Experiences in Paris
( Originally Published 1903 )
OCTOBER was nearly over when I arrived in Paris, the city to which I had looked forward with such pleasant anticipations. The trees on the boulevards were shedding their leaves, and the air was cool and refreshing. My first impressions of the city were decidedly favorable. I had never before seen such beautiful streets or such elegant buildings, and there was no disposition in my mind to dispute the claim of the French capital to be the most beautiful city in the world.
I would probably have enjoyed the life of the streets more if I had been less worried over the state of my fortunes. I had less than a dollar in my pocket when I reached the city, and I would have to move with care if this small sum was to last me for long in this metropolis. I wanted to stay in the city for at least a month, if it were possible, so I began to look for a lodging immediately upon my arrival. It wasn't easy to find one which was sufficiently low in price. I visited a great many houses where I saw in the windows the sign chambre a louer, but though I looked all through the central portion of the city, I didn't succeed in finding any room which was cheaper than seventy-five cents a week. I accepted one at this price, and immediately set up for light-housekeeping. At a bazaar I purchased a small skillet, in which I could fry eggs and other simple food, and I borrowed from the landlady a few dishes. With my coffee-pot, I was able to live quite independent of the restaurants.
No Money From Home
As soon as I settled, I lost no time in visiting the express office to which I had ordered my mail addressed. I thought that I would surely find awaiting me there some letters with checks enclosed, for it seemed impossible that the editors would delay much longer in sending me the money which was due me. I entered the office with an air of great confidence, and when the clerk handed me three letters I was overjoyed. One of them bore an American stamp and the others were from England. I opened the one from America first, expecting to find a check enclosed, and for the first time in my life I was disappointed at receiving a letter from my mother. Of course I was glad to hear from home, but I needed the money. There was no money in the London letters, either, and I realized that I must find something to do in Paris without delay. I had hardly enough money to keep me for a day, and this was the most trying situation in which I had found myself since starting on the trip.
I returned from the office to my little room, where I tried to think of ways and means to make some money. It occurred to me that it might pay to call upon the American Consul, and I went at once to the address in the Avenue de l'Opera. I found Mr. Gowdy to be a typical Westerner, and it cheered me to talk with him. During our conversation I suggested that I would like to get some work in Paris, but the Consul didn't seem to think that I would find it easy to do so. Of course I didn't tell him that I had just about a franc in my pocket, for then he would have felt obliged to assist me, and I didn't want to force help from any one. I had almost completed my trip without asking money from any person, and I was confident that I would be able to return home without doing so.
Looking for Work
From the Consulate I went to the American Embassy, where I was pleasantly received by the Ambassador. When I asked him whether there were many young Americans seeking work in Paris, he said that there were entirely too many for the places available, and that most of them were not successful. After hearing that I never mentioned that I wanted to find something to do, and took my departure after a few minutes of formal conversation.
By the time I returned to my lodging from the Embassy it was dark, and I determined to go to bed. There was no use trying to do anything further at such an hour, and I was weary after a tiresome day. I made some cocoa and ate a roll, and then forgot my troubles in sleep, for even the lack of money was not enough to break my rest. I had confidence that something favorable would turn up on the morrow.
Early the next morning I walked into the Avenue de l'Opera to visit some English and American stores which I had noticed there the day before. I first called at a large stationery shop, and when they told me that they required no help, I called at the office of an English newspaper. In this way I visited several places, and finally in the jewelry store of an American firm, whose main house is in Chicago, they told me that they could use me temporarily, while one of their regular boys was away. This arrangement was very satisfactory to me, for I didn't want to remain in Paris long if I was to carry out my plan of sailing for home in December. They didn't pay me very high wages, but I had sufficient to defray my expenses, so I had every reason to be pleased with the position.
The Capital of the World
When my financial difficulties were settled, I set out to see something of Paris in my spare time. Early in the morning, during my lunch hour, and in the evening, I had a great deal of time in which to visit places of interest. In the mornings I visited the beautiful parks and gardens, of which there are so many in Paris. It was not far from my lodgings to the lovely gardens of the Tuileries, which are the earthly Paradise of Parisian childhood; and for any person who takes pleasure in watching the ways of children, a quiet seat there is an excellent post of observation. In the mornings there were always a large number of little ones there, accompanied by their nurses, and they had delightful times among the grass and flowers. I often wondered that they could play so freely and so happily when they are so fashionably dressed; the explanation must be, that as they are always dressed in that manner when out of doors they live in a state of unconsciousness of fine clothes, which would be impossible in the country districts. It seemed to me that the dressing of children is carried too far in all French towns; they look like little dolls for milliners to try experiments on.
