Paris by Hans Scherfig
Translated by Eileen Macleod
I arrived in Paris early in March. The chestnut trees along the
Boulevards were just coming into leaf. The children were playing in
the parks. Funny little men with marvellous beards were sitting in
front of the sidewalk cafes, drinking aperitifs. The neat green
omnibuses swept along the streets and over the bridges, and sometimes
they broke down. Everything was as it had been when I was last in
Paris, and just as it ought to be. The strong men in pink tights have
arranged their cannon-balls and weights on the pavement. They display
their muscles and limber up, vowing that they will lift a two-thousand
pounder, if the spectators throw a sufficient number of SOUS on to a
little mat. But when it comes to the point, they always lift only the
smallest cannon-balls, with exaggerated posturing and effort.
The little policemen at the cross-roads swing their white batons
and quarrel passionately with drivers, and kiss girls waiting to cross
The CONCIERGE-women have put their folding stools out on the
pavement in the sunshine, and sit knitting impetuously and clouting
their children with long French loaves.
Respectable gentlemen stand in the diminutive street conveniences,
and they bow courteously over the top of the screen when a lady of
their acquaintance passes by.
Ancient blind women and quite small boys go round emptying the
post- boxes. Sometimes they come to blows and then the letters fly in
all directions. But there are some post-boxes they forget altogether,
and no wonder, since they are placed at knee-height and decorated and
camouflaged to look like something else. A newspaper reports that one
of these hidden little post-boxes has been run into by a car. It had
not been emptied for thirty years, but now all the letters have been
collected and will be delivered to the addressees, provided that they
are still at their old addresses.
On the Seine embankments men stand patiently with their fishing
rods, staring down into the light brown water and catching nothing.
Poor old crones, oddly arrayed in rags and tatters, and with
moustaches, sleep on the quays or under the bridges, or sit in the sun
on the pavement, drinking red wine and eating dry bread. Or they may
spread a newspaper out in the gutter and relieve themselves, without
anybody finding this at all remarkable.
On the Boulevards dignified elderly gentlemen perambulate in top
hat and frock-coat, red order-ribbon and green carpet slippers.
In the restaurants elegant women sit with their small children,
drinking liqueurs and playing cards with the children—for money.
On the walls of houses and on hoardings politicians squabble by
means of six-foot posters which they call "open letters"—"TO THE
RIGHT HONOURABLE MINISTER: YOU ARE A PIMP—YOU LIVE OFF WOMEN! "and
below this is printed a letter from the Minister's lady-friend. "YOU
ARE ILLITERATE MR. EDITOR"—replies the assailed Minister on another
poster—"YOU ARE A CORSICAN BANDIT, WHO CAN NEITHER READ NOR WRITE!
YOU HAVE TO BRIBE OTHER BANDITS TO COMPOSE YOUR LIBELS, IMBECILE!" And
the Editor can only answer on an oblong poster—"MR. MINISTER, YOU ARE
A SCOUNDREL. A BEAST!"
In the Luxembourg Gardens, old gentlemen play croquet with great
solemnity, or sail little toy boats in the basin of the fountain. They
are all knights of the Legion of Honour.
On some street corners bearded men stand, selling fresh fried
potato chips in greasy paper cornets. And on other street corners
stand tarts, making strange offers to the men passing by.
Handsome brown Maroccans with white teeth—and hooked noses wander
with dignity from cafe to cafe selling sheepskins and ugly little rugs
Picturesque peasants from the Pyrenees, wearing brigand-like
costumes and wide brimmed hats go round with tiny donkeys, peddling
earthenware jars and jugs shaped like hens.
Glaziers pushing barrows move along shouting, and selling
window-glass to people who have managed to smash their windows during
a matrimonial tiff.
LIBERTE, EGALITE, FRATERNITE, it says on the State Pawnshop and on
other public buildings, and underneath—DEFENCE D'URINER.
A scent of burnt fat and fried potatoes floats from the open
windows where people sit laughing and gesticulating and carrying on
discussions across the width of the street. And there is a fragrance
of fresh vegetables, and of petrol and hot asphalt. And all the cats
of Paris make their contribution to the common perfume. A soft bluish
mist lies over the whole city, quite a light haze, which blurs the
outline of the houses, roofs and chimneys.
I walk slowly along the streets with my little suitcase in my hand
sniffing it all in, and I am full of the joy of my return.
And then I am stopped by a little man in a blue smock. He wants a
light for his cigarette. And when he has got it he asks: "Are you
thirsty, MONSIEUR?" And so we go and have a drink together.