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The Stranger Within the Gates of Paris by Lucy H. Hooper


"Paris," once said Victor Hugo to me, "is the hostess of all the nations. There all the world is at home. It is the second best place with all foreigners—the fatherland first, and afterward Paris."

There was a great deal of truth in the observation, and especially is it true as regards Americans. By our natural sociability and versatility of temperament, by our love of all bright and pleasant surroundings, by our taste for pleasure and amusement, we assimilate more closely in our superficial characteristics to the French nation than we do to any other. Our Britannic cousins are too cold, too unsociable, too heavy for our fraternization, and mighty barriers of dissimilarity of language, of tastes, of customs and manners divide us from the European nation which of all others we most closely resemble in essential particulars—namely, the Northern Germans. The Prussians have been called—and that, too, with a good deal of truth—the Yankees of Europe; and if the term "Yankees" means, as it usually does in European parlance, the entire population of the United States, we citizens of the great republic have every right to feel proud of the comparison. Yet, with all our genuine respect and admiration for the Prussians, there are but few American tourists who take kindly to that people or their country. The lack of the external polish, the graceful manners and winning ways of the Parisians is severely felt by the chance tarrier within the gates of Berlin. We accord our fullest meed of honor to the great conquering nation of Europe, to its wonderful system of education, its admirable military discipline, and its sturdy opposition to superstition and ignorance in their most aggressive form. And yet we do not like Prussia or the Prussians. We scoff at Berlin, planted on a sandy plain and new with the thriving, aggressive newness of some of our own cities. We long for the soft shadows of antiquity, the dim twilight of past glories, to overhang our daily path as we journey onward through the storied lands of the ancient world. We have enough of bright progressive prosperity at home. Something of the feeling of the artist, who turns from the trim, elegant damsel arrayed in the latest fashion to paint the figure of a beggar-girl draped in picturesque rags, hangs about us as we travel. It is only to Paris—Paris beautiful in its strange blending of smoky ruins and splendid, freshly-erected mansions—that we can pardon the white glare of newly-opened streets, the Vandal desecration of antique landmarks, the universal sacrifice of old memories, historic associations and antique picturesqueness on that altar of modern progress whose high priest was Baron Haussmann and whose divinity was Napoleon III.

We love Paris, we Americans abroad, and we like the Parisians. One side of our affection grows and strengthens and sends forth new shoots with every passing day. The longer one lives in Paris the better one loves it. Its beauty becomes part and parcel of one's daily life. The mighty sweep of palace and arcade and museum and church, the plash of sunlit fountains, the rustle and the shimmer of resplendent foliage, the grace of statue, the grandeur of monument, the far-stretching splendor of brilliant boulevard and bustling street,—all these make up a picture whose lines are engraven on our heart of hearts. Often, passing along the street, some far-off vista, some effect of light and color, some single point of view, strikes on the sense with new and startling beauty, and we pause to gaze and to admire, and to exclaim for the thousandth time, How fair is Paris!

And she is so prodigal of her treasures, this goodly city! She lavishes them on all comers without fee or favor. All day long her princely art-galleries stand open to welcome the passing visitor. One comes and goes unhindered and unquestioned in church or museum, and even the service of guides and boats and cars to the sewers, and of official guides to the Catacombs, is given without compensation—nay more, all fees are strictly; forbidden. There is no city on earth that receives its guests with such splendid and lavish hospitality. Apart from one's board and lodging, it is possible for a stranger to come to Paris and to visit all its principal sights without the expenditure of a single sou. And for the persons who, prolonging their stay, wish in some sort to take up their permanent residence in Paris, things are smoothed and ironed and the knots picked out in the most wonderful way. Your board is dainty and your bed soft. Velvet-footed and fairy-handed beings minister to your wants. You are clothed as if by magic in garments of marvelous beauty. The very rustle of your letter of credit is as an open sesame to treasure-chambers to which Ali Baba's cavern was but a shabby cellar. And if, on the contrary, your means are limited and your wants but few, the science of living has been so exactly conned and is so perfectly understood that your franc-piece will buy you as many necessaries as ever your fifty-cent greenback did home, and that, too, in face of the fact that all provisions are now, owing to the war and the taxes, as dear, if not dearer than they are in Philadelphia. If a stranger comes to Paris and wishes to live comfortably and economically, there are plenty of respectable, well-situated establishments in the best section of the city where he can obtain a comfortable, well-furnished room and well-cooked, well-served meals, for eight to ten francs a day—such accommodations as five dollars would scarcely avail to purchase in Philadelphia or New York.

