No. 7925934. Sgt. Greenwood.
British Army Exhibition
British Army Staff
Jessie Mine: It is a beautiful day once again, but I’m having a rest indoors – for a change. I will be a walking skeleton if I don’t relax occasionally. I feel almost as weary just now as on that former occasion in London after our cruise – you remember it, don’t you dear?!
This morning, I saw a little more of the exhibition, and then did a little more tramping the streets… finishing up at the Opera House in the hope of booking a seat to hear Menuhin on Sunday evening. But I was unlucky: mere soldiers cannot compete with Parisiennes when it comes to spending money. The cheapest seats left were 600 francs – or £3 sterling. However – I am going to have a little treat this evening. I am going to a violin recital by Jascha Heifetz. I have two tickets – free – and am taking Jim Bevan with me: he has never been to a ‘highbrow’ concert, so it may be an experience for him.
Bevan is the sergeant I am relieving: he returns to the unit on Saturday: he has been acting as my guide for the last day or so, but I fear we have vastly different ideas about entertainment and he hasn’t been able to tell me much about the things I really want to know.
Heifetz is giving a recital with piano accomp: whereas Menuhin is playing three concertos with full symphony orchestra etc: I should have much preferred the latter, of course, but am thankful for what I have got. After all, it will be a grand treat to hear Heifetz: there are few, if any, better living violinists.
Speaking of money, reminds me that the exchange rate here is something of a mystery to me. We are paid on the basis of 200 French francs to the £… and this is, I believe, the official exchange rate: it puts the franc at slightly over a penny in value. But judging by prices in the shops, the franc is valued by the French at much less. If this isn’t so, then shop prices are fantastic. This morning for instance, I saw a linen tablecloth priced at 24,000 francs = £120!! And furniture prices are much higher still, almost astronomical. I heard the other day of four fellows who went to a rather posh hotel for dinner: the bill was 3000 fr. = £15! And spirits are terribly dear too – in the civilian restaurants. A minute nip of cognac, for instance, costs 120 fr. And yet, people seem to pay these prices and think little of it. Maybe the civilians are rolling in money – having been unable to spend it during the occupation, and they don’t mind being ‘bled’.
What I can’t understand is why it is possible to sell an English pound note for at least a thousand francs – five times its value. How does this fit in with the official rate of 200 fr. to the £?
Apart from these legitimate figures I have quoted, there is a very thriving black market here – the “commerce noir”. Heaven knows what sums are involved but they must be enormous.
In spite of all this financial mystery, Paris, to me, appears to be a bright and happy city, full of normal people – well-dressed and apparently well-fed, and with little material evidence of war. But, of course, Parisiennes will not have this. If you happen to praise their city they look almost horrified, and hasten to tell you that this is not Paris: it is not the Paris of pre-war days… indeed no! In some ways they must be right. The shops, for instance, were probably better stocked… in spite of their present amazing variety of stuff. And food must have been more plentiful and varied. And the streets were probably lousy with taxis. But,.. I still think that Paris, physically, cannot have changed much. There is no damage:- no masses of rubble: no bomb craters: no static water tanks: no hideous air-raid shelters: no glassless shop windows. The Parisiennes are lucky… whether they realise it or not. I doubt whether any of them will starve:- the Americans will see to that. And even if they do go hungry, it will be partly their own fault for not taking more active steps to abolish the black market. These remarks apply in some measure to Holland, and particularly in Belgium.
Even though petrol is rationed or controlled – or whatever word you choose – there is a tremendous amount of traffic on the roads, and the majority of vehicles seem to be private cars. They may be on duty for the military government… but not all of them… they couldn’t be. When I tell you that crossing the Champs Elysses, or any other main road, is something of a dangerous business, you will gather that the traffic is pretty plentiful. But… strange to say… taxis are scarce. Their place has been taken by the Metro chiefly (it is always packed) and also by cyclists towing a two seater basket-work trailer for passengers. Damned hard work for the cyclist!! Outside the main stations, too, are plenty of motor cycle taxis:- ordinary motor bikes, with the passenger sitting on the pillion seat at the rear. It amuses me to see a dignified looking business-man, usually with a despatch case, come striding down the station steps, and then cock his well-creased trouser leg over the pillion, grabbing the cheerful shirt-sleeved driver at the same time. They sail away into the general mass of traffic, sometimes with a terrifying wobble.
