Through Rural France
( Originally Published 1903 )
THERE was a season of pleasant weather toward the last of November, and on my way to Dieppe, where I was to take the boat to England, I spent some delightful days in the French country, walking from place to place, and enjoying these final pedestrian experiences of my European tour. I was now better able to understand the people with whom I came in contact, and to appreciate the many good qualities which the French peasantry possess. For one thing, I found that they are unfailingly polite, more so than the Parisians. Even the accent and the look of their printed words have an air of suavity that attracts and pleases. In the country districts of western France the people always bow when they meet you, and say, Bon jour, Monsieur. It is a greeting that is given as a matter of course, and you receive it just as surely from the little children and the women as you do from the men, who add a touch of the hat. It of course makes a very agreeable impression upon the sojourner from abroad to be accorded such courtesy and friendliness. Among the peasantry themselves the exchange of pleasant salutations at meeting and parting is universal. This is true of all classes, from the laborers up; and besides, every man is given his prefix. The curé, the doctor, the butcher and baker are all addressed respectfully as " Monsieur."
Politeness and "Policy" in Prance
Sometimes the stranger is led to question whether this politeness is more than surface deep. I often had my doubts of it when I noted how little hesitation the people showed in loading me with their bad money. Belgian, Swiss, Turkish and other coins are in common circulation in France. They are much like French money in size and appearance, and some of them are good and some are not. Often, when I was buying a railroad ticket, or something in a shop, I would see the Frenchmen poke over their drawers in search of bad money—intending to work it off on me because I was a stranger. I was as careful as possible, for I could ill afford to be burdened with worthless coins ; but in spite of all precautions there were times when I was taken in. On one memorable occasion I accepted in lieu of a five-franc piece a coin which was very similar in appearance, and which I discovered belonged to one of the Central American republics. This meant a practical loss of one dollar to me, and I longed to find the Frenchman who had victimized me.
Most of the villages through which I passed on my journey were picturesque, in a way, but dirty. This condition is due in part to the uncleanly habits of the people themselves, but also to the entire lack of a sewer system worthy of the name in the country towns. The villagers were always interesting. I happened into one town on the morning of a market-day. The square was crowded with booths and strewn with heaps of vegetables and other merchandise; and the throng of buyers and sellers bargaining there, with a gray, old church looking down upon them, made the scene full of movement and picturesqueness. The townsmen of the lower classes, and nearly all the men from the farms, wore loose, blue smocks, and the women of the same rank wore white caps, that were some-times of plain cloth and very like nightcaps, and at other times were of lace and elaborately frilled. Boys frequently wore blue smocks, the same as the men, and most of the youngsters were wandering about the town without hats. These costumes are to be found, with a few local variations, throughout the country districts of France, and doubtless they are quite satisfactory to their wearers. I was always thinking, however, of our well-dressed American mechanics and farmers, and wondering what the French would think if they saw them.
Wine and Milk
I arrived in one quaint little village on a Saturday evening, and arranged to remain over the Sabbath, as I didn't care to continue my walking on that day. I saw a little house marked "restaurant," and when I interviewed the landlady, I was told that I could take my meals and lodging there while I was in town. It was about six in the evening, and she said that she would prepare my supper at once. It was a very good meal, served in courses, as is the French style. For drink, the landlady uncorked, as a matter of course, a bottle of wine. I asked if I could have instead a glass of milk, but she didn't catch the idea, and thought I was saying the wine was too weak, and that I preferred whisky or champagne. When I finally made clear my request, she shook her head in great surprise. She had probably never seen any one before who preferred milk to wine. The French never drink any thing else, and if a stranger asks for water, he is looked upon as a sort of curiosity. There was a little restaurant next to my lodging-place in Paris, where I often went for a glass of water. The landlord there was really concerned over my rashness, and often told me that I would be ill from drinking " such stuff."
I was much interested in noting the details of the management of this country inn. Like a large proportion of the women in France, my landlady seemed to have entire charge of her house and business. She did the buying and selling, and carried the purse; while her husband puttered around, did small jobs, wiped the dishes, and ran errands. The woman had twice his vigor. But she was no exception in this, for among the tradespeople the French women undoubtedly have a remarkable capacity for business, and for managing themselves and the men too. It was suggested by an American woman, to whom I mentioned the apparent incapacity of French men, that during the Napoleonic wars the best of the men of France were killed in battle, and that there has been no new race of sufficient strength to take their place.
I found that Sunday was more observed in this rural village than it is in most sections of France. In Paris it is looked upon as a regular holiday, and the theatres and other public places of amusement are more crowded upon that day than upon any other. In the country, I found that many people were going toward an old church, and I followed the rest. I entered the old churchyard with its rank weeds and grasses, and walked about among the graves until it was time for the service to commence within. There were a great many of the grotesque bead wreaths with which the French decorate their graves, and these detracted from the appearance of what would otherwise have been a beautiful burying-ground. All through Europe I found no cemeteries which could compare in beauty with the ones we have in America. They all had an appearance of artificiality, which was anything but attractive, and instead of fresh flowers they seemed to prefer wreaths of bead and metal blossoms. Probably these are more lasting, but they do not appeal to American taste.
A Queer Old Church
When I entered this country church I saw that the building was like a fortress, its walls a yard thick, and its windows heavily barred with iron. The low, wooden pews were bare of cushions and unpainted ; but, to compensate, the farther end of the room was quite gaudy with cloths and candles and images, while the ceiling was painted blue and spangled with white stars. A high priest with a shaven crown led the service, and he was assisted by two lesser priests, and by three little boys, who carried about candles and books, and picked up the high priest's skirts at the proper time, and adjusted them so that he could sit down gracefully. Although I couldn't understand what was going on, I was interested in watching the movements, and the service was far from being tedious.
