Europe 21 – Amazing Stories

The next time you, a fan of 1950s Science Fiction magazines, are in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, I recommend a visit to Le Cosmos, a café on Avenue Emile Zola, near the corner of Rue de Théâtre. They have a charming collection of framed covers of Galaxy and Nebula et al which, with an attitude I am coming to expect, they have just leaned up against the wall, because hanging is for neurotic foreigners, or something. They serve the best croissants I had in Paris, and you can, too, because they buy them from the boulangerie next door.

Some alternative accommodation for the remaining two nights sorted out, if not yet moved into, we tramp the Left Bank streets looking for Gustav Eiffel’s most famous construction. It, perhaps alone of things encountered on this, my first visit to Paris since 1984, has not got any smaller in the interim. Presumably there is a size above which the child mind simply files things as “enormous”, and as long as they remain enormous in the years between first encounter and adulthood, they do not shrink like childhood homes and primary school playgrounds. There may be a psychology PhD in that for someone.

Once inside the area under the pylons I have a look for Guy de Maupassant, who famously ate lunch there every day after it was built because it was the only place in Paris from which he couldn’t see the bloody thing. It would appear that he has got over his issues. A moderately long queue at the bottom for the stairs is more attractive than a horribly long one for the lifts, but still enough to test the patience of the kids in the hot sun. The climb is, at least, shady. I try to be smart and tell Seb to count the steps, hoping thus to keep him mildly engaged and to delay the inevitable demand for a shoulder ride. In fact, every tenth step is already numbered, and all I achieve thereby is to slow us down.

We reach the summit with only one major meltdown when I separate squabbling kids in the queue for the final elevator, unjustly singling out one as the wrongdoer when the true blame, as always, lies elsewhere. Eventually, we reach the top, where my discomfort with heights seems to be at a local maximum, which rather prevents me from enjoying the view. Raf amuses himself by wondering what would happen if the phone with which I am taking the pictures were to fall and hit someone below. I absorb myself by wondering how often that must actually happen, and why we never hear of the deaths that would surely result.

After the tower, it’s time to find our new hotel. The location seems good – the 2nd arrondissement. The room itself is four weary floors up (no elevator) and in a garret – the ceiling over my bed threatening to brain me if I sit up suddenly. But it’s clean, the bathroom is modern (and I can stand up in it) and we are beggars, so it’s home. The boys and I head to the Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle for dinner, and they are thrilled to find a brasserie that serves “nuggets avec des pommes frites”. Relaxing to the inevitable, I have a burger. My gourmet’s trip to Paris will have to wait for another time.

Europe 20 – Stéréotypes Interdits

I’ve moaned before that a couple of hours travelling takes up a whole day, but anyone who wants to cram more excitement into such a day would be advised to come to Paris, which offers that combination of insouciance and incompetence that is the envy of the rest of the world. Having Eurostarred from St Pancras to Gare du Nord, we metroed to République, then footslogged to 2, rue Sainte Elisabeth to pick up our key from our intended hosts at Short Stay Group Paris. Remember that name. The key obtained, we slogged and metroed and slogged some more – now about 8. 30pm and Seb visibly flagging under the weight of his bags – to the Eiffel Village Apartments at 17, rue Fondary. Which turned out to have one bed in its one room. I rang our hosts. The woman who answered excused herself and said she’d call back. Five minutes later she did, to advise that it was a clerical error, that they had nothing else to offer us, and that we should look for a hotel. Just managing to keep my temper, I told her that it was totally unacceptable simply to dump us on the streets of Paris at 8.45pm, that I expected them to find alternative accommodation and send a taxi to take us there at their expense. She said that she quite understood my position and would speak with her manager, call you in 5 minutes. Nothing. Twenty-five minutes later I rang again, to be told that the office was closed, and the man speaking to me was there only to deal with late arrivals. He could do nothing to help. I could actually hear him shrug.

