About Paris

Charle Dana Gibson

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The Avenue des Champs-Élysées is hardly a street, but as a thoroughfare it is the most remarkable in the world. It is a much better show than are the boulevards. The place for which you pay to enter is generally more interesting than the place to which admittance is free, and any one can walk along the boulevards, but to ride in the Champs-Élysées you must pay something, even if you take your fiacre (carriage), by the hour. Some Parisians regret that the Avenue des Champs-Élysées should be so cheapened that it is not reserved for carriages hired by the month, and not by the course, and that omnibuses and hired cabs are not kept out of it, as they are kept out of Hyde Park. But should this rule obtain the Avenue des Champs-Élysées would lose the most amusing of its features. It would shut out the young married couples and their families and friends in their gala clothes, which look strangely unfamiliar in the sunlight, and make you think that the wearers have been up all night; and the hundreds of girls in pairs from the Jardin de Paris, who have halved the expense of a fiacre, but who cannot yet afford a brougham; and the English tourists dressed in flannel shirts and hunting-caps and knickerbockers, exactly as though they were penetrating the mountains of Afghanistan or the deserts of Syria, and as unashamed of their provincialism as the young marquis who passes on his dog-cart is unashamed of having placed the girl with him on his right hand instead of his left, though by so doing he tells every one who passes who and what she is. It would shut out the omnibuses, with the rows of spectators on their tops, who lean on their knees and look down into the carriages below, and point out the prettiest gowns and faces; and it would exclude the market-wagons laden with huge piles of yellow carrots and purple radishes, with a woman driving on the box-seat, and a dog chained beside her. There is no other place in the world, unless it be Piccadilly at five o'clock in the afternoon, where so many breeds of horses trot side by side, where the chains of the baron banker and the cracking whip of a drunken cabman and the horn of some American millionaire's four-in-hand all sound at the same time. To be known is easy in the boulevards, but it is a distinction in the Avenue des Champs-Élysées -- a distinction which costs much money and which lasts an hour. Sometimes it is gained by liveries and trappings and a large red rosette in the button-hole, or by driving the same coach at the same hour at the same rate of speed throughout the season, or by wearing a fez, or by sending two sais ahead of your cart to make a way for it, or by a beautiful face and a throughbred pug on a cushion at your side, although this last mode is not so easy, as there are many pretty faces and many softly cushioned victorias and innumerable pug-dogs, and when the prevailing color for the hair happens to be red -- as it was last summer -- the chance of gaining any individuality becomes exceedingly difficult. When all of these people meet in the afternoon on their way to and from the Bois, there is no better entertainment of the sort in the world, and the avenue grows much too short, and the hours before dinner even shorter. There are women in light billowy toilets, with elbows squared and whip in hand, fearlessly driving great English horses from the top of a mailphaeton, while a frightened little English groom clutches at the rail and peers over their shoulder to grasp the reins if need be, or to jump if he must. And there are narrow-chested corseted and padded young Frenchmen in white kid gloves, who hold one rein in each hand as little girls hold a skipping-rope, and who imagine they are so like Englishmen that no one can distinguish them even by their accent. There are fat the brew bankers and their equally fat sons in open victorias, who, lacking the spirit of the Frenchmen, who at least attempt to drive themselves, recline consciously on cushions, like the poodles in the victorias of the ladies with the red hair. There are also visiting princes from India or pashas from Egypt; or diplomats of the last Spanish-American republic, as dark as the negroes of Sixth Avenue, but with magnificent liveries and clanking chains; the nabobs of Haiti, of Algiers and Tunis, and with these the beautiful Spanish-looking woman from South America, the wives of the Rastaquoueres [A social upstart, especially from a Mediterranean or Latin American country; a smooth untrustworthy foreigner]; and mixed with these is the long string of book-makers and sporting men coming back from the races at Longchamps or Auteuil, red-faced and hot and dusty, with glasses strapped around them, and the badges still flying from their button-holes. There are three rows of carriages down and three of carriages up, and if you look from the Arc deTriomphe to the Tuileries you see a broken mass of glittering carriage-tops and lace parasols, and what looks like the flashing of thousands of mirrors as the setting sun strikes on the glass of the lamps and windows and on the lacquered harness and polished mountings. Whether you view this procession from the rows of green iron seats on either side or as a part of it, you must feel lifted up by its movement and color and the infinite variety of its changes. A man might live in the Champs-Élysées for a week or a month, seeing no more of Paris than he finds under its beautiful trees or on its broad thoroughfare, and be so well content with that much of the city as to prefer it to all other cities.


