Manners and social usages,

CHAPTER LIX.A FOREIGN TABLE D’HÔTE, AND CASINO LIFE ABROAD.

 


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The phrase table d’hôteoriginally referred to a table shared by guests, where a meal was served at a specific time. The meaning shifted to include any meal featuring a set menu at a fixed price. In the original sense, its use in English is attributed as early as 1617, while the later extended use, now more common, dates from the early nineteenth century. (Wikepedia)

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Life at a French watering-place differs so essentially from that at our own Saratoga, Sharon, Richfield, Newport, and Long Branch, that a few items of observation may be indulged in to show us what an immense improvement we could introduce into our study of amusement by following the foreign fashions of simplicity in eating and drinking.

The Continental people never eat that heavy early meal which we call breakfast. They take in their rooms at eight o’clock a cup of coffee and a roll, what they call café complet, or they may prefer tea and oatmeal, the whole thing very simple. Then at Aix-les Rains or Vichy the people under treatment go to the bath, taking a rest afterwards. All this occupies an hour. They then rise and dress for the eleven o’clock déjeuner à la fourchette, which is a formal meal served in courses, with red wine instead of coffee or tea. This is all that one has to do in the eating line until dinner. Imagine what a fine clear day that gives one. How much uninterrupted time! How much better for the housekeeper in a small boarding-house! And at a hotel where the long, heavy breakfast, from seven to eleven, keeps the dining-room greasy and badly ventilated until the tables must be cleared for a one or two

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o’clock dinner, it is to contrast order with disorder, and neatness with its reverse.

The foreign breakfast at eleven is a delicious meal, as will be seen by the following bills of fare: OEufs au beurre noir; sauté printanier (a sort of stew of meat and fresh vegetables); viande froide panachée; salade de saison; compote de fruit et pâtisserie; fromage, fruit, café.

Another breakfast is: OEufs au plat; poulet à la Godard; côtelettes de mouton grillées; revière pommes de terre; flans d’abricot; and so on, with every variety of stewed pigeon, trout from the lake, delicious preparations of spinach, and always a variety of the cheeses which are so fresh and so healthful, just brought from the Alpine valleys. The highly flavored Alpine strawberries are added to this meal. Then all eating is done for the day until the six or seven o’clock dinner. This gives the visitor a long and desirable day for excursions, which in the neighborhood of Aix are especially charming, particularly the drive to Chambéry, one of the most quaintly interesting of towns, through the magnificent break in the Alps at whose southern portal stands La Grande Chartreuse. All this truly healthy disposition of time and of eating is one reason why a person comes home from a foreign watering-place in so much better trim, morally, mentally, and physically, than from the unhealthy gorging of our American summer resorts.

At twelve or one begins the music at the Casino, usually a pretty building in a garden. In this shady park the mammas with their children sit and listen to the strains of the best bands in Europe. Paris sends
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her artists from the Châtelet, and the morning finds itself gone and well into the afternoon before the outside pleasures of the Casino are exhausted. Here, of course, trip up and down on the light fantastic toe, and in the prettiest costumes of the day, all the daughters of the earth, with their attendant cavaliers. There are certain aspects of a foreign watering-place with which we have nothing to do here, such as the gambling and the overdressing of a certain class, but all is externally most respectable. At four or earlier every one goes to drive in the voiture de place or the voiture de remise, the latter being a handsome hired carriage of a superior class. But the voiture de place, with a Savoyard driver, is good enough. He knows the road; his sturdy horse is accustomed to the hills; he takes one for three francs an hour–about half what is charged at Saratoga or Sharon or Richfield; he expects a few cents as pourboire, that is all. The vehicle is a humble sort of victoria, very easy and safe, and the drive is generally through scenery of the most magnificent description.

Ladies at a foreign watering-place have generally much to amuse them at the shops. Antiquities of all sorts, especially old china (particularly old Saxe), also old carved furniture from the well-known châteaux of Savoy, are found at Aix. The prices are so small compared with what such curiosities would bring in New York that the buyer is tempted to buy what she does not want, forgetting how much it will cost to get it home. Old lace and bits of embroidery and stuffs are brought to the door. There is nothing too rococo for the peripatetic vender in these foreign watering-places.

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The dinner is a very good one. Cooked by Italian or French cooks, it may be something of this sort: Potage de riz; lavarets St. Houlade; filets de boeuf Beaumaire (a delicious sauce with basil mixed in it, a slight taste of aniseed); bouchers à la reine; chapon roti au cresson; asperge au branches; glace au chocolat; café; or: Potage au Crécy; turbot aux câpres; langue de boeuf; petits pois, lies au beurre; bombe vanille; with fruits, cheese, and cakes, and always the wine of the country, for which no extra charge is made. These delicious meals cost–the breakfast four francs (wine included), the dinner ten francs. It would be difficult in our country to find such cooking anywhere, and for that price simply impossible.

