Europe’s most popular holiday destination is famed for its love of culture and its delectable cuisine; its passion for history and equally strong passion for everything modern; its beautiful countryside and its gracious cities. With its endless variety of attractions and delight, is it any wonder that millions come to France each year for the holiday of their lifetime?
An Afternoon at a Paris Café
“The huge Paris world centres twice, thrice daily, it is at the café, it gossips at the café, it intrigues at the café, it plots, it dreams, it suffers, it hopes, at the café.”
I pondered upon that statement by a certain Edward King which was attached with the email sent by my French friend, Monique, in reply to the one I sent her earlier informing her of my intention to visit her birthplace for a spring break.
Ah, Paris sidewalk cafés. I have heard so much about those quaint little coffee shops lining the streets of Paris, and seen photographic and artistic captures of them. They are powerful icons of the City of Light – and have been for centuries – so one must not leave it out of the itinerary when visiting Paris.
As soon as I had taken a short nap after my arrival in my comfy, cosy room at the Hotel Du Bois, I ventured out onto the cobbled streets of Paris in search of the perfect sidewalk café to while away my afternoon. To the left and right of me, chairs and tables were arranged haphazardly outside the numerous cafes that I passed by as I was walking down Victor Hugo Avenue, Paris’ infamous luxury shopping area. People were chatting animatedly – on the phone, to their companions, to the waiter – and as I passed them by I caught snippets of conversation in rapid French mixed with peals of laughter and occasionally, rising tones of voices coupled with threateningly violent body language. I quickened my pace.
After what seemed like miles of walking – even though it only took me all of 20 minutes – I finally arrived at my designated destination:
Les Deux Magots on Saint Germaine Boulevard. Once the regular haunt of artists and intellectuals such as Albert Camus, Ernest Hemingway, Jean Paul Sartre and Pablo Picasso, this iconic café is perhaps the most famous sidewalk café in Paris. I remember having seen its pictures countless number of times immortalised in prints and postcards sent to me by Monique in the past.
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Two statues of Magots (Confucian Wise Men) dressed in traditional Chinese costumes greeted me as I approached the café. Sitting cross-legged at the café’s central pillar, they stared out into the terraces of Place Saint Germaine, as they have been for centuries. The café’s `mascots’ commemorate the origin of the café’s name, which was taken from a successful play in the early 19th century called `The Two Magots of China’. I nodded them an acknowledgment in return, and chose a seat on the asphalt pavement, ready to begin my experience in Parisian café culture.
Waiters in impeccable black-and-white uniforms weaved in and out the neatly-arranged tables and chairs, going about their business urgently as they served and took orders. I ordered the café’s long-time specialty – Hot Chocolate made the old-fashioned way, using tablets of bitter chocolate mixed with steamed milk – and only that, no food to accompany it. It is the norm in Paris – their way of life, one may say – that one orders a single coffee and sits at a café for hours on end, free of conscience and care; nobody’s going to reprimand you nor throw you out for lengthy nursing of a cuppa. The popular saying goes that the cheapest, most convenient way one can sit undisturbed for a few hours in a prime location is through ordering a brew at your local café.
So there I was, nursing my cup of premium Hot Chocolate, doing what the Parisians do, becoming a part of the café scenery. A strange yet welcomed sense of calm grew within me as I did nothing but take in my surroundings, with sips of Hot Chocolate in-between. An open market was in full swing around the corner, and the street before me swam with life, colours and sounds. Two blonde children were weaving their way through the throngs of people walking on the street, with red balloons in their hands, laughing gleefully. A couple sitting at the table beside me were gazing deeply into each other’s eyes, lost in their own private world. A bearded, scholarly-looking man in a grey tweed coat and a black beret a few tables away was scribbling furiously in his large, spiral-bound notebook, eyebrows knitted in pure concentration. A group of men in expensive-looking business suits at a nearby table were talking in hushed tones, seemingly serious in discussion. A lady dressed in a chic ensemble of wide-brimmed hat and red shift dress at a table in the furthest corner smiled as she watched the antics of the children with the red balloons. She, like me, was one of the many patrons who did nothing but just sat there watching the world go by, accompanied just by their favourite beverage. She threw me a smile as she caught my eye.
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This is the Parisians’ way of life. This is the life. The humble sidewalk café remains the soul of the city; a way for Parisians to relax and unwind, socialise and network, and stay connected to the city, its people, as well as their inner selves. I sighed contentedly as I took another sip of the warming, welcoming Hot Chocolate.
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