THROUGHOUT a long and varied experience of French life, I have ever made it my rule to associate with all sorts and conditions of men. With no little pleasure, therefore, I lately received the following invitation :
“Our Marcel,” lately wrote an old friend, “has just taken over a large restaurant in Paris, and my husband and myself are helping the young couple through the first difficult months. Pray pay us an early visit when next here. We shall be delighted to see you to dejeuner or dinner.”
Madame J mire, the writer of these lines, belongs to a close ring, a marked class, to that consummate feminine type the French business woman. Search the world through and you will not match the admirable combination, physical and mental powers nicely balanced, unsurpassed aptitude for organization and general capacity putting outsiders to the blush.
Well pleased with the prospect of fresh insight into bourgeois life, a week or two later I started for Paris, my first visit being paid to Marcel’s restaurant. I had known the young proprietor from his childhood, and Marcel he still remained to me.
What a scene of methodical bustle the place presented ! I was here in the region known as Le Sentierthat part of Paris lying near the Bourse, made up of warehouses and offices, in some degree answering to our own city.
It was now noon, the Parisian hour of dejeuner, for in business quarters the midday meal is still so called, lunch being adopted by society and fashionable hotels only. Marcel’s clientèle is naturally commercial and cosmopolitan. In flocked Germans, Russians, Italians, Japanese, with, of course, English. The Nijni Novgorod Fair could hardly be more of a Babel. In a very short time the three large dining-rooms were filled with well-dressed men and women of all nationalities, no sooner one occupant throwing down his napkin than the linen of his table being changed with what looked like legerdemain, a veritable sleight-of-hand. That changing of napery for each guest bespeaks the con-duct of the restaurant. Here, indeed, and at a few similar establishments in Paris, are to be had scrupulous cleanliness and well-cooked viands of first-rate quality at the lowest possible price.
One franc seventy-five centimes (one and fivepence halfpenny) is the fixed tariff both at déjeuner and dinner. For this small sum the client is entitled to half a pint of a good vin ordinaire, a hors d’oeuvre i.e. bread and butter with radishes, anchovies, or some other appetizing trifleand the choice of two dishes from a very varied bill of fare.
As I glanced at the list, I noted with some surprise that many expensive meats were included salmon, game, and poultry, for instance. Monsieur j père smilingly enlightened me on the subject.
” You should accompany me one morning at five o’clock to the Halles,” he said ; “you would then understand the matter. Every day I set out, accompanied by two men-servants with hand-trucks, which they bring back ladenfish, meat, vegetables, eggs, butter, poultry, and game. I buy everything direct from the vendors, thus getting provisions at wholesale prices. Some articles are always cheap, whilst others are always dear. I set one against the other. Take soles, for instance : soles are always high-priced in Paris, but at the markets the other day I bought up an entire lot, several dozen kilos, and the consequence was that they cost me no more than herrings ! ”
As monsieur and madame the elder and myself chatted over our excellent déjeuner, the young master was busily helping his waiters, whilst his wife, perched at a high desk, made out the bills and received money. Folks trooped in and trooped out ; tables were cleared and re-arranged with marvellous rapidity. Waiters rushed to and fro balancing half a dozen dishes on one shoulder, as only Parisian waiters can, meals served being at the rate of two a minute !
” Next in importance to the quality of the viands,” my informant went on, “is the excellence of the cooking. We keep four cooks, each a chef in his own department, no apprentices, or gate-sauces, as we call them. One of our cooks is a rôtisseur, his sole business being to roast ; another is a saucier, who is entirely given up to sauce-making ”
Here my old friend stopped, my intense look of amusement exciting his own, and, indeed, the matter seemed one for mirth, also for a humiliating comparison. Since the utterance of Voltaire’s scathing utterance, England pilloried as the benighted country of one sauce, how little have we progressed ! In a London restaurant how many sauces could we select from in sitting down to an eighteen-penny meal ? Probably two or three, mint-sauce in May and apple-sauce in October, throughout the rest of the year contenting ourselves with melted butter. Truly, they manage these things better in France. I dare aver that here the thrice-favoured diner could enjoy a different sauce on each day of the year. Again, I could not help making another comparison. The unhappy rôtisseur ! What a terrible sameness, that perpetual roasting from January to December ! The saucier, on the contrary, must be set down as a highly favoured individual, having a quite unlimited field for the play of fancy and imagination.
“The third cooks vegetables, and the fourth prepares soups and stews. Pastry and ices, being in comparatively small demand, are supplied from outside. We employ four waiters- ”
Here, a second time, I could not resist an ejaculation of surprise. At least a score of the nimblest, most adroit beings imaginable seemed on duty, so lightning-like their movements that each, in a sense, quadrupling himself, appeared to be in several places at once. That marvellous adjusting of a dozen dishes, the shoulder doing duty as a dumb waiter, is another surprising feat, perhaps explained as follows : A friend of my own attributes French nimbleness to a difference in the seat of gravity. Why do French folks never slip on floors and stairs, however highly polished ? Because, he says, their centre of gravity differs from our own. Be this as it may, French plates and dishes, when overturned, are attracted to the ground precisely like Newton’s apple.
