Posts Tagged ‘Europe’

The Prague CemeteryI’ve read a few books by Eco, now – The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and now this. While I didn’t think The Prague Cemetery was as good as the first two novels in that list, it was much, much better than the third.

The premise of this book is quite daring – on several levels. Using a wide array of historically accurate sources, Eco creates a fictional character who almost single-handedly, it seems, creates the vitriolic anti-Semitism of fin de siècle Europe, which culminates in the Russian creation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which then, of course, leads to the terrible events of the 1930s and 40s.

Daring, because the subject matter is so sensitive; and because Eco’s narrative pretty attributes it all to one man; and because, except for the main character, it’s all – apparently – historically accurate: all the other characters (with a couple of minor exceptions and conflations) are real historical personages, all the events really happened. Daring also, because the main character develops two personalities, whose diaries and notes form letters to each other.

(Fictional) Simone Simonini, inspired by his (real) grandfather’s anti-Semitism as expressed in a (real) letter to (the real) Abbé Barruel, embarks on a career as a dishonest notary; he becomes a cunning forger first in his native Italy (Piedmont, actually, as there was no Italy as we know it in the mid-nineteenth century) and later in his adoptive France. He gets caught up in various historical events – Garibaldi’s battles in Sicily, the Fourth French Revolution, sensational exposés of Masonic rituals – and all the while develops his plans to discredit the Jewish people by concocting a fanciful story of a group of rabbis meeting in the Prague cemetery to discuss their plans to take over the world by such dastardly means as infiltrating governments and banks, introducing freedom of speech and social reforms and promoting republicanism.

Many long stretches of the book are fascinating reconstructions of historical intrigues. The sub-plot regarding a false persona that was created through psychological trauma is very promising at the beginning, but quickly becomes little more than a foil for Simonini’s amnesiac search for his own history. The depth of his hatred for Judaism – and for Jesuits, women, Germans, the French, Italians – in fact everyone except himself – is also quite entertaining. The various guises and ploys, plots and actions that Simonini is involved with make him a very appealing anti-hero. The milieu of late nineteenth century history-making and hysteria is expertly recreated.

And when I was old enough to understand, [my grandfather] reminded me that the Jew, as well as being as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmuck, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti, is adulterous through uncontrollable lust – the result of circumcision, which makes them more erectile, with a monstrous disproportion between their dwarfish build and the thickness of their semi-mutilated protuberance.

I dreamt about Jews every night for years and years.

A few facts make the narrative drag. The join-the-dots approach to constructing a plot means that the whole thing is rather meandering and it ends very suddenly. The double-narrative (actually, it’s a triple-narrative, as there is a Narrator-with-a-capital-N, too) doesn’t quite work; the mystery as to whether the secondary personality is a figment or a real person isn’t that mysterious. And lists – throughout his work, Eco cannot resist a good list, and they do start to seem like he’s showing off his impressive erudition.

We decided that the Grand Master of the Supreme Council of Charleston bore the titles of Brother General, Sovereign Commander, Master Adept of the Grand Symbolic Lodge, Secret Master, Perfect Master, Intimate Secretary, Provost and Judge, Master Elect of the Nine, Illustrious Elect of the Fifteen, Sublime Knight Elect, Chief of the Twelve Tribes, Grand Master Architect, Scottish Grand Elect of the Sacred Visage, Perfect and Sublime Mason, Knight of the East or of the Sword, Prince of Jerusalem, Knight of the East and West, Sovereign Prince of the Rose Croix, Grand Pontiff, Venerable Master ad vitam of all Symbolic Lodges, Noachite of Prussian Knight, Grand Master of the Key, Prince of Libanus and of the Tabernacle, Knight of the Brazen Serpent, Knight Commander of the Temple, Knight of the Sun, Prince Adept, Scottish Knight of Saint Andrew, Grand Elect Knight Kadosh, Perfect Initiate, Grand Inspector Inquisitor, Clear and Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret, Thirty-Three, Most Powerful Sovereign Commander General Grand Master Conservator of the Sacred Palladium, Sovereign Pontiff of Universal Freemasonry.

