On The Road: Waterways and the Great Divide

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Montresso al Mare on the Italian Riviera. Annette Hinkle photo

By Annette Hinkle

Last week, my husband Adam and I were in Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera enjoying the lovely beach in tiny Monterosso al Mare — a pedestrian village in the mountainous section of Liguria.

A UNESCO heritage site, it’s one of five coastal villages linked by a national park filled with nearly vertical hiking trails. For folks like us, the tiny village is accessible only by goat, train or lots of shin-splinting footwork in the heat of the summer sun from parking spaces situated far above the coastal villages.

We made our way into Monterosso by the latter method — a good (or not-so-good if you hate hoofing it in high temperatures) three-quarters-of-a-mile hike down a long, steep, winding hill full of hair-pin turns and vehicles much too large for the road.

By the time we checked into our hotel, we were totally overheated and the town extremely crowded. But the Mediterranean beckoned and was beautifully inviting with plenty of elbow room and gentle waves, so that’s where we headed. That afternoon, we spent hours alongside moored fishing boats, floating on our backs as we bobbed in the buoyant blue of the salty sea, toes pointed south.

South. What exactly lay that way I pondered? I mean directly south — across the water of the turquoise Mediterranean to the nearest landfall. North Africa, for sure. But which part?

Back on the beach, Adam grabbed his cell phone and pulled up the map to find out for sure. A quick look revealed that if we were to travel due south, we would just miss the coast of Corsica and skirt the eastern edge of Sardinia before hitting open water again and making landfall in Tunisia, some 600 miles as the seagull flies.

It was an intriguing notion and back at the hotel, I happened to come across the Facebook post of a college friend that coincidentally explored a similar thesis back home.

For the last 16 years, my friend and her husband have lived on the shores of Lake Erie in Ohio. In the post, she noted that she has always wondered who lives straight across the lake and what their life is like. She even used Google Earth from time to time to check in on her longitudinal neighbor to the north.

But recently, my friend took the notion of neighborliness to a new level.

She and her husband packed a gift basket filled with Cleveland-themed items, including Great Lakes Brewery beer, Indian’s gear, LeBron socks and regionally made candy, and took a road trip to Ridgetown, Ontario to visit their northerly next door neighbor in Canada.

Alas, the woman, whose name is Bobbie, was not at home, so they left the gift basket and their contact information on her front porch, learned a bit about her from nearer neighbors (apparently, the woman is from one of the oldest families in the area), and took pictures of themselves in her backyard looking south toward their own home in the States.

Then they bought a locally made pie and headed home.

This whole episode got me thinking about the role water bodies play in politics and personality — language, national identity and skin color are all things defined and determined by the literal and metaphorical fluidity of water and the wide expanses of it that divide diverse populations.

Which water body you cross can determine how you are perceived and received by a nation when you arrive. Fly over the Atlantic from the U.S. and arrive in a European airport, you are received with a quick stamp of the passport and a smile at customs. But land on the southern shores of Europe in a flimsy boat filled with a lot of other people from across the Mediterranean, and you’ll likely receive a very different reception.

Which made me think even more about Tunisia and its relationship with Europe, particularly Italy where I am currently ensconced. By far, of all the Arab Spring movements that began in 2011, Tunisia’s had the most successful outcome. But success is a relative term, especially when one considers the current migrant crisis in Europe.

Earlier this summer, Italy broke up a criminal smuggling ring that was bringing migrants to Sicily for about 3,000 euros each aboard a speedboat that could make the trip from Tunisia in less than four hours. Most migrants can’t secure anywhere near that kind of dough to get to Italy, which like most other countries in Europe, is growing weary of the influx and is becoming less than welcoming of newcomers.

Meanwhile, refugees from Africa and the Middle East who attempt to cross the Mediterranean from Libya, Tunisia’s neighbor to the east, face dangers far greater than the sea or Italian authorities. Oxfam reports that kidnapping, rape, slave labor and torture are all routinely inflicted on migrants working their way through that country in hopes of reaching Europe.

As ocean level rises (as it most certainly is), how will the tides change and shape the nature of how we view those from the other side? Particularly when climate refugees are forced to join the masses by seeking out new homes due to the loss of land reclaimed by the seas?

Water is lovely to look at and swim in, but alas, by its nature, it has the capacity to breed hostility, hatred and suspicion — witness how our own country, long defined by isolationist views, has regressed into endorsing and enforcing policies of fear and intolerance since the 2016 presidential election.

Over the weekend, that mentality was on full display in Charlottesville, Virginia where racists of all stripes (but one color, and we all know what that is) marched under the alt-right moniker, torches disturbingly in hand to denounce the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Along the way, the group also denigrated pretty much anyone who didn’t look or pray like them, which is pretty much the definition of racism.

When counter protestors showed up to diminish their message of hate — clashes ensued and in the end, a 32-year-old woman was killed — mowed down by a 20-year old guy with a car and an apparent sense of rage over the marginalization of white men in this country.

Turns out, he lives in Maumee, Ohio — near Toledo — just up the road from my college friend in Cleveland. Like her, he lived very close to Lake Erie. But unlike her, instead of looking outward and seeking to bridge the watery gap by wondering with a sense of neighborliness about who lived on the other side, he did the opposite, turning inward to nurture the hate and suspicion that obviously seethed within himself.

It seems to me that’s ultimately what’s dividing this country in two now — on the one side are those who look at the “other” with suspicion and fear and on the other side are those who remain curious about those who are from different cultures. According to the State Department, just 36 percent of Americans hold a valid passport — compared to 60 percent of Canadians and 75 percent of Brits and Australians.

In my book, that says a lot about who’s looking outward and who isn’t.

It’s funny, but on this trip, my niece, who accompanied us from Colorado, said before leaving the states she was asked more than once if she was fearful of the danger she would encounter in Europe. Despite having spent the last month in three different countries — including Germany which has taken in more migrants than any other European nation — it’s a danger she’s yet to see here.

But back home, people are being mowed down in the streets during protests organized by racists.

And we think that Europe is not safe?

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