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Europe's Newfound Enlightenment





I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the passion emanating from Europe in recent weeks over the commitment of its member states and populations to the Rights and Freedoms of Man.

But now that I’m a bit older -- and, hopefully, a smidgen wiser -- and have learnt to resist the instant allure of cheerleaders, I like to wait until the wild winds have blown over and things have settled down, before I give credence to declamations made in the heat of angry fervour and promises given in the haste of patriotic ardour.

While I wait for the dust to settle, I can’t help but muse that this is the same Europe which, within living memory, lighted the spark to, not one, but two World Wars.

We’re not talking about ancient history. Many of those who had a role to play in those conflagrations, either as movers and shakers, or as victims, are still alive today.

It is the same Europe, isn’t it, which lined up six million Jews in neat little rows and marched them into gas chambers and murdered them … all of them innocent of any crime or even a cooked-up allegation. It’s not ancient history. Many of those who lived to tell the tale are still alive today.

These crimes against humanity were not limited to just one nation or people. Virtually all of Europe pitched in through action and/or omission.

We won’t go into the centuries of persecution of the Jews that plagued all of this very same Europe, or the Inquisition against its own dissenters, or the tsunami of biblical proportions it ladled out to the rest of the world during the same centuries, colonizing distant lands through unabashed use of rape, torture, murder, pillage and plunder.

I am not talking about ancient history. That colonial past isn’t past yet. It’s still very current, if you care to look around with a discerning eye even today.

I have no reason to think that Europe isn’t sincere in thinking that it has turned the corner and has mended its ways, and that the new threat(s) it faces are unprecedented and historic and all that.

But, you know, I’m a bit older now, and no longer swayed by easy rhetoric.

While you and I wait for the dust to settle, here are a few glimpses into European life I’ve had in recent years, during the course of my travels.

When I think of them, as I pore over my photo albums, I don’t hesitate in nevertheless hoping and praying that indeed Europe has now become the fount of amity and liberty and will pave the path to a golden future.

*   *   *   *   *

In Greece -- touted so readily by so many as the source of all that is great about European enlightenment -- try mentioning the word ’Istanbul’ to any local.

It draws a blank stare.

Turkey, whose capital is Istanbul, is their immediate neighbour. It takes about 30 minutes to fly from Athens to Istanbul, most of it taken up in take-off and landing.

So, back to Greece.

If you want a response, you have to refer to the Turkish capital  as ’Constantonopoli’, before you’ll register a reading. And once you do, it usually triggers a barrage of disparaging remarks about Turks and Turkey. All you have to do is ask someone, for example, “How far is …?”

I recall, a few years ago, standing at the counter of a Greek airline booking office, trying to book seats to Istanbul. Well, I had to first hear a five-minute lecture on the dirt, crime and general absence of values in Turkish society.

“Why you want to go there?“ asked the ticket agent angrily.

Fortunately, my teenage daughter and I resisted the negativity and went anyway -- only to discover that even though the trip to Greece had proved heavenly, Istanbul proved to be twice as good!

It was the same in Italy on another holiday, when we found ourselves in the general vicinity of the Republic of San Marino, a city remarkably continuing to exist as an independent state despite being land-locked by Italian territory.

Let me explain: San Marino is a miniscule country, no more than 24 square miles in area, and completely surrounded by Italy on all sides. That is, you cannot enter the enclave without going through Italy.

Nobody seemed to have even heard of it in Rome, Tuscany, Umbria -- or even Venice, which is only just up the coast. If you were Sarah Palin in Venice, you’d be able to see San Marino from your window. Almost literally.

Well, to be truthful, there was one person who did acknowledge its existence, but she also volunteered the information that it had nothing of interest and it would be a total waste of time to go there.

I had emotional ties to San Marino. As a child stamp collector, its stamps had been my favourite ones and had given me endless pleasure. To be only a few miles away and not even visit would be impossible.

So, we veered off the coastal highway and headed to San Marino. It wasn’t easy, though. The paucity of signs on the Italian roads/highways pointing to the route to this country could be nothing but intentional.

Fortunately, we found the little republic -- perched dramatically on a precipitous mountainside -- which ascribes its very existence today to its perennial passion for freedom.

We liked it so much -- my daughter and I -- that we turned a day trip into a three-day stay. Exactly what the country’s detractors were afraid of, I suppose!

It happened again one Christmas, during a subsequent, repeat trip to Venice. With the news that an accord was finally in place between the Croats, Bosnians and Serbs, a drive down the eastern Adriatic coast, through Croatia and into the famed walled-city of Dubrovnik suddenly seemed feasible and desirable.

