December 12, 2007

The Gypsy in Me by Ted Simon – review

5 out of 5 stars
Walking is simple, surely? We all have feet. 1500 miles across Europe? Hard, but not unimaginable. But this isn’t ordinary walking. This is no ordinary walker. Ted’s journey re-discovers a different mode of walking, of travelling. A gypsy kind of journey; travelling against the grain of thousands of years of European history. But perhaps a mode of walking, of being, that offers a radical answer to the violence and pain of European history?

In his book The Medieval Traveller, the historian Norbert Ohler estimated that a person travelling by foot, as most did at the time, could expect to cover between 15 and 25 miles a day. A surprising multitude and variety of people were on the road in this manner; whenever war, pestilence and the climate of the time allowed. There were well established routes, often leading to popular places of pilgrimage. For example the Pilgrim’s Way through Kent to Canterbury, along which I once managed to hobble a few muddy miles. There were also more adventurous types out on the road, cutting across these paths, or even escaping altogether, beyond Europe and Christendom. How far we have come since then? A few years ago in Silicon Valley I rashly decided to walk between a train station and a nearby business centre. Walk! For a start no one could give me directions that would be viable for a pedestrian. As I tramped off in the direction that I had assumed to be right, the inevitable road crossings were met with everything from disbelief to aggression. I wonder how many thousands of cars passed me in that hour? One could easily believe that the total number of miles travelled by pilgrims during the entire middle ages would easily be surpassed by the total number of miles travelled by motorised vehicles along the roads of a major city in a single early 21st Century day.

The act of walking is not, in the contemporary mind, in itself heretical. It is the purpose of the walk that matters. Walking for therapeutic or spiritual reasons is considered noble. Walking simply for leisure, given that leisure time now is the sacred, is similarly exulted. But walking out of necessity? Walking as a mode of transport or labour? Walking as a way of life? Walking through urban and post-industrial landscapes, far off the leisure guide’s map – tramping? How offensive does that word sound to us? ‘Tramp’: in reality one of the many terms for the itinerant travellers who walk out of necessity. ‘Gypsy’ is another such word. This prejudice no doubt extends to other lesser forms of transport. In Ireland there is a small but entirely respectable travel industry based upon tourists travelling by horse drawn ‘gypsy’ caravan. And yet who are the most despised, the most abused of Europe’s minorities? – those for whom that is a way of life. The title of the book under consideration, The Gypsy in Me, might at first seem a little odd. It could be read as the story of a diasporic jew’s return. There is indeed an element of that. But the book isn’t The Jew in Me. Ted has a keen and sometimes comic interest in pigs and (organic) pork products; assuring there’s no devotion to orthodoxy or racial purity here. It is an encounter with gypsies, in Romania towards the end of the book, that retroactively adds sense to the fragmented events and sensations of the journey: it is a gypsy journey; the un-constrained, joyous, irreverent, landless, journey of a gypsy; a very different kind of walk, a very Other kind of walk. A journey as old as Europe, and as old as the European paranoia that has repeatedly driven the continent to extremes of persecution and violence.

The Gypsy in Me is travel writing with a radical undercurrent. It contains many propositions that challenge our dangerously cosy Euro dream. It is the story of a man walking, tramping even, across a large part of the continent; not only the picturesque and fertile lands of the Euro dream, but also post-Communist urban and agro-industrial wastes, which seem more determining of the journey’s character. Ted Simon is perhaps more a migrant who writes than a conventional travel writer (although he is brilliantly skilled as the latter). And so travelling is for Ted serious work; sometimes fun, sometimes grim, but always engaged with fully. But there lies the tension in his writing, in his travelling. Successful travel writing is necessarily eventful. That’s its work, that’s what he has to offer to us the readers and to them the subjects of the story amongst whom he travels. He presence makes things happen. But at the same time he must travel lightly, with low social impact, never seeming to be a threat. Finding ‘work’ to do, but not ever threatening the local order. Eventful and ordinary. Magical but familiar. Is such a gypsy journey possible in Europe today?

