European distances are a great surprise to Americans. We have all been told, over and over again, that the distances over there are really nothing at all; that it is only in America that there are distances; that in Europe the going from place to place takes so little time that one may count upon spending all his time sight-seeing, the travel itself being negligible. Whereupon the American expects to flit from London to Rome, Paris, Berlin more easily and quickly than from New York to Philadelphia, Boston, Washington. All of which makes for disillusionment!
In the first place, the distances in Europe are long, and in the next place the trains are very slow. That there is no trip so long as from New York to San Francisco is the basis of the mistaken but generally inculcated belief in the short and easy travel of Europe.
As to trains, it is true that Europeans boast of their fast ones, and that many Americans accept their boast without examination; it is true that there are really a few fast ones; but it is also true that the great majority are slow and that European travel is both lengthy and leisurely.
The mere getting from Cherbourg, on the coast, to Paris involves quite a journey, as the distance is 231 miles and the trains take from seven and a half to twelve hours for the trip. Take a train which lets you stop at one or two of the fascinating places on the way and you are in for a pleasure long drawn out. It is only an express train that stops nowhere at all that gets through with even an approach to speed.
Paris itself I shall not attempt to describe; myriad of guide books and books of description have been written about that wonderful city; and yet even in Paris he who looks for the unexpected, the unusual, the unknown is sure to find it.
I remember that one day, when walking at random through the region between the Jardin des Plantes and the Pantheon, a region desolate in itself and more desolate from a number of dreary prisons and asylums, I came upon a street which meant the French Revolution to me more than anything else in Paris; far more than anything in the Rue St. Antoine region, connected though that is, in history and the Tale of Two Cities, with revolutionary activity; for the Rue St. Antoine is now a street mainly of mechanics and artisans and modest prosperity, whereas this street upon which I happened-I think it was the Rue Mouffetard-is a street of ragpickers, chiffoniers, as they are called, who prowl the gutters with hook and broom; a street of poverty, gaunt and grim and terrible; not a street of “show” poverty, to impress strangers, just as there is “show” iniquity, but of the real poverty, of snag-toothed, crouchy, hungry, gnarl-bodied people who step aside on the crowded walks or come creeping emergent from the entrance-ways of the tall and tremulous tenements. I think I never saw so many one-eyed wretches. The vaunted economies of the French show here in a most unpleasant way, as indicated by the treasures gathered to be sorted over and sold; not only rags, but bones-cellars of bones!-and little bags of canine refuse gathered in the parks and destined for the leather factories.
It is a district where the essential backwardness of so much of Paris as to water-service and sewage is most marked, and where ancient doddering women carry water from public hydrants up endless flights of stairs in cone-shaped vessels of tin that are black with age and dirt.
It is well to know that there are such districts, for thus alone can the France of the past and of the present be properly understood; and it is also well to know, on the other hand, somewhat of the length to which arrogant royalty and wealth once went; and this can be understood by little journeys to royal places about Paris; not only the famous Versailles, but such places as Meudon, St. Cloud, St. Germain, Marly-le-Roi.
And the ideal way to see these places, and, incidentally, much of the unusual and unvisited in the country close around Paris, is to take a day’s excursion to some selected point and then take random walks along the terraces, along the country roads, and through the forest paths; one sees in that way, in pleasant weather, so much that is charming, and sees it in such a charming way. Take a train to the chosen point of beginning, walk as long as you choose, and then aim for some little station and a return train to Paris.
One hot day, walking on an offshoot from the old royal road that leads from Marly-le-Roi to Versailles, I saw some big ripe plums fallen from the trees and lying in the road I picked up two or three of them-they were delicious!-but, chancing to speak of it, in the evening, to a French friend, he was horrified. “A Frenchman would not dare!” he said.
“Then it is not proper?” I asked, wondering.
“Not in France! Had you not been an American there might have been trouble.”
“Yet I picked up not more than three plums, and they were not in a field, but lying in the grass in the very road. In America a pedestrian would do that on a country road without hesitation.”
I felt rather proud of America by contrast with this closeness of France, and perhaps I showed that I did, for he retorted, with a smile: “But the matter of boundary-is it also in America that a chicken is safe only if it is not in the road?” And I had to laugh with him.