Fortunately, Raf and I were able to get a room a few doors down at the Amiral Fondary, where the night concierge Camellia could not have been more helpful. Our room on the courtyard is simple, cheap and perfectly adequate to our needs. The cat’s name is Hermès. I am sorry that, unless there is a cancellation, we will be forced to move on tomorrow, and I recommend it to anyone wanting a place in the 15th arrondissement (just round the corner from the Eiffel Tower) for €80. In contrast, you would be well advised to shun the Short Stay Group like a case of herpes. Tomorrow, I suppose, I will have to spend a slice of one of only two days that we have in Paris ensuring that we get a refund and dealing with people I would be very happy to learn have all burned to death. Not to mention making alternative arrangements for the remaining two nights. But, as I believe they say around here, c’est la fucking vie.

Europe 19 – Shopping

Parking the kids with Steven & Louisa, Anna and I went shopping in London. We bought a t-shirt for me and some books for the girls.

Good to spend time just with Anna, who was, throughout, brilliant, witty, elegant, always knew exactly where everything was, familiar with the public transport system, impressive in her knowledge of art, patient with crowds and, of course, effortlessly beautiful.

We managed about half an hour in the National Gallery, obligatory pilgrimage for me to the shrine of Joseph Mallord William Turner, RA. Also saw some of Cannaletto’s views of Venice, resonant because of recent visit. In, out, and back to Bray for a burger and bed. I lay down to read a book, next thing I knew it was hours later. In the end, I must have gone close to 12 hours kip. Must have needed it.

Europe 18 – God Has Been Kind

Warwick Castle is impressively preserved and impressively active, for a week day during school term. An it savour, forsooth, of a certain tackynesse, well, what do you expect, for a week day, during term.

The Castle Dungeon show manages to scare Seb into something I’ve never seen in him before – an unwillingness to admit his fear. Affected, I think, by the “volunteering” of his mother to be disembowelled in shadow play by a plague doctor, he repeatedly demands to be allowed to leave, a tremor in his voice, on the grounds that it is boring. Until the torturer shows us into which proverbially unsunny orifice he would sometimes fit his spiky hook, at which terror is chased away by mirth.

After the castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, where we nod towards Shakespeare but spend almost all of our time at the Museum of Mechanical Art & Design, a small but terrific display of Heath Robinson devices and marble run whimsy. The kids settle in for a play.

And they need and deserve it, for the next step is the 90 minute drive back to Henley and my sole surviving grandparent, 101-year-old Audrey. I have phoned ahead several times in the days since we reached the UK – twice this morning alone – without getting hold of her. It is clear that she is spending much time sleeping. As she is when we arrive. When awoken, we try carefully and repeatedly to explain who we are, and it seems at last to sink in. She cannot believe it is possible, and says so, repeatedly, along with her conviction that she has led a fortunate life. By the time I leave after half an hour or so, she and I have been able to talk of my mother – her daughter – and the other members of my family, and I am satisfied that she grasps her relationship to me and to her two great-grandsons. She asks me to write it down, which I do. We admire her letter from the Queen. Anna and the boys leave us alone for ten minutes. At last, I say goodbye, and slip out to join them before making our way to Steven and Louisa’s, which after two emotional days away, feels quite a lot like a homecoming. Curry for dinner. All I need now are some slippers.

Europe 17 – The Past Is Another County

Thrifty had nothing. Enterprise Rent-A-Car had nothing. Starting to panic now. On the phone to Europcar, who cheerfully take my order for a small hatchback. Ten minutes walk to the outlet later – they don’t have any either … at least not in that class. For the car we do have, Sir, the hand-painted Mercedes with the platinum rims and the satnav voiced by the actual Duchess of Cambridge who is physically present in the car – that would be mumblety-mumble pounds for the two days. I say, Sir, what a remarkable colour – are you unwell? Roger, a chair for the gentleman, quickly.  Something you ate, perhaps. I was about to say that, as it is a change to a booking we can’t honour, I will be able to offer a discount on the upgrade fee, and perhaps Sir will not need to sell both of his kidneys.

For sure, it’s a nice car. I’d still rather be in my Subaru – sneer all you like. It gets us to Coventry, anyway, and I suppose one shouldn’t cavil at the cost of any car capable of transporting one back in time forty years. Up the M40 we go, pausing only to order a medium-sized coffee at a roadside pseudo-town, which is served in a bathtub, leaving me to wonder at the enormity – and here I use the word strictly in its traditional sense – that a large one must represent.

