We had a little Euro-break last week, starting with a weekend trip to Brussels, to stay with friends. As tradition dictates, we visited a number of bars and sampled several splendid Belgian beers. At the first hostelry to be blessed with our custom, I was shocked to see a woman at a nearby table light up a cigarette. “Aha!” I thought, as the barman swiftly made his way through the thronging room towards her. “The home of the European Union is not a sensible place to flout the international smoking ban”. He loomed over her, she looked up from her beer, exhaled a blue-grey plume of banned smoke and he gave her an ashtray. The ban has been implemented comprehensively and without opposition or revolt in the UK; Parisians light up outside cafes but don’t venture in with an ignited Gitane, Gallouise, or Disque Bleu. Even in deepest, most rural Ireland, where I imagined they would just turn a blind eye to the new law, a couple of pubs tried it on, got fined and then towed the line. But in Brussels, the seat of European policy making power, they couldn’t give a toss. Later on we visited an establishment which had an ashtray on every table and a row of them all along the bar; not only were half the clientèle puffing away happily, but most of the staff had a tab on the go as they poured frothing demis of Jupiler and Leffe Blonde. For the first time in a year or so, I returned home from a bar with my clothes stinking of smoke, but couldn’t find it in my heart to condemn the Belgians; in fact, a tiny part of me almost admired them.
We spent the remainder of the week in France and on the first day there, I ran out of deodorant. I favour the stick type product and set off to a local pharmacie to find one. Once I’d got over the shock of the price – I know the Euro is strong against Sterling at the moment, but five quid? Anyway, I decided I really couldn’t face spending a week smelling like the inside of Zinedine Zidane’s jock-strap every morning, after the short trip to buy a fresh baguette, via the four stories of steep spiralling stairs in our ‘historic’ apartment block, so I made the purchase. I rushed home, showered, dried myself and applied the newly acquired deodorant. The aftermath of this simple toiletry operation took me on a journey across a sensory spectrum of remarkable scale. Initially, I was aware of a cool, not unpleasant sensation, which gave way to an invigorating, if mildly alarming, tingling. The tingling subsided as I walked into the bedroom to get dressed. A couple of minutes later, just as I was popping my arm into the sleeve of a shirt, the tingling returned. This time it was a little more intense and my alarm progressed from mild to the twitchy-eyed stage. It became clear that my armpits were hosting some sort of synchronised chemical reaction, as the intensity of the tingling increased to a level, which can only be described as burning. The only way I could think of ending my increasing underarm agony, was a return to the shower – BIG mistake. Whatever chemical process was going on, it was clearly enhanced by the addition of water; if you’ve ever seen a lump of sodium dropped in a bucket of water, you’ll know what I mean. In a panic stricken frenzy, I grabbed the soap and set to work, whipping up so much lather that I looked like a failed attempt at cavity arm insulation. Eventually, the pain subsided and I was able to complete my ablutions, dress and head out into the glorious, if expensive, neighbourhood. An hour later, as I sat in a small cafe, enjoying a large espresso – a snip at 6.50 Euros – I noticed the aroma. At first, I thought the waiter must be sporting an excessive amount of very cheap after-shave, although this seemed unlikely – most French waiters would rather gnaw their own limbs off than be caught in possession of poor quality toiletries. It was when I raised my arm to attract his attention that the awful truth dawned on me. I had applied the aromatic equivalent of a permanent tattoo. It didn’t so much prevent odour and perspiration as completely mask it, rather like the smell of a sewage farm might overwhelm that of a buttercup.
As the week progressed, I got used to applying the minute amount of deodorant required to provide at least seventy-two hour protection and my armpits developed a bit of resistance to the chemicals. I thought the offending toiletry device might be confiscated by customs, but no such luck, so I’m still in possession of it. I’ve tried using it as an air freshener in the shed, but quite frankly, the aroma of stale cat food, weed-killer and rotting mouse is infinitely preferable. I daren’t throw it away, as I’m terrified of causing some sort of rural biohazard incident. I’ll have to settle for leaving it in a lead-lined box in the cellar for its half-life, which must run into decades. Give me weapons grade plutonium any day; it’s odourless and far kinder to your armpits.