Balkans Look Like Ontario, A Picture of Peace, Not War

Ernest Hemingway

Toronto Daily Star/October 16, 1922

Sofia, Bulgaria.-There was only twenty minutes to catch the Simplon­-Orient Express leaving the Gare de Lyon, at the other end of Paris, for Constantinople-arid only one taxi to be had.

One taxi was plenty. But this taxi had a drawback. The driver was drunk.

As we lurched, swung and tore through the jammed, congested seven o’clock Paris traffic, I hung on to the side of the taxi, fixed my gaze on the back of the driver’s red neck and prayed that we wouldn’t hit anything.

Coming into the big square in front of the gare, the driver, with alcoholic accuracy, picked a hole in the stream of juggernauting green buses and honking taxis and we skidded up to the curb.

“Voila !” the driver shouted, and craving more dramatic gestures, picked my big suitcase up from the seat beside him and flung it down on to the sidewalk.

I knew what the fictioneers mean by “dumb with horror.”

For in the suitcase was my typewriter, and a journalist cares only a little more for his typewriter than a mother does for her child, a Ford owner for his car, or a ball player for his right arm.

“Drunkard! My machine d’ecrire is in there,” I said with all the futility of rage.

The driver’s heroic mood had passed, leaving him mellow. He tried to shake me by the hand.

“Monsieur can call me a thousand camels or pigs. I deserve it. But I was exalted!”

There was nothing to do but catch the train. I followed a porter into the long, dirty station with the driver still shouting, “I was not drunk. I was exalted!”

The results were the same. The typewriter carriage is bent; stuck tight, and will have to be freed in Constantinople.

So this is being scrawled in pencil while the long, brown Orient Express crawls its way across Europe, over imaginary borders, through mountains and across the level harvest fields toward Constantinople and Scutari, where a short, bronzed-faced, blond Turk with a seasoned army of 300,000 men and a united nation at his back dictates terms to the Allies who two years ago hunted him as a bandit.

Sharing my compartment is a young Serbian, who has been to school in Boston. His conversation runs about like this:

“Say. Wattaya think I paid for this coat in Paris? Hundertnfiftey francs. Pretty good? Huh? Wanta see picture my girl? Some girl? Huh? I got a better-looking girl but her picture’s in my trunk. Say look at that Italian officer. Don’t he look just like a woman? I bet he wears corsets. Don’t tell me a guy dresses like that can fight. Say ain’t he a scream?”

I note that the Italian officer, who wears a monocle, has three wound stripes and, in addition to decorations of his own country, a British M.C. [Military Cross].

“Say they ought to take birds like that out and shoot them,” says the Serb.

I reflect that is very nearly what they have done.

We pass through the flat, rich, green and brown plain of Lombardy. It is sentineled by Lombardy poplars and cut up by thick mulberry hedges. Off beyond the rice fields and dry riverbeds with pebbles as big and white as hen’s eggs, the clear, white shaft of a campanile catches the sun. Oxen move along the dusty road and a lizard scuttles across the top of a wall as the train passes.

All of Europe is green and golden and ripe. The part of Serbia we are passing through looks like the Niagara peninsula. There is a blue, late­ September haze over the fields and since we crossed the Croatian frontier early this morning we have been moving through country that looks like Eastern Ontario. It is hard to believe that this rich, pleasant farming coun­try is the bleak-sounding Balkans. It is, though, and as you ride through it you can see how the love of the land can make men fight wars. It is a matter of land, of fields of corn and yellowing tobacco, of flocks of sheep and herds of cattle, of heaps of yellow pumpkins in the shocked corn, of beech groves and peat smoke from chimneys, a matter of mine and thine that is the cause of all just wars-and there can never be peace in the Balkans as long as one people holds the lands of another people-no mat­ter what the political excuse may be.

(Source: Dateline: Toronto. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985)

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