Morning coffee is different here. At home in Washington, I start the coffee machine as soon as I get out of bed, then snuggle under the covers while it cooks or start reading the paper in my comfy chair. The preliminaries over, the coffee and I are exclusive companions for the next hour —home alone together. Coffee is purely domestic chez moi. But in Paris, coffee is a matter of external affairs: I always drink it in the café across the street.
It is an ordinary café, like hundreds of others in Paris, and I am not sure I have ever noticed its name, let alone learned it. I call it Chez François because that’s the name of the morning waiter who learned in one day flat that I like a large café au lait, a single brioche, and will not complain about the exquisitely scrawny veneer of butter he applies to a tartine, no preserves. On Sunday, when François is not there, one substitute or another always brings a croissant instead of the brioche and strawberry jam, and I never have the heart to send either back: they seem so proud of having figured me out, and I don’t want to be a dim foreigner who doesn’t understand the depth of a Parisian café waiter’s discernment in questions of an American’s petit déjeuner. At least, I tell myself, they are not offering me bacon and eggs. Maybe I can pass after all.
Breakfast Chez François does not require the newspaper—and this amazes me. At home, if the paper is late or not delivered, I twitch, I sense something is missing the way an amputee experiences phantom pain in the missing arm or leg. In the café, it does not matter. I can read a newspaper or not, talk with the other pillars of the establishment or not as the spirit moves me, translate for the Americans who have wandered in here—though how, since there are no tourist hotels nearby, they wind up Chez François, is completely baffling—or let them flounder and gesticulate their way through their order. I always sit in the same chair indoors, and the chair is not particularly comfortable either.
Nothing matters except the coffee and the bread. This is puzzling to me but wonderful as well. Why should crossing the pond change a very old and, I thought, an alterable and indestructible habit? Given my age, I ought to be too squirrelly to change my ways, especially the morning routine which must be lodged in the ancient reptilian part of my brain, the primitive part that hears the voice of God and causes me to bare my teeth when threatened. The rest of my petit train-train has not been derailed. My other professional, social, and time-wasting habits are the same here as they are in the States: anyone who knows me, even at a distance and in a fog, would recognize me on the spot and would say, “Well, that’s Joseph,” or as François would say, M. Joe.
So, if it’s not a new me, is it the coffee? It’s good, but I can make coffee every bit as good upstairs in my apartment, maybe better. It’s certainly not a new routine because as I think you understand I don’t have one with my breakfast Chez François. I could pretend to burst with romance and say it must be the air of Paris, but the rest of my life is so much the same, so ditto, so predictable that I don’t believe a word of it. Nor is it (I know this for a fact right down to the soles of my feet) the ambience of the café which, even with wishful thinking, isn’t glittery or seductively low and crummy. Chez François is so ordinary, so banal, so vraiment pas beau that you could go there every day for ten years and not recall anything. If it were a human, it would be the perfect spy: you’d never notice it while it took in everything about you, down to the condition of your fingernails or the stitching on your shirt buttons.
And maybe that is why Chez François is such a pleasure, made fresh and new every morning. The café wants me, watches me, watches over me, tells me I’m welcome to stay or go as I please, reminds me to come back but doesn’t mind if I miss a day or come in later or earlier tomorrow. Sois le bienvenu—have a chair and put your feet up, Joe. Chez François tells me I’m chez moi.
© Joseph Lestrange