My friend and I made a beeline into a travel agency in Venice. “Dubrovnik?” exclaimed the agent, “What is that?”

We explained, but she and her colleagues feigned complete ignorance. [It wasn’t my accent, trust me. When I travel, I’m fully cognizant of pronunciations, accents and language differences and always do my homework.]

Were there any ferries from Italy to Croatia? [Again, if you were Sarah Palin, you could spot it from your window!]

No, said the travel agent. Any trains or buses? No. Could one rent a car to drive to Croatia and back? No, impossible, she said.

We tried another reputed place. They too seemed to have difficulty in recognizing the name of the city. She checked around with her colleagues. No luck: they’d never heard of the place, they said.

It was like going to a travel professional in Toronto and trying to explain where New York was!

Most travel industry personnel in town were not willing to help with any travel arrangements to Croatia. Croatia at peace, it appeared, was a threat to Venetian tourism.

So, one morning, we took a two-hour train ride to Trieste, which was just within the Italian side of its border with Slovenia, thinking surely somebody there would know. If not, we planned to take a further bus-ride to Rijeka, a port city in Slovenia, and try our luck there.

In Trieste, we went to the Official Tourist Office. A dapper officer, fluent in English, greeted us warmly. Sounded extremely knowledgeable. But no, he said, there is no train or bus to Dubrovnik. You can only rent a car from inside Slovenia, but you don’t want to do it that way -- they will rip you off all the way, with bribes demanded at every turn, he warned.

However, here’s the solution, he said: take this bus -- and marked a circuitous route on the map, heading in another direction -- on an Italian bus-line, and it’ll take you into Bosnia. It’ll drop you off in this town from where, hopefully, you can make your own way. He directed us to the bus station in Trieste, with written instructions of which town to ask for.

We bought the tickets. Minutes before our scheduled departure -- having stayed overnight in Trieste to catch this particular bus -- we find out, quite by chance, that there are umpteen buses going to Dubrovnik, directly. Every hour or so.

But none on an Italian-owned bus line.

We tore around and somehow managed, after taking a loss on the original ticket purchase, to get on the right bus.

We found out subsequently that there were indeed ferries to Croatia from at least two convenient points on the Italian Adriatic coast. Also, that car rentals were cheap and easy to obtain, but we would‘ve had to use either a Slovene or Croatian agency, not an Italian one.

All those who misled us or merely withheld information from us may have felt they were being patriotic in the process. Or protecting their own commercial interests.    


All I know is that Europe is one of earth’s smallest continents. And, despite all the declarations and protestations in the world, they have always been at each others throats. When not preoccupied with baiting or killing each other, they’ve always had time and resources to maraud the rest of the world. [I’ve chosen my words carefully. Think in Genghis Khan metaphors if you want to be honest and really want to know Europe’s true contribution to its colonies.]

So, pardon me if I am holding back in expressing my excitement, and not getting all teary-eyed over Europe’s recent discovery of freedom of expression and stuff like that.

And if you can't sense my enthusiasm over their latest listing of who is good and who is evil …

January 29, 2015  

Conversation about this article

1: Irvinder Singh Babra (Brampton, Ontario, Canada), January 29, 2015, 9:06 AM.

Welcome back. Where have you been? More, please, about Canada, Chic Sikhs, the future ...

2: Baldev Singh (Bradford, United Kingdom), January 29, 2015, 10:20 AM.

You speak the truth The Europeans have taken their 'tribalism' and 'football hooligan' style of empire-building across the beautiful planet and turned it into a poisoned wilderness in less than 450 years. The Amritsar massacre of 1919 and the Partition of Punjab in 1947 are only two examples of the destruction they have ravaged wherever they have gone on this planet. Sadly, each European group has its own litany of sordid tales.

3: Kanwarjeet Singh (USA), January 29, 2015, 10:46 PM.

Substitute the European cities with ones from India ... and you'll experience the same narrow-mindedness!

4: H. Kaur (Canada), February 04, 2015, 3:42 AM.

Freedom of speech, in France? Didn't people get arrested for social media postings supporting the guys who killed the cartoonists and people at the super market? If anyone has free speech it is America with the first amendment. People are even allowed to protest at funerals of American soldiers while trampling American flags and saying nasty things about America without being arrested. Just watch that crazy cult or the Phelps family doing it on youtube. Now, T-H-A-T's Freedom of Speech!

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