The whole secret of the matter is, that in France everybody understands the art of making the most out of everything. No scrap of food is wasted, no morsel cast aside, till every particle of nourishment it can yield is carefully extracted. The portions given to the guests at the minor hotels, where one lives en pension at so much per diem, are carefully measured for individual consumption. The slice of steak, the tiny omelette, the minute moulded morsels of butter, even the roll of bread and little sucrier and cream-jug placed before each person, have each been carefully gauged as to the usual dimensions of an ordinary appetite. Nothing is squandered and nothing is wasted. When one recalls the aspect of our hotel tables at home—the bread-plates left with their piles of cold, uneatable corn-bread, and heavy, chilled muffins and sodden toast uneaten, uncared-for and wasted; the huge steak, with its scrap of tenderloin carefully scolloped out, and the rest left to be thrown away; the broiled chicken—the legs scorned in favor of the more toothsome breast; the half-emptied plates of omelettes and fried potatoes,—one realizes how low prices for board in Paris are still compatible with the increased price of provisions, and why we must pay five dollars at home for accommodations for which we expend two here. The same wastefulness creeps into all the details of our hotel-life. If we want a glass of ice-water, for instance, we are straight-way supplied with a pitcher brimming over with huge crystal lumps of transparent ice. One-half the quantity would suffice for all actual purposes: the rest is left to melt and run to waste.

The fact is, that we citizens of the United States live more luxuriously than any other people on the face of the earth. On an average we dress better, fare better, sleep softer, and combat the cold in winter and the heat in summer with more scientific persistency, than do any of the so-called luxurious nations of Europe. Take, for instance, the matter of heating and lighting. A few of the leading hotels in Paris, and a small minority among the most expensive suites of private apartments, have gas introduced into all the rooms, but as a general thing it is confined to the public rooms, and the unfortunate wight who longs to see beyond the end of his nose is forced to wrestle with dripping candles and unclean lamps, known only by tradition in our native land. The gaslight, which is a common necessary in the simplest private dwelling in an American city, is here a luxury scarcely attainable save by the very wealthiest. And we do not know how precious our gaslight is till we have lost it. To sit in a dim parlor where four lighted candles struggle vainly to disperse the gloom, to dress for opera or ball by the uncertain glimmer of those greasy delusions, is enough to make one forswear all the luxuries of Paris, and flee homeward forthwith.

Then in winter comes the question of warmth. What is more delicious than to plunge from the iced-champagne atmosphere of a sparkling winter's day in America into the nest-like, all-pervading warmth of an American home? Here such comfort is wholly unknown. The cold, though less severe than with us, is damp, raw and insidious, and creeps under wraps with a treacherous persistency that nothing can shut out. The ill-fitting windows, opening in the old door-like fashion, let in every breath of the chill outer air. A fire is a handful of sticks or half a dozen lumps of coal. The calorifère, a poor substitute for our powerful furnaces, is a luxury for the very rich—an innovation grudgingly granted to the whims of the occupants of the most costly and fashionable of private apartments. Warmth, our cosy, all-pervading warmth, is a winter luxury that we leave behind us with the cheerful light of our universal gas-burners.

In summer we sorely miss the cold, pure ice-water of our native land, and we long for it with a thirst which vin ordinaire and Bavarian beer are powerless to assuage. The ill-tasting limestone-tainted water of Paris is a poor substitute for our sparkling draughts of Schuylkill or Croton. Ice-pitchers, water-coolers and refrigerators are unknown quantities in the sum-total of Parisian luxuries. The "cup of cold water," which the traveler in our country finds gratuitously supplied in every waiting-room and railway-station, every steamboat, every car and every hotel, is here something that must be specially sought for, and paid for at an exorbitant price. Ice can be purchased only in small quantities for immediate consumption. Ten cents for a few lumps swimming in water on a tepid plate is the usual tariff for this our American necessity, this rare Parisian luxury.

