An American at Home in Europe
HOUSE-HUNTING AND HOUSEKEEPING IN BRITTANY, PARIS, AND THE SUBURBS OF PARIS.
IN the next place, — for the prejudice against going back to the beginning of the world to tell how it all came about is well founded, — in the next place, then, we landed at Cherbourg the last of July. It is no “editorial we” here employed: my pronoun refers to our family of two, and this family, if I recollect aright, had been married just two years to a dot. We by no means hold up our modest housekeeping and househunting experiences abroad as a model; indeed, I fear we shall too often prove “ the horrible example.” When we spoke of being gone two years, our friends in America thought it a long time, and we ourselves hardly believed in it; but nearly four years have rolled away. Our experiment extended its proportions, and, so far as I can see, we do not seem even yet disposed to go back, and leave this pleasing Nice, this warm, sunny, fragrant, friendly Riviera, which became our chosen harbor of refuge after many wanderings, and from which I write.
We had no set destination. We did not want a great many practical things that other people want; we were not in search of good schools, musical advantages, improving society, in the usual sense, nor a climate to restore our shattered health. We wanted to gratify to the full that taste for antiquity and romantic tradition which is so American, though it is the way to represent us as only modern and practical; and at the same time to test personally the cheapness of foreign living, of which we have all heard so much. Our theory was that, being a man of letters, I could write as well, or as ill, on one side of the water as on the other ; and it appeared, too, that the sound advice to reduce your divisor, if you can’t increase your dividend, could not be carried out under such favorable circumstances by any other plan. When it comes to figures, it will be seen that this promise was justified, and notable economies were possible. Indeed, I am afraid our figures are of such a character that anybody who may be looking for a hint of practical advice herein must take these prices “ and upwards, as hotel-men and storekeepers are wont to advertise; for I think it would be very difficult to depart much from our prices downwards.
Other people simply traveled; we meant to go to housekeeping in romantic places, and see the life in them through and through. I think we had an idea that we might even seek some French village, and find entertainment enough in the quiet life to be found there. There would be certain to be some good architecture, for it is scattered everywhere, and plenty of history ; perhaps for the American habit, which is used to making much of a little, there would even be too much history. We would go one day to the local fête, another to see the administration of justice, another to a marriage at the mairie, and the like ; we should probably come to know the mayor, the doctor, the curé, and other local dignitaries, and, in short, study the place in complete detail. What is the matter with such a programme as that ? If it be true, as our romancers so largely incline to represent, that the choicest material for fiction is in the few vestiges of foreign life lingering about our outskirts at home, why should it not be infinitely more interesting to plunge over head and ears into foreign life itself, — foreign life entire and free from admixture ? Remark how I say, very skeptically, if it be true. Our plan had really no need of any such argument; it had plenty without it. So, then, I begin.
It almost seemed at first as if Cherbourg itself might do. There at once was all the traditional French atmosphere : the silvery-gray and warm tones ; the uniforms ; the peasants, — the men in Millet-blue blouses, and the women in white caps fresh as so many snowflakes. And there was Napoleon prancing on horseback in a wide paved square, promising to renew in the great navy yard before him the marvels of Egypt. There was a beach with a pretty Casino, too ; but this was suffering, as were all the bathing-beaches along the coast, from an exceptionally cold summer. Brittany with its neighborhood is a rainy country, and this peculiarity was made unusually apparent that year. It did not rain all the time, it is true, and the gleams of sunshine gave charming effects of broken light; but no sooner was your umbrella down than you must put it up again, and that finished by becoming embêtant, as you would say on the spot.
Cherbourg was not even a very good place to rest in. We connect with it an uncommon clatter of wooden shoes over the stones, a booming of heavy carts and cabs, a shrieking of whistles in the port, a piping of bugles and trotting along of troops, very early in the morning, at that double-quick which has become the pace of the modernized athletic French soldier. We did not ask the price of any houses at Cherbourg, but we first became acquainted there with the Saint Michel whose name figures so prominently on all bills of houses to let. I believe we had, for a moment, an amusing idea that the various places billed “pour le jour de Saint Michel prochain ” (for the Saint Michael’s day next coming) were for some possible fine street procession then to come off, of which their windows might afford an exceptionally good view. But the phrase stands simply for the beginning of the October term, — “ the Michaelmas term,” as they say in England. From that day principally, and the 1st of April secondarily, the renting of houses and apartments begins ; and if you are not on hand to share in the general movement, you may expect to put up with rather poor leavings.
We took our few days of needed rest at Mont Saint Michel ; and from that island rock, all one prodigious abbey, so curious and so good after its kind that the government has made a national monument of it, we looked back across miles of wet shining sand to Avranches. One would not exactly live at Mont Saint Michel, but it would be most charming to have it within a stone’s - throw, its fascinations added to those of Saint Malo, Cancale, Concarneau, and all the rest, if one chanced to live in that part of the world. To note a practical detail, there were beds in the old-fashioned room they gave us, up among the ramparts, which shut into large alcoves, or closets, with folding doors. We thought the plan quite worthy of American invention, at first, but finding it adopted also in our modern Paris apartment, later on, we fell out of conceit with it; those perverse doors were forever in the way, — always open when they should be shut, or shut when they should be open.
We cherished the idea of passing the hot weather at one of the little Brittany bathing-stations before actively beginning our campaign ; but the hot weather obstinately declined to appear. Dinard, the most considerable of these stations, seemed much too modern to our eyes. The same reproach could not be made against fine old Saint Malo, well walled in on its promontory, and with the genial clumsiness about its marine life that painters like. To me there has always been something in a bit of battlemented wall on a height that nearly dispensed with all further recommendation ; but do you know that this taste is not shared by all the world ? Can you conceive of there being people who do not like walled towns ? Prepare to be not a little astonished, then, when I tell you that even a person very near to this expedition, that “ Madame,” that “ S-,” that — that — in short, the other half of the expedition, whose opinion in the matter of home-making was naturally of high importance, found, on trial, that they gave you a “ shut-in feeling. ” Shall I dwell here upon the want of logic in this view, since their whole theory and reason for existence were rather to give other people a shut-out feeling ? However, it is a taste that can be acquired, — as well, let me say, as abated, — and we came in our time to live in a walled town that would have warmed the heart of Sir Walter Scott or of Froissart.
