Thursday, August 10, 2006

A turgid, inscrutable dissertation on the meaninglessness of life

…is the last thing on a man’s mind if he has just spent an afternoon in the Louvre, gazing on the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo and countless masterpieces by the likes of Michelangelo, Botticelli, Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian and Rubens, followed by a gentle sunset stroll along the Seine and a full-bodied bottle of Cotes du Rhone, but I’ll do my best.

“When good Americans die they go to Paris” said Oscar Wilde.

Which might be hard to believe in the current climate of Franco-Yanko relations, but there are still plenty of living bourgeois Americans wandering open-mouthed around the place. (You can spot them a kilometre off, not just because on average they are three to four times heavier than all the other tourists (apart from the Brits – they’re only twice the size of us) and five or six times friendlier, but because the women wear squint-inducingly bright trouser suits in pink or lime and thinly-disguised expressions of disgust at the laissez-faire continental attitude to hygiene, while the men have enormous cameras around their necks and spend Euros like Disney Dollars.)

Tourist-spotting is as much a part of a European city holiday as ticking off the iconic monuments. All the cliches are true: the snap-happy Japs taking photos of everything that doesn’t move, the English patiently queuing in forlorn hopes of a tay au lay, sill voo play, while the beautiful Italians push in front of them and pay no heed to even the severest tuts.

But full marks to those Americans who do make the considerable effort to get a passport, get over and do the whistle-stop European tours. It’s an essential educational experience. Books, films and the internet are wonderful things, but unless you’ve been out of your timezone and walked around Paris, London and Berlin, seen what they were and what they’ve done with that, and consequently what you are and where you are now, you’re missing out on something.

Paris, London and Berlin are the crucial ones. Seriously, if you can afford it, go and visit them before you die. You could write many an essay on their competitiveness with each other; their intertwined histories; the differences that make them the essence of their respective countries in some ways; and the similarities that mean that in many important ways they have more in common with each other than with the nations they each represent.

The differences are what you’d expect: Paris values art and aesthetics above everything. The Louvre is a wonder of the world. The Eiffel Tower, unlike the Reichstag, Westminster or Buckingham Palace, is an iconic building with no practical use whatsoever. London’s interests are the most varied: the National Gallery, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, the V&A. Berlin has thrown up extraordinary mea culpa monuments to its own shame: the Jewish Museum, the Checkpoint Charlie museum.

But the similarities are more striking, not just in the thrilling multicultural rush of travelling around on the metros (don’t even pretend you understand what European multiculturalism is about until you’ve been on the Bakerloo line). London has the Mall and Trafalgar Square; Berlin has Unter Den Linden and the Brandenburg Gate; Paris has the Champs Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe. Huge, hubristic, Freudian statements about victories over each other, now endlessly trampled by one other’s gawping tourists. What could be finer than the fact that French tourists emerge from the Eurostar at Waterloo Station?

History is what keeps these places rolling in Disney Dollars, and the cities sag under its weight: not least, the weight of its superstitions.

Notre Dame may as well have a neon sign above its gothic arches: Welcome to the Post-Religious World. In August there are so many tourists trudging through that you get carried round it in a sort of human conveyor belt. The Japanese snap away agape: just look at all these mountains of crazy stuff they built for Christianity! The experience is qualitatively no different to viewing Stonehenge. In the Louvre you walk through rooms full of sculptures of Hercules to rooms full of sculptures of Christ in the tomb, with no indication that there is an essential difference.

(I dropped into Bristol Cathedral recently, as I occasionally do: a literally awesome building. A begging sign claims that it costs £2 to keep it open for one minute. (York Minster, the largest gothic building north of the alps, costs £10,000 a day to run. They’re having to sell off stones on E-Bay.) In a chapel off the southern quire there was a sign saying ‘Service today – 11am. All welcome.’ I heard a clergyman murmuring so I peeped in. He was literally alone – no congregation at all. Talking wholly to himself, unless God was listening.)

That’s as close as I’m getting to a turgid dissertation on meaninglessness. Meaninglessness is in the eye of the beholder. Go to the Musee D’Orsay on the Left Bank, probably the most perfect art gallery in the world. Only 7 Euros to get in, and in the space of about three hours you can walk through a converted railway station crammed with all the famous, calendar-adorning works of Monet, Renoir, Manet, Rodin, Degas, Van Gogh, Pissaro, Sisley, Toulouse-Lautrec and Seurat. Not a bad collection for a bunch of cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Then go and share a bottle of Merlot with your favourite Mademoiselle and decide for yourself what is and what isn’t meaningless.

16 Comments:

Blogger David said...

I've spent a good amount of time in London and Paris and love them both. I haven't spent any time in Berlin and don't plan to. Just changing planes in Frankfurt gives me the willies; I look at men of a certain age and my fight or flight reaction kicks in.

For me, though, the quintessential European city that Americans must see to understand the continent is Venice. Beautiful, historic, entirely impractical and doomed unless saved by the modernism it rejects.

August 10, 2006 8:20 AM  
Blogger Brit said...

Venice is an aspect of Europe, and DisneyLand is an aspect of America. But there's also New York, and there's also unified, modern Berlin.

If you want the essence of today's Europe distilled, you'll more likely see it in Dublin or Prague or (so I hear but haven't yet been) Dubrovnik.

