Part Ten – What do they know of England, those who only England know?

September 18, 2010 6 comments

I arrived on Rome two Thursday’s ago, after 69 days, 2,000 odd kilometers, and the experience of a lifetime. My first sight of St Peter’s basilica was of it set in a midst of a beautiful azzure twilight, with stars The welcome extended by the Church in Rome was outstanding. Throughout this trip, I have been moved by the number of occasions that complete strangers have extended themselves to look after me, and that was again the case at the hostel run by the Confraternity of St James, where volunteers cook meals, make beds and provide a sounding board for inevitably tedious stories about the feet conditions of pilgrims. Even better, the next day Don Bruno Vercese took me into the bowels of the Vatican to visit the actual tomb of St Peter (normally closed to the public), and took out at least an hour from his day to talk to me about faith, and the Christian life. It was a wonderful, fitting end to a magnificent trip. I feel fortunate to have developed as a man and as a Christian. Prior to this, I had a rather dry and intellectual view of the Christian faith, having now seen in the love and charity which has abounded on this trip the operation of the Holy Spirit, I feel an emotional commitment as deep seated as the intellectual one. I do believe that my character has changed somewhat, although that is best qualified later down the line. Rather like weeding a garden, it doesn’t do to claim to be rid of a vice prior to the test of time, but I hope several vices have been uprooted, rather than simply stymied. In any event, I was now free to look around Rome, and finish reflecting on Italian life.

One of the most curious characteristics of discussions of Italy’s cultural glories is that they tend to stop sometime before the Risorgimento. No doubt that particular period may be justifiably ignored, certainly given that in the monument to Vittorio Emmanuel II it produced the most tasteless building in Rome, known as the ‘wedding cake’ to locals and so garishly flamboyant in terms of dimension, material and vainglory that it looks like the outsized conservatory of a Romford plumber (the building is redeemed somewhat by the fact that the monumental statue of Vittorio himself, which shows him wearing a duck on his head rather than more traditional military attire). However, in the modern artform of television, Italy continues to lead the world.

When I was in Italy two years ago, two particular shows captured the imagination. The first was a show called Veline! where 10 girls in stilletos and white bikinis would compete each evening, in a dusky town square, for a crown awarded by a large purple dinosaur (who she would then get to dance with), who co-hosted the show with a leathery older chap who looked as if he had squeezed into the white trousers of one of the contestants, so tight were they. In order to win the crown, the girls would have to bookend two episodes of walking up and down a catwalk and grinding to rap music with the demonstration of a talent, be it archery, singing, or my favorite – getting in and out of a barrel of cold water. This show was followed by Ciao Darwin! (I’m not making this up), which pitted two teams of 50 girls against each other to see which was better – Darwin style. This idea in itself is interesting, particularly as the darwinian charachteristics tested included the round ‘who can distract the male presenter from pretending to watch the television first by stripping’ and a quiz round where the contestants literally donned thinking caps to demonstrate heir intellectual involvement. It was even more unusual to English eyes the next week when the episode was black girls v. white girls. For the record, the white girls, who had lost every round so far, won by taking the final challenge – ‘who knows the most words of the national anthem’ – by getting to the second line.

I was looking forward to the similar diversion on this visit, but sadly standards appeared to have dropped. The only evidence of traditional standards being upheld were shows like the one which translates as something like Commissar Mullet! about a ginger guy with the said hairstlye who solves cases by smoking a lot seducing his pathologist, partner, elderly relatives of the deceased, his boss, and the girl at the local cafe. Although Miss Italia was getting wall-to-wall coverage on RTE1 (interestingly, Italy’s three main public broadcast channels are divided up amongst the political parties, RTE1 services the right, 2 the left, 3 the communists, or what’s left of them), and the Italian version of newsnight, where guests would try and hold hands with the female presenter, on this trip coverage seemed relatively normal. That is until I found Veline‘s latest incarnation – Velone!. The format is exactly the same, but it’s only open to women over 75. If you have never seen a woman of 105 in a traditional fishmaid’s outfit grinding (tottering, rather) to Taio Cruz, then I heartily represent it. What was most curious to an Englishman was that the crowd didn’t root for the underdog, or the nicest or most eccentric old lady, as they would have at home, they were completely behind the best preserved woman in the smallest dress. At any rate, though, under the safe guidance of Silvio Berlusconi, Italian cultural standards remain unmolested. Unlike Veline‘s contestants if they stray to near the dinosaur, whose behaviour at times is not that of a gentleman.

