From France, Milton Klonsky sends a personal report on the eccentricities of international finance—untouched, at the time, by the most recent devaluation—as it involves the lives of various people in that country.
You don’t have to be a millionaire to appreciate our own well-bred, balanced, clean-cut American dollar that, out of its heart of gold, endows and supports the world. What a credit to us all! Respected everywhere, it wears the same democratic green for all denominations, and, no matter how hard it works, always looks neat and crisp, ready for another round. On the other hand, take those practically-good-for-nothing, undependable, zoot-cut foreign type (there are so many of them), dressed up loudly in four numbers and four colors, they puff and plume themselves even more the higher up they go, but, after a month of making the rounds, they’re already worn and faded and fall apart in your hands. Who knows from what seamy pocket of society they come? Any American tourist in, say, France can tell you what a deprivation it is to exchange hard American cash for such confetti; especially, as is often the case, when the transaction is made on the black market in some dark alley or bistro where his money is furtively counted out and wrapped by one of the hundreds of street-Arabs who live on the margin.
Gavroches, “street-Arabs,” the French call them. And they are, literally, street-Arabs, most of them as shabby and suspicious looking as an old franc note. Of the more than one hundred and twenty thousand Arabs concentrated in Paris alone, and with new swarms crossing each year—comparable in scope to the Puerto Rican influx in New York—these black-money changers are the most fortunate remnant. For one thing, financial conditions since the war have been overripe; and for another, they all have had at least some training in their profession by the time they arrive, having already exchanged the solid misery of North Africa for the inflated promises of Europe. The green tourist can run into them almost anywhere; but their best-known and most familiar hangout is at the Place de I’Opéra, near the offices of the American Express Company, and there you can see them clustered around comer lampposts in groups of two and three, almost like American high-school boys on the make, tense and hawkeyed, but with the same air of grim nonchalance. Not even the fear of the Paris flics can keep them off the comer. Occasionally, of course, the police in their wagons come sheering down the street like a wild pitch, whoever gets hit is replaced, that’s that, and they’re all back again the next day. For the law is regarded by these gavroches not as a moral but as a natural force, like droughts and khamsins in North Africa.
Now, although the Arab money changers on the street are the most numerous in Paris, they are really only the small-fry of the racket, dealing in petty sums for a very meager profit. Their true ancestors are not Fugger and Rothschild, but those shiftyeyed characters who used to sell postcards to American tourists before the war. Most of them have no working capital of their own, and merely search out the clients for bigger shots, who give them five francs on every dollar. These, in turn, pass on their accumulated dollars to still bigger shots, and so on and on, in an ever descending ladder disappearing into those dimly lit regions where finance and politics are merged. Without some direct connection to the Bourse, where the value of the dollar vis-à-vis the franc shifts from hour to hour, it would be too risky for anyone to speculate on his own. The memory of those who tried and failed is always fresh. But between the few powerful financiers on the Bourse who set the rate of exchange, and the hundreds of gavroches working the streets, clip-artists merely, there is also a middle group of money changers with branch relations from top to bottom, and these, for the most part, are Jews. With the exception of the Arabs, the Jewish money changers are the best-known and the most available in Paris.
The mortification such a spectacle must cause to American Jews coming to Paris can be appreciated—but only proportionately—by “refined” Jews living in New York who are confronted every day by rabbis with long beards and yamelkas on their heads walking down Fifth Avenue, garment workers talking Yiddish on the subway, etc. What apologies to be made to themselves, what shame and fear of being identified with them! And, underneath, comes the old wail of David: “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon (or something like that), lest the goyim rejoice.” A disgrace to the family! But who really cares? Certainly not these money changers, the flotsam of Europe’s DP camps, who no longer have any stake in the good or evil opinion of the Gentile. As for the people of Paris, they care even less, having seen enough in recent years not to be shocked by this; and, besides, the good old-fashioned image of the Jew as usurer, the one that served their fathers and their fathers’ fathers so well, is much more comfortable to live with than the nightmare image of the Nazis. There is a compound irony to all this, an historical-metaphysical joke. For it was in the role of stateless money jobbers that the Jews made their earliest entrance into the European economy, and now, with the money systems of Europe having relapsed into a Merovingian chaos, they find them-selves playing the same old roles again just before the curtain falls.
