Goya – Petit Dejeuner

Baedeker, discreetly emotional, may star and treble-star his sights and sensations—but confess (candidly now!) is there a single one of them that has ever communicated to you quite the same thrill of buoyant elation as that first apparition of the little tray, on which repose the twin jugs of coffee and milk, the fresh spirals of butter (somehow never quite sufficient for the flaky roll, the latter half of which always goes butterless), the neat cubes of sugar, the tall, thick-lipped breakfast-cup, into which is tucked the unnecessary but quite indispensable napkin ? This last, to be entirely satisfactory to the connoisseur, should be slightly coarse and towel-like in texture and terminate in an incipient fringe. But on this, the first morning of our travels, let us not become too fastidious. . . .

Had I, like Baedeker, largess of stars to scatter upon the places that have refreshed me on my earthly pilgrimage, I would suspend a whole galaxy of them over the Café Condal in the Rambla del Centro of Barcelona. Perhaps you prefer the Café Suiso a little higher up ? It is a trifle nearer the flower market, I grant you, but being on the other side of the street it misses the morning sun, and without the morning sun pétit déjeuner is apt to become as unspiritual a repast as a British breakfast. Or perhaps—I had al-most overlooked the possibility—you déjeuner in your bedroom ? . . . Well, I will not condemn the practice. There is indeed much to be said for it —always provided you have exercised a careful judgment in the selection of your room. The night before, at the Hotel Falcon, they had the tactlessness to attempt to decoy me into an habitación interior—one, that is to say, that looked out into a kind of well, at the bottom of which was the steamy salle â manger and at the top, not the free heaven, but an execrable glass roof. Qué barbaridad ! It surely needs not to be said that every self-respecting traveller insists upon a room with a French window, a balcony, the morning sun, and a view of a harbour, or a river, or a cathedral, or a public square, or, at the very least, an ample, animated street.. .

Unquestionably the bedroom déjeuner has its advantages. It permits of a greater informality of toilet. It does away with the necessity of putting on one’s boots—an important point, this, for in order to relish fully all the ease of this indolent repast, I rather fancy that it ought to be taken beslippered. Then, too, you have your books handy—for of course you are one of those who never travel without a library of select authors.

I once read an essay—I forget where—on bed-books, the sort of book to read yourself to sleep over. I wish the writer had added another on pétit déjeuner books. Did you say it was unsociable to read at meals ? But pétit déjeuner is only the pretence of a meal. It has no serious intention of sustaining you. It is rather a mode of ushering in the day, a restful interval between the senseless routine of dressing and the business, or idleness, of the morning, a half-hour set apart for the clothing of the mind after it has arisen naked from the night’s oblivion. That is why the choice of the pétit déjeuner book is so important. It is important that the mind should be clothed in the right mood. Carelessness or mistaken judgment on this account may lead to mental discomfort throughout the day. I have known a day comparatively ruined by beginning it with a delightless commentary on life by Mr John Galsworthy. On the other hand, the perusal of one of Mr Belloc’s improbable adventures has sent me forth spirited and hilarious as a northeaster.

Certainly the selection of a book for the pétit déjeuner is not so easy a matter as of that for the pillow. The latter should be nothing more than a narcotic—an even current of words, rather shallow by preference, carrying the mind placidly into the harbour of sleep. Pepys’s “Diary ” will do very well and Swift’s ” Journal to Stella ” still better. (Do not those occasional lapses into the babbling ” little language ” contain the distilled essence of poppies ?) But for the morning I think we need a stimulant, a stirrup-cup to hearten us for the day’s adventure. I suppose that once upon a time half Christendom got up to the tune of the matutinal psalms—at all events before the Churchmen began to adopt the sharp practice of stealing a march on the morrow by singing their matins overnight. Well, a man even in this year of the lack of grace might do worse. The psalmist tells that he was accustomed to awake right early, and, except for occasional fits of the spleen, he was as often as not in the right morning mood. He has the lark’s note and surveys with a high confidence a world that is all splendour and fire and rejoicing of dawn. Like the lark he has also that note of certainty which we of the modern age sound so uncertainly. His heart is fixed, his world stablished so fast that it cannot be moved. He is splendidly affirmative, knows no misgiving, disdains proofs, blesses and bans with equal gusto. That is what makes him good company at the pétit déjeuner—for if we are to make anything of the day we must at any rate begin it with a certain sureness and ardour. Misgivings will probably have arisen before lunch, and the sky may be quite overcast by the time we sit down to the table d’hôte—so let us by all means make sure of the waking hour.

