I gazed at the marble David in Florence's Galleria dell'Accademia, climbed up to Prague Castle, and surveyed the battlefield at Waterloo. I walked through the narrow, winding streets of old Leipzig and the grand, wide boulevards of Paris. I experienced the wet, gray weather of Brussels and the brilliant, blinding sunshine of Lisbon. I watched the Elbe River from Hradec Kralove in the Czech Republic, and the English Channel from Nieuport, Belgium.
Sure, there were a few bumps along the way. At the German border we were turned back by policemen who said we couldn't take our rented Mercedes into Eastern Europe; we had to drive for an hour and a half down a single-lane road to Dresden, fetch a cheaper Ford, and go back. And in the Czech Republic, we were pulled over twice by cops who wanted to collect fines on the spot--in cash, please--for dubious traffic offenses.
It wasn't all glamour by any stretch. There were grandes dames in Florence, but also garish prostitutes in the Czech Republic, lining the road to the German border; handsome and haughty Parisians as well as legless and armless beggars in Lisbon.
But for every minor unpleasantness there was a major compensation, usually in the form of food and drink. I can't recall how many gourmet meals I ate (only my bathroom scale knows for sure) and how many vintage wines I quaffed (things became hazy after a few glasses). I don't think I consumed a single bad meal on the entire trip, though pork and dumplings in a provincial Czech town came close. The best meal by a long shot was a three-hour lunch in the Versailles-like splendor of the Quai d'Orsay, the French foreign ministry.
The lunch itself was off the record, so I hope I don't cause an international incident by divulging the menu: Millefeuille d'omelette de Provence; Pigeon de Vendée aux épices; Petits légumes étuvés; Salade de mesclun aux pignons; Fromages; Sablé au fromage blanc et Mara des Bois; Sorbet au pomelos et menthe fraiche. And to wash it down, a Beaune Grève Vigne de l'enfant Jésus 1996. If you're wondering what that means in English, the answer is: yummy.
Like the lunch, the trip as a whole left a very good taste in my mouth, literally and figuratively. There was only one drawback to the experience: the politics. Europe is a superb place to visit if you experience it at the level of a tourist whose only interactions are with taxi drivers, hotel clerks, and waiters, all of whom speak passable English and are very happy to relieve you of your euros.
The problems come when you talk politics with Europe's leadership class. That's when you hear the familiar complaints about American unilateralism, cowboyism, and lawlessness. About how Americans are threatening the fabric of international law, encouraging aggression, and generally messing up the world. (Like it was so great before we came along.) Whenever the subject of Iraq comes up, which is often, all Europeans want to talk about are civilian casualties and looting. No mention of the U.S. armed forces' professionalism, success, and restraint--or of Saddam Hussein's war crimes. The "war crimes" that interest them are Ariel Sharon's.
The effect was like going to a romantic restaurant with a beautiful woman--only to have her spend the entire evening ranting about the evils of a patriarchal society. And since European politics is several feet--excuse me, meters--to the left of America's, she was no garden variety liberal. More like an Andrea Dworkin or a Noam Chomsky, albeit with impeccable manners. I wished for a mute button so I could enjoy my dessert in peace. (No doubt some of my interlocuters felt the same way about this Ugly American.)
But Europe's hoteliers and restaurateurs have nothing to worry about. The best efforts of their diplomats, journalists, and academics could not possibly drive me away--or keep me from returning soon. Did I mention the handcrafted chocolates I found at a little shop in Brussels's Grand Sablon square? They're sweet enough to compensate for a lot of sour rhetoric.