Umberto Eco

This was an entertaining and fascinating read, but it felt a little hampered by being tied to a range of historical events – albeit important and interesting historical events. So while this wasn’t my favourite Eco novel, it has restored my faith in him after the navel-gazing-fest of Queen Loana. I’m ready to read one of his other books, now – maybe Baudolino.

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Getting to Venice from Paris was pretty much a full day’s travel. As usual, we went by train, first to Basel in Switzerland, where I paid for a couple of coffees with a €10 note and got two 2 Swiss franc coins in return, then to Milan and finally to Venice Mestre. This latter station is on the mainland, where as the iconic old city is on an island (actually, it effectively is an island) just off the coast.

We checked in to a cheap hostel (which called itself a hotel) near the station, witnessing a beautiful sunset display of light and shade in the sky, chatted to an interesting and talkative New Zealander, Edward, who was sharing our four-bed dormitory, and caught a train (along the lengthy bridge that connects Venice to the rest of the country) to Santa Lucia station to have a look round Venice at night.

We didn’t go far within the city and the dark, narrow alleyways were pretty quiet – a little eerie, even. The area next to the station was busier, though, with plenty of tourists and vendors – there various people selling the little balls that go splat on a surface then resume their shape and the helicoptery things that you catapult into the air.

The following day, we had made plans to look around Venice with Edward, but there was little sign of him when we went to breakfast – at a different hotel. Habiba saw him out of the window, but then he didn’t materialise. I went back to our hostel to look for him, but he wasn’t there.

We took a crowded bus into Venice and then a waterbus along the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco.

We decided to go into St Mark’s Basilica and joined a queue. Unfortunately, after half an hour of shuffling along, it became apparent that we wer in the wrong line; we stepped across to the correct one. As we approached the entrance to the basilica, a French-sounding woman approached us (and apparently only us) and told us that packpacks weren’t allowed inside and that I would have to check mine in to a nearby cloakroom. I went to check this intelligence out and passed Edward coming out of the basilica. He explained that he’d come to the breakfast hotel that morning but hadn’t been allowed into the dining room because he didn’t want to have any breakfast.

Edward looked after my bag while we went inside. The inside was a spectacle of gold. Pretty much every bit of the ceiling was covered in mosaics with gold backgrounds. The floor tiling was interesting – circles and shapes that suggested 3D steps. One particular mosaic stood out: a lion with mad, anguished staring golden eyes.

We hooked up with Edward outside and started wandering around. We went back to the water and turned left past the Ducal Palace, passing over a crowded bridge that gave a good view of the Bridge of Sighs; when we came back the same way later the bridge was jam packed with tourists and tour groups all trying to get a glimpse of the famous bridge along which prisoners passed on their way to the cells.

We walked towards the castle walls and found them to be closed (it being Monday). We had lunch together – Habiba and Edward had surprisingly good value pizzas; I had a tasty but not so filling ravioli dish.

We headed to the Rialto Bridge and parted ways with Edward. Habiba bought some excessively juicy fruit that contained a ball of pips in their centres; I found them rather annoying to eat. Before we left, we headed to a souvenir shop that I’d seen the previous night and I bought myself a little aquamarine glass cat for €3.

The bus back to the mainland was less crowded, but still fairly busy. Bright and early the next morning we said farewell to Venice and took the train to Rome.

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The Grand Tour

In just over a week, Habiba and I will leave Korea for a trip around Europe. We will be travelling for three months then doing three months working on a camp, after which we’ll head to the State to stay with Habiba’s mum for a while before heading back to Korea for the end of the year or early next year.

We actually leave the country separately. Habiba gets a free flight home (or wherever) from her employer; I don’t and had to buy my own. Habiba’s job have bought her a flight with Emirates, so she’s leaving at midnight on Sunday night and will have a half a day stop in Dubai. I got a much cheaper Aeroflot ticket and I leave at lunchtime on Monday and have a two-hour stop at Moscow Sheremetyevo.

So we arrive in Istanbul within a few hours of each other on Monday afternoon/evening. We’ll be spending a few days there before flying to Izmir on Turkey’s west coast. We spend another few days there and at nearby Selçuk, where the ruins of Ephesus are. Then we’re due to fly to Athens for a while then Thessaloniki and nearby areas for a while. There’s some civil disturbance in Greece at the moment with demonstrations against austerity cuts that have seen buildings burnt and the murder of three bankers. However, I think that there won’t be a huge problem as long as we take sensible precautions; and I don’t want to miss an opportunity to see the Acropolis and other sights.

