The Weasel

Maybe I'm the one who put the gauche into rive gauche, but I went up the Eiffel Tower
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Indy Lifestyle Online
The Eurostar may be costing us pounds 2 million a day in interest charges alone, but it is an unalloyed wonder of our age. Last week I visited its new international station in Ashford, Kent and gazed in awe; its postmodern design of circular glass towers hooped by Saturn-like rings will strike a chord with all fans of Dan Dare. Two hours later I was in the middle of Paris with an afternoon to fritter away.

What to do? Lunch at Joel Robuchon's? A browse through the bibelots at the Place Vendome? A Gertrude Steinian gander at the ateliers of the rue de Fleurus? A Hemingwayish gargle at the Bar du Crillon? Maybe I'm the one who put the gauche into rive gauche, but I went up the Eiffel Tower.

There wasn't much of a queue, though that did not prevent a Korean tour guide pushing in front of me to demand admission for a party of 48. First a large lift climbs diagonally up one of the tower's four splayed legs, like a caterpillar creeping along a twig. Then, at the platform where the legs meet, you take a second, much smaller lift which whizzes you, ears popping, to the summit, the 19th-century ironwork coming ever nearer as the tower narrows.

From the top, the matchbox-sized buildings of the city look at first like Sixties apartment blocks. (My dear, it could be Luton.) Slowly you recognise the grands projets of previous centuries: that miniature stone horseshoe is the Arc de Triomphe; the golden thimble over there is the dome of Les Invalides. But a brief glance over the abyss is enough for most people. Nervous visitors are confronted by a notice pointing out that "fire broke out on 3 January 1956 and seriously damaged the top of the tower." Another sign notes that "In 1892, Eiffel set up a laboratory for experimental research into falling bodies." How reassuring.

Fearing perhaps that the view was insufficiently enthralling, the custodians of the tower have installed a life-size waxwork tableau to entertain visitors to the observation platform. Behind a window is Gustav Eiffel himself, all horsehair whiskers and shiny nose, greeting Thomas Edison. The scene, we're told, represents "an apartment where the great engineer welcomed prominent guests for an intimate reception". The Koreans came over and began photographing the tallow figures. Soon there were perhaps a dozen people peering intently into Eiffel's little den. Behind them, the City of Light went completely ignored.

I see from Miracles and the Extraordinary magazine (I get it for the leavened bread recipes) that the Belgians have yet more justification for their reputation as the romantic visionaries of Europe. Who could doubt it after reading about King Baudouin, who died in 1993 after being married for 33 years to his dream babe, Queen Fabiola?

A new biography says that the King, who ascended the throne at 21, was keen to marry at 30 but couldn't find the right wife. Rather than hang out at polo matches or coffee bars - we're talking the late Fifties here - he elected to use a matchmaker. A good Catholic, he decided that Spain was the place to find a papist, and directed his energies there. The odd thing is the nature of the emissary he sent to scout for him: an odd Irish busybody, a quasi- nun called Veronica O'Brien, a stalwart of the Legion of Mary. Using her clout in nun circles (the story goes), Veronica went to Spain and through the Carmelites met Fabiola - a comparatively rare sighting of a 32-year-old Spanish virgin - but could not be sure she was right until she saw Fabiola in a dream; whereupon she fed her a story about charity work, won her confidence and fixed a secret meeting with the king in Brussels (the dernier cri of romantic venues, as you know). They were engaged soon afterwards.

There's the secret of royal romance, boys and girls. You hire an Irish nun to investigate the field, dream of your future bride by proxy, lie through your teeth about what you're up to and disorient her with EU trysts. It's brilliant, it pays off and it's apparently sanctioned by the Virgin Mary. If only Sister Veronica had been around in, say, 1980, when Charles and Andrew were still bachelors gay...

A driver friend of the Weasel's had her car impounded for some minor legal infraction last week, and discovered herself on a bus for the first time in years. It was quite an experience.

As it trundled along the Embankment, my friend wondered if all modern buses went quite so fast and erratically. As it crossed Lambeth Bridge, it lurched alarmingly to the right before correcting itself with an almost audible whinny. As it headed past the Imperial War Museum it suddenly steered straight at the kerb and the front garden of 92 Kennington Road. Was this normal? Was the driver drunk? (Was he an ex-film stuntman?)

Abruptly it slewed to a halt in a small parking space miles from the nearest bus stop. The driver appeared, looking a little frantic. "I apologise for performing an emergency stop, ladies and gentlemen," he announced to the lower deck, "But I have to go and urinate." Pre-empting complaints that he should have stayed in his seat until the paramedics were picking bits of exploded bladder off the bus's ceiling, he went on: "I have been taking pills for a kidney disorder and they make it extremely painful to, ah..." But the entire bus was murmuring in sympathy so he didn't have to go on.

He did add one thing, though. Seeing my (female) friend's look of concern, the driver said, "I shall be doing it just there, madam", indicating with his index finger the front offside tyre. But whether inviting her to look, or warning her not to, the luckless passenger could not be sure...

Tales of charm and alfresco pissoirs take us straight back to Paris, of course, where generations of visitors have had their first experiences of the metro. From the moment of entering - preferably via one of those stations embellished with flowing Art Nouveau ironwork - they were immersed in a quintessentially Gallic environment. Forget the countryside - la France profonde was to be found 30 feet beneath the streets of the capital.

When I first visited the city, 20-odd years ago, the metro trains were dainty wooden constructions which looked as if they had somehow been diverted underground from an Alpine railway. They were fitted with amazingly uncomfortable benches made from wooden slats, and rattled alarmingly when going over points. In order to open the doors you had to raise an antique hook arrangement. Also unique was the metro's pungent but not entirely unpleasing pong - much referred to in literary works by American exiles in Paris, the whiff was primarily compounded of disinfectant and the smoke from several million Gitanes.

Sadly, the dreary uniformity of the modern world has steadily invaded the metro over the years. The smell has wafted away for ever, and the trains have been transformed into anonymous metal boxes. For me the final blow came last week when I looked up from my seat and noticed that the famous sign which allocated priority of seating in the carriage had disappeared.

You may remember that the order of precedence ran to five or six categories, including the infirm, the elderly and the pregnant. At the top (and in much larger type) came Mutiles de Guerre. You almost expected to see a walrus-moustached relic of Verdun, an empty sleeve looped back to his shoulder, directing a basilisk glare at anyone daring to sit in his presence. No more. In the France of Chirac, the less-than-intact veterans of the Maginot Line, Dien Bien Phu and (why not?) Waterloo have to fight for a seat along with everyone else

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