The Historic Champ de Mars
In the evenings I visited the boulevards, and such parks and other public places as were too distant for me to visit before work in the mornings. On one evening in particular, which I will long remember, I visited the Palace of the Trocodero, with its lovely garden along the Seine. Across the river from the Trocodero garden was another garden taken from the famous Champ de Mars, which ended in a sort of terrace with a balustrade. On a fine starlight night I spent more than an hour leaning against that balustrade, giving myself up to the influences of the strange and wonderful scene. Behind me was the vast, open, desert space of the Champ de Mars, silent and empty as so much land in the Sahara, and yet which has been the theatre of so many historical spectacles. There is no place in the world where the contrast between past and present—between many different pasts and the one monotonous present—is so striking and decided. No place in the world presents such a tabula rasa, unless it be some area of salt water where fleets have fought and tempests raged, and where to-day no sound or motion disturbs the summer calm. The garden of the Tuileries was the chief scene of the Festival of the Supreme Being, when Robespierre made a speech full of piety and virtue, and burnt the effigies of Atheism, Ambition, Self-seeking and False Simplicity. Yet that memorable festival was also celebrated on the Champ de Mars ; and on the next great occasion the Festival of Federation, the whole ceremony took place there in the presence of three hundred thousand spectators, who stood upon embankments laboriously raised for the purpose. There was an altar in the middle—autel de la patrie; and there was a throne near the military school, whereon sat the poor King Louis XVI., whose head still preserved its connection with his body. Talleyrand said mass, Lafayette rode about on a white horse. There was a great deal of solemn taking of oaths, in which the King and the President of the Assembly took part. In 1815 this same desert of the Champ de Mars was covered with another crowd ; there was an altar once again, with an officiating prelate, and a throne with another sovereign. It was now the Champ de Mai, though the ceremony took place on the first of June—that fateful month which was to contain the date of Waterloo. Napoleon came in coronation state, with a silken coat, a feathered cap, and the imperial mantle, in a state coach drawn by eight horses. Like Louis XVI., he, too, sat upon a throne, and received homage, and gazed over an area of human beings. It is said that almost the whole population of Paris was in the Champ de Mars that day, and it is certain that there were fifty thousand soldiers and a hundred pieces of artillery. It was the last imperial ceremony of the First Empire. When Napoleon laid aside the imperial mantle that day, as he left the throne to distribute colors, he had done forever with imperial state. Nothing remained for him but a fortnight of rough life as a soldier, to be followed by a crushing defeat, a wretched exile, and a miserable death.
Past and Present
It was delightful to stand on that terrace by the balustrade, and think of all the great events which have enlivened that desolate stretch of the Champ de Mars. Its permanent condition is that of perfect emptiness and aridity, but occasionally it is the scene of wonderful concentrations of humanity. Great Inter-national Exhibitions have flourished there and disappeared ; armies have drilled there which now lie mouldering under the earth. As I looked over it, it seemed that I could almost see the Emperor Napoleon seated on his throne, with hundreds of thousands of cheering Frenchmen round about. It was an experience worth having, merely to stand there and give way to one's imagination, and it was late when I went to bed that night.
Paris abounds in places of historic interest. At school, and since leaving school, I reveled in the study of French history, so that I was able to appreciate the significance of the important places. I never crossed the Place de la Concorde without shuddering at the spot where the guillotines stood, and on the scene of the Bastille I could almost hear the groans of the prisoners who had suffered there. I never tired of looking up the places of which I had read, and my spare time in Paris was always well occupied.
After attending the American church on Sundays, I usually visited some of the famous French places of worship, most often Notre Dame, which impressed me more with every view. The great west front of this cathedral, where the towers are, is one of the chief architectural glories of France. There is hardly any work of architecture in the whole world, except one or two Greek temples, which has evoked the same kind and degree of admiration as the west front of Notre Dame. Another feature of the cathedral which is greatly admired, are the fine old doors. Those of the Virgin and Saint Anne have still their magnificent original iron-work of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The common people of Paris used to believe quite seriously that it was the devil himself who had helped the smith in exchange for his soul, as mere unaided human skill was unequal to such a task. There was also a popular belief that an enchanter had shut the door of Saint Anne so that it could not be opened—the fact being simply that for a long time it was disused.
The Most Beautiful Church in Paris
Near Notre Dame is the Sainte Chapelle, the origin of which is known to most people. It is nothing more than a large stone shrine to contain relics. Nothing could exceed the joy of Saint Louis when he believed himself to have become the possessor of the real crown of thorns and a large piece of the true cross which were used on Calvary. He bought them at a very high price from the Emperor of Constantinople, and held them in such reverence that he and his brother, the Count of Artois, carried them in their receptacle on their shoulders, walking barefooted through the streets of Paris ; such was the thoroughness of the King's faith and his humility toward the objects of his veneration.
These feelings led Saint Louis to give orders for the erection of a chapel in which the relics were to be preserved, and he commanded it to be built as quickly as possible. It was finished within three years, in 1248, and it has remained ever since one of the most notable examples of architecture in Europe. The services in this chapel during the time of Saint Louis were of a sumptuous description, and when the King attended in state the place must have presented such a concentration of medieval splendor as was never seen elsewhere in such narrow limits. His enthusiasm may seem superstitious to us, in the twentieth century, but he endeavored earnestly to make himself a perfect king, according to the lights of his time, so that his splendid chapel is associated with the memory of a human soul as sound and honest as its handicrafts, and as beautiful as its art.