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You cannot say you have seen the streets of Paris until you have walked them at sunrise; every one has seen them at night, but he must watch them change from night to day before he can claim to have seen them at their best. The Seine lays motionless as water in a bath-tub, and the towers of Notre Dame rising out of the mist at one end, and the round bulk of the Trocadero bounding it at the other, seemed to limit the river to what one could see of its silent surface from the Bridge of the Deputies. The Eiffel Tower, the great skeleton of the departed exposition, disappeared and reformed itself again as drifting clouds of mist swept through it and cut its great ugly length into fragments hung in mid-air.


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Paris is the only city in the world which the visitor from the outside positively refuses to take seriously. He may have come to Paris with an earnest purpose to study art, or to investigate the intricacies of French law, or the historical changes of the city; or, if it be a woman, she may have come to choose a trousseau; but no matter how serious his purpose may be, there is always some one part of each day when the visitor rests from his labors and smiles indulgently and does as the Parisians do. Whether the city or the visitor is responsible for this, whether Paris adopts the visitor, or the visitor adapts himself to his surroundings, it is impossible to say. But there is certainly no other capital of the world in which the stranger so soon takes on the local color, in which he becomes so soon acclimated, and which brings to light in him so many new and unsuspected capacities for enjoyment and adventure.


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Of the public gardens and dance-halls there are a great number, and the men who have visited Paris do not have to be told much concerning them, and the women obtain a sufficiently correct idea of what they are like from the photographs along the Rue de Rivoli to prevent their wishing to learn more. What these gardens were in the days of the Second Empire, when the Jardin Mabille and the Bal Bullier were celebrated through books and illustrations, and by word of mouth by every English and American traveller who had visited them, it is now difficult to say. It may be that they were the scenes of mad abandon and fascinating frenzy, of which the last generation wrote with mock horror and with suggestive smiles, and of which its members now speak with a sigh of regret. But we are always ready to doubt whether that which has passed away, and which in consequence we cannot see, was as remarkable as it is made to appear. We depreciate it in order to console ourselves. And if the Mabille and the Bullier were no more wickedly attractive in those days than is the Moulin Rouge which has taken their place under the Republic.


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The most notorious of these dance-halls is the Moulin Rouge. You must have noticed when journeying through France the great windmills that stand against the sky-line on so many hilltops. They are a picturesque and typical feature of the landscape, and seem to signify the honest industry and primitiveness of the French people of the provinces. And as the great arms turn in the wind you can imagine you can hear the sound of the mill-wheel clacking while the wheels inside grind out the flour that is to give life and health. And so when you see the great Red Mill turn high up where four streets meet on the side of Montmartre, and know its purpose, you are impressed with the grim contrast of its past uses and its present notoriety. An imaginative person could not fail to be impressed by the sight of the Moulin Rouge at night. It glows like a furnace, and the glare from its lamps reddens the sky and lights up the surrounding streets and cafes and the faces of the people passing like a conflagration. The mill is red, the thatched roof is red, the arms are picked out in electric lights in red globes, and arches of red lamp-shades rise on every side against the blackness of the night. Young men and women are fed into the blazing doors of the mill nightly, and the great arms, as they turn unceasingly and noisily in a fiery circle through the air, seem to tell of the wheels within that are grinding out the life and the health and souls of these young people of Montmartre.

About Paris, Richard Harding Davis, Illustrated by Charles Dana Gibson, 1895.