Photo by Léonard Cotte on Unsplash

Winter in Paris, 1920

Edna St. Vincent Millay

PARIS, 1920 

Jan. 29, 1920 

Twenty-five days without a decent cup of coffee,—twenty-five days, three hours & forty-six minutes, to be exact,—an honest calculation, too, allowing for the difference in Paris time. I am becoming [irritable] to children. Ten days more & I shan’t even like dogs. —Oh, Napoleon! —Poor Boy! —I know, I know. You couldn’t conquer the world on café au lait! Naturally! And there forces itself upon me the unwelcome reflection that maybe neither can I. 

My “friends & other enemies,” as someone who lives in my memory only for that pleasure once put it, advised me on the eve of my departure, & not without a certain gouty satisfaction, that I would get no cream in France. I smiled at them kindly. They would have their little jest. 

But, do you know, it’s true. It’s as true as the prohibition of spirituous liquors in America,—truer. You simply can’t get it. There isn’t any. The milk doesn’t “jell.” They use a different kind of cow. If you order cream they bring you either an emerald-green liqueur or a platter of artist’s-paste with sugar on it. You can’t even get cold-cream. The nearest they come to it is mutton-tallow, which, I am told, is very healing. All right; fine, say I. Long may it heal. But if you have the kind of complexion which requires not to be healed, but to be [fostered], you’d rather have cold-cream. 

(The hysterical title of the preceding dignified paragraph is “The Cream of the Jest.”) 

April 30


The palace was too big; there was no doubt about that. It took me an hour & a half to walk through it, one floor of it. And if you were a queen it would take you longer, because everybody would be looking at you, & you would not be wearing low-heeled Oxfords & a short tweed skirt. 

—I became very tired after a while of the big rooms, one just like an- other except for a different battle or a different death among the paintings on the ceilings & walls, and when the guard was out of sight I skidded the polished floors like a child [on] the first frozen puddle. But it was far too big, & the guide was too much with us. 

We resented the presence of the guide in the first place because he made us feel like tourists, which, obviously, we were not, I having been in Paris half a year & my friend half his life. We felt it nobler, considering our position, to remain in ignorance, than to be instructed by a guide. The villain had us by the nose, however, & fed us forcibly. Of what he told us, in a manner sinister but possessive,—as if he were at least a bastard offspring of these kings—I heard every other sentence twice, once in French, and once in English—& the following sentence not at all. For my friend, with the pig-headed enthusiasm of the person who knows something a little better than you do, insisted upon translating it all to me in a kind paternal voice, thus confusing my hearing, filling me with shame in the presence of the other tourists in the room, & altogether nearly ruining my day. So that if in the course of these remarks I set down boldly what any scholar, with half an eye-glass, will know to be fake, it is not because I do not understand, to say nothing of speaking fluently, dozens of foreign languages,—it is because I have a surly & stubborn insistence that they be spoken at me one at a time. 

The palace was all very well for a palace. But palaces, after all, were made to be turned into museums & opened to the public from 12 to 6,—not to be lived in. 

There’s a fellow in Paris named Kervais,
Who is nothing, my dear, if not nervais, 
He makes, if you please, 
All the cream into cheese,—
A trick which I call rather scurvais. 

From Rapture and Melancholy:The Diaries of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Published by Yale University Press in 2022. Reproduced with permission.

Pulitzer Prize winner Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892–1950) was a poet and playwright. Millay biographer Daniel Mark Epstein is a poet and dramatist, the author of books about Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, and Bob Dylan, and a recipient of awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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