Okay, it took this topic to make me type again, for I’ve had a tough surgery on my arm and, frankly, it hurts to type. It hurts to do the dishes. It hurts to pick up dirty laundry off the floor and it really hurts to fold the clean laundry. But who’s complaining? (I suppose I am.) In any case, this blog, guided by my pain, will be brief.
But that’s not why I am writing this piece. It’s because in the few weeks I’ve been waylaid by pain, I’ve noticed that something impossible has happened: the news has gotten even weirder than when I stopped writing. I say nothing of the Kardashians—that’s just par for the course—nor say I anything about the president of the United States or Nike advertising or anonymous op eds to the New York Times. I say nothing.
But I do say something about a certain man, S. Navin Kumar, who set a new world’s record by cracking walnuts (217 in one minute). It’s an odd record, walnut cracking. Now, at first blush, this may not seem odd. After all, someone has to crack the nuts, and maybe in a factory somewhere there was a competition between crackers and then, one marvelous and legendary day, someone won that contest—like sheepshearers in Australia. Walnuts come primarily from Germany, then Turkey, China, Japan and Spain. I checked it out. So, let’s figure on Germany. There someone bet someone else a beer, no doubt, that he (probably he) could outstrip his counterpart Nussknacker (the German word for nutcracker is in fact Nussknacker). “Ich kan Nüsse besser als du knacken,” he probably said, “und schneller!” And that’s how it all started.
All things seem to start nobly, and only afterwards degenerate. Take professional basketball for example. They once called real fouls, no matter who fouled whom. They also called traveling. No longer. Big stars get free passes on fouls and traveling. Actually, almost everyone gets free passes on the latter nowadays.
But nutcracking—that’s the big surprise. What started as an innocent contest between two beer drinking Germans (sorry for the stereotype) has degenerated into head-slamming grandstanding and, ironically, this just when the NFL is cracking down on shots to the head and even uncalled for body blows. Perhaps as a reaction to that, suddenly the world record for cracking walnuts with one’s head has been set—set in stone, I might add—S. Navin Kumar. I suppose I, with the rest of the world, should simply congratulate him. But honestly, I think he must be nuts.
Okay, my arm is sore, which will allow you to forgive me for that rather weak closing line.
A train strike (sciopero) in Italy gives you time to think. And when you are traveling, sometimes time to think is just the right thing. For traveling should be—at least when you are traveling by yourself and especially not with small children—a time to think, to reflect, to ponder. Questions germane to traveling like “How did I get here?” or “Where am I going?” are also germane to our lives and, in a manner of speaking, they provide a framework for the kind of thoughts we should think if we are to be properly thoughtful people.
And traveling, in Europe at least, also helps us to think about being thoughtful because one often travels by train there—or I should say here, for I am writing this blog from Rome—and when one travels by train one has to negotiate one’s way through hoards of people, all trying to go in about the same direction. Really, they are going in various directions, and that is what makes working your way to your train so difficult. I try my best to be gentle about it, whenever possible acting as if getting to my train or making my connection isn’t all that important to me—even though it invariably is.
Now not making such a connection in Italy in the summer is not so bad as missing one in Switzerland or Germany in the winter. Of course the reason for that is the stations there are sometimes open-air and it is hard to stay warm in a not well-insulated or warmed station in the north. But in summertime Italy it is a different matter. Here one need not rush, need not bustle, for the country relies on a natural kind of lateness. Even my Italian friends call that “Italian time” and they take pride in a small amount of tardiness the way my German friends take pride in (or at least seem to expect) a certain punctuality.
Which brings me back to thinking. For thinking about big questions based on little ones is a good thing, and thinking about being gentle and knowing that what time you have to leave is not nearly as important as where you’re going or how you get there. Sometimes you just have to face the fact that in life there will be a “sciopero” of sorts, a personal train strike or temporary setback. You may not meet an objective because of external forces. You may be criticized by someone fairly or unfairly and have to slow down and remind yourself of the long-term goal, that responding sharply is very unlikely to be the right thing to do. Rather, that right thing is likely to be gentleness.
One of the things that struck me on this trip so far—aside from how fabulous Italian food is and how impossible it is not to mention food in every blog that I write while I am in this country, even in a world gone mad—was a conversation that I had at a fancy affair with an American, a very nice and courteous chap, a fine human being, a gentle person. Yet there was, it seemed to me, perhaps something recently missing in his life, and that missing thing had not to do with food but with traveling.
