Magazine article The Spectator

Doing the Continental

Magazine article The Spectator

Doing the Continental

Article excerpt

YEARS ago I was amused to see an entry in the visitors' book at Antwerp Cathedral, one of my favourite buildings in the world, saying that a visit there `made one proud to be Belgian'. I smiled then because the cathedral had been built several centuries before anybody had thought of Belgium, and I remembered the entry with pleasure when I was there the other day, because now I really can say, hand on heart, that a visit to the celestial Cathedral of Our Lady at Antwerp makes me proud to be European.

We've got as far as that, anyway - or I have at least, as a Welsh patriot longing for a wider loyalty too. I cannot honestly claim to feel much pride in today's United Kingdom, a mean and sorry kingdom, but I am grandly excited by the idea of a confederal Europe, gradually and tentatively defining itself, and at last giving even an offshore visitor a genuine sense of membership. So it was that when my beloved and I bludgeoned our passage out of Antwerp, away from the great cathedral, all among the thundering trucks to the motorway that would take us over the Alps to the gates of the Balkans, I was feeling proprietorial all the time.

There is is no denying that some parts of Europe are more assertively European than others, and for me crossing any border into France is still like entering the Big Time, the Real Thing. God knows the French have had their moments of ignominy even in my lifetime, but from every reverse they seem to spring back in crested-cock-like confidence.

I AM the very opposite of a gourmet, and sometimes I get sick to death of that tiresome icon, the French cuisine - if not all those sauces, then all that minimalist posing or flourishing of plate-covers. I pine then for eggs and bacon, or even a decent hamburger. Very soon, though, invariably, I find myself eating in a simple restaurant so organically sophisticated, as it were, so unpretentiously skilled and diligent, in fact so satisfying an art form in itself, that there, over my victuals in the least sentimental country in Europe, I find myself thanking the Almighty for the very existence of Frenchness.

Even glory, that old abstraction of pride so discredited by English royalty and horrible American generals, even national splendour can still be splendid in France. We stopped off in Nancy the other day, and found that the entire city-centre seemed to have been recently reburnished with an almost violent disregard for taste or propriety - dazzling with new gold, shiny with paint, crests and armorial bearings all over the place, and with preposterously grand vistas along avenues to extravagantly refurbished palaces. It was marvellous, and it was terrifically French. `It looks terrifically French,' I observed to a citizen who was helping me through the intricacies of a parking meter. `Oh yes, we still know how to do things in France,' she replied, banging the machine hard with her fist to make a ticket come out.

France is always France, complacently, ironically and sometimes touchingly itself. `I'm a Rastafarian,' a hotel porter told me as he led us upstairs one evening. `What's happened to your dreadlocks, then?' He paused and turned to face me. `Here in France,' he said, `they don't like to see porters with strange hair, but it doesn't matter to me because I grow it in my heart.'

WHAT about Switzerland? The English habitually deride it, scoffing at its cuckooclock legends, sneering at its pacific history, pretending to be shocked by its fiscal cunning, hypocritically disapproving of its reluctance to admit foreign immigrants. Not me. If France seems to me the grandest of European countries, Switzerland is the most genuinely stylish. That it is stylish in a restrained bourgeois way makes it all the more impressive in an age of vulgar extremism.

Whenever I am driving through Switzerland I try to stay at the same hotel, on the northern shore of Lake Lucerne. It is allegorically Swiss, and no experience of modem travel could be more reassuring. …

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