Seeing the World

H.L. Mencken

The Smart Set/November, 1913

Nothing broadens and mellows the mind so much as foreign travel.

— Heraclitus.

THE scene is the brow of the Hungerburg at Innsbruck. It is a half-hour before sunset, and the whole lovely valley of the Inn begins to glow with mauves and May greens, red-gold and silvery blues. Along the peaks of the great snowy mountains which shut it in, as if from the folly and misery of the world, piercing touches of yellow and crimson already show. Far below, hugging the winding river, lies little Innsbruck, with its parks and pretty villas. A battalion of Austrian soldiers, drilling in the Exerzierplatz, appears as an army of pale blue ants. Somewhere to the left, beyond the broad flank of the Hungerburg, the night train for Venice labors toward the town.

It is a superbly beautiful scene, perhaps the most beautiful in all Europe. It has color, dignity, repose. The Alps here come down a bit and so increase their spell. They are not the harsh precipices of Switzerland, nor the too-charming stage mountains of Northern Italy, but rolling billows of clouds and snow, the high-flung waves of some titanic but stricken ocean. Now and then comes a faint clank of metal from the funicular railway, but the tracks themselves are hidden among the trees of the lower slopes. The tinkle of an angelus bell (or maybe it is only a sheep bell) is heard from afar. A great bird, an eagle or a falcon, sweeps across the crystal spaces.

Here where we are is a shelf on the mountainside, and the hand of man has converted it into a terrace. To the rear, clinging to the mountain, is an Alpine gasthaus — a bit overdone, perhaps, with its red-framed windows and elaborate fretwork, but still genuinely of the Alps. Along the front of the terrace, protecting sightseers from the sheer drop of a thousand feet, is a stout wooden rail.

A man, in an American sack suit, with a Derby hat on his head, lounges against this rail. His elbows rest upon it, his legs are crossed in the fashion of a figure four, and his face is buried in the red book of Herr Baedeker. It is the volume on Southern Germany, and he is reading the list of Munich hotels. Now and then he stops to mark one with a pencil, which he wets at his lips each time. While he is thus engaged, another man comes ambling along the terrace, apparently from the direction of the funicular railway station. He, too, carries a red book. It is Baedeker on Austria-Hungary. After gaping around him a bit, this second man approaches the rail near the other and leans his elbows upon it. Presently he takes a package of chewing gum from his coat pocket, selects two pieces, puts them into his mouth and begins to chew. Then he spits idly into space, idly but homerically, a truly stupendous expectoration, a staggering discharge from the Alps to the first shelf of the Lombard plain! The first man, startled by the report, glances up. Their eyes meet and there is a vague glimmer of recognition.

The First Man— “American?”

The Second Man— “Yes: St. Louis.”

“Been over long?”

“A couple of months.”

“What ship’d you come over in?”

“The Kronprinz Friedrich.”

“Aha, the German line! I guess you found the grub all right.”

“Oh, in the main. I have eaten better, but then again, I have eaten worse.”

“Well, they charge you enough for it, whether you get it or not. A man could live at the Plaza cheaper.”

“I should say he could. What boat did you come over in?”

“The Maurentic.”

“How is she?”

“Oh, so-so.”

“I hear the meals on those English ships are nothing to what they used to be.”

“That’s what everybody tells me. But, as for me, I can’t say I found them so bad. I had to send back the potatoes twice and the breakfast bacon once, but they had very good lima beans.”

“Isn’t that English bacon awful stuff to get down?”

“It certainly is: all meat and gristle. I wonder what an Englishman would say if you put him next to a plate of genuine, crisp, American bacon?”

” I guess he would yell for the police — or choke to death.”

“Did you like the German cooking on the Kronprinz?”

“Well, I did and I didn’t. The chicken a la Maryland was very good, but they had it only once. I could eat it every day.”

“Why didn’t you order it?”

“It wasn’t on the bill.”

“Oh, bill be damned! You might have ordered it anyhow. Make a fuss and you’ll get what you want. These foreigners have to be bossed around. They’re used to it.”

“I guess you’re right. There was a fellow near me who set up a holler about his room the minute he saw it — said it was dark and musty and not fit to pen a hog in — and they gave him one twice as large, and the chief steward bowed and scraped to him, and the room stewards danced around him as if he was a duke. And yet I heard later that he was nothing but a Bismarck herring importer from Hoboken.

“Yes, that’s the way to get what you want. Did you have any nobility on board?”

“Yes, there was a Hungarian baron in the automobile business, and two English ‘sirs.’ The baron was quite a decent fellow: I had a talk with him in the smoking room one night. He didn’t put on any airs at all. You would have thought he was an ordinary man. But the ‘sirs’ kept to themselves. All they did the whole voyage was to write letters, wear their dress suits and curse the stewards.”