“Our waiters receive wages,” my informant went on, “and of course get a great deal in tips, sometimes a hundred francs to divide between them in a day. Out of this, however, they have to pay for breakages, and immense numbers of plates and dishes are smashed in the course of the year.”
If Frenchmen can keep their feet under circumstances perilous to the rest of the world, they are naturally not proof against shocks. And in these crowded dining-rooms the wonder is that accidents were not constantly occurring.
D jeuner over, Madame j— mère accompanied me for a stroll on the boulevard. What a difference between the Paris Sentier and the London City !
The weather was neither balmy nor sultry, yet the broad pavement of the Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle was turned into a veritable recreation ground. Here, in the very heart of commercial Paris, as in the Parc Monceaux or the Champs Élysées, ladies and nursemaids sat in rows, whilst children trundled their hoops or played ball. So long as out-of-door life is practicable, French folks will not spend the day within four walls, this habit, perhaps, greatly accounting for the national cheerfulness. Delightful it was to see how old and young enjoyed themselves amid the prevailing noise and bustle, the enormously wide pavement having room for all. The boulevard is, indeed, alike lounge, playground, and promenade. On the boulevard is focussed the life of Paris, and, to my thinking, nowhere is this life more worth studying than in the immediate neighbourhood of the noble Porte St. Denis.
As we strolled to and fro I had a very interesting and suggestive conversation with Madame j’ , senior, and as her share of it throws an interesting light upon French modes of thought, I venture to repeat a portion.
“Yes,” she said, “my husband and myself are both well pleased with our daughter-in-law. She brought our son no fortune-”
” No fortune ? ” I interrupted, incredulously.
“That is to say, no fortune to speak of, nothing to be called a dowry. When advising Marcel as to the choice of a wife we did not encourage him to look out for money ; on the contrary, whilst he could have married into moneyed families, he chose, with our approbation, a portionless girl, but one well fitted by character and education to be an aid and companion to her husband. Suppose, for instance, that he had married a girl, say, with capital bringing in two or three thousand francs a year. She would have been quite above keeping the books and living in the restaurant, and most likely would have needed her entire income for dress and amusements. No, it is very bad policy for a young man who has his way to make to look out for a dot. I have always found it so, more than one young man of my acquaintance having been ruined by a pretentious and thriftless wife. My daughter-in-law, as you see, takes kindly to her duties and position. She is amiable, intelligent, and simple in her habits. With such a wife Marcel is sure to get on.”
For the next few years this young couple will give their minds entirely to business, foregoing comfort, ease, and recreation in order to insure the future and lay the foundations of ultimate fortune. By-and-by, when affairs have been put on a sure footing, they will take a pretty little flat near. Monsieur’s place will be occasionally taken by a head waiter ; madame’s duties at the desk relegated to a lady book-keeper. English and French ideals of life differ. To the French mind any sacrifices appear light when made in the interest of the futureabove all, the future of one’s children. Doubtless by the time this young restaurateur and his wife have reached middle age they will have amassed a small, fortune, and, long before old age overtakes them, be able to retire.
Let no one suppose that sordidness is the necessary result of such matter-of-fact views. Here, at least, high commercial standard and rules of conduct go hand-in-hand with uncompromising laboriousness and thrift ; for in France the stimulus to exertion, the lodestar of existence, the corner-stone of domestic polity, is concern for the beings as yet unborn, the worthy foundation of a family.
The super-excellent education now received by every French citizen is not thrown away. I found restaurant-keeping by no means incompatible with literary and artistic tastean intelligent appreciation of good books, good pictures, and good music.
On our return to the restaurant for tea, we found the large dining-rooms deserted except for three somnolent figures in one corner. One waiter was enjoying his afternoon out ; his companions were getting a nap, with their feet on chairs. All was spick and spanin readiness for the invasion at six o’clock. Meantime, we had the place to ourselves.
In the midst of our tea-drinking, however, a gentlemanly-looking individual, wearing a tall hat and frock-coat, entered, and, after a short colloquy with the young master, passed out again.
“You would never guess that gentleman’s errand,” Marcel said, smiling as he re-seated himself at the tea-table.
” He looked to me like a rather distinguished customer,” I replied ; “some Government functionary on half pay, or small rentier.”
Marcel smiled again.
“That well-dressed gentleman, then, supplies us with tooth-picks, which his wife makes at home. He calls once a month, and our orders amount to about a franc a day. I dare say he and his wife between them make from thirty to forty francs a week, and contrive to keep up appearances upon that sum. It is an instance of what we call la misere dorée” (“gilded poverty “).
Truly one lives to learn. That retailer of cure-dents, in his silk hat and frock-coat, was another novel experience of Parisian lifean experience not without its pathos. I shall not easily forget the gentlemanly-looking man with his long favoris and his odd industry. I add that the English initiative, warehouses and offices being now closed herein from noon on Saturday till Monday morning. Index Of Articles About Paris