- Education and Science»
- History & Archaeology
A Day in the Cafe: History Revisted
I have never been the kind of person to eavesdrop, but on that chilly December day in Paris in 1924, I frankly could not help myself. I sat down at a small round wooden table at Café Aparté on the South end of the city. I had no obligations that day mostly due to the fact that I was a tag along on my father’s business ventures. We were from New York City and I begged my father to take me with him, so that I would not have to spend another Christmas alone at my boarding school in upstate. We were not very close, but he had the money and a soft enough spot for me to let me come. We were going to be there for nearly three weeks and my French social calendar was completely open. However, we were in the wake of the Great War and so I tried to hid my American accent as much as possible, just in case.
I apologize that I got off track I just wanted to give you a little background as to why I was there that morning, but back to the story! I was sitting at Café Aparté in my best European style clothes just simply looking for something to do. At about ten o’clock in the morning, a man in a black overcoat and a dark blue hat came up to a table a couple rows over from where I was sitting. He pulled out one of the two chairs and moments later a woman in a dark green dress and brown braided hair that had flecks of gray in it walked up and sat down in the presented seat. The man started to speak and I could clearly hear his thick German accent, because it was only the three of us in the café I could hear him loud and clear. In most parts of Europe during this time period, the economy was in a slump and not many people had the finances for café dining, but Paris was a different story. Paris had somehow avoided this catastrophe and resembled the high times we were having back in the states as well. That is why it was so odd that it remained just the three of us throughout the morning at this café. As I said, it remained the three of us there and to cut down on the possibility of this couple figuring out that I was not only curious about them but that I had every intention of listening in on their conversation; I shoved my nose into a book that I had brought with me and pretended to read as I sipped my freshly steeped tea.
What struck me the most about this older couple was that the gentleman whom I later concluded was named, Frank had a thick accent from Germany and was sitting in a French café with his partner who I later discovered was named Oksana who had a rich Russian accent. My mind started to race wondering about their lives and personal stories, and how two separate cultures not only ended up together, but they were together in Paris no less! Luckily, they started talking about their childhoods and reminiscing on the early years of their relationship. One interesting piece of information I found out was that Frank was a professor at Lund University in Sweden and Oksana was finishing up her doctorate degree at Upsala University in hopes that either Upsala or Lund would start hiring women professionals soon. I had never heard of either of the schools but I suppose it was a neutral ground for them seeing that Sweden stayed relatively neutral during this time. They both seemed quite intelligent which I suppose they would have to be seeing that one was already a professor and one was well on their way to be. They were not stuffy though much like some of the professors I had come across back in the States. They had a good sense of humor and enjoyed good banter. However, one thing I sensed throughout their whole conversation was that Frank seemed more neutral on every topic and only would start debate for the joy of the conversation and seemed much more optimistic about the current events of the world. Oksana on the other hand seemed to be angry about everything! She brought up topics not just for good conversation but to argue her point; she seemed quite negative and did not view the world in a good light. I suppose that is what made them a good match; they evened each other out quite well. The most interesting part of their conversation I want to recount for you. After the reminiscing conversation died, they moved on to politics which started quite the debate.
Oksana seemed quite sour in her attitude when she jump started the conversation with the bold statement, “There is hardly any Russia left.” Her husband nodded his head and looked quite remorseful. I could not imagine the strain that the Great War had put on their marriage. She seemed to be quite the feisty lady though and it did not appear that anything was going to bring her too down. “It is just ridiculous,” she continued, “that we housed Europe’s largest army but it was made out of imbeciles!”
“Now I think that you are exaggerating a bit my dear,” Frank chimed in, “just because many of them were non-Russian nationalists, does not make them imbeciles! Russia should not have recruited men that were actually on opposing teams! That makes Russians the imbeciles if you ask me! Besides in my opinion even if Russian had been made up of the world’s most brilliant soldiers they still would not have won.”
Oksana’s face grew red as she gave Frank the gaze of death. Frank’s eyes became big as he realized what he had said. “How dare you”, she muttered, “If it was not for the kind hearted citizens in Russia, Frank, we would have attacked you stupid Germans when your offense preparations were low! I would rather be an imbecile than a cold-hearted German! Also, why do you think that we still would have been defeated?”
Frank looked at her like they were starting a war of their own. “My dear Oksana, although we began attack on Prussia with minimal warning; Russia still defeated us when your band of imbeciles crossed in Prussian territory so I am unsure what you are so bitter about in this situation! If either of us are going to be bitter it is going to be me!” Frank’s voice lowered as he uttered his next phrase, “and if I am going to be bitter it is going to be at those silly Frenchmen that sent out the warning that we were coming; so then you changed your attack from Austria-Hungary to us! Going back to my point of Russians being perpetual losers it was because of the terrible leadership and how unorganized it was; they could have had top notch soldiers but you cannot win without proper instruction.” He gave a smirk of victorious debate.
“I suppose you are right Frank I will let you have this one,” Oksana quietly said.
“Thank you my dear,” Frank grinned as he reached for more coffee. They both seemed to be quite at peace for that situation which gave me the notion that this type of thing happened often between them.
“Well do not think you are getting off that easy.” Oksana playfully retorted.
“Well then what would you like to discuss now?” Frank said with the raise of an eyebrow. “I am unsure what you could possibly say to make Russian militia look better than that of Germany.” Oksana looked at Frank inquisitively. “Please sir, educate me.”
Frank jumped at the opportunity to lay out his opinion, “Well for starters Russia scrambled together so quickly to form their Second Army that they faced so many logistical problems that we beat you; which proves my point of poor leadership on their end, do I need to say much more?”