All of this is a long way of saying that without piercing the surface, our European cousins appear more different from us than one would deem possible, given how much we share, and not for commendable reasons – the English stereotype of the southern European as lazy, sensual and excitable contribute a lot to our antipathy towards Europe and misplaced sense of superiority to it. At heart, though, there is a common decency in European culture that surpasses by a long way that which may be found at home; one is invited into people’s lives without reservation and not begrudgingly,  community is more than a term simply employed on government press releases, there is a deep and abiding courtesy and respect which permeates every level of interaction between strangers. There is also a warmth, a basic enjoyment of company that contrasts starkly with the English need for immense quantities of drink as a remedy to the terrible problem of human interaction. Most notably, though, there is a largely unspoken moral standard which runs through public and private discourse, and in France and Italy is drawn largely from the Catholic church. I would suggest that this is an integral reason why these nations appear more balanced and calmer than Britain.

Only two pieces of news from home percolated through the endless cabaret shows and Miss Italia haiographies into the Italian media while I was nearing the end of my pilgrimage. The first was Wayne Rooney’s extramarital adventures in nightclub toilets, with two well educated slatterns who saw nothing odd or shameful in broadcasting their reflections on this experience to a salivating public. The second was the visit of his Holiness Pope Benedict. With wearisome inevitability the nation’s liberal community have welcomed the leader of the world’s Catholics with a crescendo of hysterical, pained wails of impotence and rage, and the nation’s Muslim community have extended their traditional welcome in the form of a mercifully unrealised attempt at murder. Britain looks, having spent some months in the civilised world, like a country which has long since relinquished its grip on sanity – if we are so fractured as a society that we are capable of producing only bile and contempt for a man who has relentlessly preached peace and reconciliation, all the while presiding over a citizenry one part of which appears literally at war with the others, and if we are so morally apathetic that we exault the adventures of adulterers and whores, then we are exceptional in a European sense, but not positively. Britain is a country which knows only half of the story. There is a state without a society, attempting law without judgment, based on rights without responsibility, in the thrall of sex without love. Every one of the communal instincts of human beings has been despoiled and debased in an ever increasing quest for a life without boundaries – it is the logical nexus of protestantism, the personal God, morality subject only to an individuals interpretation of what they should do, not the uncomfortable press of temporal authority. There are an enormous number of very, very good people in Britain, doing a lot of good for others, but I have become firmly convinced that the standards under which the majority of the population exist are a recipe for madness. I imagine that many will dissent to this view, so be it, it is my honest testimony having had the opportunity to examine the way our neighbours live, and reflect on the culture I have enjoyed in England for a number of years.

On a less melancholy note, I would like to thank you all for reading this blog, giving me your feedback and (hopefully) making some donations to the Marrilac as well. Walking the Via Francigenia was a tremendous honour – each and every day I was humbled, provoked to thought and deeply moved both by the many individual kindnesses I was shown, and the splendor of the scenery, both human and divinely created.

I have some observations to make on both the topics of the European Union and Catholicism, which I shall write up here next week. For the vast majority of my university contemporaries who were reading solely in the hope that I would be kidnapped/maimed/partially lobotomised and converted to socialism on the road, though, the journey is over. Thanks once again for your forbearance and all best, T x

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Part Novae – Pictures

September 17, 2010 5 comments

Awoken by the sound of Drum and Bass at 8 this morning, the weather somewhere below freezing and not a decent coffee insight – must be back in Blighty. Having spent the last week in Rome, I have had the chance to reflect on what has been in every respect the most outstanding journey, and shall write those reflections up forthwith, but I know really, you’d prefer to see some pictures…

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Part Otto – “Am I the only one here who likes Masaccio?”

