14 September 2014

Stefan Zweig on Paris 2

'And nowhere could you ever have experienced the artless yet wonderfully wise lightness of life more happily than in Paris, where it was gloriously affirmed in the city's beauty of form, mild climate, wealth and traditions. All of us young people absorbed a part of that lightness, and added our own mite to it. Chinese and Scandinavians, Spaniards and Greeks, Brazilians and Canadians, we all felt at home on the banks of the Seine. We were under no compulsion, we could speak, think, laugh and criticize as we liked, we lived as we pleased, with others or by ourselves, extravagantly or thriftily, luxuriously or in the bohemian style - there was room for every preference and all tastes were catered for. There were sublime restaurants where culinary magic was worked, wines at two or three hundred francs, wickedly expensive cognacs from the days of Marengo and Waterloo; but you could and drink almost as well at any marchand de vin around the corner. In the crowded student restaurants of the Latin Quarter, a few sous would buy you the most delicious little amuse-gueules before and after a juicy steak, with red or white wine and a long stick of delicious white bread. You could dress as you liked; students promenaded along the Boulevard Saint Michel in their chichi berets, while the rapins, the painters sports broad-brimmed hats like giant mushrooms and romantic, black-velvet jackets. Meanwhile workers cheerfully went about on the smartest of boulevards in their blue blouses or their shirtsleeves, along with nursemaids in elaborately pleated Breton caps and vintners in blues aprons. A young couple might start dancing in the street any time, not just on the fourteenth of July, with a policeman smiling at them - the prettiest girls didn't shrink from going into the nearest petit hôtel with a black man - who in Paris minded about such ridiculous bugbears as race, class and origin became later? You walked, talked and slept with whomever you liked, regardless of what anyone else thought. To love Paris properly, you ought really to have known Berlin first, experiencing the natural servility of Germany with its rigid class differences clearly delineated, in which the officer's wife did not talk to the teacher's wife, who in turn did not speak to the merchant's lady, who in turn did not mix with the laborer's wife. In Paris, however, the inheritance of the Revolution was still alive and coursing through the people's veins; the proletarian worker felt himself as much of a free citizen as his employer, a man with equal rights; the café waiter shook hands in a compraderly manner with the general in his gold-leafed uniform; the industrious, respectable, neat and clean wives of the lower middle classes did not look down their noses at prostitutes who happened to live on the same floor in their building, but passed the time of day with them on the stairs, and their children gave the girls flowers. Once I saw a party of Norman farmers come into a smart restaurant - Larue, near the Madelaine after a christening service; they wore the traditional costume of their village, their heavy shoes tramped over the paving like horses' hooves; their hair was so thickly pomaded that you could have smelt it in the kitchen. They were talking at the top of their voices, which grew louder and louder the more they drank, uninhibitedly nudging their stout wives in the ribs. As working farmers they were not diffident about sitting among the well-groomed gentry in frock coats and grand dresses, and even the smooth-shaven waiter did not look down his nose at such rustic guests, as he would have done in Germany or Britain, but served them poliely and punctiliously as he waited on the ministers and excellencies, and the maitre d'hotel even seemed to take particular pleasure in giving a warm welcome to his rather boisterous customers. Paris accommodated everyone side by side; there was no above and below, no visible dividing line between luxurious streets and grubby alley ways; life and cheerfulness reigned everywhere.'

to be continued..

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