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That Apartment in Paris

ISSUE:  Summer 1937

Madame was not quite certain what to expect in the way of an apartment. She knew that those of her French friends, or of Americans living permanently abroad, would be no fair standard for what might be rented during a summer holiday. Yet when one reflected that for centuries France had determined the artistic life of the world, it seemed not improper to expect something a little out of the ordinary. Madame found this to be true— only what she found was not what she expected.

The apartments of Paris proved to be a wilderness of red plush and gilt furniture, whether they were on the avenue d’Iena or the Left Bank, whether one paid five thousand francs or one thousand. It was largely a question of the quality and condition of the gilt and the plush. Thick red carpets, harboring the dust and dirt of many years, covered the floors. Heavy velvet curtains, warmly interlined, were hung over voluminous draperies of lace and net, and successfully prevented the least breath of air from forcing itself through the windows. Rows of fauteuils and bergeres, the two varieties of arm chair, covered with imitation tapestry, lined the salon, the French parlor. Ample velvet cloths covered the tables and dripped to the floors. The walls were hung with the inevitable French prints of more or less amorous scenes. The boiserie, if the woodwork may be dignified by that name, was invariably reminiscent of Louis XV or Louis XVI—with the odds in favor of the latter. It was almost a relief finally to come on an apartment in the mediaeval manner—a relief until one observed that the linenfold panelling was fresh from the paper hanger, and the rare mille-fleur tapestries had but recently emerged from the Galeries Lafayette.

Madame was frankly discouraged. However, there was still another apartment to be seen in this last building. “I do not think this one will suit me,” she remarked to the concierge as she concluded a bird’s-eye view of the Middle Ages, “Let us go now to the apartment of Madame de Verneuil on the sixth floor.”

“Oh, no, Madame, I do not think that one would suit you at all,” the man replied.

Madame looked coldly at the concierge. “I think I am the judge of that.”

A tone of deepest distress, of supplication, came into the man’s voice: “But Madame does not understand . . .”

“Ring for the lift, if you please.”

The concierge almost burst into tears. “But, Madame,” he blushed, “that apartment is only for love.”

By six o’clock that night Madame had finally found her apartment. She had, in the vernacular of her country, been shot with luck—so it seemed. The apartment, within a stone’s throw of the Rond-Point of the Champs-EIysees, was what one might expect of one at Park Avenue and Fifty-fourth Street, only more so. Walls of antique damask set off the soft glow of old tables and commodes. Ancient gilt clocks, vases and jars of rare porcelain ornamented the rooms. Original engravings by eighteenth-century masters hung on the walls. Eight rooms, each more perfectly furnished than the other, revealed themselves to Madame’s enraptured eye. Five long windows opened upon a balcony stretching the length of the apartment, and overlooking the green tree tops of the Champs-EIysees. It seemed as though she had indeed reached the Elysian Fields.

“You are very fortunate to have hot water in the apartment,” Madame Barbet, the owner’s wife, remarked. It was four days later, and she had just completed the ceremony of the inventory. “So few in Paris do. Indeed, you are very fortunate to have found this apartment at all. Everything in it is a priceless object of art. Now let me show you about the hot water. It is an extremely clever arrangement. If you want a bath, you get down on your knees behind the tub where the pipes run and turn off that cock to the left, also that one in the middle, but you turn on the one near the head of the tub. Then you turn on both faucets of the tub. After that you step over to the wash basin and turn on both faucets there. Then you go to that metal box hanging above the tub. That is the chauffe-bains. You open the door at the bottom, light a match, hold it at arm’s length, turn on the little cock below there, and jump back as far and as fast as you can. It is quite simple. Oh yes, and then you turn off the faucets in the wash basin and leave only the one in the tub running, but if you want hot water in the basin, you must turn off the one in the tub. You cannot have hot water in both places at once. And there is one more thing. When you wish to let the water out of the tub, you push down the flat-topped thing you see there in the centre covering that little pipe. Only you have to be a little careful, for sometimes it might give you a squirt in the eye.”

Improbable as it may seem, Madame shortly became expert at this arrangement. “Does this provide the hot water for the kitchen, too?” she inquired, no longer amazed at anything, even that the hot water system of the apartment should be operated from the master’s bath.

Madame Barbet froze her with one look. “Certainly not. Why should one want hot water in the kitchen?”