September 6, 2010 3 comments

Tuscany means the English, not just the English, but the sort of English person whom one gets sat next to at a dinner party if last year the host caught you behind the conservatory doing something compromising to his wife/daughter/cat, and has waited a full year to be revenged. Every street of every town throngs with fat, furious looking women charging from basilica to basilica, all enjoying an experience of immense self-satisfaction, marred only by these other ghastly English people, none of whom are able to appreciate Tuscany nearly as well. Their husbands follow at a distance of ten paces, morosely photographing things. In the evenings, they sit on verandahs exercising the talent for complaining which hallmarks our island race abroad.

The worst instance of this behaviour was a comment placed in the visitors book at the convent in Piestrana where I stayed, written in the sort of spiky, outsized handwriting that one imagines plagues the offices of the government departments responsible for potholes, street-bunting etc. It also followed a string of very gracious comments in French, German and Italian, and referred to an extremely pleasant facility provided at minimal cost out of the sense of Christian charity of the local religious community. Over an entire A4 page it berated the nuns opposite for not coming over to wash the feet of our hero, ending rather huffily, “WITHOUT CHARITY THERE IS NO LOVE, AND WITHOUT LOVE THERE IS NO GOD”. I see no particular reason why nuns ought to devote their time to washing the feet of impertinent English people, and in the context of the rest of the comments, a rant which failed to demonstrate the slightest trace of thanks or grace made one sigh and wonder why it is the English have to be such shits. Fortunately, the other English language entries were all by Americans describing how they had only walked 5kms when the Lord, or LORD! as they would have it, sent first a pizza restaurant and then a taxi, neither of which they were able to refuse without the possibility of incurring divine displeasure.

Incidentally, I found a copy of the Times the other day and see that the science v. religion debate is in full swing again. Most disappointing was the assertion by the woman debating Dawkins on the inside pages that the pleasant sensation engendered by religion is sufficient reason for her to hold such beliefs. This is entirely wrong – the factual status of an act is not related to the sensation it produces. It is entirely possible to prove the truth not just of religion, but of the Christian faith by reference to the argument from Miracles. The modern church, in its Anglican incarnation at least, appears neither to care for the miraculous, nor to believe in it, likewise fundamental tenants of Christian belief which are required in order to illuminate the way in which the world does work, such as the existence of demons. The argument is, I feel convincing, but I shall set it out in a couple of weeks when I am at home and have time. In the meantime, the Dr Rowan Williams will, no doubt, keep the home fires burning.

This part of Italy has been wonderful. The Cathederal at Siena was an awesomely beautiful building in the truest sense, a place you could not help but observe open mouthed, the hospitality (including feet washing) has been outstanding and the scenery compelling (providing one finds ploughed up fields of mud compelling, otherwise not). Unlike the French and Swiss sections which brought each day a greater natural beauty, the Italian section brings each day something fine crafted by man. Today, I am in Bolsana, visiting the catacombs of St Christina, and viewing the miraculous host from which bleeding was reported in the thirteenth century, thus confirming the doctrine of transubstantiation. A very pleasant stop.

All best to you all, and thanks to those of you following this. Shall write in greater detail when I have more time in Rome. Tx

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Part Sei – Roadrunner

August 26, 2010 5 comments

I recall a trip to the seaside with a young lady some time ago, when it was suggested that we take a stroll to the end of the beach and back. This seemed a capital idea, having driven all the way there, it would have been churlish not to have enjoyed its full extent. With this in mind, I set off at a brisk pace, only to turn around after a couple of hundred meters and find I was unaccompanied. Apparently, my company found it confusing that I had set off on a concrete track into a car park from which one couldn’t see the sea, when one could have walked on the sand on the beach. From my perspective, I was equally confused by her attitude – if ones goal was to walk from A to B and back again, it made perfect sense to me to use the most direct route, rather than trudging along sand banks which make for slower walking. Apparently, I was missing the point.