The Arab money changers, however, don’t get the joke at all. Where their spheres cross in the day-by-day working of the exchange, their rivalry is venomous, overcast always by the memory of the war in Palestine. To patronize one side, is to have to endure the bile and back-bite of the other. Of course, wealthy American tourists—the B.O.F.’s, Boeufs, Oeufs et Fromage, as they are called here—can easily remain neutral in this petty war. For even if they have no direct connection to the Bourse, all the better hotels in Paris provide a black market service. Consequently, the bulk of clients who patronize either the Jews or the Arabs are drawn from: (1) Americans with jobs in Paris that pay off in dollars, (2) frugal tourists, (3) GIs studying or not studying at the Sorbonne, and (4) those cadres of artists, writers, and fellow-travelers of Bohemia who have begun to reassemble on the Left Bank.
Every day the official and the unofficial (or black market) rates of exchange are published in the morning papers side by side with the New York, London, and Paris stock quotations; so that, unfortunately, the distinctions between the operations of high finance and the deals of the money market are somehow blurred, as though both were the same kind of capitalist sport. When to sell and when to hold on until the rate goes higher, the week’s standings and prospects for the future, these are among the most lively topics of conversation among Americans in Paris.
The rate printed in the papers, however, is never the one paid out in the market—only a direct Bourse connection can get that—and one usually gets ten to twenty points lower, depending on the agent and the amount to be cashed. And traveler’s checks are always worth ten or fifteen points less than cash. As a rule, the brokers in the Quartier Juif can offer a better rate than the Arabs; but the Arabs, working on a smaller margin, try to make up for this by their persistence and their aggressive business tactics. The difference between the two is somewhat like the comer shoeshine stand in the States compared to the kids hawking up and down the streets. At the beginning of each week the rate usually goes down, because of the Sunday holiday on the Bourse, and it rises towards the end; and also, the issuing of GI student allotments at the end of the month, turned into traveler’s checks and cashed on the black market, may cause a slight fall in the exchange rate. To understand these rhythms helps a great deal. But the really large trends and shifts in the value of the dollar are among those imponderables that no one can safely predict.
Of course the activity on the black market is very well known—any flic on the corner can quote the daily rate—and yet it seems inconceivable that a government so much in need of dollars for its foreign exchange would tolerate this situation. By conservative estimate, at least one-third of the tourist income was being sluiced off by the black market. One explanation, based on the myth of French parsimony, claims that the black market provides a living for hundreds of Jews and Arabs who might otherwise become wards of the state; and another, less generous, sees the whole affair as an elaborate bonus or simple come-on for tourists, since the legal rate is set so low. Though both theories contradict one another, the problem persists. The few half-hearted attempts by the police to mop up the black market only serve to spread the mess further into the corners of Paris. And, while the French do require that all foreign currency and traveler’s checks be cashed at a legal office and declared on the passport, what can the tourist do when a teller at the bank itself slyly offers him a black market rate, or forgets to enter the transaction? I have heard of tourists being approached in the elevator of one of the largest banks in Paris; on top of the Eiffel Tower; in the metro; by concierges, and bell-hops in hotels; by waiters; by little old ladies in black; but mainly, of course, by the Arab and Jewish professionals in their respective haunts. Moreover, Americans who arrive for only a short stay find that the black market offers them a taste of the real life of Paris, something more like it, and not just another tourist trap. It doesn’t take long before even the most righteous are tempted, bite, and fall.
Perhaps my own experience can serve as an example. When I first came to Paris last winter the black market rate was then at its peak—about 550 francs to the dollar compared to the official rate of 320—largely as a result of the government’s devaluation of the franc. This rise brought with it a kind of acquisitive gambling fever which infected the American section of Paris on both the Left and Right banks. One of the leading newspapers had just published a series of articles showing how an American could support himself on no money at all by adroitly playing the market. The Communist party, knowing a good thing when it saw one, had covered the walls and billboards with huge posters—the number 550 printed in bright red—attributing this situation to Wall Street and the Marshall Plan. There were half a dozen Arabs competing with one another on every street, and any one of them could spot an American at a glance.