Toward the close of the service one of the gowned personages, probably the sexton, brought out what looked like a common market-basket containing nearly half a bushel of bread cut in small pieces. The basket was lined with a linen cloth large enough to overlap the edges and allow the ends to meet underneath. Beginning at the front, the sexton came slowly down the single narrow aisle, passing the basket now to a pew on this side, now to a pew on that side, and every one in the congregation, from infants up to centenarians, took a piece of bread. When the sexton approached the rear of the room he seemed to realize that he was going to have considerable bread left, and he handed out quite a good-sized end of a loaf that was in the bottom of the basket to an old woman, in addition to the small piece she had already taken. She ate the small bit and put the other in her pocket. At the very last, the sexton distributed what remained by handfulls to several children in the back seats, and that kept them munching through the rest of the service. This disposal of the bread which was left was doubtless thrifty and charitable, but is was quite a shock to me. I couldn't imagine such an occurrence in a church at home, on a communion Sunday.
Strange Communion Customs
Bread is served in the French churches in something the same way every Sunday, and turns are taken by the various families of the parish in providing it. Sometimes the well-to-do families direct the baker to make a kind of sweet bread, and they not only get enough for the church, but extra loaves which they send after service, one to each family of their particular friends among the neighbors. It has been blessed by the priest along with that cut up and distributed at the church, and it is valued accordingly. This aristocratic bread is eaten by all the attendants at mass with a relish, and the children devour it with special eagerness; for many of them never get sweet bread at home.
When I reached Dieppe, I found that thriving resort to be almost bare of visitors. In the summer it is a favorite seaside place for city folk, but in the wintry weather which prevailed at the time of my visit, there was little attraction about the place. The beach, however, was not altogether deserted, though it looked more like the adjunct of a laundry than the resort of bathers and pleasure-seekers. For a great distance the shingle was overlaid with newly washed clothing and house linen. Here and there a woman was seated upon a wheel-barrow, knitting and waiting, till, in the process of drying, her share in the great array of washing needed turning. When the garments had dried on both sides to a watcher's satisfaction, she shook them free from any sand that had blown upon them, loaded her barrow, and wheeled her wash up to town. The house-wives of Dieppe find the ocean a great convenience, and utilize it to the utmost in fine weather.
Southward, beyond the array of fine hotels that fronted the harbor, was a line of lofty chalk cliffs. On the beach in that neighborhood many scattered men and women with stout baskets on their backs, were picking up certain of the round water-worn stones that were along the shore. A peculiar thing about these stone-gatherers was that they were cliff-dwellers, and their homes were in the white cliffs that rose near by, with bases barely out of reach of the tides. The crags were honeycombed with caverns of all sizes, though not all of them were occupied. Some of the cave-dwellings were very diminutive—just single, little rooms, with a rude wooden door closing the entrance. As I was passing one of these, the door opened, and I saw a grizzly looking man working inside, and a small boy ran out with a bit of shining stone in his hand and held it up to me. " Please buy a curiosity," he said, and I gave him some coppers and kept the stone, for now that I was so near England I could afford to be a little extravagant.
Cave Dwellers at Home
The entrances to the larger caves were wholly unclosed, and when I ventured near to one of them and saw nothing to hinder, I went inside. Its walls must have been fifty feet high, its width about the same, and its depth fully two or three hundred feet. A dry, chalky odor pervaded it, and it had a feeling of great quiet and mellow coolness. A yellow dog sprang out from a stone kennel near the entrance and barked till the place resounded as if there had been a dozen dogs yelping instead of one. On the opposite side of the entrance, a little further within the cave, a room had been excavated into the rock, and in its low doorway stood a bent and withered old woman, regarding me curiously. At the back of the cavern were the homes of other cave-dwellers, merely spaces partitioned off with low stone walls. In each there was usually naught but a bed, a table, a few cooking utensils, and some baskets for stone gathering, though in one instance I saw some pictures fastened upon the walls. The inhabitants of the caves appeared to be a kind of gypsy race, who have no other ambition than to obtain their daily bread.
When night came, I ate my last meal upon French soil, and when at nine o'clock I boarded the long, side-wheeled steamer which was to carry me to England, I knew that my Continental touring was over. I had traveled many hundred miles with very little expense, and I had enjoyed many unusual experiences which could happen only to a lad of sixteen. Now that I had accomplished most of what I set out to do, I was more than willing to go to England and thence home. It seemed that I had been away a much longer time than seven months, and my one desire was now to spend Christmas with my mother and the people at home.
The steamer was not to start until after the train arrived with the passengers from Paris, so I had a long time in which to watch the cargo being loaded. They took on board tons and tons of potatoes and butter and eggs and other produce, all of which was destined to feed the Englishmen. I thought of the vast amount of other produce which was sent to England from other European countries, and from all the world, in fact, and I marveled at the capacity of the Britishers for consuming food.
I was not sorry that my wanderings in France were at an end. I had enjoyed many pleasant days in that country and in the others I had visited on the Continent, but I was an Anglo-Saxon, and it was good, after all, to be going back to people of my own race. I was so glad to see the English sailors on the ship that I could almost have hugged them, for they were the next best thing to Americans.
The vessel left Dieppe at about midnight, and I immediately became seasick, for the Channel was very rough. Instead of going into my berth below I spent the whole night on deck, and my feelings were such that I didn't care particularly whether we ever reached the English shore or not. I found that what I had heard about Channel sickness was true ; it seemed far worse than what I had suffered on the ocean, but of course it didn't last as long, and in the morning I forgot my troubles in my delight at being once again in England, and truly " homeward bound."