By Greg Clark, October 3, 1936
“Paris,” said Jimmie Frise; “Paris, aaaaaahhhhhh!”
“Maybe so,” I admitted, “but I don’t like sitting here on these wicker chairs like this. Right on the pavement.”
“It’s only raspberry vinegar,” Jim reminded me.
“Even so,” I argued, “suppose our minister should walk by?”
“My dear boy,” cried Jim, “you miss the whole point of Paris. Paris is the place you won’t see your minister walk by. You won’t see anybody you know. Frank and open, for the first time in your life, you can sit here on the Boulevarde des Capucines, on a wicker chair on the sidewalk, and look at the world without the world even casting glance at you. It’s a swell feeling.”
“Paris is kind of indifferent, isn’t it?” I admitted.
“The last time we were in the Old World,” said Jim, “we were soldiers and everybody looked at us. We made them look at us. We had drums and brass bands to make them look at us. We missed entirely the chief characteristic of the Old World. I’m glad we came back.”
“What is that chief characteristic?” I asked.
“The fact that nobody pays any attention to you as an individual,” said Jim. “In our country and in the United States people are always looking at you. You are eternally self-conscious. You can’t walk along the street without being aware that somebody is eyeing you. With curiosity or contempt or interest or something. You can’t come in a door, walk across a shop or a room, without seeing eyes raised to you, aware, appraising, watchful, measuring. We are forced to live secretly, guardedly. We can’t be ourselves. Even in our homes we have the feeling some window across the street is armed with watching eyes. We all have curtains on our windows.”
“So we have,” I remembered.
“But here in Paris windows,” said Jim, “are for seeing out of, so they have no curtains except along the sides. And when you come into your hotel lobby nobody looks at you, not even the clerk or the porter, until you go up to him to speak. In the stores the clerks do not even see you until you stop in front of them, and then you would think, the way they act, that you were the most charming person they had ever laid eyes on. In the streets …”
Jim waved his cigarette at the passing throng of Paris. He picked up his raspberry vinegar and held it to the light with an elegant gesture. The French drink the funniest things. They call them aperitifs. Some taste like liquorice, some like caraway seeds, some like postage stamps. They are bright red, bright yellow, bright blue. They are supposed to give the Frenchmen a wonderful appetite. And then the Frenchmen sit down to a meal of coffee without cream and a bun shaped like a crescent.
“The streets,” said Jim, movingly. “The Boulevarde des Capucines, bounded by the Opera, the Louvre and the Madeleine, Aaaaaaahhhh.”
Like Yonge St. With Trees
And on the wide sidewalk before us the casual throng of Paris strolled. And on the pavement the motor traffic attempted suicide. Little modern American-shaped taxis, cream in color with scarlet trim, scorched along with horns at full blast. When a Paris taxi driver steps on the gas with his foot he also steps on the horn with his palm. And even to go fifty feet he tramps the accelerator right to the floor boards. Then he lifts both foot and palm and tramps with both feet on the brakes. The result, a hellish din of horns and screaming tires. But the curious thing is the contrast between the almost panic-stricken motor traffic and the utterly lazy, leisurely, graceful throng on the sidewalks. In London you will see both cabinet ministers and clerks pushing and thrusting through the crowds. In Paris nobody hurries on foot. But on wheels they go mad.
“The trees,” said Jim.
If there were maple trees all down Yonge St., shading the stores, and if all the soda fountains had wicker chairs and tables out on the sidewalk, it wouldn’t be unlike Paris.
“I thought,” I said, “it would be kind of foreign, sort of.”
“The only thing they don’t do in Paris.” explained Jim, “is tear down old churches. Or pull up trees. We start by pulling down old churches and digging out the trees. Then we widen a street. In Paris they tear down everything but the old churches and the trees and then they look at it and say, now what kind of a boulevarde could we have here?”
“And they twiddle their architecture more than we do,” I observed.
“We’re beginning to twiddle back home.” said Jim. “Twiddling is the sign that we are beginning to lose our self-consciousness. Only the self-conscious people dress like inmates of an institution or buy homes like boxes. All our new skyscrapers have twiddles.”
“Now that you come to mention it,” I agreed, “about four out of five of all these stores and cafes and everything are just about the same as we’d see in Toronto or Detroit.”
