i on europe


Brussels blog by some wire service journalists

Of war and beauty, shipboard on the Mediterranean


It was an evening of great beauty: A breeze had blown away the heat of the day, the seas were calm, I and most of the others on board were showered and fresh, and the setting sun had turned the wisps of clouds orange above the horizon.

All this, just 30 miles north of the Libyan border. “NATO does not want to kill you,” sometimes crackled over the ship’s radio as a spokesman for the alliance urged Libyan soldiers to move away from their weapons.

I was aboard the Steve Irwin, a 59.5-meter (195-foot) ship owned by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. The nearly 40 crew members were intent on finding boats that were fishing illegally for bluefin tuna, and stopping them. The ship’s captain, Paul Watson, the founder of the group, calls it “aggressive nonviolence.”

The crew searched for the boats using radar, by sending a smaller, faster sister ship to scout ahead, and _ when they weren’t in the NATO-enforced no-fly zone _ using a helicopter to scour the seas from above.

I was aboard for four days, and during that time they didn’t find anyone they felt they could prove was fishing illegally. But there was a dramatic confrontation with several boats of Tunisian fishermen. There was high-stakes maneuvering at sea: At one point I braced myself, feet far apart, so I wouldn’t fall if the ship was rammed. At another, one of the Tunisian boats pulled alongside the Steve Irwin and its crew hurled heavy links of chain at us.

“Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result,” Winston Churchill once said. Maybe so, but having a thick piece of metal fly past my head worked pretty well for me.

My biggest fear about the trip had not been hitting a Libyan mine or having the boat sink, but being aboard for all that time and having nothing happen. Explaining to my editors how I had cruised the Mediterranean for several days and come back with a nice tan but no story _ now that would have been awkward.

But news was happening all around me. As the confrontation unfolded, I kept running to my computer on the bridge to send out blow-by-blow reports: The crew of the Steve Irwin is responding by throwing stink bombs on the Tunisian ship! Two Tunisians in a small dinghy are skimming right in front of the Irwin, laying down a rope in the hopes of fouling the propeller and disabling the ship!

(There were no exclamation marks in my copy, but there were plenty in my head.)

In the days that followed, I looked for feature stories that would give people a feel for the group. I took a ride on the helicopter when it flew off the aft deck of the Irwin toward the Libyan-Egyptian border looking for poachers, and wrote about how that showed this was a high-tech group, not just wild-eyed activists putting to sea in any old rustbucket.

Much of the time on board was hot, a bit sticky, and kind of cramped. The crew was mostly young, many in their 20s, invariably pleasant, and they had the same discipline one would expect on any ship: some worked full-time in the galley, there was a ship’s doctor, some worked in the engine room, there was a communications specialist, and so forth.

The cuisine emanating from the galley was vegan. I eat meat _ tuna, even _ but my father’s a vegetarian and I can understand the thought that animals have as much right to life as humans. But not to use not to use eggs or milk? To avoid honey because that would be exploiting the bees? I’m not sure about that.

But these were true believers, and their analyses of the world, to my mind, sometimes shied away from the complex: Everything wrong in the world is due to corporate greed, one said.

“Humans need to be extinct,” said another, and he was not joking.

I don’t know _ I’ve come to think that many things contribute to the world’s ills, from greed to incompetence, from overpopulation to drought, from the lust for power to the competition for scarce resources. Things aren’t so neatly divided into good and evil, I don’t think.

Human experience is so full of contradictions you can scarcely fit them all into your mind at once. And that was brought home to me by that extraordinarily lovely evening on deck. Thirty miles away, just over the horizon in Libya, there was despotism, bombing, poverty, cruelty and death.

But on deck there was friendship, smooth seas, a breeze that caressed the skin and the beauty of an orange sun sinking swiftly into the sea. It was poetry in a way I think only humans can understand. And for all the horror of the ugliness, the beauty too must be embraced.


Filed under: Columns

Leaving Brussels, without shoes

I was eager to get out of Brussels for the weekend, and I threw my stuff in the car so hastily that I accidently left the house without any shoes – only the flip-flops I planned to wear on the beach.

A couple of days earlier, EU officials had announced that, just as people are hurting, they wanted a 4.9 percent increase in their budget. Then, to show how vital their work was, they  immediately left town en masse for a five-day Easter holiday.

Being out of touch seems to be a specialty in Brussels.  It’s not true of everyone, but a good number of EU officials have drivers and pinstriped suits and patent leather shoes and a strong sense of their own importance. Voters are to be avoided because they don’t always do what they’re told.

With all the eurocrats gone, my wife and I steered the old Saab across the non-border – only the smallest of signs marks the frontier as you speed past on the highway – and on toward northern France and a B&B on an overgrown farm in the middle of nowhere.  The pheasants called to each other deep into the night and woke us in the morning with their hooting.

Three days without shoes turns out to be no bad thing. I tiptoed through a field in my flip-flops to feed a horse an apple core. The horse, looking for more, examined my toes to see if they were edible.  I felt the wind on my feet, the grass between my toes and later, when we reached the beach in the little town of Wissant, the sand under my heels.

Being in the middle of nowhere is a good place to see things – as good, if not better, than the hub of the universe, which is how some officials think of Brussels.  You see the tractors in the fields: The faint smell of manure wafts through the open door and down the aisles of the supermarket.  Groups of cyclists wend their way on narrow roads between the yellow fields, finding a good sweat and beautiful countryside as important, at least for today, as an overly complicated law that takes too many years to pass.

Belgium, with its linguistic divide, feels like two countries, it’s true, but Europe feels like one. The B&B in France was full of Belgians. And while someone joked about the accent with which the Belgians speak French, the proprietress joked, too, about people from Brittany – like her husband.  The next day a waitress in Calais was rude to us because she thought we were English. But without the cross-channel ferry disgorging boatloads of Brits 100 yards from her restaurant, she’d be out of a job.

And so? We paid our bill and shuffled back to the beach. Hard to feel overly important in flip-flops.  

No one would argue otherwise: Officials who work for the EU are every bit as entitled to time off as anyone else – the person who runs a B&B or drives a tractor or waits on tables or writes news for a living. Some of those officials, I’m sure, headed not for their national capitals or resort hotels but for the middle of nowhere, and that’s good. And maybe even – we can only hope – a few of them forgot their shoes, as well.

                      — Don Melvin

Filed under: Columns

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