Sunday, February 04, 2007

Paris Café Life (Part One)

I knew that café life in Paris would charm me beyond the history and widely published photographs and stories that had wooed me for many years prior to my actual visit. When I look back at my trip now, I realize that so much of my fondness for the city and the week I spent there, stems from these café experiences of mine. Not only did I enjoy the amazing quality of French coffee (and I cannot over-emphasize just how superior French coffee really is!) or the ever-rewarding experience of people-watching, but my time in Paris cafés really opened me up to a way of life so different from my own.

The Paris Experience vs. The American Experience
Enjoyment vs. Efficiency
Here in America, I run into Starbucks, grab my vanilla latte in a paper cup and run right back out, get in my car and drive off. As much as I love the idea of sitting in a coffee shop and enjoying my coffee, I seldom take the time to do that these days. I so often feel consumed with that American need for efficiency. I grab my coffee, go home, and drink it while going through mail, balancing my checking account, or some online pursuit. Or I often grab a coffee if I have a long drive to make and drink it while navigating through traffic on the freeway. Neither of which is very relaxing. In Paris, coffee is enjoyed. People sit in and outside of cafés with a book or newspaper, talking with friends, or just watching people without some unnecessarily pressing urgency to be multi-tasking.

An Afternoon Affair vs. A Morning Necessity
My second morning in Paris, I woke up early and headed out, in search of my morning coffee. It was probably 9am on a Sunday and I could not find an open café near my hotel. It seems that many cafés in Paris open later in the morning. I think that you can find a Starbucks here in the States open at 530am for anyone awake at that God-awful hour! Coffee doesn't seem to be a "jump start" to one's day in Paris. I found so many people filling cafés in the late afternoon and enjoying coffee at that time. I think I only saw one person walking down the street with a cup of coffee (yes, it was Starbucks too!) the entire week I was there.

An Extension of Daily Life
Additionally, American coffee houses in general are not set up in the same manner as Parisian cafés. Outdoor chairs in American cafés/coffee houses face inward, which is wonderful for intimate and group conversations, but you almost never see rows of people facing the street, taking in the world around them. There is a seeming barrier between people and society so often felt here in America. In Paris, most outdoor seating in cafés faces outward, to the sidewalk and street. Not only does this enhance one's people-watching experience, but it seems to reinforce a sense that café life truly is an extension of daily life, versus a quick caffeine fix or an alternative workspace. People seem to co-exist with the world around them in more harmony as a result. And I don't think I am over-idealizing here.

And the arrangement of tables and chairs doesn't necessarily mean that one's privacy is invaded. People really do respect each other's space in Paris. You can be sitting directly next to a stranger, both of you looking out onto the street, but never feel that person is looking over your shoulder. Doors and glass store fronts can often create a sense of separation. In Paris, doors to businesses are often left open and the offering of outside seating at cafés really does break down any impression of exclusivity. Most cafés don't really have much of a visual or "felt" barrier between the interior and the streets/sidewalk.

Beyond a Coffee Break
In Paris, cafés offer more than just coffee. Full menus are often the norm...lunch fare (i.e. quiche and salad), dinner plates (i.e. steak, chicken) and lighter foodstuff like crêpes. [Admittedly, I consumed a ridiculous amount of crêpes while in Paris!] Many cafés even have a quick grab kind of station (for dire want of a better way to identify such), in which you can walk up and get a crêpe, pre-made sandwich, and coke. However, I found that people in Paris not only sit down to enjoy their coffee, but the same is true with food. Although these "stations" exist, you don't see people walking around drinking or eating on the go.

People will sit on benches in parks, the green metal chairs at Jardin des Tuileries, or at fountains and other such outdoor places. One afternoon, I luckily stumbled upon La Sorbonne (The University of Paris) and sat at the fountains and watched students eat their lunches and chat with friends..not uncommon at all to my university experience, save that despite the beauty of my university, it is no match for the surroundings of Paris!

Just as cafés offer a wide assortment of food, coffee is not the only beverage really enjoyed in cafés. After work, many Parisians stop by the café for an apértif. This is a social ritual that is quite common in France. Rather than rushing home after a day at work, many people meet with friends or coworkers for a drink. The day I spent with Carra, she insisted that we partake of this very traditional French custom. So after our long day spent at the Louvre, we headed across the street and enjoyed a first!

Ricard is a brand of pastis (a licorice flavored liqueur originating in the South of France) and apparently, quite a popular apértif in France. You dilute one part pastis with roughly five parts water, generally over a couple of cubes of ice. So, Carra and I sat in the late afternoon, enjoying our pastis. The waiter flirted so shamelessly with us, it became almost tiresome. But it made for great laughter and memories of our day together in Paris....which I believe is a cornerstone of the café culture: bringing people together in a very French way: with good food and drink!

*Part Two to come which I will share more stories of my café experiences!
**Second Paris Café image not my own...nabbed from here.


Pam said...

What a delightful - and oh so true - post!

I think the apéritif ritual is also done in homes...we follow that ritual daily and I know our friends here do too.

transall said...


Perfect analysis of the "French way of life"...


Didier (photo blog)

Cavalock said...

Very very interesting insight. Enjoyed reading it a lot. :)

I was in Cannes many years ago on my first overseas assignment and I do recall scenes like the ones u mentioned in Paris but I think I was both too busy n too ‘young’ to fully appreciate/savor them. Then years later, I found myself in NY West Side and Q-ing up for coffee/breakfast every morning at this deli, Greek-ish I believe. The only Starbucks coffee I like n miss is this hot cider kind they have in NY (dunno if they still do) that I can’t find in Singapore.

Richard said...

When I have time, I love to observe people. Mostly I just ask people lots of questions and try to learn all about them.

Cultural differences are interesting. Sometimes they are hard to understand.

b said...

Pam...thank you. I remember you blogging about apértif hour in the home. I think it is a lovely idea. It provides a nice sense of separation from work and the stresses it brings (and just the day in general, really) and one's time at home, hopefully a state of relaxation.

Didier...I am glad you found my observations accurate. Thank you for stopping by again!

Cavalock...I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Yes, so often when we are young, we just don't pause long enough to fully enjoy things. Although, this seems to be true for many adults I know as well! New York has some amazing delis and yes, that is a culture in itself out there. I love NYC and all those great delis and pizza places. However, they are almost always catered to efficency... food is often quickly purchased and consumed and there is not a lot of outdoor seating..definitely not like my observations. Starbucks is all too familiar to me. I am there everyday! Sorry to hear you can't find the one thing you like in Singapore!

Richard...I am the opposite. I too love to observe people but I never ask questions. Sometimes I just like the open-endedness of observing, leaving a multitude of explanations for why a person might behave the way they do. Cultural differences are quite interesting and yes, often difficult for us to understand. But that is what keeps life exciting, right?! :-)

Kim/Thomas said...

yayaya, i'm so glad to read about this:) what a great post:) I could so imagine myself there, having a ricard:)

b said...

Kim...thanks! Have you tried pastis? Does Thomas enjoy it? Yes, it would be nice to be in Paris enjoying a Ricard with you right now!

carra said...

God I could kill for a ricard... I am in the post! Who's the lucky girl! Bisous lovely post. I am trying to catch up here...