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Salomon de Rothschild Tours America (1861)

Carnivals and Railroads

N.Y., February 6, 1860

While high society is amusing itself, low society isn't losing time either. Yesterday there was a celebration at a wine merchant's. Several young men, wanting to celebrate this solemn occasion in their own way, went and got a cannon, which they loaded and fired twice, amid great applause from their comrades. The police watched them do this without budging, but since it was three o'clock in the morning, all the good citizens of the neighborhood, who had been awakened with a start, came down scantily clothes, thinking that some unknown enemy was taking over the city. This is one of numerous American jokes.

Lent continues to case a veil of sadness over New York. Celebrations have completely ceased, and there are only several occasional dinners given. The ladies go to the theatre, the gentlemen to the boxing matches and fights with gloves. I saw one of these exhibitions, and what interested me most was the audience made up of representatives of all the dangerous classes of New York. This type of amusement is of much greater interest to Americans than the most important political debates.

New York, March 18, '60.

Yesterday we had a celebration in honor of Saint Patrick, the saint of the Irish, who really had their fill of it. The city was entirely theirs. From morning to night huge parades furrowed the main thoroughfares and stopped traffic. Never have I seen such a grotesque throng. The car conductors, thinking that they alone had the right to obstruct traffic, became angry. There were fights. There were broken heads. Horses were killed. In the evening the celebration was ended by setting fire to a house, which, of course, was insured.

The theatres, which the people of New York love passionately, aren't worth very much. Seldom have I seen such depraved taste. The weakest plays or stage farces worthy only of the St. Cloud fair are the ones that are applauded. This bad taste exists everywhere in the arts and in letters. You must see the creations of American painters! There is a French theatre, which went bankrupt three times this year. I have not as yet gotten up the courage to go there...

New York, March 30, '60.

...I took a rather short but interesting trip to Washington, going through Philadelphia and Baltimore. I can't say I admire the way Americans travel. Their railroads are in a deplorable state and don't seem to care what's going to happen. To go to Washington, you've got to change six times, take the steamboat (known as the ferry) three times, and herd an infinite number of times into a great cosmopolitan omnibus.

But here is the great joy in American railroads: there is only one class, in which everyone travels without distinction. You should see then what fine traveling companions you get. Go ahead, go among those you see, though they spit obnoxiously and though they indulge in all sorts of similarly offensive behavior! Yet, there are some who keep following you regardless of what you do, and finding themselves at ease in your company, get others and others to join them, ad infinitum. This happened to me, to the great horror of my faithful Pierre, who said to me in a frightened manner: "I've just found five bugs in your trunk." "Kill them," I answered him, with the stoicism of a Cato.

As far as the comfort of the cars is concerned, one shouldn't talk about that either. They are first-class cars, adapted for the use of sixty persons. When the people enter, they purchase the right of doing anything they please, except maybe the right to lean comfortably. For when you finally do fall asleep on your arm, you are always awakened with a start, roughly shaken by the powerful hand of the conductor, who asks you for one of your many tickets. Or you are brought back to reality by the loud voice of the boy who offers you newspapers and the latest publications.

Fortunately, we arrived in Washington only a few hours late. When the train was in Pennsylvania, the engine decided to imitate the local shoemakers: it boldly went on strike in the middle of a field and refused to budge, despite all the encouragement it received. Its location was quite unpleasant, since the railroad had only one track. Luckily, the approaching train had the courtesy to stop, which permitted ours to draw away, thanks to a relief engine.

Our arrival in Washington was highly amusing. As in all the cities of the Union, a legion of hackney drivers, worse than the cartaneros of Valencia, argue among themselves for the [privilege of conveying] the unfortunate travelers, whom they assume to be sufficiently rich to allow themselves to be transported in their berlins. they begin by fighting among themselves, but then they maul the traveler under the pretext of leading him to their vehicles. You're quite fortunate if you enter one of them without a scratch on your body or a rent in your clothes.