Some strangers live in Saint Malo, and a habitation there, though dear if taken only for the summer season, would be reasonable enough for all the year round. It was the recollection of Victor Hugo’s grandiose fiction, The Toilers of the Sea, and of the melancholy harmonies of Châteaubriand, who is buried there, that chiefly led us to Saint Malo. It was Feyen-Perrin’s poetic picture, at the Luxembourg, A Return of OysterCatchers, that led me personally to Cancale — and a disappointment. Oysters are a controverted point internationally, and I do not enter upon that; the cliffs and the limpid greenish-blue water are lovely, but the Cancalaise women, instead of being the dream-maidens of the picture, balancing their nets against the sky like a beauteous procession with banners, are plain, and even squalid, to a degree.
These earlier wanderings were but a preliminary to Dinan, eight or ten miles back in the country, south of Dinard. We knew of Dinan before leaving America; the romancers have dealt with it, and we had heard pleasant things said of it by a group of artists and their friends who used to go there to sketch. The prettiest way thither is up a little sylvan river, the Rance, which narrows into a still more sylvan canal. The steamboat, running you aground a few times incidentally, as it works its way up the exiguous channel, lands you under a fine high stone viaduct, at a point where, in climbing a moderate steep to the town, you will pass through the old portcullised gateway of Jersual. It is part of the mediæval defenses left behind them by the dukes of Brittany ; for the bastions, the crenelations, the donjon keeps, exist here, too, in imposing prominence. Only, let it be said at once, in the interest of such as might dread gloomy impressions, that the greater part of the old fortifications has been turned into a charming green promenade. This is a plan you frequently find adopted as a happy compromise, where such antiquities are not swept out of sight altogether.
Dinan seems larger than its population of eight or nine thousand would appear to warrant ; perhaps the cobblestones, set with their thin edges upwards, which early begin to make a sort of penance of your walking about in exploration of it, have something to do with the illusion. It is gray and ivy-grown, plentifully supplied with old arcaded houses, quaint shop-fronts, and the graver architectural monuments of the most interesting sort. The English colony have built a quarter of their own, spick-and-span-new houses, very little in keeping with the old town. There are an English church, tennis courts, a circulating library, and an English club. At the latter I found myself, though a stranger, heartily entertained by one who insisted that he must pay off to me an old favor he had received from some other American. The climate cannot be very severe in winter; the character of the vegetation shows this. Indeed, I heard of two persons who had kept a record of temperature respectively at Dinan and Cannes, and had found it not to vary greatly, — though I should be inclined to doubt this unless in some exceptional season. There are similar English settlements scattered everywhere over the Continent. Each has its peculiar local reason for existing. Those throughout northern France have the standing advantage of nearness to England. If you have occasion to run over to London, it is a very slight matter, and you do not impair your economies by the cost of long journeys. Although these settlements have been begun, almost as a rule, by artists and literary men, who had found something that especially pleased them, yet this modest class of people have an involuntary way of creating publicity, and they find themselves followed, in course of time, not merely by the well to do, but by the great of the world, who want to try for themselves the localities that have become so famous. Thus, there were major-generals, bishops, and titles of note among the frequenters of Dinan; and going, one day, on foot, to see the Renaissance château of La Conninais, down in the valley by the mineral spring, I found it occupied by a great parliamentary leader. The seeming check proved to be only one more occasion for an experience of English kindness; for, although the occupants of an historic monument are by no means held to be agreeable to the clients of an over-zealous guidebook, I was courteously shown all that was important to see.
I went further, on this same jaunt, to the ruins of La Garaye, a château of the gay, elegant Francis I. period, looking like an abandoned fairy palace in a lonesome wood. I should not otherwise have acquired that intimate idea of the country which it is desirable for one to have of the country surrounding the place he may think of choosing for an abode. I should not have known, for instance, that system of sunken roads which take you across the land without being visible from its surface. They are often ten or twelve feet deep, — deep enough to hide not only a pedestrian, but a, whole farm wagon with its load ; and in their sunless depths linger clayey mire and standing pools. There is a mystic solemnity about the country, as if the spirit of its old Druids hovered over it still; it would require plenty of sunshine to brighten it, but sunshine, unfortunately, it does not get. The peasants are silent and solemn, too, in keeping with the tone of the place. A Brittany school of painters have shown us all this, but somehow there is such a decorative quality in the pottery, embroideries, furniture, and even the costumes of sombre dark blue and black, relieved by the sparkling white caps, that you do not bring yourself to believe in so much solemnity till you have seen it for yourself.
The very first house we looked at, at Dinan, was charming. It seemed to be a prosperous grange made over into a villa. The approach was through a farm garden, and thence, by a green door in a wall, through a flower garden. It had pleasant nooks, blue and white wall papers and chintzes, and many of the old oak Breton wardrobes with rich brass mountings, which the English proprietor had picked up in the peasant interiors of the district. But it was much too large ; it was furnished, and we were already coquetting with the idea of buying our own furniture, for the pleasure of artistic “ finds ” and bargains ; the rent, too was something like a thousand dollars a year. I was already carrying in mind, as a sort of basis, a taking old manor house, halfway between Trouville and Honfleur (of course far too large for us), for which, rather meagrely furnished, an American family we had known had paid four hundred dollars a year. Of unfurnished habitations there was a dearth, as there is apt to be. The foreign colony would not be likely to have them ; and the truth seems forced upon you that if you want something attractive and hygienic, among the older residences, in these small places where there is little moving about, it must be a matter of long previous search and negotiation. Perhaps you might pay somebody handsomely to turn out for you, but this would take both time and money, even if it could be done at all. A small apartment, that would not have been bad after you once got there, might have been had in a sculptured old hotel near the Place des Cordeliers for three hundred francs, but the entrance was vilely impossible. In the Place Saint Sauveur, facing close up to the buttresses of the gray old church, with a view of the sylvan valley, near by, over the parapet, there was vacant a small stone house for five hundred francs. Here we could drink our deep draught of mediævalism; but the house faced due north ; it was in a condition to need cleaning with shovels rather than with brooms, and water trickled in rivulets down the natural rock of its foundations.
