Friday, July 02, 2004


A Journey Around Europe
Summer 1991

Scarcely an hour after leaving Dublin we were at Heathrow Airport in London. We had to wait nearly twice as long just to get a bus from the airport into the city, another one of the endemic system failures that now seem to happen so frequently in Britain. When at last we did reach Victoria a bearded young Scot helped us with our bags as they were leaden with the weight of all the booty we'd amassed in Ireland. One of the many living rough in the city and trying to pick up the odd bit of cash, this fellow had simply whipped a trolley from the station concourse and gone looking for customers. A girl asked to share the trolley with us but when we reached the station she said a casual "thanks" and left without leaving a tip. I called after her and she turned to me impatiently: "Oh, I've no change. Anyway, he's not a real porter." Then she just turned her back and walked off. Brazen wench.

We bought tickets for the boattrain to Ostend, setting off shortly afterwards through the dreary suburbs of south London. The train rattled on through the Weald of Kent and brought us to the coast at Dover. The great chalk cliffs always bring to mind that famous song of Vera Lynn's: "There'll be bluebirds over --- The white cliffs of Dover/ Whennn this war is over --- Just you wait and see!" That had been a great hit in the darkest days of the war. The British and their allies had just barely survived the debacle of Dunkirk and the victorious Nazi armies were straining at the leash on the French coast, waiting for the signal to attack. The British, oddly enough, looked upon the retreat from Dunkirk as a stunning victory ("We got most of them off, you see") and were bracing themselves for the expected invasion. Today the cliffs stood white and shining in the sunlight with the scavenging seagulls wheeling and squawking overhead. Can't say there were any bluebirds Vera, but there was no sign of any of the old gasoline pipelines either. Churchill had had them run out to sea as a nasty surprise for the Jerries. The man had the mind of a bloodthirsty schoolboy and he fully intended to fry the invaders as they tried to come ashore. But it was Hugh Dowding and the young pilots of the RAF that kept them away in the end. Not far from here one of those pilots (Harry Turney, later to be one of my father's friends) came sputtering home in a badly shot-up Spitfire. He knew damn well he would never clear the top of the cliffs so he lined up as well as he could, cut off the engine, and coasted in for a tricky landing on the narrow strip of beach between the cliffs and the sea. His luck was in that day, or else his timing, or both, because he managed to get himself down safely. Just as he had bumped to a halt, praising God and all his angels, a jeep came roaring up alongside. Out jumped an RAF-type with enormous handlebar moustaches, his eyes a-pop and his face ablaze: "How do you expect us to to lift this thing out of here, eh? EH? You could bloody well have landed on top, you know. Inconsiderate bugger!!"

We were to cross the Channel in a zippy little hydrofoil known in these parts as a hovercraft. Whatever one chooses to call them they are awkward creations, something of a cross between boats and airplanes with none of the conveniences of either. The female staff certainly try to behave like flight attendants with all the familiar formula phrases about life preservers and "extinguishing all smoking materials" and "in the interests of passenger safety . . . ." and so on and so forth, blah, blah, blah, but the cool sleek image vanishes instantly as they start frantically serving meals and duty-free booze to bellowing sweaty humanoids, self included. In less than two hours the vertical skyline of Ostende drew near, grey high-rise apartments backed up to the beach in a sad and thoroughly unconvincing imitation of Miami. The boat eased down from its struts with a series of loud farting noises and settled on the litter-strewn waters off the Gare Maritime. We had arrived on le Continong.


But there was no sign of Chris who had arranged to meet us. This led to an introduction to the vagaries of the Belgian telephone system, deservedly renowned as the worst in Europe. Fortunately Chris arrived before I had lost all control and yanked the receiver out by its roots and jumped on it. We clapped one another on the back and hugged and shook hands for ten minutes or so -- no need for any more of that silly English restraint -- and then went for a couple of beers in a nearby restaurant. After that Chris drove us all the way to the other side of Belgium, which doesn't take all that long to do. He and his wife Marianne were old friends from Japan where both had worked in a translation company for two- and-a-half years. Now they had two small children and Chris was working in the European HQ of Roland, the Japanese keyboard maker. This was in a town between Antwerp and the Dutch border, and we were to stay with them there for the next few days.

