Of pesto, Byron and belts in the global village

May 26, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

AT DULLES International Airport, travelers surrender cuticle scissors as if they could morph into box-cutters. One pair had been in the bearer's family for 75 years, an heirloom handed down from mother to daughter. Oh, well.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the vacationer slides through train tunnels piercing the Appenines to Genoa, where the Italian government feared terrorists might try to kill President Bush and other world leaders with an airplane morphed into a missile.

A day later, on a hill above the Italian Riviera, a muscular, blue construction truck roars past hikers on a hill above Portofino, an American flag hanging in the cab.

At home or away, Sept. 11 remains the text or the subtext of life. From security measures to technology and style - cell phones and jeans and bare midriffs displayed on the evening stroll - the terror-plagued global villager finds comforting expressions of solidarity and kinship.

As if ambient malevolence were not enough, he gets on with life along the edges of startling cliffs above the royal blue Ligurian Sea. His daring group climbs under the watchful care of practiced guides, whose language skills seem now like a warning: understanding requires communication. We knew, of course, but we see everything more clearly after Sept. 11.

The guide from the Netherlands speaks Dutch, of course, but also English, Italian and French. His citizen-of-the-world colleague was born in Kenya to parents from Scotland. She lives now in southern France. They lead us through the Cinque Terre, a spectacular national park connecting five Italian villages draped over or lying at the foot of escarpments that dive beneath our feet toward water and rocks.

At dinner, travelers exchange life stories. The exertions of climbing and the exhilarating views - and perhaps terrorism - make them more open and generous. Personal stories seem to matter more, personal relationships somehow protective.

Arjen Meurs, the guide who lives in Utrecht, says the Dutch have a philosophical view of the wider world's arrival there. A growing community of Moroccans presents some concerns, he says: The native Dutch want newcomers to speak their language. The workers learn it soon enough, but stay-at-home Moroccan moms, brought to the Netherlands from Moroccan villages, do not. Still, resentments, if any, are mild. The Dutch, he says, are tolerant.

One understood, then, why his countrymen were so anguished by the assassination of Pim Fortuyn, the anti-immigration political leader. In the new world of terrorism, conventions are shattered, secret animosities acknowledged and old ways of thinking adjusted. A whole nation's concept of itself comes under review. (Why do they hate us, we asked after Sept. 11?)

Anne Guthrie, the woman from Kenya, had few illusions about her native country. Though she has lived elsewhere for 25 years, Africa remains her emotional home. She harbors a deep longing to return, but fears she cannot. The country has changed. She has changed, too. So the world seems smaller and more forbidding at the same time.

On the way home, we try to recapitulate, to sort and store images, repeating the names of towns as sonorous and delicious as the creamy pesto of Liguria: Riomaggiore, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, Monterosso.

These are the five places connected by many masonry and stone steps, by switchback paths leading often to more switchbacks but sometimes to a big surprise: vineyards hanging from hillsides; an old abbey perched at the end of an ancient Roman road, ruled now by a baker of sublime delectations; or to the prawn-rich Golfo dei Poeti (named for Byron, Keats and Shelley) in Portovenere.

As a "daring swimmer," Lord Byron "defied the waves of the sea" from this port to Lerici, another nearby port. John Keats, less fortunate, died here in a boating accident. Across centuries, their passion for words and for life compel our attention in a world where some are moved to challenge the value of both.

Transporting sojourns do end and, by necessity now, more abruptly. In Munich, every traveler must remove his or her shoes. (Have all the scissors been collected?)

Back in the United States, authorities worry that belt bombs used by suicide terrorists in Israel could easily be exported.

Note to file for next trip: buy suspenders.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun. His column appears Sundays.

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