An uneasy feeling all the time that it was necessary to wait for the rain to stop, and to see how the places would appear under settled daylight, impeded all this house-hunting. But the rain did not stop ; it only increased. The destiny of men is dependent, after all, upon small circumstances. Brittany was not down on the cards for us. We left damp, gray, dripping Dinan behind us, and set out directly for Paris. In a great capital distractions can be found even in the rain.
On the way it perversely turned hot and dusty, and our suddenly formed resolution was shaken. We looked with a certain longing at Chartres, then at Rambouillet, but did not really yield to temptation till we reached Versailles, which had been on our vague mental list. Captivated by the great park of Le Nôtre and the fine traditions of the court of Louis XIV., we left the train at Versailles, and went to housekeeping there for a month. Our lodging was on the Rue de la Paroisse, and we used to go through the Gate of the Dragon, opening just at the end of it, past the Basin of Apollo, and so up to the esplanade in front of the palace. The Basin of Apollo is where the best of the fountains play, in the grand monthly exhibition of the spouting waters; but in our day it was torn up for wholesale repairs, and we used to hurry by it as rapidly as possible. We tired ourselves — an agreeable, well-paid fatigue, I am sure — in the endless galleries of the palace, but there were few days when the weather allowed us to enjoy the yet more enticing park. Finally there came one such, a perfect summer day, so delightful among those vast alleys and other vagaries of sculptured foliage, with their quaint population of statues, as to wipe out the memory of a multitude of disappointments. We took our lunch with us, and spent a long day at the further end of the park. It is a point so remote that it used to seem as if nobody else had ever been there. The hasty bands of tourists from Paris scurry about the palace and nearer alleys, and rarely go beyond the Trianons. We rested in the shade, under the high railing that cuts off the royal domain from the farming country towards Saint Cyr. There are vast carpet stretches of greensward ; the roads between the noble straight avenues there are greensward, too, hardly broken by a wheel-track. You see an ancient woman gathering fagots, like a witch, or a solitary officer trying the paces of a new charger, preparatory to going down to command his men, who are practicing throwing pontoon bridges over the neglected southern arm of the great fish-pond. The palace is much better from that interminable distance than near by, since its slope of ground serves as a sort of pedestal; and, with the play of light and shade upon it, at the end of its long vista, you do not mind so much its monotonous drab and total lack of sky-line. The formal park has here relapsed into nature again, like some fine gentleman of the old régime who has abandoned the artificial court, and taken to a life of philosophy and simple rural tastes. There is something extremely grateful, restful, and pensive about these noble alleys of green, going on and on and on in unbroken directness. I should think one might be very happy who had the chance to walk in them often ; and we still think the choice of Versailles a good one, and look back to it as the pleasantest of all the suburbs around Paris, though the exceptional season still pursued us, and ended by driving us away.
The town itself was silent, without gavety, sunk in slumber soon after nightfall. Even the tramway seemed to steal away to Paris, on its wide shaded avenue, with a discreet, hushed air. A certain Hortense, a nice-looking young servant, reticent and with a sad expression, as if she had some history to conceal, did our first, cooking for us, and gave us our first acquaintance with the useful femme de ménage system. The femme de ménage comes to do your day’s work, or any part of it you like, for about six cents an hour, and returns to her home to sleep. It is a recognized thing, like going to a trade or other occupation. By this system, you do not have to provide a chamber for her in your apartment, and if she comes only a part of the day you do not even have to feed her. I mention for the moment only the advantageous side of the system.
At Versailles, too, S-, flanked by Hortense as chief of staff, after a first attempt alone, did her earliest marketing. It is a veritable ordeal, as she represents to me, and the worst of it is that it is one that has to be renewed in each foreign country, and, to some extent, always continues. Shrewd insidious or crabbed old women stare hard at you, to throw you into confusion, if possible, by their appreciation of the fact that you are a novice and a stranger. They practice extortion on all hands, and return impudence, or affect to toss back their lettuce or plums into the basket in disdain, if you attempt to bargain. I think no masculine mind, in superior pride of intellect, will be much inclined to smile at the difficulties of mastering all the new qualities and quantities of the received kinds of provisions, and keeping a proper eye out for taking novelties. To estimate in kilogrammes and litres instead of pounds and quarts, and in francs and centimes instead of dollars and cents, is simple enough, I grant you, in cold blood ; but to do it under fire, as it were, and know where you are in your economies, is a matter of long and serious practice. Suppose it is suddenly sprung upon you, for instance, that you have eggs to the amount of soixante-dix centimes, mushrooms for quatre-vingt-quinze, and four hektos of butter at trente-huit the hekto, will you remember instantly that these are simply fourteen, nineteen, and seven and three fifths cents respectively, and that four hektos is four tenths of a kilo, which is two and one tenth pounds ? I should very much doubt it. Then, too, the difficulties of language come in. However glib you may be with it, it will not always serve; for the lower order of people, the world over, have a way of mouthing or chopping their words, or changing them into a patois of their own, which renders them all but unintelligible.
44 Even if you get them to send a written account, it is n’t much better,” Swas given to complaining, in these days. “ They make their figures all alike, and nothing is in the least distinct but the sum total.”
However, this is one of the conditions of the problem; it is an ordeal to be met, — the earlier and more bravely, the better. A personal acquaintance with prices is indispensable as a check, even if the marketing is afterwards to be committed to another. Surely, some of the hardships of the campaign are offset, too, by the never-failing supply of humorous episodes that arise, and the bright, bustling character of these market scenes, in which a good part of foreign picturesqueness resides.