Anyone who has not been in a real French kitchen cannot comprehend the anomaly it presents. A French kitchen is designed to make as much work as possible for the cook. No matter how elaborate the equipment, the inconveniences are certain to be on a magnificent scale—indeed almost insurmountable except to some one born to them. The Barbet kitchen was no exception to the rule. One wall was lined with what is appropriately called the batterie de cuisine, a collection of poeles, poelettes, chaudieres, marmites, cocottes, poissonieres, presse-puree, grappins, pochons, moules, and casseroles—in other words, pots and pans. One thing to be learned early in French life is that no servant can be induced to cook something except in the vessel intended for that purpose. If you choose to eat turbot, it must be prepared in a turbotibre; asparagus is boiled in a boite a asperges, never in a common saucepan. Potatoes are consigned to a mar-mite a pommes de terre, and stew to a marmite a ragout. To be sure, you may buy a faitout, which, as its name implies, may be used for anything, but it is a cheap and inferior article, not to be found in the best of kitchens.

The most prominent object in a French kitchen is what we call a “French range”; perversely it is a cuisine anglaise to the French. An enormous specimen of this sort, large enough to prepare the meals for a small hotel, completely filled one side of the Barbet kitchen and threw terror into the heart of an American brought up on gas and electric stoves. Luckily we discovered a rechaud a gaz for our summer needs. Only second in importance to the stove is the sink, in this case a monumental affair of a material resembling pink marble. Even the most stylish American sink can give no idea of the magnificence of this one. It was on the order of an altar, with two faucets superposed. No such vulgar concept as that of a basin had been permitted to enter into the design. The top of the sink was flat, with a moulding, perhaps half an inch high, about it. When the faucet was turned on the water splashed in a radius of fifteen feet in all directions. It splashed upon the cook, it splashed upon the range, it deluged the floor. The apartment contained no dishpan, and it is still a mystery how the dishes were to be washed. Beneath the sink a door opened into a cavern into which garbage and waste paper were pitched. When the cavern became completely filled, the refuse was somehow and miraculously removed by the cook, carried down the five flights of the escalier de service and presented to the concierge.

The problem of refrigeration, which we so inevitably associate with food, is one that has not yet entered the minds of the French. During our weeks in Paris the thermometer made one of its unusual flights from ninety to ninety-seven, and very consistently remained there. Madame, having innocently failed to observe the absence of a refrigerator in the Barbet apartment, presently discovered that the “ice box” consisted of two wooden shelves in a sort of cupboard beneath the window of the butler’s pantry. Wooden louvers to the outside admitted the air from the court yard and the more enterprising horseflies. Meat bought in the morning was spoiled by noon, vegetables left from dinner were sour by midnight. The smallest fraction of a kilo of butter had melted to oil within a quarter of an hour. The breakfast cream had already turned sour when it was delivered at half past seven o’clock and there was never any question of trying to keep that. As all French servants believe that windows are made to be kept closed, the combined odors of the garbage disposal and refrigerator plants were, at times, a little appalling.

Simultaneously with our arrival in the apartment appeared the bonne a tout faire recommended by the obliging American agency of Alice Smith, which deals in French maids and settles almost any problem, domestic or otherwise, for stranded Americans. Clementine, an angular spinster, was what the colored call “settled.” Her melting black eyes, her wistful, defeated expression, seemed to betoken a gentleness of nature we were destined to learn did not exist. The chief points in her favor were her French, which a member of the Academy might have envied, and her cooking, which was superb. For five hundred francs a month, at least four times what she would have received in a French family, and an allowance of fifty francs for her wine, Clementine was to take care of us. The agency was very definite about her obligations. She was to supply her own uniforms and aprons, she was to cook, to produce breakfast at half past seven o’clock and dinner at eight, she was to clean the apartment, answer the door, wash the table linen and such other things as Madame directed, to take the dog for his several airings, do all the marketing, and, in general, make herself useful.

Clementine made her initial appearance before Madame in the salon dressed in a bedraggled, flowered rayon garment, a figured, cover-all apron, and the ample, woolly bedroom slippers beloved of all French bourgeoises. Madame’s vision of the smart French maid she had been led to expect received a sturdy jolt. Nevertheless she observed calmly: “I think you had better put on your morning uniform, Clementine, before you begin your work,” hoping the idea of the uniform would include the feet.

“What does Madame expect of a bonne a tout faire?” Clementine replied. “I have no uniform.”

Madame decided that firmness was the only course. “Miss Smith told me you would supply your own.”

“Ah, yes—but Miss Smith—? I have no uniform.”