Alors, it did not take long before one of these gavroches saw me coming and asked me, in perfect English, not to be a sucker. That was the first time; but from then on, I moved from one to another, exchanging my dollars and my Chesterfields for their francs and acrid Gauloises. There was Haj, a louche- and dangerous-looking fellow who never smiled, but would press my thigh every once in a while for reassurance; “Joe,” from Tunis, who was in awe of everything American and drank Coca-Cola; Mouley, the oldest in the group, who kept talking about his wife’s koush-koush, a dish with rice; and many others.
As you get to know these Arab money changers better, and their quills lie down, they will do extraordinary things for you merely out of friendship. For instance, they have a trick of folding one-thousand franc notes in half to make them look like two; and, unless you watch them every minute, they can walk off with your money without troubling to change it. To treat you as one of their kind (and they “con” one another as a matter of course), is a sign of their esteem. Had they suspected that I was a Jew, however, our relations would have been more formal and perhaps more honest. But, as one of them once told me, “You can always tell a Jew by his arms—they hang down to his knees”; and I had no desire to prove my authenticity.
In time our relations became so friendly that I found I could trust none of them any longer. Therefore, when an American I knew offered to take me to the Quartier Juif to meet his money changer, and, incidentally, get some real chopped liver, lox, and even blintzes, I was glad to come along.
The old Jewish quarter of Paris (or what remains of it) is located off one of the most fashionable shopping streets on the Right Bank, the Rue de Rivoli, but at the far side where it suddenly turns cut-rate into a tohu-bohu of pushcarts and cheap variety stores, the way Fifth Avenue in New York runs down into 14th Street. On the sidewalk pitchmen sell fountain pens, rosaries, potato peelers, static removers; singing beggars pass up and down sometimes with monkeys and parrots; red-hot crêpes suzettes frying in real kirsch are vended from open stalls like American frankfurters and orangeade. Through this carnival-like section it was a slow push of four or five blocks before reaching the Rue Vieille du Temple that leads directly into the Jewish quarters. Compared to the hubbub of life a short distance away, this street had a bare and almost somber quality.
We crossed over into a café that seemed from the outside like any other in Paris; but then, as though ten years or three thousand miles of ocean had been crossed out, we heard the almost forgotten tones of Yiddish coming from tables all around us. This was surely the place. On the counter were trays full of the good food that has done so much to keep the Jewish people together throughout the Diaspora. I sat down and ordered the wafers and the wine, while my friend went to fetch his money changer.
In a short time he was back accompanied by Mr. B., a man with curly gray hair who could speak no English and little French, Yiddish alone with a true Litvak accent. Mr. B. was impatient and irritable, as though he had held the winning hand in a game of pinochle when he was called away. Before he said Hello he said How Much. Now, before going inside, my friend had coached me to change only a small sum, as the market was very low that week and was expected to rise. When I took out a five-dollar bill with a self-deprecating, apologetic air, Mr. B. leaned over an inch away: “Don’t wait another day, change all you have.” But my friend winked as though this were his usual line. “Personally I should worry,” he said, “but take my advice like a brother.” Still, I held my ground, and the exchange he offered immediately after was high, only ten points less than the rate in the papers. We parted on these good terms and he shrugged off to his card game.
The next week, just as Mr. B. had said it would, the black market fell again, finishing on the lowest level since the inflation began. From a high of 550 a couple of months ago, the dollar was now worth only about 470 francs. And while the newspapers were beginning to carry rumors of an imminent collapse on Wall Street and mass unemployment in the United States, French recovery, on the other hand, was growing more manifest every day. White bread, pastry, and jam had come back in the shop windows; butter, cheese, milk, and gasoline might soon be available to Frenchmen as well as to tourists. With the help of credits granted by the Marshall Plan and the elimination of German competition, the French economy was producing more goods than it had in 1928, and was even approaching the peak of its greatest years before the First World War. It seemed as though the black market would soon be eaten by the revived cock of France.