August 10, 2006 8:41 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Splendid essay.

August 10, 2006 10:04 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Yes, and not at all turgid or meaningless. One out of three ain't bad.

If you want the essence of today's Europe distilled you'll more likely see it in Dublin ...

Brit, tell me that wasn't intentional. Please!

August 10, 2006 12:28 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

On that point I remain as inscrutable as the Mona Lisa's smile.

August 10, 2006 1:56 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

My wife had a travelogue on the other day, and I think I heard it say that Ireland consecrated 8 priests last year.

I'd say that's essence distilled.

That was a very nice story. Are the Wogs still careless about hygiene? I had the impression they were getting over that, but then I'm a redneck from the peckerwoods who never got any closer to Europe than the half-scale replica of St. Peter's in Montreal.

O brave new world that has such churches in't!

August 10, 2006 2:47 PM  
Blogger David said...

To know the US, you really have to spend time outside of the cities.

As for Berlin, I wasn't arguing with you, just explaining that I'm not willing to make the experiment.

August 10, 2006 6:38 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I went to the art museum in Houston last year. It had one room devoted to paintings of cows. That was my favorite.

I'm afraid this American in Paris would reinforce stereotypes.

August 10, 2006 7:07 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

Harry:

I doubt you could accurately be described as a stereotype of anything.

David:

It's true that I've not yet experienced flyover country. The missus has travelled extensively in the US though and by goodness she had some stories to tell.

But you're right, and what you say is true nearly everywhere. In many ways major cities have more in common with other major cities than with the rest of their own countries.

London is nothing like England, for example, though Americans often think the words are synonymous.

August 11, 2006 12:59 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

What used to be uncommon is that "the rest of the country", otherwise known as flyover land, was different in different localities. But nowadays, as demonstrated by my recent drive through flyover land, is that all the flyover land is pretty much the same, and not much different than suburbia. You have houses, and you have your Walmarts, McDonalds and Safeways. Even ethnically, flyover land is becoming more mongrelized, less distinct. Hispanics are everywhere, from Tucson to Minnesota. I spied a mosque from the freeway on my way through Wichita Kansas.

We're all pretty much dressing the same nowadays, too. You see the same faux-gangsta styles on young kids in the hinterland as you see in Brooklyn.

August 11, 2006 5:39 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'Twas ever thus.

I've always claimed to come from the smallest American minority, the native-born Southern Catholics, which is only a slight exaggeration. But although the interior South of my boyhood was aslocal as anyone could want, my religious teachers, as I've mentioned before, were Lebanese Arabs.

The race-baiting wing of the Democratic Party always wants to evict Iowa and Vermont from their privileged places in the presidential nomination process, yet Iowa had the second-highest proportion of Southeast Asian immigrants (to California), and Mexicans have always been everywhere. When I lived in Iowa in the mid-1970s, there were enough Mexicans to support a statewide all-Mexican basketball league.

Rochester, Minn., had a Japanese-American mayor for nearly 30 years.

I don't see why it should be considered a black market against a commercial republic that Wal-Marts are everywhere. Nobody complains that there are Christian churches everywhere in Europe.

August 11, 2006 9:21 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'Twas ever thus.

I've always claimed to come from the smallest American minority, the native-born Southern Catholics, which is only a slight exaggeration. But although the interior South of my boyhood was aslocal as anyone could want, my religious teachers, as I've mentioned before, were Lebanese Arabs.

The race-baiting wing of the Democratic Party always wants to evict Iowa and Vermont from their privileged places in the presidential nomination process, yet Iowa had the second-highest proportion of Southeast Asian immigrants (to California), and Mexicans have always been everywhere. When I lived in Iowa in the mid-1970s, there were enough Mexicans to support a statewide all-Mexican basketball league.

Rochester, Minn., had a Japanese-American mayor for nearly 30 years.

I don't see why it should be considered a black market against a commercial republic that Wal-Marts are everywhere. Nobody complains that there are Christian churches everywhere in Europe.

August 11, 2006 9:25 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...

Brit:

In my dreams I write as well as you and James Lileks.

Having lived for seven years in England, I have been everywhere you mention. For perspective, I also got a chance to take in East Berlin back when the term "Checkpoint Charlie" would do more than evoke a blank stare.

I remember reading in the Times that the French were Europe's lowest per capita users of soap and toothpaste. I subsequently had a summer's day chance to verify that assertion on the Paris Metro.

Truer words have rarely been printed.

Almost without exception, I found Europeans to be friendly, helpful and honest; although, in the time of intermediate range ballistic missiles, some people were not favorably disposed towards Americans. The French were the lone exception to this rule.

Nonetheless, I loved Paris. Although I couldn't but help note the irony that such a beautiful city simultaneously holds -- by a long shot -- the world record for doggy dumps per square foot.

August 14, 2006 5:02 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

My grandfather, who was a cook in the AEF in France in 1917-18, had one war story: that the village they were billeted in had 7,000 people and one bathtub.

I didn't know about the poodles. See, Daily Duck is educational.

August 14, 2006 5:16 PM  
Blogger Susan's Husband said...

What's really turgid and meaningless is that I can't click directly from one post to another.

August 14, 2006 7:20 PM  
Blogger Brit said...

I can hereby officially verify that the dog turd per square foot record remains with the Parisians.

August 15, 2006 1:08 AM  

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