Britain and Europe have always had an uneasy relationship. There was a time when the British young man of means would undertake the Grand Tour of Europe as a rite of passage: from London to Dover and thence to Paris, Barcelona, Amsterdam, Rome, Venice, Athens, Sicily, Vienna. It was meant to round out the education and develop the character, though was just as likely to mean gambling, drinking and dalliances. It has modern echoes, I suppose , not just in the word ‘tourist’ but in the stag weekends in Prague or Tallinn or the post - school exam trips, without parents, to Tenerife or Kos. A view of Europe as a strange mixture of ‘culture’ and hedonism
At the time pop music was starting to emerge, Europe was viewed by many British with a similar confusion: impossibly sophisticated - especially places like Paris and Rome- but also somewhere to regard with great suspicion. On one hand, songs like April in Paris or Arriverderci Roma cast the romantic appeal of an old colourful travel poster in a railway waiting room, especially to people whose experience of foreign travel, if any, might be a day trip to Calais or Ostend. Petula Clark had her first UK Number One in 1961 with her version of Sailor, a roll-call of seemingly faraway places in Europe as well as the other side of the world - Capri, Amsterdam, Honolulu, Siam. A couple of years later The Bachelors scored their own similar hit with an old Bing Crosby tune, Faraway Places(With Strange Sounding Names) - which included Spain and, yes again, Siam.
At the same time, things European seemed, to many British at that time, something to be rather wary of and often quite remote. Olive oil was found in small bottles in chemists, to put in your ears. Funny foreign dishes like coq au vin or beef bourguignon were towards the exotic end of the culinary spectrum and pronounced with a very exaggerated French accent to herald their arrival. The cook and food writer, Nigel Slater, described in his book Toast - set in the mid-1960’s – the dismay caused in his household when his father daringly tried out spaghetti bolognaise for the first time:
“Aunt Fanny is looking down at her lap. ‘Do I have to have some?’ I think she is going to cry...We all sit there staring at our tumbling piles of pasta on our glass pyrex plates. ‘Oh Kathleen, I don’t think I can’ sobs Aunt Fanny, who then picks up a long sticky strand with her fingers and pops it into her mouth from which it hangs all the way down to her lap. ‘No, wait for the sauce, Fanny’ Mother sighs, and then quite out of character, ’Come on, Daddy, hurry up’. Dad spoons the sauce, a slurry of reddy-brown mince that smells foreign, over the knots and twirls of pasta. Suddenly it all seems so grown-up, so sophisticated”
I can remember -many years after the time Toast was set-going into a bakery shop in Lancaster and hearing someone, (probably a tourist), asking to buy some croissants. ‘We don’t sell them’ was the reply from the girl serving. ‘ I can see them there’, said the customer, pointing at the window. ‘Oh, you mean curly-wurlies’ came the surprised answer.
Times changed, of course, and horizons widened, in music as in food and culture.. As seen in the column on Paris Bells, by the mid-sixties artists like Francoise Hardy were getting in the UK charts and The Beatles could come out with some lines of French in Michelle. A few more years on and ‘European’ could even seem old hat and more bland than sophisticated - Eurovision, Euro-pop, Europe banging out The Final Countdown. Exotic travel no longer meant Barcelona or Rome but Thailand (same place as Siam but doesn’t rhyme as well),or Goa or the Maldives.
A trip round the sites and sights of Europe, however, was still a popular travel option, though the whirlwind coach tour –as in the 1969 film If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium –seemed more an American than British experience. A musical voyage round Europe’s cities also surfaced from time to time. In Dusseldorf, Regina Spektor threw in Frankfurt, Paris, Berlin, Prague, Amsterdam, Montpellier, Barcelona, Brussels, Marseilles, Corsica, London as well as Dusseldorf. In Eurotrash Girl, Cracker had a similar list, with Athens, Zurich and Turin as new additions. And in the song here from 2007, European Lover, Sheffield indie band Little Man Tate manage Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Sicily and Crete – and, being from a northern perspective , London too. The itinerary described is not dissimilar to the Grand Tour of old, though Crete is perhaps in there more for the night clubs of Malia now rather than the Knossos Palace.
In this case, however, the song’s narrator doesn’t visit these places himself but instead throws their names with a mixture of wistfulness and bitterness at his former lover, away travelling and apparently getting married to someone else on the way. There is also something touchingly old-fashioned about it, as though the narrator was speaking from the 1950’s. In fact, the phrase ‘Gay Paree’ may be used ironically but it sounds like a London bank clerk in the 1890’s. ‘Going to Gay Paree, eh? It’s that Toulouse Lautrec and can-can girls over there’. (In the 1976 release Georgina Bailey by Noosha Fox , about a teenage girl’s crush on her uncle Jean Paul, ‘Gay Paree’ is used in a knowingly modern sense –and it is nice to see, in the video below, that they didn’t stereotype the French back then).
In some ways, with the breaking up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia into their different parts Europe can seem more different than perhaps 40 years ago. When a travel guide on a country called Molvania came out in 2004, it wasn’t immediately obvious that it was a spoof: Slovenia, Slovakia, Moldova - why not Molvania? What probably stays true is that if one has been to any of the places in the song the memories of them - for Crete or Barcelona - will be that for that place. If one hasn’t – like Sicily – the name itself remains the adventure still.