Despite all this evidence, however, there were few Americans in Paris who believed the slump in the dollar could go much further, and they were willing to support this hunch with the most agate-angled political and financial reasons. In the cafés off St. Germain des Prés, and in those off the Champs Elysées, the important talk of war and art and sex was mixed up with chatter about the price of gold ingots and sovereigns, the international rate in Tangiers, etc. Some ingenious schemes, worthy of the Big Time, were devised to get ahead of the money market. For example, it was a common practice at that time for a set of American residents to pool their money, appoint one of themselves as agent, and send him by third-class to Switzerland (a trip of about thirteen hours one way), there to buy Swiss francs officially, which could then be changed for French francs at a very profitable rate. And then there was the traffic in gas coupons, even more involved than the Swiss franc business. First, one had to have a certificate attesting the ownership or rental of a car, properly notarized and stamped with passport number, date of arrival in France, etc., which could be made out by the Frenchman to whom the gas coupons would be sold; then this certificate, American passport, and the carte grise, or license of the aforementioned car, were presented at the bureau, which also required thirty dollars to be cashed at the legal rate; and finally, after an interminable waiting and stamping and declaring, the coupons would be issued and sold. About nine thousand francs could be made on two hundred liters of gas, and the process repeated every month. But most Americans who changed money on the street or in the quarter without qualms drew back at such devious chicanery. As the dollar kept falling, they preferred to wait and see.
Though I waited with them until my francs were almost gone, there was still no lift in the market for the next week and and the week after that. It was time to see Mr. B. again, before the rate fell much lower. I found him in the back of the same café on the Rue Vieille du Temple still sitting with his cronies and playing pinochle over a glass of tea. This time, however, he threw down his cards as soon as he saw me, took me aside with a confidential arm and said no; even for me, he couldn’t change any more money; he was finished in the business. Such a pitch, if it was one, was unheard-of among the money changers in Paris. But Mr. B. kept smiling and shaking his head. It made no difference when I told him that, this time, I wanted to change a much larger sum; that, next time, I wanted him to meet some friends of mine just arrived from the States; that it would be the last time. For, with the money he had made in the lush days, Mr. B. was about to go to Palestine—in five or six months; and for the present, he told me with a certain pride, he was no longer dealing with clients directly but through his agents. In the primitive economic warfare on the black market, Mr. B. had earned his commission on the field and I congratulated him. Finally, as I was about to leave, he agreed to change my money but at a very low rate, about twenty-five points below the figure in the papers. Yet, after all this, how could I refuse?
Meanwhile, the fall in the market was working real hardship among the Arab money changers, whose volume of business and margin of profit had been cut in half. They were now operating so close to the American Express Company on the Place de I’Opéra that only the fear of the police could have kept them from opening a rival stand inside, right next to the teller’s window. The posters against the Marshall Plan set up by the Communists, with the magic number 550 printed in red, were now faded on all the billboards or covered up with new appeals. As for the Americans—especially the GI students at the Sorbonne—they too were taking it hard. Restaurant and hotel prices were still high and going higher. Beer was being ordered at the bars, rather than Pernod or cognac, and tips for waiters were now carefully counted out to fifteen per cent of the bill. Of course, everyone was cashing money on the black market as before, still hoping for a rise, but harking back nostalgically to the days when the rate was 470, or 450, or 420. . . . And there were always new arrivals just off the boat to whom a rate of 400 seemed like a lot of francs for the dollar.
A friend of mine from New York having just come in from one of these boats, I found myself, with only three months seniority, appointed as a guide or middleman, so to speak, between the ins-and-outs of Paris. But times had changed—it wasn’t the Bal Tabourin or the Louvre or the Jardin des Plantes that he wanted to see, but the money changers in the Jewish quarter. Their fame had already crossed the Atlantic. With Mr. B. out of business, however, there was nothing for us to do but wander about the streets of the quarter, looking as American as possible, in the hope that someone might pick us up.
