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  • Writer's pictureStephen Balogh

Pilgrimage to Pula

It was probably already a rare thing even by the time I went to school, but I studied Latin and took it all the way to O level (yes, I am that old). Without blowing my own tuba, it came easily enough to me such that in both 1½ hour public exams I finished and checked everything within 15 minutes each time. No-one was allowed to leave the exam hall, so on the second occasion I used some spare paper manually to calculate successive powers-of-two calculations (2 x 2, 2 x 2 x 2 etc.) and from recollection reached something like 2 to the power of 150 by the time the exam period was up.

I mention this not because I want to brandish my academic credentials but because one of the invigilators happened to be my Latin teacher herself, one Mrs McSweeney, and I remember her stopping at my desk and looking quizzically at what I was doing. Only just did she manage not to intervene and thereby contravene the rules. I did feel the need to tell her afterwards what I was up to and hoped she would take it as indirect testimony to her teaching prowess, not that I deliberately risked her a heart attack by pretending to be addressing the wrong subject.

The reason I do mention it is that I have been carrying a mild guilt since a school journey in 1980 to what was then the north of communist Yugoslavia. The trip included an optional excursion to Pula and the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre anywhere. I don’t think my reputation with my Latin teacher – who was also an avid classicist and archaeologist – ever recovered after I said I had declined the opportunity and gone to the nearby seaside instead. My claim that I had already risked my life just to go on the trip at all given Marshall Tito’s recent death, rumours of civil war and Pula’s status as a Tito stronghold left her unmoved.

I seem to be doing a lot of remorse and penance at the moment (see, but when this summer the opportunity to holiday in Croatia came up – we somehow hit the jackpot in the fun game of coronavirus pin the tail on the holiday – I was happy to schedule part of it within striking distance of Pula and to drag the family there with the promise of authentic ancient Roman pizza to follow a tour of the historic site. To me it was very much a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage to a shrine dedicated to St. Barbara of St. Albans.

Had I visited when I was a callow 12 with no particular incentive to return, I might have missed this new opportunity through eyes of somewhat greater maturity to survey such a stunningly beautiful amphitheatre full of atmosphere in a wonderfully varied town that manages next to the amphitheatre itself to have both a relatively tasteful (!) Communist-style memorial to Tito and a park named after Franz Joseph, the Austro-Hungarian emperor. What a juxtaposition of imperial epochs, all come and gone. On my next visit, if I leave it long enough, I’ll make sure to visit the equivalent memorial to Donald Tusk.

The only thing I just missed was the opportunity to tell Mrs McSweeney herself that I had atoned for my omission. Sadly, she passed away earlier this year, but I did make sure alongside several other of her students from 40+ years before to pay my respects at her funeral for her amo, amas, amatting.

Finally, I will use this blog entry as a mild polemic in favour of Latin as a school subject. It is probably almost extinct by now, but my own experience was that it gave me a framework of linguistic logic that helped me no end in maths and other analytical subjects, let alone a decent nudge in my French. Its broader educational power to me is underrated. But I do remember contemporaries for whom their only joy was the plural of war, bellum, which declines as bella, bella, bella …Said fast enough, it inevitably became blah, blah, blah.

Small consolation indeed.

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