Steven has come with us, back to what is, after all, his native town as well as mine. The first thing we see, from an odd angle, is the sports centre, which he has spent an hour, and will spend another, trying to convince me is in the shape of an elephant. We end up googling images that might show it to best effect, but it turns out that all angles for viewing the building are odd. I remain unconvinced of its pachydermicity. 

Next, up the tower of the old cathedral. This year’s half-season of football has stood me in good stead and I’m not breathing too heavily as we summit. The views from the top allow us to see much of, well, a depressed Midlands city of no particular beauty or distinction. 

Down to the statue of Godiva and the famous, or at least somewhat memorable, clock, which hourly re-enacts her celebrated ride via the magic of clockwork. That is, it used to. Some locals of a recognisably English cast – a history of poor dietary choices and an innocence of remedial dentistry obvious – tell us it hasn’t been working now for eight months. 

Lunch, at least, is acceptable. I am quietly impressed with the home town boy nonchalance with which Steven, a discerning gourmand in daily life, orders the fish finger sandwiches. The shade of my father compels me to the beef and Stilton pie with mash and, crowning glory, mushy peas. 

And then Allesley. We’ve kept Sheila Staples waiting too long. But she’s there, and very welcoming, albeit tied to the phone, waiting for a call from her solicitors in connection with the sale of her house that never comes. But she has alerted Dick and Jean Skinner, current owner of 13 Allesley Croft, my childhood home, who are waiting for my knock. So we go, and knock, or rather press the button. Jean practically pulls me inside like a long lost child, and we get the full tour, no room barred to us, happy for me to snap away with my camera. Much changed, of course – the grass in the back garden gone, all the fixtures very modern, an inkling that the door to the living room has been moved sometime in the intervening decades, but the same house I mistily recall, the kitchen in which my father made tea every morning, the same stairs up to the same bedroom I last slept in 41 years earlier.

From there, Steven and I walk down to the entrance to the croft and round the back on my once familiar walk to school. The thought springs into my head that on this turf (open then, populated with blocks of flats now) there used to be daisies – the first flower whose name I positively associated with the variety. Five paces later, I bend and pick one, my head spinning. 

The school is next. From the proper, actual gate where I used to enter we’re forced to traipse around to what Yeoman insists on calling the front entrance, on the flimsy basis that that’s what it is. As if reality is sufficient support for any proposition, on this of all days. School’s out, but there are still a few people about. One teenage lad, just off the sports field or something, holds open a door for us, which he almost certainly shouldn’t do, and we nip in and try to find a responsible adult to turn ourselves in to. We run across Adele, one of the staff, who believes our story and with great generosity gives us a guided tour of the junior school where we both spent our first few years. To both of our utter astonishments, the assembly hall is practically unchanged, right down to the parquet floor. It’s only shrunk a bit. 

Also little altered are the junior rooms – Adele calls them Core Stage 1 or some similar modern jargon. The same rooms are still in use for kids the same ages as we were in 1974/5, and the doors lead out to the same asphalt yard edged with the same concrete flagstones. The sense of chronological dislocation was vertiginous. Memories didn’t flood back, but instantaneously and delicately came into being, one following another, like a movie of soap bubbles popping watched in reverse. Snatches of play in the second courtyard, dreams – perhaps experienced after emigration but still, certainly, before the age of eight – of searching for things in the assembly hall, the spelling test in which I was robbed of a mark by attempting humour rather than accuracy. Both Steven and I walk away from the school in a state of some emotion.

A short walk (from the so called “front gate”) takes us to Steven’s old house in Anglesey Close, but he feels no need to disturb the current owners – he has been inside far more recently than I in Allesley Croft. Down to the Birmingham Road – coincidentally passing Anna and the boys who have ducked out to find a drink and, no doubt, relief from all of the nostalging. Reconfirming our deal to meet up back at Sheila’s place, we Allesley Old Boys peep into the building that once housed our play school, now half a dance school and half either an abandoned shell or, if the sign on the front is still current, the grimmest youth activity centre I’ve ever seen. Which is, of course, saying something.

