to sit and talk. They rarely say anything new on any topic at all — but if you do it right, it can take quite a while to contribute all the comments, opinions, and third-party bits of information to the information-mulching bin.
From this interminable gabfest about the Costa Concordia, I came home with many interesting things to consider.
1. Castello is populated entirely by experts on navigation. I heard so many detailed analyses of the fine points of the engineering, construction, and behavior of very large ships that I can’t believe they, including the grandmothers, aren’t all retired admirals.
2. None of the people present would ever consider, not even for a moment, going on a cruise. The implication is that they’re too smart to risk their lives on a vehicle and in a medium that is so inherently dangerous, and which any intelligent person would long since have known.
3. The ship is too big to make any kind of sense — 4, 429 people on board! This fact naturally sent up warning flares, confirming the intelligent people in their decision not to have taken a cruise on it.
4. The captain screwed up.
First prize for originality goes to the lady sitting next to me, whose observation was the following: “And they even had a climbing wall on the ship! What does anyone need with a climbing wall?” This was said with a whiff of scorn, which gave me the unpleasant sensation that in her opinion, you can virtually assume that a ship with a climbing wall is going to come to a bad end. I’m not saying that she believes it deserved to hit the rocks, or that the people who were on it were another race of people who require things that are obviously no earthly use to decent people who know enough to stay at home and hang out at the doctor’s office. But to her, the climbing wall was ominous.
The subject of abandoning the ship also got a certain amount of attention because everyone — including me — is utterly fascinated and bewildered by Capt. Francesco Schettino’s behavior. The exchange between him and Capt. Gregorio De Falco of the Capitaneria di Porto in Livorno is harrowing, right up to the point where De Falco orders the captain to return to the ship, and he refuses.
A few commentators (not in the waiting room) have confessed a sort of shame that a nation which had produced such immortal seamen as Columbus, Vespucci, Verrazzano, Da Mosto, Caboto, had come to this. Italy has, in fact, been blessed by any number of men who had — as the saying here goes — “balls squared.” And they aren’t all world-famous.
There is one who is famous only among Italian and/or World War II buffs, whose name deserves to be added to the list if for no other reason than to provide a counterweight to the crushing gravity of the current situation. Of course I realize that a hero in Column A can’t do much to redeem a caitiff in Column B. But I still want you to know about him.
His name is Salvatore Todaro (1908 – 1942), and I am not referring to Salvatore “Black Sam” Todaro, the mobster. Our Salvatore (whose name means “savior” — keep this in mind) was a submarine commander and came from Chioggia, just down the lagoon from Venice. Just to indicate that mariners from Chioggia aren’t necessarily limited to tying and untying the vaporettos at each stop.
He died in combat in 1942 with six medals for bravery, whose dedications contained such phrases as ”resplendent example of serene, intelligent courage,” and “a mystic devotion to duty understood in its highest and broadest sense.”
Here’s an example: The “Kabalo Affair.” Off the island of Madeira on the night of October 16, 1940, he attacked and sank a Belgian ship. He then saved its 26 sailors, and towed them toward safety aboard a raft. When the towing cable broke after four days, he took them all into the submarine till they reached the Azores, where he put them ashore.
As Lino tells the story, Todaro recounted later to have prayed fervently not to encounter any enemy ship on the way because he would have been forced to dive, inevitably killing his enemy passengers because the only place he found room to stash them was in the compartments which, in order to effect a dive, are filled with seawater. One of his few comments on the exploit was “I’m here to destroy ships, not men.”
I realize that you have to be born that way — they don’t teach it in Captain School. But they must teach something rudimentary of that nature, which did not immediately come to the mind of Francesco Schettino. Which in addition to the loss of life, makes me extremely sad.
The solemnity (more and/or less) of the past three days — All Saints Day and All Souls Day — dissolves today into the genuine solemnity of the annual commemoration of the end of World War I. November 4 (1918) is the date on which war against the Austro-Hungarian empire and its allies ceased.
It sounds so tidy: Victory. Peace. Ninety years have gone by. Let’s move on.
