We’re teaching our sons about Europe.
The size of it. The shape of it. How much is theirs.
We’re driving around Europe marvelling at examples of the continent’s rich history and magnificent infrastructure, its museums and art galleries and national parks. We’re gazing in wonder at roads and airports and railways and bridges.
We drive across the breath-taking Ponte Vasco da Gama in Portugal and think about the future of the European project. We drive across the breath-taking Viaduc de Millau and the breath-taking Pont de Normandie in France. We drive across the breath-taking Øresundsbroen between Denmark and Sweden, across the breath-taking Sunnibergbrücke in Switzerland.
“You can tell a lot about a country from its bridges,” we explain to our sons.
In the back of the car our sons are alternately well behaved and irritable. There are fights, travel sickness. We’re asking a lot of them, we know. We’ve been travelling for a long time.
We tell our sons the story of Europe, all the way from the ice age up until the present day. Our sons are impressed by the scale of the bloodshed, the logistics of it all. They want to hear about the Thirty Years’ War and the Eighty Years’ War and the Hundred Years’ War. They ask to visit castles and look at replica trebuchets and torture chambers. They refuse to be excited by coastal land reclamation or the single currency.
We take our sons to visit the Lascaux caves in South-western France, to see the Palaeolithic cave paintings. The paintings were created by some of the first Europeans, almost twenty thousand years ago. There are paintings of bulls, bison, lions, horses, rhinoceros, stags. Everybody is impressed with the craftsmanship; with the way the artists have managed to captured the essence of their animal subjects.
Nobody knows why the paintings were created, we tell our sons – whether it was to help guarantee successful hunts, or to celebrate them, or as an aid for ice-age fathers to teach their sons about their place in the world.
Our sons consider all this, quietly, think about their own places in the world, ask themselves what Europe means. We put our hands on their shoulders, proudly.
We don’t have the heart to tell them that the whole thing is a fibreglass fake, that the real Lascaux caves have been closed since 1963 to preserve the fragile paintings from being damaged by the breath of the millions of people who visit every year.
We don’t think they would appreciate the irony.
The Loneliness of Billionaires
We’re teaching our sons about the loneliness of billionaires.
We explain how most billionaires live in exclusive penthouse apartments or isolated mansions or on their own private islands, and how everyone they know wants something from them. On the beaches of their own private islands, we tell our sons, the billionaires weep openly.
Because they don’t have to worry about money, we explain, the billionaires worry about everything else. They worry about the future, about population growth and disease, about how to save the world from climate change or the possibility that computers might one day become sentient and enslave mankind.
The billionaires are crushed by this terrible responsibility.
“Who would want to be a billionaire?” we ask our sons
“Not us!” our sons all shout.
The billionaires spend their days inventing rockets and self-driving cars and supersonic trains. They hold competitions to find the best solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. Our sons enter the competitions and win all-expenses-paid trips to meet the billionaires on their private islands.
As our sea-planes come in low over the islands, the sun breaks through the clouds. The billionaires stand on the beaches in white linen trousers, waving to us. The sea is the deepest blue that any of us have ever seen, the beaches are the whitest white.
“Who would want to be a billionaire?” we ask.
Our sons nod, not really listening to us, thinking about it.
The billionaires put us up in grass-roofed lodges that face onto the white beaches, and we listen to the surf as we fall asleep. In the mornings when we wake up our sons are already walking along the beach, deep in conversation with the lonely billionaires. The billionaires have had white linen trousers made up for our sons, in exactly their sizes. We have to admit that it’s a good look.
We spend our days learning how to windsurf and going spearfishing while our sons work on top secret important projects with the billionaires. In the evenings the staff serve us ceviche and baked sea bass at long tables on the beach, and we watch the sun go down and wait for our sons to join us. The clouds along the horizon are lit up like the end of the world, and our sons are always late for dinner. We start smoking again because we have nothing better to do, consider our stalled careers, think about the compromises we’ve made.
We wonder what we might have done with all the opportunities that our sons have been handed.
On the last night of our stay a fire breaks out in the big house at the end of the island. The big house is where the billionaires sleep, where they come up with their paradigm shifting inventions, where they hold their transatlantic business meetings. We’ve never been allowed to visit the big house. Whenever we try to get a glimpse of what goes on in there we’re run off by armed guards in dune buggies.
As the unstoppable flames chew their way through the tropical hardwood of the big house, the billionaires stagger from the burning porch. Flames roll along the roof, climb the walls. The sky is dancing with glowing embers and ash.
The billionaires sink to their knees on the beaches. In their hands they hold the burned, sodden blueprints and plans. All those inventions. All those rockets and cars and trains.
“It’s all ruined!” the billionaires shout, sobbing. “Everything is ruined!”
In the dark, staring at the weeping billionaires, we pull our traumatised sons closer to us, hold their heads to our chests.
“Now do you see?” we whisper to them.
In the back pockets of our new linen trousers, we can feel the slight weight of the cigarette lighter. We decide we can live with the guilt.
– End –