Why Paris? Reason #6
Today I would like to write about the healing power of the French café.
Today I was on the verge of breaking down and acting out, and knew I needed healing. (It had to do with an incompatibility between me and my computer, exacerbated by bureaucratic annoyances, the kind that can make you feel like throwing computers out windows. That’s all you need to know: you get the picture.)
If it were a sunny day in Paris I would have much earlier removed myself from the situation and gone to cool off in a park. But it was a rainy day, so I did the only sensible thing for someone in my situation to do.
I walked down the street–not very far–and found the first sympathetic café where I could spend an hour or two regaining my sanity and my sense of balance.
I am living in a neighborhood I’ve never lived in before, and this is the first time since I’ve been here that I’ve had the chance to look for my nearest café, my place of refuge in a moment like this.
I wasn’t disappointed.
I walked into the café I had chosen, trying to figure out first of all whether I wanted to be inside or out. Not an automatic decision on such a cool and rainy day. The young waiter behind the counter greeted me with a warm, slightly flirtatious grin and said “Vous désirez, Madame?” “Un verre de vin,” I answered. “What kind?” he replied, continuing to display a disarming, and charming, smile. “What kind of what?” I replied, surprised and confused by the sudden switch into English. He in turn, confronted with my American accent and with the unexpected counter-question, scurried back into the comfort (and beauty) of his own language, where we remained.
I wanted a white wine, le moins chere. He recommended a Sauvignon (“very feminine”). I went outside and chose my table. The Sauvignon arrived, along with a few thinly sliced pieces of saucisson elegantly arranged on a tiny plate. The glass was perfectly chilled, the Sauvignon the perfect choice. I was happy already, with the first sip, and the knowledge that I could be here for as long as I wanted, free to enjoy my solitude in the company of strangers.
I sat there and read some of my students’ work. I wrote a haiku for my son. I tried to fill in the blanks in a story unfolding between the Frenchwoman sitting next me and the African man who was courting her. I listened to the conversation of the German couple on the other side of me, listened to the sound of their words only since comprehension of what they were saying was beyond me. I drank my wine slowly and savored the saucisson. I enjoyed the play of the late afternoon summer light on the Hausmannian buildings at the end of the street. And gradually I felt peace coming back into my soul.
I actually assign my students to go into a French café, alone, and spend at least half an hour there, writing about what they see and hear. I think it is an experience no one visiting Paris should miss. To me it is far more central to the experience of being in Paris than a visit to any one of its wonderful monuments or museums.
In a Parisian café you are surrounded by people, and by human stories. The people-watching and eavesdropping are superb, but so is the bubble of privacy that surrounds you, broken only if you want it to be, because of the respect for and maintenance of privacy the French are so famous for.
It really is a wonderful thing, to be in a Parisian café.
An hour and a half after I arrived there, I reluctantly folded my papers and packed up my bag. I paid l’addition, 3.70 Euros–a small price to pay for the restoration of one’s sanity—and strolled back to my room, a calmer, happier person, a person ready to once again embrace life in a spirit of joie de vivre, no matter what petty annoyances were thrown in my way.
Just one more reason why I love Paris.
There are many others: stay tuned!
Janet Hulstrand is a writer, editor and teacher of writing and literature based in Silver Spring, Maryland. She teaches literature courses in Paris and Hawaii for the Education Abroad program at Queens College, CUNY, and twice a year she offersWriting from the Heart workshops in a beautiful little village in the Champagne region of France.