If you do not quite feel yourself to be on terms of intimacy with the Hebrew psalmist, his modern American descendant, Walt Whitman, is a recommendable substitute. He is a yet more incorrigible optimist, and can find nothing to ban under heaven. ” The earth—that is sufficient ; I do not want the constellations any nearer ; I know they are very well where they are ; I know they suffice for those who belong to them” — that is a good enough philosophy for eight o’clock in the morning. At times, it is true, his demonstrations of affection are rather overwhelming for so early an hour ; he even fawns upon you ; the one thing he never counts upon is the possibility of being re-buffed. And then his table manners leave much to be desired. Ile thumps among the coffee-cups, and so vehemently vociferates his catalogues of delight that I have often feared he would disturb the guests sleeping in the adjoining rooms. He has a fine clarion voice, but unfortunately he has never really learnt to distinguish between a song and a shout.

Browning, too, I have found to be a sociable and sanguine companion to invite to share the little breakfast. Moreover, unlike Whitman, he is never the same two mornings running. He has an incurable passion for dressing up, wears experimentally philosophies which he has picked up second-hand in the unlikeliest places, so that sometimes you would never guess it was he if his trick of speech did not betray him. Pangloss’s gay and fair-weather garment of course sits best upon him and this is the attire that he most often affects. ” God’s in His heaven—all’s right with the world “—it may not be true, but at any rate it gives a brisker relish to one’s morning coffee and roll, and that is all one demands of the philosopher at the breakfast-table. Herrick again But it would be too lengthy to go on particularising. You are pretty safe in sitting down with any of the English poets. They are as a whole in general agreement with their Creator and find that His creation is very good. They are optimists almost to a man. They are of the morning. They play like happy children in the garden of the world. Of late, perhaps, there has been a change of mood, and a few of our modern poets sit apart and sulk or petulantly pull the flowers to pieces. I have a private fancy that they no longer, like the bards of a less luxurious age, awake right early, but only go out into the garden when the dew has dried upon the petals of the roses and the matins of the birds are ended. While we are break-fasting, they will probably be still abed, and we need not therefore trouble to reserve a seat for them.

I do not actually insist upon the poet’s company at the pétit déjeuner, but I prefer him, not only on account of his cheerfulness but also because of his conciseness. In the evening an author can be as prosy as he likes—we are content to sit up with him until the fire grows grey, if his talk will keep us awake so long. In the morning, what he has to say he must say briefly, for we have one eye on the clock. He seems to be aware of this, and for our convenience abbreviates a large discourse into a little phrase, a little memorable phrase that we can carry with us throughout the day, a little musical phrase that sings itself in our head, or better still in our heart, at odd moments like the ending of a song. It is a lasting wonder to me why all busy men, and therefore, I suppose, all business men, are not habitual readers of poetry. Verse is the first of time-saving inventions. How prolix and dilatory is the leader of a morning paper in comparison with a closely-knit sonnet of Wordsworth or Milton. The leader writer’s wordy rhetoric is, I take it, a survival from leisurely mid-Victorian days, which from all the accounts one hears of them must surely have been much more spacious than those of great Elizabeth. The liberal-paged Times was founded upon the three-course mid-Victorian breakfast. That is perhaps why its counterpart does not exist in any country that is content with so insubstantial a meal as pétit déjeuner.

We will admit the prose writers then to our morning company only on condition that they be not prosy. They must be crisp as our morning roll and give us a salted phrase between every mouthful. The novelists, I am afraid, we must strike off the invitation list. They are too garrulous. Besides, if we have to break off just before Ermyntrude can make up her mind whether or not to elope or the angry parent decides to be conciliated, we are left with a preoccupation which unsettles us for the rest of the day. I am in some doubt whether we should deny the travel writers too. After all, what need have we of the picture when we can look out of the window at the sunny reality ? But as a rule they talk much more about themselves than the countries they travel in. No doubt when they set out upon their travels they resolve to fix the spiritual degrees of latitude and longitude of a country. But in the end they rarely map out anything except their own heart, which, after all, is perhaps the most hazardous and unexplored continent they are likely to discover. Who cares now about the condition of Spain in the eighteen thirties ? We read Borrow because he is his own hero and Spain the background against which he can most dramatically strike his romantic attitudes. Had Stevenson bastinadoed his donkey through the Vosges or the Pyrenees instead of the Cevennes we were as well content. I doubt not that Mr Belloc would have chanted his doggerel as cheerily and argued with the Lector as dogmatically on the path to Timbuctoo as on that to Rome. They travel not to find a foreign country but to find themselves, which is the chief use of their travelling. .

