Aside from the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, there’s probably nothing as quintessentially ‘Parisian’ as the sidewalk cafe. A lot of other cities in the world have cafes, and very good ones: Rome, Vienna, Barcelona, Buenos Aires.
But as a unique cultural institution with its own permanent place in our imagination, it’s the cafe in Paris. There are a few elements that have contributed to this phenomenon, this vision, this icon, this oasis: something intangible and alluring, intellectual and intimate, exclusive and democratic.
Without bothering to do a Google search, I’m going to throw some ideas about this onto the blog page, using just what I’ve heard, read about in the past, and experienced these last three years as a resident. I’ll try to communicate, as impossible as the task may be, what makes a Parisian cafe the inimitable thing it is.
First, a little history. Cafes in Paris started, of course, as eating and drinking establishments where anybody could come in, warm up with a coffee (or something stronger), eat reasonably priced food, and not be alone. This is the first unique aspect about the cafe: it serves coffee and croissants in the morning, food all day, and it serves alcohol as well. (I would say it serves booze in the afternoon and evening, but I see plenty of Parisians starting to tip the light fantastic well before the clock strikes noon.)
So it’s not really Starbucks, and it’s not your typical American bar. Actually, it’s neither, and it’s both. You can start your day at the cafe, get caffeinated, go do your work, and return to the cafe that night, and have a beer, cognac, wine, or whiskey to celebrate the day’s achievements. You can also eat, at the counter or at a table, and, after a few visits, nod to some of the other regulars who are doing the same thing.
French history, culture, architecture, and economics being what they are, the cafe has, through the centuries, filled other roles outside those of local watering hole and reliable source of hot meals. One particularly dicey period in French history found the local citizens banned from assembling in groups of 10 or more, if I remember correctly. (Accuracy rates for this kind of recollection hover around 50%.) So the politically involved hell raisers in Paris circumvented the law by gathering in cafes, in any number they liked. Of course they ate and drank, and of course they hashed over revolutionary plots. And there was nothing the authorities could do about it. So the cafe earned its ‘patriotic street cred’ by being the place rebels hung out at.
When economic conditions were tough (and there have been plenty of those periods in Paris’ long history), many of the city’s citizens found themselves living hand to mouth. Some had no fixed address for periods of time. The cafe’s address became their ‘home address’. Regulars received mail at the cafe, and later, when telephones were introduced, they would give the cafe phone number as their personal phone number. They knew that, if the they weren’t at the cafe when someone called and asked for them, the owner or bartender would take a message, and give it to them in due course.
Even today, I sit at my local cafe and watch the shop girls enter, pick up a coffee–and the keys to the boutique two doors down–from whoever’s behind the bar. The owner of the boutique, who closed up last night, leaves them at the cafe before making her way home. The same thing happens with family members who need to leave apartment keys for their kids, packages for pick up, or notes for the repairman. The cafe owners would never dream of accepting money for this kindness. It’s part of owning a cafe. It’s part of the culture.
Other benefits were and are extended to trusted regulars. If you needed credit, a tab could be run for you, which you would be honor bound to pay in the fullness of time. How much and when you paid on your tab, or paid off your tab, was a matter of negotiation, good faith, and common sense. The owner wants his money, and you don’t want to get 86’d from your cafe for not paying. Prison, torture, or hell itself are preferable options to most Parisians when it comes to not being able to frequent their cafe. So most balances are settled with little fanfare in a reasonable amount of time.
One exception occurred recently at a cafe around the corner. The owner had to buttonhole the mother of an adult patron. His tab had topped three thousand euros, and he wasn’t coming around to make a good faith payment, or even discuss the situation. The family’s reputation in the neighborhood hung in the balance (literally), and she reluctantly paid. I can only imagine the fury her son caught the next time he saw his mother.
Another reality of this city–and contributor to cafe life–is that the vast majority of the apartments are small when compared to living quarters in the US and elsewhere. Population density is also higher. So, Smaller spaces, closer together. This is the result of historical factors as much as economic ones: the buildings are centuries old. In my neighborhood, a former mansion or hotel particulieur, has often been subdivided over the years into smaller apartments. What was once one room in a grand residence is now an entire apartment. A building for one family is now a building for 10 families. Sunlight can be limited. A terrace is a luxury. Forget having a garden. It can get claustrophobic, even in the nicest of places.
Parisians accept this and adjust. They spend a lot of time in the cafe, using it as their living room, social club, office, or conference room, depending on what they need and how they feel. They can be left alone with a newspaper, have an intimate conversation with a friend, or ‘friend’, or meet new people over drinks in a gregarious group. Mutual respect is the key.
