Sunday, February 11, 2007

Paris Café Life (Part Two)

My First Café Experience
Truth be told, as much as I had prepared myself to sufficiently order food and drink in French, I was not entirely prepared for how to do such. After landing at my hotel, I wanted to immediately go out and plop down at the nearest café and enjoy passersby and a cup of French coffee that I had heard so many wonderful things about. I only had to walk around the corner to find a café (Le Cerceau, Boulevard de Sébastopol) but I experienced a twinge of stage fright as I approached. I wanted to sit outside but didn't know whether to select a spot and sit or go inside and order before being seated. Suddenly, the realization hit...a whole year of French lessons (crammed into an 8 week summer course) scarcely entitled me to speak French with any conviction.

So, clumsily, I went with the latter. I walked into the café and three men stood at the bar. They all turned and looked expectantly at me. I had to wait to be addressed, not knowing with whom to place my order, or if any of them even worked there for that matter. Finally, one of the men addressed me and I asked for a café au lait (in ridiculously rehearsed French) and he then asked if I wanted it indoors or outdoors. It took several tries before I understood what he was asking, but we finally confirmed that I would take it outdoors.

I sat there for quite some time, watching people and feeling somewhat in denial of the fact that I was really in Paris. Pedestrians strolled by, some hurriedly, some rather leisurely. Vendors rolled racks of clothing down the street and deliverymen carted large boxes back and forth. A businessman sat next to me, looking out onto the street with a peaceful disposition. A group of four sat nearby, engaged in animated conversation and laughter.

Not fifteen minutes after I sat down, two fire trucks pulled up with their lights flashing. Apparently there was something going on in the narrow street down from the café, but obviously not very alarming as there was no visible smoke or panic, and so firemen strolled back and forth in front of the café and it aroused some attention by neighbors and the café proprietor.

My first café experience was nice. I still felt like an idiot for stumbling indoors and looking about cluelessly, but I quickly got over it and was eager to sit in more cafés, with increased assurance of what I was doing.

Pride and Dedication
Proprietors of cafés are not like store managers. My French instructor told me that when you walk into a shop (whether it be a café, patisserie, chocolaterie, etc.), you are walking into that proprietor's home. And a degree of respect must be issued. I took this very seriously and so, as I entered every shop or café, I would greet the proprietor or person working immediately. There was an immediate sense of pride and dedication in their actions that went beyond just "good customer service." The second morning of my trip that I alluded to in my first post on Paris cafés, (in which I was in search of early morning coffee), I walked many blocks before finding an open café.

When I did, I ordered a café au lait and asked what pastry offerings they had. Well, being that it was so early in the morning, the proprietor informed me that he had nothing, as the boulangeries/pâtisseries were not yet open. He inquired as to what I desired and I said that even some bread and butter would do but that it was not a big deal...I would be more than happy with just a café au lait. Despite my insistence of such, he literally ran down the street and returned a couple of minutes later, informing me that the boulangerie was in fact closed. I thanked him profusely for going out of his way to even check. He returned inside to the bar (maybe 7 feet from where I was sitting outdoors) and I overheard him speaking in French (far too quickly and advanced for me to pick up on!) with an acquaintance there. Five minutes passed and he returned to my table, producing two warm slices of fresh bread, with butter:

I don't know where he came up with the bread but I thanked him profusely. He was very humble about it and certainly not put off whatsoever. As I was finishing my bread and coffee, another American woman sat down nearby and looking over at my bread, asked the proprietor if it was possible to get the same. I smiled to myself and left a generous tip. That was the café I sat at and wrote several postcards to family and friends. It was a great start to my second full day in Paris.

To Tip Or Not to Tip
I have heard conflicting advice about leaving tips at cafés. I saw several people leave tips and deciding to err on the side of generosity, I too would tip at each café I visited. Perhaps someone out there can settle this for me, or at least offer their perspective?

