Café Culture in Paris

Blogathon, June 4

Café culture is alive and well in Paris. In the last century, you might have overheard Sartre, de Beauvoir, or Camus deep in existential conversation or seen Hemingway down a beer while scribbling away because there was no heat in his Paris apartment. In Montmartre, Picasso and Braque might be concocting cubism and critiquing their working day while consuming wine.  These days you are more likely to find laptops, iPads, and cell phones doing the heavy work, silently. Is conversation dead? I like to think not, but its hibernation is in evidence everywhere.

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Photo above: Noel arguing with Sartre.

From those walking down the Parisian streets to café sitters and sippers working on the next new app or great French novel, tout le monde is plugged in. Conversation, except via cell, is less in evidence. Though Noel and I had a lovely one with a woman from Brussels while at Le Passy café in the 16th (2 rue de Passy).

I have American friends living in Paris who bemoaned the appearance of the first Starbucks in Paris several years ago. Now in true Starbuck proliferation, while there may not be one on every corner of Paris, I’ve certainly witnessed Starbucks creep. In multiple neighborhoods I can report, Starbucks coffee houses are full to the brim—with Parisians of all ages. There is French chatter (mostly solo on cell phones) and tech tapping. Deep conversation, not so much.

But café sitting and watching the world wander by is still a Parisian pastime. And there are plenty of old time French cafés with surly waiters (as well as cute young ones eager to parler anglais), who will pull a pression and deliver a foam topped glass of bière  or froth a steaming morning café crème  or an afternoon noisette (an espresso with a bit of milk).

If you are new to Paris, by all means, check out the old tourist standbys: Café de Flores and Les Deux Magots (Place Saint-Germain-des-Pres in the 6th), both home to twentieth century writers, artists, and intellectuals. Nowadays, though, you are likely to overpay for the privilege of their reputation. So search out new ones, and start a conversation.

Linger for hours if you choose—no one in Paris ever tells you to leave even after you’ve long finished your brew of choice (that hasn’t changed). Stop by at any one that looks agreeable and find your own corner. Many still have typical old cane chairs and bistro tables. And at the first sign of warm weather, outdoor tables fill up quickly. Warning to smokers: there’s a strict policy of no indoor smoking. Warning to smokers: There’s a strict policy of no indoor smoking, enforced by major fines to the cafe owners. Warning to nonsmokers: Outdoors, smokers are welcome so choose your table well to avoid inhaling the drifting nicotine.

As for the photo above, there will be more about that tomorrow.

Legendary Cafés in the 6tharrondissement:

Café de Flores (http://www.cafedeflore.fr, but website is under construction at the moment, so try Facebook or Wikipedia for more info)

Lovers and fellow philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir “set up house” here for the duration of WWII and supposedly continued to write during the air raids. De Beauvoir wrote parts of The Second Sex here. Chagall and Picasso frequented this café and exchanged drawings. The Surrealists plotted their art manifestos between this café and its rival, Les Deux Magots.

La Palette (http://www.cafelapaletteparis.com/)

Warmth and cheap food drew starving artists here in the 1930s. The bar wall’s décor features artist palettes (hence the name). According to their website, celebrities through the years included Cezanne, Picasso, Hemingway (no surprise that he and Picasso showed up everywhere), Jim Morrison, Harrison Ford, and Julia Roberts.

La Rotonde (http://www.rotondemontparnasse.com/)

In the Montparnasse quarter, Russian political exiles, such as Trotsky and Lenin, used to hang out here, as did Picasso, Modigliano, and other artists including the Dadists, whose altercations rose to dangerous decibels. Hemingway’s Jake remarked in The Sun Always Rises that taxis dropped passengers off at this café even when they wanted to go elsewhere.

Le Procope (http://www.procope.com/)

In 1675, an entrepreneurial Sicilian (whom Starbucks should thank) hooked Parisians on roasted beans and moved the café to its current location in 1686. (Expect high prices and uppity old waiters—my last experience several years ago. I haven’t been back.) Voltaire, Beaumarchais, and Rousseau among others stopped by for coffee or perhaps sherbet.

Le Select (http://www.leselectmontparnasse.fr/)

Artists and political refugees gathered here. Having opened in 1925, it was a popular spot to imbibe and play chess. Isadora Duncan argued the Sacco and Vanzetti case at Le Select, and legend tells us it caused mayhem between adherents of both sides. Hemingway also used this venue as creative inspiration for his inebriated character, Harvey Stone, in The Sun Always Rises.

Les Deux Magots (http://www.lesdeuxmagots.fr)

Competitor to Café de Flore for the patronage of the literary elite, this café claims Oscar Wilde as a diner in the last year of his life (a regular for le petit dejeuner as well as absinthe in the evening). Seems Picasso (told you he was everywhere) met his muse and lover Dora Maar here.

Polidor (http://www.polidor.com/)

This one opened in 1845 and attracted penniless students from the Sorbonne. Habitués included James Joyce and Richard Wright.

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