You might think that a lengthy sea voyage across the Atlantic in a lifeboat with only a jar of marmalade might be enough to convince anyone, and especially a small and highly accident prone bear, to never ever leave home again. If so, you haven’t encountered Paddington Bear, who has never been on a real holiday before—only day trips, and who is very excited about the mere idea of travelling to France.
The real question, of course, is not whether Paddington will survive France, but whether France—not to mention the Tour de France—will survive him in Paddington Abroad.
Like anything involving Paddington, nothing goes off without an issue—even just trying to get there. First, Paddington—after a request from Mr Brown—has to create an itinerary, which, after an exhausting search through the letter “e” in the dictionary, he spells “Eyetinnery.” (I am highly sympathetic towards Paddington’s dictionary issues.) Because Paddington is a practical minded bear, said eyetinnery is filled with quality things to do on the way to and in France, like “Large Breckfast,” (also, Paddington’s spelling, not my terrible typing) and “Snak” and “Elevenses.” If this eyetinnery does show, I fear, certain deficits in Paddington’s education, it does at least show that he has his priorities straight. Then, he picks up some books about France from his friend Mr Gruber, including such useful phrases as “My Grandmother has fallen out of the Stage-coach and needs attention.”
As you can see, with this, he’s ready to go—although not without having a few, shall we say, issues at his bank, which end up involving a lot of excited people who think that banks should not trick innocent bears. I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps—just perhaps—Michael Bond was projecting some of his own frustration about banks and their chosen terminology here. Although perhaps I am projecting a bit myself.
And of course he and the Browns can’t get through the airport and customs without a few snags, about which, more in a bit.
It’s perhaps fortunate that after this, their holiday in France is mostly a leisurely one. Thanks in part to everyone’s inability to speak French and read maps, they find themselves completely lost, and well off their planned eyetinnery. The fishing village they reach, however, has several advantages, including escargot (insert the usual jokes here), a travelling carnival (complete with special rules and some discounts for bears, along with a psychic in a scene that suggests that Michael Bond’s opinions on psychics were about equivalent to his opinions on banks), an English Admiral willing to let a bear come and fish on his boat (bad move, Admiral, but then again, you’ve only just met Paddington), plenty of peace and quiet, quite necessary for everyone who lives with a bear, and, well, the Tour de France.
The Tour de France, if less hilarious than the other chapters, is one of my favorite bits since it has a scene where, for once, Paddington is able to fix something and—almost—succeed. I admit that I am just a touch biased here since the object in question is a tricycle. But even apart from my tricycle love, given how often Paddington’s attempts to fix things spectacularly wrong, seeing his fixed tricycle fly through the Tour de France is pure joy. Sure, part of the reason for the speed is that Paddington has used just a trifle too much oil, and has not—exactly—attached the brakes as strongly as they could be attached, almost leading to major tragedy, but when a little white bear emerges and waves you almost have to cheer. Assuming you weren’t cheering already.
Last time, I noted that for the most part, the Paddington books are not novels, but rather collections of short stories generally tied together only by the main accident prone character. Naturally, this second book, which I swear I did choose at random, is the exception that proves the rule. Granted, Paddington Abroad isn’t quite a novel—yet. There’s no real overarching plot, and all of the characters, including Paddington, remain more or less the same, although Paddington—perhaps—becomes a touch more British against a French environment. Which is interesting given that this is the same book that makes a rather large point of reminding us that he is still legally a citizen of Peru and not exactly in the UK all that legally.
But if Paddington Abroad is not quite a novel, it does, in a way, tell a single story, if a meandering one cut into seven parts, that of taking a young refugee—that is, a bear—on his first ever vacation. In this, it is similar to the first Paddington book, which showed the bear finding a family and adjusting to England. Here, with a family all his own, he can now adjust to a new country—while knowing that he has a comfortable home and a friend to return to. And adjusts he does, while remaining proudly British, right down to waving a little Union Jack flag. As it happens, this flag becomes a minor plot point later on—it lets the horrified French spectators watching the chaos of Paddington’s entry into the Tour de France to know they have to yell in English, not French.
Which brings me back to that airport scene.
This proceeds more or less the same way that all Paddington stories proceed: Paddington and the Browns arrive at the airport, misunderstandings arise regarding Paddington and his doings—in this case, his passport—chaos ensues, and Paddington, being Paddington, comes out on top. But there’s a bit more to it in this case, namely that for once, it’s not Paddington getting into trouble—but his adopted family, the Browns.
The Browns, after all, have become so comfortable with having Paddington around that they have—for a moment—quite forgotten that he is, technically, a refugee—and therefore might not have a passport. The next few moments, after Paddington has been dragged away by some customs officials (they are also not amused by Paddington’s earlier attempts to take notes about the planes, and his tendency to smuggle marmalade sandwiches in his hat, however excellent the marmalade), are extremely tense—made no easier by the fact that it is the adult Browns and Mrs. Bird, who brought up the issue that Paddington is technically a refugee whose name technically isn’t “Paddington,” leading to this:
“We called him that when we found him on Paddington Station,” began Mrs Brown. “He’s a bear and he comes from Darkest Peru and…” Her voice trailed away as she caught sight of the expression on the immigration man’s face.
“A bear without a passport,” clucked the man. “And travelling under a false name. This is a serious matter.”
It’s a scene that still rings true today. But it is also deeply tied to scenes in postwar Britain.
As Farah Mendelsohn and commentator A1ay noted after my last post, Paddington’s first appearance is a direct call back to the still strongly living memories of refugee children, complete with tags, standing on London train stations in 1940 and later. Several other British fantasy stories—think Narnia—begin the same way, offering both the danger and security of fantasy and fairy for these children hoping for a temporary home.
Unlike those children, Paddington has, of course, found his home—he even calls himself Paddington Brown. But he is not in a fantasy or fairy tale, but rather in a very real London, with very real officials who can imprison him or send him back to Peru. The airport official doesn’t just remind us that this is a serious matter, but something that could end at any time, a note of uncertainty in a book otherwise focused on permanence and safety. It’s also a reminder that for all of his love of English elevenses, cocoa, tea, marmalade, the Browns, and that Union Jack flag, Paddington’s an immigrant. (As is his good friend Mr Gruber, although that plot point isn’t made in this book.)
Fortunately, as it turns out, Paddington does have a passport, hidden in his very secret compartment in his suitcase. It’s not clear if the passport is from the government of Peru or from bear officials in Peru, and readers hoping to find out Paddington’s real name would have to wait a few more books. But it is a passport, if not exactly a visa, and Paddington, at least for now, is mostly safe. Notably, this chapter does not end with Paddington getting an additional reward or praise: the reward here is escaping jail.
These days, Paddington might well be forced to return to Peru to get a proper visa and/or apply for permanent residence in the UK after telling his stowaway story—especially given that a credible case could be made that Paddington is a rather destructive force in London. A well-intentioned destructive force, but still, a destructive force. And although Paddington does keep himself busy and has his own bank account, I can’t quite make the case that Paddington has been a net beneficiary to the British economy—although I expect that marmalade producers and importers would argue for keeping the bear around. We may just see this come up in future books.
For now, I’m just happy that Paddington has a home with the Browns. And has learned how to repair—well, kinda—tricycles.
Mari Ness lives in central Florida, where she uses an electric tricycle, thus her love for Paddington here.