Where in world...?

An old friend phoned the other day. He never phones. But this time he just had to know: "What are you doing living in Florence?"
He thought I was in Florence, Italy. I told him it was Florence, Massachusetts.
Here are some answers -- my occasional wanderings through Florence, MA and the surrounding Pioneer Valley.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Tropical Storms and Desert Dreams

Now living in a drawer.
The unused candles on the right pretty much say it all when it comes to Florentina's experience with Hurricane, er, Tropical Storm Irene. Late Saturday morning I stopped in at Florence Hardware and found quite a crowd. I had half-heartedly decided that I should do something proactive about preparing for this impending disaster, since I didn't really treat the last one very seriously [see previous blog posting: "Napping through the Apocalypse (almost)"]. Candles would be the thing, so I was presented with a variety of useful candles to complement the very girly fragrant versions that might not last through a proper blackout. These five-inch candles were 49 cents each, and I thought they would do nicely for reading, knitting, petting the dog, etc. I have had them sitting on this little decorative plate since then, and it is a lucky thing there's been no real cause to light them. Truthfully, Florentina's biggest issue with this hurricane/tropical storm has been Joey's understandable reluctance to do his business outdoors, as the doggy toilet suddenly became really inhospitable for a number of hours. We have approximately eight inches of rainwater in our rivers, with Joey's grandparents in Leeds receiving an evacuation notice that they have chosen to ignore. (The Mill River near their house is currently on watch but has not done real damage.) 

Marsden 1913 edition
The Baldwin Project

Joey and I were rather damp for much of Sunday, and being so soggy makes me wish for a big desert sponge to suck all the water up, especially if it continues drizzly for a while. My thoughts turned to Eothen, or Traces of Travel brought home from the East by Alexander William Kinglake, first published 1844 anonymously by the author. It was a bestseller, despite  a skeptical John Murray who avoided publishing the work at first. Murray quickly changed his mind, I'm sure, after seeing how popular this work became. By the time of the 1913 edition shown at left, there had been at least a dozen or more editions published. It has never been out of print since its original publication.

The narrative is bookended by the specter of plague in Constantinople, his journey's start and end. When he reaches Cairo, his turnaround point, the plague is also ascendant there. Plague in its three different forms can kill 50% of those who contract it if there is no treatment; these days it is treated by antibiotics. While this may account for some of the narrative's fascination, it is also the description of desert travel that attracts attention, especially for those of us who live in moister climes. Kinglake writes:

Alexander Wm. Kinglake
(National Portrait Gallery,
London, npg.org)
He fell from a dromedary.

For several miles beyond Gaza the land, freshened by the rains of the last week, was covered with rich verdure, and thickly jeweled with meadow flowers so bright and fragrant that I began to grow almost uneasy -- to fancy that the very desert was receding before me, and that the long-desired adventure of passing its "burning sands" was to end in a mere ride across a field. But as I advanced, the true character of the country began to display itself with sufficient clearness to dispel my apprehensions, and before the close of my first day's journey I had the gratification of finding that I was surrounded on all sides by a tract of real sand, and had nothing at all to complain of, except that there peeped forth at intervals a few isolated blades of grass, and many of those stunted shrubs which are the accustomed food of the camel. (Kinglake 141)
Ah, that sounds nice and dry to some of us waterlogged New Englanders.  Kinglake gets a little cocky about his ability to handle the desert, manifesting in a funny kind of desert fever that causes him to overestimate and overvalue his refreshment by the sands:
"For several hours I urged forward my beast at a rapid though unsteady pace, but at length the pangs of thirst began to torment me. I did not relax my pace, however, and I had not suffered long when a moving object appeared in the distance before me" (189).  
He hails a pair of traveling Bedouins, and without a word, dismounts his dromedary, snatches a Bedouin's water flask, and drinks from it. Returning it without a word, he keeps going toward Suez.
"Suez, I found, was still three hours distant, and the sun going down in the west warned me that I must find some other guide to keep me straight. This guide I found in the most fickle and uncertain of the elements. For some hours the wind had been freshening, and it now blew a violent gale (191)..."
Cover of Eothen(Marsden 1913 ed.)
from The Baldwin Project
Just when he seems to achieve a heroic end to his dash across the desert, impatient at his retainers' slow pace, his magnificent steed has had enough.
"It happened that my dromedary veered rather suddenly from her onward course. . . . I had nothing but a halter in my hand. The expected resistance failed, for the halter was hanging upon that side of the dromedary's neck towards which I was slightly leaning. I toppled over, head foremost, and then went falling through air till my crown came whang! against the ground; and the ground, too, was perfectly hard (compacted sand); but my thickly wadded head-gear (this I wore for protection against the sun) now stood me in good part and saved my life" (192).
It's a good thing Kinglake went back to England and passed the bar, practicing law for nearly twenty years before he stood for MP of Bridgwater, later determined to be a rotten borough. Who knows what he would have turned out to be from more dromedary accidents, had he stayed on in the East.

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