NR Digital

Athwart

Postcards from the Continent

by James Lileks

Five days, five ports, five bus tours: The vacation is over, and I am fully qualified to make broad, shallow generalizations about Europe. May I have the first slide? 

The euro is a dull currency. No actual humans or buildings, just imaginary structures that say “Europe! Delightful old solid, culturally vibrant Europe.” But you feel a bit odd giving someone a bill adorned with nothing more than architectural allegory. At least they could have a picture of 42 Brussels Eurocrats signing the Swiss Cheese Hole-Standardization Mandate, or something else that speaks to the money’s deep, rich history. It does have a nice, shiny strip to remind you of all the valuable metals that don’t back it up, though. 

The Decline of the French Official. We took a train from a seaside city into Monaco, which required standing in line at a small, shabby station along the tracks. Based on longstanding cultural assumptions, I expected a suspicious look from a supercilious man with a pointy pencil mustache. He would ask me for my papers. He would stamp my passport with a brisk, brusque gesture of rote contempt. He might even wear a small cape that went down to his elbows, but he could totally carry it off.

Behind the counter slumped a slovenly guy who looked like a 40-year-old grad student. No uniform. The only person in semi-official garb was a young woman, her shirt untucked, her hat askew. She had accessorized her blouse with a scarf and her mouth with metal rings. She looked like she was playing dress-up. Her demeanor went with the graffiti-smothered station platform and the train: Every surface was marked with the atavistic intercontinental scribble of the Aimless Male. Contempt for others, contempt for the train, contempt for the society that blasted a hole in the mountain so they could slump in their seats, one leg jackhammering in time to the beat the iPod pumped into their skulls. My daughter, who is 11, had actually expected Frenchmen in striped shirts and berets clutching baguettes. Silly girl. I had expected clean trains. Silly man.

Monaco was ruthlessly clean. Not a speck of graffiti. We hoped to catch sight of the princess of Monaco battering on the inside of a palace window with her fists while silently mouthing a plea for rescue, but no. The visit to the church where she took her vows to love, honor, and never flee the country for her native land and give a tell-all interview was a dark, solemn space with a dozen rulers buried under the slabs in the floor. It invited silence and contemplation and a sense of awe in the face of centuries of tradition, and we can’t very well have that, can we? Boring. So the church was spattered with dreary modern art, the equivalent of adding nipple piercings to Michelangelo’s David, as if to reassure everyone: Okay, this place may look all Gloomy-Godly and such, but here’s a series of mirrored glass panes stuck together at random angles to remind you Europe is past that sort of thing. You can see yourself in the reflection! 

The churches of Europe all feel as if you’ve entered on the last day of a going-out-of-business sale. Not St. Peter’s — its overwhelming power and titanic scale inspire without diminishing the supplicant. Some might see the twisting columns of Bernini’s altar as an expression of man’s devotion reaching up; you can also read it as the celestial will pouring in from the dome above and digging its fingers into the stony heart of the world. There’s decorum, or at least as good as you’ll get these days: In the queue outside, the inspectors turn away visitors who are showing too much leg. The expression on two underdressed young ladies was precious; they couldn’t understand why they couldn’t go in. A dress code? Here? It’s not like it’s a nightclub or anything.

Same in Florence, at the Basilica di Santa Croce: An attendant ushered out the women who exceeded the limit of visible gams. But in Mallorca’s astonishing cathedral, the tour guide said the saddest words I heard the entire trip: We can go into the church, because it is a museum. She spoke of the place with pride, but when it came to describing the most recent addition, she dripped enough acid I expected her spittle to make the marble floor hiss and sizzle. The artist, she said, was very famous, but was atheist. Was anti-Catholic, anti-clergy. As you will see, he painted the windows black. In the center he puts image of Jesus Christ, who is short and squat. Is self-portrait. She paused. Four million Euros for this. I looked up the work when I got back home. It’s highly regarded. Goes without saying that it’s the ugliest thing in the church. And they had 800 years to work on that.

Lovely place, Europe; a fine life can be had on the Mediterranean. The picturesque towns, the narrow streets, perfect pastries, exquisite coffee, sensuous breezes — who wouldn’t want to live there? Dusk comes; the sun slides down behind the hills like a parent who goes to bed while the kids are still up. The lights come on one at a time as they always have, and the soft glow makes everyone look lovely and lucky. You lean across the table and discuss the art you saw and the food you’ll have. It’s the world’s greatest theme park. 

We took a Disney cruise, by the way. There are pictures of Walt all over the ship. Criticize that company all you like, but at least they believe in a higher power.

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