Wednesday, 12 March 2008

36 Steps to Vienna: 2 Manneken Pis (1)

A self-imposed stateliness promised to serve us best. Before leaving England George and I had absorbed the hitch-hiking lore then current as an aspect of late-teen subculture in a relatively car-less society. We evolved the following guide:

1. Stand up straight, no slouching.

2. Don't stand threateningly in the road, obliging drivers to slow down.

3. Declare your nationality visibly. This will gratify anglophile drivers and avoid awkward situations with people not fond of Brits, particularly those wanting to disembowel you because of some desperate gripe arising from World War II but not wishing to start World War III. (I stuck a Union Jack in place of a cap badge on a Royal Air Force beret they used to make me wear on Thursday afternoons at school. In due course this led to disaster.)

4. Let approaching drivers see how many you are. If you're off thumb duty, don't hide in the bushes so as to give the impression that your mate's on his or her own. This may improve the chances of a lift but will cause the driver, for whatever reasons, no small chagrin when you emerge from the undergrowth as soon as the car has stopped.

5. Don't trouble, the legend had it, to thumb lifts from Citroën cars. They never stop. (We found this to be perfectly true.)

6. If you can be bothered with destination placards, make them reasonable. No point in displaying VIENNA outside Ostend. Besides, people going there probably call it WIEN. Be language-sensitive: AIX-LA-CHAPELLE and AACHEN are the same place. So are COLOGNE and KÖLN.

7. Wave your left thumb in a positive, outgoing manner, moving it horizontally across your chest. Smile. No off-the-shoulder right thumbs.

Statistically the right thumb's less productive, said the pundits, those who had seen their teens out hitch-hiking to the Côte d'Azur and had come back lithe and bronzed, bubbling with tales of heady wines, warm seas and yielding women: to John o'Groats and the bizarre, bean-pole people of Wick and Thurso who appeared to drink paint; to Haarlem, to stomp and wave with the Dutch Swing College Band, an early 60s intellectual musical taste more up George's street than mine; to Brindisi, returning with leathery hands and anti-glare crows' feet from manning pumps thence on Apulian caïques to Corfu and Ithaca, and if they said they'd crewed to the Isles of the Blest we would have tried to believe them. But they gave no explanation as to why one thumb should be more effective than the other.

The first vehicle to stop was a very slow green van apparently full of dry cleaning. How impressed the driver had been by our roadside discipline we weren't able to discuss. If he spoke anything but Flemish he didn't admit to it. Brussels? Bruxelles? Brüssel? we asked, opening the passenger door and trying a viable destination in English, French and German. He nodded and motioned us in. Communication was limited to throaty grunts and accompanying gestures. I wondered if this actually was Flemish. Perhaps this was how the language got its name.

Somewhere about Ghent we crossed the river Scheldt. It was clear that the major preoccupation of the people who lived thereabouts, underlying all other activity, was the evacuation of water. Although it rises slightly towards Brussels, the country inland from Ostend is flat, veined with drainage channels, canals, dykes and sometimes larger, navigable waterways like the Scheldt, a river with 82 primary and secondary tributaries, flowing so lazily that when we crossed it scarcely seemed to be moving. The Scheldt reaches the sea via Antwerp, a North Sea port so significant for English trade that for centuries it was a prime factor in shaping English foreign policy. A vital concern of successive Foreign Secretaries was that it should never fall into French hands.

In 1792, when Beethoven was 22 and had recently arrived from his native Bonn to make his mark in Vienna, French revolutionary ideas reached willing ears in the Austrian Netherlands, that part of Low Countries later to become Belgium, which had come to the ruling Habsburg dynasty in Vienna largely through inheritance. Unrest fomented by the French turned to revolt, revolt to war, Antwerp and the Scheldt were threatened, and so began that long conflict with France that was finally resolved at Waterloo 23 years later. In England the great political philosopher Edmund Burke, while recognising the need to contain France's revolutionary imperialism, refused to endorse the government line and said something very pertinent to my theme: 'A war for the Scheldt? A war for a chamber pot.'

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