“They tell me over here that the best eating is on the French lines.”

“Yes, so I hear. But some say, too, that the Scandinavian lines are best, and then again I have heard people boosting the Italian lines.”

“I guess each one has its points. They say that you get wine free with meals on the French boats.”

“But I hear it’s fourth rate wine.”

“Well, you don’t have to drink it.”

“That’s so. But, as for me, I can’t stand a Frenchman. I’d rather do without the wine and travel with the Dutch. Paris is dead compared to Berlin.”

“So it is. But those Germans are getting to be awful sharks. The way they charge in Berlin is enough to make you sick.”

“Don’t tell me. I have been there. No longer ago than last Tuesday — or was it last Monday? — I went into one of those big restaurants on the Unter den Linden and ordered a small steak, French fried potatoes, a piece of pie and a cup of coffee — and what do you think those thieves charged me for it? Three marks fifty! Think of it! That’s eighty-seven and a half cents. Why, a man could have got the same meal at home for a dollar. These Germans are running wild. American money has gone to their heads. They think every American they get hold of is a millionaire.”

“The French are worse. I went into a hotel in Paris and paid ten francs a day for a room for myself and wife, and when we left they charged me one franc forty a day extra for sweeping it out and making the bed!”

“That’s nothing. Here in Innsbruck they charge you half a krone a day taxes.”

“What! You don’t say!”

“Sure thing. And if you don’t eat breakfast in the hotel they charge you a krone for it anyhow.”

“Well, well! What next? But, after all, you can’t blame them. We Americans come over here and hand them our pocketbooks, and we ought to be glad if we get anything back at all. The way a man has to tip is something fearful.”

“Isn’t it, though! I stayed in Dresden a week, and when I left there were six grafters lined up with their claws out. First came the porter. Then came — “

“How much did you give the porter?”

“Five marks.”

“You gave him too much. You ought to have given him about three marks, or, say, two marks fifty. How much was your hotel bill?”

“Including everything?”

“No, just your bill for your room. “

” I paid six marks a day.”

“Well, that made forty-two marks for the week. Now the way to figure out how much the porter ought to get is easy: a fellow I met in Baden-Baden showed me how to do it. First, you multiply your hotel bill by two, then you divide by twenty-seven, and then you knock off half a mark. Twice forty-two is eighty-four! Twenty-seven into eighty-four goes about three times, and a half from three leaves two and a half. See how easy it is? “

“It looks easy, anyhow. But you haven’t got much time to do all that figuring.”

“Well, let the porter wait. The longer he has to wait the more he appreciates you.”

“But how about the others?”

“It’s just as simple. Your chambermaid gets a quarter of a mark for every day you have been in the hotel. But if you stay less than four days she gets a whole mark anyhow. If there are two in the party she gets half a mark a day, but no more than three marks in any one week.”

“But suppose there are two chamber maids? In Dresden there was one on day duty and one on night duty. I left at six o’clock in the evening, and so they were both on the job.”

“Don’t worry; they’d have been on the job anyhow, no matter when you left. But it’s just as easy to figure out the trip for two as for one. All you have to do is to add fifty per cent, and then divide it into two halves, and give one to each girl. Or, better still, give it all to one girl and tell her to give half to her pal. If there are three chambermaids, as you sometimes find in the swell hotels, you add another fifty per cent and then divide by three. And so on.”

“I see. But how about the hall porter and the floor waiter? “

“Just as easy. The hall porter gets whatever the chambermaid gets, plus twenty-five per cent — but no more than two marks in any one week. The floor waiter gets thirty pfennigs a day straight, but if you stay only one day he gets half a mark, and if you stay more than a week he gets two marks flat a week after the first week. In some hotels the hall porter don’t shine shoes. If he don’t he gets just as much as if he does, but then the actual ‘boots’ has to be taken care of. He gets half a mark every two days. Every time you put out an extra pair of shoes he gets fifty per cent more for that day. If you shine your own shoes, or go without shining them, the ‘boots’ gets half his regular tip, but never less than a mark a week.”

“Certainly it seems simple enough. I never knew there was any such system.”

“I guess you didn’t. Very few do. But it’s just because Americans don’t know it that these foreign blackmailers shake ’em down. Once you let the porter see that you know the ropes, he’ll pass the word on to the others, and you’ll be treated like a native.”

“I see. But how about the elevator boy? I gave the elevator boy in Dresden two marks and he almost fell on my neck, so I figured that I played the sucker.”

“So you did. The rule for elevator boys is still somewhat in the air, because so few of these bum hotels over here have elevators, but you can sort of reason the thing out if you put your mind to it. When you get on a streetcar in Germany, what tip do you give the conductor?” “Five pfennigs.”