Now it could have had something to do with food. After all, the fancy affair at which we met was a grand party thrown for a recently successful archaeological team, a party that I, as a mere novelist and blogger, was clearly crashing. They were wrapping up an excavation of an Etruscan tomb near Viterbo. The person with whom I enjoyed a rich conversation seemed at first blush to be a hired musician, for he deftly played the guitar at this affair, accompanying a marvelous accordion player. That same person in question, however, turned out to be there at the invitation of one of the archeologist. As for me, I was invited along by a friend of a friend, and, being naturally curious, I accepted the invitation, even if in fact I was more or less crashing the party.
And I am glad I did, for I had never been in a movie before. No, this was not a real film, but it was as if a scene from a movie, a particular one, perhaps my favorite: The Godfather. Mutatis mutandis, it was as if we were in the opening wedding scene, a great celebration with food of a high order of deliciousness that just kept coming, course after course. Over a glass of wine that was hand-crafted by one of the local magistrates (a certain Angelo, whom everyone called Sant’Angelo), the gentleman and I fell to talking about the big questions, what I am calling in this blog, the travel questions.
Like me, he had thought about such questions. But when he had encountered a certain sciopero in his own life—a complicated church situation—the strike in his life had presented him with an unwelcome challenge, temporarily perhaps driving him away from church. Still, I encouraged him in the midst of it to remember that there is a directional aspect to the whole question of religion, an aspect that simply by going through the motions sometimes maintains a true faith or, better yet, even sometimes kindles a deeper faith, a faith perhaps one never realized was possible—a faith in a God who can produce miracles. And thus do I hope that he finds his direction back to church, with his guitar in hand, for I liked him and I suspect that his joy won’t be complete until he finds peace in his music, in church, in life—in God.
And here I will stop, for it was, after all, merely a lunch I was crashing, not a scene from a movie, not something from my usual world of fantasy, of otherworldly ideas beyond reality. Yet even if it was reality, it sure did feel like a scene from that best of films. Could we have been, for a moment, with a real godfather, could we have been characters in a story? Perhaps that is the point, perhaps we are a part of a story, and we need to be reminded of that from time to time. And to grasp that, to garner what we need to live, and love, and thrive, perhaps we may require, from time to time, to experience a sciopero.
Traveling abroad this week, I saw somewhere—I think it was Heathrow—a sign that vaunted, perhaps as a bit of advertising, something along the lines of your past having nothing to do with your present. It might have been the very “maxim” pictured below, or something very similar to it. I thought about it in passing at the time—how untrue, I mused to myself—not thinking that I would be writing about that untrue saying in just a few days’ time.
And yet here I am, writing about precisely that. And I am doing so for two reasons. One is to call attention to the fact that our life choices—now, caveat lector, it is most certainly true that we and all people have choices—constantly inform who we are becoming. Let me go back, for a moment to the caveat that I have mentioned here between m-dashes. Too often I hear in dinner-party conversation among the intellectual in-crowd how great it is that we have so many choices today, in this modern world, for in the ancient world so few people had any choices at all. Such a sentiment I would here significantly qualify: most of the so-called modern world to which that person is referring so cavalierly, has about as much choice as the ancients had, for most of this modern world lives in what first-world folks would qualify as poverty. What that cocktail-party person means to say is, “In my very limited view of the world, there seem to be so many choices nowadays!” But, if they could actually think for a moment to see that that is what they do mean, they might not say so anyway, as such accuracy doesn’t fly well at such highbrow get-togethers. Thus, they speak more generally, like a little child or some of the leading politicians of our times, sounding about as well-informed as each.
But I leave that aside to return to the fact that the sign that I saw, whatever precisely it said, similar to the maxim pictured above, could not possibly be more inaccurate. It is inaccurate just as much for those of us who live in the prosperous regions of the earth as for those of us who do not, whether our choices are the comfortable type (“Let me see, which of these expensive colleges shall I choose to attend?”) or of the less affluent variety (“Shall I steal that piece of fruit from the fruit stand?”). And it is so precisely because we have, in either case, choices to make, choices in our soon-be-to past that will inform our soon-to-become present.
But why, in a blog about Wolfenbüttel, Germany, do I start with a disquisition about how it untrue it is that our past does not inform our present? Precisely because Wolfenbüttel embodies very well the veracity of my proclamation.