“Sure,” said Jim. “We’re all related, the French and everybody. A few little differences on the outside. Like the way the French say the word garcon. They sort of snort it. They half swallow it. They have a soft spot somewhere in their throats that goes gug right in the middle of a word. They say gar-so, I say gar-song. But they understand it. Now watch. Gar-song. Gar-song.”
The waiter, a dark, sinister-looking man with beetling black eyebrows, leaped nimbly to Jim’s command.
“Noo,” said Jimmie, holding his cigarette up in a wavey way, “noo vooley avey – er – noo vooley avey a couple more of – how do you say – ?”
“Would ye like a couple more of they pink things?” asked the waiter in a heavy Scotch burr.
“Ah,” I cried. “Aberdeen?”
“Peebles.” said the waiter, sinisterly.
“He’s Scotch,” cried Jim.
“Oo, aye,” said the waiter, darkly. “In Scotland all the waiters are French. In Paris all the waiters are Scottish. A waiter is not without honor, sirr, save in his ain country.”
“Well,” said Jim, sadly, “bring us a couple more of these pink things.”
“Oui, monsieur,” said the waiter, curving away.
Design For Living
“There you see,” said Jim. “It’s a small world.”
“It’s a large world,” I disagreed. “Large and lovely and people can wander all over it.”
“And do,” agreed Jim.
“The only thing,” I said, “I don’t understand about France is the way they have a new premier every few days. The government is always resigning. Here, to look at, is the most peaceful, easy going, contented and indifferent people in the world. All minding their own business. Yet they change governments every few weeks.”
“True,” admitted Jim. “And only last July, this very cafe where we’re sitting was the scene of a bloody riot. People were shot, fifty cops picked wicker chairs out of their hides, the place was a shambles.”
“It’s hard to believe,” I said, as a fierce-looking young man, not more than twenty, a wild rakish youth in a cap over one ear, came wickedly to stand before us, a basket full of violets on his arm, and holding forth a glorious bunch of them to us.
“Cinq sous,” he hissed.
“Five cents,” translated Jim.
“Non, non,” I cried. “A thousand times non. I’ll drink pink carnation juice and sit on a chair in the streets but I won’t carry violets.”
“Buzzey-off,” commanded Jim. And the youth glided viciously away in the crowd.
“He may sell violets,” said Jim. “But I’d hate to tell you what his politics likely are. That’s the trouble with France. Old ladies knit baby clothes while the guillotine smacks down, and young men sell violets while plotting bloody revolution. In Canada, thank heaven, you can tell a Communist or a Tory at a glance.”
“I thought you said we were all brothers,” I reminded him.
“So we are, except in superficial things,” said Jim. “And politics is superficial.”
“We all owe France a lot,” I pointed out. “It did a great job of house-cleaning for all of us about a hundred and fifty years ago. We must never forget that.”
“But it had no new plan ready,” said Jim. “It smashed the existing order and then didn’t know what to do next. And it is still trying to discover a plan.”
“Don’t tell me,” I protested, “that this lovely country, of rich farms and old towns and villages, unchanged in hundreds of years, hasn’t got a plan. Don’t tell me, right here with all these happy, easy people promenading along, that they haven’t a design for living. Why, my dear boy, if I ever saw peace and comfort, here it is.”
“France,” said Jim, “is seething. Its government is Socialist. Wherever we go, we see young men doing this.”
Jim raised his left arm, and clenched his fist.
“And wherever we go,” he added, “middle-aged men are doing this.”
And he raised his right arm with his palm extended in the Hitler salute.
I tilted my chair back and leaned close to Jim.
“The gent next to you,” I whispered, “is listening to every word you utter.”
Jim glanced at his neighbor. A strange-looking man. Well-dressed, but with a dry and wicked face. His skin was tight-stretched over his face and head. His eyes were so gray they were colorless. He looked uneasily away when Jim turned.
“You’ve got to be careful,” muttered Jim, shifting his chair and leaning on his elbows near me, “I tell you. Paris is full of spies. Police agents. Secret service.”
“You shouldn’t wave your arms so,” I cautioned Jim. “Giving that Communist salute might have created another riot here out of a blue sky.”
“I was only illustrating,” said Jim, uneasily. For the pallid man was again leaning back our way, obviously trying to eavesdrop.
“Finish that dentifrice,” I said, “and let’s move on. I don’t like the feel of this place all of a sudden.”