I was reminded of that this morning, while wandering happily through a 2km tunnel connecting La Spezia with the mountains around it. I’m afraid one of my numerous defects as a pilgrim is that I enjoy going places in a straight line, which means that while I could not honestly recommend the trip from Genoa to La Spezia to a normal person – seeing as it involves wandering along extremely busy roads with no hard shoulder, no shade and nothing of note to look at except the remnants of last years hill fires, I have rather enjoyed it. Rapallo was great, the ambiance of the place was so at ease with itself, that it made for very pleasant ambling, although I paid for it with some truly terrifying walking in the days that followed, including some unlit single file tunnels along the coast, which alternated with walking trails in the mountains better suited to mountaineers. Mountaineers who had either a death wish or a helicopter – as the bloody things were damn near impassable.

I am also pleased to note that I have done my bit for European harmony. Arriving fatigued after 45kms in the sun at a coastal resort whose name I forget, I rather innocently paid my fee and started pitching my (now broken) tent at the end of a row. At this point a blonde woman appeared and started hectoring in foreign. Despite language difficulties, enough practice enables one to tell when a woman is being unreasonable and hysterical in any language. ‘No, no, no’ I tell her, shooing her away. Soon afterwards, her boyfriend rocks up in a black BMW. He would have been quite physically intimidating, being built like a bear, were it not for the fact that he opened his mouth and produced a sound so shrill with self righteousness that it recalled a German accented child whose toy has been confiscated. The problem appeared to be that they had seen the place an hour or so earlier, but in a bout of admirable efficiency, had gone off to measure up every other space in the campsite to be sure of securing the best available – “I mean, ve saw it furst. I could haf left ze girlfriend here, but iz a risk I could not haf taken”. Despite explaining that the first thing I would do with her is leave her somewhere, I am unable to convince him of the merits of another spot, at which point they flounce off declaring I have ruined their holiday. At this point it occurs to me that it simply is not worth causing these people such misery, and I let them have their space, and drag myself 5km up the road to the next space – not a big thing, but I doubt I would have had the grace to do so a couple of months ago. I can well understand, though, given how quick the German sense of grievance is to rouse itself, how Chamberlain gave them the Sudetenland, “But is ours, ve saw it first and it is right next to Bohemia, and ve just had to measure up Alsace-Lorraine first…” (Joke, joke – sorry Julian, I must disappoint you terribly!)

Finally, I commend to you the Affittacamere Cotorelle B&B on the Via Aurellia, north of La Spezia. Absolutely lovely people, who went miles out of their way to house, feed and water me, and a beautiful, relaxing place to rest your bones. If you’re in the area, drop in…

Now, to Lucca, where I have fond memories of a shop which sells yellow belts and pink jumpers. Perhaps if I stock up on some of those, I shall smell of Italian, rather than putrefying salt, which is my current parfumme de jour.

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Part Cinque – Frattelli d’Italia

August 22, 2010 2 comments

The Alps proved a phenomenal experience. The walk is unrelenting for two days from Montreaux to the summit, with sheer passes up mud and shale paths, the obligatory field of cows and a summit which never seems to arrive. We walked above snow, damns and gaggles of French pensioners who had taken a coach up to do some sitting. Bloody hard, but worth it for the stunning view of the Alps from the monastery at the top.

I cannot think of anything I have done which has given quite the same feeling of achievement. Although intellectual pursuits are imagined to have greater value than the physical act of walking up something, there is something to be said for having to face up to and conquer your own softness. So much of what gets us into trouble comes from an inability of the mind to control the body. This climb was something which at many points on this journey, you would have received long odds against me managing, so I feel a mixture of pride and gratitude that I managed it. Most of all, one feels humbled in the mountains, both by the enormity of the scale of ones surroundings in comparison to ones self and moreover the tinniness of ones place in time, given the marks of the many thousands who have trekked over the pass since pre-Roman times.

