Monday 26 October 2015

"Far Far Away"

Continuing my quest to give every post a song title, I am using as the title for this post a line from an often overlooked song by 70's glam rock band Slade. 1973 was their annus mirabilis, the year of that incomparable rabble-rousing anthem Come on feel the Noize and of course their ubiquitous hardy annual Merry Christmas, Everybody, but in the following year, the song-writing partnership of Noddy Holder and Jim Lea came up with more thoughtful, if slightly less successful, material such as Everyday and Far Far Away, which contains these lines:-

"And I'm far, far away with my head up in the clouds
And I'm far, far away with my feet down in the crowds
Lettin' loose around the world 
But the call of home is loud, still as loud"

It's a song in which a thoughtful Noddy Holder reflects on the influence of travel. They say travel broadens the mind, and I have always been an enthusiastic traveller, and a supporter of the European ideal, for all its imperfections. I am a confirmed francophile, as befits the descendant of a Huguenot silk weaver immigrant, and I like to think that my exposure to the life and culture of our nearest neighbour, France, has been a significant influence on my adult personality and outlook.

I was reminded of the unlikely spark that lit my Europhilia when I visited Naples last week, evoking the line "I remember the back streets of Naples, two children begging in rags" from Peter Sarstedt's 1969 chart-topper "Where do you go to my Lovely?" It's a bit of a "Marmite song", loathed or derided by some, but loved by others, including me. For me as an impressionable 11 year-old, this song was a magical doorway to a world I hadn't seen, but to which I was intuitively attracted: that lilting accordion introduction and coda, those strings in the last chorus, the references to iconic people and places in Europe, and the enigmatic identity of the song's "my lovely" intrigued the boy from Bolton who had never been out of the UK and had just started learning French at school. Looking back, this song set me on the road to subject choices at school, a university degree and a career in language teaching. I wanted to know more about this cool-sounding place called Europe, and I have been lucky enough over the years since to travel there many times.

Yet I always return from Europe with mixed feelings, impressed by what our neighbours excel at yet proud of what we do better. Over many years of visiting France, particularly my spiritual homes in Paris, Alsace-Lorraine and Loire Atlantique, I have become familiar with all that I love about France and the French as well as what annoys me about them. I also know Germany quite well, not least through my involvement in my town's twinning arrangement with Bad Brückenau.

But last week, I was in less familiar territory: Italy, a country which I had previously visited only on a day drive from Austria during my first-ever holiday abroad with my family back in 1972. Staying in the Austrian Tyrol, my father took us for an outing over the nearby border into Italy, and in those days that meant an extra stamp on your passport, which seemed unbelievably exciting.

So last Monday, by flying to Rome, I was for the first time visiting properly a country whose sights, culture and cuisine are so familiar that I almost felt I was going somewhere that I already knew. We are so used to Italian restaurants that we feel as if we often visit the country. The sights of Rome are so iconic that when you see them you almost feel as if you've been there before. I enjoy trying to get into the routines of life in other countries, trying but failing to blend in to the ways of the locals and enjoying a taste of a different way of life. 

There are some things that the Italians do really well: coffee; hell-driving; ice cream; flourishing small shops; effortlessly stylish dressing by both genders; lively conversations; TV weather forecasts presented by uniformed Air Force officers! (I kid you not)

And their high-speed trains, which feel like the love-child of a VT Pendelino and a French TGV, are awesome. Rome to Naples in 70 minutes in a comfortable business class leather seat on a Frecciarossa, at a fraction of the cost of an equivalent UK train journey, was enough to make me wonder if maybe HS2 is a good idea after all.

But there are plenty of things that the Italians could learn from us. Is it really that difficult to provide and maintain decent public toilets? Isn't it rather bad planning to close for repairs two of Rome's most iconic tourist sites  - the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps - at the same time, and for months on end? Could I perhaps be allowed to walk towards the Vatican and St Peter's without being accosted multiple times - in English - by people offering to help me to "skip the line"? And surely they could make a far better job of looking after visitors to A-List attractions like the Colosseum, the Forum, Pompeii and Herculaneum with some clear signposting, a decent visitor centre and staff who seem interested in their job.

But that's all a bit churlish. To visit the sights of Ancient Rome and the Bay of Naples is to enjoy a privileged look at a past civilisation whose influence on how we live two thousand years later is profound and undeniable. Moreover, what is more striking is not how old and different it seems but rather how remarkably little has changed over those centuries.

For example, to experience the Colosseum, so obviously in every respect the template for the design of modern sports stadia, is a reminder of how remarkably advanced the Romans were in architecture, engineering, aesthetics and crowd management. Little has changed in 2000 years.

At Pompeii and Herculaneum, where an ordinary day in the life of a busy and functioning community was so tragically interrupted by a force of nature, we see time and again clear signs of a way of life which is more striking for its similarity to modern life than its difference.

To walk the streets of those towns, buried for so long under volcanic ash and therefore frozen in time, is to walk streets which seem somehow familiar, with their dwellings of differing status, their shops, workshops, their places of entertainment, works of art, even their fast-food outlets.

But one thing struck me more than all else on this trip: in some ways, we are incredibly different from our European neighbours: trying to blend in on the Circumvesuviana Railway from Naples to Pompeii is a hopeless aspiration, with the passengers on this rickety, graffiti-covered railway system being a bizarre mix of we earnest middle-class tourists from all over the world and poverty-stricken Neapolitans. Yet look beneath the superficial differences (for example, the incredible difference in the average height of men in Naples and that of men from the more prosperous North of Europe), and you see human beings with the same, anxieties, hopes, joys, fears, stresses and strains of our own lives. You see busy people hurrying to and from work whilst updating their status on Facebook, or texting friends, family and colleagues; you see the innocent laughter and play of children; you see the awkward mixture of bravado and insecurity in teenagers; and you see the bewilderment of old people trying to keep up with a fast-changing world. In other words, you see people being people.

Then at Pompeii and Herculaneum, you see people being people 2000 years ago, most poignantly of all in boathouse cellars of Herculaneum, where the skeletons of those who fled the volcano’s eruption at the very last minute and were caught on the beach by the flow of volcanic material are there, huddled together and cowering in the face of their impending doom:

A striking reminder that, for all our differences, we are all in the end just frail human beings, sometimes at the mercy of forces beyond our control.

My trip to a part of Europe new to me reminded me how much one can learn from even the most well-trodden tourist trail. Travel may or may not broaden the mind, but it certainly makes one think, and realise that a world shrunken in space and time by air travel and archaeology gives us the chance fully to understand our common humanity.

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