Down and Out in Paris: Battling the Bugs

George OrwellIn Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell describes my Paris neighborhood 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.” Orwell changed the street name to Rue du Coq d’Or. Take another look. It’s Rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest streets in Paris. It’s hardly a slum now, but many of Orwell’s memories, like the sour reek of the refuse-carts and drunken singing in the middle of the night, are vividly present today. I marvel at the fact that George Orwell once prowled the streets there, as did John Calvin and Rabelais before him.

Down and Out in Paris and London begins with Madame Monce screaming at one of her tenants, “How many times have I told you not tosquash bugs on the wallpaper? Do you think you’ve bought the hotel, eh?” Orwell foes on to explain why the proper disposal of bugs was a communal concern:

My hotel was called the Hotel des Trois Moineaux. It was a dark,
rickety warren of five storeys, cut up by wooden partitions into forty
rooms. The rooms were small arid inveterately dirty, for there was no maid, and Madame F., the PATRONNE, had no time to do any sweeping. The walls were as thin as matchwood, and to hide the cracks they had been covered with layer after layer of pink paper, which had come loose and housed innumerable bugs. Near the ceiling long lines of bugs marched all day like columns of soldiers, and at night came down ravenously hungry, so that onehad to get up every few hours and kill them in hecatombs. Sometimes when the bugs got too bad one used to burn sulphur and drive them into the next room; whereupon the lodger next door would retort by having his room sulphured, and drive the bugs back. It was a dirty place, but homelike, for Madame F. and her husband were good sorts. The rent of the rooms varied between thirty and fifty francs a week.

A Note on Sources: George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London was published first in 1933. See a complete etext. See other excerpts published here.

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3 Responses to Down and Out in Paris: Battling the Bugs

  1. tomrobertstennessee says:

    In 1981, my first Manhattan apartment was a summer sublet, a fourth floor walk-up in a five-story building on the upper east side bordering Spanish Harlem. The brick building was dark and grimy with soot leftover from the coal-burning era. A black iron fire escape zigzagged up its center. My long narrow apartment was refered to as “railroad style,” a gloomy corridor where I entered the kitchen through the front door. The windowless living room was in the center, between the kitchen and the bedroom, which had an iron gated window overlooking row houses across 89th street. After moving in, I noticed an amonia smell like dried up cat piss. I also noticed globs of black dirt that would fall from behind the frameless posters on the walls. These dirt globs were cockroach feces emitting the amonia-like smell. At night, I had nightmares of the floors and walls pulsing with cockroaches. Once, before going out-of-town for two weeks, I bought roach bombs, malethion and a hand-held sprayer. I put my suitcases out in the hallway, and starting from the front of the apartment in the bedroom, I backed my way out, drenching all the cracks, edges and dark corners with dilluted malethion. I set off the aeresol bombs, and locked the door behind. When I returned after two weeks, there were thousands of carcasses which I swept into a dustpan, and dumped into a garbage bag.
    Reading, “Down and Out in Paris: Battling the Bugs,” revived a memory I don’t usually linger over.

  2. Mark Willis says:

    That’s a vivid memory, Tom. Makes me think back to my digs at the time — the Mill — and it seems like the Taj Mahal.

  3. alex says:

    Thanks for pointing to the etext. I’m reading it now.

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