A Paris-to-Strasbourg Flight Shows Living Cubist Picture

Ernest Hemingway

Toronto Daily Star/September 9, 1922

Strasbourg, France.-We were sitting in the cheapest of all the cheap restaurants that cheapen that very cheap and noisy street, the Rue des Petits Champs in Paris.

We were Mrs. [Hadley] Hemingway, William E. Nash, Mr. Nash’s little brother, and myself. Mr. Nash announced, somewhere between the lobster and the fried sole, that he was going to Munich the next day and was planning to fly from Paris to Strasbourg. Mrs. Hemingway pondered this until the appearance of the rognons sautes aux champignons, when she asked, “Why don’t we ever fly anywhere? Why is everybody else always flying and we always staying home?”

This being one of those questions that cannot be answered by words, I went with Mr. Nash to the office of the Franco-Rumanian Aero Company and bought two tickets, half price for journalists, for 120 francs, good for one flight from Paris to Strasbourg. The trip is ten hours and a half by best express train, and takes two hours and a half by plane.

My natural gloom at the prospect of flying, having flown once, was deepened when I learned that we flew over the Vosges Mountains and would have to be at the office of the company, just off the Avenue de ]’Opera, at five o’clock in the morning. The name Rumanian in the title of the firm was not encouraging, but the clerk behind the counter assured me there were no Rumanian pilots.

At five o’clock the next morning we were at the office. We had to get up at four, pack and dress and wake up the proprietor of the only taxi in the neighborhood by pounding on his door in the dark, to make it. The proprietor augments bis income by doubling at nights as an accordion player in a bal musette and it took a stiff pounding to wake him.

While he changed a tire we waited in the street and joked with the boy who runs the charcuterie at the corner and who had gotten up to meet the milkman. The grocery boy made us a couple of sandwiches, told us he had been a pilot during the war, and asked me about the first race at Enghien. The taxi driver asked us into his house to have a drink of coffee, being careful to inquire if we preferred white wine, and with the coffee warming us and munching the pate sandwiches, we drove in state down the empty, gray, early-morning streets of Paris.

The Nashes were waiting at the office for us, having lugged two heavy suitcases a couple of miles on foot because they did not know any taxi drivers personally. The four of us rode out to Le Bourget, the ugliest ride in Paris, in a big limousine and had some more coffee in a shed there outside the flying field. A Frenchman in an oily jumper took our tickets, tore them in two and told us that we were going in two different planes. Out of the window of the shed we could see them standing, small, silver-­painted, taut and shining in the early-morning sun in front of the airdrome. We were the only passengers.

Our suitcase was stowed aboard under a seat beside the pilot’s place. We climbed up a couple of steps into a stuffy little cabin and the mechanic handed us some cotton for our ears and locked the door. The pilot climbed into his seat back of the enclosed cockpit where we sat, a mechanic pulled down on the propeller and the engine began to roar. I looked around at the pilot. He was a short little man, his cap backwards on his head, wearing an oil-stained sheepskin coat and big gloves. Then the plane began to move along the ground, bumping like a motorcycle, and then slowly rose into the air.

We headed almost straight east of Paris, rising in the air as though we were sitting inside a boat that was being lifted by some giant, and the ground began to flatten out beneath us. It looked out into brown squares, yellow squares, green squares and big flat blotches of green where there was a forest. I began to understand cubist painting.

Sometimes we came down quite low and could see bicyclists on the road looking like pennies rolling along a narrow white strip. At other times we would lift up and the whole landscape would contract. Always we were bounded by a smoky purple horizon that made all the earth look flat and uninteresting. And always there was the strong, plugged-out, roaring, the portholes to look out of, and back of us the open cockpit with the bridge of the pilot’s broad nose and his sheepskin coat visible with his dirty glove moving the joystick from side to side or up and down.

We went over great forests. that looked as soft as velvet, passed over Bar le Due and Nancy, gray red-roofed towns, over St. Mihiel and the front and in an open field I could see the old trenches zigzagging through a field pocked with shell holes. I shouted to Mrs. Hemingway to look out but she didn’t seem to hear me. Her chin was sunk forward into the collar of her new fur coat that she had wanted to christen with a plane trip. She was sound asleep. Five o’clock had been too much.

Beyond the old 1918 front we ran into a storm that made the pilot fly close down to the ground and we followed a canal that we could see below us through the rain. Then after a long stretch of flat, dull-looking country we crossed the foothills of the Vosges that seemed to swell up to meet us and moved over the forest-covered mountains that looked as though they rose up and fell away under the plane in the misty rain.

The plane headed high out of the storm into the bright sunlight and we saw the flat, tree-lined, muddy ribbon of the Rhine off on our right. We climbed higher, made a long, left turn and a fine long swoop down that brought our hearts up into our mouths like falling in an elevator and then just as we were above the ground zoomed up again, then settled in another swoop and our wheels touched, bumped, and then we were roaring along the smooth flying field up to the hangar Ii ke any motorcycle.

There was a limousine to meet us to take us in to Strasbourg and we went into the passenger shed to wait for the other plane. The man at the bar asked us if we were going to Warsaw. It was all very casual and very pleasant. An annoying smell of castor oil from the engine had been the only drawback. Because the plane was small and fast and because we were flying in the early morning, there had been no airsickness.

“When did you have your last accident?” I asked the man back of the refreshment bar.

“The middle of last July,” he said. “Three killed.”

But that very morning in the south of France a slow-moving pilgrim train had slipped back from the top of a steep grade and telescoped itself on another train climbing the grade, making matchwood of two coaches and killing over thirty people. There had been a big falling off in business on the Paris-Strasbourg line after the July accident. But the same number of people seem to ride on railway trains.

(Source: Dateline: Toronto. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985)

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