But where was I before this digression led me astray ? The Café Condal, was it not ? with the Café Suiso over the way. Yes, decidedly I give my vote in favour of the Café Condal, by which, of course, I mean the pavement immediately in front of it. Here one is in the open air, and the open air in the Rambla del Centro on a fine March morning is, to my thinking, the suavest, sweetest and freshest in Spain. For just a little higher up the street is the flower market and just a little lower down the harbour, and just in front of the Café Condal the freshness of the Mediterranean is married with the fragrance of the pouting roses.

And now as the waiter, with an extinguished cigarette dependent from his lips, places the magic tray upon the marble-topped table the moment has arrived which you have been dreaming of throughout all the thirty hours’ journey from Charing Cross. ” Give me my moments, you may keep your years ! “—such a bargain Richard Middleton would have struck with Time. May not this, the first morning under Southern skies, be allowed its place, if but a lowly one, in the pro-cession of the ” moments ” ? With one supreme inspiration you take the freshness of the mild Southern air into your lungs, and not only into your lungs but into the driest recesses of your spirit. Care falls from you as from a schoolboy on the first morning of the holidays. At last you are at ease in the world. World, world, O world, how brave !—at any rate that fragment of it which is visible in one complacent survey from the harbour to the flower market. The light has the crystalline, dew-like brightness peculiar to the hour, so much finer in quality than the crude glare of noon. The Rambla, quiet and spacious, shows just sufficient animation to prevent you from surmising that you have risen thoughtlessly early. An electric tram, fresh from its night’s repose in the depot and void of passengers, meanders leisurely past, as though it were taking a, morning stroll through the city for its own recreation. An unshaven priest, with wide-brimmed, shiny beaver and cloak flung half across his face—for they distrust the shrewd morning air, these sun-pampered Southerners—paces slowly on his way to Mass, or it may be to the barber’s. The boot-blacks arrange their simple apparatus on the opposite side of the street—their job a sinecure, I fancy, for surely Barcelona is too well-bred a city to sully a citizen’s boots, on a fine March morning at all events. A flock of goats, with jangling bells and straddling legs, halts at a dairy near by to make their contribution to the pétit déjeuner, reminding you that you are in a city which has not yet divorced itself from the countryside.

It is all so fresh, so reposeful, so serene. The day stretches before you, offers itself to you, bids you make what use of it you please, and the best of it is that you have nothing on earth to do except to do what you please. With what a strange wonder do you not recollect that at this very moment, if you were now at home, you would be engrossed with meats and marmalade and that embittered brew which the kitchenmaid misnames coffee, and still more embittered record of the world’s mishaps, preliminary to the whirlwind hurry to the office ! How incredible, how senseless, that existence of your former self, before this blessed transmigration of your soul and body to the South ! How much more reasonable this spacious way of living, this frugal meal, this pale blue sky, this sweet, sea-scented air !

Truly, even when the morning’s at eight-thirty, God’s still in His heaven and all’s right with the world.

” Waiter ! ”

Si, senor.”

” The morning paper.”

The habit, you see, sticks perniciously. A pernicious habit, so I have always maintained, and one that I have always practised. Abroad, however, newspaper reading gives me no qualms of conscience. I would even make it a point of duty for a traveller to read with diligence the local paper of the city he sojourns in : advertisements, lottery results, funeral announcements and all, provided it is printed in a rational language, based upon the common mother tongue of Rome, which permits of being read with the help of a pocket dictionary. There is more in a city than is contained between the covers of a guide-book ; and its monuments, however splendid or venerable, cannot compete in interest with its contemporary life. Do not imagine that you can overhear its secrets by haunting its dim cathedral or lingering by starlight in its dumb deserted squares; to know its inmost thoughts—what is agitating its mind, what throes of civic crisis it is passing through, what it is saying about its local rulers, what it thinks of the play, the bullfight, the cinematograph show, what, in a word, is its verdict upon life-you must subscribe to its local paper. It is the best way of making yourself feel at home in a foreign city that I know of. After a morning or two you begin to strike roots; in a week you find yourself becoming a partisan in the municipal squabbles ; before the month is out you are a citizen.

The waiter reappears without a paper. A shade of perplexity and embarrassment deepens on his face. He seems to search for a form of words.

