Authors: Alan; Sillitoe
It was usual to dine at a common table in French inns, but Murray says they are â
resorted to by the most respectable townspeople, or by ladies, as in Germany. The majority of the company almost invariably consists of commercial travellers but of a stamp very inferior to those of the same class in England, who swarm in all the inns, and are consequently the most important personages. Without denying that there are exceptions among these gentry, it is impossible to have sojourned in France for any time without the conviction that a more selfish, depraved, and vulgar, if not brutal, set does not exist, and gentlemen will take good care not to encourage their approaches, and to keep a distance from them. They commonly sit down to table with their hats on, and scramble for the dishes, so that the stranger who is not on the alert is likely to fare very ill; and if females be present, not only do not pay them that attention which is customary in all civilised countries at a dinner-table, and used at one time to distinguish the French, but, as Mrs. Trollope remarks, constantly “use language which no Englishman would dream of uttering in their presence,” evincing an utter want of all sense of propriety and decency. English ladies, therefore, will be cautious of presenting themselves at a French table-d'hÃ´te, except in first-rate hotels, where English guests form a considerable part of the company, and at well-frequented watering-places.'
In confirmation of the above, Delacroix remarks in his notebook (1855) that the effect of a good meal in the provinces âwas not entirely spoiled by the company of some commercial travellers, whose chatter is always the same mixture of nonsense and ineptness'.
Various guidebooks convince our traveller that he may need several periods of repose, as well as a few large brandies, before setting out on his journey to the interior. The cafÃ©s in which he may have to bide his time when he gets there received a somewhat better press than the hotels:
âWe have no equivalent in England for the CafÃ©s in France, and the number and splendour of some of these establishments, everywhere seemingly out of proportion to the population and to other shops, not only in Paris, but in every provincial town, may well excite surprise. They are adapted to all classes of society, from the magnificent
, resplendent with looking-glass, and glittering with gliding, the decorations of which have perhaps cost 4000 or 5000 pounds, down to the low and confined
, resorted to by carters, porters, and common labourers, which abound in the back streets of every town, and in every village, however small and remote. The latter sort occupy the place of the beer-shops of England, furnish beer and brandy, as well as coffee, and, though not so injurious to health and morals as the gin-palaces of London, are even more destructive of time: indeed, the dissipation of precious hours by almost all classes in France produces as bad an effect on the habits of the people.' (Murray.)
Such pompous moralizing did not admit that even the gentleman-traveller might at times be guilty of dissipating the precious hours. Certainly, the French seemed more able to enjoy life than their English counterparts, for in the evening the cafÃ©s âare most crowded, and even in the most respectable (except the first-rate Parisian cafÃ©s) the company is very mixed. Clerks, tradesmen, commercial travellers, soldiers â officers as well as privates, and men in blouzes, crowded about a multitude of little marble tables, wrangle over provincial or national politics, or over games of cards or dominoes, while others perspiring in their shirt-sleeves surround the billiard-table. The rattling of balls, the cries of waiters hurrying to and fro, the gingling of dominoes, and tinkling bell of the mistress who presides at the bar, alone prevail over the harsh din of many voices, while the splendour of mirrored walls and velvet seats is eclipsed behind a cloud of unfragrant tobacco-smoke.' What a picture of pleasure island for the sin-preoccupied English!
However many days our traveller stayed in Calais or Boulogne, he had sooner or later to pay his hotel bill, before setting out for the fleshpots of Paris. Twenty-five francs to the English sovereign allowed him to live well and cheaply, his room costing about two shillings a night, something like five pounds at today's rates. Dinner and breakfast would add on another ten, amounting to forty-five pounds for three days of demi-pension. Baedeker advises that âthe bill should be obtained every two or three days, in order that errors, whether accidental or designed, may be detected. When the traveller intends to start in the morning, he had better pay, or at least examine, his bill over night, as overcharges are apt to escape detection in the hurry and confusion of departure.'