I’ve had patrons I’ve spoken with fifty times before not look up from their Le Monde when they’re not in the mood. I took it personally at first, but then learned not to when they saw me the next time, bought me a beer, and talked for an hour. The clientele almost always use the cafe as their ‘reseau’ or network of friends and colleagues. If you need work, an apartment, or a favor, you go there first. The cafe is, I suspect, the original social network, and much more interesting than Facebook. But you must know a few, tiny things…
Which brings me to the rules. They are unwritten but they are of the upmost importance, for they are the key to you being accepted and enjoying the full benefit of having your very own cafe.
The first rule is that you have to show up regularly. You can’t just pop in once in awhile. In order to happily honor this commitment, you have to find the right cafe for you. This is an adventure, not a science. I was lucky. I found two cafes that I very much enjoy within a half mile of our apartment. And another I drop into on long walks, located at the other end of town.
What makes you and a cafe click? The ambience, the staff, the clientele, the service, the menu items (to a certain extent) and a little magic. It’s a feeling. I patronized numerous cafes in our arrondissement before I settled on the cafes I now call home. Full disclosure: I frequent another, located across the river, but only to work in, as the place is not as busy and it’s quieter. Plus, people don’t know me there, so I can actually get some work done.
Second rule: be polite. If you come in, especially as an American, talking loud and expecting special treatment, forget it. The less I demand from my cafe, the more they offer. The more aware and courteous I am of the other patrons, the more privileges I get when I have a guest. It’s not transactional. I don’t calculate that, if I do this, I’ll get that in return. That’s just the way it works. But it takes time. It takes sincerity. And it requires manners.
Third rule: the joking, laughing, and kiss-kissing on the cheeks that goes on between the waitresses and the regulars is not anything more than cafe life. It may be flirting, but it’s not sexual. It’s not anything other than people having a good time while they’re serving or being served. Don’t read anything more into than that. I’ve watched American visitors make this mistake with Parisian staff. There’s alcohol involved. She’s got a cute French accent (duh). She’s engaging. It is understandable to a certain extent, but now that you’ve read this, it’s not. Now you know. It’s fun. It’s the cafe. And that’s all it is. Don’t dive into the shallow end.
Fourth rule: have some conversational skills. Even as an English speaker, you’ll be engaged by multilingual patrons and be expected to carry on an interesting conversation about a wide variety of topics, from your favorite fish dish to current events to ancient philosophy. It’s not pretentious behavior on the part of Parisians. Again, it’s part of cafe life. So be ready to listen, ask questions, and offer some (somewhat) informed comments.
Remember: appearances can be deceiving. The scruffy guy in the T-shirt, jeans, and sandals might be a nuclear physicist. (Actually, he is a nuclear physicist, a big cheese in France’s nuclear energy program, and he’s our landlord. Waha.) Never assume anything about anybody, and know that part of the cafe culture is that, once you walk through the door and into the cafe, you’re a patron, just like everybody else. So the aristocrats chat with the automobile mechanics, the fashionistas with the pharmacists, and everybody embraces the democratic ideals of France in the Paris cafe.
Another part of the cafe’s charm is its historical patience and generosity to artists and writers. You can sit, think, write, draw, revise, smoke, contemplate, and just plain space out at a cafe table or counter for hours, all for the price of a single beverage. Wilde, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Balzac, Hugo, Picasso, Matisse…they all spent time in Parisian cafes, sometimes broke, sometimes flush, always welcome.
A final aspect I’ll make mention of is one that you will probably never encounter unless you live in Paris and are lucky. It is the spontaneity. I’ve heard stories about, but have never been a part of, evenings which spin joyously and riotously out of control.
One group at one table starts talking with another group at another table, some of the regulars get involved in the laughter and liveliness, and the owner likes both of the groups, and then decides to pull the shades at closing time and party with everybody until the sun comes up. This happens on a not infrequent basis here in our neighborhood. I am a little jealous that I haven’t been present when this fun bomb goes off. I’m also a little grateful: I can’t drink that much, and I can’t stay up that late without undue suffering the next day.
My experience lies firmly within official business hours, during which my local cafe(s) host their own respectable line up of the great and the good. Actors, writers, singers, journalists, and the occasional politico slump in corners, eat well, or have a laugh at the bar. They are scattered between sanitation workers, school teachers, business owners, and expats. The patrons know who the famous ones are and don’t much care. I don’t know and don’t care because whoever they are, they’re just famous, you know, in France.
They know who I am, too: the American writer who gets the cafe longe avec une petite l’eau chaude a cote. A tall coffee with a hot water on the side. And maybe a croissant.
That’s good enough for me.