A Ship of New Jersey Fools
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).
Fretwork of Scars
Tuesday November 13th 2012, 8:15 pm
Filed under: History
A poetic way of defining borders:
All nations are shaped by belligerence and slaughter. Their borders are a fretwork of scars; they are the history of violence made legible on earth.
(From Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker article “Faces, Places, Spaces.”)
The Pace of a Glacier
Monday November 12th 2012, 3:20 pm
Filed under: History
When depressed about inequality, the example of English serfdom is good to remember:
The decline of serfdom may have had the pace of a glacier, but it also had its irresistible force…..It is a quirk of English history that after 1381 there was no great royal order of emancipation, and that the bonds of serfdom disappeared through prolonged immersion in the solvent of economic change.
(Pages 147-148 of Alastair Dunn’s Great Rising of 1381.)
Foetid, Verminous and Putrid
Monday November 12th 2012, 2:46 pm
Filed under: History
Trust a fourteen-year-old boy to gross us out across the centuries:
When Richard II learned that the St Albans townsmen had gone to Easthampstead and removed the bodies of their executed fellows from the gibbet, he ordered that they be replaced. In the August heat he personally supervised as the townsmen were made to return the ‘foetid, verminous and putrid’ corpses to their chains.
(From page147 of Alastair Dunn’s Great Rising of 1381.
Can’t Think of a Title
Tuesday November 06th 2012, 10:15 pm
Filed under: Books
I cheated and read the last paragraph of this new book I started reading last night. Here it is:
Wat Tyler, John Ball and the leaders of the country risings were the first ordinary men in the British Isles to mount a credible attack on the political and economic structures of their day. For all the flaws and inconsistencies in their stated objectives, and in the prosecution of their campaign, the rebels of 1381 succeeded in giving a voice to those those who had hitherto lacked any means of expressing their common political grievances. In spite of the defeat of its aims and the execution of its leaders, the Great Rising demonstrated that there was a latent political consciousness at all ranks of society. Denied any effective means of political representation, and subject to royal misgovernance and seigniorial oppression, the people of England found a voice for the first time in June 1381. Long after their defeat, the echoes of their cries reverberated in the politics of the English, and later British, states.
(Page 152 of The Great Rising of 1381: The Peasants’ Revolt and England’s Failed Revolution by Alastair Dunn.)
An Adelina in the Domesday Book
Dear little Adelina Guinea Pig,
Reading this book about William the Conqueror and the Battle of Hastings and the Bayeux Tapestry, and there you are! Here’s what the author, Andrew Bridgeford, says about you: “The Domesday Book of 1086…..reveals that a lady jongleur (or possibly the wife of a jongleur) called Adelina held land in Hampshire under the patronage of Roger of Montgomery, the Earl of Shrewsbury.” And there’s more: “The land of Adelina Joculatrix lay in Upper Catford.” I think I am going to start calling you Adelina Joculatrix of Catford.
Warning to Would-Be Historians
As I wrangled terse notes into artefact captions all week, I’ve been watching all my circas, date ranges and correct addresses. I am pretty fussy with my history. If a story has a few too many versions, my captions make much use of “alleged” and “said to be” and things like that. Plus, I like to be consistent (Canadian spelling, metric) and I like exactness (I look up everything on a map to make sure that when I say something is on Jardine Street, there is actually a Jardine Street).
In the evenings this week, I turned to a book I started reading last fall. The book is 1066: The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry by Andrew Bridgeford. Tonight’s much appreciated passage is, examines the maybes of the Bishop Odo of Bayeux’s involvement with the tapestry:
In popular books, or where space precludes the usual caveats, the ‘probably’ and the ‘perhaps’ have been hardened into statements of fact.
A sad fact from Love and Louis XIV: The Women in the Life of the Sun King, a book by Antonia Fraser: “Estimates of the number of women who could actually sign their own name in this period vary between 34 and 15 percent” (page 43). No source listed, otherwise I would like to track down each estimate to see how they came to it.
And yet today, so many women waste their time reading nothing but repetitious women’s magazines that promote wanton materialism, self-hate and ridiculous stereotypes. End rant.
Party Like It’s 1558
Thursday December 01st 2011, 11:03 am
Filed under: Books
Another book I read a few months ago was the Catherine de Medici biography by Leonie Frieda. Great book, with plenty of the nuttiest historical nitwits in Renaissance times.
The quotes below are descriptions of various parties and celebrations that the French court hosted.
From page 110, here’s a description of the marriage of the snot-nosed Francis II (when he was still dauphin) and Mary Queen of Scots, on April 24, 1558:
Among the fantastic entertainments laid on for the wedding was a banquet at which twelve man-made horses covered in gold and silver cloth were led in to be ridden by the royal princes and the small Guise children. The shimmering horses pulled carriages carrying singers glittering with jewels, who entertained their guests with their music. These were followed by the arrival of six silver-sailed ships that appeared to float over the ballroom floor, on board sat the gentlemen who were allowed to bring a lady of their choice. Francis invited his mother [Catherine de Medici] to join him and Henry chose his new daughter-in-law.
(Frieda got this info from Antonia Fraser’s Mary, Queen of Scots.)