The next day brought fine weather and a decision to visit Waterloo -- again. I've been there three or four times now and it never ceases to exert the same fascination. I'm not sure why that should be since there is actually very little to see when you do get there apart from one or two scruffy little museums and the panorama building. Of course there's the "Butte de Lion", a great man-made hill surmounted by a statue of a lion that was built over the spot where the brave but incompetent Prince of Orange was badly wounded during the battle. What happened to him exactly I don't know, but he failed to go skipping home (tra-la) so now there's this statue on a hill to remind us. Like most landmarks it serves as a distraction more than anything else. What makes the deeper impression is that the surrounding countryside has changed so little from those June days of 1815. The same farmhouses are still standing and as you walk along the fields it doesn't take much to imagine the scene before the battle commenced. The two great armies were drawn up opposite one another in a brilliant array of scarlet and blue, pennants fluttering from lances, banners flying, the sun glinting off the shining breastplates of the cavalry. Here was a sight that recalled medieval chivalry with all its panoply and glittering display (and underlying foul intent), another Field of the Cloth of Gold with the future of Europe in the balance. But of course it wasn't like that at all. It was muddy and miserable with the rain pelting down from leaden skies and the soldiers of both sides hungry, tired and soaked to the skin. Everyone was in vile bad temper. The cannons opened up shortly before noon on the 18th and the slaughter commenced. Thick smoke soon hid every corner of the field and the battle became a thing of sheer noise: artillery, muskets, cheers, shouts, screams, panic, horses, men, confusion. The killing went on all day and into the early evening when Bluecher's Prussians arrived on the field, having marched throughout the day to reach the battle. The French faltered, then broke and fled. More than fifty thousand men had been killed or mangled or maimed. The Duke of Wellington who referred to his soldiers as "the scum of the earth" decided to stay well away from them after the battle. He had reason to believe they would shoot him. They wanted to.

The good news was that Napoleon had finally been defeated and that twenty years of war and a generation of tyranny had been brought tumbling to the ground. Hysterical joy gripped the people of England and of all Europe. There was dancing in the streets; there were bonfires, drunkenness, spectacular displays of lewd behaviour. The reward of the common people was to be thirty years of repression and reaction, agricultural slump and industrial enslavement. They rose in protest in 1848 and were whipped back into place. Along came Marx with his call for class warfare. Along came Garibaldi. Along came Bismarck. Socialism spread among the workers and Italy and Germany united. In the summer of 1914, a hundred years on from Waterloo, dear old Europe exploded again. And when that war ended, another round of hysterical joy gripped the common people. There were more bonfires, more drunkenness, even more spectacular displays of lewd behaviour. The reward this time was to be another hideous war in which twenty millions would die. Dear old Europe. The place can be so charming, so quaint, but it's not a bit like Disneyland. Never was, never will be.


Brussels is a grey shabby sort of place that could do with a lick of paint. You could say the same about the royal palace that takes up a great deal of room near the city centre. It's the home of King Baudouin and Queen Fabiola. They have no children. The Belgian royal family are a nineteenth century creation, as is the country itself. In the course of history the Belgians have been ruled by the Romans, the Burgundians, the Habsburgs (Spanish and Austrian), the French and the Dutch. They've also been occupied once by the English and twice by the Germans. In 1830 they became a separate country and imported Leopold of Saxe-Coburg as their first king. His son Leopold II (1865-1909) took over the Congo in Africa, treating it as his own personal estate with a brutality and rapaciousness that shocked even the relaxed standards of the 19th century. His son Albert I (1909-24) resisted the German invasion at the outbreak of WWI but the country was occupied anyway giving rise to a lot of over the top Allied propaganda about "Poor Little Belgium". The next king was Leopold III (1924-1951) who capitulated to the Nazis without firing a shot and was later charged with collaboration. He abdicated in favour of his son the present king in 1951. Not a very glorious royal line, perhaps, although Baudouin does seem to have his principles. Not long ago he abdicated for the space of one day because Parliament had passed a pro-abortion bill and he didn't want to sign it into law. The bill became law without him and the next day he was reinstated. This may have had something to do with his own childlessness which is a grievous failing in a king. Modern kings are not really expected to do much apart from meeting foreign dignitaries and securing the succession; even in the old days Henry VIII of England could feel the same pressure about the need to produce children and he went through six wives in pursuit of an heir. When the Pope wouldn't let him divorce his first wife he broke with the Church of Rome and began the enthusiastic persecution of Catholics (in recalcitrant Ireland, particularly) that went on unabated for the next three hundred years. Only in 1829 were Catholics grudgingly allowed to enter Parliament and to this day none can become King or Queen of England, a doubtful privilege at the best of times.

Northern Belgium looks and feels like Holland while the south looks and feels like France. The language in the north is Flemish, a dialect of Dutch, and in the south it's French. The main internal problem that the country has is that the two groups can't stand one another. According to Chris, who can be quite defensive about Belgium ("So tell me the names of five famous Belgians, Chris." -- "Oh, shut up!"), the two groups have much more in common with one another than they do with the people across the border in Holland or France. This is another one of those European mysteries that simply has to be accepted at face value. Perhaps what they really have in common is that all of them are the butt of "Belgian jokes" by their French and Dutch neighbours.

