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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsSaunterings - Surface Contrasts Of Paris And London
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Saunterings - Surface Contrasts Of Paris And London Post by :jamesc96 Category :Nonfictions Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :1126

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Saunterings - Surface Contrasts Of Paris And London

I wonder if it is the Channel? Almost everything is laid to the Channel: it has no friends. The sailors call it the nastiest bit of water in the world. All travelers anathematize it. I have now crossed it three times in different places, by long routes and short ones, and have always found it as comfortable as any sailing anywhere, sailing being one of the most tedious and disagreeable inventions of a fallen race. But such is not the usual experience: most people would make great sacrifices to avoid the hour and three quarters in one of those loathsome little Channel boats,--they always call them loathsome, though I did n't see but they are as good as any boats. I have never found any boat that hasn't a detestable habit of bobbing round. The Channel is hated: and no one who has much to do with it is surprised at the projects for bridging it and for boring a hole under it; though I have scarcely ever met an Englishman who wants either done,--he does not desire any more facile communication with the French than now exists. The traditional hatred may not be so strong as it was, but it is hard to say on which side is the most ignorance and contempt of the other.

It must be the Channel: that is enough to produce a physical disagreement even between the two coasts; and there cannot be a greater contrast in the cultivated world than between the two lands lying so close to each other; and the contrast of their capitals is even more decided,--I was about to say rival capitals, but they have not enough in common to make them rivals. I have lately been over to London for a week, going by the Dieppe and New Haven route at night, and returning by another; and the contrasts I speak of were impressed upon me anew. Everything here in and about Paris was in the green and bloom of spring, and seemed to me very lovely; but my first glance at an English landscape made it all seem pale and flat. We went up from New Haven to London in the morning, and feasted our eyes all the way. The French foliage is thin, spindling, sparse; the grass is thin and light in color--in contrast. The English trees are massive, solid in substance and color; the grass is thick, and green as emerald; the turf is like the heaviest Wilton carpet. The whole effect is that of vegetable luxuriance and solidity, as it were a tropical luxuriance, condensed and hardened by northern influences. If my eyes remember well, the French landscapes are more like our own, in spring tone, at least; but the English are a revelation to us strangers of what green really is, and what grass and trees can be. I had been told that we did well to see England before going to the Continent, for it would seem small and only pretty afterwards. Well, leaving out Switzerland, I have seen nothing in that beauty which satisfies the eye and wins the heart to compare with England in spring. When we annex it to our sprawling country which lies out-doors in so many climates, it will make a charming little retreat for us in May and June, a sort of garden of delight, whence we shall draw our May butter and our June roses. It will only be necessary to put it under glass to make it pleasant the year round.

When we passed within the hanging smoke of London town, threading our way amid numberless railway tracks, sometimes over a road and sometimes under one, now burrowing into the ground, and now running along among the chimney-pots,--when we came into the pale light and the thickening industry of a London day, we could but at once contrast Paris. Unpleasant weather usually reduces places to an equality of disagreeableness. But Paris, with its wide streets, light, handsome houses, gay windows and smiling little parks and fountains, keeps up a tolerably pleasant aspect, let the weather do its worst. But London, with its low, dark, smutty brick houses and insignificant streets, settles down hopelessly into the dumps when the weather is bad. Even with the sun doing its best on the eternal cloud of smoke, it is dingy and gloomy enough, and so dirty, after spick-span, shining Paris. And there is a contrast in the matter of order and system; the lack of both in London is apparent. You detect it in public places, in crowds, in the streets. The "social evil" is bad enough in its demonstrations in Paris: it is twice as offensive in London. I have never seen a drunken woman in Paris: I saw many of them in the daytime in London. I saw men and women fight in the streets,--a man kick and pound a woman; and nobody interfered. There is a brutal streak in the Anglo-Saxon, I fear,--a downright animal coarseness, that does not exhibit itself the other side of the Channel. It is a proverb, that the London policemen are never at hand. The stout fellows with their clubs look as if they might do service; but what a contrast they are to the Paris sergents de ville! The latter, with his dress-coat, cocked hat, long rapier, white gloves, neat, polite, attentive, alert,--always with the manner of a jesuit turned soldier,--you learn to trust very much, if not respect; and you feel perfectly secure that he will protect you, and give you your rights in any corner of Paris. It does look as if he might slip that slender rapier through your body in a second, and pull it out and wipe it, and not move a muscle; but I don't think he would do it unless he were directly ordered to. He would not be likely to knock you down and drag you out, in mistake for the rowdy who was assaulting you.