There was no answer to that. Dolefully and desperately Madame started upon the familiar road to the Galeries Lafayette and invested in the proper paraphernalia. When it was presented to Clementine she gave one look at her new equipment and demanded eloquently: “What does Madame expect? I am a bonne a tout faire. I am supposed to be dirty. I expect the fat from the frying pan to spatter all over me. How can it be otherwise? I expect the water from the sink to splash my dress and my apron. It is intended that way. Perhaps in America your maids of all work may dress up, but not in France. If you want someone to look pretty, you must engage a femme de chambre. I cannot do it.”

Madame expostulated that no servant, be it in France or America, could appear outside the kitchen in such a condition. There was the inevitable reply: “What does Madame expect? I am a bonne & tout faire. I cannot be expected to wait on table. I am willing to set the food on, but serve? Never! That is impossible, Madame should engage a femme de chambre if she expects that.”

It began to look as though there were a difference of opinion between Clementine and her employer in regard to the former’s sphere of action. She could not answer the door, because she was a bonne & tout faire. For the same reason it was impossible for her to do more than a little light dusting. It was likewise quite out of the question to wash the napkins. As for the dish towels, they were expected to be dirty. An American maid might wash them after each meal, but certainly not a French one. Clementine’s shopping expeditions turned into three-hour orgies, at the end of which she was usually to be found deep in consultation with the wife of the concierge. On the third day of Clementine’s reign, an act of Providence mercifully intervened. She poured a kettle of boiling water over her arm and left for a rest in the country, a generous pourboire in her pocket.

Clementine’s successor proved to be as buxom as her predecessor had been angular, as willing as the former had been reluctant. Claire’s French, learned in a mountain village, was almost unintelligible. It was made doubly so by some natural impediment such as a hair palate, which gave her speech the effect of bubbling, muddy water. Nevertheless, there was nothing Claire would not do. Uniforms held no terrors for her. She immediately put one on and appeared in the salon looking as trim and as shapely as might a sack of oats in cap and apron. It is doubtful whether she owned | a comb, but she had done her best to restrain the leonine profusion of her bobbed hair with the frail lace bandeau just given her. Her favorite footgear proved to be a pair of white sneakers. As they had obviously been bought for the occasion, it was difficult to say much against them.

Claire began her day by hurling herself down the five winding flights of the escalier de service to buy the brioche for breakfast. While the family was enjoying the doubtful luxury of sour cream, Claire stood up in the kitchen munching a piece of dry bread and drinking a large bowl of hot skim milk, flavored with chicory. Servants, she allowed, were not supposed to eat the same things as their employers. It was not good for them. She spurned butter and the delicate confiture on Madame’s tray. It was a real cross to her to have to pay one franc fifty for the orange these strange Americans seemed to consider necessary for breakfast. No power on earth could have induced her to buy two.

At ten o’clock Claire started out marketing. It was, of course, the great event of the day for her, the supreme opportunity to gossip with her colleagues, to prime it over them by her skill in bargaining. For the morning adventure French domestics dress themselves in their third best set of street clothes, usually a rusty black, and arm themselves with a carry-all of black or plaid oilcloth. In summer hats are taboo, but Claire showed the superior station she had acquired by working for Americans, by pulling a dirty white beret over her mop.

Claire had been trained in a school of economy such as no American could comprehend, much less emulate. Despite the prostrating heat, she cheerfully rode miles each morning on the tram to the market place where she could buy most cheaply. She was full of assurances that she saved much more than the seven sous of her fare. Every purchase was calculated down to the mouthful. Nothing could persuade her to buy a quarter of an ounce beyond what she considered necessary. An after-theatre bite was out of the question unless it had been planned and provided for in the morning. Once or twice Madame tried to raid the pantry, but there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to be found except some salt and pepper, half a little package of sugar, a smaller one of farine, and the heel of dry bread Claire would munch for breakfast.

Before starting on her marketing Claire would present Madame with the little book in which she kept her accounts. To a French servant this book is almost as important as the Bible. The amount of money entrusted her by her mistress is entered, and against it are charged the expenditures of the day. Occasionally she runs short and is obliged to put something into the pot. It is a primitive form of bookkeeping, but in some manner, not always clear, the recu, the reste, and the du eventually balance.

The dog’s food was a constant source of worry to Claire. France may be a dog’s paradise, as has often been claimed, but what they give their animals to eat is scarcely ambrosia. On the first day Claire returned with a little handful of spoiled meat which she proposed to stew. Madame would not even permit it in the garbage, but sent Claire down the five flights with it as quickly as possible. Henceforth Claire stood in proper awe of the fussy little American dog: indeed, he was likely to make out better than his master, to judge by the entries in the account book. There is biftek pour le chien, 3.15, but biftek pour Monsieur, 2.69, or c6te-lette Monsieur, 5.30, viande chien, 6.70. The carrots, celery, and tomatoes considered necessary for this strange beast, were set down by Claire as another manifestation of the mental aberration that required oranges for breakfast.