The Tomb of Napoleon
The most impressive building I visited in Paris was the Church of the Invalides, constructed to serve as a tomb for Napoleon. A lofty dome, supported by massive piers perforated with narrow arched passages and faced with Corinthian columns and pilasters, a marble floor of extraordinary richness and beauty everywhere, all around the base of the dome a stair of six marble steps descending to the circular space under it, and in the midst of this space a great opening, or well, with a diameter of more than seventy feet, and a marble parapet breast-high, for the safety of the visitors who look down into it—such is one's first impression of the wonderful interior of the building. Not only do people invariably look down at the sarcophagus of the Emperor upon entering the room, but they gaze a long time, as if expecting something to occur. In the middle there is the great sarcophagus of polished red Russian granite, and twelve colossal statues stand around the parapet, all turning their grave, impassible faces toward the centre. They are twelve Victories whose names have resounded through the world, and in the spaces between them are sheaves of standards taken in battle, and in the red sarcophagus lies the body of Napoleon. The serious grandeur, the stately order of this arrangement seems to close appropriately the most extraordinary career in history ; and yet it is impossible to look upon that sarcophagus without the most discouraging reflections. The most splendid tomb in Europe is the tomb of the most selfish, the most culpably ambitious, the most cynically unscrupulous of men ; and the sorrowful reflection is that if he had been honorable, unselfish, unwilling to injure others, he would have died in comparative or in total obscurity, and these prodigious honors would never have been bestowed upon his memory.
Paris abounds in buildings associated with Napoleon. The Church of the Magdalen (Madeleine), which every one visits, is curiously connected with his history, for he had it continued while he was in power, with the intention of dedicating it as a temple to the memory of La Grande Armee. Every year, on the anniversaries of the battles of Austerlitz and Jena, the temple was to have been illuminated and a discourse delivered concerning the military virtues, with an eulogy of those who perished in the two battles. This intention was never carried out, and the building, which had been begun in 1764 as a church, was finished as a church during the reign of Louis-Philippe. The Madeleine is to-day the most fashionable church of Paris, and a wedding there is a sight to be remembered. I happened to be passing one day at noon, when I noticed a bridal party entering, and I followed them in. The interior was beautifully decorated with flowers and candles, and the chairs were occupied by fashionably dressed people. Behind the altar a string orchestra was playing. There was nothing here to remind one of the austerity of the past ages, for all the exterior appearance of a Greek temple. The gilded youth of modern Paris walked along soft carpets, amid an odor of incense and flowers and the sounds of mellifluous music. When the pretty ceremony was over, they passed out down the carpeted steps, and an admiring crowd watched them into their carriages. And nobody thought about the dead at Austerlitz and Jena, and nobody thought of Napoleon !
The Grand Opera
One evening I visited the opera, not so much to hear the music, as to obtain a view of the interior of the building, which is one of the most magnificent in the city. The situation for it was created purposely by the authorities. The front of it might have looked merely across a street, but a new street of great length, the Avenue de l'Opera, was opened, so that it might be seen from a distance. Besides this, arrangements were made for the convergence of several other new streets in front of the Opera, so as to give to its site the utmost possible importance. As the houses in these streets are all of them lofty and many of them magnificent, the Opera itself required both size and richness to hold its own in a situation that would have been dangerous to a feeble or even a modest architectural performance. The architect was equal to the demand, and as a result the Parisians have the finest structure of its kind in the world.
Within the Opera, one finds himself in a palatial foyer. All about are deco-rations of the richest description ; the grand staircase almost overpowers one with its splendor; it is full of dazzling light; it conveys a strong sense of height, space, openness ; it comes on the sight as a burst of brilliant and triumphant music on the ear. The building is designed so that visitors may look down upon the grand staircase from galleries on four different stories around the building, and I found one of these galleries an excellent place from which to view the crowd.
I thought the music to be hardly as. good as we had at the Auditorium in Chicago. The principal singers were certainly far inferior, but the chorus was better trained, and the orchestra seemed to be more accustomed to its work. I had a very good seat, from which I could both hear and see, for thirty cents, and I had my money's worth. If it were possible to hear grand opera in America at a similar price, people would be satisfied with less famous singers.
My work in the jewelry store was not laborious, though I had to be there from eight in the morning until six in the evening, with an hour at noon for luncheon. My principal duty was to help in arranging the stock and in wrapping orders to be sent out. My wages were not much more than sufficient to pay my bare expense of living, and I would have found it necessary to seek more remunerative work had I not received some money from London. One of the papers in that city had published two articles which I sent them from the Continent, and the money I received was enough to enable me to travel from Paris to London in good style. It was fortunate that my friends in London were loyal, for there was no word at all from the American editors. For all the interest they seemed to take in my welfare, I might have been starving in a foreign land. I determined that this experience would be a lesson to me, and that hereafter, when I depended upon money from across the ocean, I would take care to have a written contract before starting on my trip.