Cruise Journal, Part II


Yesterday, I posted some scribbles on National Review’s latest cruise — down the Seine (up the Seine?), from Paris into Normandy, and back again. To see that installment, go here. And we’ll wrap up today.

Where were we? In any case, our first panel, aboard the ship, is with Paul Johnson and David Pryce-Jones. Do two people constitute a panel? I guess not — in any case, we had a nice talk. We talked about matters artistic and architectural: Versailles, Chartres, the Eiffel Tower. We talked about the royal wedding (Wills ’n’ Kate). We talked about Syria, America, and sundry other matters.

Were P.J. and P-J brilliant and inspiring? Can you make a shoe smell? (Line from Caddyshack.) In a cruise journal last year, I tried to recapitulate some of the conversations, as I recall. This year, I’ll just say — come on one of these trips, if you can. I don’t think you’ll be sorry.

I’m reminded of a story. Fairly late in their lives, Birgit Nilsson and Eileen Farrell did a joint interview together. (Pardon me if that’s redundant — not sure.) These were two fabled sopranos. The interviewer asked Farrell, “Did you ever hear Birgit’s Isolde?” Farrell said, “No, I didn’t.” Nilsson interjected, “You really missed something.”

But the nice thing about writers, such as Johnson and Pryce-Jones: You find them in their books and articles, not simply in the flesh.

Speaking of books and whatnot, at dinner one night I meet a man who had a spinal injury when he was a boy. He was confined to bed for a long period. It was not a bookish house — at all. But he acquired books, to read during his confinement. And that set him on a course more intellectual than one he would have had . . .

Tell you how I learned about the bin Laden hit: I woke up, turned on my BlackBerry. At the top, there was an e-mail from a friend. The Subject line read, “got the bastard.” The body of the e-mail said, “It’s gonna be one lively breakfast on your cruise ship, I would think!” Did not have a clue.

A little farther down, there was another e-mail, from a different friend — mentioning bin Laden.

So, that’s how I knew (not that you asked).

On a peaceful afternoon, floating down the Seine, I hear a church bell in the distance. I check my BlackBerry, thinking a text has come in. (My signal, or whatever the word is, sounds rather like a bell.) Is that a bad sign — that one is too BlackBerry-oriented?

I suppose there are better ways to pass an afternoon than to float down the Seine, talking with Priscilla Buckley and Paul Johnson. But I can’t imagine there are many . . .

I meet a young woman, from the eastern side of Germany. She was born shortly before reunification. I think how lucky such people are: to have avoided a life under Communism. Good timing.

In Rouen, I encounter the Allée Marcel Dupré. Dupré was a very fine organist-composer — one in that French tradition. An alley may not be much. But it’s better than nothing . . .

On a bridge in Rouen, there is a statue, or bust, of Amerigo Vespucci. Not sure what he’s doing there. Nice to see him, though. On the side of the monument are written the words “gave his name to America.”

Someone once said to me about the Norwegians, “They drink like it’s their job.” I think of that formulation, in Rouen: They smoke like it’s their job.

The train station in this town has a very good clock tower — and the clock is keeping perfect time. I think, “That’s particularly useful, at a train station.”

I will relate to you a conversation that takes place between two men, associated with this voyage. Both are fairly expressive, occasionally theatrical:

“Did you see So-and-so?”

“Yeah, she’s kinda cute.”

“‘Kinda cute’? She’s one of the three or four most beautiful women who ever lived. Kinda cute? Punky Brewster was cute. Kittens with yarn are cute. This woman could cause planets to realign. Come on!

We take a little bus excursion to Honfleur, that paintable town. (I’m talking about art, not carousing — as in “to paint the town red.”) Our guide, a charming Frenchwoman of a certain age, remarks that an important bridge is “of pure French technology.” I have to smile at that — and recall that “chauvinism” is a French word.

Last year, in Portugal, a guide spoke of an historical figure: a man known as “Big Vasco.” For a while, that was the nickname of Jack Fowler, NR’s publisher. This year, we hear an even better moniker, belonging to a major duke of the region: William Longsword.