End Notes: En Route

When England went into a socialist nosedive and the level of culture and civility correspondingly sank, Evelyn Waugh said that the only way he could continue to live in his native land was to imagine that he was a tourist there.

Since we have here no lasting city, there is a sense in which each of us is a tourist on his native planet, let alone some portion of it. But this is the season when many are tourists in the plain old travel agent sense of the term.

To watch a tourist bus disgorge its passengers, overweight, arthritic, festooned with cameras and gaudily dressed — how out of place all those primary colors and funny hats would be at home — to see them mustered and then marched up and down the venues of quaintness, invites condescension — until one realizes that they are all of us.

At the entry of the main street of Amalfi there is a plaque containing lines of a poet which can be unpoetically translated thus: On the day of judgment, when the citizens of Amalfi enter paradise, it will be a day like any other.

Most of the people a tourist sees in a town like Amalfi never go elsewhere, never become tourists themselves. It is that fleeting glimpse of stability and contentment that awes the gawking visitor, and it is not easy to take a snapshot of it. The plaque in Amalfi might suggest that its citizens, having reviewed the alternatives, decided to stay where they were, but of course that can’t be.

One man’s exile is another’s home, Boethius said. It is an exile’s observation, of course, just as only tourists imagine settling in some obscure valley a million miles from anywhere and emulating Thoreau. Englishmen try to become natives of Provence, Florence is full of transplanted foreigners, Americans on Social Security go to an Ireland their ancestors fled more than a century ago.

The Wandering Scholars of the Middle Ages were in search of new masters; the Irish monks fanned out over Europe, perhaps in search of the sun; nowadays there are Australians in every nook and cranny, wearing backpacks and wide-brimmed hats, forever moving on.

What are all the tourist packages, arranged cruises, sightseeing buses a sign of? What are you and I doing, jammed into tourist class, buckled up, relentlessly entertained as we jet across the ocean, intermittently thinking of the Four Last Things when we hit rough weather?

Agrigento is a mile or so inland, built on a hill from which one can see the well-tended ruins of the Greek city and the port named after Empedocles, the philosopher whose name is associated with the four elements, fire, air, earth and water. Porto Empedocle. From the fifth century B.C. to Pirandello in the twentieth, not much of note seems to have gone on in Agrigento, if we take guidebooks as our guide.

This induces thoughts about the meaning of noteworthy, and why not? In a philosopher’s town, one ought to entertain a few long thoughts. I know several people who were stationed in this part of Southern Sicily after the allies came across from North Africa. My lawyer did time in a town just west of here.

Millions must have lived and died here in the two-and-a-half millennia since Empedocles, known but to God. If there is melancholy in travel it comes from the realization of what a short arc through time an individual life makes.

Is it that realization that the tourist is fleeing? That in the end, on the historical scale, most of us are unknown soldiers?

In Rome I seek out reminders of past tours, the apartments in which we lived during sabbatical years spent there. On the Via Aurelia it is worth your life to slow down for a glimpse of the building; finding a parking place would be nigh on impossible, so one rockets past the past. I did walk around the Via Ugo Balzani and said a prayer in the church we attended, named for the Chicago saint Frances Cabrini. A quarter of a century ago.

The Pope was in the hospital with a broken hip, so I spent just a day in Rome, then drove up the coast to a fishing village on a land mass off the coast, not quite an island. Porto Ercole. Never heard of it? Neither had I. But it was just what I wanted for a week.

A harbor full of boats gives a town the air of a beachhead from which withdrawal can easily be made. I settled in and worked hard and between writing stints wandered around. The harbor is guarded by two Spanish forts, and the Governor’s house is in a little town built under one of the forts. Going up there is better for the ticker than a NordicTrack.

As I left the town I noticed another plaque, one that surprised me. It told me that it was here that Michelangelo ended “his tormented life.” Fame and history disturbed what I had imagined to be the obscurity of the place. How the great artist ended there I do not know. Had he come there to die? Or was he just another tourist like the rest of us?

Dante wrote his great poem in exile, wandering from patron to patron, eating other men’s bread. Perhaps that is why The Divine Comedy is the best handbook for the tourists we are.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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