Santino was unusually short in the leg and, in his mid-twenties, was already rapidly losing his hair. He had recently come from Argentina to France to train as a tour guide. He was earnest about his vocation and hoped one day, he told us, to become a guide specializing in Unesco World Heritage sites. To this end he was studying every night into the small hours, cramming into his head as much French history — and whatever else guides have to learn to pass the rigorous guiding exams — as he possibly could.
When Santino smiled, his eyes closed automatically and the effect was endearing until one saw the abjectness. During the week the impression deepened that at some point in his life he had suffered a great tragedy — apart from the overnight hair loss — and his training to be a guide was a fresh start in life.
So far his impression of French history was that it had happened in sections, each one introduced by a fanfare of trumpets. He was big on Henry IV — the good king who came to a sticky end — and on the essential facts of the Wars of Religion, such as that they were fought between Catholics and Protestants. He had dutifully tried to memorize the successive French kings. Also significant dates in French history, though some of these were more immediately accessible than others, and we had to stand idly or talk among ourselves while he angrily thrashed his brains for the right one. Because his English was not quite as good as he hoped or imagined it was, the same applied while he continued to search for the right word after all of our increasingly wild suggestions had been rejected.
The Palace of Fontainebleau came at the end of a week during which he had also guided us around a grim-looking medieval castle and an elegant chateau built on the massive ramparts of an earlier fortress. In his zeal to impart as much of his scanty, hastily assembled historical knowledge as possible, Santino was jealous of our attention and one came away from each of these places with the impression of having looked at his tragically earnest face and its frustrated contortions for two to three hours and seen little else. His recitation of what he could recall of the bland facts was unleavened by the slightest trace of humor. Which was such a shame. If he had told us on day one that traditionally French peasants don’t mind being pissed on, as long as it’s from a great height, it would have been all we needed to know and he could have had the rest of the week off.
The Royal Palace of Fontainebleau was a grand and fitting finale to the week. Except that once again Santino’s wanting to stuff us with facts obliged us look at his face instead of at the ornate splendor forming the background to it. The first signs of his party’s rebellion came here, in Henry II’s mistress’s boudoir. The walls and ceiling were adorned with eroticized female nudes and lascivious satyrs, life-sized. The effect was like stumbling on an orgy at its peak. In Santino’s innocence, however, the significance of the decoration was lost on him. In fact, I don’t think he even noticed it. Neither did he realize he was in a king’s mistress’s bedroom. (We knew because we had all surreptitiously glanced at the information plaque, which was in English.) Nor even that it was a bedroom.
He was waffling on about God knows what, and was racking his brains for either a date or a word in English, when he noticed with benign annoyance that our attention had wandered away from his face and was transfixed by the sculptured eroticism, which was stunning. To recapture our attention he indicated a devilish face behind him that appeared to be leering at us over his shoulder. ‘I don’t know what is this,’ he admitted candidly. ‘It’s a satyr,’ said the best-looking woman of our party. He was astonished. ‘Is Satan?’ he said. ‘No,’ she said. ‘A satyr.’ Now he was panic-stricken at not knowing something that we all did. ‘What is this satyr?’ he said. The best-looking woman approached him, laid a caressing hand on his young shoulder and in a pantomime whisper said: ‘Santino. It’s all about sex.’ He went beetroot. ‘But I did not know this,’ he said angrily, suggesting that it was a downright scandal that he hadn’t been told.
In Marie Antoinette’s boudoir I decided to take the plunge and tell him he talked too much and that we were, in any case, overloaded with historical information. ‘Santino,’ I said. ‘I can hardly remember the name of our hotel, let alone anything you are saying.’ He was devastated and I thought he was going to cry. ‘But I do my best!’ he wailed.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.