” Pardon, señor, but—would you prefer the organ of the Liberals or the Republicans ? ”

Now a plague on both your parties ! At so serene an hour as this must I be vexed with the wranglings of politicians and elect between modes of government ? At this moment I condemn, abhor and anathematise all parties, individually and collectively. Or if it truly be that adhesion to a party is obligatory in this party-ridden city of Barcelona, why, then, I hereby declare that I belong to the party of the pétit déjeuner—our programme a free breakfast-table—coffee, rolls, napkin, a marble-topped table, limitless leisure, pale blue sky and the scent of roses for everyone ! Down with the three-course breakfast in the stale and illiberal salle à manger ! Vive le pétit déjeuner en plein air !

But the waiter is still waiting. Now are my sentiments liberal or republican this morning ? Neither the one nor the other, I fear, for the world, at any rate as seen from the pavement in front of the Café Condal, seems to be already moulded near enough to the heart’s desire. Another touch of the reformer’s hand and the pleasing effect might be destroyed. But I must have the local paper. Very well then, let us see what it feels like to be a revolutionary.

” El Republicano.”

” Bien, señor.”

The waiter dives into the café and emerges with a journal entitled El Diluvio—the Deluge.

But surely, après nous le Déluge ! I had always supposed that the Deluge was one of those things with which man never is but always to be blest, a kind of inverted millennium reserved for our remote descendants. In Barcelona it would appear that it had already arrived. Dear me ! and how little everything is changed. A republican city council, socialist deputies in the Córtes, anti-clerical demonstrations every Sunday afternoon in the park (weather and the governor permitting), the social war joined all along the line and a general strike momentarily impending—and yet the streets are as tranquil, the airs as sweet, the roses as fresh, as in the most catholic days of the Catholic Kings !

Courage, timorous hearts ! Could you but be sitting with me this morning outside the Café Condal you would cease to take anxious thought for the morrow. You would recollect, as I recollected, sitting there at the marble-topped table, many elementary truths which, if we had learnt our lessons better, we should never have forgotten. For me the red flag has no longer any terrors—beyond perhaps a merely physical exacerbation of the optic nerve. I know that the impartial breeze will caress its vermilion folds as fondly as ever it caressed the royal standard. However dismal the social deluge, I know that the ancient heavens will be not one whit less serene; the roses will bloom indifferent to the fall of dynasties, and the morning coffee and rolls, though doled out to us by the socialist State, will taste, I trow, not less delicious than before. (I only pray they will not take our napkin from us.) The simple, the elemental, the essential things of life are based on foundations that even the revolutionary can never overthrow. The crystal light, the morning freshness, the song of birds, the scent of roses, the delight of the seeing eye and the hearing ear and the quick senses, are beyond the reach of legislation. Youth and love and beauty and whatever else is at the core of life are indestructible. The human heart is fixed, the natural world stablished so fast that it cannot be moved. If the devil was the first Whig, and for my part I don’t believe it, Nature was assuredly the first Conservative. Courage, timorous hearts ! we are on the winning side.

If there is one thing that is likely to convert me to republicanism it is El Diluvio. It is the most seductive news-sheet in the world. In the first place, it is just the size that a newspaper ought to be, about as large as a largish sheet of notepaper, or shall we say royal octavo ?—no, perhaps we had better say republican octavo. I can’t think why our Northcliffes and Cadburys have left it to the republicans of Barcelona to make this easy discovery. To anyone who has ever attempted to prop up The Times against a breakfast-cup or battled with a mutinous Morning Post on the windy top of an omnibus the superiority of the reduced dimensions of El Diluvio will be at once apparent. (I have been careful to preserve the exact measurements, and now publish them for the benefit of any English newspaper proprietor who is ready to profit by my suggestion : they are nine inches by five and three-quarters.) But altogether apart from the practical consideration of size, there is something indescribably ingratiating in the format of this little journal. It has the most confidential, intimate and private air imaginable. It slips into your hand as though it were a letter from a friend, for has it not that occasional illegibility and those endearing lapses of orthography which none but a friend would allow himself ? It appears to have been written expressly for you. It has nothing in common with those vociferous, impersonal, largest-circulation newspapers which you are compelled to share with half-a-million readers. Is it not a little humiliating to be shouted at in batches of half-a-million ? One’s amour-propre seems to demand a more personal attention. El Diluvio understands and respects this egoistical weakness. It takes you aside, whispers its telegraphic and telephonic confidences into your private ear, treats you as a friend and a republican. I no longer go away dashed and depressed when the clerk distributing letters at the poste restante dismisses me with a shake of the head. I know that I have a correspondent who has been sitting up all night to write to me, and that his letter will appear bright and punctual as the morning sun.

” L’exilé partout est seul ” — no, Monsieur Lammenais, not when he has El Diluvio to keep him company at his pétit déjeuner.