“I’m starting not to think of the Mediterranean as an empty space surrounded by Europe, Asia and Africa,” Nicholas Woodsworth tells an Egyptian friend one night in a backstreet restaurant in Alexandria. “You can look at the sea as a single entity, a place from whose coastlines people look not outwards, to this country or that capital, but inwards over the water to each other.”

So begins a journey around the eastern edge of the Mediterranean, the sea which gave birth to western civilization. The author is initially drawn there because he loves ships and saltwater and the busy harbor-side life that goes with them. But Woodsworth soon realizes that something else lies hidden inside this colorful coastal tableau. The life he’s seeing is the product of centuries of communication and exchange across the water.

Calanques

Woodsworth admits that culture is no longer off-loaded - these days it is downloaded. But as he travels around the rim of the sea he comes to believe that the ancient ports of the Mediterranean still hold lessons for today’s globalized world. He is especially fascinated by three great port-cities, each a global capital in its time. Alexandria was a center of learning, Istanbul the political heart of a vast empire, and Venice a great maritime trading nation linking East and West. None had the same globalizing aims that now prevail.

Just as important as the past are the living characters he runs into along the way. In Alexandria he meets archeologists, pre-Nasserite sophisticates and an architect dedicated to the preservation of the city’s crumbling cosmopolitan heritage. In Istanbul he takes up residence in a 700-year-old monastery. In Venice he takes a job as a canal-boat delivery man. In a journey marked by lively and unpredictable encounters he comes to a happy conclusion: still rich in human possibility, the Mediterranean remains a dynamic sea. Its inhabitants are too vital and too varied to allow today’s globalization to  transform the world into the place we sometimes fear it is becoming.

 

From The Liquid Continent:

“ ‘O.K., O.K., I get the picture,’ my fellow train-traveller cut in. ‘You want the whole thing, the entire armpit of the Mediterranean.’ By now he was convinced I was beyond remedy – I clearly didn’t know the first thing about life’s priorities. He leaned forward.
‘Let me get this right,’ he said. ‘You live near Cannes? Where they hold the film festival? You are not far from the casinos in Monte Carlo? You’re close to Saint Tropez, where there are women who remove everything they’re wearing, except maybe their sunglasses, right in front of you on the public beach?’ I nodded. Both of us noticed that the three fat Alexandrians in front of us had gone suddenly silent.
‘Are you out of your mind?’ he said, lowering his voice to a fierce whisper. ‘Do you know that young women in this city cannot be persuaded to remove even their headscarves unless they are behind closed doors in the company of their fathers? You could be happy in the south of France, living like Omar Sharif. If I could get a visa I would be there tomorrow. But instead you leave. and for what? To walk around dirty and bad-smelling ports in the Middle East thinking of things everyone else forgot a long time ago?’
‘That’s one way of putting it,’ I said. ‘But ... yes.’ ”