I asked Tom―an Oregon native, monolingual, more techie than arty, and not a foodie―what made him fall in love with Paris three years ago. He said “hanging at the cafés.” Of course! In Paris, hanging at the cafés is not just about eating and drinking outside; in Paris it is a ritual.
(You can eat and drink outside in Portland, usually at splintery picnic tables, in some places, when it’s not raining. Which is sometimes.)
The French have made this an art. Sidewalk cafés have awnings against the sun and rain. They have glowing heaters overhead. They have tiny glossy round tables lined up with OCD precision, as are the comfy woven wicker chairs.
But café life isn’t really about simple consumption. You can do that at a McDonald’s (which, in France, serve wine and beer). It’s a social contract. Things are happening.
There is always an intense couple leaning together over their tented hands, talking earnestly with extreme eye contact. Co-workers? Ex -spouses? Political conspirators?
There is always a pair of well-dressed women of a certain age, drinking wine and spilling secrets about their lovers and their grandchildren.
There will always be a woman alone, with her nose in a book (or a phone) and a tiny cup of coffee by her side. There will always be a man who’s just there for the drug: downing his espresso or his beer in a single slug before moving on.
There will always be a group of jeunes―twenty-somethings―usually more girls than boys. The boys monologue about philosophy or rap music. The kids come and go, shaking hands or exchanging kisses at both arrival and departure.
There is always a dog, sitting on somebody’s lap, impatiently eying your lunch. (See above.)
And there will always be a retired tourist couple, too tired to talk, just watching the motorcycles and spectacular outfits go by. This is usually us.
If there’s any extra-table conversation, it will usually be about shifting chairs―the attempt to get eight jeunes around two tables for two. It might be asking for a light, for though the French often have cigarettes, they rarely have lighters.
Now, what about food? Most people outside are just drinking and nibbling the complimentary olives, and if you’re really lucky, complimentary potato chips. If you eat out on the sidewalk instead of the dining room inside, your plate will be scrutinized by innumerable passers-by who will actually slow down to do it. It’s France, and everybody is totally absorbed in food and its presentation. Even a clochard who pestered us for coins yesterday was happy to actually grab a few of our olives instead.
I think what Tom loves about café life is how it represents the total French attitude about living well and without judgment. Too cold to drink outside? Turn on a heater. You want a beer for breakfast? Why not? Can a plate of fries be lunch for a grownup? Of course! Are you lunching in public with a woman not your wife? Normal! Are you a young man who wants to kiss another young man on both cheeks? Go ahead. And what are you doing lazing at a café in the middle of the day? S’il vous plait! This is the land of the five-week vacation.
Sometimes it is hard to be grateful for the Puritans who founded our country and instilled our sense of hard work and clean living. In France, people stay healthier and live longer than Americans do. Americans struggle to justify red wine and good chocolate. The French simply embrace them. Most often at a sidewalk café.