“Naturally. That’s the tip fixed by custom. You may almost say it’s the unwritten law. If you gave the conductor more, he would hand you change. Well, how I reason it out is this way: If five pfennigs is enough for a car conductor, who may carry you three miles, why shouldn’t it be enough for an elevator boy, who may carry you only three stories?”

“It seems fair, certainly.”

“And it is fair. So all you have to do is to keep account of the number of times you go up and down in the elevator, and then give the elevator boy five pfennigs for each trip. Say you come down in the morning, go up in the evening, and average one other round trip a day. That makes twenty-eight trips a week. Five times twenty-eight is one mark forty — and there you are.”

“I see. By the way, what hotel are you stopping at?”

“The Goldene Esel.”

“How is it?”

“Oh, so-so. Ask for oatmeal at breakfast, and they send to the livery stable for a peck of oats and ask you please to be so kind as to show them how to make it.”

“My hotel is even worse. Last night I got into such a sweat under the big German feather bed that I had to throw it off. But when I asked for a single blanket they didn’t have any, so I had to wrap up in bath towels.”

“Yes, and you used up every one in town. This morning, when I took a bath, the only towel the chambermaid could find wasn’t bigger than a wedding invitation. But while she was hunting around I dried off, so no harm was done.”

“Well, that’s what a man gets for running around in such one-horse countries. In Leipzig they sat a nigger down beside me at table. In Amsterdam they had cheese for breakfast. In Munich the head waiter had never heard of buckwheat cakes. In Mannheim they charged me ten pfennigs extra for a cake of soap.”

“What do you think of the German railroad trains?”

“Rotten. That compartment system is all wrong. If nobody comes into your compartment it’s lonesome, and if anybody does come in it’s too damn sociable. And if you try to stretch out and get some sleep, some ruffian begins singing in the next compartment, or the conductor keeps butting in and jabbering at you.”

“But you can say one thing for these German trains: they get in on time.”

“So they do, but no wonder! They run so slow it would be impossible not to get in on time. The way I figure it, a German engineer must have a devil of a time holding his engine in. The fact is, he usually can’t — and so he has to wait outside every big town until the schedule catches up to him. They say they never have accidents, but is it any more than you expect? Did you ever hear of a mud turtle having an accident?”

“Scarcely. As you say, these countries are far behind the times. I saw a fire in Cologne: you would have laughed your head off! It was in a feed store near my hotel, and I got there before the fire men. When they came at last, in their tinpot hats, they got out half a dozen big squirts and rushed into the building with them. Then, when it was out, they put the squirts back into their little express wagon and drove off. You never saw such child’s play. Not a line of hose run out, not an engine puffing, not a gong heard, not a soul letting out a whoop. It was more like a Sunday school picnic than a fire. I guess if these Dutch ever did have a civilized blaze it would scare them to death. But they never have any.”

“Well, what can you expect? A country where all the charwomen are men and all the garbage men are women!”

For the moment the two have talked each other out, and so they lounge upon the rail in silence and gaze out over the valley. Anon the gum-chewer spits. By now the sun has reached the skyline to the westward and the tops of the ice mountains are gorgeous conflagrations. Scarlets war with golden oranges, and vermilions fade into palpitating pinks. Below, in the valley, the colors begin to fade slowly to a uniform seashell gray. It is a scene of indescribable loveliness: the wild reds of hades splashed riotously upon the cold whites and pale blues of heaven. The night train for Venice, a long line of black coaches, is entering the town. Somewhere below, apparently in the barracks, a sunset gun is fired. After a silence of perhaps two or three minutes, the Americans gather fresh inspiration and resume their conversation.

“I have seen worse scenery.”

“Very pretty.”

“Yes, sir; it’s well worth the money.”

“But the Rockies beat it all hollow.”

“Oh, of course. They have nothing over here that we can’t beat to a whisper. Just consider the Rhine, for instance. The Hudson makes it look like a country creek.”

“Yes, you’re right. Take away the castles, and not even a German would give a hoot for it. It’s not so much what a thing is over here as what reputation it’s got. The whole thing is a matter of press-agenting.”

“I agree with you. There’s the ‘beautiful, blue Danube.’ To me it looks like a sewer. If it’s blue, then I’m green. A man would hesitate to drown himself in such a mud puddle.”

“But you hear the bands playing that waltz all your life, and so you spend your good money to come over here to see the river. And when you get back home you don’t want to admit that you’ve been a sucker, so you start touting it from hell to breakfast. And then some other fellow comes over and does the same, and so on and so on.