And, indeed, a curious transformation seemed to have taken place. The group of wicker chairs under the awning seemed now tenanted by strangers, not brothers: men holding their breath and waiting. The throng on the streets seemed all of a sudden to be looking at us out of the corners of their eyes. The screech and horning of traffic might be only a camouflage of sound in which a couple of shots would pass all unnoticed.
The sinister Scottish waiter was nowhere to be seen. Jim signaled another wailer, who came over and added up the saucers. Each concoction is served on a saucer on which is printed the amount of the check. Add them up, and if nobody has put a saucer in his pocket for a souvenir, you get the total bill.
“Sept francs, quatre vingt cinq centimes,” said the waiter.
Jim dug out a pocketful of change, copper, bronze, brass and silver, including some six-pences and shilling from England and a couple of quarters, dimes and nickels from Canada. Some of the French coins had square holes in them. These are the ones the taxi-drivers give you back.
“Sept,” said Jim, “cinquante, soixante quinze …”
And he counted out carefully.
Dumped the coins into the waiter’s hand and we started off, for the pallid stranger was excitedly eyeing us, openly, boldly.
“Let’s turn a few corners,” said Jim, as we hurried amidst the slow strolling crowd.
We turned one corner.
“Ohey,” a voice shouted.
We glanced over our shoulders.
A gendarme, cape flying arm outstretched, was after us.
“What did I tell you, Jim?” I moaned.
“Stop before he shoots,” hissed Jim.
That Guggley French
The gendarme, a fine middle-aged man with a wet gleaming eye, spoke sharply to us in a gush of that guggley French that they never teach us in school.
“Monsieur,” said Jim, “noo sum Canadians. Noo care nothing really about politics.”
The gendarme let go another sort of giant popcorn at us.
“I,” said Jim, waving his arms eloquently, “moi, je merely deet a mon ami, here, Mr. Clark, je merely deet que la belle France was divided into two parties. I merely deet, monsieur, that some were for this…”
And Jim gave the Communist fist.
“And some for this.”
And he gave the Fascist salute.
The gendarme shook his head furiously, and tried to take Jim by the arm.
“Attendez,” cried Jim. “Listen. Takey us to Canadian high commissioner. Takey us to pilgrim headquarters. They telley you. We Canadians. We no politique. No politique whatever.”
Down the street came two or three more gendarmes, capes flying.
“We’re sunk, Jim,” I moaned. “We may be in a swell mess.”
The elder gendarme explained to his comrades. They looked at us darkly. They shook their heads.
“Listen, buddy,” said one of the gendarmes, “you can’t get away with that in gay Paree.”
“Thank heaven,” said Jim. “You speak English.”
“Like a native,” said the gendarme, “of Dayton, Ohio.”
“Officer,” cried Jim, joyously “lieutenant, captain, get us out of this mess. We’re Canadians. see? Just over the border. Canadians. We weren’t meaning anything. All I was doing was explaining to my little friend here about French politics. I merely raised my fist, like this…”
“What has politics to do with it?” asked the gendarme. “It’s only ten centimes. That’s about three-quarters of one cent.”
“Ten centimes?” said Jim.
“Sure.” said the gendarme. “You gypped the waiter back here of ten centimes when you settled your bill.”
“Is that all?” cried Jim. “My goodness.”
So we all marched back to the cafe where the manager in his morning coat and seven waiters were waiting anxiously for us and we paid the ten centimes and I handed back the saucer I had slipped in my pocket for a souvenir, and paid two francs that it said on it, and we apologized to the waiter from Peebles, whose name, I learned, was Hoggarth, spelt with two gs. His first name was Andra.
“We thought,” I explained, confidentially, that that guy sitting there with the tight face was a police agent, and that he had overheard us talking French politics.”
“Him?” said Andra. “He’s some kind of a Scandinavian foreigner who sits here all day trying to learn French. I bet he was sore puzzled by your French.”
“Not mine,” said Jim. “You understand it all right.”
“Pairfectly,” said Andra, bowing in that elegant French way.
Editor’s Notes: This story was written when Greg and Jim went on the “pilgrimage” to France for the unveiling of the Vimy memorial. There were several stories that take place in Britain and France.
It is interesting today that Greg would consider sitting in a cafe on a sidewalk weird, as well as trees lining a street. France was undergoing a tumultuous political situation in the 1930s, with the government changing regularly, as they mention. These political problems were thought to be one of the causes of their early defeat in World War Two.
In France, gendarme is a term for the police. French 5, 10, and 25 Centimes coins from this time period had holes in them.