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

Down and Out in Paris and London

Chapter XXI

This life went on for about a fortnight, with a slight increase of
work as more customers came to the restaurant. I could have saved an hour a
day by taking a room near the restaurant, but it seemed impossible to find
time to change lodgings--or, for that matter, to get my hair cut, look at
a newspaper, or even undress completely. After ten days I managed to find a
free quarter of an hour, and wrote to my friend B. in London asking him if
he could get me a job of some sort--anything, so long as it allowed more
than five hours sleep. I was simply not equal to going on with a
seventeen-hour day, though there are plenty of people who think nothing of
it. When one is overworked, it is a good cure for self-pity to think of the
thousands of people in Paris restaurants who work such hours, and will go
on doing it, not for a few weeks, but for years. There was a girl in a
BISTRO near my hotel who worked from seven in the morning till midnight for
a whole year, only sitting down to her meals. I remember once asking her to
come to a dance, and she laughed and said that she had not been farther
than the street comer for several months. She was consumptive, and died
about the time I left Paris.

After only a week we were all neurasthenic with fatigue, except Jules,
who skulked persistently. The quarrels, intermittent at first, had now
become continuous. For hours' one would keep up a drizzle of useless
nagging, rising into storms of abuse every few minutes. 'Get me down that
saucepan, idiot!' the cook would cry (she was not tall enough to reach the
shelves where the saucepans were kept). 'Get it down yourself, you old
whore,' I would answer. Such remarks seemed to be generated spontaneously
from the air of the kitchen.

We quarrelled over things of inconceivable pettiness. The dustbin, for
instance, was an unending source of quarrels--whether it should be put
where I wanted it, which was in the cook's way, or where she wanted it,
which was between me and the sink. Once she nagged and nagged until at
last, in pure spite, I lifted the dustbin up and put it out in the middle
of the floor, where she was bound to trip over it.

'Now, you cow,' I said, 'move it yourself.'

Poor old woman, it was too heavy for her to lift, and she sat down,
put her head on the table and burst out crying. And I jeered at her. This
is the kind of effect that fatigue has upon one's manners.

After a few days the cook had ceased talking about Tolstoy and her
artistic nature, and she and I were not on speaking terms, except for the
purposes of work, and Boris and Jules were not on speaking terms, and
neither of them was on speaking terms with the cook. Even Boris and I were
barely on speaking terms. We had agreed beforehand that the ENGUEULADES of
working hours did not count between times; but we had called each other
things too bad to be forgotten--and besides, there were no between times.
Jules grew lazier and lazier, and he stole food constantly--from a sense
of duty, he said. He called the rest of us JAUNE--blackleg--when we
would not join with him in stealing. He had a curious, malignant spirit. He
told me, as a matter of pride, that he had sometimes wrung a dirty
dishcloth into a customer's soup before taking it in, just to be revenged
upon a member of the bourgeoisie.

The kitchen grew dirtier and the rats bolder, though we trapped a few
of them. Looking round that filthy room, with raw meat lying among refuse
on the floor, and cold, clotted saucepans sprawling everywhere, and the
sink blocked and coated with grease, I used to wonder whether there could
be a restaurant in the world as bad as ours. But the other three all said
that they had been in dirtier places. Jules took a positive pleasure in
seeings things dirty. In the afternoon, when he had not much to do, he used
to stand in the kitchen doorway jeering at us for working too hard:

'Fool! Why do you wash that plate? Wipe it on your trousers. Who cares
about the customers? THEY don't know what's going on. What is restaurant
work? You are carving a chicken and it falls on the floor. You apologize,
you bow, you go out; and in five minutes you come back by another door--
with the same chicken. That is restaurant work,' etc.

And, strange to say, in spite of all this filth and incompetence, the
Auberge de Jehan Cottard was actually a success. For the first few days all
our customers were Russians, friends of the PATRON, and these were followed
by Americans and other foreigners--no Frenchmen. Then one night there was
tremendous excitement, because our first Frenchman had arrived. For a
moment our quarrels were forgotten and we all united in the effort to serve
a good dinner. Boris tiptoed into the kitchen, jerked his thumb over his
shoulder and whispered conspiratorially:


A moment later the PATRON's wife came and whispered:

'ATTENTION, UN FRANCAIS! See that he gets a double portion of all

While the Frenchman ate, the PATRON'S wife stood behind the grille of
the kitchen door and watched the expression of his face. Next night the
Frenchman came back with two other Frenchmen. This meant that we were
earning a good name; the surest sign of a bad restaurant is to be
frequented only by foreigners. Probably part of the reason for our success
was that the PATRON, with the sole gleam of sense he had shown in fitting
out the restaurant, had bought very sharp table-knives. Sharp knives, of
course, are THE secret of a successful restaurant. I am glad that this
happened, for it destroyed one of my illusions, namely, the idea that
Frenchmen know good food when they see it. Or perhaps we WERE a fairly good
restaurant by Paris standards; in which case the bad ones must be past

In a very few days after I had written to B he replied to say that
there was a job he could get for me. It was to look after a congenital
imbecile, which sounded a splendid rest cure after the Auberge de Jehan
Cottard. I pictured myself loafing in the country lanes, knocking
thistle-heads off with my stick, feeding on roast lamb and treacle tart,
and sleeping ten hours a night in sheets smelling of lavender. B sent me a
fiver to pay my passage and get my clothes out of the pawn, and as soon as
the money arrived I gave one day's notice and left the restaurant. My
leaving so suddenly embarrassed the PATRON, for as usual he was penniless,
and he had to pay my wages thirty francs short. However he stood me a glass
of Courvoisier '48 brandy, and I think he felt that this made up the
difference. They engaged a Czech, a thoroughly competent PLONGEUR, in my
place, and the poor old cook was sacked a few weeks later. Afterwards I
heard that, with two first-rate people in the kitchen, the PLONGEUR'S work
had been cut down to fifteen hours a day. Below that no one could have cut
it, short of modernizing the kitchen.

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