Passages: Fifty Years of Europe

An excerpt from Jan Morris' 'Fifty Years of Europe'

Published December 11, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

For the past 50 years, Welsh writer Jan Morris has been dauntlessly exploring the world and eloquently describing her explorations, initially for British newspapers, later for Rolling Stone magazine and then for magazines and newspapers around the world. During those decades, she has also produced some 30 books, many of which are considered travel classics, including "Pax Britannica," "The World of Venice," "The Matter of Wales," Spain," "Oxford," "Sydney" and "Hong Kong."

Her new book, "Fifty Years of Europe: An Album," is in many ways the culmination of her career as a traveler and a writer. Brilliantly organized as a series of vignettes grouped around five themes -- religion, ethnic identity, nation-building, commonalities and attempts at union -- "Fifty Years" brings together all the qualities that distinguish Morris' best travel writing: an eye for the telling detail and anecdote; an immense knowledge of history, politics, literature and art; a sensitivity to the common and everyday; an extraordinarily vivid and musical prose; and finally an unfailing cheerfulness, humility and sense of humor.

To my mind, Morris is the greatest travel writer alive today -- "travel writer" in the grandest sense of one who captures a place in all its fullness and profundity. And "Fifty Years" embodies and illuminates the wide-ranging riches of this art. In its innovative organization, the book is a departure; in its range and depth of subject, it is a synthesis. In total -- as the excerpts we offer here can only barely suggest -- it is Morris' chef d-oeuvre.

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In the country
The French countryside of my youth often looked (at least in my memory now) like a slow ballet of horsedrawn plows -- plows wherever you looked, some going one way, some another, serenaded by soaring songbirds and watched by rich fat cattle. France seemed to me then permanently old-fashioned. It was still peasant country, I used to think. The Alpine village I settled in for a while in the 1950s was several generations behind the times. In the autumn it used to be visited by an itinerant steam distillery, and with much chuffing and hissing its apple crop was turned into a powerful kind of schnapps, to be tasted in back kitchens beside steaming cauldrons of soup more or less permanently simmering on the stove. I collected our mail each day from the village bar, for there in midmorning I knew I would find the postman enjoying his cognac.

I doubt if a single Percheron draws a single plow in France now. Most of the birds seem to be of the invisibly chirpy persuasion, twitching about in copses, and the cattle are mostly anaemic Charollais, which look as though they have been drained of their blood for the making of black puddings. Even in our village of Savoie the ski culture has fallen upon the old ways, the high cow chalets have been turned into holiday homes, and I doubt if the postman has time for his midmorning brandy. For me the lost innocence of Europe, itself no more than the product of a romantic imagination in its youth, will remain always a memory of long ago in France.

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An Invitation
Allow me to invite you to Sunday lunch at a French country restaurant of the old kind, circa 1955. Neither fast food nor gastronomic pretension has yet corrupted the establishment, which is in one of those ancient towns of central France where the streets wind upward from the railway track, through scowling walls of medievalism, until they debouch in the square outside the cathedral door, surveyed by huge stone animals from the cathedral tower and prowled around on Sunday mornings by cats and desultory tourists. The restaurant displays its menu in a large flowery script in a brass frame, and in most respects remains more or less as it has been for several centuries. Madame the proprietress looks an epitome of everything false and narrow-minded. One waiter seems to be some sort of duke, the other is evidently the village idiot. At the table next to ours sits a prosperous local family out for its Sunday dinner, well-known to the proprietress and esteemed throughout the community -- solemn, voluminously napkined, serious and consistent eaters who eye us out of the corners of their piggy eyes as they chew their veal. The veal is, as a matter of fact, rather stringy. I do not doubt the bill will be erroneous. I am sure Madame despises us as much as we distrust her. But what a contrary delight it all is, is it not? How nourishing still the vegetables, fresh from Madame's garden! How excellent the wine, from the vineyard down the hill! How stately that duke! How endearing the idiot! How mollifying the farewells of the family at the next table, when with bows and cautious smiles they fold their napkins and leave us! How persuasive, after all, even the steely charm of Madame herself! With real gratitude we wrap the old-fashioned Frenchness of that luncheon around us like a cloak, and return cherished to the world of the 1990s. Ah, oy sont les dijeuners d'antan?

