coromandal


contagion of an unknown clime
October 12, 2009, 10:58 am
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , ,

Here is an excerpt from Alain de Botton’s book The Consolations of Philosophy in which he describes the French philosopher Montaigne’s trip to Rome.  Things haven’t changed much, we are as in love with ourselves and our cultures and our way of doing things as they were in 1580.  His larger point is that at a certain level our unwillingness to adjust to cultural differences of other people is foible; but that if we are not careful it can be much more and can even lead us to do terrible things against people that we haven’t taken the time to understand.

In the summer of 1580, Montaigne acted on the desire of a lifetime, and made his first journey outside France, setting off on horseback to Rome via Germany, |Austria and Switzerland.  He travelled in the company of four young noblemen, including his brother, Bertrand de Mattecoulon, and a dozen servants.  They were to be away from home for seventeen months, covering 3,000 miles.  Among other towns, the party rode through Basle, Baden, Schaffhausen, Augsburg, Innsbruck, Verona, Venice, Padua, Bologna, Florence and Siena – finally reaching Rome towards evening on the last day of November 1580.

As the party travelled, Montaigne observed how people’s ideas of what was normal altered sharply from provice to province.  In inns in the Swiss cantons, they thought it normal that beds should be raised high off the ground, so that one needed steps to climb into hem, that there should be pretty curtains around them and that travellers should have rooms to themselves.  A few miles away, in Germany, it was thought normal that beds should be low on the ground, have no curtains around them and that travellers should sleep four to a room.  Innkeepers there offered feather quilts rather than the sheets one found in French inns.  In Basle, people didn’t mix water with their wine and had six or seven courses for dinner, and in Baden they ate only fish on Wednesdays.  The smallest Swiss village was guarded by at least two policemen; the Germans rang their bells every quarter of an hour, in certain towns, every minute.  In Lindau, they served soup made of quinces, the meat dish came before the soup, and the bread was made with fennel.

French travellers were prone to be very upset by the differences.  In hotels, they kept away from sideboards with strange foods, requesting the normal dishes they knew from home.  They tried not to talk to anyone who had made the error of not speaking their language, and picked gingerly at the fennel bread.  Montaigne watched them from his table:

“Once out of their villages, they feel like fish out of water.  Wherever they go they cling to their ways and curse foreign ones,  If they come across a fellow-countryman … they celebrate the event … With a morose and taciturn prudence they travel about wrapped up in their cloaks and protecting themselves from the contagion of an unknown clime.”

-excerpted from The Consolations of Philosophy, Alain de Botton

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