Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Hire Billfinger

Would Bilfinger have stopped at this shop instead of the Louvre?
     Going anywhere with a guide has always been a tricky business.  If you doubt my word, take that of Dante, who had to follow the taskmaster Virgil through heaven, purgatory, and hell in The Divine Comedy.  Twain's guide in The Innocents Abroad, an "accomplished knave" named Billfinger, is no Greek poet, for sure.  Nor are his motives as honorable as Virgil's.  But he does lead his client on one hellish ride.
    Twain and friends hire him to take them around Paris because, as the commissionaire of the Grand Hotel du Louvre tells them, it was "next to impossible to find a good guide unemployed," what with the International Exposition--where they themselves stopped only briefly--"draw[ing] such multitudes of Englishmen and Americans to Paris."  So, just as at the start of any fairytale you know will soon head south, they have three choices.  They can hire the guy who looks like a pirate, the guy who can't speak English, or the guy in the silk hat and kid gloves.  Door number three, please.
     It turns out, of course, that this seeming gentleman is only after their money, which wouldn't even be so bad if he would just take them where they want to go.  Instead, he forces them to pay for his long, lingering meals and to stop at all the silk shops where he gets a percentage of the sales.   Although the card he presents them, with a deep, courtly bow, reads "A. Billfinger, Guide to Paris, France, Germany, Spain, &c., &c.,"  Twain's traveling party finds the name unacceptably un-Frenchy.  They think something along the lines of Henri de Montmorency, Armand de la Chartreuse, Alexis du Calaincourt, or Alphonse Henri Gustave de Hauteville, would sound better in their letters home.  But they can't agreed on which one, of course, so they settle on calling him Ferguson. 
     Stop right there! Can it be that, before we readers even get into the open barouche (metaphorically, of course) to tour Paris with Twain's party, we're off on a digression through a neighborhood of  names?  Mais, quoi d'autre?  These names are French and, well, other. Which is exactly the point. You can't tell me that the man who went from Samuel Clemens to Mark Twain doesn't take the symbolism of names seriously, and with a clever grin.
     So, first let's take A. Billfinger aka Ferguson.  Oh, those American tourists on the Quaker CityThey may have been too naive to recognize a proper noun that approaches allegory, but I bet the readers back home saw through Twain's ruse .  Or is it just me who reads "A. Billfinger" to mean someone who gets his sticky fingers on other people's dollar bills and won't let goMonsieur Greedy Guy?
     Then there's the litany of fancy French names, real or parodied. "Morency" belonged to a true-life family in the Paris area.  If you'd like to buy your own framed copy of the family crest, or maybe some emblazoned mugs or a T-shirt, you can order up all your aristocratic items at:
And Caulaincourt was no less than a French marquis, the first Duc de Vicense, who died a few years before Twain was born, though his name was Armand, not Alexis.  A general and a statesman, he fought with Napoleon and wrote a first-hand account of being by his side at the Russian debacle; there's even a lovely avenue and square named after him in Paris at the foot of Montmartre. But Armand de la Chartreuse and Alphonse Henri Gustave de Hauteville?  I don't think so. 
     But what of Billfinger/Ferguson himself?  He turns out to be a con man reminiscent of Twain's own Jim Smiley in The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras CountyFirst, he tells Twain's party he's going to get his own breakfast and come back, figuring they'll invite him to share theirs out of fear of having to wait for him.  Which they do. From then on, they have to feed and water him. 
     ...he was always hungry; he was always thirsty.  He came early; he stayed late; he could not pass a resaurant; he looked with lecherous eye upon every wineshop.  Suggestions to stop, excuses to eat and drink, were forever on his lips. We tried all we could to fill him so full that he would have no room to spare for a fortnight, but it was a failure.  He did not hold enough to smother the cravings of his superhuman appetite.   
     But the worst thing about Billfinger/Ferguson is that he won't stop taking them to silk shops where he gets a cut of the sales. Try as they might to remain polite and patient, one of Twain's companions bursts out, "Confound the idiot!  I don't want to see any silks today, and I won't look at them." The other pleads, "We need no silks now, Ferguson.  Our hearts yearn for the Louvre.  Let us journey on--let us journey on."
In the barouche with Billfinger/Ferguson
     But "Ferguson" has fooled them--and the Quaker City crew won't make it to the Louvre that dayIn his French accent, he tells them:
     It is only one moment--one leetle moment.  And ze time will be save--entirely save! Because zere is nothing to see now--it is too late. It want ten minute to four and ze Louvre close at four--only one leetle moment...
     Twain goes on to castigate Billfinger:
    The trecherous miscreant!  After four breakfasts and a gallon of champagne, to serve us such a scurvy trick.  We got no sight of the countless treasures of art in the Louvre galleries that day, and our only poor little satisfaction was in the reflection that Ferguson sold not a solitary silk dress pattern.
        Well, we've all fallen victim to tourist-soakers, right?  The smiling guys who sell us fake Venetian glass that paint flakes off before we get it home.  The street vendors who take us for $40 hoodies when we can get them for $20 in a non-tourist shop across town.  So it's hard not to feel sympathy for Twain and his buddies at the mercy of Billfinger.  We're with them--right?
     The problem for me is that he ties so much of his rant to Billfinger/Ferguson being French.  The accent isn't satire but  sarcasm. With its "leetle"s and its "ze"s and "zere"s, it's bad stereotyped mimicry.  The references to champagne and endless eating don't help either  But Twain hits a low-point when he admits:
     I am writing this chapter partly for the satisfaction of abusing that accomplished knave Bullfinger, and partly to show whosoever shall read this how Americans fare at the hands of the Paris guides and what sort of people Paris guides are.  It need not be supposed that we were a stupider or easier prey than our countrymen generally, for we were not.  The guides deceive and defraud every American who goes to Paris for the first time and sees it sights alone or in company with others as little experienced as himself.  I shall visit Paris again someday, and then let the guides beware!  I shall go in my war paint--I shall carry my tomahawk along!
     File in, American travellers, and saddle up for the culture wars!  The French are after our wallets and they'll stop at nothing to get their wine-stained hands on them!  Prepare to be as savage in your monetary self-defense as Native American "savages" were in their territorial one!  Let's all give a whoop and scalp the scalpers!
    What's strange to me is not Twain's anger or even his desire for revenge, but that he limits it to French guides.  After all, he gets swindled by all kinds of people on the Quaker City trip: the glove girl in Gibraltar, for example, or the fake "gifted linguist" guide in Genoa.  Yet it is the Frenchman who stands in for all of them.  I'd even say Billfinger may have been the model for Twain's con-artist characters, the Duke and Dauphin, in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
      So what's a French guide to do?  Get an official license, of course. Over the decades of ever-increasing tourism since Twain came to Paris, the city has become--can you believe it?-- sensitive about how those who live and work here treat tourists.  The French authorities are now quite strict about regulating and licensing tour guides; if you want to work as one you have to study hard, then take a rigorous examen to be accredited by an organization called the Federation Nationale de Guides Interpretes et ConferenciersMeanwhile, the Paris Chamber of Commerce has launched a website to help all those who serve tourists do so with politesse; it's called Do You Speak TouristeIronically, it too relies on national stereotypes. Evidently, you shouldn't treat a tourist from Japan the same way as someone from England.  Who knew? But who's the most demanding customer, according to the Paris COCThe French themselves, of course.
     Le guide est mort, vive le guide! 

1 comment:

  1. The Innocents is one of few books that can make me laugh out loud, even a century and a half after it appeared.