Habiba’s mum will head back to Istanbul, then, for her flight home and we go to Albania – specifically, Berat, a picturesque town noted for its medieval buildings. We might stop in Tirana, the capital; we have a stop planned in Shkodra (or Shkoder – it seems to have two names). Then we visit another beautiful-seeming location, Kotor in Montenegro (where the average height is over 6 feet). Then it’s on to Croatia: Dubrovnik then Split (with a necessary transit through Bosnia and Herzegovina, which separates the southernmost tip of Croatia from the rest with its only coastal town of Neum) then Zagreb.

From Zagreb, we’ll travel north to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, where we’ll meet a couple of friends. One is Hungarian, so we’ll also take a trip with him to Budapest. Then it’s on to Vienna and Salzburg, Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, Barcelona and Rome. Our travel during this stage of the trip will be by train – we’ve already bought Eurail passes; we need to figure out exactly how to use them, though.

From Rome we fly to London (Gatwick). We’ll spend a few days there, staying with friends, meeting other friends and seeing the sights. Then Bath and Bristol. Then up to Runcorn and nearby areas. Then we fly from Manchester to Reykjavik for a couple of weeks volunteering on an organic farm. The farm is on the east of the country and the capital is on the west, so we need to take another flight between the two (there’s not much public transport in Iceland).

Then we fly to Switzerland, where we’ll stay with friends of Habiba’s in Basel for a while – and hopefully get in a bit more travel to surrounding regions. After that we’ve signed up to work on the Zenith Institute Sufi Camp in southern Switzerland. The work consists of five weeks of setting up, four weeks of being a steward at the camp itself (although, in exchange for attending the full five-week set-up period, we get a free week of seminars) then three weeks of take-down. This is Habiba’s dream and one that I have mixed feelings about – but I’ll try to keep an open mind about it.

The camp gives volunteers who attend the whole thing some money at the end – so we’ll use that to buy a flight to America. And then, presumably, we’ll start looking for work in Korea again.

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I’m nearly two months into my new job and it’s going OK. Sleep and getting up in the morning hasn’t been too much of a problem. I usually try to sleep a little on the express bus down to Bundang, but it’s not easy. The drivers often have the radio on, sometimes at annoying high volumes. They also often have a beep that sounds when the engine revs too high – presumably to let them know when to change gear (unlike the UK, where people drive real cars, the vast majority of Korean cars are automatics (not that I’ve ever driven a car, manual or automatic)).

The main problem, though, is the buses themselves. They’re coaches, really, but living in such an American-oriented society I inevitably think of them as buses. Korea has a great public transport (not transportation) system – there are lots of bus routes and buses, subway lines and trains. The buses are all pretty rickety, though: they jolt and judder and jump up and down every time the driver changes gear or applies the brakes. The drivers also don’t drive too well: they tend to accelerate as fast as possible and then brake as hard as possible.

I’m back into reading as a result. If I can’t sleep on the bus in the morning, I might as well make a little more progess on The Three Musketeers (a novel about four soldiers who rarely use muskets). I can only manage a couple of pages in the evening, though, before exhaustion overtakes me.

My roleplaying game system continues to progress. I’ve been working on a new version that is taking longer than the first version to complete – I don’t have any full days to dedicate to it, now, though. From a high point of six players, the group has shunk a little to three regulars. The campaign that I’m running has taken a lot longer than I imagined to get to the point it’s currently at. The players are at a turning point, however, and I think I need to change my approach for the coming episodes – cutting out extraneous combat, maybe dealing with longer periods in condensed form. We have fun, though, which is the important thing.

Habiba and I are planning our trip to Europe, which will start early in the spring. I learnt from the internet that all international train services in Greece were cancelled earlier this year because of the financial crisis there, also it’s a very chancy business getting inter-island ferries at that time of year. This changes some of our plans – we’ll have to bus it (that word again) from Istanbul to Athens, or maybe Thessaloniki. The next stop will be Albania – transport links there and in the former Yugoslavia also look a bit ad hoc, so that’ll be interesting times.

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