Understandably, my interlocutor was having none of this. History, he suggested, hadn't ended; nor had ideology. It was up to each European to devise his own reasons for being heard. Meanwhile, a rumour (it was false) had come from Iran to the effect that Salman Rushdie's fatwa was about to be lifted. Before going to dinner, BHL was dictating his response to this event, to be published in the columns of Le Monde.
BHL is the butt of many French jokes, and he and his glamorous actress wife have twice had pies thrust in their faces by the Belgian entarteur Noel Godin. However he did bother to don a flak jacket and go to Sarajevo, where he made a film incriminating, among others, President Mitterrand. Despite the presence of fin de siecle weariness, he believes that European culture does exist, and that it matters whether one chooses to call oneself a European or not. "I do have an ideology," he told me. "It accompanies me, and it will be present until the day I die."
He would certainly have been disheartened by the result of a poll conducted by the editor of Europe Quarterly, a new publication based in Scotland. Churchill came top, followed by Albert Einstein, Crick and Watson, and Sigmund Freud. Pope John Paul II was in the top 10, as were Picasso and Gorbachev. Bringing up the rear were Andrei Sakharov and - the most interesting name on the list - the Viennese-British philosopher Karl Popper, whose work consisted of the demolition of so many grands projets, beginning with Marxism-Leninism.
The respondents were leading academics, or civil servants, so one must allow for a degree of conservatism in the heavy preponderance of Dead White European Males, geopolitics and High Culture. However, I wondered about the choices. Churchill famously called in Zurich for a "United States of Europe,' but he didn't think Britain should be part of it - apart from sterling consumption of cognac and the odd watercolour executed on forays from Aristotle Onassis's yacht, his Europeanness consisted of an awful French accent. He also put his hand to the Yalta treaty - which, though there was noting he could do about it, led to 45 years of Soviet Communism.
Crick and Watson were fine by me, though one might argue that they belonged to world science. But Gorby? And Picasso? And our present Pope, author of so many stern injunctions banning contraception and capitalism?
Somewhere above Bela Bartok and Thomas Mann, Margaret Thatcher came in at number 40, thanks to one vote from a Dr Tamara Shumnaya of the Russian Museum of the Revolution. However, no other woman was deemed worthy of inclusion. No French candidate made the list, not even De Gaulle, though I suppose this is less surprising than it first sounds; and no one connected with the EU - Monnet, Schuman, Kohl, Mitterrand et al - quite cut the mustard. But the most important omission would appear to be the living. This is startling, and perhaps also significant. Are there perhaps no "great Europeans" left? Or, despite BHL's protestations, is there nowadays no such thing as European civilisation?
I asked myself this question as I travelled across the Continent, in search of material for a book. Pessimism is part of the European fabric, but something to do with the end of a bloody century means that it is particularly rife at the moment. European life is stuck somewhere between past reverential habits and the sense of a future that doesn't quite yet exist - and the sense of anticlimax is pervasive. This is apparent in the considerable number of botched or incomplete monuments throughout Europe - among which one must include the greatest and most costly of them all, the European single currency, which will happen despite the fact that no one wants it. It is as if something needs to be done, without which Europeans will never feel entirely happy. But no one really knows what that "something" is.
We Europeans, I concluded, need a string to take us through the dark maze and a key for the door. However, the fantasy of a Europe where power over the imagination is exercised from Brussels, is dead. So is much of the "old culture" of the continent - concentration camps as well as palaces - have been taken over by the heritage industry. High culture in Europe has become a bit like Abba - it's everywhere and no one listens to it any longer. The idea of Great Men handing tablets of stone to us is anachronistic and should be sent on its way without due bother. Instead of one European High Culture worthy of our reverence, there are at present many distinct "cultures", some boring or terrifying, some not; and they are to be found in unexpected places. Not all of them are, by conventional definitions, "serious" - but then the real Europe has always treated the idea of seriousness lightly. Here are 10 living people I came across on my travels. They represent the real, rather than the fake "civilisation" of contemporary Europe:
EMMANUELLE BEART: The actress who incurred the wrath of her sponsors by declining to wear make-up on demos. More beautiful than Swampy - and almost as effective.
MICHAEL D HIGGINS: Ex-culture minister, begetter of much enthusiasm for Irish film. The man who asked, after a drinking bout, whether he had been goodish or badish. "Just ish," the journalist said.
JERZY URBAN. Editor of Nie!, a Polish magazine that looks like a cross between Hustler and Private Eye. Urban was chief censor during the Communist era; now he is a millionaire. His recent scoops include offering the Polish anthem for sale, and taking money from the country's anxious military bands.
HELMUT KOHL: Not for the euro, please, but tailoring - the final inflation of the previously modest German lounge suit to heroic, Tongaesque proportions. Also for serious speeches in German about the lessons of history, which no one British bothers to read.
SALMAN RUSHDIE: The fit descendant of Voltaire, and thus - despite his peripheral, locked-away status in an England less kind than Fernay, and non-European provenance, the only real European intellectual.
GIANNI VERSACE, RIP: Tasteless, junky clothes, a spectacular demise out of the films of Pier Paolo Pasolini. Truly, like his contemporary the ineffable Silvio Berlusconi, sand on the Italian beach towel - the New European.
VACLAV HAVEL: The man who survived detention, Harold Pinter, the death of his wife Vera and the presidency of a country cut in two, to continue smoking after the removal of the best part of a cancerous lung. And he can write too.
BERNARD KOUCHNER: One of the few uncorrupt ministers in the Mitterrand era, and the creator of Medecins Sans Frontieres - for keeping alive the idea of a generous European cosmopolitanism.
PATSY AND LIAM: For the Vanity Fair cover, with its double bed and Union flag, which tastefully wrote the epitaph to a period of British history in which national feelings were thought to require bellowing about cows.
PRIMO LEVI: I'll break my imposed rule of only selecting the living. I might have chosen Albert Camus, but I won't. Instead I'll take the European writer whose work contains most poignantly, and with strangely becoming modesty, almost everything that we need to know about our continent - not just mid-century atrocity, but the consoling Enlightenment inheritance of science
Nicholas Fraser is the author of `Continental Drifts: Travels in the New Europe', published by Secker and Warburg.