How Dad did it, I shall never know, given that he was fresh of the plane and then route marched vertically upwards for four days from Lausanne. In any event, his aptitude for finding and befriending the village drunk was soon to the fore, with an impressive opening day performance involving a man with a glass eye, an enormous stomach, a string vest and most of the gold jewellery in Switzerland who spoke neither French or Italian with any consistency, but instead a form of gibberish that only Dad, well versed in such things, understood. On finding out that I was walking from England, he produced a rousing series of “Bravissimo! Bravissimo!”, slapping the waitress at the cafe firmly on the behind for emphasis, after which he confided that he himself cycled six kilometers a week – which presumably accounted for his thirst – which had the pleasing effect of not only shrinking his stomach but producing a great extension in a neighbouring organ – demonstrated with engagingly lurid sign language. Dad managed to find someone like that most days for the fortnight he was here – a phenomenal achievement, as I have seen almost no public drunkenness since leaving England. A fine achievement, and it was great to have him out, excellent company.

I am now in Genoa, owing to a disagreement with the Via Francigenia, which thought it would be fun to spend a week or so visiting the mosquito colonies of northern Italy, whereas I thought it would be fun to visit the sea side. Genoa is remarkably like home – decorated with used syringes, condoms and drunk South East Asian gentlemen. The rest of Italy is uncompromisingly lovely, a wonderful place, beautiful people, beautiful scenery, beautiful towns.

To Rapallo, to try and look old money in a sweat stained lycra shirt and crotchless rugby shorts – challenging, but not impossible… Salve!

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Part Quatre – Credit Suisse

August 6, 2010 5 comments

Switzerland has been rather suprising. It is beautiful, naturally beautiful beyond conception, and I have been fortunate to walk mountains, valleys and lakes, all pristine, fresh and offering exhilarating views. I have also met with great kindness, notably from Mnsr and Mme Jaccard in St Croix who fed and housed me for the night, after I accosted Mme Jaccard looking for a campsite. The Jaccards have lived in St Croix since 1350, as apparently have around 100 of the 1,000 families in the village. One can see why, given the view, but it is an incredible record. I wonder how many British families could claim the same thing.

I am camping on the shore of Lake Leman waiting for the arrival of my father who is coming to walk the Alpes, next to some German teenagers, obviously away for a summer of unabashed teutonic hedonism. As far as I can tell, this involves sitting outside their tent around a loudspeaker having das partyfuntimes with der teknomuzik until 10:30PM, when in strict compliance with the appropriate subsection of the rules and regulations for campers (2010), they turn it off and go to bed. All of which got me thinking about the low birthrates in Europe. Italy and France have birthrates hovering around replacement rate, northern Europe is only a little better, and if first generation migrants are stripped out, practically every western European nation is failing to replace itself.

While a lot of the blame for this sits squarely on the shoulders of modern women, who seem to prefer – perhaps understandably – becoming middle managers in the civil service to childbirth, I’m afraid the majority of the blame must sit with European males.  If a French male wishes to impress the object of his desire, he buys a very small bike, and then rides it up and down the street making it jump a small way in the air now and again. If this fails he must resort to humour, which in France consists of conversing in a slightly higher pitch than usual. As far as I can tell, in Germany, one demonstrates the `devil may care` bad boy look by buying a slightly different colour baseball hat to ones friends. I saw a girl earlier on this trip taken for a date by her beau (who must have been pushing 30) which consisted of sitting on a roundabout watching him eat pastries (something he clearly did a lot of) and listening to dance music on his mobile phone. He was playing it cool, and he could afford to, with a date like that up his sleeve, the he was clearly the village Lothario. There would, no doubt, be others.  Given the options available, I begin to understand why women prefer becoming Deputy Vice Executive Chair (Treasury Tags) to having families – the choice is not outstanding…

And on that bombshell, to the Alps. Wish me luck…

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Part Trois – If it’s Monday, it’s closed

July 31, 2010 2 comments

Napoleon’s curious put-down, that the British were a nation of shopkeepers, begins to make sense only in the context of the French attitude to commerce, which has amused, bemused and frustrated equally in the past month. Exactly four weeks in, I have made it to Besançon, about 750 kms from home, and the first stirrings of French commercial activity. Not only are there shops, but many are open, and not just today, some open for as many as four days a week.

