I am not someone who easily sings the praises of France. Cocorico is not my style. However, on a recent trip to Paris I was most pleasantly surprised in two of my favorite haunts.
The Café de Flore is an institution in the Latin Quarter. It is one of the oldest and best-known coffeehouses in Paris. Like its neighbor and rival Les Deux Maggots, it has been the place for French intellectuals to gather for many years. On the particular Thursday morning I was visiting, it was filled with….conversation. The small, main room was bustling with activity, but all was pleasant, and chaleureux. Some people were reading alone, but most were in animated discussion, often including the waiters who seemed familiar with most of the customers.
What surprised me was that there was not one laptop opened, not one Kindle being read. Newspapers were spread throughout the tables, interspersed with delicious croissants. Conversations were going on above the din, but no one was shouting. My suitcase was parked next to my table; no one frowned or growled at my taking up too much space. As a matter of fact, no waiter tried to get me to order more food or drink, or even to hint that I should be moving on. Reading and talking seemed to be what the place was all about. While I am sure serious business was being transacted, there was no impression of power breakfasts a la New York. As a matter of fact, I don’t remember seeing any man in a suit and tie. There was time for talking, people were listening; no one seemed engrossed in his/her own world, except those turning the pages of Le Monde, Le Canard Enchainé or some book.
Another favorite haunt of mine in Paris is the bookstore Shakespeare and Company. Dwarfed by Notre Dame, it has been the place to hang out for American intellectuals, especially with the Beat Generation. Originally started by George Whitman and now run by his daughter, it has been featured in movies and novels. Young writers live above the store, literary readings and festivals are regularly held there. The store itself is small, with rickety stairs and no seeming order to find anything. Most of the books are second hand. This is not Barnes and Noble, certainly not like ordering from Amazon.
What surprised me here was the number of young people with no earplugs, no cell phones squawking. People were seriously looking through the books, some sitting on the floor glancing at whatever they found of interest. As the space is extremely limited, visitors (as Whitman used to call customers) were bumping into each other as they moved around. Lots of “Sorrys, Excusez moi,” with a real sense of enjoying the atmosphere of what was and remains an institution. The line at the cash register was long, but no one seemed in a hurry. People were buying books; the store seemed to be thriving.
I enjoy Saturday morning coffee and crosissant at the Marché in Carouge. I do browse for books at Off the Shelf on the Boulevard Georges-Favon. But there is something about the Café de Flore and Shakespeare and Company that are timeless, and quite reassuring. Vive la France. J’aime Paris.
March 26, 2013