When the rain came down and dampened the gayeties of a gingerbread fair, and put out its strings of paper lanterns, it dampened anew our fancy for rural life, and again we turned our attention to Paris. I went in to see what could be done in the way of permanent quarters there, and, finding something to our liking, we soon took possession. Among vague plans we had contemplated in advance was one that would be a pleasant thing, if feasible, — to live a year in each of the great capitals of Europe in turn. Paris proper had entered no more into our scheme than this, but now many considerations, not necessary to set down here, made it seem the best thing to do. In Paris we must expect to live rather high up, as the houses run six and seven stories into the air, and, except in the. most expensive, there are no “ lifts,” or elevators. But how often you hear it said by artistic people at home, enthusiasts for foreign life, that in Paris you do not mind all those stairs, as you would elsewhere! — they are the custom; and then there are so many distractions that all drawbacks are swept away. We came to have a somewhat different opinion on this subject, later, but we had no great prejudice, for the moment, against a quatrième or even a cinquième.
We ruled out the quarter about the Arc de Triomphe, the colony of the wealthy strangers, and plunged into the midst of more thoroughly French surroundings. That exception apart, I trust it will be seen that we were governed by no narrow exclusiveness, for we searched in sites so far apart as the hill of Montmartre ; the Place des Vosges, in the Marais, with the house of Madame Sévigné ; the Luxembourg; and the Invalides. Montmartre is the most picturesque thing in all Paris ; and, as it is a landmark from every side, it repays this prominence by returning a wide view over the city and the country beyond. I recollected visiting there, years before, a young American literary man and painter, not a little known to fame, who, with the aid of a Greek servant brought back from his campaigning in the Russo - Turkish war, led a charming family life in a small house of his own. I remember it was entered through a green door in a garden wall. What is the standing fascination of a green door in a garden wall, and do others share it with me ? Well, the studios were still there along the boulevards below ; the view was as fine as ever from the windmills above; the great votive church, building ever since the war, was finished; but, whether I had forgotten the address or the small house itself had disappeared, it could not be found. The quarter itself had grown even more shabby and less reputable than of old, and we were told afterwards that it was not pleasant at all times, for ladies especially, to pass along through its teeming and noisy life.
On the whole, the staider portion of the Latin Quarter, under the shade of the university and schools, seemed the most promising for our case. Away from the dazzle of the great shops and the mighty rush of the central boulevards, it would naturally, we said, have the habit of dealing with frugal-minded people, and looking with content upon moderate prices. There are some houses along the Rue Madame and the Rue du Luxembourg giving, either front or rear, into the Luxembourg garden. That seemed a particularly attractive point. We had not been satiated with clipped vegetation and statuary at Versailles, — only tantalized; and if we could have had the ancient domain of Catherine de Médicis under our eyes, it would have been worth while indeed. The sign “ To Let ” was hung out on a fresh-looking house in the Rue du Luxembourg. There was only a cinquième to be had, however. It was large enough, consisting of a salon, dining-room, three principal bedrooms, and the rest.
“ And the price ?” we asked the beaming concierge. A concierge, on first and brief acquaintance, is always beaming.
“ Two thousand francs, m’seu et ’dame,” she replied.
“That is the lowest price ? ”
“Mon Dieu ! one can always see the proprietor; there is no harm in that. There may be a small diminution.”
Generally there is a small diminution on seeing the proprietor in person, but not very much. We thought two thousand francs for a fifth story too high in several senses, though I dare say, considering the accommodation, the rate was not excessive.
Accident led us into the pleasant quarter of the Invalides, which I doubt if we should ever have thought of looking up expressly. It remains a sort of stillwater point, — tranquil, roomy, healthy, and reasonable in prices, with all Paris about it, — the rich, fashionable district one way, overcrowded, grimy outskirts the other. I don’t quite understand it, but fancy that another tramway line or two will finish it, and set it swirling with the general movement. It is a precinct, where people tell you, as in America, that they recollect well when there was nothing but gardens where you now see solid blocks of houses. The gilded dome of the Invalides presides over it, like a fine local planet, to take the place of the sun when that is missing, which is often. Numerous wide avenues, planted with quadruple or octuple rows of trees, cross at obtuse angles and make a sort of continuous garden. They abound in the names of heroes of the old régime, as the stout admirals Duquesne and De Suffren, the marshals De Villars and De Saxe, and keep the Invalides in general view as their objective point. It is a part, too, of the stately Faubourg Saint Germain, and there still remain a number of the fine old residences of great families of the faubourg, standing free in their own grounds. When we were settled, we were fortunate enough to have those of the Prince de Léon and the Count de Chambrun quite under our eyes, — both real châteaux.
In the Place Saint François Xavier there was a ground floor for fourteen hundred francs. The rooms were large and fine; there was gas for cooking, as well as a range, and the house was exceptionally handsome. The entrance hall, for instance, was fifteen or twenty feet wide, and in tessellated marble. We should surely have made a good impression on our friends, in that house; but we agreed that there was something gloomy about a ground floor, no matter how many stories of basement might be under it, and nothing else was vacant there except at the very top, — I have noted it down as a seventh story, — which was to be had for twelve hundred francs. In another handsome house, just around the corner, on the Avenue de Villars, was a fifth story for eleven hundred and fifty francs. There were, naturally, more of these apartments than any others to rent. My impression, too, is, that the exposure of all these was rather northerly.
We found our affair at last about the corner of the Avenue Duquesne and the Avenue de Breteuil. It was an entresol that caught our eye, — that is to say, up only one pair of stairs, — and for no more than eight hundred francs. The house was fresh, and sufficiently comme il faut. There were shops under it, it is true, as there were not under those last mentioned; but it is the custom to have shops under your house, on the Continent. We were on the point of taking it. But why put too fine a point upon it ? — we had taken it, and had to get out of it afterwards by means of considerable negotiation and an exchange. As the day was often gray, the matter of determining your exposure was apt to be difficult; and an unblushing concierge assured us that a flood of sunshine came pouring into that entresol. When we came actually to test it, we found that no ray of sun could ever reach it except in midsummer.
