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Die Welt

“Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” —Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818

Bainbridge Island is a prosperous piece of real estate in Puget Sound, a forty-five minute ferry ride from Seattle. I visited there about thirty years ago for three or four days—not nearly enough time to explore Sea-Tac or the Olympic Peninsula, let alone both, but when is there ever enough time. Remind me to tell you about C. Northcote Parkinson.

As an inveterate collector of old postcards, I’m also fond of sending them. So, dutifully one day, I walked to the village center near the ferry terminal in search of the post office. I was having a wonderful time, so why not let a few people know I wished they’d been there to share the experience. Cards carefully chosen and delibertely assigned; messages personalized and postage firmly affixed, I found two slots for mailing in the post office lobby. One was simply labelled “Island” to reach those residents fortunate to afford real estate that has only become more dear in the subsequent thirty years. The other slot—I will never forget slipping my cards one at a time into its pursed lips—was just as simply and succinctly labelled “The World.” 

As our culture grows ever more global, that insular perspective may have lost some of its charm; tarnished by intollerance of “others”; xenophobia even narrower than the slit in that post office wall. When we travel now, is it to explore, experience and learn from “the other”? Or is it merely an excuse to encounter another way of being in The World and come away confirmed in the superiority of what lies waiting at home. I encountered that attitude first hand on a trip to Egypt with my friend Richard Kenyon (a.k.a. Crazy Richard).

The Nubians

We were part of a tour organized by Richard’s cousin Dave, senior faculty member at a Missouri Synod Lutheran seminary; a tour for movers and shakers in that conservative denomination who would otherwise have little opportunity and even less inclination to hang with the likes of card-carrying Liberals like Richard and me. It could go without saying that we hung out at the back of the bus. But, there, I said it.

The tour moved gradually up the Nile toward Luxor and ultimately the Aswan High Dam. Certainly one of the unexpected pleasures was a boat ride across the Nile to a Nubian village, those darkest Egyptians akin to the Sudanese who own the Nile’s actual source. The sailboat and its sailing technique were unchanged since the Pharoahs. We took tea in a Nubian home. We attended a Nubian grade school and saw the children’s lessons chalked on a board. We avoided donkey dung in the street. Some of us (though not me) opted for a camel ride as part of the return trip to Aswan.

Nubian_spices

On the street, walking from our refreshments to the school, I had a chance to chat with Cousin Dave. I remarked on my astonishment at the Nubian house, whose traditional ways were as old as Egypt itself. Though the outside temperature was well beyond 100 degrees fahrenheit, the interior, opened on two sides without benefit of door or window closure, was easily fifteen degrees cooler. “There’s certainly a lot to be learned here,” I observed to Dave. And Dave’s knee-jerk response left me, for one of those rare moments in my life, utterly dumbfounded. “Yes,” he intoned, “there is so much we could teach them, but where will we find the time or the opportunity!” I staggered to a halt as Dave strode into the ignorance of his afternoon, smugly superior to the pleasant people who had opened themselves to our group.

Very soon Richard caught up with me and I shared my recent conversation. “I’m not surprised,” Richard said. “Dave’s an asshole. We think he’s adopted.”

I learned much that afternoon from the Nubians and from Cousin Dave.

What might this have to do with Agincourt? I suspect Howard is working on a piece hinting at all those Agincourt natives who’ve left the place, gone to greatness or ignominy, and forgotten the role it might have played in their willingness to engage Die Welt.

In the meantime, must we not aspire to become greater than our nature will allow? However great the risk?


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