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All is not lost
But all is not lost! More successfully than most countries, France has achieved an equilibrium between the old and the new. As the twentieth century draws toward its close the French are indeed a very modern people. I first really felt in touch with cyberspace in the 1980s when, visiting a French country inn somewhere, I found the chef calling up his day's luncheon menu on a computer, from some central database of gastronomy. Today nothing seems to me quite so elegantly futuristic as the solar-powered telephones that gently revolve, like sunflowers, beside French autoroutes. No capital in Europe is more smoothly organized than Paris, and a true image of our fin de sihcle is the spectacle of the great Paris-Lyon-Marseilles Train ` Grand Vitesse sweeping down the Rhone valley at 180 mph.

Yet by most standards life in the French countryside still seems amiably and enviably close to the soil. The songbirds may have gone, but the swallows still whirl around on summer evenings. Widowers shout greetings to each other as they wobble home on their bicycles, long loaves protruding from their saddlebags. Gentlefolk stroll in the autumnal gardens of their villas. At the wood's edge the logs are still chopped and Virgilianly piled. Aromatic smoke lingers. The buzz of the vilomoteur merges comfortably -- well, fairly comfortably -- with the buzz of the bees. Picnic parties spread their cloths beside dragonfly pools as in painters' fancies long ago. More happily than anywhere else trees and rivers, cities and highways, seem to coexist by mutual arrangement, a harmonious balance between the natural and the invented.

For me one of the most comforting components of this arrangement is the continuing French attitude toward animals. French people seem to recognize what Montaigne, the patron saint of animal equality, called, "a certain obligation and mixed commerce" between man and beast. We may forcefeed you for your liver, they seem to say to their fellow creatures, boil you alive, snare you on migrations or bottle you in brine, but at least we will deal with you man, so to speak, to man. I raised the matter once at a cafi beside whose door a very fat and surly golden Labrador lay sluggishily where everyone would trip over it. It was a very old dog, said the proprietor, one did not care to disturb the animal: but when I mentioned Montaigne's notion of commerce and obligation he seemed to think it mere sophistry. "I owe the dog nothing, it owes me nothing, one day it will die and then -- pfft!" The dog did not budge an inch as, precariously balancing my coffee cup, I stepped across it to find a table on the patio outside: but remembering where I was, I restrained myself from giving it a good kick as I passed, to hasten the pfft.

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A fling of France
What I love to do is to drive on a bright sunny day, with the roof of the car open, at a scudding speed around the Piriphirique, the ring road that surrounds the city of Paris. The scudding speed is advisable, or awful French drivers will more or less run you off the road. The sunny day is essential, because it turns an expedition that could be dismal, exhausting or even alarming into an exhilarating fling of France. The road snakes around the capital, rather than circling it, and offers jerky flashes of Frenchness as in an avant-garde silent movie: now a drab industrial quarter, now a pictorial row of poplars -- a tedious white housing estate, barges chugging down a canal -- a grand boulevard for an instant, a cluster of medieval houses, the sudden swoosh of a tunnel, a couple of vast juggernauts deafeningly overtaking you -- and always present, brooding but radiant, just off-stage the most magnificent capital in Europe.

This is not only France encapsulated: to my mind it is 1990s France all over. For most of us by now, for most of the time, France is a sequence of flashes, a kaleidoscope repeatedly shaken as we hurry across its varied landscapes to the particular French spot that means most to us. When the milords traveled this way in their creaking high-wheeled carriages it must have been more of a continuum, and the slowly passing scenes had a classical clarity, shaped and ample despite the frightful bumps in the road. Now we are all surrealists, and as France hurtles through our windshields and away through our rearview mirrors its images are disjointed and contradictory. You want tragedy? It hangs to this day over the elegiac trench-landscapes of the north. You want hedonism? Napkined tables beckon to us through the windows of snug and steamy restaurants as we rush by, wine awaits the tasting in a thousand hospitable caves. Wildness? Bleak bare places are around us now: granite places, moorland, heroic monasteries, uninviting hotels on mountain passes. Romance? Here is the sweet creeping in of violets, ochers and tawny browns that speak of the Mediterranean. Marsh country of the Gypsies, pale estuaries of oystermen, windy grasslands where menhirs stand and Celtic names jump out at us from roadside signs in the rain -- all this, all this grand fling of France, comes into my mind as I drive around the Paris ring road: and now that France itself is so relentlessly, so furiously on the go, I sometimes feel that the grand old nation itself is pounding, head down, foot on the floor, radio blaring, around its own historical Piriphirique.