In February of 1564, Catherine de Medici and her court began travelling around France. The trip was to take about two years and there were lots of triumphal entries, banquets, balls and the like. In Fontainebleau, “Catherine had ordered that each of the most important nobles give a reception or a ball”:
Both the Constable and the Cardinal de Bourbon gave suppers at their lodgings, and on Dimanche Gras, Catherine threw a banquet at the dairy of Fontainebleau which lay a little way out from the palace, near a meadow. The courtiers dressed as shepherds or shepherdesses for this fête champêtre, a precursor of the Petit Trianon parties thrown by Marie Antoinette nearly two centuries later. Everyone judged the day a huge success; the nobles having enjoyed their little afternoon of pastoral simplicity, albeit in February. Later in the early evening the guests attended a comedy in the great ballroom, followed by a ball at which 300 ‘beauties dressed in gold and silver cloth’ performed a specially choreographed dance. Henri of Anjou gave his banquet the next day, after which a mock battle was held between twelve young knights. On Mardi Gras an enchanted castle had been built in which six maidens were held captive by devils and guarded by a giant and a dwarf. Their liberators appeared, led by the four Marshals of France. Six groups of men came to claim the captive damsels. At the sound of a bell, Condé led the defenders out of the castle to fight a superb mock battle and the scantily-clad nymphs were rescued by their gallants. The royal children also played a role in the festivities giving a performance of a pastorale written by Ronsard.
(From page 182.)
In 1565, there was another big celebration:
…The spectacle on the Bidassoa river is considered to be one of the most famous of Catherine’s ephemeral works of art. After a waterside picnic, with all the participants dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses, Charles [IX] appeared on the river in a barge that had been disguised as a floating fortress. As the other participants took to their own sumptuously decorated barges, a gigantic artificial whale appeared that was then attacked by ‘fishermen’. Suddenly a gargantuan man-made tortoise was seen swimming towards them, on it stood six tritons blowing cornets. The two marine gods, Neptune and Arion, surfaced: the former in his chariot was pulled by three sea horses and the latter carried by dolphins. The extravaganza ended as three mermaids glorified France and Spain with their siren songs.
(From page 194.)
Finally, after the capture of the Protestant stronghold of La Charité-sur-Loire on May 2, 1577, Henri III hosted a banquet for his brother, the Duke of Alençon: “The theme of the celebration was that all should wear green, Catherine’s favourite colour (coincidentally also the colour often associated at the time with insanity), and that the men were to dress as women and vice versa.” (From page 336.)
Frieda cleared up one mystery for me: why the royal family had so many castles and why they were always on the move. It’s related to food, its transport logistics and a little bit to hygiene. She explains how the food situation worked in the court:
..The king was fed by the cuisine de bouche and everybody else by the cuisine commun. The purveyors to the royal kitchens were kept busy finding enough for the thousands of dependents to eat. Food was divided into three sections, panéterie, échansonnerie and fruiterie (bread, wine and fruit). One of the principal reasons that the Court had to move, frequently after only a month or two, from one château to another was the lack of food available after a stay in one particular area. Sanitation prompted another compelling reason for leaving. After weeks in the same place, especially during the summer, the stench and filth became dreadful, and the risks of disease grew proportionately. The Court also moved to find new hunting grounds where fresh game could be found. When the King left one château to lodge in another of his residences, most of the furniture and hangings accompanied the caravanserai. The castle left behind was thus almost completely empty when the royal family had moved on.
(From page 178. Frieda credited R. J. Knecht’s 1994 biography Renaissance Warrior and Patron: The Reign of François I.)
Wednesday November 30th 2011, 9:05 am
Filed under: Books
Earlier this fall, I read Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. There were some pretty good quotes but I never bookmarked them. I thought I could remember the pages. Thanks to modern conveniences, my memory is kaput. So, unless I reread the whole book, I’ll never know the gems Greene meant for us to remember.
However, there was one quote I did leave a receipt tucked into the spine crease. That quote is below. It is a piece of dialogue spoken by the Cuban torturer/police officer Captain Segura and it outlines who is in the “torturable class”:
‘The poor in my own country, in any Latin American country. The poor of Central Europe and the Orient. Of course in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable. In Cuba the police can deal as harshly as they like with émigrés from Latin America and the Baltic States, but not with visitors from your country or Scandinavia. It is an instinctive matter on both sides. Catholics are more torturable than Protestants, just as they are more criminal….
‘One reason why the West hates the great Communist states is that they don’t recognize class-distinctions. Sometimes they torture the wrong people. So too of course did Hitler and shocked the world. Nobody cares what goes on in our prisons or the prisons of Lisbon or Caracas, but Hitler was too promiscuous. It was rather as though in your country a chauffeur had slept with a peeress.’
One more note to add to this. I recently met someone who tried to escape communist Romania during the bad old days and was caught. Now we know at least one of the worst case scenarios for capture: this woman was beaten for three days. They knocked out many of her teeth. (She was in her early twenties when she made her first escape attempt. Tooth loss is a common Romanian affliction.) Luckily, one of the secret police knew her father and arranged for the woman to be released. Yet, now she was on the bad books. More secret police came to her house. On one occasion, her father chased an agent away with an axe. Her family knew that they would never let up and she would always be in danger. Next time she was in custody, she may not be able to obtain a release. She had to escape again, successfully this time. And so she did.