Some of our relatives complain of the mess that we make of the 'M' page in their address books. We seldom stay anywhere for more than a couple of years. We change towns often, countries occasionally and continents infrequently. We are now in a beautiful town surrounded by vineyards, mountains and lakes. This time next year, we won't be (though the next destination is currently uncertain). Friends often ask us why we don't settle down, and we usually ask 'Why should we?'
Look at it like this. Do you remember your first day at school? Probably. Now do you remember your hundredth? Exactly. By constantly moving to new places we have fresh experiences, meet new challenges, make new friends and find different ways of doing things. Of course, for me as an ancient historian, this is great. So much of what we take for granted is a result of cultural conditioning.
It's hundreds of little things, for example whether we carry a bouquet of flowers with the flowers facing up or down. People in Anglo-American cultures carry the flowers head up, but many Europeans carry the bouquet head down, which - when you think that the blooms are heavy and delicate - is the more sensible way of doing it. With such everyday observations, my concepts of how people function in a society and how that society itself functions are constantly called into question. This stops me from unconsciously thinking of the Romans as simply modern Englishmen in togas.
That's not why we move though. My wife and I can work anywhere that has a good internet connection and somewhere to keep our libraries. We keep in touch with friends ad family through visits (we usually end up somewhere eminently visitable) and the net, and we see and understand far more of each place we stay than a tourist would. So the view out of our front window keeps changing, and meals vary from pancakes with maple syrup to spaetzle mit kase, tagliatelle or fish and chips. The main reason we move far and often? Because we can.
Utile sed non facile (Useful but not easy)
On Friday I was talking with an interviewer who asked me how important Latin was for those studying ancient Rome. I've been pondering the question ever since. I remember seeing a Classics exam paper several years back when students were offered English versions of the material they were being questioned on. If even people who study the language at university level need translations, why should the rest of the population even bother?
I'd better add disclaimer here - my Latin is abominable, mainly because I tend only to read it. I can appreciate when Caesar is using an accusative of motion, but could not produce one of my own even if it saved me from being thrown to the lions. (And being thrown to the lions - Ad bestias - IS an accusative of motion.) But, even when the Latin is the convoluted and highly affected language of someone like Cicero, on occasion there is no alternative but to wrap a wet towel around one's head and get on with it.
There are two reasons. One is that all translation is also interpretation. So the translator stands between reader and Roman. Here the Latin says' amicus', and the translation says 'friend'. But in the context of the text this 'friend' is one whom our Roman favours for business dealings, rather than one with whom he discusses the chariot races over a beaker of wine. In modern English 'contact' is probably a better word. And translating someone like Martial is like explaining a joke - the meaning comes across, but the impact has gone. Secondly, reading the original Latin, with its odd mixture of rigid structure and quirky exceptions almost forces one to think like a Roman, which is what Roman historians need to do as part of their job.
Most certainly the Roman world can be appreciated by the non-Latinate, and aspects such as Roman art and architecture speak profoundly without needing language at all. Also, there are translations a-plenty these days for all the major Latin authors. But for those of us who have the privilege of guiding others around the fascinating and diverse world of antiquity, sometimes only the original Latin will do.
Getting ahead of myself
The past two weeks have revealed one of the disadvantages of living in the Okanagan Valley deep in the interior of British Columbia. Even fans of the town where I live (and they are many) admit that it is no hotbed of ancient history. In fact the local library has four books on the subject - two of which I donated. I could not live here if not for the internet, by which I keep in contact with academics and enthusiasts all over the world, and maintain extensive links to online journals.
But there are times when friends are unavailable, and the books I need are not online, university libraries won't lend them and they can't be ordered from booksellers. And that's the case now. I knew that with my current project I was going to need a particular rare and out-of-print book, and eventually managed to get a copy printed to order. (This system, called 'print on demand', is becoming increasingly common, but with some books it takes time.) Also, I need access to the pictures of a friend who has wandered all over a site for which I need good maps and photos. Inconsiderately, this individual is currently on holiday in Peru.
It's my fault. Had I stuck to my original milestones when I mapped out the project, I'd only need this material in October, and it is all arranged to be sitting on my desk by then. But as happens more often than my long-suffering wife would like, I got carried away. I occasionally found myself still hammering away at the keyboard at 2 a.m. as I put a sequence of events into text while it was all crystal-clear in my mind. So I'm now finishing chapter nine when I should be starting chapter six.