The scant supply of water for ablution is another annoyance to the American traveler accustomed to the hot-and cold-water faucets introduced into private bedrooms and hotel apartments, and the capacious bath-tubs and unlimited control of water in his native land. To be sure, one can get a bath in Paris, as well as anywhere else, by ordering it and waiting for it and paying for it; but the free use of water and its gratuitous supply in hotels, so entirely a matter of course with us, is here unheard of. As with ice-water, the bath is an American necessity, a Parisian luxury. However, the latest erected dwelling-houses here have had water-pipes and bath-tubs introduced. Wealth can command its bath here as well as its gaslight and its supplies of ice, but wealth only. The humblest abode of a Philadelphia mechanic contains comforts and conveniences which are wellnigh unattainable luxuries in all but the most splendid apartments of the most luxurious city of Europe.

Nor do all the delicate artifices of French cookery suffice wholly to replace for an American palate the dainties of his native land. The buckwheat cakes and waffles, the large, delicate-flavored, luscious oysters, the canvas-back ducks, the Philadelphia croquettes and terrapin, find no substitutes on this side of the water. The delicious shad and Spanish mackerel have no gastronomic rivals in these waters, and the sole must be accepted in their stead. We miss, too, our profusion and variety of vegetables, our stewed and stuffed tomatoes, green corn, oyster-plants and sweet potatoes. As for fruits, the smaller varieties are far more abundant and much finer here than they are with us. Strawberries, cherries, raspberries, gooseberries, apricots—all of great size and exquisite flavor—tempt and enchant the palate. But our rich profusion of tropical fruits, such as bananas and pineapples, is wholly unknown. Peaches are poor in flavor and exorbitant in price. As for meats, poultry is dearer in Paris than at home, a small chicken for fricasseeing costing six francs ($1.20 in gold), and a large one for roasting ten francs ($2). Beef and mutton are at about the same prices as in Philadelphia and New York. Butter costs from sixty to seventy cents a pound. One can easily see, therefore, that it takes all the skill and experience in domestic economy of Parisian housekeepers to maintain the prices of living at anything like its present standard in pensions and hotels. But, in truth, the general standard of French cooking has been much lowered since the war. A really sumptuous French dinner is no longer to be procured at any of the tables d'hôte or the leading hotels, and if ordered at a first-class restaurant it will cost twice as much as it used to do.

Rents, though somewhat lowered from their former proportions, are still very high, a really elegant unfurnished suite of apartments costing from five thousand to ten thousand francs a year, according to location; and if furnished, nearly as much more. Two thousand francs is the lowest rent which economy, desirous of two or three bed-rooms, in addition to the parlor, kitchen and dining-room of an ordinary suite, can accomplish. There are now in process of construction in the suburbs of Paris several rows of houses built on the American plan, and it is hardly possible to tell how comfortable and home-like the neat separate abodes look to one who has been journeying round amid a series of "floors," each so like the others. To the casual visitor there is a despairing amount of sameness in the fitting-up of all French furnished apartments. The scarlet coverings on the furniture, the red curtains, the light moquette carpet with white ground and gay flowers, the white and gold of the woodwork, the gilt bronze clock and candelabra, the tables and cabinets in marquetry and buhl, are all precisely alike in each, and all wear the same hotel-like look and lack of individuality. Nobody here seems to care anything for home or home belongings. A suite of apartments, even if occupied by the proprietor, is not the shrine for any household gods or tender ideas: it is a place to rent out at so much per month should the owner desire to go on a journey. No weak sentimental ideas about keeping one's personal belongings from the touch and the usage of strangers ever troubles anybody's mind. Tables and chairs and carpets and curtains are just so many chattels that will bring in, if rented, just so much more income: around them gleams no vestige of the tender halo that surrounds the appurtenances of an American home.

