I think this guy was a blogger before his time.
Bordeaux is a day’s railroad ride from Paris−−twelve hours away from the German cannon, which even now are only fifty miles north of the boulevards, twelve hours nearer Spain and Africa. And you feel both these things.
All about you is the wine country−−the names of towns and villages round about read like a wine−card−−and, as you are lunching in some little side−street restaurant, a table is moved away, a trap−door opens, and monsieur the proprietor looks on while the big casks of claret are rolled in from the street and lowered to the cellar and the old casks hauled up again. You are close to the wine country and close to the sea−−to oysters and crabs and ships−−and to the hot sun and more exuberant spirits of the Midi. The pretty, black−eyed Bordelaise−−there are pretty girls in Bordeaux−−often seems closer to Madrid than to Paris; even the Bordelais accent has a touch of the Mediterranean, and the crisp words of Paris are broken up and even an
extra vowel added now and then, until they ripple like Spanish or Italian. “Pe−tite−a ma− dame−a !” rattles some little newsboy, ingratiating himself with an indifferent lady of uncertain age; and the porter will bring your boots in no time−in “une−a pe−tite−a mi−nute−a.”
The war is in everybody’s mind, of course−−no one in France thinks of anything else−−but there is none of that silence and tenseness, that emotional tremor, one feels in Paris. The Germans will never come here, one feels, no matter what happens, and as you read the communiqués in La Petite Gironde and La Liberté du Sud−Ouest the war seems farther away, I feel pretty sure, than it does in front of the newspaper bill−boards in New York.
In fact, one of the first and abiding impressions of Bordeaux is that it is a great place for things to eat−−oysters from Marennes, lobsters and langoustes, pears big as cantaloupes, pomegranates, mushrooms−−the little ones and the big cepes of Bordeaux−−yellow dates just up from Tunis. The fruiterers’ shops not only make you hungry, but into some of them you may enter and find a quiet little room up−stairs,
where the proprietor and his wife and daughter, in the genial French fashion, will serve you with a cosey little dinner with wine for three francs, in front of the family grate fire, and the privilege of ordering up anything you want from the shop−window below.
There are attractive little chocolate and pastry shops and cheerful semi−pension restaurants where whole families, including, in these days, minor politicians with axes to grind and occasional young women from the boulevards, all dine together in a warm bustle of talk, smoke, the gurgle of claret, and tear off chunks of hard
French bread, while madame the proprietress, a handsome, dark−eyed, rather Spanish−looking Bordelaise, sails round, subduing the impatient, smiling at those who wish to be smiled at, and ordering her faithful waiters about like a drill−sergeant.
And then there is the Chapon fin. When you speak to some elderly gentleman with fastidious gastronomical tastes and an acquaintance with southern France of your intention of going to Bordeaux, he murmurs reminiscently: “Ah, yes! There is a restaurant there…” He means the Chapon fin. It was famous in ’70 when the government came here before, and to−day when the young King of Spain motors over from Biarritz he
dines there. Coming down on the train, I read in the Revue des Deux Mondes the recollections of a gentleman who was here in ’70−’71 and is here again now. He was inclined to be sarcastic about the present Chapon fin.
In his day one had good food and did not pay exorbitantly; now “one needs a quasi−official introduction to penetrate, and the stylish servants, guarding the door like impassable dragons, ask with a discreet air if monsieur has taken care to warn the management of his intention of taking lunch.”
We penetrated without apparent difficulty−−possibly owing to the exalted position of the two amiable young attaches who entertained me−−and the food was very good. There were diplomats of all sorts to be seen, a
meridional head waiter, and an interesting restaurant cat. One end of the room is an artificial grotto, and into and out of the canvas rocks this enormous cat kept creeping, thrusting his round face and blazing eyes out of
unexpected holes in the manner of the true carnivora, as if he had been trained by the management as an entertainer. The head waiter would have lured an anchorite into temporary abandon. Toward the end of the evening we discussed the probable character of a certain dessert, suggesting some doubt of taking it. You
might as well have doubted his honor. “Mais, monsieur!” He waved his arms. “C’est delicieux! … C’est merveilleux! … C’est quelque chose”−−slowly, with thumb and first finger pressed together−−”de r−r−raf−fi−we!”…
It is to this genial provincial city that the President and his ministers have come. They distributed themselves about town in various public and private buildings; the Senate chose one theatre for its future meeting−place and the Chamber of Deputies another. And from these places, sometimes the most incongruous−−one hears, for instance, of M. Delcasse maintaining his dignity in a bedroom now used as the office for the minister of foreign affairs−−the red tape is unwound which eventually sends the life−blood of the remotest province flowing up to its appointed place at the front.
There must be plenty of real work, for an army like that of France, stretching clear across the country from Switzerland to the Channel, could not live unless it had a smoothly running civil machine in the quiet country behind. Neither of the chambers is in session, and except that the main streets are busy−−one is told that one
hundred thousand extra people are in town−−you might almost never know that anything out of the ordinary had occurred. Things must be very different, of course, from ’71, when, beaten to her knees and threatened with revolution, France had to decide between surrendering Alsace and Lorraine and going on with the war.
The theatres are closed, but there are moving−picture shows, an occasional concert, and twice a week, under the auspices of one of the newspapers, a conference. I went to one of these, given by a French professor of English literature in the University of Bordeaux, on the timely subject: “Kipling and Greater England.”
You can imagine the piquant interest of the scene−−the polite matinee audience, the row of erudite Frenchmen sitting behind the speaker, the table, the shaded lamp, and the professor himself, a slender, dark gentleman with a fine, grave face, pointed black beard, and penetrating eyes−−suggesting vaguely a restidigitateur−−trying, by sheer intelligence and delicate, critical skill, to bridge the gaps of race and instinctive thought and feeling and make his audience understand Kipling.
Said the reporter of one of the Bordeaux papers next day: “Through the Kipling evoked by M. Cestre we admired the English and those who fight, in the great winds of the North Sea, that combat rude and brave. We admired the faithful indigenes, gathering from all her dominions, to put their muscular arms at the service of
It would, indeed, have been difficult to pay a more graceful compliment to the entente cordiale than to try to run the author of “Soldiers Three” and the “Barrack Room Ballads,” and with him the nation behind him, into the smooth mould of a conference−−that mixture, so curiously French, of clear thinking and graceful expression, of sensitive definition and personal charm, all blended into a whole so intellectually neat and modulated that an audience like this may take it with the same sense of being cheered, yet not inebriated, with
which their allies across the Channel take their afternoon tea.
A Frenchman of a generation ago would scarcely have recognized the England pictured by the amiable Bordeaux professor, and I am not sure that in this entirely altruistic big brother of little nations the English would have recognized themselves. But, at any rate, polite flutters of applause punctuated the talk, and at the end M. Cestre asked his audience to rise as he paid his final tribute to the people now fighting the common battle with France. They all stood up and, smiling up at the left−hand proscenium−box, saluted the British ambassador, Sir Francis Bertie, with long and enthusiastic applause. A man in the gallery even ventured a “Heep! heep!” and every one drifted out very content, indeed.
In the foyer I saw one lady carefully spelling out with her lorgnette one of the words on the list posted there of the subjects for conferences.
“Ah!” she said, considerably reassured apparently, “Keepling!” But then she may have come in late.