A Ship of New Jersey Fools
Monday February 04th 2013, 10:31 pm
Filed under: Books,History,Italy,Museums

Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

After 500 pages of making fun of other countries and their peoples, and muttering how much better Lake Tahoe is compared to the Sea of Galilee and Lago di Como, Mark Twain wrote that little phrase a year after his trip across the Mediterranean on the Quaker City. That sentence comes after one of my favourite quotes: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.”

Before he gets culture shock, Twain discovers the charm of European life that still resounds with us europhiles today. Here he is in Milan:

Afterward we walked up and down one of the most popular streets for some time, enjoying other people’s comfort and wishing we could export some of it to our restless, driving, vitality-consuming marts at home. Just in this one matter lies the main charm of life in Europe—comfort. In America, we hurry—which is well; but when the day’s work is done, we go on thinking of losses and gains, we plan for the morrow, we even carry our business cares to bed with us, and toss and worry over them when we ought to be restoring our racked bodies and brains with sleep. We burn up our energies with these excitements, and either die early or drop into a lean and mean old age at a time of life which they call a man’s prime in Europe. When an acre of ground has produced long and well, we let it lie fallow and rest for a season; we take no man clear across the continent in the same coach he started in—the coach is stabled somewhere on the plains and its heated machinery allowed to cool for a few days; when a razor has seen long service and refuses to hold an edge, the barber lays it away for a few weeks, and the edge comes back of its own accord. We bestow thoughtful care upon inanimate objects, but none upon ourselves. What a robust people, what a nation of thinkers we might be, if we would only lay ourselves on the shelf occasionally and renew our edges!

I do envy these Europeans the comfort they take. When the work of the day is done, they forget it. Some of them go, with wife and children, to a beer hall and sit quietly and genteelly drinking a mug or two of ale and listening to music; others walk the streets, others drive in the avenues; others assemble in the great ornamental squares in the early evening to enjoy the sight and the fragrance of flowers and to hear the military bands play—no European city being without its fine military music at eventide; and yet others of the populace sit in the open air in front of the refreshment houses and eat ices and drink mild beverages that could not harm a child. They go to bed moderately early, and sleep well. They are always quiet, always orderly, always cheerful, comfortable, and appreciative of life and its manifold blessings. One never sees a drunken man among them. The change that has come over our little party is surprising. Day by day we lose some of our restlessness and absorb some of the spirit of quietude and ease that is in the tranquil atmosphere about us and in the demeanor of the people. We grow wise apace. We begin to comprehend what life is for.

Chapter 19: Who Glorifies Poor Mr. Laura?

In Venice, Twain describes the charming gondola parties:

Many and many a party of young ladies and gentlemen had their state gondolas handsomely decorated, and ate supper on board, bringing their swallow-tailed, white-cravatted varlets to wait upon them, and having their tables tricked out as if for a bridal supper. They had brought along the costly globe lamps from their drawing-rooms, and the lace and silken curtains from the same places, I suppose. And they had also brought pianos and guitars, and they played and sang operas, while the plebeian paper-lanterned gondolas from the suburbs and the back alleys crowded around to stare and listen.

Chapter 22: Gondolas are Water-Hearses

Before he even gets to Rome, Twain begins to lose interest in travelling and begins complaining more than enjoying. In Rome, he is utterly full from art overload. Twain explains his bout of museum fatigue:

I suppose the Academy [of Fine Arts in New York] was bacon and beans in the Forty-Mile Desert, and a European gallery is a state dinner of thirteen courses. One leaves no sign after him of the one dish, but the thirteen frighten away his appetite and give him no satisfaction.

Chapter 28: The Good-natured Brother of Skulls

Among the horrors of Twain’s European tour is how many countless dogs died to amuse tourists testing out Vesuvius in the centuries leading up to the (slightly more) progressive modern day:

Everybody has written about the Grotto del Cane and its poisonous vapours, from Pliny down to Smith, and every tourist has held a dog over its floor by the legs to test the capabilities of the place. The dog dies in a minute and a half – a chicken instantly…..I longed to see this grotto. I resolved to take a dog and hold him myself; suffocate him a little and time him; suffocate him some more, and then finish him.

Chapter 30: The Rags and Riches of Naples

Luckily Twain’s party forgot to bring a dog and that lucky, unbrought dog lived for one more day.

Then there is this quote on tiresome know-it-alls:

…They are those old connoisseurs from the wilds of New Jersey who labouriously learn the differences between a fresco and a fire-plug, and from that day forward feel privileged to void their critical bathos on painting, sculpture, and architecture forever more.

Chapter 33: Constantinople the Bewildering

Twain gets a few things right. One of those things is that exertion makes relaxation so much better. Here is Twain and his fellow travellers in Damascus:

We lay on those divans a long time, after supper, smoking narghilies and long-stemmed chibouks, and talking about the dreadful ride of the day, and I knew then what I had sometimes known before—that it is worth while to get tired out, because one so enjoys resting afterward.

Chapter 44: I Drink out of Ananias’ Well

Finally, where I do agree with Twain is the humour in the repetitive abundance of saints’ relics in Catholic churches:

We had heard so much of St. Veronica, and seen her picture by so many masters, that it was like meeting an old friend unexpectedly to come upon her ancient home in Jerusalem. The strangest thing about the incident that has made her name so famous is, that when she wiped the perspiration away, the print of the Saviour’s face remained upon the handkerchief, a perfect portrait, and so remains unto this day. We knew this, because we saw this handkerchief in a cathedral in Paris, in another in Spain, and in two others in Italy. In the Milan cathedral it costs five francs to see it, and at St. Peter’s, at Rome, it is almost impossible to see it at any price. No tradition is so amply verified as this of St. Veronica and her handkerchief.

Chapter 54: Jerusalem – We are Surfeited with Sights!

Some good quotes hidden within the morass of culture shock and arrogance.

Perhaps the best part is the list of nineteenth century drinks (chapter 15: Down with the Dastardly Abelard!) that Twain’s group tried to order in a place that advertised “ALL MANNER OF AMERICAN DRINKS ARTISTICALLY PREPARED HERE” (all caps are Twain’s). Sherry cobbler, brandy smash, Santa Cruz Punch (no idea what it is), Eye-Opener, Stone-Fence and Earthquake (probably not this recipe as its purported inventor, Toulouse-Lautrec, could not have whipped up the concoction at three years old).

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