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How they looked

There used to be a specifically English look, too. I used to be able to recognize an Englishman anywhere in the world, not simply by his bearing or his manners, but actually by his face. Now I am never so confident. The English Gentleman, one of the most easily identifiable people on earth, is virtually extinct, and the rest of the nation has lost its distinctive appearances. This is partly biological. The English are no longer the homogenous Caucasian islanders who stood so complacently in island isolation, and hundreds of thousands of Asians, Africans and Latins have contributed their genes to the stock during my half-century. Turn on London television in the 1990s and you would get the impression that half the population were immigrants. Although this is partly the distortion of positive discrimination, still there are not many parts of England that do not have their immigrant residents, some of them as English as anyone in everything but look.

But the changed appearance is not merely ethnic. Even the purest English face is different now. It is more blurred, less Northern-looking. Diet has contributed, and wider education, and the changing manner of speaking, and central heating (considered sissy fifty years ago, and still a bit wimpish to me), but I think it is chiefly a matter of history. Fifty years ago the English were enormously proud of themselves. They had won a fearful war in epic style, led by a statesman of charismatic genius, under the aegis of a royal house that was so universally admired and believed by 40 percent of the population, so surveys showed, to be divinely chosen. The English knew themselves to be special. When I went to London in the 1940s I felt I was visiting the heart of an immense historical organism, spread around the globe, to which hundreds of millions of people of every faith and color looked in something approaching reverence. When I was abroad, the grave sound of Big Ben on the BBC World Service, and the resonant, almost ecclesiastical way in which the announcer declaimed "This is London" over the often crackling and fluctuating airwaves, made me feel that England was somewhere permanently unique on the planet. London might be battered and impoverished, but it was still in most British minds the center of all things, the best, the biggest, the oldest, the eternal.

No wonder the English face was so distinctive, and no wonder that in the half-century since then it has lost its edge. It was the face of confidence, whatever its class. One can imagine a citizen looking at it in a mirror in those days, when people still knew their Gilbert and Sullivan, and thinking with horror that it might have been the face of a Rooshian, a Frenchman or a Prooshian. Thank God he had resisted all temptations to look like other nations! It remained unmistakably the face of an Englishman.

From A Stranger in Venice

(1906), by Max Beerbohm

Often, after passing through the streets of London, I have wondered what on earth the inhabitants would look like if they had no longer the thought of their preeminence to sustain them.

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City of Culture

What a pleasure to stroll through the streets of Weimar, a little German city whose distinction has traditionally been elegantly cultural! In the late eighteenth century the young Duke Carl August made his capital a happy retreat for artistic geniuses, and ever since Weimar has basked in the memory of their names. There is a pleasant restaurant, you will be told, behind the Liszthaus. Turn right at the Goethehaus to get to the bus station. You want the Schillerhaus? That's easy: just go straight down Schillerstrasse from the Goethe and Schiller statue. And agreeable indeed it is to amble around the town among these illustrious shades, now and then taking an ice cream beneath its trees. The streets are mostly quiet and gentle. Small boys wade across the little river Ilm with fishing rods. Street musicians agreeably play. Delectable parks and gardens are everywhere. It is easy to imagine young Carl August promenading with lyricists on each arm, bowing right and left to his affectionate subjects. I know of no city so instinct with the idea of beauty as a political conception, as part of the established order -- and not the beauty of pomp and majesty, either, but an amiable, entertaining, chamber-music kind of beauty.

But here's a terrible thing. As the literary capital of Germany, the repository of its immortal poetic spirit, a retreat of nature-worship and mythic dreams, Weimar became beloved of the Nazis, and it loved the Nazis in return. Its mixture of Hitler and Goethe, wrote Thomas Mann fastidiously in 1932, was "particularly disturbing." In the market square stands the Elephant Hotel, and all the waters of Ilm cannot wash the taint from this unfortunate hostelry. It is a handsome 1930s building, but redecorated inside in a glittery, chromy style that irresistibly suggests the imminent arrival of swaggering gauleiters and their women. This impression is all too true. Hitler and his crew were particularly fond of the hotel, and more than once the Führer spoke from its balcony to enthusiastic crowds in the square outside.

