Two weeks, almost, in Europe. Flying around is the only way to do it, but from Oz, it is a long, long flight. Once again, I am struck by how remote we really are in Australia. Not just in distance, either. I stood in front of Notre Dame Cathedral and there was a sign which I translated as “800th Anniversary – coming soon.” Living in a city where the oldest building I recall is from 1850, that 800 years is almost inconceivable.
Later, in Rome, I stood on the Capitoline, walked to the Colosseum, passing so many monuments on the way, strode over the Circus Maximus, and realized how historically remote we are too. And this does not take into account China, India, Japan, or South-East Asia, much closer geographically, but even more remote historically.
So much history has been made that we are really disassociated from here. While in the Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay, on top of the Vittorio, out front of the Colosseum, there were groups of local school children seeing their history right in front of them. Not just one group, but several groups at each location. There were junior primary, primary, high school students, walking, talking, strolling, sitting, listening in front of buildings, paintings, monuments.
In the Louvre, one group of primary students was sitting in front of a large portrait of Louis XIV while their teacher was talking. They began asking questions, the teacher was responding. What a classroom, inside the Louvre – I don’t think it would get much better than that. (Not speaking French I had no understanding of what they were saying.)
On the restaurant deck of the Vittorio, the Victor-Emmanuel Monument on the Capitoline, two groups of high schoolers, different year levels, were looking at the archeological discoveries surrounding them. I understood then how bereft of depth we are in our perception of history, of our roots.
In the Louvre, I overheard one young heavily accented voice ask her parents, “What’s so good about a bunch of old paintings?” At the Sant-Angelo castle, on the bank of the Tiber, another woman with the same accent pointed to a group of guys dressed in Roman legionary outfits call loudly, “Oh look – gladiators!” My wife was startled, she grabbed my hand and said quietly, “Say nothing!” but I had bitten my tongue so hard it bled, (sore for days too). The first I could forgive, the callowness of a child being dragged around a museum by her distracted parents, but the second, no. A grown woman who understands so little history and is seemingly indifferent to the larger world is a sorry sight when immersed in a culture she cannot possibly grasp.
I shudder at the memory, but realise that we are three times further away from Europe as those two Americans. I suspect we are better connected to it than our American cousins are though.(I know, a generalization that I will probably be crucified for, but this lack of understanding, and tolerance btw, displayed by American tourists was repeated everywhere we went. Not all American tourists, but enough.)
[An aside: Stephen Fry was hosting an episode of QI, an irreverent, funny, often outrageous comedy TV offering from Britain, with Clive Robertson as a guest. Fry asked the question, “Who are the most hated people in Europe?” Without any hesitation Robertson responded, to the extreme mirth of the audience, “American tourists!” After this exhibition above, is there any wonder why? The actual answer Fry was looking for was the Goths, as they took and wrecked everywhere they went, but left nothing but grief behind… mmm still sounds like Americans, doesn’t it!]
There are a number of other things that stick in my mind, strong impressions, and not all of them good.
The number of people of all ages smoking. Paris has street sweepers, employed by the city, and a water truck goes around every morning to wash sidewalks and pavements free of discarded butts. What is that amount of nicotine doing to French waterways.
The beggars in the streets. Not many in Paris, more-so in Rome. To me, this is a sign of the failure of governments to act appropriately. I do not mean welfare will fix all such issues, that creates its own problems, but I mean the failure of employment policies because of the mindless pursuit of economic purity. I doubt begging will ever be completely eradicated, but better political and economic management will certainly reduce it.
Lots of buskers in both places, the Paris Metro being an ideal location for some very good musicians. This old, old guy in Rome had a speaker and a mike, playing 1950’s rock’n’roll while he was providing backup vocals, funny, but he was doing alright in his doo-waps. Harp player on the steps of Sacre Coeur, an electric guitarist in San Michel, a couple of acoustic guitars in Paris and Rome, but didn’t see anyone with a Chapman stick. There was a Gypsy Kings type trio in Paris, but no equivalent in Rome. There was a lot of street performers in Rome, living statues, sidewalk artists and the like, all over the place, but I saw few in Paris.
One Canadian couple we met in Rome told us that Paris is a manicured garden, but Rome a tangled jungle. Not quite a fair comparison, and I’m not sure it is accurate. I found it easier to find my way around Rome than Paris. Paris was easy to get places, the Metro is a dream, but once there, easy to lose your way. Rome was hard to get places, but easy to get around once there. To be fair to Paris, coming from the southern hemisphere into the northern hemisphere, messed my sense of direction up. I was a lot better by the time I got to Rome.
Coffee means different things in each country. Refer to the Frenchman’s comment about American coffee in the film “Godzilla” and you have an idea of the excellent standard of coffee in Europe. Try a cappuccino wherever you go, some are more like flat whites, some have a little froth, some have lots, most have chocolate dusting. One had a very small amount of coffee strong enough to keep me caffeine high for a few days I thought, completely covered by a mountain of whipped cream and chocolate topping. Tasty, but not if you’re lactose intolerant. Tea is readily available in Paris, but not so in Rome.
Food in both places was brilliant. Much greater variety in Paris, but every bit as succulent in Rome. Italians do not do good breakfasts, for some reason, their breakfast menus were limited, where ever we went. Paris, well, standing near the Fountain San Michel, there would likely be enough restaurants to eat at a different one for each meal for a month. They are all within a few minutes walk in any direction. Rome restaurants are usually small, but comfortable, and with the fact they are all small buildings, it is easy to see why al fresco dining became popular. Both the French and Italians love their food. Oh, it was a great relief to learn that calories don’t count on holidays. I got cards from all the places we went to eat except two, and another blog is going to talk about them – but later, enough for now.