The alternative was a cinquième ; the price the same. We climbed to it up a neat, well-kept staircase, waxed and polished. It cannot be gainsaid that it was a long pull, but it would have been impossible, I should think, not to be delighted with the brightness there, the quite remarkable view. There were the Place, the fine church, and the châteaux in front; the long lines of trees on the boulevard ; the Invalides to the left, the artesian-well tower to the right, and notable monuments in the distance, even off to the dome of the Pantheon and the Tower of Saint Jacques. A balcony ran past our windows. It is the custom, in a great Paris house, to give a balcony only to the fifth story, partly out of compensation, I suppose, and to the first; the latter probably on the principle of overloading him that already hath. The morning sun came in, and was well reflected from the polished parquetry floors ; the wall papers were in good taste ; the dining-room was wainscoted ; the little kitchen, which had half the look of an alchemist’s laboratory, was tiled with blue tiles. When you were once there, nothing could be more cheerful. We took it, and as often as we went out among our various friends, now to spick - and - span - new Rue de Bassano, now to dark and narrow old Rue Notre Dame des Champs, and even — yes, even to Rue Marbeuf and Avenue Mareeau, though these were pure luxury, and so out of the question, we always came back thinking our own apartment was much the best. No doubt, too, our friends, when they came to see us, all went away thinking theirs was much the best, and scolding at us for our stairs ; which they continued to climb, nevertheless, with an amiable kindness I have often wondered at. Later on, I believe we were sometimes inclined to ask ourselves the use of all our stir about sunshine, when we found how little sun there really was in a Paris winter.
The rent did not include ten francs to the concierge, which it is necessary to pay to bind the bargain, twenty francs for water, sixteen francs for door and window tax, etc., nor fifty francs for a house tax, which we did not know about till the end of the year; so that the total was nearly nine hundred francs instead of eight hundred. But think what you would get for that sum, say one hundred and eighty dollars, in any American city ! To be sure, the difference carries with it the sacrifice of various conveniences : you have the high staircase, the cooking is done by charcoal, you must burn lamps instead of gas, and you have no fixed bath-tubs, but must have recourse to portable bathtubs of your own. On the other hand, it is accompanied by respectability, whereas at home such a rent would mean impossible squalor. You pay a quarter’s rent in advance, and, if you wish to go away, you are held to give a congé, or notice, of three months. Our quarter began the 15th of October, but, as the lodging stood vacant, we were allowed to take possession long before that time without extra charge.
One often admires the ingenuity of design in the Paris apartments. They are adapted to every variety of size and space, yet are almost always compact, well arranged, and sightly. A little diagram of ours will be clearer than a description.
The salon was about fifteen feet in width; the other dimensions can be judged of from that. The principal bedroom was well lighted from a large court, the kitchen and corridor from a small one. In the dining-room is seen the curious closet alcove for a bed, mentioned above. The three charcoal holes in the kitchen, to which various odd contrivances for roasting, etc., were adapted, proved insufficient for cooking, and we put in a small portable range, called, I may patriotically mention, a fourneau Américain.
The furnishing of our new domain, modest as it was, took more than a month, principally because we insisted upon picking up each piece separately, and trying to get pieces with something of a history. There were dealers, on the Avenue de Lamotte Piquet, about the Military School, and elsewhere, who rented furniture to officers, students, and others; but this plan, on examination, did not seem a cheap one. Our total outlay for furniture might have been something like four hundred dollars. This would have been high for, say, a single year, but, spread over all the years of our stay, it has been, even with expenses of moving it about from to place, an economy as well as a comfort. May I state in a word my theory of furnishing ? It might be called an impressionist theory. It is that the most really satisfactory result is the broadly decorative effects produced by color, contrast, general mass, and form, irrespective of the value of the materials. Beautiful textures and quality are so much the better if you can have them, but they are not necessary. This is an especially good traveling theory. So a considerable part of the expense went into stuffs, voiles de Gènes, etc., easy to roll up and carry along; into a lot of the fine large photographs of the Brogi collection, after the Italian galleries; and into Breton and other faïence, to put upon the wall, — all of which, too, might well enough go back to America, one day. The salon was in white and yellow, with large-flowered chintzes of cheerful rosy hue ; the picture frames were all made of the simplest and light est wood, flat, and covered with the same chintzes, which warmed the grave tones of the photographs, and carried the colors well into the walls. Chintzes in a tapestry pattern, none over sixteen sous a metre, went well with the greenish paper and redwood wainscot of the diningroom ; and Louis XVI. chintzes, blue and white, draped the alcove of the bedroom.
I obtained two good carved armchairs of the last century, style Jacob, from our upholsterer, who had them on sale. A harp-backed chair in nutwood came from a second-hand dealer near the ancient Hôtel Ramboullet, scene of famous literary and worldly reunions. Another honest dealer trundled over in a large handcart, from the Boulevard Henri Quatre, all across Paris, an Empire table and console, brass-mounted and gilded. He told us he had heard Americans never bargained. While he mopped his heated brow he related the experience of his shop in the day of the Commune. The windows were barricaded with mattresses, which became riddled with balls. The shop was finally burnt, and the government allowed him an indemnity of a third its value, which he discounted one half further, to have the money in a reasonable time. I shall not unfold all the secrets of our prison-house, but the effect of the furnishing was thought to be good by some who prided themselves on their taste in such matters.
The care of all this magnificence and of the household as described was entrusted to one Josephine, a femme de ménage. She lived near at hand, and had a husband, a cab-driver, and a small son of five, Eugène, who used to play below on the boulevard, as much as possible under her eye. We have seen her descend, in a fury, all the steep flights of stairs, to shake her finger at one Louis Morel, a bold playmate, who had given the small Eugène a claque, and then mount them again, with a healthy air of duty performed. The weak point with the femme de ménage is that she is a woman of family. Although she always declares in the beginning that her family is of such a sort as never to be seen or heard, it presently becomes an occasion for continual humoring, and the overshadowing interest in life. It soon transpired, for instance, that little Eugène had nobody satisfactory to take care of him during his mother’s absence, so she brought him with her, and kept him in the kitchen. We often used to hear him advising her, in an old-fashioned way, about the cooking; and sometimes the poor little chap was there till ten o’clock at night, and fell off his chair, dead beat with sleep. It was half pathetic, of course, but not in the least convenient for us; and every femme de ménage we tried or heard of had some impediment of that kind.