“Yes; it’s all a matter of boosting. Day in and day out you hear about Westminster Abbey. Every English book mentions it; it’s in the newspapers almost as much as Jack Johnson or Caruso. Well, one day you pack your grip, put on your hat and come over to have a look — and what do you find? A one-horse church full of statues! And every statue crying for sapolio! You expect to see something magnificent, something enormous, something to knock your eye out and send you down for the count. What you do see is a second-rate graveyard under roof. And when you examine into it, you find that two-thirds of the graves haven’t even got a dead man in them. Whenever a prominent Englishman dies, they put up a statue to him in Westminster Abbey — no matter where he happens to be buried. I call that clever advertising. That’s the way to get the crowd.”

“Yes, these foreigners know the game. They have made millions out of it in Paris. Every time you go to see a musical comedy at home, the second act is laid in Paris, and you see a whole stageful of girls doing the bunny hug, and a lot of old sports having the time of their lives. All your life you hear that Paris is something rich and racy, something that makes New York look like Roanoke, Virginia. Well, you fall for the balyhoo and come over to have your fling — and then you find that Paris is largely bunk. I spent a whole week in Paris, trying to find something really awful. I hired one of those Jew guides at five dollars a day and told him to go the limit. I said to him: ‘Don’t mind me. I am twenty-one years old. Let me have the genuine goods.’ But the worst he could show me wasn’t half as bad as what I have seen in Chicago. Every night I would say to that Jew: ‘Come on, now, Mr. Cohen; let’s get away from these tinhorn shows. Lead me to the real stuff.’ Well, I believe the fellow did his darndest, but he always fell down. I almost felt sorry for him. In the end, when I paid him off, I said to him: ‘Save up your money, my boy, and come over to the States. Let me know when you land. I’ll show you the sights for nothing. You need a little relaxation. This Baracca Class atmosphere is killing you.’

“And yet Paris is famous all over the world. No American ever came to Europe without dropping off there to have a look. I once saw the Bal Tabarin crowded with Sunday school superintendents returning from Jerusalem. And when the sucker gets home he goes around winking and hinting, and so the fake grows. I often think the government ought to take a hand. If the beer is inspected and guaranteed in Germany, why shouldn’t the shows be inspected and guaranteed in Paris? “

“I guess the trouble is that the Frenchmen themselves never go to their own shows. They don’t know what is going on. They see thousands of Americans starting out every night from the Place de L’Opera and craning back in the morning all boozed up, and so they assume that everything is up to the mark. You’ll find the same thing in Washington. No Washingtonian has ever been up to the top of the Washington Monument. Once the elevator in the monument was out of commission for two weeks, and yet Washington knew nothing about it. When the news got into the local papers at last, it came from Macon, Georgia. Some honeymooner from down there had written home about it, roasting the government.”

“Well, me for the good old U. S. A. These Alps are all right, I guess — but I can’t say I like the coffee.”

“And it takes too long to get a letter from Jersey City.”

“Yes, that reminds me. Just before I started up here this afternoon my wife gt the Ladies’ Home Journal of month before last. It had been following us around for six weeks, from London to Paris, to Berlin, to Munich, to Vienna, to a dozen other places. Now she’s fixed for the night. She won’t let up until she’s read every word — the advertisements first. And she’ll spend all day tomorrow sending off for things — new collar hooks, breakfast foods, complexion soaps and all that sort of junk. Are you married yourself?”

“No; not yet.”

“Well, then, you don’t know how it is. But I guess you play poker.”

“Oh, to be sure.”

“Well, let’s go down into the town and hunt up some quiet barroom and have a civilized evening. This scenery gives me the creeps.”

” I’m with you. But where are we going to get any chips?”

“Don’t worry. I carry a set with me. I made my wife put it in the bottom of the trunk, along with a bottle of real whiskey and a couple of porous plasters. A man can’t be too careful when he’s away from home.”

They start along the terrace toward the station of the funicular railway. The sun has now disappeared behind the great barrier of ice and the colors of the scene are fast softening. All the scarlets and vermilions are gone; a luminous pink bathes the whole scene in its fairy light. The night train for Venice, leaving the town, appears as a long string of blinking lights. A chill breeze comes from the Alpine vastness to westward. The deep silence of an Alpine night settles down. The two Americans continue their talk until they are out of hearing. The breeze interrupts and obfuscates their words, but now and then half a sentence comes clearly.

“Have you seen any American papers lately?”

“Nothing but the Paris Herald— if you call that a paper.”

“How are the Giants making out?”

“… badly as usual . . . rotten . . . slump . . . shake up . . .”

“. . . John McGraw . . . Connie Mack . . . glass arm . . .”

“… homesick . . . give five dollars for . . .”

“… whole continent without a single baseball cl . . .”

“. . . glad to get back . . . damn tired . . .”

“. . . damn . . .”

“. . . damn . . .”

 

(Source: Hathitrust.org, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=njp.32101076380417&view=1up&seq=717)

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