Accent on Living

THE French are not given to pressing cash on strangers, and I fell that I had schemed the budget for our final week in France with nothing overlooked. My wife and I would be leaving Paris in our motorcycle and sidecar on a Thursday, bound for Cherbourg. The Leviathan would sail the following Tuesday (what was called “tourist third” at the time cost $90 for a single passage). For the interval, after settling purchases, hotel, and laundry, we could command something like $42. We would embark broke, but that was part of the budget, and putting that fine a point on it after three months on tour gave me an extra satisfaction. We had our tickets, and the position in short looked unassailable. I had even taken the precaution of writing home to suggest that $50 would be helpful if cabled to us at the Credit Lyonnaise in Cherbourg.

Paris garages in the year 1925 refused, for mysterious reasons, to store motorcycles, and I had counted myself fortunate in finding a cycle shop in the Cour du Dragon, the old seventeenth-century coaching yard near Saint Germain des Prés, which would take in my moto for one franc a day — a shade less than a nickel at the time. To this establishment, I estimated, I would owe roughly 90 cents.

I must explain that my Indian motorcycle was equipped with magneto ignition, with a generator-battery system for the lights. So, when the battery case split, from the pounding the rough French roads were giving it somewhere along the Riviera, we continued to travel, but the lack of lights obliged us to knock off each day before dark. I had mentioned this, conversationally, to the bicycle-shop man on arrival, but with no thought of getting a new battery until we reached New York.

It was shocking, therefore, and my budget all but collapsed, when the bicycle-shop man, corroborated by a hard-faced female, greeted me with a perfectly correct bill for storage to which he had added 300 francs, or close to SI5, for a new battery.

A bitter no-yes-no-yes dispute got me nowhere. I paid up in a blazing exchange of incivilities and drove off to 19 Quai Voltaire to pick up my wife and stow the luggage aboard.

We skipped luncheon, and wonderfully inexpensive lodgings and dinner at Beauvais that night restored to me the illusion that our finances, now down to $25, were ample for any contingency. So far as the French were concerned, that was probably true, but I was reckoning without thought of a statement I had made to my wife some days earlier in refusing to take her to the Tour d’Argent for Canard Rouennaise.

“A tourist trap,” I had said to her. “If you really want to try a proper duck Rouennaise, wait until we get to Rouen on the way to the boat.”

These were the words that returned to confound me the next noon, when we came noisily —* with much backfiring and gunning of the engine — to a spectacular stop in Rouen. (I had long since found that the French respected a motor vehicle in direct proportion to the roar of its exhaust noise, and the Indian’s muffler cutout plus the overrun on a lean mixture gave us far more status than any American car of the period could have done.)

“I’ll find some little place for lunch,” I said. But no. Certainly not. Had I forgotten?

Forgotten what?

My promise to have Canard Rouennaise at Rouen — a promise, no less.

In the discussion that followed, I learned that my wife would not leave Rouen without having experienced the duck. And if I were not going to provide it, she would go to the best restaurant in town, order it for herself, and let the check settle itself as best it might.

Neither of us had breakfasted, and the thought of the duck affected us powerfully. Five minutes later we were sitting down in the Restaurant de la Cathedrale, a beautifully paneled old room with a vast game press, glossy napery, and a great air of wellbeing. The proprietor, who said he had cooked in Colorado during the gold rush and spoke feelingly of antelope steaks and le canard sauvage in those parts, was charmed to offer his duck to a couple of hungry young Americans. His ritual was quickly in full swing.

A few minutes later, the sommelier tendered me the wine list, ticking off on his fingers three or four possibilities for which the house was celebrated. I had all but forgotten the wine, in determining from the menu that the duck, for two, would stand me close to $8. I decided to hold the line. “Le vin rouge ordinaire,” I said, trying to make these paltry words sound like a deeply considered choice, or at least like an eccentricity of my own.

The sommelier excused himself and returned with the proprietor. Surely some misunderstanding, the proprietor suggested. An ordinaire? With the duck? He looked at me with the eyes of a wounded spaniel. Not at all, I said grandly. A Pommard was desired, something of his own selection. There was no further niggling about the luncheon, and we left a total of some $14 at the Restaurant de la Cathedrale for our most expensive meal of the trip and one of the best at any price.

We dined that night in our attic lodgings under the eaves of a lofty old house directly across a narrow street from the bell tower of the cathedral, from which crashed and boomed the half hours in an awesome proximity. For dinner I bargained fiercely for a third of a loaf of bread and a Camembert, and the remains of these were our breakfast the next morning. We could have reached Cherbourg in a single burst of driving at any time, but we decided that by skipping luncheon and Saturday morning’s breakfast we could afford a dinner and room at Caen and sightseeing there.

So it was that after looking at Queen Mathilde’s tapestry at Baycux we were trundling along in the rain early Saturday afternoon, on an extremely bad road a few miles from Cherbourg. To the small boy who helped me patch a puncture I presented our very last item of cash

a wet and ragged five-franc note. We entered Cherbourg without a sou and checked in at the little hotel on the inner basin — I recall it as The Grand Hotel de France et Angleterre, and the proprietor and his wife were saving up to add a bathtub to the premises someday — where we had spent our first night in France some months earlier.

The quantity of our luggage was still impressive, and so was the bright red moto and its exploding exhaust. We were received as befitted rich and distinguished strangers, and we ordered a hearty luncheon sent up an omelet, channel sole, biftek, Amer Picon, and wine. On Monday, I reasoned, I would pick up money at the Credit Lyonnaise; we would live meanwhile at, or rather on, the hotel, and this we did in great style.

I was disconcerted Monday morning, on going to the Credit Lyonnaise, to find that no one there had ever heard of me and that there was most certainly nothing in the way of money awaiting me. (It had been cabled in dollars, I learned later, with the result that dollars were being sent down from Paris by mail, too late for our schedule.) We were simply out of funds, a hotel bill was in the making, and the boat sailed the next day.

At this point, with a maximum of exhaust noise, I rode the Indian around to the baggagemastcr. A Frenchman, he was mightily attracted by the Indian, whereas on our arrival his counterpart, an Englishman, had seemed more aloof. I told the Frenchman that I was shipping the Indian out the next day on the Leviathan, produced our tickets, and we chatted amiably about the pleasures of France.

I remarked, as casually as possible, that I was slightly pressed for francs for a few final odds and ends. Perhaps he could provide me with a small sum and put it on the motorcycle’s bill of lading, to be paid in New York, I suggested. In return for the convenience, I said, I would be glad to accept 20 francs for the dollar instead of the going rate of 22.

The instantaneous success of my proposal staggered me. Reaching into his pocket, the baggagemaster whipped out a fat sheaf of notes. How much was desired? He looked at me eagerly. I was most anxious not to frighten him, here at the crux of it all, and I managed to say offhandedly that around a thousand francs would be enough.

The money was in my clutch immediately, not the largest but certainly the most welcome bit of cash I had touched in many a day. I signed a chit for it and went back to the hotel, kicking myself for not havingspoken for more.

The forty-odd dollars proved to be just right. We paid the hotel bill, bought galoshes and woolen underwear for the drive over the road from New York to Omaha (in midNovember), and invested the rest shrewdly in cognac and chartreuse. Our last 20-franc note we gave to the porter who put our luggage on the tender, and we boarded ship, as any young couple should on leaving France, without a copper between us.