There are not many things which can stop you dead in your tracks on the other side of the world. A Saskatchewan Wheat Pool hat is what did it for me.
I was in Rome central station, already wary of those who prey upon tired travellers coming out the doors laden with goods. I had been warned about the gypsies. A child rushed up and thrust a bouquet of flowers in my face. Blinded, I reached down and sure enough, his hand was already in my pocket. Close by, an elderly American couple came out, weighted down by a large video camera and an SLR camera with a huge lens. A gypsy family mobbed them, and in a moment relieved them of those expensive toys. To add spectacle to confusion, the gypsy family ran smack dab into two Italian policemen who were waiting. They seized the boy by the hair and began to slap the ringleader in front of the crowd, which burst into spontaneous applause.
Train stations in foreign places are the very locus of graft and corruption. Trust does not run deep. You will undoubtably run into those ‘travelling without money’. They approach you with the very unique line that someone has stolen their things and they need just to raise train fare to get home again. Could you please help? And then there are those strangers who want to ‘share a room’, which means you pay.
So it was that I cruised by the sign raised up at the station, the one that said ‘share lodgings’. As I rushed past, something caught my eye... the word Saskatchewan, the place where I was born. The guy was about my age and wore a Saskatchewan wheat pool hat, a farmer, far from home. One of my own peeps. And so I stopped.
Turns out Martin was a guy about my age. A farmer, yes, but one who wanted to see the world, get educated, and to improve himself. Accordingly, he had read up on everything there was to find about Rome, its history and where to visit. I was treated to what most people pay a premium price for... a private tour which skips to the chase and lets you use your precious holiday time to best advantage. Any fool could wander around Rome and be entertained, but to see Rome armed with the knowledge of what you are seeing and why it is important makes it all the more enjoyable. Knowledge is king, it seems. Martin, though a farmer, got his from a book.
Which brings me to my point, the self-improvement available from literature. Anyone with a personal library knows about this. There is something delicious in the Anglo Saxon tradition which elevates the idea of reading for pleasure.
Since the days when Sir Francis Drake defeated the Spanish Armada and England became lord of the high seas, sailers went far and wide, and saw some amazing things. People at home, were all ears. Armchair travellers they call them. They wanted to hear about the dragons to be found on the edge of the world, the cannibals in dark places hitherto unknown to the civilized world. There is a whole history of travel literature which caters to this fancy.
One very early travelogue is embellished with great detail. After all, who was fact checking? The Travels of John Mandeville takes you to the Holy Land during the 14th century when all maps located it as the centre of the world. Christendom had been won in the Crusades, then lost again, only to be rediscovered by those brave enough to set foot there and tell the tale. John Mandeville coloured a lot of what he saw, with the fancy that projects wish upon substance. He wanted to see those places he had read about in Bible stories. Hence, the pyramids of Egypt were to him, the houses in which Jacob stored corn during time of famine. Seeing the harvesting of medicinal resin which makes up tiger balm, he claimed he had found the ‘Balm of Gilead’ the fanciful turn of phrase coined by Bible translator William Tyndale to describe the cure for a sick soul.
And so it goes. I never went to university. I am an artist by trade and that is my training. Still, I also became hungry at a certain point for some self-improvement. I recognized my own ignorance. Hence, I read up on history, economics, philosophy, political science, theology. I am smarter than I once was, and still more ignorant than I will be with more reading.
My grandfather was like this. Though a carpenter, he had a good library at home that allowed him to become reasonably educated, to know something about the world, and to entertain some informed opinions about things. Such knowledge lets you take part in life. Reading makes that possible. For those willing, it is a free education.
And so it is that Martin crosses my mind. He is the one in a thousand that takes this vast library of knowledge available out there, and makes it real, applied to life. He is the best that comes from our great tradition. Books have entertained me, and they have educated me. They have filled my mind with worthy thoughts and pursuits, things to discover no matter what age you are. They are like old friends sitting on the shelf, waiting for all those wonderful thoughts underlined, to be re-read and treasured yet again.
God bless books. They are a wonderful thing. And God bless Martin wherever he is. That was one smart farmer.