A great contrast between the habits of the people of London and Paris is shown by their eating and drinking. Paris is brilliant with cafes: all the world frequents them to sip coffee (and too often absinthe), read the papers, and gossip over the news; take them away, as all travelers know, and Paris would not know itself. There is not a cafe in London: instead of cafes, there are gin-mills; instead of light wine, there is heavy beer. The restaurants and restaurant life are as different as can be. You can get anything you wish in Paris: you can live very cheaply or very dearly, as you like. The range is more limited in London. I do not fancy the usual run of Paris restaurants. You get a great deal for your money, in variety and quantity; but you don't exactly know what it is: and in time you tire of odds and ends, which destroy your hunger without exactly satisfying you. For myself, after a pretty good run of French cookery (and it beats the world for making the most out of little), when I sat down again to what the eminently respectable waiter in white and black calls "a dinner off the Joint, sir," with what belongs to it, and ended up with an attack on a section of a cheese as big as a bass-drum, not to forget a pewter mug of amber liquid, I felt as if I had touched bottom again,--got something substantial, had what you call a square meal. The English give you the substantials, and better, I believe, than any other people. Thackeray used to come over to Paris to get a good dinner now and then. I have tried his favorite restaurant here, the cuisine of which is famous far beyond the banks of the Seine; but I think if he, hearty trencher-man that he was, had lived in Paris, he would have gone to London for a dinner oftener than he came here.

And as for a lunch,--this eating is a fascinating theme,--commend me to a quiet inn of England. We happened to be out at Kew Gardens the other afternoon. You ought to go to Kew, even if the Duchess of Cambridge is not at home. There is not such a park out of England, considering how beautiful the Thames is there. What splendid trees it has! the horse-chestnut, now a mass of pink-and-white blossoms, from its broad base, which rests on the ground, to its high rounded dome; the hawthorns, white and red, in full flower; the sweeps and glades of living green,--turf on which you walk with a grateful sense of drawing life directly from the yielding, bountiful earth,--a green set out and heightened by flowers in masses of color (a great variety of rhododendrons, for one thing), to say nothing of magnificent greenhouses and outlying flower-gardens. Just beyond are Richmond Hill and Hampton Court, and five or six centuries of tradition and history and romance. Before you enter the garden, you pass the green. On one side of it are cottages, and on the other the old village church and its quiet churchyard. Some boys were playing cricket on the sward, and children were getting as intimate with the turf and the sweet earth as their nurses would let them. We turned into a little cottage, which gave notice of hospitality for a consideration; and were shown, by a pretty maid in calico, into an upper room,--a neat, cheerful, common room, with bright flowers in the open windows, and white muslin curtains for contrast. We looked out on the green and over to the beautiful churchyard, where one of England's greatest painters, Gainsborough, lies in rural repose. It is nothing to you, who always dine off the best at home, and never encounter dirty restaurants and snuffy inns, or run the gauntlet of Continental hotels, every meal being an experiment of great interest, if not of danger, to say that this brisk little waitress spread a snowy cloth, and set thereon meat and bread and butter and a salad: that conveys no idea to your mind. Because you cannot see that the loaf of wheaten bread was white and delicate, and full of the goodness of the grain; or that the butter, yellow as a guinea, tasted of grass and cows, and all the rich juices of the verdant year, and was not mere flavorless grease; or that the cuts of roast beef, fat and lean, had qualities that indicate to me some moral elevation in the cattle,--high-toned, rich meat; or that the salad was crisp and delicious, and rather seemed to enjoy being eaten, at least, did n't disconsolately wilt down at the prospect, as most salad does. I do not wonder that Walter Scott dwells so much on eating, or lets his heroes pull at the pewter mugs so often. Perhaps one might find a better lunch in Paris, but he surely couldn't find this one.

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