Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Why travel?

Reading Jan Morris as we go, it’s remarkable to me how the same ideas rise up – I am thinking something, and then find she wrote about first, in her book.  I am not disheartened by this. Rather, I see that there is a market for philosophical ponderings.
Now that we are out of Italy, and down into the Adriatic/Dalmatian coast, I have to try to collect my thoughts and put them into some sort of order.
One big question is – what is the purpose of travelling like this? Leisure, learning something, getting away, having fun, trying new ideas and foods, habits. Letting go. At home, I barely ever watch the news now as it’s so dispiriting and depressing – more and more dystopian. So my life at home is designed for tranquility and calm – creativity. (You may say I should be more engaged, concerned – but a) I feel I have done my bit over the years and b) I still support dozens of causes which interest me).  Anyway, coming to Trieste/Istria/Croatia it’s a pretty hard thump – to see how fragile ‘civilisation’ is. Huge powers, empires, trading arrangements, arts, development, peace – all these can be swept away, no matter how passionately the people or the kings seek to maintain peaceful prosperity. Something in ‘man’ looks for violence, war, torture. Original sin, I suppose. These wars come at any time, at any place. The current holiday atmosphere in these sunny, beautiful lands cannot last – according to history. It’s very sobering.
Jan Morris charts the waves of possession and war, detailing what happened to the Jews, for instance, who had provided the mercantile and financial means for Trieste to flourish for nearly a hundred years, bringing also an intellectual and cultural life which benefitted everyone, and which is celebrated still… (all those statues of literary men). But when Italy ditched the Nazis and signed up with the Allies, the Germans took the city over. Whereas thousands of Jews had left Europe through Trieste to flee to Palestine, America, etc etc…. those who had stayed (not believing that the safety of Trieste could be violated) were basically herded into the huge rice warehouse on the quays, tortured, killed, in their hundreds. The risario became a concentration camp.
Up in Istria, the home of the intriguing Glagolitic script, there have been atrocities over and over again – Serbs, Croats, Germans, Yugoslavs etc following on from Austrians, Italians, Venetians, Turks … in that beautiful mountainous landscape, which is now a holiday paradise.
It seems we can deal with, admire, cultures which are very far away, but those right next to us are always likely to become our enemies. It was the same with Denmark and Sweden, or remains difficult between England and France, or England and Scotland. Is it sibling rivalry gorn mad?
So one of the purposes of travel is to discover and describe these boundaries, to lessen the chances that we will, ourselves, learn to avoid getting into these nationalists wars. Jan Morris talks at length about the uselessness of nationalism, and we have this afternoon here on a beautiful quayside beside clear water, been discussing the same thing. We grew up believing we should learn French (‘the language of diplomacy’), but French has given way to English as the most usual parlance. In northern Croatia, they are still more likely to turn to German, but here near Split, ‘everyone’ speaks English, just as all the city high streets around Europe have MacDonalds and Next and Lidl…. These brands – owned by corporations who are bigger than any individual nation – are huge engines for peace, I suppose. They want us to keep spending. We are all consumers now. As a graffiti said in Rijeka:  Live, Work, Consume, Die.
So the rather dreary sameness of all the streets, the way one colour dominates ‘the fashion’ for a season, the addictive appeal of gadgets, the latest style of car, seems to be the modern way for us not to be at war. The pleasure of going to places like this – today, btw, it’s the little island of Solta – is that we can find the last traces of an earlier way of life – stone houses, noisy cicadas, old people looking small and bent, languages which are hard to understand…. It’s the same in Galicia, Asturias, Wales, Ireland, probably Kent too (if seen through the eyes of a visitor). We are stepping back into the past. So, for me, one of the purposes of travel – albeit a very comfortable tourist trip – is to see how we prevent war.
I once – about 30 years ago - started to write about how war and tourism were managed on either side of a mesh fence – on the hot poor sands of countries skirting the Med. It was more prophetic than I knew – think of Gaza, machine-guns on the beachin Tunisia, Libya, the refugees crammed into resorts in Greece, and boatloads of those terrified families fleeing to the shores of Italy.
So, where our yacht sways gently on the quays, where the great exhibition halls on the portside invite visitors to consider the history and future of coffee, where little squares roast in the sun, where men sit in cafes and all women are out of sight…. In these places, there was probably at some time blood on the pavements.
And finally, the other great reason for travelling like this is to describe it. Joshua Slocombe did his thing, built his boat and took it joyously round the world, wrote about it…. And eventually disappeared. His was a real adventure, and if he hadn’t written about it we’s never know. He inspired the building of many other boats called Ocean Spray – still in production.
Here today we have had fresh bread and jam for breakfast. The sun is shining. The cicadas are shouting their heads off. The yachts alongside are all in German hands. They sway and bash in the swell when the Jadrolinija ferry chugs into its berth around the point. I could happily consider buying a little house here, to live during the edges of the season and rent out in summer… The water in the harbour is crystal clear, with fish. Children and swimmers of all ages and mostly nut brown are in and out along the tiny beaches. We can see Split across the bay.

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