There were butchers, bakers, and grocers, all near at hand, who mounted the long staircase with our supplies and made nothing of the ascent. Twice a week, moreover, a regular market was pitched under a continuous light shed all along the Avenue de Breteuil, holes being left in the asphalt for its posts. The wagons and mules that brought it were parked along each side. It presented a novel and animated spectacle, well worth looking down upon, especially when Sand Josephine, with the small Eugène in his blouse always in their train, could be discerned moving about there, sagaciously making their purchases. At three o’clock precisely it must disappear; after that hour, to buy or sell was an indictable offense. There was a filet, or net with handles, for carrying the marketing, which we thought another thing worthy to be of American invention, since, while carrying as much as a market basket, it could be rolled up when out of use and put in the pocket. Similar ambulant markets are set up in different parts of Paris, according to the days of the week, and it is well to note if you are going to have one at hand. I do not quite know how near Swas once to incurring the majestic displeasure of the two promenading sergents de ville for buying something after three o’clock.
“ Put it down,” said the market woman, coming to the rescue with a deft suggestion. And so the small object was dropped back upon the stall as if no purchase had been thought of, and justice was hoodwinked.
A large saving in rent seemed evident, but we feared this might be counterbalanced by a greater cost of provisions. America is an agricultural land of plenty, and food would naturally be dearer in the countries to which it is forever exporting its surplus. On the contrary, we could not find that the cost of the necessaries of life here went much, if any, on the whole, above the range of New York prices. As there are few remarkable persons or astonishing adventures in this account, let us at least try to be useful. Sinforms me that good beef, mutton, and veal are at the rate of about twenty-two cents a pound; the choice filet, or tenderloin, being twice that. Butter is forty cents a pound, but it is always delicious fresh butter, and never the salted kind we have at home, which is not made here. Eggs are three sous apiece, but this when at their dearest, and every one perfect. Poultry is apt to be dear, but you have some new kinds of food as a resource in excellent rabbit and hare. One of the first dishes our Hortense made for us at Versailles was lapin sauté. The meat was white, resembling chicken ; it was cooked in hot butter and bits of bacon, with a glass of red wine and fresh mushrooms in the sauce. When this was flanked by crisp fried potatoes and tender green beans, and followed by a delicious heap of red raspberries that cost comparatively nothing, treated with red wine and sugar, we thought that foreign life was opening auspiciously. Fruits of that sort and exquisite Reine Claude plums are plentiful and cheap. As much cannot be said of apples and peaches, and the latter, though alluring to the view, are almost always unripe. Salads and green vegetables generally, owing to the milder climate, are much longer in season, always cheaper, and frequently so low that you long for a capacity to consume unheard-of quantities, for fear such an occasion should never offer again. Milk is six cents a litre, a little more than a quart; only, in spite of the laws against adulteration, it is always of a thin quality, and you can hardly get it with the cream remaining, no matter how much you are willing to pay for it. Wine — ah ! but is it wine in our days ? Since the phylloxera ruined the vineyards, the problem of what to drink is a serious one, the water being esteemed bad. Every American family resolves it in its own way.
So here we have a certain basis for comparison. S-, in summing up the general subject, calls attention to two characteristic things of important bearing. The first is the absence of ice, which is so indispensable in America; you soon begin not to give it even a thought, and to feel better without it. The absence of ice and ice-boxes for preserving provisions brings it about that these are purchased in much smaller quantities. It is the received thing to buy only enough for the day’s use, and buying in small quantities is a distinct advantage and economy for small families, since it gives them plenty of variety without extravagance. The meats are cut differently, and everything else is adapted to this system. You can buy excellent juicy roast beef to the value of a franc and a half, if you like, whereas the very smallest piece two people could buy at home, without being ridiculous, would have to keep reappearing in various forms for several days.
“ On the servant question,” Ssays, “you may put in that, though Josephine would get no more than forty francs and her board if we kept her altogether, — that is, though servants’ wages are much lower over here, — one good servant in America would do as much as two or three here. It would not be all her own merit, either, for the houses in America are better arranged for housekeeping. For instance, there is no place here for washing or drying clothes ; you are expected to give the washing to the blanchisseuse, and the charge for it makes an important addition to the item of wages.”
“ On the other hand,”I suggest, " you have so much more of your servant’s time to yourself, and none of the traditional miseries of washing-day.”
“You can’t turn that into money. Perhaps you would like to see the last bill ? ” is the effective reply.
In summing up the pros and cons on living abroad, I find S-, who was no strong enthusiast for the scheme at first, is apt to argue as follows: vastly cheaper rent; provisions and servants’ wages not any dearer, and probably, on the whole, less; a brighter, freer life in an agreeable climate, — this when we had succeeded in finding one, — and improving surroundings.
“ Put in,” she adds, “ that if even rich people, with everything to make life enjoyable at home, like to come over, it ought not to be at all surprising if some in less fortunate circumstances should. No, don’t put that in ; it might tend to bring over others with very different tastes, who would get into difficulties; who would n’t want to give up the friends, local interests, and duties to which they are attached ; who would n’t like it at all.”
So I don’t put that in — any further.
Winter came early; it was cold by the 1st of October. We met the question of fire most successfully with a cylindrical air-tight rolling stove, a modified form of the characteristic Choubersky, the real Choubersky being supposed infallibly to poison you while you sleep. Yet another invention worthy of introduction into America: such was our highest form of praise. It could be lightly rolled about from one room to another, if you wished, so as to heat all in turn; and, with a single charging, I really think it could have been made to keep the fire alive three days.
Why had no one told us what to expect of a Paris winter ? Travelers come and go in the bright summer days, and know nothing about it. One is not much better off than in London, these late years. A depressing gray sky hangs overhead; for ten days at a time you don’t see the sun ; the morning is about over before it has begun, and it is night by three o’clock. Do you ever conceive that the knights in armor, and the chevaliers of the old régime in their silks and velvets, went slopping about in the snow and rain and viscous mud, which must have come to the knees then, though it comes only to the ankles now ? No, I should think not; no American, at least, ever realizes that the winter climate of the greater part of Europe is not very unlike his own. It would be interesting to have the history of our ancestors’ gallant pageants rewritten from that point of view. The men in armor must have got extremely rusty at times. The worst day we knew was one of such genuine London fog that people carried lanterns and got lost in the street. And yet this was not the worst, either, for it was original, and it made us the more content with our balcony ; for thence we looked down upon the fog billowing like a murky lake in the Place, and up to the moon and stars shining clearly overhead.