Oksana gave a half smile as she came back with a quip of her own, “Is it not general knowledge that people will join the better team if they are given the opportunity?” Frank looked quite puzzled, “Where are you going with this my dear?” Oksana gave her half smilie again, “Well who were the major countries in your precious ‘Central Powers’?” Frank began to answer but she cut him off as soon as he opened his mouth. “Was it not just Germany and Austria-Hungary? And who was on the side of the ‘Allies?’ Let me answer that for you. It was Russia, France, Britain, and Serbia. We also gained Italy, Portugal and Romania! If we go off of my theory we clearly had the better team.”
Frank seemed to be stewing with a great retort. “Italy’s alliance with you had nothing to do with the strength of your side in my opinion; it was not the Central Power’s fault that the Allie’s were better at bribing countries. That is something I can proudly say that we did not win. I will say this, that I know we will both agree on; at least we can both pick a side that we believe in unlike those stupid Americans. I try not to be too bitter though knowing that things come full circle. I am willing to bet you that within the next ten years America will face hard times.”
I sank down in my chair as I pulled my book closer to me trying to fly under the radar. I started to become concerned when I thought about the idea of America coming down from its throne. What would life on the bottom be like? My brain started to go in circles just thinking about it so I had to make myself calm down and focus back in on their conversation. Oksana then replied to Frank’s comment about the Americans, “Well even if they began as neutral they still joined the side of the Allies knowing very well that the Central Powers had no business winning that war.”
Frank looked with weary eyes, “My dear I am dreadfully tired of talking about this subject. Let us just agree to disagree. You will always see situations in a darker light than I.”
Oksana grew red and Frank knew that somehow he had managed to rattle her cage again without even trying. “This has nothing to do with our rivaling countries now does it Frank?” Frank looked confused, “Whatever do you mean? I am simply trying to put a point to rest!”
Oksana grew even more irritated, “You only want to quit speaking of it because you know that I was starting to win the argument! I am tired of being treated this way by men!” Frank looked down like he knew exactly what Oksana would recite next and sure enough he did. “The wonderful Grete Meisel-Hess had it all right about you men!” Frank started to mouth along as she recited her next line, “At every opportunity they insist on their superiority over women, cling to this fearful idea- it is the last resort of the poor wretch at the bottom of pile-for, if women were not more stupid than he himself, who would be?”
Frank looked worn down. “Oksana please do not get all self-righteous on me; I was simply ending a silly debate so that I could enjoy my coffee and I suggest that you do the same.”
“I just feel like the women in London back in 1908 sometimes, just so desperately trying to make a name for myself and to set myself a part and to be recognized for my own talent and educational merit!” Oksana sighed.
“I know you do my dear and things are definitely better than they used to be; this world is constantly improving upon itself. I know more than anyone how talented you are and how much you have to offer and I can almost promise you that government will soon recognize that! In fact, I dare to say that Upsala will start hiring female professors before you know it and you have already began to prepare for that by acquiring your doctorate which is extremely admirable,” Frank gushed as he tried to comfort his wife.
“Why must you always be so positive Frank? In this world, good does not always prevail. For example, how we were discussing the Great War earlier and the fate that Russia has faced. Not everyone can we win all the time Frank and it is always going to turn out sour for someone. No matter how hard someone might fight someone always has to be the loser. I am afraid that my pioneering for women’s rights will be the side that just is not meant to win.” Oksana looked around and took in the scenes of Paris. “Take for example the high life that is being lived here right now my dear Frank; someone had to lose so that the Parisians could gain all of this. It kind of puts a dark light on everything if you view it that way, but I would rather be aware of the truth than live in the fairy land that you choose to live in.”
Frank looked down and thought to himself knowing that she was absolutely right, “All things are not new or worse they just simply take on other forms. Countries will rise and they will fall much like we have seen and just because it is France and America’s time to shine right now does not mean that they too will not face a fall sometime in the future. Every person and every country must pay their dues. We all face trials with the same lessons we just learn them in different methods and masks. In all of this, I am saying that you might feel that women’s suffrage will never see its day but just remember that we said the same thing about every social change that has come about to date. It may not evolve in the way or speed that you desire but it will happen my dear. We will never live in a perfect world, but I can tell you that it shall become less miserable. I do not choose to live in a fairy land, but in a land that sees the big picture and how it all comes full circle.”
Oksana looked decently satisfied with his response. “My dear Frank you have a good point; let us go for a walk around this tainted town. I will view the luxuries as someone’s defeat while I will let you view it as a temporary honor that they have received.”
“Sounds good to me, maybe we will even find some good music to enjoy this fine morning,” Frank said with a new smile on his face.
They got up and strolled out of the Café and seemed for satisfied than when they arrived. I came to respect the way that they treated each other and how well their opposing personalities came to complement each other. I learned a lot from their conversation, but I could not help but fear what Frank had said about America eventually falling. It was nothing that I could dwell on I just had to put stock in the hope of even if we did fall it would come full circle and would be good again. I left the Café feeling quite pleased for what was to come and hopeful that Oksana and Frank would find all that they were looking for!
 Richard C. Hall, Consumed By War, European Conflict in the 20th Century (Kentucky: The University of Kentucky, 2009), 34.
 Robin W. Winks and R.J.Q. Adams,Europe: Crisis and Conflict, 1890-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 81.
 Robin W. Winks and R.J.Q. Adams,Europe: Crisis and Conflict, 1890-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 82.
 Phillip Blom, Consumed By War, The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914 (New York: Basic Books, 2009), 219.