The World’s Best Pasttime: Cafe-sitting in Paris

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In the best of all possible worlds, on the best of all possible days in Paris, I wake up very early, spend the morning and early afternoon writing and cooking and then take myself and my work out to a café. Cafés are the perfect place to read, write, edit, think and have the fun of being out and about without being part of the action. I find cafés so appealing that often, when I’m having trouble with my work, I use café-time as the carrot, the reward that encourages me to write at least enough to last the length of a leisurely coffee or maybe even a glass of wine and whatever nibbles the café serves alongside.

For more than ten years, I lived three steps from the city’s two most famous literary cafés, Les Deux Magots and the Café de Flore. Both cafes were made world-famous by the most celebrated couple of the French intelligentsia, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Their loyalties bounced between the two cafés: some say they went to one when their credit weakened at the other, and some say they fell out with the managements from time to time. Whatever it was, it seemed to work well for both cafés, since both now claim them as their own. That Ernest Hemingway and Janet Flanner (known as Genêt), The New Yorker’s woman-in-Paris for 50 years, were regulars, didn’t hurt either’s reputation. In fact, for the first few years that I lived in Saint-Germain-des-Pres, Les Deux Magots was my café and Hemingway and Flanner my companions. There’s a picture of them in the back of the café and I would always sit at “their” table, working with the knowledge that they were looking over my shoulder. And then, like Sartre and de Beauvoir before me, I switched and Le Flore became my café. I don’t remember why I changed — I might not even have had a real reason — but once I did, I rarely returned to the Deux Magots, except for drinks on their terrace on warm summer evenings (there’s really no better terrace in Paris for sun or for people-watching, except Le Bonaparte, down the street from Les Deux Magots and pictured above).

It was only after the fact that I learned that favoring one of these cafés over the other is a Parisian sport played with almost as much passion as soccer. And it’s a topic that the terrific New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, nailed in Paris to the Moon, a book every Parisphile should read.

café de flore

A few years ago, the Flore closed while they spruced the place up and I can’t tell you how many times I heard friends say, “I don’t know what they’re doing, but I just hope that they’re not going to make it too … too … oh, too modern or too glitzy … or too like Les Deux Magots” (which, is neither modern nor glitzy, but just Deux Magots-ish). There were sighs all around when the Flore re-opened looking just as it had it before, minus the worn spots on the banquettes.

It might be hard to grasp how attached some Parisians are to their cafés. I remember being at the Flore early one morning when a well-dressed businessman walked in, sat at “his” table, shook hands with “his” waiter and was then joined by a group of younger businessmen from Japan. The host ordered coffee and croissants for his guests and just as he was about to settle down, one of the visitors asked him why he’d chosen this particular place for their meeting. I guess the choice must have been so obvious to the Frenchman that the question left him phumfering. “Well, it’s my café,” he said. “Oh, you own it,” replied the guest. “Noooo,” said the French host, “I don’t own it, I just come here all the time. I have breakfast here and read the newspaper. I come here in the afternoon for a coffee. If my wife’s away, I have dinner here. I don’t know how to explain it, but for me, this café is like my home — it could be my living room.” I thought it was a perfect answer and when the Frenchman’s eyes met mine, I smiled agreement.

There was an article in The New York Times reporting that cafés are failing all over France. In part, it’s the economy, people are being more careful about how they spend their money, but the fact that smoking is now banned in cafés is cutting into business, as is the growing trend to “eat like Anglo-Saxons” (The Times’s quote, not mine), i.e. on the run, and even to have coffee at home. (Nespresso coffeemakers, the espresso machines that use coffee in pods, are wildly popular here — as is Nespresso’s “face,” George Clooney.)

The news is sad in every way — it’s tragic for the café owners, it’s a blow to the French way of life, and it’s an arrow to the heart of all of us romantics who want to keep the France of our dreams just as we remember it — so sad that the only thing to do is to café-sit as much as possible. And so I’m doing my best to keep the tradition — and the cafés — in business.

Petit Suisse Terrace

Several years ago, I moved from Saint-Germain-des-Pres to Place de l’Odéon, which means Le Flore is no longer at my doorstep. But there was no reason to fret — minutes after I’d first seen our new apartment, a friend called and said, “If you move there, you’ll be near a great café.” A Parisian, she understood that having a good café close by is just as important as having a good pâtisserie and a good boulangerie. We moved and she was right: Au Petit Suisse is a great café. Just across the street from the Luxembourg Gardens, it’s as cozy as a little gingerbread cottage. In winter, it’s made for vin chaud (hot mulled wine) and in summer, the terrace is so flooded with sun you can get a Saint-Tropez tan (the picture above was taken in early May). And, I can work there.

sign at au Petit Suisse

As you can see from the sign, Au Petit Suisse (named for Catherine de Medici’s Swiss Guards) has been around since 1791. I take confidence in that little marker. After all, if they got through the French Revolution, they should be able to get through this one. I’m rooting for them and, in case rooting isn’t enough, I’m doubling up on my caffeine, too.