In 1848 the quickest way of getting to Paris from the coast was to take the diligence as far as Arras or Abbeville, then go by recently opened railway. âFrance has allowed herself to be outstripped by her neighbours, not only by England, but also by Belgium, Prussia, and Austria, in these means of extending national resources and civilisation, which the country more especially stands in need of.' (Murray.)
Murray describes the diligence as being a âhuge, heavy, lofty, lumbering machine, something between an English stage and a broad-wheeled waggon.'
It is composed of three parts or bodies joined together: 1. the front division, called
, shaped like a chariot, holding 3 persons, quite distinct from the rest of the passengers, so that ladies may resort to it without inconvenience, and, by securing all 3 places to themselves, travel nearly as comfortably as in a private carriage. The fare is more expensive than in the other parts of the vehicle.
2. Next to it comes the inside, holding 6 persons, and oppressively warm in summer.
3. Behind this is attached the
, âthe receptacle of dust, dirt, and bad company,' the least desirable part of the diligence.
, an outside seat on the roof of the coupÃ©, tolerably well protected from rain and cold by a hood or head, and leather apron, but somewhat difficult of access until you are accustomed to climb up into it. It affords a comfortable and roomy seat by the side of the conductor, with the advantages of fresh air and the best view of the country from its great elevation, and greater freedom from the dust than those enjoy who sit below. It is true you may sometimes meet rough and low-bred companions, for the French do not like to travel outside; and few persons of the better class resort to it, except English, and they for the most part prefer it to all others. It is not suited to females, owing to the difficulty of clambering up to it.
What no guidebook mentions â nor the phrase manuals of the age either â is the problem of
sickness when travelling by a badly sprung coach on sometimes indifferent roads. Almost as common as seasickness, all we get in the way of chit-chat from phrase books dealing with road travel are: âCan I take my dogs with me by coach?'
âAre there any robbers on the road?'
âKeep away from the ditch: it is a bog full of mud. You must put on the drag.'
âIf you drive well, and behave yourself civilly, I shall give you something for drink-money.'
The coaches in France were ruled over by a conductor who was âpaid by the administration, and expects nothing from the passengers, unless he obliges them by some extra service. He is generally an intelligent person, often an old soldier, and the traveller may pick up some information from him.'
Though the methods of transport were far slower in the 1840s, they resembled the holiday procedures in France today, in that during the month of August âthe diligences on all the great roads are thronged with school-boys and collegians, with their parents and masters, in consequence of the breaking up of the establishments of education in Paris, all hurrying home at once into the provinces'.
On the way to Abbeville or Arras our traveller will learn from Murray's
Hand-Book of Travel Talk
how to get himself and his impedimenta safely into the train. The diligence, said to be more roomy than an English stagecoach, and therefore less tiring, went at the rate of about six miles an hour, and even less when the roads were bad, so there was sufficient time to practise the few phrases necessary: âPray, Sir, where is the railway station? Where can one get tickets? Where is the luggage-office? I hear the whistle of a train which is arriving.'
If our traveller, after a fight for his seat, becomes bored with looking out of the window â at better scenery as the train went south â perhaps he will go back to his handbook and read the section on âThe English Abroad': âIt may not be amiss to consider the causes which render the English so unpopular on the Continent; as to the fact of their being so, it is to be feared there can be no doubt. In the first place, it arises from the number of ill-conditioned persons who, not being in condition to face the world at home, scatter themselves over foreign lands, and bring no little discredit upon their country. But in addition to these, there are many respectable and wealthy persons, who, through inattention, unguardedness, wanton expenditure in some cases, niggardly parsimony in others, but, above all, from an unwillingness to accommodate themselves to the feelings of the people they are among, contribute not a little to bring their own nation into disrepute. The Englishman abroad too often forgets that he is the representative of his country, and that his countrymen will be judged by his own conduct; that by affability, moderation, and being easily pleased, he will conciliate; whereas by caprice, extravagant squandering, or ill-timed niggardliness, he affects the reception of the next comer.'