Music in the Casino grounds follows the dinner. The pretty women, by this time in the short, gay foulards and in the dressy hats in which they will appear later at the Casino ball, are tripping up and down in the gas-lighted grounds. The scene is often illuminated by fireworks. At eight and a half the whole motley crew has entered the Casino, and there the most amusing dancing–valse, galop, and polka–is in vogue. The Pole is known by his violent dancing; “he strikes and flutters like a cock, he capers in the air, he kicks his heels up to the stars.” There is heartiness in the dancing of the Swedes and Danes, there is mettle in their heels, but no people caper like the Poles. The Russians and the Americans dance the best. They are the elegant dancers of the world. French women dance beautifully:

“A fine, sweet earthquake, gently moved
By the soft wind of their dispersing silks.”

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No lady appears at the Casino bareheaded; it is always with hat or bonnet, and she lives in her bonnet more or less even at the balls.

If a concert or a play is going on in the little theatre, the same people take their places in boxes or seats, until every face becomes familiar, as one knows one’s shipmates. Sometimes pleasant acquaintances are thus formed. A very free-and-easy system of etiquette permits dancing between parties who have not been introduced, and the same privilege extends to the asking of a party of ladies to take an ice. All acquaintance ceases on leaving the Casino, however, unless the lady chooses to bow to her cavalier.

Sometimes the steward of the Casino gets up a fancy-dress ball under the patronage of some lady, and then the motley crew appear as historical characters. It is a unique and gay spectacle. Here in the land of the old masters some very fine representations of the best pictures are hastily improvised, and almost without any apparent effort the whole ball is gotten up with spirit and ingenuity. This, too, among people who never met the day before yesterday. There is a wide range of costume allowed for those who take part in these revelries.

The parquet floor of a foreign Casino is the most perfect thing for good dancing. They understand laying these floors there better than we do, and the climate does not alter them, as with us. They are the pleasantest and easiest of all floors to dance upon.

Not the least striking episode to an American eye is the sight of many priests and men in ecclesiastical garments at these Casinos. The number of priestly

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robes everywhere strikes the visitor to a French watering-place most emphatically. The schoolmasters are young priests, and walk about with their boys, and the old priests are everywhere. A solemn procession crosses the gay scene occasionally. Three or four acolytes bearing censers, a group of mourners, a tall and stately nun in gray robes and veil walking magnificently, and moving her lips in prayer; then a group of people; then a priest with book in hand saying aloud the prayers for the dead; then the black box, the coffin, carried on a bier by men, the motley crowd uncovering as the majesty passes; and the boys follow, chanting,

“The glories of our birth and state
Are shadows, not substantial things;
There is no armor against fate;
Death lays his icy hand on kings.”

Yes, and on the gay visitor at the Casino. These simple and unostentatious funerals are very impressive. The priests always walk bareheaded through the streets on these occasions, and on many others. Indeed, the priestly head seems impatient of a hat.

The fêtes of the peasants are things to go and see, and the unalterable differences of rank are deeply impressed on the American mind. An old peasant woman has brought cheese and milk into Aix for forty years, and now, in her sixties, she still brings them, and walks eight miles a day. There is no hope that her daughter will ever join in the gayeties of the Casino, as in America she might certainly aspire to do. The daughter will be a peasant, as her mother was, and far happier and more respectable for it, and certainly

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more picturesque. How many of the peasant dresses have given an idea to the modiste! And one sees in the fields of Savoy the high hat with conical crown, with brim either wide or flat, which has now become so fashionable; also the fiat mushroom hat of straw with the natural bunch of corn and red poppy, which has gone from Fanchon up to the duchess. They both come from the fields.

Of course horse-races, formed after the plan of Long-champs, are inseparable from the amusements of a French watering-place; and in proportion to the number of guests to be amused; the horses come down from the various stables. Pigeon-shooting goes on all the time.

It is said that the French have a greater hatred of ennui than any other people in the world. They do not know what it means. They amuse themselves all the time, and are never at a loss. The well-bred French women have as much energy and industry as any New England woman, but they take their amusement more resolutely, never losing music, gayety, and “distraction.” Perhaps what amuses them might not amuse the more sober Saxon, but the delicate embroidery of their lives, with all that comes thus cheaply to them, certainly makes them a very delightful set. Their manners are most fascinating, never selfish, never ponderous, never self-conscious, but always most agreeable. The French woman is sui generis. She may no longer be very young; she never was very handsome. Every sensation that the human mind can experience she has experienced; every caprice, whim, and fancy that human imagination can conceive she

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has gratified. She is very intelligent; she was born with a perfect taste in dress; and she is–all the novelists to the contrary notwithstanding–a very good wife, an excellent mother, a charming companion, a most Useful and sensible helpmeet, with a perfect idea of doing her half of the business of life, and of getting out of her hours of leisure all the amusement she can. At a French watering-place the French women of the better class are most entirely at home and intensely agreeable.

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