There can be no doubt that Belgians of whatever stripe are great believers in good food and cosy surroundings. Brussels has some of the finest restaurants and cafés in Europe, many of them to be found in the little sidestreets that wind in a maze near the Grand' Place. We had a fabulous meal with plenty of wine and laughter and it wasn't all that horribly expensive either. (It was served by an Irish waitress, one of the first of three or four young Irish people we were to find working in restaurants all over Western Europe.)

The Grand' Place itself is a large imposing market square with an enormous Gothic town hall and a number of towering guild houses. On summer nights the entire square is filled with music and coloured lights and the cafés and restaurants do a roaring trade. This is where you'll see all the tourists and a lot of the locals as well.

One flag you'll see a great deal of in Brussels is the ring of gold stars on a blue field of the European Community. Brussels is the administrative headquarters of the Community and takes the job seriously. As a result rents have gone through the ceiling but the telephones still can't be trusted.

We left most of our luggage with Chris and Marianne and prepared to set off on our travels again. As we left this crowded high-living little country, our tummies full of cheese and chocolates, one of the abiding memories would be the ubiquitous sign on the highways: LAAT UW ZWAARE VOET IN HOES -- "leave your heavy foot at home." OK. I'll just bring the light one.
No, no, what they MEAN is . . .

Next stop France.


We were met at the ticket barrier in the Gare du Nord by Bertrand and Inda and their little boy Antoine. I had stayed with them two years before in a six-storey walk-up near the Seine but now they'd moved out to a house they had bought in one of the satellite towns to the west of Paris. We drove past market stalls thronged with Arab and African immigrants and on through battered-looking suburbs until we reached the highway system out to the commuter belt. Inda is Indonesian and I knew her through Philippe who had met and married one of my students in Japan. S. and I were "nakodo" (go-betweens) at their marriage which broke up three years later amid a great deal of shouting and screaming. Philippe grabbed their only child and fled to Paris; Machiko, the wife, chased after him and snatched the baby back. Philippe came back to Japan. Philippe returned to France. Philippe came back again. More shouting and screaming with S. and me in the middle trying vainly to keep the peace and starting to raise our voices at one another. High times, high times. Bertrand, on the other hand, is a taciturn type, a former paratrooper whose cousin is a marquis and lives in a 13th century chateau somewhere in central France. There he is surrounded (according to Inda) by a gaggle of aristocratic relatives who are the worst set of snobs in the country. Inda hates them. Bertrand ignores them and likes to hum when he drives.

We had a barbecue in the garden and met one of the neighbours, a news cameraman, who told us an exiled Iranian statesman had just been assassinated in Paris earlier in the day. The Middle East hangs out its dirty linen -- hangs it out to dry -- in nearly all the capitals of Europe, but can hardly match the sheer gusto and enthusiasm of the Russians, Whites and Reds, who went after one another Chicago style in the Paris of the twenties.

Early in the morning we took the train into Paris and came up to the surface near Etoile and the Arc de Triomphe. The Arc sits in the middle of a traffic circle that serves as the hub for twelve major roads and this makes it one of the main sights of the city. Not the Arc itself, the traffic: you have never seen anything like this in your life, you would never WANT to see anything like it. Think of the Indy 500 with about 7000 cars and imagine trying to cross over the track. I remember doing it once or twice, heart in mouth, when I first came to Paris. I was young and stupid in those days (less young now, of course) and didn't realize there was a pedestrian underpass for normal intelligent people. Never again. I've heard it said by their enemies (anyone who isn't French) that Frenchmen behind the wheel actually TRY to hit pedestrians. I think that's going a bit far. They don't make too much of an effort to miss them, mind you, but the French are a canny breed and there's always the paintwork to consider.

The Arc itself is about the size of an apartment block and a bit overblown and ostentatious, decorated in the GIGANTIC style favoured by neurotic little men who become European dictators. You'll see the same kind of windbag architecture in Italy thanks to Mussolini. Hitler had plans to dwarf them all (a dome in Berlin that would hold half a million people) but you won't see much Nazi architecture of any kind these days. The Allied air forces have seen to that. Napoleon planned the arch to celebrate his military successes but the construction wasn't completed until fifteen years after Waterloo. Somebody should have dropped a hint. Before we turn away from the subject of military glory we might stop to consider the place names that linger on: the "Iena" bridge and the "Austerlitz" and "Pyramides" stations in Paris; "Trafalgar" Square and "Waterloo" Station in London. No prizes for guessing who won.

