Well, I’m back from Europe, although the time change has thrown me for a loop, so I’m still not sure whether I’m afoot or horseback. But I’ve never been one to let a little disorientation keep me from offering a few thoughts. I won’t go into an exhaustive travelogue, but I thought I’d mention some highlights.
We spent 3 days in London first, which obviously wasn’t enough. I saw the usual bucket list of sites, but the Tower of London was a particular favorite, and contained one surreal moment.
We were in the White Tower, and I’d just read a plaque telling how Richard III had imprisoned 2 princes there who were never seen again. Of course my thoughts went to Shakespeare’s play about the famously hunchbacked Richard.
So I turn from the plaque and bump into a guy with a hunched back!
Of course I don’t mean any disrespect to what I’m sure PC rules would have us refer to as “a member of the differently-postured community,” and God bless anyone with any kind of physical deformity. But that freaked me out.
My wife noticed the odd look on my face, and said, “What?”
I nodded toward the guy, who was leaving the room ahead of us, and whispered, “Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious summer by this son of York.” She just stared at me blankly and shook her head, not being as big of a Shakespeare fan as I am.
When she shook her head and turned away, I had a thought that has occurred to a lot of people who passed through that tower in the last 900 years: Tough room.
Amsterdam is beautiful, but I hadn’t anticipated how much the legal red-light district would depress me. The booths themselves just looked like empty rooms to me, since (as I may have mentioned in earlier columns) all other women became invisible to me when I met my wife.
Even when I was single, and still retained the ability to visually perceive other women, I was never tempted by the idea of going to a hooker. (Other than when I watched Rebecca De Mornay at the height of her powers in Risky Business.) (Giggity.)
But even if I had been, I’d guess that part of the thrill would be the forbidden frisson of illicitness of the whole thing, a sense of having gotten away with a naughty indulgence. But government-sanctioned and regulated sexual misbehavior sounds like the most soul-less, un-thrilling experience since Kamala Harris hooked up with creepy old Willie Brown in exchange for a government job.
Plus, if I had just finished with a woman and then saw a license on the wall, auto-signed by Chuck and Nancy and assuring me that she was healthy as a horse, I would sprint to the nearest de-lousing station and then seek out the most comprehensive round of antibiotics known to man!
We took a boat ride past some impressive castles on the Rhine, and saw the cathedral at Cologne, before traveling through Switzerland, which was as beautiful as advertised. We took a cog train to the top of Mt. Pilatus, overlooking Lucerne, and later took a boat ride on Lake Lucerne. We ate fondue and listened to some mountain horn-blowing, and saw the amazing speared-and-dead Lion of Lucerne carving in a granite wall, and I couldn’t help thinking of Aslan. (You may have guessed that C.S. Lewis is one of my top few favorite writers.) (He should be one of yours too, IMHO.)
There is much to admire about Switzerland and the Swiss, and their famous neutrality has been a wise course during most of Europe’s wars. But their behavior during WWII rightly taints their reputation. To be neutral in a conflict when the Nazis are on one side is unconscionable. To in effect collaborate with the Nazis and provide safe haven for much of their stolen loot is egregious.
But to spend decades after the war resisting attempts by Jews and other victims of Hitler to recover their property from Swiss banks should shame the nation. (FYI, a great book on that history is The Swiss, the Gold and the Dead.)
We spent two days in Paris at the end of the trip, which let us start to scratch the surface. We took a boat ride on the Seine at dusk, arriving back just as the Eiffel tower was lit up. The next day I saw Napoleon’s tomb and the adjoining military museum, while my wife and daughters saw some frou-frou art elsewhere.
Not that I’ve got anything against art.
Except for modern art, which is uniformly terrible. Firstly, because it violates Simpson’s First Rule of Art: If I can do it, it’s not art.
Secondly, because it doesn’t look anything like what it is supposed to. If you paint a horse, and not 1 of 100 viewers can guess what it is, you are the Liz Warren of painters. (That is, you are claiming to be something that you are definitively NOT.) (#wemustneverstopmockingher)
For example, here is a conversation that has never happened in the history of the world:
Regular Person: “Hey Michelangelo, why did you think it was appropriate to paint a platypus being chased by a leopard with Stegosaurus horns on a church ceiling?”
Michelangelo: “That’s God, reaching out to Adam at the moment of creation. And get away from me.”
Thirdly, the pretentious titles. It would be bad enough if I had laid out a blank canvas on the floor, took Cassie the Wonder Dog into the middle of it after I’d dipped her bushy tail into paint, and had her roll over a dozen times, and called the result a Work of Art.
But if I then titled the result, “Man’s Inhumanity to Man,” you would never stop slapping me. And rightly so.
Where was I?
Oh yeah. I really enjoyed the trip, and look forward to going back again. But ironically, one drawback was that amazing things – statues, cathedrals, castles – suffer from proximity to each other.
