April 26th, 2016

1915

54 countries in 49 years

I have been fortunate enough to travel to many places. In fact, the number of countries I have been to has generally kept pace with my calendar age. Today seems like a day to reflect on the places I have been, in seven-year cycles.

I was born in Belfast, and celebrated my 7th birthday in Washington DC. In the meantime I had also been to the Republic of Ireland, Italy, France and Canada, for a total of 6 countries before my 7th birthday.

By 1981, we had had family summer holidays in Bulgaria, Romania, Malta, Spain (with a side trip to Andorra), and we lived for a year in the Netherlands with side trips to Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Austria, Yugoslavia as it then was (Ljubljana and Zagreb), Switzerland and Liechtenstein. That got me to 19 countries by the time I turned 14.

By 1988, I had added only three small countries to the list - Monaco and San Marino in our 1981 family summer holiday, and the Vatican City while inter-railing with my then girlfriend in 1986 - for a total of 22 countries by the time I turned 21.

By 1995, Yugoslavia had split up, giving me an extra notch for the earlier visit to Zagreb and Ljubljana which were now in separate countries; I'd had a Nordic trip to Finland in 1990 with my sister, going overland via Denmark and Sweden with a side trip across the water to Estonia (then still part of the USSR); I went to Portugal with another girlfriend, and then to Cyprus on honeymoon when I married her, which all got me to 29 countries by the time I turned 28.

By 2002, I'd added what were then the other successor states of the former Yugoslavia - Bosnia/Herzegovina (where I lived in 1997-8), Serbia/Montenegro (Serbia in 1998, Kosovo in 2000 and Montenegro in January 2002), and Macedonia (first visited in 1997, love going back - my favourite of the Balkan countries). I'd also visited Hungary, Greece, the Czech Republic, Moldova, and Israel. So that takes me to 37 countries, as they then were, by my 35th birthday.

By April 2009, I had added the three South Caucasus countries - Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan - also Russia and Ukraine, and the last South-East European gaps, Albania and Turkey, and Slovakia for extras. In addition, the independence of Montenegro (2006) and Kosovo (2008) gave me another two. So that takes me to 47 by the time I turned 42.

The following year added another four, as my trips to South Sudan (then part of Sudan) took me through Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda. (I never went to the northern part of what was then Sudan, so I get no extra points for South Sudan's independence in 2010 2011.) I went to Poland for the first time in 2013, and last year brought business trips to Iraq and Nigeria. So as of now, my 49th birthday, I'm on 54 independent countries.

I still have not been to five European countries - Iceland, Norway, Latvia, Lithuania and Belarus. I've never been to Latin America or the Caribbean, or to Africa outside Nigeria and the eastern cluster, or to Asia apart from three countries in the Middle East, let alone the Pacific. But I hope I will have a few more years to put some of that right.

As I landed in Azerbaijan for the first time in May 2004 in the company of my then boss, I mentioned to him that it was my 41st country. He growled that he was roughly 100 ahead of me. I suspect that he still is.
shakespeare

30 days of Shakespeare: Day 8 - Your favourite comedy

A birthday treat for me, writing on a happy subject. Just for reference, the comedies are generally considered to include:

All's Well That Ends Well
As You Like It
The Comedy of Errors
Love's Labour's Lost
Measure for Measure
The Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Much Ado About Nothing
Pericles, Prince of Tyre
The Taming of the Shrew
The Tempest
Twelfth Night
The Two Gentlemen of Verona
The Two Noble Kinsmen
The Winter's Tale
Cymbeline


Among these, there is one that really stands out for me. I dimly remember the Rowan Atkinson sketch where he is a schoolmaster trying to beat respect for English literature into the heads of a host of invisible and improbably named schoolboys. One of the great lines is when he insists that there is only one joke in Shakespeare, and it is in The Comedy of Errors, when "Two people look like each other. Twice." Pause. "It's not that funny!"

Well, actually, it is that funny. Here Shakespeare has boiled together bits of Plautus (who was also pretty funny in his day) to produce a mock-classical, proto-pantomime slapstick piece which is also mercifully short. The play itself relies on the stable foundation of farce, where we the audience know what is going on but the characters don't; two visitors to Ephesus get mistaken for their long-lost twin brothers who are local residents, and hilarity ensues. The key to the mystery is held by their father, who appears only in the first scene and the last, to set the scene for us and then to help resolve matters. Shakespeare himself was the father of twins, born in 1585, though they were not identical, being a boy and a girl. Still, I imagine it gave him a certain inspiration as he wrote this play in the early to mid 1590s.

The key drama in the play is the story of the visiting Antipholus of Syracuse, who finds that though a complete stranger, Adriana, incomprehensibly claims him as her husband, he is much more attracted to her sister Luciana. (His twin, the local Antipholus of Ephesus, seems to be much more of a bastard; and their servants, the two Dromios, are basically clowns.) There are other bits of tension, mainly to do with arbitrary justice and summary execution, but that is the main plot. With the right people, it can work very well.

I remember seeing a Cambridge student version where the two twins were played by frantically doubling actors, wearing different coloured cravats to indicate who was who. In the last scene they twisted the cravats to show both colours, and confronted themselves in mirrors. In Arkangel's audio version, David Tennant turns in a great performance as Antipholus of Syracuse, doing his English accent, but The Ephesians are all Irish - Adriana and Luciana played by two of the Cusack sisters (Niamh and Sorcha), and a generally well-chosen run of accents populating the town - Pauline McLynn, for instance, is the Courtesan. Most gloriously, the sorcerous Dr Pinch is played with an Ulster accent, clearly intended to be reminiscent of Ian Paisley. It's almost worth listening to for his brief scenes alone.

Still looking for a good video clip here, I'm afraid. You'll just have to imagine it!

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