The servant question is one that is just now of special interest to the American housekeeper in Paris. I have elsewhere spoken of some of the trials inflicted by these accomplished but often unprincipled domestics on their masters and mistresses, so will not expatiate further on the subject. I will merely specify as a special grievance the law that forces the employer who discharges a servant to inscribe on his or her character-book a good character: should the departing help have been sent away for gross immorality, theft or drunkenness, and should the master write down the real reason of the dismissal, he renders himself liable to an action for defamation of character. The person, therefore, who engages servants from their character-book has no real guarantee as to their worth. It is a well-known fact also that the intelligence offices in Paris are far more anxious to obtain places for bad servants than for good ones, because the former class return to them more frequently, and are consequently the better customers. As to the percentage exacted from grocers and provision-dealers by cooks and stewards—a percentage which of course comes indirectly out of the pocket of the master—the evil has become a crying one, but it is apparently irremediable. A provision-dealer opened not long since a shop in one of the most fashionable quarters of Paris, and sent round circulars to all the housekeepers in the neighborhood announcing his determination of paying no percentage to servants. The consequence was, that not one of the cooks would buy anything of him, and he has been forced to break up his establishment and depart. It is an impossibility to engage a first-class cook without according to her the privilege of doing all the marketing—a privilege by which she is enabled to more than double the amount of her wages at her employer's expense.

Among the other drawbacks of a residence abroad to an American woman is an absence of the kindly deference to which, by virtue of her womanhood alone, she is accustomed at home. The much-vaunted politeness of the French nation is the thinnest possible varnish over real impertinence or actual rudeness. None of the true, heartfelt, genuine courtesy that is so freely accorded to our sex in our own favored land is to be met with here. "A woman is weak and defenceless," argue, apparently, a large class of Parisians, "therefore we will stare her out of countenance, we will mutter impudent speeches in her ear, we will elbow her off the sidewalk, we will thrust her aside if we want to enter a public conveyance. Politeness is a thing of hat-lifting, of bowing and scraping, of 'Pardon!' and 'Merci!' It is an article to be worn, like a dress-coat and a white tie, in a drawing-room and among our acquaintances. We have the right article for that occasion—very sweet, very refined, very graceful, very charming indeed. But as for everyday use—nenni!" That deep, true and chivalrous courtesy that respects and protects a woman merely because she is a woman, and as such needs the guardianship of the stronger sex, is something of which they have never heard and which they do not understand. They will hand Madame la duchesse de la Haute Volée or Mademoiselle Trois-Étoiles into her carriage with incomparable grace, but they will push Mrs. Brown into the gutter, and will whisper in poor blushing Miss Brown's ear that she is "une fillette charmante."

And when a Frenchman is rude, his impoliteness is worse than that of other nations, because he knows better: he is rude with malice prepense. The lower classes have especially lost much of their courtesy since the Commune. I have seen a French workingman thrust a lady violently aside on a crowded sidewalk, with a scowl and a muttered curse that lent significance to the act. And the graceful, suave courtesy of the shopkeepers—how swiftly it flies out of the window when their hope of profit in the shape of the departing shopper walks out of the door!

Shortly before quitting the United States I went into one of our large public libraries to consult a voluminous work of reference. In the remote recess where the books were kept sat a gentleman intent on the perusal of a volume, his chair tipped back as far as it could be with safety inclined, and his feet resting on the table. "Horrid fellow!" I said to myself, glancing at the obtrusive members, and going forward to the bookcase in search of the work I wanted. It proved to be of somewhat ponderous dimensions, and higher than I could conveniently reach, so I stood on tiptoe and tugged vainly at it for a moment. My friend of the feet saw my dilemma, and down went his book, and he sprang to my assistance in an instant, "Allow me," he said; and in a moment the heavy tome was brought down, dusted by a few turns of his pocket-handkerchief and laid on the table for my accommodation. If he had but known it, there was mingled with my thanks a world of unuttered but heartfelt apologies for my former hard thoughts respecting his attitude. And therein lay the difference between the two nationalities. A Frenchman would have died rather than have made a library-table a resting-place for his feet, but he would have let a woman he did not know break a blood-vessel by her exertions before he would have rendered her the slightest assistance.

American women are too apt to accept all the courtesies offered them by strangers at home as their right, even neglecting to render the poor meed of thanks in return. But let them when in Paris try to get into an omnibus on a wet day, and being thrust aside by a strong-armed Frenchman they will remorsefully remember the seats accorded to them in crowded cars, and accepted thanklessly and as a matter of course. And when the lounger on the boulevards dogs their steps or whispers his insulting compliments in their shuddering ear, they will remember how they were guarded at home not by one protector, but by all right-minded mankind, and will thank Heaven that their brothers, their sons, their husbands "are not even as these are."