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George Orwell > Down and Out in Paris and London > Chapter XVI

Down and Out in Paris and London

Chapter XVI

Time went on and the Auberge de Jehan Cottard showed no signs of
opening. Boris and I went down there one day during our afternoon interval
and found that none of the alterations had been done, except the indecent
pictures, and there were three duns instead of two. The PATRON greeted us
with his usual blandness, and the next instant turned to me (his
prospective dishwasher) and borrowed five francs. After that I felt certain
that the restaurant would never get beyond talk. The PATRON, however, again
named the opening for 'exactly a fortnight from today', and introduced us
to the woman who was to do the cooking, a Baltic Russian five feet tall and
a yard across the hips. She told us that she had been a singer before she
came down to cooking, and that she was very artistic and adored English
literature, especially LA CASE DE L'ONCLE TOM.

In a fortnight I had got so used to the routine of a PLONGEUR'S life
that I could hardly imagine anything different. It was a life without much
variation. At a quarter to six one woke with a sudden start, tumbled into
grease-stiffened clothes, and hurried out with dirty face and protesting
muscles. It was dawn, and the windows were dark except for the workmen's
cafes. The sky was like a vast flat wall of cobalt, with roofs and spires
of black paper pasted upon it. Drowsy men were sweeping the pavements with
ten-foot besoms, and ragged families picking over the dustbins. Workmen,
and girls with a piece of chocolate in one hand and a CROISSANT in the
other, were pouring into the Metro stations. Trams, filled with more
workmen, boomed gloomily past. One hastened down to the station, fought for
a place--one does literally have to fight on the Paris Metro at six in
the morning--and stood jammed in the swaying mass of passengers, nose to
nose with some hideous French face, breathing sour wine and garlic. And
then one descended into the labyrinth of the hotel basement, and forgot
daylight till two o'clock, when the sun was hot and the town black with
people and cars.

After my first week at the hotel I always spent the afternoon interval
in sleeping, or, when I had money, in a BISTRO. Except for a few ambitious
waiters who went to English classes, the whole staff wasted their leisure
in this way; one seemed too lazy after the morning's work to do anything
better. Sometimes half a dozen PLONGEURS would make up a party and go to an
abominable brothel in the Rue de Sieyes, where the charge was only five
francs twenty-five centimes--tenpence half-penny. It was nicknamed 'LE
PRIX FIXE', and they used to describe their experiences there as a great
joke. It was a favourite rendezvous of hotel workers. The PLONGEURS' wages
did not allow them to marry, and no doubt work in the basement does not
encourage fastidious feelings.

For another four hours one was in the cellars, and then one emerged,
sweating, into the cool street. It was lamplight--that strange purplish
gleam of the Paris lamps--and beyond the river the Eiffel Tower flashed
from top to bottom with zigzag skysigns, like enormous snakes of fire.
Streams of cars glided silently to and fro, and women, exquisite-looking in
the dim light, strolled up and down the arcade. Sometimes a woman would
glance at Boris or me, and then, noticing our greasy clothes, look hastily
away again. One fought another battle in the Metro and was home by ten.
Generally from ten to midnight I went to a little BISTRO in our street, an
underground place frequented by Arab navvies. It was a bad place for
fights, and I sometimes saw bottles thrown, once with fearful effect, but
as a rule the Arabs fought among themselves and let Christians alone. Raki,
the Arab drink, was very cheap, and the BISTRO was open at all hours, for
the Arabs--lucky men--had the power of working all day and drinking all

It was the typical life of a PLONGEUR, and it did not seem a bad life
at the time. I had no sensation of poverty, for even after paying my rent
and setting aside enough for tobacco and journeys and my food on Sundays, I
still had four francs a day for drinks, and four francs was wealth. There
was--it is hard to express it--a sort of heavy contentment, the
contentment a well-fed beast might feel, in a life which had become so
simple. For nothing could be simpler than the life of a PLONGEUR. He lives
in a rhythm between work and sleep, without time to think, hardly conscious
of the exterior world; his Paris has shrunk to the hotel, the Metro, a few
BISTROS and his bed. If he goes afield, it is only a few streets away, on a
trip with some servant-girl who sits on his knee swallowing oysters and
beer. On his free day he lies in bed till noon, puts on a clean shirt,
throws dice for drinks, and after lunch goes back to bed again. Nothing is
quite real to him but the BOULOT, drinks and sleep; and of these sleep is
the most important.

One night, in the small hours, there was a murder just beneath my
window. I was woken by a fearful uproar, and, going to the window, saw a
man lying flat on the stones below; I could see the murderers, three of
them, flitting away at the end of the street. Some of us went down and
found that the man was quite dead, his skull cracked with a piece of lead
piping. I remember the colour of his blood, curiously purple, like wine; it
was still on the cobbles when I came home that evening, and they said the
school-children had come from miles round to see it. But the thing that
strikes me in looking back is that I was in bed and asleep within three
minutes of the murder. So were most of the people in the street; we just
made sure that the man was done for, and went straight back to bed. We were
working people, and where was the sense of wasting sleep over a murder?

Work in the hotel taught me the true value of sleep, just as being
hungry had taught me the true value of food. Sleep had ceased to be a mere
physical necessity; it was something voluptuous, a debauch more than a
relief. I had no more trouble with the bugs. Mario had told me of a sure
remedy for them, namely pepper, strewed thick over the bedclothes. It made
me sneeze, but the bugs all hated it, and emigrated to other rooms.

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