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The Russian Prince

(Eugenio Montale — Il Principe Russo)

‘To Le Pied de Porc,’ Carlo had said to the cab driver; and, when asked for a more precise address, he had added, in terrible French, ‘It’s a side turning off the Rue de l’Odéon; when we get there I’ll show you the place.’

The driver had set off, grumbling. A white-haired man, moustachioed, with a cap on his head. But the eyes…

‘Have you seen those eyes?’ said Adelina. ‘They’re an ocean, a marvel. He must be a Russian nobleman, perhaps a prince.’

‘A Russian? Why? How do you know?’

‘There are fifteen hundred of them amongst the Paris taxi drivers, almost all originally from the aristocracy. Please do give him a good tip. What’s more, we should speak to him a little.’ (And turning to the driver, who was putting his foot down, ‘It’s warm this evening, monsieur, don’t you think?’)

Bien sûr, madame,’ grunted the supposed prince, narrowly swerving around an uncertain cyclist.

‘It doesn’t look as if you’re going to get much out of him,’ said Carlo. ‘Let him drive in peace.’

‘He’s a man of refinement; I noticed it straight away. I shall shake his hand. Do you think a fifty-franc tip will be enough? But I’m almost ashamed; I wouldn’t want to humiliate him.’

Rue de l’Odéon came into view, but Carlo, looking out of the window, saw nothing that looked like Il Piè di Porco, of which they had given him a general description. The driver, slowing down, turned round with a questioning air.

‘A bit further on… a bit further up… perhaps on the right… no, turn left,’ Carlo said, but the sign with the pig’s snout was nowhere to be seen. The cabbie was grumbling ever more darkly.

‘What an impression you’re making,’ said Adelina. ‘You really are trying his patience. Luckily for us, he’s a proper gentleman.’

‘He’s a total bumpkin,’ said Carlo. ‘All things considered, I’m going to give him what it says on the meter.’

The vehicle zig-zagged down several streets, did a u-turn, tried all possible side and parallel roads, but without success. At one point, the driver got out and chatted to a group of workmen standing at a corner. Then he got in again and set off with the air of a man thinking, ‘I’ve found it!’

He covered another half kilometre, turned into a gloomy, deserted street, and came to a stop in front of a sign in semi-darkness which read Au Pied de Cochon.

Voilà le porc,’ he said, turning round.

‘But this isn’t it,’ said Carlo, in a fit of temper. ‘They described it to me quite differently: a piazzetta with trees, a square, a window with ostriches, pheasants and partridges. And besides, it’s porc, not cochon.’ And to the driver, ‘Je cherche le porc, pas du tout le cochon.

Eh bien, monsieur,’ said the driver, opening the door, ‘c’est bien la même chose; c’est toujours de la cochonnerie.

Carlo wanted to retort but Adelina took him by the arm. They got out and gave the old man three hundred and twenty francs. Adelina added an extra fifty francs and the driver departed, without returning their goodbyes.

‘What a clodpoll,’ said Carlo, pocketing the change. ‘He’s dropped us anywhere he wanted to.’

‘That quip was delightful: “c’est toujours de la cochonnerie”. What Italian or French cabbie could think of an answer like that? He’s a Russian nobleman, I’m sure of it. What did you expect? That he would know by heart all the cheap eating places in Paris? You should have given him an exact address.’

‘You must be joking! He’s a horse dealer from the Camargue, a complete and utter peasant.’

‘And you’re an idiot.’

‘And you’re a little imbecile.’

‘And I’m not eating now.’

‘Me neither.’

Without realising it, they had sat down at a little table. The restaurant was sad, empty, and probably expensive. A waiter handed them the menu, suggesting, ‘Hors d’oeuvre? Escargots?

Weeping, she said yes, she would have the snails.