I thought again of the French Revolution, that greatest of all facts in French history, when, running down into Touraine, and seeing there the most beautiful, the most exquisite of all chateaux, representative of the glories of the days of the ancient nobility, the contrast of all this with the poverty of the old-time peasants, as described by historians and travelers, came to me. And one day, after viewing the glories of Amboise, with its splendid architecture, its circular towers, the marvelous spiral inclined road built to minister to an extravagant fancy for the impossible, I walked back into the country a little and, in the face of a cliff, caught sight of ascending smoke. Something made me look more closely, and I saw that it came from a chimney-that there were other chimneys-that people lived there! Whereupon I climbed up to see.
Yes, they were there; cliff-dwellers, families who lived in caves hollowed out of the soft rock of the countryside. The tiny rooms had natural stone floors, natural stone ceilings and walls; only the front walls in each case had needed building to take the place of what was necessarily destroyed in the hollowing out.
I learned that this kind of rock-living is quite ancient and is not uncommon in that region, and I afterward came upon a whole village of it at Montlouis, below Amboise, on the Loire, and upon other similar places; and always with the sense of the tremendous contrast between lives lived in caves, with children born and reared there and people cooking and eating and sleeping-and dying!-and lives lived in those most beautiful homes nearby-the world-famous chateaux of Touraine.
One of the pleasant discoveries that the visitor to Paris can make is that the well-to-do Parisians, supposedly the most sophisticated of all people, the most worldly, the most blase, the most sated and surfeited with pleasure, know how to go out and enjoy a simple childlike day at an outing! It is therefore well worth while being at St. Germain at the time of its annual fair, early in September, to watch the Parisians go in care-free gayety along the avenues of the forest when they are lined by temporary booths. It used to be that my most interesting memories of St. Germain were of its connection with that picturesque monarch Francis the First, and that unpicturesque exile James the Second, who was given a home here by Louis the Fourteenth, and used to pace up and down the long terrace on a length of carpet-two lengths, to be precise-for flunkies would lay each in front of him in turn, so that his delicately royal feet should not touch the earth; running back and picking up the one just left and then running forward with it to get it down in time. But after seeing a day of the annual fair I realized that it was equal to the other St. Germain associations in interest; although it should never be thought that one class of interest needs to discourage or belittle other kinds, for one may find enjoyment in the things of present-day human life, and yet find no lessening of enjoyment in architectural beauties and historical associations.
The annual fair, the “gingerbread fair,” of St. Cloud follows the St. Germain fair with largely the same booths and amusement makers, and is even more interesting on account of the nearness of St. Cloud to the city, making the crowds far larger; and for several days and nights grown-up Parisians are children, reveling in penny purchases of gingerbread, in the deafening noise of organs, in the horses of the merry-go-rounds, in the clutter and hubbub, the talk and the laughter of the throng.
It was at St. Cloud, one summer day, that I came upon an ancient observance, an ancient celebration that I had never before heard of. It was a feast of the gardeners; and it gives quite as vivid a pleasure to discover an ancient observance, of which no one has told you and of which you have not read, as it does to discover an unvisited locality.
St. Cloud is a little old town that, from the place to which it seems to have scrambled, on the steep hillside above the Seine, looks out brightly toward Paris. The tourist usually sees St. Cloud only in passing through it if driving to Versailles; but the place is itself of pleasing interest, with its many associations, its zigzag streets that attempt the perpendicular, and the great royal park and gardens around the site of the chateau, now vanished, that was so loved by the great Napoleon.
In the park are endless forest aisles; there is water spouting through great carved heads and trickling softly away through long hollows of wrought-out stone; there are pleached walks and ancient retaining walls; there is the glory of countless flowers; and in all the countryside round about there is likewise the splendor of flowers, with magnificent riot of roses reigning supreme. St. Cloud is preeminently a place where a feast of the gardeners should still be observed.
I went to the church, and before the people came I spoke with the serene-faced priest. Often, in Catholic countries, I have found the priest the communicative and courteous source of information, just as in Protestant countries it is often the local rector or minister.