Eugene Delacroix, in 1855, recorded in his notebook that, in the train from Dieppe to Rouen, there were three Englishmen in the first-class carriage whom âyou would suppose comfortably off. They were very badly dressed, especially one who was really dirty, his clothes were even torn. I do not understand this complete contrast with their former habits; I noticed the same thing on my trip to Baden and Strasbourg. A day or two later, when I was making my examination of the pictures, I met Lord Elcho, and even his clothes were not particularly clean. The English have changed entirely and we French, on the other hand, have adopted many of their former habits.'
âThere are many points, however,' continued Murray, âin which our character is misunderstood by foreigners. The morose sullenness attributed by them to Englishmen is, in perhaps nine cases out of ten, nothing more than involuntary silence, arising from his ignorance of foreign languages, or at least from his want of sufficient fluency to make himself rapidly understood, which prevents his enjoying society. If an Englishman were fully aware how much it increased the pleasure and profit of travelling to have made some progress in foreign languages before he sets foot on the Continent, no one would think of quitting home until he had devoted at least some months to hard labour with grammars and dictionaries.'
Our traveller being young and rich will be allowed to feel at ease on the Continent, however, and throwing aside such pompous strictures with a smile of superior amusement, joyfully commit himself to the diversions of Paris, the undoubted capital city of the civilized world.
Before anything else can be done in the capital our impatient traveller must either take or send his provisional passport to police headquarters, âwhere the original will be given in exchange for it. It is better to send a valet de place or commissionaire for it than to go for it: the commissionaire being known to the officials is more likely to be attended to than a stranger, speaking French perhaps scarcely intelligible. The commissionaire may, it is true, play false, and declare that the passport is not arrived, in the hope of detaining the traveller at his hotel; and the best way to prevent this is to promise him an extra douceur in the event of his securing the passport at once. The stranger who undertakes to do this for himself will find it a very disagreeable and tiresome business, the passport offices being open only at fixed hours, being situated in distant parts of the town, and being beset by crowds of applicants.'
Having seen to these formalities our traveller is now free to enjoy the town, and we will assume he has already found accommodation, because Murray's guide tells him that there are nearly four thousand hotels in Paris, as well as six thousand cafÃ©s and numerous restaurants. Concerning the latter: âThe smallness of the quantity of solid food supplied is a difficulty for the English. A card is handed the diner on entering, containing a priced list of all the dishes supplied, and the waitress (for the service is performed by modestly-dressed females) marks those ordered, and expects a few sous to be left on the table for her.' Murray goes on to say that: âLadies may dine at Restaurants mentioned in this handbook without the slightest impropriety or feeling of annoyance.'
In a possibly idealized version of street life we are told that on fine summer evenings, âcoffee, ices, etc., are supplied out of doors, and the streets facing the principal cafÃ©s, the Boulevards, Champs ElysÃ©es, etc., are covered with little tables and chairs, occupied by groups of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen sipping coffee and ice, or smoking cigars'. Our traveller must have fitted with alacrity into such a scene, though his Baedeker advised tourists to âscrupulously avoid these cafÃ©s where the chairs placed outside in summer are in unpleasant proximity with the gutters'.
Paris, to paraphrase Baedeker the greatest treasure-house of art and industry in the world, possessed âEnglish hotels, English professional men, English “valets de place”, and English shops; but the visitor who is dependent upon these is necessarily deprived of many opportunities of becoming acquainted with the most interesting characteristics of Paris.'
On installing himself at his hotel the traveller will of course note the following: â
Articles of Value
should never be kept in the drawers or cupboards at hotels. The traveller's own trunk is probably safer; but it is better to entrust them to the landlord, from whom a receipt should be required, or to send them to a bankers.'