A block past Mr. B.’s favorite hangout, where the Rue Vieille du Temple turns and twists itself into a medieval by-way too narrow for modern traffic, and where even the buildings seem to be squeezed taller, we ran into a man who took one look at us. “Hallo American!” he yelled, almost as a command. This was Pepisse (as we learned later), a Jewish refugee from Algiers, about twenty or forty years old, who had come to Paris to make some money before settling down in Palestine. He marched us as though we were his prisoners of war further down the street and into a dingy little café.
Here were no counters loaded with hot and cold delicacies, or marble-topped tables each with its seltzer bottle, no, only a large horseshoe shaped bar behind which a man was slowly wiping and wiping one spot while watching us come in. In the back, however, behind a screen of tobacco smoke, there was the usual set of customers playing cards and drinking glasses of tea. One of these, smiling carefully, rose to meet us when he saw Pepisse, but no one else looked up from his hand. He introduced himself as Albert, Pepisse’s partner, and was formal even to the point of shaking hands in the French manner. Alone, neither Pepisse nor Albert would have appeared out of the ordinary; but together they contrasted like a vaudeville team, Albert was pale and clerkish-looking, wore glasses, and seemed to have spent all his life enclosed in large cities or concentration camps; while Pepisse, with his large eyes set into a soft Arab-dark face, looked like a tropical fruit that had been allowed to ripen too long in the sun. I heard Albert ask Pepisse, in Yiddish, if he thought I was a Jew; and, from the way he said it, I knew I was in. To be an American and a Jew was to be twice-blessed in the quarter. Albert offered me a “High-Life” cigarette (he pronounced it “hig-leaf”), the closest to an American brand in France, but I gave him one of my last Chesterfields instead.
While waiting for the coffee we ordered to drip through the filter, we discussed the fall in the market—they were still optimistic—and various ways of making a living—mainly corrupt—gradually leading around to our business. Albert wanted us to get gas coupons with our tourist visas, and even offered to forge a certificate signifying ownership of a car. And Pepisse, as though to top this, told of an ingenious way to get a car for nothing, which, as I recall vaguely, involved finding a Swede who would buy a French Simca abroad with kroners, selling it in France for double the price in francs, and so on, ending with enough profit to buy another Simca. We listened to all this bland escroquerie with wonder. But what was there to say? You had the sense that they were still living in the shadow of some nightmare world from which Europe had just awakened, where all the daylight rules of morality were suspended. And where Tartuffe had no place.
Anyhow, when my friend took out of his wallet, not dollars, as they had expected, but traveler’s checks, Pepisse made a sound through his lips like air going out of a balloon. It lasted long enough for one of the tables of pinochle players to turn to see what was happening. A little sadly, Albert explained that “they”—his connections on the Bourse—did not like traveler’s checks, as they were hard to negotiate and dangerous to carry; but, if “they” did accept them, the two signatures on the top and bottom of each check had to match exactly. It was obvious, however, that my friend had signed his checks in contrasting moods. Albert examined them, and shook his head; and Pepisse did likewise; when, at that moment, a man with a tightly curled black beard and a face out of an ancient Assyrian bas-relief detached himself from the smoke in the back and came into the round. He took the checks from Pepisse and studied them as though they were Scripture. “This is you?” he asked my friend. Then, to Pepisse: “Nu, give him the money,” and there was nothing more to be said.
During the following weeks, I came back regularly to the café, watching the card players with Pepisse and Albert. But I never saw either of them take up a hand, for those were very hard times. The dollar had fallen so low, a mere twenty points above the legal rate, that even Americans who had no moral objections to the black market were changing their money more conveniently at the banks. Pepisse, especially, was worried. He had heard rumors that North African Jews-without-money were given only the bottom jobs in Israel; and besides he wanted to get married before he left. While Albert, who had been at various times an upholsterer, a maker of ladies’ handbags, and a furrier before the war, had planned on opening a store of his own in Tel Aviv. Day after day they sat waiting for clients who never showed up. This was also the time when first milk, then butter, then cheese came back on free sale, thereby enabling the French bourgeoisie to recapture the old illusion of progress, forgotten during two decades of depression and war. But for Pepisse and Albert, when the free economy of France went up, the side they were sitting on would surely go down.
