Last Thursday, November 11, was Remembrance Day for those of us born in the British Commonwealth countries, and Veteran’s Day for those in the United States. These days are in honour of those members of the armed forces that died in the First World War in the first case, and all that have served in the armed forces in the second case. Yet, for me, and I hope for others, they are more than that.
Yesterday was my birthday, and we headed down the short drive to the resort town of Como in Northern Italy to enjoy this day. I was excited for the opportunity to visit a town so steeped in history. I was told it was a beautiful place, with fortified walls, streets closed to traffic, museums, churches, the magnificent Cathedral which was the last Gothic cathedral built it Italy, and remnants of Bronze Age settlements on the hills just out of town.
With the car parked and with camera in hand to capture moments to post here, we walked out to be greeted by what seems an all too familiar market. Euphemistically called the Historic Market, this was much like you would find in so many cities I have visited in my life; cheap clothes, adornments, and other such bric-a-brac all on offer from people trying to eke out a living. Who knows where they came from, and where they were destined to go to.
We wandered past the last vestiges of the ancient city wall, then through the sheltered streets until we came to The Cathedral. I have been to many such buildings, both in Europe and abroad, and this one which took over three hundred and seventy years to build, was particularly imposing. It was grand, a monument to human perseverance. Outside of the building, in a little piazzetta, workers were busy setting up for the Christmas Market that would soon bathe the scene in sparkle. and squeals of joy Lights were being hung and sheds were shaped into place. Nearby, hordes of people, be they locals or tourists, were seated outside at glitzy cafes and restaurants by the warmth of gas fires happily engaging themselves with wine, food and talk. All seemed oblivious to what had happened here, in this place, in the past.
Como is the place where the Cadorna Line was built during World War I, and the place where Mussolini tried to escape into Switzerland after World War II. In past history it has been the place of nobility, but also of conflict. In recent history it has been the place of refugees and asylum centres, and the deaths of those seeking to escape their horrors for a better life. You wouldn’t know it as you walked through its pristine, painted streets.
I put the camera away and thought of things I had seen in the past. I remembered the moonscape of shell holes, a century old, in the fields of Verdun. The words of a song I grew up with, the Hunters and Collectors’ “What’s a few men?” came to mind at that moment”
Well I ran for the trench but I had no time to speak
Well my heart said yes
But my head said no
When the English colonel said “its time to go”
He said “Whats a few men?”
My mind drifted onto the battlements of Normandy, the massive memorials of Ypres and Washington DC, to the words of my father when he spoke of living under German occupation, the tiny bunkers hidden in remote spots in the hillsides of South Korea, the Anzac Day Marches in Melbourne, the civilian War Memorial in Singapore, the tunnels of Củ Chi in Vietnam, the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain at Castle Devin, and the nameless soldiers’ graves in cemeteries around the world. These I had seen, and more lay buried out of reach somewhere in my mind. But this was such a tiny piece of the horror that humans can resort to.
As we sat and ate our modest lunch, I listened to Elizabeth and the children talk of the current refugee crisis in Belarus. I had recently read James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”, a book published almost sixty years ago, and thought of how, despite the different time and context, its message of inequality and persecution can be seen all around us, if we care to look. But looking takes a commitment, a persistence, and effort to go beyond that which the media feeds us, and the humility to accept the privileges that we have. All the while, I asked myself what the all the other people around us, munching and sipping away, were talking of.
I believe that, on one’s birthday, one should blow out the candles on a cake and make a wish. There was no cake, there were no candles today, but I cast my wish nevertheless.
I wish for all of us to rid ourselves of the tribal mentality that divides us and that causes others to suffer. We are all human beings. Remember and honour this in all we do.
There is no place for photos here.
Look at how he always made sure to put some of his own money in the hands of bereaved families. Look at how he spoke, to even the least in the village, as they were the most significant. Because, isn’t that how it should be?Imbolo Mbue – How Beautiful We Were