Don’t you feel just a little cheated when you suddenly come across a country that you’ve never even heard of? To not even know about a country’s existence somehow feels like an indefinable personal loss. It’s not the same as not knowing your neighbor – this is an entire country we’re talking about. Shouldn’t someone have told us or at least sent us an email? This realization usually dawns on me each time I watch the Olympic opening ceremony, my recurring four yearly Geography lesson. But the feeling generally subsides and one naturally focuses on more urgent worries such as “Should I have the soup or the salad?”.
The need to have a basic understanding of Geography manifests in strange ways. For a brief period, Sprint offered a special discount package. Only calls made to a selected list of countries would be charged. Calls placed to countries that weren’t on the list, were toll-free.
My room-mate, ever the prudent shopper, scanned the list and didn’t spot Burma on it. He then assumed all calls to Burma would be toll-free and proceeded to call his friend there, for hours on end. This saga continued for about a month. Upon receipt of the phone bill, the said room-mate suffered a minor heart attack when he discovered that calls made to Burma were costing him
$2.99 a minute! At such rates, one expects at least a lap-dance. It turned out that while Burma wasn’t on the list (of non-toll-free countries), Myanmar was. He thought it all very cruel and unusual on the part of Spint. The rest of us thought it rather amusing. Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, while those who don’t study Geography are doomed to pay a hefty phone bill.
During the 1988 Seoul Olympics, many were surprised to see Anthony Nesty, an almost unknown swimmer from Surinam, beat Olympic legend Matt Biondi for the gold medal in the
100m butterfly event. This sent people scrambling in search of an atlas, unable to name which continent Surinam was in. To compound insult to Biondi’s injury, we later learnt that the entire country of Surinam had a single Olympic sized swimming pool during Nesty’s time. With such woeful training facilities at my disposal, I couldn’t be trusted to stay afloat in a pool, let alone competitively swim in one! Of course, my smart-aleck buddy (Einstein here), points out that one needs just a single pool to train in, but you get my drift.
So, understandably, having developed a profound fetish for obscure countries, I was recently elated to have a Columbus moment as I stumbled upon one other such country, “The Most Serene” Republic of San Marino. “Lovely title”, I thought, “Not smartest, richest, best-endowed but Most Serene”. No ambiguity there either, not “Vaguely Serene”, not “Somewhat Serene”, it is “The Most Serene”. There you go. And no, it’s not some obscure banana republic nestled deep down in South America.
San Marino sits respectably and comfortably within Europe, making it safe for us all to take
seriously. Whew! While other countries remain preoccupied about “getting the big picture”, San
Marino has been merrily dwelling on the much neglected “little picture” for a very long time.
San Marino has existed as a sovereign entity since 300 A.D. when a visionary stone-cutter by the name of Saint Marinus thought it wise to found his very own country. And he had good reasons. Originally from (present-day) Croatia, he was on the run, fleeing religious persecution at the time he established the Serene State. Once he was done with the mountain of paperwork that goes with founding a new country, Saint Marinus spent the rest of his days leading the life of a hermit atop Mount Titano.
The country of San Marino is all of 4 miles by 6 miles, which makes it only the 3rd smallest country in Europe and the 5th smallest country in the world. It is a teeny enclave within Italy, roughly 1/10th the size of NYC. The ever so helpful wiki.answers.com even has a web page conveniently titled “Is San Marino a country?”. The web page doesn’t say: “Hmm, no, they’re just kidding”. But I detect no trace of a Napolean complex on the part of San Marino. And this is understandable, since they seem to have a lot to be proud of. Consider their virtues:
San Marino is highly stable, with a population of just 30,000. The locals are endearingly called Sammarinese – that’s the official demonym. Didn’t know that term, did you? As countries’ resumes go, theirs is rather impressive – It is the oldest republic, has oldest constitution, the oldest oldies, is quite prosperous and “was once briefly occupied by German forces” who probably didn’t realize they weren’t in Italy. A sizable portion of their revenue is generated through the “sale of postage stamps and coins”. Just imagine for a moment: A country funded by philatelists and numismatists. That’s their business model. Besides, isn’t it wonderful that a country the size of a postage stamp should base its economy on postage stamps?!
