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Traveling In Style : Cafe Society : In Paris, Cafes Aren't Just for Sipping Coffee or Killing Time; They Define Parisian Life Itself

March 01, 1992|ANGELA MASON | Angela Mason is a London-based writer and editor.

To understand Paris, you must sit in a cafe--perhaps at a sidewalk table beneath lush plane trees facing a broad boulevard or historic square, perhaps on a leatherette banquette inside a dim neighborhood bar/tabac on an obscure side street. You must sip an espresso, a Perrier, a glass of wine, whatever, and watch the world go by (or come through the door). You must let the sense of the city soak in. Above all, you must take your time. The hours spent at a cafe--hours of watching, thinking, idling--aren't wasted. They're part of the ebb and flow of the French day, giving it rhythm and meaning.

In America, the word cafe has come to mean a casual eating place--a lunch counter, a purveyor of quick, inexpensive food. In Paris--which did not invent cafes, but which has raised them to their highest form--the same word describes not just a genre of refreshment station but a whole way of life. The cafes of Paris define the way the city looks and feels as much as any Eiffel Tower or Notre-Dame. Paris is cafes.

Cafes in Paris acknowledge the importance in our lives of not just private but also public sociability. In a cafe (you won't be the first to remark), you can be alone without being lonely. Cafes are animated by the love of laughter and of the word--both spoken and written; the solitary writer at the corner table, the solitary reader in the window, are essential to the cafe concept. As with any culturally specific institution, there are unwritten rules for the proper use and enjoyment of cafes (see page 43)--but cafes in general are extremely democratic. Anyone with the price of a beverage can use them--can sit in them, not just to read or write but to meet friends, talk, flirt, look and listen, dream.

It is said that the world's first cafe opened in Istanbul (the Turks were great popularizers of coffee) in 1550. Paris got its first one in 1686, when a Sicilian named Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli opened an establishment called Le Procope on the Left Bank, on what is now the Rue de l'Ancienne Comedie. It is still in existence on the same site, having closed and opened several times--reviving most recently in 1952 as a restaurant now mainly patronized by tourists, who may or may not be impressed by the fact that Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau drank on the premises.

In the 19th Century, the focus of Parisian cafe life shifted from the Left to the Right Bank, to the gilded and chandelier-hung establishments of the Grands Boulevards--that once-elegant series of broad thoroughfares that leads from the Opera to the Place de la Republique. At the same time, painters, writers and all-purpose bohemians began to haunt the steamy cabarets of Montmartre.

The everyday corner cafe, or cafe du coin , now so emblematic of Paris, began to flourish in the city around the turn of the century, when hardy rural types from the Auvergne in central France began to set up shop in the capital to sell coal and charcoal for heating and cooking. They offered wine and strong drink to their customers along with other kinds of fuel, thus providing meeting places for ordinary Parisians who weren't interested in gilt or bohemian pursuits. The descendants of these establishments are everywhere in Paris today--scruffy generic places that supply such basic components of Parisian life as jolts of thick black cafe serre , darkly aromatic French cigarettes, stamps and lottery tickets, telephones and lavatories of dubious sanitation. Occasionally, authentic old cafes from the early years of the century still exist in virtually unchanged form--inevitably mythically smoky, scented with damp wood and anis and equipped with a long zinc bar, a mustachioed patron and a clientele of accordionists and market porters.

In the 1920s and '30s, the cafe action crossed the river again, focusing in tough, cheap Montparnasse, in whose modest dives Picasso and his circle--and a slew of expatriate English and American writers with equal talents for drink and letters--helped create the leg end of prewar Paris. In the 1940s and '50s, it was the turn of philosophizing Existentialists, who took flight from their unheated garrets and established all-day residence in the warm and forgiving cafes of Saint-Germain-des-Pres. The literary/artistic/historical cafe still exists, too--often glorious, but often ruinously priced--and sometimes animated by a spirit that suggests a wake more than a party. ( Jean-Paul Sartre and Co. have a lot to answer for.)

In the 1970s, back on the Right Bank, the Marais, reclaimed marshland long known as the city's North African and Jewish quarter, became hot cafe country, as French Yuppies--the so-called BCBG, short for bon chic bon genre ("good style, good manners")--gentrified the neighborhood's ancient buildings.

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