How any shopkeeper or green grocer could be induced to sell the infinitessimal amounts recorded in Claire’s book, much less earn a livelihood, is something no American can grasp. To be sure, the shopkeeper keeps up his end by never wrapping anything in paper unless you insist, in which case he uses a bit of old newspaper, and he would not dream of tying the package with string without asking whether you wish it. If so, he produces a ball made up of short lengths of discarded string knotted together.

Claire’s purchases for a day would be something like “bread for the kitchen, 1 franc; lettuce, 1.10; cheese, 1; cheese for Madame (who was obviously extravagant), 2.65; carrots and tomatoes for the dog, 1.90; cauliflower, 3; potatoes, 1.50; mushrooms, 2.25; macaroni, 2.50; chicory for coffee, 1.10.” The real extravagance of the day would be “filet pour Monsieur, 7.90, pour le chien, 7.20.” It was the one time Monsieur made out better than his dog.

It is a common belief in America that every French person, male or female, intuitively and by virtue of his nationality, knows how to cook. This may be true, but not every bonne a tout faire is a cordon bleu. Of course we. all know that a new cook has a talent for putting her worst foot forward, and that to worm out her accomplishments takes time, but for an American, whose ideas of French cooking are based on hotels and restaurants, to order a proper dinner from a maid of all work is a formidable task. It is one thing to take a chance on cumes de poularde grilles diable or bouillabaisse a la mode de Marseilles when you are at a restaurant and can send the dish back, but quite another thing when you know there is nothing else in the kitchen.

For the first part of our stay, our fare consisted largely of omelet—with variations. There was omelet with cheese, omelet with mushrooms, omelette aux fines herbes, or just plain omelet. Then there were what we call French fried potatoes, but which are merely fried potatoes to the French, along with pommes a Vanglaise, a stylish name for boiled potatoes. Macaroni was occasionally substituted, until we discovered rice with tomatoes. We had a run on this up to the time Claire had the bright idea of adding garlic, which pretty well discouraged us with rice. For dessert we relied on the tempting display at the corner pdtisserie, until this outraged the soul of the artist latent in Claire. She begged to be allowed to make us a crime renverse’e or the crapes suzette adored of Americans. When Madame saw ten eggs at six cents each and a quart of cream at some fantastic price sacrificed on the altar of what proved to be nothing more than caramel custard, she called a halt to Claire’s artistic expression. She foresaw a whole bottle of rum, another of kirsch, a third of curacao dedicated to the crepes. It seemed a little too much.

The problem of meat is a serious one in Paris during the summer; it is an impossible one in regard to fish. Refrigeration is as rare in the markets and shops as in private houses. It is doubtless only the skill of their chefs that enables the hotels and restaurants to serve what they do. The meats are kept in what appears to be a dark cave at the rear of the shop, and each morning are set on counters and blocks toward the front. The sun shines cheerfully on all cuts from kidney to filet, and the flies make the most of their opportunities, as all butchers and green-grocers are without glass windows and open to the street. To enter a butcher shop would convert the most hardy meat-eater to vegetarianism. Nevertheless Claire managed to bring home lamb chops and filets of beef that the dog and his master seemed to relish. Beyond that we never ventured.

There was one form of meat which seemed, perhaps, less hazardous than most. Madame discovered it in a delicatessen shop. It was nothing more than a good sized bone, stripped bare of all meat, and neatly roasted. Her heart warmed toward the French. After all, they did seem to have some consideration for animals if they went to the trouble of roasting bones for them. Madame paid five francs and carried her bone home in triumph. She was about to present it to the dog, who had not so much as sniffed at a bone since leaving America, when Claire rushed up shrieking: “Madame 1 Oh, Madame! What is Madame doing giving that treasure to the dog!”

Madame looked up in astonishment. Claire had never forgotten herself to the extent of crying out in such a tone. “Why, Claire, that is a bone I bought for the dog. What is the matter?”

“Oh, Madame, that is not for the dog. That is for us. There is a good dinner on that bone, and then a bite for lunch, and after that we will make some soup. Really, Madame, that is a noble bone. It is not intended it should be for any dog—no, not even for an American dog.”


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