Other Café Moments
On my first full day in Paris, I enjoyed a crêpe and café au lait at Axu Trois Maillets. The server was so friendly and asked if I was English. When I told him I was American, he seemed rather excited, and asked me lots of questions in very decent English. He introduced himself as Nagi and was very attentitve. A well-groomed father and equally well-groomed son sat next to me and enjoyed their beverages. I was lost in the beauty of the French language they spoke and easily convinced myself this wasn't eavesdropping, as clearly I could understand almost nothing of what they spoke! As I got up to leave, they both warmly say "au revoir." I knew that Parisians would be far more friendly than so many Americans peg them for, but I did not expect to be so kindly regarded.

Café prices vary considerably. After visiting Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle on my first full day in Paris, I walked toward the Louvre and stopped at a large café (Café Corona) overlooking the Seine. I asked for a coke and although it was a rather large glass, I was shocked to see that it cost 6.8 euros! I wondered if it could be a mistake but not feeling sufficiently able to discuss the matter in French, I did my best to enjoy the most expensive coke I've ever encountered.

Saint-Germain is probably my favorite arrondissement in Paris. It didn't hurt that I visited in the late afternoon on a ridiculoulsy beautiful day. The narrow, curved streets, the beautiful trees, and the vibe of that neighborhood captivated me. I'll have to dedicate an entire post to this area! I enjoyed an early dinner/late lunch (by Parisian standards) outdoors at Chez Clemente. As I sat and drank wine, I relished the changing quality of light and the beautiful trees and neighborhood around me.

On my birthday, I walked to the Louvre and sat at Café Marly, which is located inside the courtyard of the Louvre. I enjoyed pain au chocolat (croissant with chocolate inside) and lait chaude vanille (warm vanilla milk). The Louvre is so spectacular and I could sit in the courtyard for hours, marvelling at the architecture and its general magnificence.

Overall, café life is so integral to people's lives in Paris and it quickly became an integral part of my time there. Every time I found myself tired, hungry, thirsty...a café was nearby and brought about a great sense of comfort.

*First two photos found here


Louis la Vache said...

Like you, Louis la Vache truly enjoys the cafés in Paris. Also like you, he has experienced several instances of the French going out of their way to be hospitable to an American. Louis has come away from his experiences in France wondering how and why the stereotype of rude French in general and rude Parisians in particular got started. Louis was once in a Tabac buying stamps for post cards to send to the U.S. The Tabac was out of the stamps Louis needed. The proprietor asked Louis to wait a few minutes, then disappeared. He came back, out of breath - he had literally run to la Poste to get the stamps Louis needed - and he did it without Louis asking for him to do it. He just did it. Louis has other similar anecdotes - one of which was a Parisian who volunteered that "we French don't hate Americans - it's our government and media who foster that story."

Your post makes me long for enjoying a croissant and espresso in the boulangerie on rue Saint-Antoine near where Louis stayed in Paris.

Richard said...

What a beautiful write up on your experience of Parisian cafes.

b said...

Louis...yes, that sense of animosity between French and Americans is manufactured. I was treated so kindly by Parisians and I was very appreciative and respectful. I am always so touched by these simple but meaningful kindnesses...strangers going out of their way. And yes, I too long to be sitting in a Paris café right now!

Richard...thank you. It was a wonderful part of my experience in Paris and will forever remain a part of me.

Cavalock said...

Cavalock really enjoyed reading it. Makes him wish he was on stress-free vacation right. Gawd knows he needs one more than ever.

Cava…sorry, I couldn’t resist it. heh

Run Around Paris said...

I LOVE this post - it's so detailed that it brings me back to the cafes of Paris even as I sit in the blizzard that is currently Ohio. I am sure I will be rereading it when I return to work tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

reminds me of my own "first time". you have prompted me to go ahead and post on my experience; i will include your link.

Mimi said...

Lovely post!

My husband and I approached a Paris café late in the evening on a holiday and the owner kindly whipped us up a Salade Nicoise, even though he was about to close.

We found kindness wherever we turned in Paris.