History seems like abstraction, a story we’re told between commercials.
Or at least that’s how it seems, growing up in North America. By which I mean “north-North America.” Mexico has some bad-ass history in its ruins, places that ooze mystique and mood – a departure from USA and Canada, where our native peoples largely left no trace, aside from totem poles and petroglyphs, most of which we have to visit museums or parks to see.
Europe, though, is like a museum. Everyone needs that feeling of stumbling on a random 2,000-year-old slice of history just there, on the side of the street. Like that time I strolled through Athens at 11 at night, glanced over and, oh, look, Hadrian’s library 25 feet below the sidewalk. That old thing.
History surrounds you in Europe. In some cities, like Athens and Rome, when you’re peppered with ruins and monuments dating western civilization’s nascence, it’s hard not to imagine these events and ancient peoples. It’s confounding, sometimes, for someone like me, from Vancouver, a city of glass and steel, where a 1920s home is considered a “heritage” building.
Meanwhile, I’ve had beers in pubs with Roman walls from before the time of Christ. I’ve watched the sunset while sitting on marble carved 3,000 years ago, looking over the Aegean Sea. I’ve slept in a 500-year-old loft atop a 2,000-year-old hill town and watched the fog smothering the truffle-filled Istrian valleys.
Memories that Can’t Get Shook
Lately, I keep thinking of a night in Czechia (“Czech Republic”) when I wandered down fog-slicked cobblestone after a beery winter’s meal. Our low river valley had been foggy for days. It suited my glum state, as my father had died just two months previous. I was in the middle of a month of living in Cesky Krumlov, a Bohemian town of 12,000 that had barely changed in 700 years.
Headed home, I had to cross the town square and spotted some folks somberly adding flowers to other bouquets surrounding the 300-year-old column. I asked one of the women if she spoke English and whether she could tell me what they were commemorating.
It was tribute to those who died during the Plague from 1680-1682. Around 75% of the town was lost.
I’d always heard about the Plague but this made it real to me. Women, over 300 years later, still mourning those who’d passed, expressing gratitude to their god for ending such horrors. Earlier, a guide had told me the now-music school was the ossuary during the Plague, filled with the dead who would be unclaimed because whole families succumbed in the pre-disinfectant era, when epidemiology was hardly a thing. The Plague would never be an academic notion to me again. Here, it was real, it mattered. It had a legacy.
The town had lost so much yet carried on, and there we were, over three centuries later, well-dressed, healthy, living the life.
Survival. It happens.
I think a lot of that night, these days.
The Curse of Interesting Times
Now, here’s the important thing: We are not facing anything remotely like that. We have soap, for starters. We understand virology and epidemiology. We have bleach, we have disinfectants. And the numbers are just completely different, too. We’re talking 1-2% mortality, not 75%.
But, man. It’s scary. It is. If you’re well-informed, it’s scary. Luckily, about 80-85% of us will have something akin to a flu, it’ll be freaky, and it’ll pass. 15 or 18% of people will have lingering effects after they “recover,” like weakened lungs and lung scarring. One to three percent may die.
Nothing like the dark history of the Plague.
Still, like many people, I am constantly tense right now. It’s like I’m braced for impact. My jaw has knots. My head throbs from that thread of worry omnipresent behind my eyes.
It’s constant uneasiness.
Sometimes, though, I get lucky.
Lessons of Place
Sometimes, a thought and a feeling wash over me. Remembering what it felt like to stand on the floor of a Roman coliseum in Croatia, all alone except four staff. And then the cold shivers that coursed through me when I wandered what once were the holding pens for those awaiting their time on the sandy floor with 25,000 screaming Romans in the seats around them – what would often be their last walk, perhaps into the fray with a gladiator or thrown to lions for spectacle.
I remember what it felt like to wander through Sarajevo, where, for four years, just going to get bread could get you killed because your mortal enemies had the city surrounded with snipers and picked people off like sport. I woke each morning to see the opposite building, with what my host assured me was gunfire pocking, some 50-plus holes dotting its facade.
I remember spending over three weeks sleepless in Cambodia, convinced I could feel that ebbing vibe of a place where Serious Shit happened. From illegal bombing campaigns during the Vietnam War leaving a legacy of landmines that are STILL over a decade away from being cleared, through to genocide in which their Khmer Rouge slaughtered over a quarter of the population – there’s a vibe to Cambodia I just couldn’t shake. Few Khmer Rouge, really, were brought to justice. Genocide ended and people just went back to living side-by-side, essentially.
The things I learned from those experiences are, one, people can be horrible sometimes. Two, people are amazing sometimes. Three, humans do a good job of surviving. Four, living is complicated.
Travelling sort of inoculates you. Makes you tougher. Teaches you a lot about humanity and tragedy and resilience and, probably most important, impermanence.
Sure, the Roman coliseums are still standing. The Acropolis is too. But all those empires fell. They’re a reminder of the fleetingness of even the most encompassing things. Those Plagues and genocides and economic hardships and military sieges – they all had their day and were gone again.
I will not lie to you. Times will be hard. You will learn things about yourself, your world, the people around you – and you will wish you didn’t learn some of it.
This is part of the ticket to ride. This is life. This, too, shall pass. There’s a reason that’s a cliché. I don’t know where this all goes or what it looks like when we hit the end of this road, but I do know it’s a journey we’ll get through.
If we’re lucky, what usually happens in terrible times will happen for us now too: People pull together. Kindness, it seems, isn’t shouted from rooftops or shoved down our throats, since we live in an “if it bleeds, it leads” world of news. Yet, when we least expect it, sometimes the worst of things evokes the best of us.
Maybe the environment heals some too. Whatever happens, I deeply believe we humans and this planet will emerge from this trial better than we were before.
What a price we’ll pay for it, but we’ll come through. We’ll change, we’ll improve, re-think some values.
In the meantime – history is good. It teaches you how much, how often, such trials have been visited on civilizations, and serves as tangible proof that people find a way through it all.
Be safe. Be careful. Be considerate. Stay back, be physically distant. Wash your hands.