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Down and out in George Orwell’s Paris: A guide to the secret Paname

@TomTaylorFO

“It’s a feeling of relief, almost pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out.” – George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933.

To begin our guide to Paris: the city of love, luminosity and four macaroons for a mortgageable fee — we start with a little-known condition called Kalopsia. This alluring word denotes the delusion of things appearing more beautiful than they actually are. It is commonly induced in Asian tourists when visiting the French capital owing to a sizeable smack of a Parisian culture shock. That is not to say that Kalopsia sufferers overrate the beauty of the Sine or marvel a little too much at the Eiffel Tower, but that they sport such rose-tinted eyes that coughed out phlegm on the pavement is transfigured into a tramp’s oyster that somehow represents an abstraction of civility.

However, the most paradoxically Parisian thing of all is that this condition makes much more sense when the veneer of grandeur is lifted, and you get down to the cobbled, sooty underbelly of the candle-lit city. As it happens, Paris on the cheap might just be the prettiest Paris of them all. Nobody knows that better than George Orwell after he scoured the demimonde of its bohemian sprawl for his debut novel Down and Out in Paris and London. We have followed in his footsteps to bring you what remains of its quaint pocket-change charming side.

Orwell, like so many artists of the period hoping to cash in on a windfall of a favourable French exchange rate, left for Paname to try and make headway in the world of literature surviving on what little savings he had earned working in the Burmese police. When he arrived, he found a lot of others had the same idea. Thus, he wrote: “The Paris slums are a gathering-place for eccentric people — people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work.”

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In this swirl of chic freaks, madcap cabaret stars and painters with brushes that had long since dried, Orwell arrived as another lost solitary sole settling into his groove. He shacked up in a cobbled street in the Latin Quarter known as Rue du Pot De Fer. Therein he described his abode as, “a ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all been frozen in the act of collapse. All these houses were hotels and packed to the tiles with lodgers, mostly Poles, Arabs and Italians. At the foot of the hotels were tiny bistros, where you could be drunk for the equivalent of a shilling. On Saturday night about a third of the male population was drunk… My hotel was called the Hotel des Tres Moineaux. It was a dark, rickety warren of five storeys, cut up by wooden partitions into forty rooms.”

Those down and out days were spent over in the realm of the Hotel des tres Moineaux. The spot where he struggled to get by as a dishwasher is now awash with boutique hotels and the bistros are the sort where a shilling wouldn’t even fetch you a toothpick let alone be enough to get blind drunk. But considering that Orwell ended up in hospital and had to sell clothes to survive, a bit of gentrification comes as a welcome crutch to the areas everlasting artistic zeitgeist as the poetic air of the neighbouring Botanical Gardens spills out onto the hodgepodge streets where the austere past has met with an auspicious facelift for a filter of fashionable debauchery over an otherwise affluent area. 

(Credit: The Ritz)

In truth, even Orwell’s experience had something of the façade about it. The novel speaks of being robbed by a rogue Italian compositor when in actual fact it was a prostitute named Suzanne and throughout his ever-deepening demise into oblique poverty, his auntie’s welcome plush Persian abode loomed large. In short, he was a sort of proto-gonzo journalist who had long since lost his subjectivity, beguiled by some perverse allure to the nitty-gritty culture of the urban dispossessed, and it almost cost him his life. It would seem that he suffered one of the worst cases of Kalopsia in recorded history and we have his own brilliant word for it.

In the end, his case is cured, but the lowlife has a lasting impact and he vows never again to “enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant, that is a beginning.” The question, therefore, is what good is this guide? Why on earth would you go to Paris and not enjoy the finer side of things? Good question, but Orwell documented the answer himself in 230 hard-earned pages. “The stars are a free show,” he said in one of his more cheese-flirting lines where all the best literature teeters, “It doesn’t cost anything to use your eyes.”

Thus, you can go to Paris and dine on the Ile de la Cité in overpriced luxury with the cherry on top of all the anxieties of fitting in, or you can find a rickety bench and watch the Cité’s happenings unfurl with a fresh baguette, some local cheese and a cheap bottle of red and live like a happy cochon dans la merde. As Orwell said: “If you set your mind to it, you can live the same life rich or poor. You can keep on with your books and your ideas. You just got to say to yourself, ‘I’m a free man in here’ – he tapped his forehead – ‘and you’re all right.’”

Aside from benches opposite the Ile de la Cité, the Latin Quarter and Botanical Gardens, Orwell’s philosophical trail of Paris may well now reside in Rue Montorgueil. Here the ‘old France’ still spills onto the street in the chattering twilight. Restaurants are top rate and a modern-day Orwell could well be working in the back of them, and by night, one-third of the population is drunk. You’re bound to be enticed by the glow of the grand sight-seeing spots anyway, so for a night or two why not give Giverny and the likes a go and experience the sort of bludgeoned but unbeaten bohemian bliss that Orwell enjoyed when he was down and out in Paris. 

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