One of the questions I’m frequently asked is what’s the first thing a newcomer to Paris should do after arriving. Yes, you need to find an apartment and get settled so you can get on with your life. But even before identifying a doctor or a dentist—unless you are on the verge of having a heart attack or need a root canal—you’d be well advised to find a café and make it your own.
Ironically, it may not be only one café. And if it isn’t, you won’t be considered an infidel. People have favorites where they grab a morning coffee, a mid-day drink and places to frequent when it’s good weather or even when the sun’s shining. As the real estate ads say, “location, location, location.”
A café is much more than a place to eat and drink. For many, it serves as a fulcrum, an extended living room where neighbors meet on the run (or not) and perhaps even overhear a modicum of gossip. Paris residents rarely truck across town to spend time at a café, because as nice as it may be, it isn’t theirs.
When I first moved to Paris more than twenty years ago, it was hard to walk a block and not trip over or into at least three cafés. Those days have changed as fast-food emporiums have replaced these traditional hangouts that generally had much lovingly polished zinc bars — where people stood and dumped cigarette butts on the tile floor, so ashes wouldn’t fly into a patron’s food or drink.
It was always easy to spot the regulars. Before they’d drink a coffee or a glass of wine or Pastis, they’d shake hands with the man behind the bar. He might or might not be the owner, but was unquestionably in charge. Or perhaps the person who was really in charge was the woman standing by the cash register, collecting the money and surveying everything with hawk-like intensity. If the café was also a tabac, she’d sell the stamps, metro tickets and – OMG! – cigarettes.
Life in France has changed since the no smoking law went into effect and, much to my amazement, people actually respect it – kind of – if only because the smoking cops fine the owners big time if the rule is violated. Some cafés have even reported an increased lunch business since many of these bars were just too smoky.
The French have always appreciated sitting at outside tables on sunny days. But the tables that used to be placed on sidewalks then, are now there even when it’s freezing.
But there’s been an even more dramatic change. In the 1960’s, there were approximately 200,000 cafes in France. It’s estimated there are currently only somewhat more than 40,000. These cafés have disappeared – perhaps in the name of globalization. People have many different choices now but they aren’t the same as a café. Please forgive the U.S. for having introduced McDonald’s to France.
There are Starbucks and places when you can have an ice cream or an Italian gelato. You have a vast choice of places where to grab a sandwich, a cup of tea accompanied by scones or double chocolate fudge brownies. It’s called progress – I guess.
Another question I’m frequently asked when I’m in the U.S. is what I miss the most about Paris. Let me count the ways … but one thing that’s certain is my corner bar. Even though I don’t inform its staff of my comings and goings, when I walk into the bar the morning I return home, the owner shakes my hand, says “Bonjour” and places a café crème in front of me. I know Jacques knows when I’ve just returned because a basket of croissants and pain au chocolats appear. Because I live in France, I try not to eat bread. France may be my adopted home – but I didn’t inherit a French woman’s ability to eat and not have the calories go directly to her hips.
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