After a final cup of tea with Shiela, we’re off towards our rest for the night in Wellesbourne, near Stratford. Anna is driving, as she has done the whole time, but this time it is necessary as for most of the drive I cannot see for tears.

Europe 16 – Sex and Death

Early, with Louisa this time, to Paddington, leaving the rest of the Harvey Fryer clade still snoring. A 9am meeting with Acb, our first face-to-face for several years. As I mentioned to L on the train, every time I see him I look in vain for the first signs of ageing. This time, perhaps, for the very first time, I can see just one or two lines, a hint of grey. Which leaves only me now, of all the world, still looking exactly the same as I’ve always done. Well, I knew this day must come.

We are off somewhere – a special Somewhere, Acb’s pick and a secret, my only clue being that there is a minimal dress code (shoulders covered, no knobbly knees). A mosque, I guess, and am nearly right. The tube is overstretched, so we find a bus, and in the left front seat of the upper deck we catch up – his sister’s death, some health issues for us both, lovers come and gone. Plenty of smiles, some moments of reflection. And then, there it is, in the uncharted wastes of Neasden, the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, the largest Hindu temple (for the time being) outside India. And it’s a delight – the ideal palate cleanser for a trip full of cathedrals, a hand-carved confection of fractalising marble. The locals are models of hospitality, thanking us for visiting, answering questions patiently and at length, as gracious as any Good King from a story. We do our honest best to be the guests they deserve, and only once sense that we have forgotten ourselves sufficiently to talk loudly enough to distract one of the worshippers. At the end, with honest regret, I plead that family commitments prevent us from staying for the prayer service which we are invited to join.

Those commitments are waiting for us back at Paddington Station, two excited boys and Anna, who is off to see her ex, Mehmet. I am relieved to see that her nerves at that forthcoming meeting, in evidence over the last 24 hours, seem to have abated. Wishing her a fulfilling day, Acb and I steer the boys in the direction of the Science Museum, where Uncle Acb quickly turns into the sort of uncle that nephews adore. All three get told, more than once, that if they don’t behave, none of them will be getting any ice cream.

The museum has something for us all – some ancient computers, several of which I have used, a reconstruction of Crick and Watson’s 1953 model of DNA, rebuilt in the 1970s using several of the metal elements that appear in the famous photograph, Stevenson’s Rocket, the Command Module from the Apollo 10 mission. We watch a short 3D movie about the Apollo 15 mission, in a cinema fitted with chairs that jolt us about in synchrony with the events depicted. Seb, in particular, is delighted.

Goodbye to Acb and back to Bray to leave the kids with the babysitter, Steven and I then back into London on the train. Our (fairly minimal) efforts at presentability are undone by a carriage like an oven, the air conditioning completely overwhelmed by the numbers and the conditions. We squelch into the Southbank precinct to find our womenfolk at a riverside Mexican joint. A text from Anna on the train tells me, mystifyingly, that “Member still with [her]”, which utterly defeats me, so I am unprepared when I arrive at dinner to find her ex-husband sitting at the table. Unprepared but, I discover, unsurprised and certainly unshocked. We don’t have time enough to make proper acquaintance, but the meeting is a happy one for me and, I trust, for Mehmet. I hope we will manage another hour at least before we leave the country on Sunday.

After dinner, next door to the National Theatre, and Yaël Farber’s reimagining of the tale of Salomé. The production is astonishing, visually a dynamic Renaissance painting, the mood intense, the almost ceaseless singing heroic and beautiful and a core element of the work. Together, those elements make a stunning impression. If some of the actual words sounded more like the study notes on the text rather the script one might have hoped for, while others flirted with pretension, one could overlook such flaws in the overall emotional experience. A memorable night.