I suppose you would think I had lost my powers of observation if I didn’t tell you at least something about the women here. Paris is supposed to be the female sartorial Heaven, or something, isn’t it? Of course, we mustn’t forget that there has been a war, and even French ingenuity cannot create fabrics from nothing. But – war or no war – I can tell you that the females here look very smart – even though I regard many of their ideas as positively hideous. Let’s start with make-up. It is unbelievable, Jess. I can say quite honestly that I have as yet seen very few girls’ faces – even though I must have seen many thousands of females. Their faces are hidden behind chemical facades. Most of the girls appear to be smeared with a layer of milk chocolate: I won’t believe it is sunburn. The sun has more respect for the female form. And lips! Many of the girls must be crazy – or blind. Why do they do it? Imagine a girl whose lips do not make a perfect “cupid’s bow”: her upper lip may be a bit straight, but quite normal nevertheless. Instead of leaving it at that, or even putting lip-stick upon her natural lips, she has to go and disfigure herself by spilling the lip-stick over on to her face, and so painting an artificial “cupid’s bow”. The result is hideous. It just looks as though her mouth has been bleeding, and she has wiped her upper lip with a bloody tongue. This is quite a popular form of make-up; by no means exceptional.
Hair comes next – and what hair! I saw a mauve coloured crop the other day – and a slightly purplish one this morning. And in one of our canteens, every waitress has hair so black that it looks solid: I have never before seen such blackness. The hair ‘styles’ all seem to be pretty similar: the hair is brought forward above the forehead, and made to stand up, somehow, like a high fan-tail. The result is that hats have to be made to accommodate this bunch of stuff, and so they all stand up very high at the front. They remind me of pictures I have seen in ‘Alice in Wonderland’.
The problem of footwear has been solved by combining the Dutch ‘clompers’ with light shoes or sandals. And the result is ugly, very ugly. It seems almost worth-while to have won this war – if only to enable women to restore some measure of daintiness and neatness to their feet. These Parisienne (or is it Parisian?) ladies’ shoes have very thick solid wooden soles and heels… usually one piece. The soles are as much as two inches thick, and look like small paving blocks. To the top is fixed a cloth shoe, or sandal straps, and there is the shoe. They sound like wooden clogs, and must feel very heavy, altho the girls seem to walk about quickly enough. There are a few normal shoes to be seen, but they must be a product of the black market: they are very scarce.
Have I done justice to my subject sweetheart, or should I have been more lyrical! Or have I been too observant? I wouldn’t know. One of these days, I may pluck up courage to speak to one of these girls and so find out something about their mental state… but there are so many other interesting things to do over here, darling.
Since writing the foregoing, I have had tea, and been to the Heifetz recital. It has been a very enjoyable evening – but – I do miss your company, sweetheart. How different everything would be – if only… But let me tell you about things. Jim and I left the hotel early enough to have a look round the Eiffel Tower area before the concert. I can’t remember whether your visit to Paris included a trip to the Tower, but even if it did, I believe you would see a big change now. The ‘Trocadero’ used to stand on the high ground across the Seine and north of the Tower, but it has now been replaced by a really magnificent building erected for the 1937 Paris Exhibition. It is really two buildings which between them form an arc. There is a wide gap in the centre forming a promenade from which there is a grand view of the Tower, and the gardens in which it stands. As usual, the view consists of a beautiful tree lined boulevard, about 400 yards wide, with an imposing building at the far end – the Ecole Militaire. Jim and I strolled along to the base of the Tower – and then back to the Chaillot Palace – the name of the new dual building. It is this building which includes the theatre for our concert. It also includes a Navy museum, a Musee de les homme (sic) (whatever that may be), an art gallery, and the theatre intended specially for French national plays etc. And what a theatre! A huge modern affair capable of seating thousands. Its very sumptuousness makes me gasp. I was amazed to find such a luxurious place devoted to entertainment for troops – especially highbrow stuff for which there is such a small demand.
I wondered whether Heifetz would mind playing to an empty house… but that shews my ignorance. There wasn’t a single seat unoccupied when the recital commenced: the entire place was packed with khaki-clad figures, almost entirely American. There must have been thousands of them, and it was grand to see such a fine audience. The programme consisted of a Bach prelude (the one on the reverse side of our “Jesu Joy…”), Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto – with piano only!: Bach’s Chaconne – unaccompanied: a Dvorak Slavonic Dance, and Elgar’s violin Capriccio. After this, Heifetz said he would start his second programme, and caused some amusement by asking for any particular favourites. There was an immediate uproar – and I think every violin solo ever written was requested. And then, to crown all, a typical Yankee drawl roared out “give us ‘In the Mood'”! Can you imagine it, Jess? Could the same thing happen in the Free Trade Hall? Anyhow, the rest of the programme consisted of about eight more items, finishing up with Schubert’s Ave Maria. The latter was indescribably lovely… played as probably no other violinist can play it.
After the concert, which Bevan seemed to enjoy, we strolled back to our hotel in the cool of a beautiful evening – stopping at the Imperial Hotel (now a Naafi) for supper.
A pleasant evening, Jessie Mine…
And now it is very late and I must get some sleep. Tomorrow is my duty day at the exhibition – the first duty I will have done for ages. Will tell you about it tomorrow.
Good night, my love,