Aside from postage stamps and tourism, San Marino has gained some notoriety for its tax laws. In the grand tradition of landlocked siblings such as Switzerland, San Marino has shown a proclivity to keep other people’s money, no questions asked. However, in recent years, these practices have come under significant scrutiny.
In its infancy, San Marino only consisted of Mount Titano. In 1463, Pope Pius II gifted the country a few additional towns – Fiorentino, Montegiardino and Serravalle. Meanwhile, the adjoining town of Faetano, not wanting to be left behind, voluntarily joined the growing Republic. Since then, the country has been roughly the same size. However, recently, and I love this part: as population increased, they expanded their territory by “just a little”. Since they don’t believe in war, they just paid for and bought the extra land. Isn’t that awesome? They kill you with their cuteness!
San Marino also boasts of the highest life expectancy figures, averaging 81 for men – told you,
they have the oldest oldies! During most of World War II, San Marino was under the rule of the PFS (Sammarinese Fascist Party). In the early stages of World War II, San Marino did align with Italy and nominally declared war on Britain, but Britain didn’t pay any attention to them. Later, however, as Italy surrendered, San Marino declared neutrality. Despite that, and despite huge white crosses displayed over the landscape as hard-to-miss signs of their neutrality, the RAF mistakenly bombed them. A total of 250 bombs were dropped, killing 63 people. When asked, the British Forces said that they thought German weapons/ammunition was being stashed there. To their credit, the British Government later offered a lame apology and a paltry sum of £80,000.
While the U.S. is proud of having the largest percentage of its population behind bars, in 2008
San Marino boasted of having just a single prisoner in the entire country! Unfortunately for them, in recent years, crime has doubled. Today’s statistics in www.prisonstudies.org – useful portal, that! – show that the 2012 San Marino prison population has risen to two, a drastic 100% increase! No, there is no prison in San Marino. Convicted offenders are shipped off to Italian prisons.
While we’re on the topic of Italy, I’ve always wondered if visually impaired people in the city of canals, can be called “Venetian Blinds”? Ha Ha. I couldn’t resist. And what’s with the word “conviction”? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? “He’s a man of strong convictions, all well documented in his rap sheet”.
The US Diplomat to San Marino actually lives outside the country, in Florence and performs double-duty. He’s a big-shot, is Mr. David Thorne, who gets two countries all to himself, while the other slackers struggle with just one apiece. And this country isn’t languishing in the foreign policy department either. There’s even a thriving San Marino-China Friendship Association that boasts of having nurtured a 20 year friendship, complete with exchange programs and such. No detail is too small for our future overlords, the Chinese.
Their current political system comprises of a 60 member committee called “Grand” (That’s the official name. “Yes, I’m Grand. No, not kidding, I really am Grand!”) and a 10 member General Council. I’ve seen the “Grand” also referred to as the “Great”. “Having trouble calling me Grand? Just call me Great”. Wait, it gets better. These Great guys appoint two Captain Regents from opposing political parties. These Captain Regents serve short six-month terms. Once in power, these two Regents keep an eye on each other – “Mr. Check, meet Mr. Balance. Let’s hope you guys prevent each other from screwing up!!”. Isn’t that a lovely concept?
If, after reading all this, dear gentle reader, you have Sammarinese citizenship aspirations, prepare to be disappointed. While travel into and out of the region is freely permitted, one can only become a citizen by being born there, or by having parents who are both San Marino citizens. Well, there remains one loop-hole. It is possible to naturalize by marrying a citizen. So there is hope yet.
All of this begs the obvious question, “If you could be a country, which country would you be?”. As for me, I’d rather be “The Most Serene” Republic of San Marino, thank you.
B.A. Krishna is an Indian American, living and working in Silicon Valley.