The primary problem so far this trip has been fuel. Simply put, it is difficult to eat and find water each day in sufficient quantity. I reckon to have lost around 20lbs since the start of the trip, when I ought to have built muscle, simply because I can’t replace what I’m burning. On a typical day, I might pass through 12 villages, 9 will have no commercial activity at all, 2 will have a Tabac or a boulangerie which is closed, 1 will have a Tabac or a boulangerie which is open. Everything shuts on Sunday and Monday, most places work half days Wednesday (middle of the week, see), Friday (big day, Thursday) and Saturday (nach). Every day is punctuated by lunch which begins at 10:00 and lasts until 16:00. The working day begins at 9:00 and ends at 16:30. It is, in its way, quite magnificent. Life here is about the important things – family, friends and cycling around in Lycia one pieces. I love it. Great place, lovely people.

Water is more of a problem but can usually be secured from graveyards, which are also good for camping sauvage, as are woods. Someone asked me the other day if I wasn’t ever scared. Quite simply, no. Firstly, I am too tired. Moreover, I believe that God will protect me from evil, a belief that has firmed this trip. It is unbelievable how unfailingly nice everyone has been. I have traipsed through some terrible places as well as all the glory stuff, and no-one has even looked at me askew. Whenever I am really tired or hungry, something turns up, and those setbacks I do have are better viewed as tests. The intercession of St Bèniot and St Christopher has also, I’m sure, helped. Physically and mentally, I’m in top order, it’s remarkable how well the body responds to the withdrawal of nicotine, caffeine, alcohol and slinkhur.

The journey distinguishes itself by the sheer range of scenery. Roughly every 30kms, it changes again, and in the Champagne I went from rolling wheat fields to vineyards, to the canals, to grazing land and now to the mountains of Franche-Comte. The via Francigenia, after being found again, shows a priggish determination to take me through fields of cows, but other than that is behaving. I have had the chance to observe many cows up close on this trip, and am therefore well acquainted with their wiles. They are malevolent, insolent and terrible predictors of rain. They lie down whenever a passing cloud happens to suppress their natural ebullience, which is frequently, and not, as is commonly supposed, only when rain is immanent. It is easy to see why the Welsh prefer sheep.

On an unrelated note, it is my sad duty to pass comment on the toiletry habits of our friends and partners from the lowlands. As those of you who have travelled with me know, there is on average one instance of unbridled fury every month or so (usually directed towards German naturists), and this month’s was in Chaumont, to a portly, moustached Belgian gentleman exiting a toilet he had liberally decorated with matter a less imaginative person would have entrusted to the sewage system. In fact the toilets in Chaumont’s campsite were a nightmare, I have never had occasion to stand ankle-deep in human excrement before, and hope not to have to again. Terrible place. Incidentally, the resemblance of campsite toilets to an open cess pit seems directly correlated with the number of Belgian number plates on display. One can only imagine that they view their deposits in the same way as Italians view driving – not a mundane activity bound by rules and social conventions – but a joyous expression of self, liberating and free. Terribly odd, must be on account of their proximity to Germany.

Enough nonsense. To Switzerland! Incidentally, in answer to Karen, I am raising money, but it can’t be done online, one has to send a cheque to the Marrilac at:

Marillac Care
Eagle Way
Warley
Brentwood
Essex
CM13 3BL

I would urge you to do it. Great cause, good people.

Tx

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