Book Review: A Waiter in Paris

Book Review: A Waiter in Paris
One of the books I’ve used in every one of the classes I taught in my CUNY summer study abroad program in Paris through the years is George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. This classic, slightly fictionalized account of Orwell’s experiences living in Paris in 1928-29, including his work as a dishwasher in a “smart” hotel, and then as a waiter in a Russian restaurant, is one good way of balancing the romantic myths of Paris with one of its realities — the lives of the working poor who keep the wheels turning in the City of Light. Despite Orwell’s shocking (and shockingly casual) use of anti-Semitic language I have always loved this book because of the light it sheds on the plight of the working poor, and for the incisive social/political analysis he applies to what he observed during the 10 weeks during which he had a good look at those realities close up. No doubt hotels and restaurants must exist but there is no need that they should enslave hundreds of people. What makes the work in them is not the essentials; it is the shams that are supposed to represent luxury…Essentially a “smart” hotel is a place where a hundred people toil like devils in order that two hundred may pay through the nose for things they do not really want. If the nonsense were cut out of hotels and restaurants, and the work done with simple efficiency, plongeurs might work six or eight hours a day instead of ten or fifteen. Although he never says so directly, it seems that Orwell decided to take the opportunity presented to him when he accidentally fell into poverty to tell the rest of the world what was like — partly because he could see that the people in the endless, grinding cycle of the trap they were caught in would never be able to do so themselves. Of course one might imagine that nearly a century later, given the social safety net in modern France, the world Orwell described no longer exists. And indeed there are better protections for workers in France today. And yet — with Edward Chisholm’s A Waiter in Paris: Adventures in the Dark Heart of the City, published just last year, we are given the opportunity to see what the world behind those swinging doors is like now. And it’s hardly a bed of roses. It is natural that Chisholm’s book would be compared to Orwell’s Down and Out, and it has been. The comparison is apt: both were penniless young aspiring British writers at the time they experienced working in Paris restaurants. Orwell had come to Paris at age 25, after resigning from the Indian Imperial Police. (He wrote later that he had resigned his position “to escape not merely from imperialism but from every form of man’s dominion over man.”) Chisholm was also in his early 20s when he came to Paris in 2011, after trying and failing to find a professional position for himself in London in the wake of the global financial crisis. For both, a memoir about the underside of the restaurant business in Paris was their first published book. And both of these works provide an incredibly detailed, often shocking look at the inside of a world most middle-class people never see and could hardly imagine. Both writers also force readers to not only see what they saw, but also to think about why such conditions exist, and consider whether all of us are complicit in the drudgery and just plain hellishness of it to some degree: at least to the degree of closing our eyes to it. And both are extraordinarily well written.

Lead photo credit : A Waiter in Paris

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Janet Hulstrand is a freelance writer, editor, writing coach and teacher who divides her time between France and the U.S. She is the author of "Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You," and "A Long Way from Iowa: From the Heartland to the Heart of France." She writes frequently about France for Bonjour Paris, France Today, and a variety of other publications, including her blog, Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road. She has taught “Paris: A Literary Adventure” for education abroad programs of the City University of New York since 1997, and she teaches online classes for Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington D.C. She is currently working on her next book in Essoyes, a beautiful little village in Champagne.