Europe 15 – British Museums

From Steven & Louisa’s (playing at being the father of a girl at last, picking out a dress), the train to Paddington, Steven along for the morning. An irritatingly long time spent getting working phones, but the second batch of SIMs proved not to be dodgy. Thereafter by double decker bus to the British Museum, where I was dismayed to see a queue stretched along the street. However, a chat with one of the uniformed chaps through the gate revealed that the delay was due to a fire alarm going off and the application of the precautionary principle. We went for a croissant while they sorted it out. When we came back, we were straight in.

And as entranced as I had hoped. The collection is remarkable. At Seb’s call we went first to the Egyptian mummies, although the exhibit that will stick in my head was that of a naturally preserved corpse, 5,500 years old, still showing hanks of hair and the stab wound that killed him. Some Assyrian friezes, of King Ashurnasipal and his attendants, both human and other-worldly. A tremendous depiction of a siege – of a known place at a battle nearly 3,000 years ago, the massed ranks of archers terrifying in their firepower. And the Greek marbles – the capturing of motion, filmy fabric, a breeze stirring hair, in marble by some unknown, long dead genius – were truly moving.

The boys did well-ish – their interest certainly ran out long before the adults’, but they restrained themselves from making life unbearable on those grounds alone. A replenishing drink at a milkshake joint that served dog biscuits with peanut butter sauce (from a section of the menu headed “Woof”) and frozen custard, but not tea or coffee – Anna and I plainly the wrong age group and/or species to meet their target demographic. Some grumbles as we pressed on to Parliament Square, where the statues have moved themselves in the night. Some familiar figures – the almost Quasimodish Churchill, Smuts the strutting bantam. And some new ones including, most endearingly, Mohandas Gandhi. It was almost a Proud to Be British moment. What other country would enshrine in its Pantheon a foreigner who arguably did more than any person in history to diminish its global standing and power. Unless, of course, one takes the view that at least when he started that project, he was no foreigner, but a British subject, who merely delivered a corrective to arrogant power – our Martin Luther King. I wonder whether that thought would have amused him.

Europe 14 – Stereotypisierung Verboten

Another day travelling. Alilaguna water bus to Venice Marco Polo, surely the only international airport named after a t-shirt. Thence to Düsseldorf, my first time in Germany. Terrific to see the Alps, snow-capped even in late June (but for how much longer?) but the most exciting part was certainly seeing more than half a dozen other aircraft, sometimes two visible in the sky at once, leaving behind curiously dark contrails like black smoke smeared across the sky. When they flashed past in the opposite direction, for the first time ever a real sense of the speed of jet travel was brought home. 

We were 45 minutes late getting off the ground at Venice, and correspondingly late into Düsseldorf – 80 minutes between connecting flights cut down to about half an hour. After a toilet break, we made our way as quickly as we could to the departure gate, at times breaking into a jog. At passport control, the official, “polizei” on his shoulder, radiated a lack of impressedness and raised his eyebrows not at our suspicious foreign documents but our boarding passes, which confessed our lateness. At the gate itself one of the ground staff noted, with the same lack of expression with which an aristocrat might advise that one does not spit on the carpet, that we were “a little bit late, sir,” addressing me, despite Anna being at the front with all of the documentation at the ready. I veered towards my tutor, but she indicated the other desk – her role was not to check our papers, merely to point out that we had infringed the rules. 

To Heathrow, and a terrific chat with the taxi driver Steven had arranged – an expatriate Algerian, who made us play guessing games over the origin of her accent, half Maghreb, half home counties – a game we’d never win. It’s Ramadan still, of course, but as a diabetic she no longer fasts. Her daughter, just 14, has been doing it for three years and loves it – a chance to lose some weight. At the girl’s single sex school in Maidenhead, her classmates are careful not to eat in front of their friend.

Finally, to Steven and Louisa’s, where we renewed our acquaintance with Stella and started one with Agnes, who was only a bump when we last saw our friends. Made to feel very welcome, an easy and chatty first night in England. We’ll sleep well tonight.