Sitting with them on a dull afternoon, I asked about the Temple. “The Temple?” Pepisse repeated after me. I watched him rummage through his mind with the same rapt, absent look of a small boy picking his nose. “Isn’t this the Rue Vieille du Temple?” I said. The image I had in mind was of a building very old and venerable, not quite as grand as Notre Dame perhaps, but worthy of having a street named after it. “Ah, he means the shul,” said Albert; though he, personally, couldn’t understand why I wanted to see it. Albert, who prided himself on being very American, never went to the synagogue himself except on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Nevertheless, since business was slow and as a favor to me, they would be glad to take me there.
As it turned out, the Temple was not located on the Rue Vieille du Temple after all, but on the far side of the Jewish quarter. To get there we had to walk down a long street called the Rue des Rosiers, and here, for the first time, I could hear and see and smell the old ghetto life of Paris. We passed a fish store improvised out of a hallway where the fish were kept alive in barrels and buckets of green water; old women carrying huge baskets of pretzels on their hips; a fly-blown butcher shop where salamis and specials and the entrails of cattle hung side by side from nails hammered into the wall. A Polish Talmud student passed by in midnight gabardine, high-heeled boots, and a wide-brimmed black hat, his sideburns licked into curls on his cheeks, who looked as though he might have flown out of a painting by Chagall. Everyone in the quarter seemed to be outside, either darting about in a great hurry, or standing and talking in volatile little groups whose original members and subjects of conversation had long since been superseded. The bustle of this life resembled that of a permanent community; and yet, as I was told, most of these people had come only a year ago or less and were on their way to Palestine.
It was a slow walk, for Albert and Pepisse kept running into friends to whom they would introduce me, proudly, as an American. And whenever we passed a café, one of them would run inside while we waited, listen to the conversation, and then rush out again. I asked Pepisse what they were talking about. “Lukshen and kreplach,” he answered, by which he meant dollars and traveler’s checks, slang derived from the heroic days of the black market when such irreverence was still possible.
Finally, at the bottom of the Rue des Hosiers, we arrived at the shul, as Albert rightly called it, a plain stone anonymous-looking structure that would not have been out of place in the Bronx or Brooklyn. It took only a nod at me and the password “American!” to the sexton to get him to open the door. Without a hat or a scarf, however, I had to tie up the four comers of an old handkerchief to cover my head—the same sort of yamelka I had often worn long ago as a boy in New York.
Inside, the weak afternoon light made everything seem drab and second-hand rather than antique. There were stands for the rabbi and the cantor and rows of heavy oak benches for the congregation; but, on either side of the hall, were two large silver candelabra, and in the center was a great Lion of Judah embroidered in gold on the red velvet curtain over the Torah. Standing there as solemn as a bridegroom between the two money changers, with one hand on my head to keep the handkerchief from falling off, I felt alien and ridiculous. What had I come for? I told myself the dull fact of its existence was enough to make it holy—as Jews even in the days of Moses have congratulated themselves on their own survival. It seemed to me then that the great French concept of universal man was confuted here, in the middle of Paris, by this survival; for although the concept and the substance of man himself could be changed or obliterated by history, the Jewish attribute seemed to be something deeper after all. Ah well, these were only the compensations of rhetoric, not worth much more than the stained glass and flying buttresses of Notre Dame. “Nu?” said Pepisse. The sexton was rattling his keys.
The next visit I made to the Jewish quarter was more than a month later, as, in the meantime, I had to leave for Nice in Southern France. During that month, the month of Easter, the black market almost rose again. It went up miraculously 10 points, 15, 20, 25 . . . and then, just as everyone thought it would keep going, back down it went and stayed there. But the legal exchange, which had remained fixed at 320 francs to the dollar for months, now climbed to 330; so that the margin of difference between the black market rate and the bank’s was even narrower. Only the most frugal American tourist, a provincial grippe sou, would care to change his money illegally in order to make five or ten more francs per dollar. To cap all this, the government now required Americans who wanted their monthly tourist’s ration of gas to change one hundred dollars instead of thirty at the legal rate. And not long after, gasoline went back on free sale even for Frenchmen, thereby finishing the racket most closely allied to the black market.
