Impressions From A First Continental Tour

Posted: May 17, 2001 12:00 AM
These aging bones required three-score years to make it to continental Europe for much more than a plane change. One returns from there - essentially Paris, Normandy and Holland by foot, bicycle, automobile and barge - with a swirl of random impressions. Among the many are these: Paris in April is April in Paris. Probably no city surpasses it. Much in the city - the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Moulin Rouge, Sainte-Chapelle - has become a cliché, and for understandable reason. ¶ Many of the French may nourish an ambivalence about their history (was Napoleon a hero or a bum?). As ducks do, they may exhibit an attitude toward Americans. And in government they may be almost as hopeless as the Italians. ¶ But if Paris is any measure, the French have gotten their cities exactly right. Daytime, nighttime, even in the gray time (extensive rains had the temperatures down and the Seine in flood), Paris is the paradigm. ¶ Yet for sheer emotional force, nothing beats the Normandy beaches - carrying their code names still: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword - the Germans' "Atlantic Wall" that hosted the largest invasion in the history of mankind. Many seeking their roots need look no further than here, for the heroics on the beaches and cliffs and in the neighboring fields and towns - Pointe du Hoc, Ste.-Mère-Église, Caen, Carentan, Arromanches, St. Lo - made possible this future present. ¶ In 1066, as the 72-meter Bayeux tapestry attests, William of Normandy crossed the English Channel and trounced the hapless Harold at Hastings. (In our American Revolution, the French navy made possible the American victory at Yorktown.) How fitting, then, the stone-carved colonnade at a British cemetery in Normandy: "We came to liberate our conquerors."¶ They came with considerable American help, as well as Canadian, free Pole, and free French. The many memorials and cemeteries - notably the American one at Utah Beach, the endless rows upon rows of 9,400 stones silent before the murmuring surf below - speak of their finest hour, "the glory of their spirit," and the debt we owe them. Oozing drugs, booze and raunch, Amsterdam hits low on the charts. Its two oldest sections - their canals lined, as throughout Holland, with houses operational when America did not yet exist - fascinate and overwhelm. Similarly with the Anne Frank House and the Rijks Museum, Amsterdam's Louvre. ¶ From there, the view of Holland was principally from lush canal barge - the Marjorie - along e.g. the rivers Ijssel, Maas and Vecht with side trips into numerous burgs such as Gouda, Haarlem, Rotterdam, Hoorn and Delft. ¶ Holland's tulips were in full flower; vast fields of them shared the landscape with sheep, swans, geese and pocket gardens galore. The Aalsmeer flower auction - the world's largest under roof, equal to 125 football fields - moves 15 million cut flowers daily. At the Keukenhof Gardens, 7 million flowering bulbs adorn 100 acres in an undulating sea of color. ¶ Much of the Netherlands is below sea level. Canals - nearly all dug by hand - interlace the landscape. At their height, 10,000 windmills helped drain the land; today fewer than 1,000, with but a handful working, remain. Yet they testify to the truth of the maxim: "God made the world and the Dutch made the Netherlands." XXX Some incidental thoughts: ¶ - The Dutch are markedly bigger than the French: big tall, not big fat - the latter a category in which Americans easily take the prize. The Dutch grow long and leggy and boast extraordinarily gentle dispositions.¶ - Hoof-and-mouth disease there has devastated the livestock population. Yet for centuries vegetables and fish have been dietary staples.¶ - The Euro has miles (or kilometers) to go before it wins wide acceptance in either the Netherlands or France. What will its imposition by the European Community do to each country's deep sense of community? - European scale is smaller than the grand and vast American scale: in quantity (the people seem to have, and seem to get along with, less); in distance and the extent of the land, in the size of much - from country to town to house to car. In contrast to American taste, European taste tends to be understated and less kitschy. - The omnipresent ATM makes carrying large amounts of cash unnecessary, and soon may push traveler's checks off the map. - English in various forms is surprisingly widespread, and just about everyone's second language - particularly in Holland.¶ - European pace seems slower, patience greater. And¶ - Antiquity and the sense of history abound in the people and the land - in contrast to a presentist America in which history reaches back hardly further than yesterday.