The journey begins with Ted and two companions. It quickly transforms into a solo effort – as Ted the migrant/writer comes to the fore. It’s never an easy journey, but is throughout reported with good humour. Fun is even poked at some dangerously sore feet (definitely not a leisure walker). It certainly is not a comfortable journey. Which is good. The reality is that Europe is an uncomfortable place for anyone who must walk out of necessity. Europe does not like ‘tramps’, and perhaps never has. The fabric from which it is woven is incompatible with the tramp. It has been that way for a very long time. Think back to those medieval travellers. As Ohler establishes, travelling was even then already part of a highly regulated business. Travelling, by foot, horse or boat, was very much necessary. But already that necessity was qualified by noble motives: for the spirit and for the church. A whole network of hospitality extended to ease the pilgrim on their way. Did this network extend to travellers with other motivations? Surely its purpose was abused by merchants and opportunists (Chaucer gives good account of them). But those who travel out of necessity have always been seen as suspicious. My informed guess is that there is a binary valuation at work in European history, culture, geography, deeply embedded in the European mind: the tramp and the pilgrim, or more recently, the migrant and the tourist. Furthermore, it is a continuum. The identity of the pilgrim slides into that of the tourist, then into that of the merchant, and then, inspiring the kind of fear that drives pogroms, into the ‘racial infiltrator’. This ambiguity, its paradoxes and confusions, are at the base of our confused European sense of self, and I believe, are there in Ted’s book as the problem worked over by the journey. Like most if not all of us Europeans, he is a potentially uncomfortable mixture: Jewish, English, German, Romanian…pilgrim, gypsy, immigrant, migrant, tourist, travel writer.

But then much of Europe is also populated by people who never travel. People who’s people have never travelled – or so they assume. On his journey, Ted finds many of these. In Kaliningrad, it is as if the rotting Russian occupying force, and its commander (Ted befriends his family), had always been there. Almost all traces of the former German town of Konigsberg have been erased and replaced by a new Slavic [dis]order. European history is of course a bloody mess of invasion and occupation. Perhaps it enriches the soil. Nonetheless, the foundation of communities and lineages by fresh migrants must be elided. Conventional wisdom declares this to be the only precaution against a relentless cycle of revenge. Communism regulates and limits travel through stifling state controls. Capitalism regulates travel through an assemblage of values, desires, narratives, and circuits: the travel industry. Even when migration does occur, it is perceived more as a form of eternal holiday (the villa in Spain). In both cases, the required effect is to make the sedentary population feel secure. They may have thousands of people moving through their land, but it’s OK, they are just tourists. The real colonisation is well hidden by the perpetual peace of the happy holidaymaker.

But if a community forgets how to travel, how can it adapt to change? How can an up-rooted farmer move on, ripped from the soil of his cultural and agricultural roots? The elision of travel, of the experience of migration, adds to the pain. Perhaps there is another way? A way of travelling in space and time that avoids conflict and pain?

Ted embraces the fact that travel, of the most primitive and unregulated kind, walking, is a political response to the cycle of revenge, to the ebb and flow of territorialization and deterritorialization. It is the absolute opposite of the blitzkrieg. A person walking can be observed slowly approaching, and thus assimilated physically and mentally by the observer. A car, motorcycle or Panzer, on the other hand, arrives far too quickly. Furthermore, one may see the walker’s face immediately. Individuals on foot tend to seep into consciousness. Could they represent a less threatening means for encountering the political or psychological Other? The book is punctuated by an idea, a very significant notion that seems, even to Ted himself, to be rather eccentric. But given these thoughts on the nature of walking, and the history of walking in Europe, it might not be that mad after all. There’s a dark shadow falling across the whole of the journey, cast from a land to the south: Serbia and Kosova. The atrocities were very much public. As public as the failure of NATO and the UN, with all their vehicles, to stop the killings. Is the idea now obvious? Perhaps the conflict could be seen as a continuum of the tensions between territory and migration, land and travel, repeated throughout European history? In which case the best response might be to subvert the very grounding of that conflict. The proposition was thus: a people’s walk, not a march, an unthreatening gypsy-like joyous drift of thousands of ordinary people, into the war zone.

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