So enamoured were the Nazis of Weimar, in fact, that they erected there one of their most celebrated and characteristic monuments. The site they chose was on the lovely hill of Ettersberg, just outside the city, which Goethe himself had long before made famous -- he loved to sit and meditate beneath an oak tree there. One evening I paid a reluctant visit to this place, now a popular tourist site well-publicized in the town. My taxi-driver, a gregarious soul, chatted cheerfully to me all the way. Had I enjoyed my stay in Weimar? Did I visit the Goethehaus? What did I think of the food? Did I know that Weimar was to be the European City of Culture in 1999, at the end of the millennium? Congratulations, I said. Recognition once more for the city of Goethe and Schiller. "Exactly," said the taxi-driver, and just then we turned up the side road to Buchenwald.

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Country style

In the days of the Communists, East Germany seemed to me one of the most terrible places of all, and the legacy of industrial pollution was to linger for years and years. On the other hand, the Communists having been less than advanced in their agricultural methods, the wide plains of the Brandenburg countryside were mercifully unsterilized by chemicals, which left them wonderfully fresh and natural -- unkempt, since half the fields had gone to seed, and half the trees needed trimming, but still gloriously organic. All day long the skylarks sang above my head, when I traveled among those lovely landscapes, and there were meadows full of poppies, and long avenues of fruit-laden cherry trees, and now and then storks' nests, those fairytale emblems of old Europe, comfortably on chimneys above cobbled hamlets. Once I saw three storks flying high and majestically over Berlin itself: I suspect mine is the last generation ever to see such a sight.

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Once in the 1980s I found myself a trifle lost when driving through Rostock, on Germany's Baltic coast, and I faltered and swerved as I tried to find my way on the street map. Immediately there was an irritable blast of the horn from the car behind. Rostock was notorious at that time for recent racist attacks upon Turkish immigrants, and my blood boiled. "Damned Germans," I found myself saying, "They never change. Can't the brute see I'm a stranger here?" -- and I turned around in my seat prepared to give him that rude gesture of the Welch archers, as in Vienna. Gott in Himmel, he was a very intemperate Asian. I blushed, even to myself, especially as I have experienced almost nothing but kindness from Germans of all kinds, under communism as under capitalism, during my fifty years of Europe.

I am a child of the wars, though, and have not always been so generous in return. With a pang I remember still the young Germans I met at a party in Baden-Baden in the early 1950s, when the nation was still sunk in shame and disillusion. They were about my own age, bred by Hitler Youth out of defeat, and our conversation was wary. We skirted around recent history, we evaded questions of morality, but even so I found, when we parted company at last, that one woman was in tears -- tears of mortification, to compare her self-doubts, her guilt and her sense of undeserved bad luck with the unabashed pride of nation which in those days I could not help displaying. Thirty years later I made a television film with a German television crew, traveling through several European countries. Strangers often asked us what we were up to, and I always made a point of saying that while the director and his crew were German, I was from Wales. "You are ashamed to be thought one of us," the director accused me mournfully one day: and though I declined to admit it, so I was.

These are people of God, too. More than any other European people they have been the instrument of the most divine of the arts, music, perhaps because of the special rhythms of their language, perhaps because Martin Luther, their greatest prophet, made music intrinsic to his religion. Even at their most degraded they have honored this spark within themselves -- even sadistic officers at concentration camps felt the necessity, whether in truth or in charade, to show themselves lovers of music. Out of this tormented and often cruel national psyche have come the glories of Bach and Beethoven -- a cliché indeed, but still a mystery. Nothing moves me more than to enter one of the great German cathedrals, very likely in its day a positive cauldron of racialism, and to hear one of the tremendous Bach chorales thundering down the nave -- an ultimate expression, to my mind, of human aspiration, and a supreme glory of Europe.

I went to Berlin in 1991 for the two hundredth anniversary of the Brandenburg Gate, an anniversary of awful possibility. The gate was a triumph of Prussian vainglory, undeniably an arch of hubris. It had been restored at last after the mutilations of war, and its shining quadriga was once again equipped with the Iron Cross and Prussian Eagle pointedly absent during the Communist years. Through it overblown victory parades had passed, and the plumed pageantries of state visits, and the railway coach from Compiègne towed in vindictive triumph. The long anniversary celebrations ended with a perfomance of "Deutschland Über Alles," and what a nightmare that might have been! I prepared to scowl. But it was played by a string quartet, in Haydn's delicate last version of the melody: and its gentle cadences, drifting over the silent crowd, through the lights of the great reviving city, were enough to melt a Junker's heart.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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