When I arrived in Nice, however, I found the market much different but in a healthier state than the one in Paris. It had its own breed of money changers and a distinctive clientele, as suited the largest and once the most fashionable resort on the Riviera. There was no Jewish quarter here, certainly; and though there were many Arabs, these were of the mild and picturesque types shown in the travel posters—not a gavroche among them—who made their livings peddling rugs, leather goods, talismans, and bracelets under the palm trees of the Promenade des Anglais. The exchange itself was conducted in a discreet manner by the British and American residents of long standing—and mainly in pounds, rather than dollars, for English money was still the main tourist support of Nice. But it wasn’t like the old days. In the low condition of the pound was reflected, as by a social mirror, the decayed and dowdy elegance of Nice, its old mansions broken up into pensions, its cut-rate restaurants, its cheap chrome and neon bars. The swank and style of the international haut monde had passed to the upstart city of Cannes, less than twenty miles away, where the American dollar had its seat.
Even when the black market was high, the British had been compelled to squeeze as many francs as possible out of each pound in order to remain in France. The Labor government allowed only fifty pounds a year for each traveler; and, when that was gone, it meant goodbye to the soft life of Nice, meat and butter and pastry, and back to the austerity of England. But now, with the black market value of the dollar itself almost on a par with the legal exchange, the much weaker pound fell far below its official rate. Barclay’s Bank in Nice offered 1075 francs for the pound, while the black market-price was only 975! The Continental spivs who ran the market in Nice drew their clients from tourists who had already exhausted their fifty pounds. And for those who could not get extra pounds over the border or through the mails, the newspapers in Nice were full of ads offering to buy jewels, rings, gold coins, etc. To such a pathetic state had the old Imperial vacation declined.
On my last day in Nice, however, I was stopped short by a restaurant on a side street with a sign in French marked: KOCHER. A middle-aged man sitting inside by himself yelled “Sholem Aleichem!” and beckoned me to join him.
This was Mr. G., once a lawyer from Vienna, who had come to Nice from a DP camp a year ago. And over a glass of Perrier water, he began to relate the usual tale of torture, kidnaping, murder, and mutilation which has become by now as impersonal and tedious as someone else’s hypochondria. From that, without any transition at all, he offered to change my money. We reached an agreement.
But before we were able to complete the transaction, a French butcher from across the street came into the restaurant to see the proprietor, and sat down at the next table. Mr. G. showed me the palms of his hands. It seemed that this butcher supplied the restaurant with kosher meat delivered from a slaughter house in Switzerland, for there was none in the whole South of France. For a half hour he sat there in his bloody apron breathing all the air in the room, until, at last, we had to complete our business in the WC in the rear. Mr. G., counting out the money with his eyes downcast, was so nervous that he shook and twice he dropped the bills on the wet floor. And as I turned to leave, he was holding such a mess of francs and dollars crumpled in his fist that he couldn’t open them, even for a moment, to shake hands.
Back in Paris, the warm weather had come at last. It seemed as though this new post-postwar not quite pre-war spring and the winter that had just passed were as far apart as the two seasons of the moon. All the hotels were full of free-spending American tourists. The crush on the comer of St. Germain des Prés at night, where the Café Flore and the Deux Magots are situated, was like 8th Street in Greenwich Village on a Saturday night. There were still a few gavroches around the American Express, but the best rate they offered was even less than the bank’s. For the French franc was now the strongest currency on the continent, with the exception of the Swiss franc.
I went up to the Jewish quarter, and here again the spring had changed everything. The restaurant on the Rue Vieille du Temple where I had first met Mr. B. was now crowded with tourists come for a homecooked meal. Where was Albert? Where was Pepisse? Up the street, the little horseshoe bar was almost empty, and the pinochle players were gone.