Europe 13 – Yellow Peril

Our hotelier – a very handsome and fashionably dressed young man – looked at my passport and asked me, “You are of Israeli extraction?” He had just finished explaining that he despised “southern Europe – Spain, Portugal, southern Italy”, a degenerate bunch with the self-destructive habit of consuming coffee and croissants every morning. He loved northern Europe. “Some people say, the Germans,” and here he made an untranscribable noise suggestive of dismissal, “but I like.” He was a mongrel, he told us, part Sicilian but with a grandmother from Tyrol. “When I visit the north, it is like falling in love.” Innsbruck is 200km away. 

He explained that the Chinese now owned a hundred of the best hotels in Venice, and they work like machines, not like the lazy Italians who, after an hour, and here he mimed texting on a phone. I half expected him to call his compatriots Eye-ties. Whatever you called them, apparently they stood no chance against a billion robotic hotel snafflers. 

I was confused by the attribution of Jewishness. Confident that I was far too sloppily dressed to be mistaken for ultra-orthodox, I have never looked in the mirror and detected any hint of Semitism either in tone or physiognomy. But the matter was cleared up with his next query. The Lewis in my name is that of a Scottish island, I explained, unconnected (to my knowledge) with the proud clan of Levi.

Yes, we came from Australia. “It is seen as a paradise, here,” he told us, “the only European country over there.” I quickly told him that the country was being overrun by the Chinese and would cease to be a white country within twenty years, which should kill any thought he had of emigration to avoid the Asiatic hordes threatening his homeland.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about this visit is seeing how Europe looks, demographically. I’ve been surprised by the number of east Asian faces, all speaking fluent Italian (as far as I can tell). I’ve no idea how many Chinese are running hotels, but plenty of them are serving coffee. All of the fruiterers on the Rio Terà San Leonardo looked to me to be from somewhere east of the Middle East, but whether it was Pashto or Bengali they were speaking among themselves I had no idea. They certainly spoke Italian, too, and English well enough to tell me not to handle their wares as brusquely as any proud descendant of Guelph or Ghibelline.

In short, if the unassimilable Others I was warned of in Dubai are indeed here in Italy in numbers, they must be so ghettoed as to be invisible to the casual visitor. 

As for today, we took a gondola ride, because Venice, and strolled the shops, buying nothing. A low key day. I think we’re ready for a holiday. 

Europe 12 – In the Blink of an Eye

This morning I lay and watched my older son struggle to find a comfortable position in dreamworld and was struck, as never before, what an arrogant act his creation had been. With what unconcern I had been complicit in the creation of an entire universe. For what sum of experience I must take my share of responsibility. His sorrows. His end. He is twelve. His life enriches mine beyond anything looked for, but also burdens it with a guilt of which I will never be entirely free. And then, something in his dream filled him with delight, and it was so pellucidly reflected on his face that the room brightened like a firework.

I should not have spent today today thinking solely of my first born, for it is my second son who was unwell. After yesterday’s illness he held up well, but the close atmosphere and rocking of the river bus took their toll. Principally for that reason, our trip out today started late and ended early – a visit to the Piazza San Marco, a brief wave to the winged lion, and home again, where I think I was not the only one to get a little more sleep.

In the evening, though, it was Raf and I who set out again to find dinner. Once again, we took the river bus to San Marco. The man sitting next to us had the Corriere della Sera on his lap. The front page was dominated by news of the death of Helmut Kohl, and the image was of him and Mitterand at Verdun. I explained to Raf about Kohl’s role in the reunification of Germany, and the previous division of the continent. He asked questions about Communism and I filled his head with propaganda, because all such discussion is propaganda. All one can do is explicitly label it as such. We talked about European unity, and the astonishing time during my university days when it seemed that every night’s news broadcast was of a new world being made.

He and I had dinner in a restaurant in one of the absurdly narrow lanes in the San Marco district. We laughed and were easy with each other. He told me he loved me. I told him, “I love you, too, more than I can say. More than I show, at times.” Afterwards, at my suggestion, we walked in the approximate direction of the Ponte de Rialto (de, I learn, not di, because this is Venice) so that we could cross it. Having done so, we realised that the only sensible way home was to cross it straight back again and either catch the bus or walk. I pounced eagerly on Raf’s suggestion of the latter, and we made our way home, through the grey but lively streets, under the greying but still bright sky.