Our balcony, with its varied views of the life below, and of the soldiers who often came to drill under the trees, was a standing pleasure to us. We did not often go to the Louvre. We had thought in advance we should spend almost all our time there ; but somehow, when you are a householder, you put those things off; it is the travelers who do them conscientiously. We saw a little of foreign family life, but not much. It is not altogether the fault of Americans, or other strangers, who are often reproached with coming abroad only to herd together and see none but themselves, — not altogether their own fault that they do this. Even with the most admiring sentiments towards the country they visit, there are few points of community, and the opportunities to meet its refined class of people in a familiar social way are rare. It would be too much to expect, perhaps, that those who are at home should listen with much pleasure even to expressions of good will from strangers, in the halting, imperfect language in which they are apt to be framed. So I fancy the exiles more often think their friendly interest repulsed, and form their cliques with a sigh rather than narrow-minded disdain. And yet these foreign colonies are a sort of élite, even after ample allowance is made for the ridicule often justly heaped upon many eccentric specimens among them. Their very coming abroad for improving opportunities shows it, and their social equals in other lands might well find their account in cultivating an acquaintance with them.
With the view that all means to become glib in the language quickly were justifiable, I fear we talked so much to our Josephine at first that we helped to spoil her. She little knew that it was the adjectives and idioms we found the most interesting, in her long narratives of personal experience, and the warmth of her colloquialisms that reconciled us to the coldness of many a dish she would hold absently in her hand, or forget to serve us, while she talked. I personally broke away from household matters, and managed to hear some of the lectures by men of great names at the Sorbonne and the College of France. A son, our first child, was born to us in the apartment described, and illness followed. I really think I could make a most exciting chapter on Getting Born in Paris. On the whole, the winter was gloomy ; the circumstances were not favorable, and so my impressions of Paris are hardly just. I only give them for what they are worth.
Thus it was that, with the approach of spring, the desire for something warmer, pleasanter, freer, our old ideal of country life in fact, revived, with great force. I began a comprehensive exploration of the suburbs ; I went out on all the great lines leading from Paris in search of a house with a garden. To take the north first, Saint Denis was impossible : it is a mere grimy manufacturing quarter ; the tombs of the kings of France are smudged with foundry soot, the chimes of the fine old abbey keep up a losing competition with factory - bells and steam - whistles. One might go farther on, of course. At Ecouen, for instance, a quiet little hamlet, once the site of the school of Frère, I saw a fine large house, — so large we should have been wholly swallowed up in it, — and partly furnished at that, for twelve hundred francs a year. Better still, in the same grounds, was a pretty pavilion for no more than four hundred francs. There was a chance of its being vacant in July, when a young girl, who lived there with her father, a retired officer, had completed her studies at the school into which the old château on the hill above has been turned for daughters of the Legion of Honor ; but we never went back to see.
Southward I explored Bourg-la-Reine, and walked thence over to Sceaux and Fontenay-aux-Roses, in a driving snowstorm ; for I had not waited for winter to end. The rolling country, its bold fort of Châtillon frowning down over it, looked bleak enough under that aspect, and even the more luxurious villas stiff and conventional, as villas under the wing of a great city are apt to look. On the Grande Rue at Bourg-la-Reine, not far from an old hunting-lodge of Henri IV., now a deaf-mute school, were a small first-story apartment and a small house, both with gardens : the latter at six hundred and fifty francs, the former at four hundred and fifty. Here I first discovered a characteristic and very unpleasant feature of French suburban gardens. In the first case, a small plot of ground was allotted to each tenant in a general inclosure, as gardens are often allotted to children, “to call their own ; ” in the second, the ground was separated from that of the neighbors only by a slight lattice barrier about three feet high : so that in neither case was there any privacy whatever. The practice may be adopted because of limited amount of sun ; the shadows cast by really effectual walls would take too much away from the scant space open to cultivation at best. It may be an enforced choice of evils ; but at any rate, in the more modest Parisian suburban dwelling, one is not chez sot, not in his own home. At Sceaux, where vestiges of great Colbert and the Duchess of Maine still linger, a second-story apartment, all in Louis XVI. white, high, paneled wainscoting, a Grinling Gibbons sort of carving, the rooms large and fine, and all the windows south, and looking upon a slope which dropped rapidly to the valley, had no small attraction. All things considered, it seemed well worth the eight hundred francs asked for it; but there was a pestilential odor in the house, as from defective drainage. I went back again with S-, and it was still there, so it could have been no mere accident. The station for this odd little circular line of Sceaux is in quite a remote part of Paris, a point to be taken into account; for it would be much more convenient to be on a line that would bring you into the heart of the vast city.
