How modern is nomadism?
ON THE RIVER
M I C H A E L O B E R T
Mobility has become the symbol of our global society. Our author believes it is a gift to be on the move constantly. Despite occasional sometimes downsides, it is a life of freedom.
The streets, villages, farms and bridges gradually fade from sight as the vessel pulls away from the shoreline. I am sitting in the bows of the Bohemia between windlass and ropes as the Elbe, Germany’s third-longest river, loops and bends, sweeping me along past meadows and marshlands. We sail past deserted sandy coves and carpets of violet wild chive flowers. For days, I abandon myself to the compelling, languid motion of the flow, simply drifting along, incapable of thought or deliberation—letting the river take me along.
Mobility. The word comes from the Latin verb movere, to move, whose substantive form, mobilitas, means mobility. From a sociological perspective, it can relate to our career, our position in society or the place we choose to live. In the 21st century, mobility signifies the capacity to change our geographical and social position, enabling us to remain adaptable and flexible. Always.
Mobility is the figurehead of the profound transformations shaping our global society. Is this all-pervasive mobility a curse or a blessing? Sailing along the Elbe in the bows of the freighter, the answer is a no-brainer: for me, the exhilarating rush of movement is the very best reward mobility can offer.
As a foreign correspondent, author and film maker, my way of life is mobile in the extreme. For anything up to six months a year, I carry my entire worldly possessions around with me in my travel bag. When I’m on the move—in aircraft, on trains and buses, on ships and boats—my thoughts likewise take flight. Ideas come to me on the road, I write on the road, I do my accounts on the road, I make friends on the road, I eat, drink and sleep on the road. My mobility has made a global nomad of me, one who is at once both at home everywhere and nowhere. Even in Berlin, where I have a flat that I cherish and need as my base, I use mobile internet and write, just as I am doing at this moment, in a local café in Kreuzberg.
My love for rivers is no coincidence. Since childhood I have been fascinated by their smell and their crystalline meanderings, and most of all, the constant motion of their flow. The Amazon, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Zambesi, Congo, Niger, Nile—for twenty years, rivers have taken me to rain forests, deserts and savannahs. Rivers are my main inspiration: from source to estuary—a lifetime—I shall be in motion. In flux.
I had never been interested in Germany’s straightened, sterile concrete shipping lanes. That is, until I came upon the photo of a huge fish with a mossy back and a spiny armour-plated head. Its tiny eyes stared at me like some prehistoric creature. I had only ever seen such fish in the tropics. The caption under the picture read, Wels catfish 1.92m, 78kg—habitat: River Elbe. And there it was again: my inner voice, calling “Go!”. So off I went to travel along the length of the Elbe, hitching lifts off freight ships.
Where does my compulsion to move around come from? Isn’t life on the move completely exhausting in the long run? Wouldn’t a more sedentary existence be preferable? On the contrary! All of us have an inner primeval need for mobility; after all, human beings have always been on the move. Like the British travel writer, Bruce Chatwin, I am convinced that our earliest ancestors were nomadic, like the Tuaregs, Tartars, Mongols and Lapps, who still drive their herds from pasture to pasture today with the changing of the seasons. According to Chatwin’s philosophy, the need to wander, to be mobile, lives on in the present day in nomadism.
The more recent history of mobility is strongly intertwined with travel, a pursuit considered arduous and difficult up until the 18th century. The English word travel is cognate with the French travail, meaning work, toil or effort. In former times tracks were bumpy, inns inadequate and, in most cases, there were neither road maps nor signposts, but there were certainly plenty of armed bandits and highwaymen. People only travelled if they absolutely had to.
Not until the publication of Goethe’s Italian Journey did travel begin to be regarded as educational. The book describes the poet’s travels by post-coach between the years 1813 and 1817, crossing the Brenner Pass to visit Venice, Ferrara and Rome before heading south to Naples and Palermo—an early form of tourism. Industrialisation gave new impetus to mobility; for professional reasons, people needed to move house or commute back and forth over long distances to reach the factories where they worked.