So now I have to wait for the world to catch up. Fortunately sunny weather, high temperatures and four miles of lakeside beach bring to mind a few possibilities for passing the time. I got mildly sunburned yesterday while reading an article on cataphracts. At the time I was at a picnic site halfway up a mountain overlooking the lake. After all, I wouldn't be here if life didn't also have its benefits.
Developers and writers don't mix
As those who have read previous entries may be aware, builders are my personal Nemesis. Since I work from home, and the work requires a certain degree of concentration, I choose to live in peaceful places like a Tyrolean village or a small town in the Canadian interior. Here the only sounds are birdsong, an occasional dog barking in the distance, and close at hand the clank and crash of heavy machinery.
In the last four years - within a hundred meters of my study (wherever that happened to be at the time) - four houses have been built and three demolished. within that same hundred meters, builders have also erected a bank, and an apartment block. They've also dug up the road to a depth of three meters and reinstalled sewage and water pipes - something that they last did fifty years ago and chose to repeat in the year I was at that address.
So it is with a certain lack of surprise that I discovered that work on a duplex has begun where was once the garden of the house next door. Fortunately, the builders have decided to start work in July. I know from bitter experience that the maximum disruption occurs while the foundations are being excavated and foundations put in. This means that over the next few weeks of summer I have reason to abandon the house and work on the beach, in the park or in picnic spots in the hills.
Anyone visiting the Okanagan who sees a bearded gent quietly snoozing over a copy of Thucydides in the shade of a vineyard need not alert the authorities. My homelessness is entirely voluntary, and so far not at all unpleasant.
I've also to report that another two of my books are going into foreign language editions, so that's another two volumes to add to the multi-lingual bookcase where I keep different editions of my work. On the coffee table there's currently a very handsome copy of a Spanish magazine to which I recently contributed an article. It gives my study a cosmopolitan look which nicely contrasts with the orange mechanical digger outside the window.
Of noses and grindstones
This may sound strange, but I'd say that about forty percent of my time is spent actually writing books. When you think about it, this may not be as odd as it looks - after all, how much time does a fireman spend actually fighting fires? Even apart from the time I spend teaching, the actual writing sometimes takes second place to other aspects of this hobby I call my job.
First of all, like most writers, I don't write a book and then see if I can get a publisher for it. Instead I pitch an idea to a publisher (or a publisher pitches an idea to me) and there follows a discussion, resulting in negotiations, and hopefully a contract. That takes a bit of time and work but I still can't get writing as soon as that's done. First I have to read, and read a lot. While I generally know a fair bit about a topic before I think about writing on it, the three months after signing a contract are spent becoming an expert. This means reading as much as I can on the subject, and putting together the essential facts on strips of paper joined by tape. Then I spend more time tracking down the gaps on those strips of paper, and filling them in from various academic journals, by badgering people in libraries around the world to photocopy obscure articles for me, and occasionally getting facts physically checked on the ground or in a particular museum.
Then, when I've got things planned down almost to the paragraph level, I start writing. At which point I usually realize I have to re-arrange my entire planned format, and begin cutting and re-joining my taped pages. It's generally at about then that I get an urgent request to proof-read through the galleys of an earlier book, or begin work on that book's index or maps. Or a book that I wanted to read becomes available for review, or I'm asked to do a magazine article on a topic I've always been keen on.
With that all out of the way, it's time to get back to the word processor. However, by now I've been at the computer for weeks, and my wife decides it's time for me to briefly rejoin the human race. So I get hauled off to the mountains, or a lake, or a forest cabin or anywhere with no internet access and where ancient history is the time Jamie was scared by a bear in 1982.
Fortunately the weather has been vile this spring, so I've been able to get my head down and hammer away at the keyboard. When I have all my ducks in a row I can produce over 2000 words in a day. Sometimes at the end of it I feel fresher than when I started, simply because of the sheer relief of pouring all those pent-up ideas onto the page. That's what I've been doing for much of May. However, my wife has pointed out that the lawn has grown almost to the height of the windows, and now that the sun is out, a trip deep into the woods would be lovely ...