It was still winter in town, but spring was already abroad in the country, on the 20th of March, when I took the line eastward for Vincennes. At the Saint Mandé, three miles from Paris, where two trains recently collided, making one of the most dreadful railway accidents on record, the small apartment I saw looking directly out into a park, at two minutes from the station and at one thousand francs, was not at all bad. Nor was another, at the same price, with two principal bedrooms and a servant’s room, on the broad, pleasant Avenue Victor Hugo. Both had only the usual conventional petit jardinet belonging to them. In the park of Vincennes gardeners were comfortably burning stubble, sheep were browsing upon the beautifully green new grass, military buglers were piping in the copses, and soldiers — mere dots and lines on the vast parade ground — were firing at iron targets, which responded, when hit, with a sharp ring. It would have been pleasant to be near that, but houses did not offer. Joinville-le-Pont, again, theatre of picnics and pleasant strolls in earlier days, seemed merely shabby. That was a long day’s wandering, not fruitful with regard to the object in view, but improving as a glimpse of realistic suburban life. An omnibus goes from Joinville-le-Pont to Saint Maur, but I made the journey on foot instead. The region is pervadingly commonplace and bare of interest. It appears to have been originally a sort of prairie of scrub oak, resembling those about Chicago. The streets and parcels of ground, though but freshly made, are as irregular as in Paris. Land was everywhere for sale ; to each person taking as much as six hundred square metres on a certain avenue a yearly commutation ticket on the railway was given. I paused to look at some little houses in a block, for sale, perhaps to minor clerks or superior mechanics. They cost seven thousand francs. I compared them with some of the clerks’ houses, put up by the building societies, which one sees around Washington. An enormous pair of Percherons, kicked and dragged at by a driver who wore a scarlet cap and a blouse of Millet blue, were delivering building material in the petty street. They looked as if they belonged in Brobdingnag, and had dropped down upon Lilliput. The houses were built of black and red bricks. Their design was better than that of some of a more pretentious sort, which had glaring stringcourses of bright tiles relieved with bosses of rough glass, and very crude roofs in green and yellow. Have I explained that all houses in the land are of the more solid materials, mainly rubblestone cemented over ? No ? Then it is an important omission, to be repaired; there is never one of them all in wood. At last I got down to the Marne. It was in freshet, running over a half-submerged island. It looked as if it might be pleasant in summer time. There was an inn offering friture and like hospitality for canoeists, and there were some small villas, red and striped in the Italian fashion, that half made you think of the Brenta ; but none of them were vacant.
I can only touch lightly upon a few typical bits. We did not go back again to Versailles. I have known of Americans living there pleasantly for a long stretch, but then we had brushed off its novelty ; and they tell you the stately fish-ponds in the park are unhealthy, as they are certainly sometimes malodorous. Saint Germain is, next to Versailles, the suburb of Paris uniting the greatest number of fine old traditions. Though I have left that scene of the glories of Francis I. and home of the exiled Stuarts to the last, we visited it more than once, and were on the very point of taking up our abode there.
I got off first at Nanterre, where a rosière is annually crowned, and Rueil, full of traditions of the Bonapartes. All the streets there are named after them, and Josephine and Hortense are buried in the church. The surface thereabout is divided into verdant strips of market garden, and the fort of Mont Valérien looks down upon it from its bold hill, as does the fort of Châtillon upon Fontenay-aux-Roses. The idea of the crowning of the rosière casts over Nanterre in advance a pleasant glamour, which its commonplaceness does not justify. The wide grassy Avenue de Paris at Rueil had a nice rural look, but its villas were closed. In general it would take all the summer foliage to make those places agreeable, and we were looking for a place where we could live all the year round. There were long streets of peculiarly cold, depressing, detached houses, boxlike and uniform, that recalled too much the tombs in a French cemetery.
All the country between Rueil and Saint Germain is sown with villas and chalets; an American activity all about, a prodigious amount of building going on. Lands were advertised for sale in the stations ; ancient estates and woods were being cut up into building lots at Chatou, at Le Vesinet, and even in the historic park of Malmaison. The same things have to be done in much the same way the world over. The Seine was in flood, turbid and violent, and had submerged the long island at Croissy, the bare trees of which projected from it like the masts of a foundered vessel.
Saint Germain is hardly as popular a resort as it once was ; it is rather the way now to call its situation exposed, and to pretend that you get a peculiar sort of cold there even by a day’s jaunt. Saint Germain is a city of sixteen thousand people ; Versailles has near fifty thousand, Bourg-la-Reine twenty-seven hundred, Nanterre five thousand. The things to “ do ” are to walk in the large forest, look down upon the views of the valley from the grand terrace, and study the collections in the ancient château of Francis I., which has been turned into a museum of national antiquities. The museum is most improving, but the château itself suffers from having been so immensely smartened up and put to such practical use. A first view of it and of the famous terrace was rather disappointing, yet here at last was a place where the house-hunter might take heart. The town has a pleasant, ancient, comfortable look, and it seemed worth while to search.
The American painter Hennessy has for many years occupied, at Saint Germain, a quaint old low dwelling, once the property of a morganatic wife of Louis XIV., and called for her the Pavilion Montespan. It is exactly the thing in its way, so charming a picture that it tends to make one who has seen it unsatisfied to take anything less. For the time beingnothing at all comparable offered ; what there was was modern, gardenless, or in various other ways devoid of interest. A rather attractive apartment in the Rue Voltaire was to be had for nine hundred francs; one in the Rue de Mareuil for one thousand ; another in the Rue de la Réspublique, opposite the ancient Hâtel de Longueville, for eight hundred. These were larger, and none were higher than a second story ; otherwise, the prices, as will be seen, offered no great advantage over those in Paris. Our friends knew of an American family who had found a charming pavilion, in a garden, for three hundred francs ; but these opportunities are always heard of when just too late; they are never overtaken. We coquetted with a two-story house in the Rue de Pologne, fairly good in itself, but the outlook not very good, and especially with another in the street descending towards the Pavillon Montespan; each, I think, with a rent of about twelve hundred francs. That last one was in some respects pas mal du tout. I tremble when I think how near we were to going there. The proprietor would not allow the overrank foliage to be pruned, and there was but a single room which the sun penetrated freely; it must have been damp and chills even in summer, and in winter — br-r-r !
There was apparently considerable perversity in all our objections ; we seemed to find fault with the city for not being the country, and with the country for not being the city. We considered that if we lived in one of the surburban towns we should be forever yielding to the temptation to run in to the various attractions of Paris, and so fatigue ourselves by trying to do too much. Paris itself now began to have some charming days, when the flower-venders perfumed the air around the Arc de Triomphe, and all the world was going to the Bois on foot or on wheels. Nothing was more delightful than when, in April, the younggirls, who wore white for a long time apropos of their first communion, began to trip, vaporous and sylphlike, about our little square of Saint François Xavier. The truth was, we had not chanced to hit upon the fascinating spot that might have retained us. Then, too, more important still, there had begun to arise the idea of a radical change, of more distant, entirely new horizons ; we began to meditate the plan of a bold migration southwards.
William Henry Bishop.