The Way Home

Every time I travel, there’s a different story to tell. I’m on a flight to Lisbon, and the good news is the plane is full. To the brim, which is what they do these days.

Air travel is the only form of transport that has steadily, and sometimes abruptly, gotten worse over my lifetime. The trade-off is that everyone can travel, it’s an atmospheric democracy.

Nine-Eleven, and various events since, either numerically defined or with the word bombing in them, have driven air travel nuts. The Heathrow security check boasts a sign for removing laptops and large electrical items for separate inspection. I never really considered it, but today I felt the urge to ask for an example of a large electrical item.

I suggested vacuum cleaners, or perhaps blenders and front-loading clothes washers. The Asian guy on the security rollers laughed, and said I’d be amazed at the stuff people brought through, including screen monitors and electric irons.

Hmm… I still think these ‘items’ are as elusive as the Yeti, and furthermore, if they’re large, they wouldn’t fit in your carry-on bag.

Maybe all these people going to Portugal are buying bits of the country―as long as they leave their money behind, I don’t care! They certainly aren’t natives returning home. In actual fact, one hundred and twenty thousand Portuguese emigrated in 2011, over one percent of the population. Many are highly qualified young people who’ve had enough.

The cream of the crop, the most entrepreneurial in the nation, and chances are they’ll never return home. A whole generation gone to São Paulo and St. Pauli, Marylebone and Maputo.

In the middle of all this mayhem, London thrives. Friday night in Borough Market, every bar and restaurant overflows with patrons. Your table is not even close to lebensraum, the pub won’t serve you a drink unless you have a place booked, and money flows like water.

As you radiate outwards, things change. As a whole, Britain is a mixed bag, the capital boom of the nation’s capital a far cry from conditions elsewhere. Up in Scotland, independence is seen as a very real option, although it’s unlikely to win the referendum. The Scottish National Party is itself led by a bizarrely named duo, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. A little fishy, but then politics makes for murky waters.

The independence game is the flavor du jour, with Catalans and Basques attempting to conquer by word rather than sword. All the principalities of yesteryear are re-emerging, long diluted hatreds yearning for a medieval model that lost its way―the serene city-states of Italy and Greece, the Flemish and Waloon. The selfish, small-town splits based on bigotry and tunnel vision are once again the order of the day.

If Scotland became independent, it would issue currency. It could also unilaterally declare war and make peace. Salmond was recently accused of lying about the future status of Scotland in the European Union. Would it retain membership? He claimed the question was discussed with EU leaders, legal teams were consulted; the Scottish parliament cried foul. Salmond is busy back-pedalling…

The technicolor dreamcoat of city-states cannot coexist with a united Europe, it would be the fragmentation grenade of federalism. Back in the days of The India Road, the spy Pêro da Covilhã trekked overland to the East, stopping in the city-states of Naples and Rhodes. Each had its own legal system. The spy passed himself off as Boutros, the Arab form of Peter, when he landed in North Africa.

In the Neapolitan sun, Pero set off to find yet another banker, to cash yet another money order, previously deposited in Lisbon. The spy asked for directions in French. “The house of Cosimo di Medici, if you please?”

The reply, in broad local dialect, was difficult to understand. The two Portuguese proceeded in the general direction indicated, but soon ran afoul of the maze of narrow alleys. This time they secured the help of a small boy in exchange for a coin offered to his father. They were guided to an imposing establishment, admitted to a shaded patio, and made to wait.

The banker was in his fifties, with rolls of fat in his jowls and dressed in the fine clothes of a wealthy nobleman. Wine was poured as they sat together while the letter of credit was minutely examined, with particular attention to the wax sealing. “My good friends, everything is in order here.” The Italian gave an order for the money to be brought to them, and asked them pleasantly in fluent French, “You must plan to embark on much business, with such a sum. Will you bide here in Naples?”

The spy’s reply was cautious. “We plan to travel to the north, and also to the islands.” He gestured vaguely in a southern semicircle. “We are keen to strengthen our trading links in this region.”

“Ah. South to Africa, or perhaps to Asia?”

Pero felt that Medici, who had many contacts with other businessmen, in particular those of Venice and Genoa, was showing more than a passing interest in their voyage.

“Alas, we have no plans on that front,” the spy replied sadly. “Indeed,” he continued, “we have some French and Latin, a little Spanish. It would be very difficult to trade the east without Arabic—I think we should leave that work to your own most serene republics.”

As the financier watched the two men disappear, he pondered their true intentions. They had too much money, and there was a hard look in Covilhã’s eyes.

Europe in the late XVth century was a myriad of tiny fiefdoms, languages, and tax schemes―a continent going nowhere, with successive dominant states, their possessions coveted, plundered, squandered. And so it remained until people like Garibaldi provided the political elixir that dissolved endless fratricide.

I’m pretty sure that the new Italy of the XIXth century spent time deriding its component parts. Even now the Lombardy League reflects those age-old antagonisms. Much like the EU.

Private Eye’s take on the scandal rocking Britain.

Meanwhile, the perspective from a kingdom which is anything but united (thus the name), is of a land that bears no relation to Europe, and can’t identify with European ideals. The past week the nation has been consumed with discussions of pedophilia at the BBC. Since Auntie Beeb, as she’s affectionately known, recruits from the English public (private) boarding school system, by way of the top universities, this headline has the impact of dog bites man.

Of course, saving it all is the British sense of humor, as dry as the Martini that Bond no longer drinks. At a dinner party, someone mentions a family member who they believe is in the legal profession. One of the guests pipes up. “Your sister’s not a barrister, she’s a barista!”

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.

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