“For hundreds of years,” says the priest, “this festival has been observed; for six hundred-perhaps for eight hundred-” he waves his hand impressively. And distant music sounds in momently increasing clamor-a cheerful clamor, full of life and energy-and toward the open space in front of the church, from the streets which twist and climb so tortuously, people of the town begin to come.
The priest hastily gathers together some boys who are playing gleefully about, and sweeps them into a porch-entrance, and in a little while those boys will be scarlet-gowned, white-surpliced acolytes, sobered into transitory gravity.
Nearer and nearer comes the music, and around a sharp corner appears the head of the procession of the ancient Association of Gardeners. For this is the day of Saint Fiacre, their patron saint, and from farms for miles around the gardeners have gathered and are marching to the St. Cloud church.
A drummer heads the line, and close behind him are the band-ten or a dozen young gardeners, briskly blowing on horns and trumpets and making an inspiring din. Following the band are boys in couples, bearing between them great panniers filled with brioche, a feathery and unsweetened kind of cake, piled in squares and circles and surmounted by bunched flowers.
Behind the boys and the panniered brioche comes a triumph of the gardener’s skill, and the watching groups are quite breathless with admiration as the chef-d’oeuvre passes. It is a huge vase, made of close-cut flowers, woven and wrought into symmetrical designs and mainly in yellow and red. It is slung upon poles, and carried, a heavy load, by four strong men, and out of its top rises toweringly a waving mass of asparagus plumes, splendid hollyhocks, and the familiar goldenrod.
Behind the vase are little girls, with tiny bunches of flowers, and then, in a long line, and each moving with the brisk and nimble step called for by coercive drum and trumpet, come the gardeners, men and women, old and young. And the face of each is a shining beacon of happiness.
The greater number are well advanced in years, and there is a certain pathos in the fact. One feels that the decline of the ancient custom has begun and that the end is almost in sight.
But there are youthful marchers also, and all go two by two, and most go arm in arm-husband and wife, brother and sister, lover and sweetheart, friend with friend.
In the broad space before the church the paraders take on a yet braver aspect, a mien still more full of gay appreciation of the part they are playing in the public eye. And, withal, on the part of everyone, old and young, there is that complete absence of selfconsciousness which is so pleasant a characteristic of the French when they are having a cheerful time. There is time to look about for a few minutes while the gardeners are making their way slowly through the broad portal. Facing the church is a curious stone fragment, a section of wall and arch, ancient, half-crumbled, half-destroyed. Lines of beauty are still suggested; dignity indisputably remains; and you are told-such being the received belief in the town-that this was part of the monastery founded here some fourteen centuries ago by Saint Clodoald, grandson of Clovis, the Merovingian king; and the folk-lore of St. Cloud will also tell you that when certain grandsons of Clovis, after the monarch’s death, were made prisoners by a claimant of the throne, and the widow of Clovis was asked whether she wished them to be slain or to become monks, for that one fate or the other they must surely meet, she chose death for them, whereupon all were slain but Clodoald, who was saved by a faithful retainer, and, becoming a churchman and abbot, founded the monastery about which the town, named, from him, St. Cloud, gradually arose.
But the gardeners are now in church, and the shuffle of many feet has ceased, and the choir breaks into a rhythmic chant. The monster vase has been deposited at the very altar rail, and on either side are the panniers of brioche, and a graceful young girl stands there for a time, holding a candle, lambent burning and tall. The church is decked with ferns, with ivy, with potted plants, and instead of musty odor, or that of incense, the building is cheerful with the mingled smell of flowers and brioche. The men are mostly in drawer-creased black; the women are in the infrequent glory of their very best and probably inherited gowns, bright purple being the prevailing hue. And it is a little fact, but not unworthy of notice, that men and women alike have the broadened thumb that comes from years of pressing of the earth about flower-pots and bulbs and vegetables.
The sermon is especially for gardeners. The serenefaced priest tells them that God is the great gardener of the world, and that it is He who gives the sunshine and the rains, and He who designed the roses and the lilies and the homely vegetables and gave them to mankind.