The Champs Elysees runs straight as an arrow past the Rond Pointe (about half-way down) to the Place de la Concorde and the formal gardens of the Tuilleries beyond. It's quite a hike. Some of the world's most expensive cups of coffee -- we don't count Japan, of course -- are sold in these sidewalk cafes between the upmarket shops and cinemas and travel agencies. On the right further down is the glass-roofed Grand Palais where many of the major art exhibitions are held. On the left is the Elysée Palace, the official residence of the President of the Republic. Place Concorde is where the guillotines did their work during the Revolution; more than a thousand enemies of the regime -- an ambiguous designation when regimes change overnight -- ended up with their heads in a bucket, including the King and Marie Antoinette. This happened near where the Egyptian obelisk stands today,

The Tuilleries were once a royal park connected to the Louvre which was still in use as a royal residence until Louis XIV moved the court out to Versailles in 1682. The layout of the gardens is extremely formal in the rather severe style of the 17th century but the people who stroll about them today are cheerfully casual and unbuttoned, sometimes a bit more than you might expect. The pigeons are definitely Parisian since they couldn't give a damn about anyone. One thing you have to watch for here are the gypsy pickpockets, mostly children who move in gangs.

The Louvre itself is a massive affair and dates back to the 1200s although the oldest buildings standing today are from the 1540s. In the centre of the courtyard stands the new (1988) glass pyramid designed by the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei. This was one of Mitterrand's projects in the runup to the 200th anniversary of the 1789 Revolution. He had several others including what looks like a field of stone toadstools in the courtyard of the Palais-Royal and the regilding of the dome of the Invalides. The dome is so bright now you can hardly bear to look at it.

Across the Seine from the Louvre is the Orsay Museum, converted from an old railway station. Much of the impressionist collection from the old Jeu de Paume is housed here now and it is a tremendously impressive museum. Visiting the Louvre is something you should do if you've never done it before (and if you don't mind standing in a line in the courtyard for an hour or more) but visiting the Orsay is a sheer delight. So many of the paintings are familiar from reproductions that it comes as a pleasant jolt to put your nose within an inch of the originals, the real thing.

In the wake of our cultural pursuits we were to meet Bertrand by the river. I left the girls in a nearby café to drink gallons of iced drinks while I went to the bridge to wait for him. No sign of him, of course, and this explains a lot of concentrated video work in this particular corner of Paris. He did show up in the end and we made our way down to the Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame. S. and I stayed in a small hotel on the island back in '85 and the streets were all familiar. A great deal has been written about the Cathedral so I won't try to add to it here apart from the single observation that I find the figures surrounding the entrance to be one of the most interesting things about the place. It's the expression of mildness on their faces that is so striking since there was little of this ethereal quality to be found in European (i.e. Christian) art for the next several hundred years, or at least until the eve of the Renaissance. Kenneth Clark could probably tell you why.

Sylvia Beach left America for Paris in the late teens of the 20th century and opened a small bookshop in the rue de l'Odeon that she called Shakespeare & Co. The successor to her little shop is still in business today and stands facing a small park along the quai de la Tournelle with Notre Dame looming large in the middle distance. The literary exiles of the twenties used to congregate here and Miss Beach, who was a kind-hearted soul, often lent books and sometimes small amounts of cash to Joyce and Hemingway and quite likely to a lot of other people whose names are not so well remembered. It was she who arranged for the first publication of Joyce's "Ulysses". Near her shop is the Rue de la Huchette with its many cheap restaurants and we strolled along until we found a place with a very reasonable prix fixe menu and also, as it turned out, our second Irish waiter. This is the heart of the Latin Quarter with the Place St. Michel just a stone's throw in one direction and the Sorbonne in another. The cafés and streets were packed with the early evening crowds and there was that little tingle of jaded excitement in the air that is so typical of this part of Paris, call it the Paris cocktail: to a generous dollop of nervous excitability add a jigger of sophisticated arrogance, shake well, add a cherry for style and stand back. Voila.

Leaving a fistful of francs with the waiter ("Jaysus, t'anks! Dey haven't paid me at all yet -- do you t'ink dey will?") we found Bertrand's car in the sidestreet where he'd left it and set off for Montmartre and the Place du Tertre which is one of the world's most obvious tourist traps and should be horrible and grasping and disappointing -- but somehow isn't. Sure it's expensive, sure it's a rip-off, but walking is free and the place still has a certain style to it, an air of "damn-your-eyes, let's go for a drink." The Paris Commune took root here after the total collapse of the government following defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. The bohemians and anarchists tore down a lot of statues, proclaimed themselves free, and let the wine and rhetoric flow. Taking fright at these developments, the ruling class patched together a new government under Adolphe Thiers which sent in the troops. What happened next has drawn the political lines in Paris for more than a century. You can read more about it in Zola who was close to the events of the time.

We chose one of the less facile artists to do a charcoal sketch of Siobhán. The result was pretty bad all the same, too cutey-cute to be a real 5-year-old kid. That's what you get for your vanity up here, the real artists are elsewhere. But it was a good evening so we didn't mind at all.

A bientot, Paris!