But every year the moving-on stops, to observe what is now called the Festa of the Armed Forces. Many civic monuments, and not a few of the parish memorials listing the fallen sheep of the local flock, are decorated with shiny fresh laurel wreaths given by the City of Venice. And a ceremony performed by veterans’ groups and other military elements is held every year on this day in the Piazza San Marco.
In Rome, the President of the Republic made the traditional visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which soldiers guard night and day.
France had established the first tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 1920, and the Italians wanted to do likewise. They had lost some 1,240,000 men, almost entirely on the northern front which had stretched some 400 miles, almost one-third of the entire Alpine arc. In what some have called history’s greatest mountain battlefield, the gathering and burial of unidentified soldiers had been going on for two years.
A commission was formed to choose one soldier from each of the eleven sectors of the front (Rovereto, Dolomiti, Altipiani, Grappa, Montello, Basso Piave, Cadore, Gorizia, Basso Isonzo, San Michele, and Castagnevizza). No identifying marks of any kind were to be permitted — no name, or rank, or serial number.
The eleven caskets were taken to the basilica of Aquileia, not far from Trieste. Here they were arranged in a line, and on October 26, 1921, a woman named Maria Bergamas from Gradisca d’Isonzo stepped forward to choose one.
Her son, Antonio, had been killed but his body had never been found. No one imagined, I’m sure, that one of the eleven victims could have been her son. She was there to represent all of the mothers, wives and women of Italy.
One eyewitness reported that she walked toward the row of eleven coffins, “with her eyes staring, fixed on the caskets, trembling…in front of the next to last one, she let out a sharp cry, calling her son by name, and fell on the casket, clasping it.” Strangely, there are less fervid accounts, also by eyewitnesses: “In front of the first coffin she seemed to become faint, and was supported by her escort of four veterans, all decorated with the Gold Medal for Valor. In front of the second, she stopped, held out her arms and placed her mourning veil upon it.”
As a journalist, I can’t grasp how there could be more than one version of the event, but I assume everyone was extremely keyed up.
In any case, one was chosen, placed on a gun carriage, lashed onto an open-sided train carriage,and covered with the Italian battle flag. Four other open carriages were attached, to contain the flowers which undoubtedly were going to be offered by the people along the way.
The train stopped at Udine, Treviso, Venice, Padova, Rovigo, Ferrara, Bologna, Pistoia, Prato, Firenze, Arezzo, Chiusi, Orvieto, and finally Rome. But in fact it stopped — was stopped, actually, by the throngs which had waited for hours to see it — at all the stations, even the tiniest. Some threw flowers, others clasped their hands and knelt.
The train arrived in Rome on the evening of November 3, and the casket was taken to the basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri near the station. Mourners passed all night to pay their respects.
The next day, November 4, 1921, the war would formally end at 3:00 PM. The cortege proceeded slowly down the Via Nazionale toward Piazza Venezia and the massive monument known as the Vittoriano, where the body would be entombed.
Total silence reigned. King Vittorio Emmanuele III walked behind the gun carriage bearing the casket. At the monument, the casket was lifted and carried by six veterans, all of whom had been decorated with the Gold Medal for Valor. Finally, it was placed in the space beneath the statue of the ancient goddess Roma. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RrOMk91vCfo
You might be surprised, as I have been, to discover how many poems (at least in Italian) have been written about the Unknown Soldier. Some are even composed as accusations, reflections, admonitions, rebukes, spoken directly to the reader by the Soldier. There is also a number of songs about him and/or war, in the mold of the protest songs of the Sixties and early Seventies. They seem dated and futile.
Well, of course they’re futile. Just look around. Still, some respect for the fallen is the least we can do. Or apparently the most we can do.
It’s September 11 again. Ten years have passed, which in a city this old is nothing. Even so, I don’t understand how a mere decade could occupy so much space and bear so much weight.
