Charm brings a need for beer

JOE BENNETT
Last updated 08:47 27/06/2012

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Joe Bennett

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OPINION: The woman grabbed at me as she fell, but she lost her grip and I was too slow to catch her. She crashed to the hot pavement.

She was Indian, perhaps 50 years old. Through a gap in her sari I glimpsed rolls of belly flesh. I made to help her up but several Indian men took over. She leaned heavily on them. One man who didn't help spoke sharply then ignored her.

Her husband, I think.

The Indians were on a guided walking tour of Lucerne, Switzerland, headed at that moment to stand before a statue of a dying lion.

It was carved into a limestone cliff 200 years ago to commemorate some Swiss soldiers who died on the wrong side of the French Revolution. They'd fought for the French king only because he paid them. Lucky, I thought, to get any sort of memorial.

Mark Twain came to see the lion a century or so ago and said he found it affecting. But you never know with Twain. All I can say is that I felt a twang of sympathy for the lion qua lion, expiring slowly from the weapon plugged into its flank, but for the long-dead mercenaries, recorded in Latin as loyal and valiant, nothing.

Today the lion's a compulsory stop on the Lucerne tourist itinerary. Hence the straggle of Indians following a grim- faced guide who toted a tennis ball on a stick.

The Indians all looked frankly miserable, looked indeed as though they would happily pay money to put an end to what they had paid money to do. They'd stepped on to the official cultural treadmill and found it a treadmill. It seemed possible that the woman's fall was no accident, but rather a dramatic bid for release.

Otherwise she'd face another hour or more of being shunted through the 30 degree heat to admire pretty wooden bridges and stone towers rising from the water and the city hall that goes by the delightful German name of Rathaus.

And the endless shops selling Swiss chocolate or Swiss cheese or cow bells or heavy watches plugged by movie stars and bearing price tags that make the eyes water.

The centre of Lucerne is so alarmingly quaint with its lake and river and castles and alpine views that I find beer o'clock ticks around even earlier than usual.

I'm installed now at a table with a glass of Eichhof watching kids finding joy in the swift river. Svelte as seals, they fling themselves into the current and float at remarkable speed a 100 metres or so before grabbing the branches of a weeping willow and hauling themselves out.

Dripping, laughing they trot back up the towpath to do it again. I'd like to have a go, but won't.

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There was joy of a different sort in the town centre last night. Germany won through to the last eight of the European football championships and young Germans emerged to celebrate. They drove around the streets in expensive cars towing flags and tooting horns, and a mob of them gathered on foot near the railway station to chant.

"Deutschland, Deutschland," they chanted, time and time over. Hefty young men, most of them, but also a surprising number of women. Polite citizens took a long detour around them, the living embodiment of Swiss neutrality.

Such nationalist boorishness is not uniquely German. The Brits can be especially repellent, and there is barely a country that's immune.

Seventy years ago, George Orwell described it as "the lunatic modern tendency to identify with larger power units".

An older German man, drunk to semi-coherence, sat beside me on a low wall.

He carried, and closely guarded, a green plastic bucket of bottled beer in warmish water.

He spoke darkly about the fate of Europe, but made little sense.

Then his wife rolled up and made less. She was Cuban, pretty and drunk. She abused her man then grabbed a beer from his bucket. He tried to snatch it back but she held on with impressive tenacity and won.

With theatrical gestures of disgust, her husband shambled off to join the chanters, while she crowed in Spanish at his defeat, then shouted unrestrained, face- reddening insults at the Germans in general.

It was all a bit raw. I slipped away to a bar.

I was served by a young man from Kosovo.

As a child he'd watched a war happen around him. I asked him what he thought of the celebrating mob on the corner.

He shrugged. "They are happy," he said.

- The Press

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