You may not know that Wolfenbüttel, founded in perhaps the tenth century and located just eight miles east of Brunswick on the map above, is but one of over eight score towns in Germany with a the nominal suffix –büttel, indicating a hamlet or settlement of some kind. Yet Wolfenbüttel stands out among the other “büttels” for its tranquility and striking beauty. Undamaged during the bombing raids of the Second World War—raids that devastatingly wreaked destruction upon nearby and nevertheless still very quaint Braunschweig—Wolfenbüttel is a city that by its very look and feel preserves a rich cultural heritage.
One way that it does so is obvious to even the casual visitor, who admires its buildings that feature prominently delightful and typically German half-timber design.
Yet another way, though is less obvious. It is the fact that one of its buildings, the Herzog August Bibliotek, houses one of the finest manuscript collections in all of Europe. Visitors come from around the world to see some of these books when they are on display. Yesterday I had the privilege of studying one of these, a very old manuscript (ninth-century) of Virgil. This book was written about when Charlemagne was Holy Roman Emperor, before Wolfenbüttel itself was even one of the “-büttels.” It was a different world then, though a world nonetheless filled with non-first-world choices. It was a world when books were extremely precious objects, a world in which learning was starting to bloom again, thanks to the intellectual vision and appreciation for learning that the aforementioned emperor embodied. He himself would seem to have come to appreciate learning a bit later than most young men, and even studied Latin when he was emperor, relying not merely on knowledge acquired as a youngster.
However that may be, let me return to how Wolfenbüttel is the answer, if not the antidote, to the false dictum with which this blog opened. Merely entering the Herzog August Bibliotek, one senses that one is stepping into the past. Then, hunching over an ancient manuscript one realizes this even more robustly. The scribe who painstakingly made this apograph (i.e. a direct copy) of the Palatinus manuscript (some five hundred years older than this one) was himself connecting with a past more distant than the Palatinus manuscript from which he was working. He was, in fact connecting with the author of the body of work that contained the poem at which I was looking, Virgil’s eighth Aeneid. That portion of the larger work (the twelve book version of the Aeneid) was written probably between 25 and 20 BC, a quarter of a century or so before Christ was born.
In the manuscript I was studying there are occasional mistakes, misspellings. The scribe, perhaps because he was tired or had had too much to drink, occasionally switches the letter -i- for the letter -y-, writing, for example, “Thibrym” for “Thybrim” (the name of Rome’s most prominent river). It is not a moral error, by any stretch; yet it is, in fact, an error, one recorded for posterity to see, or at least for me to notice when I am reading the manuscript. That mistake is, thankfully, one that has little impact on the Virgilian tradition; but it is, nonetheless, a part of the history of that tradition.
So, when one sees a sign or advertisement or whatever it was that I saw in Heathrow—if it was Heathrow, or was it Hamburg?—vaunting that one’s past ought have nothing to do with one’s present, one must stop and think about Wolfenbüttel’s Herzog August Bibliotek. One must think of Gottfried Lessing (in the 18th century) or, before him, Gottfried Leibniz (in the 17th century), each of whom served as its head librarian. One must think of them meticulously safeguarding that manuscript, one that I held in my hand yesterday, a document that contains a poem from the past, a past that is not lost, but informs our present in more ways than we know. The Aeneid, and other works like it (e.g. Livy’s Histories), influenced not only modern writers and artists but also political theorists, some of whom have shaped modern foreign and domestic policies. The great institution of democracy itself, even if in the next American national election it should produce a less-than-desirable leader, is obviously owed to ancient models.
So I leave you, dear reader, with this thought. Our past does, in fact, inform our present and our future. Our choices, particularly the universal moral choices that transcend the normally starkly demarcated boundaries of first, second and third worlds, are like that manuscript. They will be, whether of good moments of neat penmanship or weaker moments rife with error, with us in this life for the long term. My hope for myself is that from here on out I choose wisely, I act thoughtfully, and I remember my past, lest the mistakes I have made before be repeated; let whatever parallel in my own life there may be for the river “Thibrym” not be repeated that way. Let me live delicately, thoughtfully, and let me make choices that inform my present in a positive way. And based on my experience of this delightful town known as Wolfenbüttel, I extend that very hope to you.
P.S. To all my readers, because I am traveling, next week’s blog will not post until Sunday.