Monday, 18 June 2007

Happy times in Paris

Between the two world wars many English-speaking expatriates lived in Paris; Samuel Beckett, John Dos Passos, Lawrence Durrell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Madox Ford, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, Ezra Pound, and Gertrude Stein were among them. Most of them enjoyed themselves in various discreditable ways, or were interestingly miserable.

George Orwell was also one of those, though in his case the misery was not particularly interesting, except to us reading about it now. In 1933 he published Down and Out in Paris and London in which he describes his routine life as one of the working poor in Paris: slaving and sleeping, then drinking on Saturday night until the early hours of Sunday morning—the "one thing that made life worth living" for some of the unmarried men of the quarter. Penniless after leaving a hotel job, he takes another at a new restaurant, the Auberge de Jehan Cottard, where he falls into a daily routine of fighting for a place on the Metro to reach the "cold, filthy kitchen" of the restaurant by seven:

The patron had engaged me as kitchen plongeur; that is, my job was to wash up, keep the kitchen clean, prepare vegetables, make tea, coffee and sandwiches, do the simpler cooking, and run errands. The terms were, as usual, five hundred francs a month and food, but I had no free day and no fixed working hours.

At the Auberge, I learned how things are done in a thoroughly bad restaurant. It is worth describing, for there are hundreds of similar restaurants in Paris, and every visitor feeds in one of them occasionally. I should add, by the way, that the Auberge was not the ordinary cheap eating-house frequented by students and workmen. We did not provide an adequate meal at less than twenty-five francs, and we were picturesque and artistic, which sent up our social standing. There were the indecent pictures in the bar, and the Norman decorations—sham beams on the walls, electric lights done up as candlesticks, 'peasant' pottery, even a mounting-block at the door. The patron and the head waiter were Russian officers, and many of the customers titled Russian refugees. In short, we were decidedly chic.

Nevertheless, the conditions behind the kitchen door were suitable for a pigsty, for this is what our service arrangements were like: The kitchen measured fifteen feet long by eight broad, and half this space was taken up by the stoves and tables. All the pots had to be kept on shelves out of reach, and there was only room for one dustbin. This dustbin used to be crammed full by midday, and the floor was normally an inch deep in a compost of trampled food.

For firing we had nothing but three gas-stoves, without ovens, and all joints had to be sent out to the bakery. There was no larder. Our substitute for one was a half-roofed shed in the yard, with a tree growing in the middle of it. The meat, vegetables and so forth lay there on the bare earth, raided by rats and cats. There was no hot water laid on. Water for washing up had to be heated in pans, and, as there was no room for these on the stoves when meals were cooking, most of the plates had to be washed in cold water. This, with soft soap and the hard Paris water, meant scraping the grease off with bits of newspaper.

We were so short of saucepans that I had to wash each one as soon as it was done with, instead of leaving them till the evening. This alone wasted probably an hour a day. Owing to some scamping of expense in the installation, the electric light usually fused at eight in the evening. The patron would only allow us three candles in the kitchen, and the cook said three were unlucky, so we had only two.

In these conditions the cook and I were expected to serve thirty or forty meals a day, and would later on be serving a hundred. From the first day it was too much for us. The cook's working hours were from eight in the morning till midnight, and mine from seven in the morning till half past twelve the next morning—seventeen and a half hours, almost without a break. We never had time to sit down till five in the afternoon, and even then there was no seat except the top of the dustbin.

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