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.
Les Andelys is a lovely little place, or two places, as the name suggests. It is the home of Nicolas Poussin. In fact, there’s a Poussin Museum. There’s also a statue in a park — which says something nice, almost touching: “Poussin, enfant des Andelys” (i.e., “child of Les Andelys”).
Later, on the ship, I mention Poussin. David P-J says, “You know who was an expert on him, don’t you?” I say no. He says, “Anthony Blunt” — i.e., the art historian and “fourth man” (Soviet spy). Bastard.
Another of our special guests is Bing West, the military man, military analyst, and military writer. He’s simply one of the manliest men you’ll ever be around. It’s one thing to be manly; some practically abuse it. Introducing him to the audience, I remark that I heard Bing inviting someone to go spear-fishing with him. I say, “Figures. Bing can’t catch fish in a normal way. He has to spear them. Can you imagine him just throwing a line in, with a worm and a bobber? I’m surprised he doesn’t dive beneath the surface and strangle the fish to death with his bare hands.”
Busloads of us go to Rueil-Malmaison, on a sunny Saturday. Why? To tour Josephine’s chateau — Josephine as in Napoleon. The town itself is almost a parody of Frenchness: a quaint-but-alive place, offering cheese shops, butchers, patisseries, and all the rest. Given that it’s Saturday, the farmers of the area sell the fruits of their labor. Children play on a carousel. City Hall is decked out in flags. It’s as though Walt Disney had sent down word to his illustrators: “Give me a typical French scene.”
A policeman, whom I approach for directions, salutes me. The policeman is black, incidentally: something I don’t recall seeing in France, when I first visited, years ago.
One of the shops is called Etincelles — Sparks. That is the title of a spiffy little piece by Moszkowski. Did you ever hear Horowitz play it?
I see a sign for Suresnes — site of a cemetery where Woodrow Wilson gave an important speech, a kind of eulogy, after the war. It’s one of his greatest orations or statements. Some who were present said it was a second Gettysburg address. When I was in high school, I translated it into French, just as an exercise. I even remember a little.
Do you know that Wilson was the first president — sitting president — to travel to Europe?
The pains au chocolat look just like the pains au chocolat at home. They look just like the ones in the bakeries of New York, and in our supermarkets, too. But they don’t taste like the ones at home. Why?
Carol Buckley has a one-word answer: Butter. And good butter, at that.
Years ago, I heard one chef — the master of a New York restaurant — criticizing another chef. “He’s a butter cook,” he said. I thought (though did not say), “Sounds all right to me . . .”
On the upper deck of our ship, a passenger sits wearing a beret. He is a Texan, and one of our readers. Furthermore, he is tall, thin, mustachioed, and distinguished. I say, “You look perfectly natural, sailing along in this country, in that beret.” He points out what has escaped my notice: an American-flag pin, affixed to the headgear in question. “I don’t want to look too natural.”
Back in Paris, a headline blares out from a newsstand. “AMERICA IS BACK,” it says (and in English, too). There is a big picture of Barack Obama, looking determined. Interesting.
As you would expect on a Sunday morning, the streets are jammed with Parisians, going to church. Lame attempt at a joke. Sorry. In fact, the streets are empty, except for the bums, of whom there are quite a few — Hogarthian figures. Or should I say Rabelaisian?
I have mentioned the Marcel Dupré Alley in Rouen. There is an Allée Maria Callas in Paris — the sign says “artiste lyrique.” It’s not a boulevard, no, but an alley in Paris is pretty good for a Greek girl named Mary from New York.
Beethoven has, not an alley, but a street: Rue Beethoven. And I think, “One would never rue Beethoven” — which is possibly a lamer joke than the above, on which I will end. Thanks for joining me, friends, and I’ll write you soon from Oslo: a graver journal, centered on human rights.