The sermon over, there comes a burst of unexpected music-a sonorously solemn tune, played by the gardeners’ band, stationed in an alcoved space beside the altar. Inside the church the drum is silent, but now, above the sound of horns and trumpets, rises, distinct and clear, the strain of a piccolo, thin-voiced and sweet. The gardeners let a few notes go awry, but the general harmony is effective, and the people listen in pleased intentness. And, indeed, music ought to be loved well and played well here, for in this church Gounod, who lived for many years at the edge of St. Cloud, used often to play the organ at mass, and his memory is held in loving awe.
The panniers of brioche are now carried through the church, and every one takes a piece, and, after devoutly crossing himself, slowly eats; and the act of gustatory worship brings anew a smiling glow to every face. And the tall Suisse, appareled in blue and gold, and with gold-fringed hat, who, with great steel halberd in one hand and gold-topped mace in the other, has been standing and walking and thumping in front of the altar, now takes himself and his dazzle of glory to a restful eclipse in a chair in an almost hidden nook, and with mace and halberd laid aside and cocked hat doffed, he leans comfortably back against the wall and seems to be a mere mortal like unto ourselves.
With seriousness the service ends, and then the gardeners’ band, from its altar alcove, again breaks forth, as if irrepressibly, and this time the tune is so gay, so secular, so frolicsome that every toe in the church tingles with an impulse toward terpsichorean friskiness.
With the great vase towering in the van the gardeners go out again into the bright sunlight, and in front of the church the line re-forms. “Deux a deux,” ; says the leader, quietly; and your thoughts are for a , moment irresistibly carried homeward, and to the “Doozydoo” which has vigorously danced itself through every town and village in America, with a vim increasing with the increase of distance from France. “Deux a deux”-but the words are not needed, for it is always two by two that the gardeners march.
The groups of townspeople watch with an inward interest, but without outward and visible sign. When you come to know the St. Cloud folk you know that this is characteristic. They never suffer interest or approval to become apparent. The sense of having pleased them must live by faith alone.
The marchers reach the Rue Royale, a street bent and twisted as if with age, as it climbs the steep hill; and, indeed, it might well be so, for there are unmistakable signs of ancientness in its wavering and indented line. It is so ancient that memory of man runneth not to the contrary, and we may feel assured that when, before the Battle of Crecy, the English, as told in the gallant pages of Froissart, burned St. Cloud, on its height looking over at near-by Paris, the knights and men-at-arms of Edward the Third went up and down along the bending line now called the Rue Royale, although no house now standing can tell of such antiquity.
There is no intention on the part of the gardeners to march near places of especial note, and so it is quite by chance that their drummer and trumpeters lead them past the paved passage opening into the sombre court where Henry the Third was slain. The spot is unmarked, and even the court itself is never found by tourists, but the traditions of the townsfolk preserve the memory of the exact place.
The marchers turn into the broad avenue which leads by the barracks, and hundreds of soldiers stand at the windows or gather at the entrance of the drillyard and watch the gladsome procession. And next the gardeners drum and trumpet their way to the house of the mayor, who, stately and dignified, has been awaiting them; and they formally offer him brioche, and he eats it, and he speaks cordially to them and shakes the hands of as many of the women and the men as are not too shy and diffident to be greeted by him.
Then, more gay, more blithesome than ever, this semi-serious visit over, they march to the Park, the ancient Royal Park-and the great gates are swung wide, and in they buoyantly go, as a right, where of old their ancestors humbly entered on sufferance; and white-capped peasant women, endlessly knitting, glance at them, from benches of carved stone used of old by nobles and courtiers.
Following the march comes a great dinner at a restaurant near the park, and then, with the early evening, after several hours of intermission, there begins the gardeners’ ball. And numerous young gardeners, youths and maidens, too shame-faced to march in the parade, in these days of change, are now among the happiest and most conspicuous. Never at any ball did one dance more swiftly succeed another; never did musicians work harder; never were partners more gallantly sought out, more tirelessly spun about, than by these broadthumbed men. Indeed, when one knows how uncourteous a saint was Saint Fiacre himself, it is diverting to see his fete day concluded with such gallant devotion; for Saint Fiacre would not even allow a woman to come near his home!
But no thoughts of the crusty grumness of their patron saint disturb these celebrators of his day. The music grows more brisk, the dancers more frolicsome, and Saint Fiacre is thus honored till the coming of daylight. Index Of Articles About Paris