Friday, July 3, 2009

Almost Making History 4

It seems that making history; becoming famous; changing the world is as much about having dumb luck as having great talent, superior intelligence or innate predisposition. There are so many stories of people that just happened to have the right idea, at the right place and at the right time that I decided to write about those that happened to have the wrong idea, at the wrong place or at the wrong time. Note that the names, dates and events have been changed to protect the innocent and ensure their continued anonymity.

He knew it would be a long trip, with a lot of walking, but Giacomo Vespucci was up for it. After all, he was the son of one of Venice’s most respected merchant and had covered Italy from knee to toe while assisting his father in his commerce. Giacomo was an explorer at heart: as a young child he would go farther and farther into the woods surround the family’s summer villa to find places where, as he loved to say: “... no feet have seen the grounds I am threading.”. So, when his good buddy, Emilione asked that he join him and others for a really long commercial trip in the direction of the rising sun, Giacomo knew it was meant to be.

After months of preparation, the group was ready to set off. Although Emilione was truly good friends with Giacomo, he also invited him to obtain, through him, the support of the very rich and very influential Vespucci family. And it paid off. The Vespucci footed a large part of the bill and provided Giacomo with all he asked. They were happy to see one of their own looking at extending the family business outside of Italy. So, on a cool fall morning, the group left Venice for Acre and, from there, the East.

As expected, the trip was strenuous and some of the areas they visited quite unnerving, to say the least. As time went by, key members of the group, both friars sent by the Pope at the Khan’s request, became more and more concerned about the dangers they would be encountering as they continued towards Mongolia. Giacomo, who was spending a lot of time with the two, was getting scared too. Travelling in Italy and exploring the forest around the summer villa was quite different from what he was seeing now: people that could not speak a word of Italian; faces of every color and shape; strange animals and very strange customs. When they were sitting around the camp fire at night, the friars would relate stories they had read on the regions yet to be visited: people without heads, people with only one eye, people with only one leg and a large foot… Giacomo was growing nervous of pushing further east.

One morning, after a night filled with nightmares of war and prison, Giacomo walked out of his tent and noticed the two friars stealthily gathering their belongings and preparing the camels for a quick departure. Giacomo saw no need to ask, he knew at once that the friars were leaving the expedition to go back to civilization. Giacomo knew it was his chance to get out of it too so he quickly gathered his personal effects and ran to catch up with the friars.

It had been a spur of the moment decision but it had lasting effects on Giacomo’s life. His family was not happy to see him return with nothing to show for the large sums they had invested in the venture. Giacomo was booted from the family business (and the family). He left Venice and went on to open a small barber shop in a suburb of Rome where he vanished into anonymity.

In the mean time Emilione (who’s preferred being called Marco) continued on to live one incredible adventure after another in China. After many years, he returned to Venice with his father and uncle, all wealthy from their long journey to China. He went on to write a book that became a bestseller then and is still studied now: The Travels of Marco Polo…

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