Everyone here was stunned, heartwrung — everyone. Five days after the towers fell, the last race of the season was held at Burano, and all the boats (27 of them) carried a black ribbon tied to their bow. I remember that an immense thunderstorm bore down, and how those little strips of mourning thrashed in the tearing winds under a battered sky full of bruised clouds, black and purple and green. The races had to be suspended. It was too perfect. If I hadn’t been there, you’d have thought I made it up.
There was a mass at the basilica of San Marco, with the chief of the New York Fire Department as a special guest. The service was entirely in Italian, including the Gospel text: Matthew 18: 21-25.
“Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?’ And Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, not seven times, but seventy times seven.’”
I sat there looking at his back and wondering if he understood it, and if so, what he could possibly be thinking.
At the mass they also read the Fireman’s Prayer (translated by me):
O Lord, who illumines the heavens and fills the abysses, make the flame of sacrifice burn in our hearts.
Strengthen the spirit of service which burns in us, make sure our eye, and secure our foothold, so that we may complete the rescue which we bring in Your name to our brothers in danger.
When the siren screams in the streets of the city, hear the beating of our hearts which have been offered to renunciation.
When, racing with eagles, we rise toward Thee, hold us up with Your wounded hand.
When the irresistible fire breaks out, burn the evil which makes its nest in the homes of men, but not the life and the affections of Your children.
Lord, we are the bearers of Your cross, and risk is our daily bread.
A day without risk isn’t even lived, because for we believers death is life and light: in the terror of the collapse, in the roaring of the waters, in the inferno of the conflagrations.
Our life is fire, our faith is in God.
For Saint Barbara, martyr. Amen.
An article was published under the title “C”ntarea Americii” (“Ode To America”) in the Romanian newspaper Evenimentulzilei, that translates “The Daily Event” or “News of the Day” on September 11, 2006:
Why are Americans so united? They would not resemble one another even if you painted them all one color! They speak all the languages of the world and form an astonishing mixture of civilizations and religious beliefs. Still, the American tragedy turned three hundred million people into a hand put on the heart.
Nobody rushed to accuse the White House, the army, and the secret s services that they are only a bunch of losers. Nobody rushed to empty their bank accounts. Nobody rushed out onto the streets nearby to gape about. The Americans volunteered to donate blood and to give a helping hand.
After the first moments of panic, they raised their flag over the smoking ruins, putting on T-shirts, caps and ties in the colors of the national flag. They placed flags on buildings and cars as if in every place and on every car a government official or the president was passing.
I watched the live broadcast and rerun after rerun for hours listening to the story of the guy who went down one hundred floors with a woman in a wheelchair without knowing who she was, or of the Californian hockey player, who gave his life fighting with the terrorists and prevented the plane from hitting a target that could have killed other hundreds or thousands of people.
How on earth were they able to respond united as one human being?
On every occasion, they started singing their traditional song: “God Bless America!” Imperceptibly, with every word and musical note, the memory of some turned into a modern myth of tragic heroes. And with every phone call, millions and millions of dollars were put in a collection aimed at rewarding not a man or a family, but a spirit, which no money can buy.
What on earth can unite the Americans in such a way? Their land? Their galloping history? Their economic Power? Money? I tried for hours to find an answer, humming songs and murmuring phrases with the risk of sounding commonplace.
I thought things over, but I reached only one conclusion… Only freedom can work such miracles.
(signed) Cornel Nistorescu
”AND THE WAVE SINGS BECAUSE IT IS MOVING,” by Philip Larkin (September 14, 1946):
And the wave sings because it is moving;
Caught in its clear side, we also sing.
We are borne across graves, together, apart, together,
In the lifting wall imprisoned and protected….
Such are the sorrows that we search for meaning,
Such are the cries of the birds across the waters,
Such are the mists the sun attacks at morning,
Laments, tears, wreaths, rocks, all riden down
By the shout of the heart continually at work….
Death is a cloud alone in the sky with the sun.
Our hearts, turning like fish in the green wave,
Grow quiet in its shadow. For in the word death
There is nothing to grasp; nothing to catch or claim;
Nothing to adapt the skill of the heart to, skill
And the waves sing because they are moving.
And the waves sing above a cemetery of waters.