During our Rhine cruise, we saw 11 castles that were between 400-900 years old. If any one of those were in my home state, it would be the coolest structure there. (Except maybe for Wrigley or Soldier fields.) But after a few hours on the Rhine, you’d turn a corner and say, “Oh. Beautiful old castle #8. Cool.”
As a lover of language, it was great to hear the various accents and expressions of Europeans. It turns out that nothing is cooler than little kids yammering to their parents in adorable English or French accents. And in London, I learned that the Victorians had called the first elevators “ascending rooms,” which made me love Victorians even a little more.
I also had a very cool encounter with a plain-spoken Swiss farmer. He and his father have a dairy farm in a small alpine village, and our tour guide had arranged for us to get a horse-drawn cart ride around their farm in small groups. The farmer’s son who took us around was probably in his mid-30s, with broken but understandable English, and a stoic grit that I recognize from the farmers in the Illinois towns where I grew up.
As we rode around the outskirts of town, he told us about a terrible flash flood that had hit the town in the early 1600s, destroying most of the buildings and killing a lot of villagers. Afterwards, some local power-players from the Hapsburg empire – and he said “Hapsburgs” the way my grandpa would refer to the Japanese who bombed Pearly Harbor – scapegoated some alleged local witches for causing the flood. “They murdered a number of women, and children too.”
Those words hung in the air for a moment, in our otherwise idyllic evening in the Swiss village. And then he said, “It is a hard story,” and turned back to the horses.
A half hour later, during a stop by the town’s church, I was talking with him about the close-knit nature of the village, and he pointed to a nearby house. A good friend of his lives there, and his 20-something daughter (one of the most talented yodelers in Switzerland, he told me) took a short motorcycle trip with her boyfriend to the Italian side of the alps two weeks ago.
While there, an Italian driver hit and killed the girl, and her father is now inconsolable. After the two of us stood looking at the man’s house, he said, “It is a hard story.” And he turned and called his adorable four-year-old daughter, who rode seated next to him and held the horses’ reins, talking to the animals softly in Swiss German as they took us back to our hotel.
The coolest guy I met on the trip was actually taking the tour with us. He was a New Zealander who I guessed was around 80. But as we talked during our third day together, I found out that he will turn 94 on Christmas Eve. When I asked him if he’d been to Europe before, he said that he had fought his way from Sicily up through Italy and into Germany when he was 19 years old. I asked if he’d been at Monte Cassino, and he said that his unit arrived a few days after the Germans had retreated from there. I peppered him with questions about the war, and he answered me, but in a very low-key, modest way.
A few days later we were all eating together in Paris, and I asked him if his unit had been there during the war. He said that they hadn’t gotten that far west, because France had already been liberated by the time his unit fought their way up through Italy, and then into Germany. He said that they had an order change that sent them to Berchtesgaden, and I blurted out, “Did you see the Eagle’s Nest?” (Hitler’s mountain-top retreat there.)
He said he had. His unit was arriving just as an American unit was leaving. He asked a few of the GIs if they’d destroyed the place, and they told him that they hadn’t, but they’d liberated some of Hitler’s wine collection. He said that he and his friends had heard rumors that Hitler might make a final stand there, and they’d hoped to be the group that captured or killed him. But he killed himself several days earlier in Berlin.
I asked him what it was like to see Hitler’s private retreat, and what he felt when he got there. In a deadpan delivery, he said, “We were all mad that Hitler had committed suicide. So we looked at the views and walked through the rooms, and then I drank a bunch of Hitler’s wine and I pissed in his bathtub.”
As a military history junkie, I was bowled over. I had been talking with the guy for five days at that point, and asking specifically about his experiences in the war, and he tells me that as an afterthought. If I hadn’t specifically asked about it, he wouldn’t have told me about it at all.
That shocks me. If I had peed in Hitler’s bathtub, that would be how I introduced myself for the rest of my life: “Hi, I’m Martin Simpson. I pissed in Hitler’s bathtub.”
If it was a social situation to which my wife had accompanied me, I would introduce myself and then my wife. And then I’d point to my baseball cap, which I would never take off, and which would have embroidered on it, “I pissed in Hitler’s bathtub.”
The next day, when our bus got to Calais and we had to get out and be questioned by English customs officials before taking the ferry to Dover, I was right behind him in line. When it was his turn to step forward, I nudged his shoulder and said, “Tell them you pissed in Hitler’s bathtub. They’ll let you right through.”
That was one satisfying laugh to hear!
I’ve been catching up on the American political news that I’d missed, and will write another column in a few days. But even though our internet was spotty over there, I did have a few people bring up politics. An Indian cabby in London, upon hearing that I was an American, said that he likes what Trump is doing very much. And a guy from Hong Kong on our tour said that while he doesn’t care for Trump as a person, he really like’s Trump’s policies, and thinks he’s the right man to have in the White House now.
So according to my highly scientific poll of 2 people who brought it up, Trump’s policies have a 100% approval rating in Europe.
And that poll is at least as valid as anything you’ll hear from the petrified forest of blockheads at CNN and the MSM.