A not-so wise man once said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around for a while, you could miss it.”
Nowhere is that advice more needed than here in America. Nowhere is that advice more honored than in Paris.
Paris is a busy, bustling city of over two million people (not counting the millions of tourists). It moves pretty fast. There are scooters screaming around everywhere. Tons of little cars zip through the city, nearly being involved in – or causing – accidents around every corner. Bikers with cigarettes and on mobile phones weave through traffic and hop curbs, and there are no helmets to be seen. Sidewalks and crosswalks are packed with people who all seem to be at some level of rush to be somewhere else.
Another wise person, this time French, once said, “Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.” That quote totally nails the love of Parisian café culture. At all times of day, in all weather, in all seasons, Parisians will take some time and sit at their local café, in rows of chairs that all face the same direction – out into the world – enjoying quiet time or sharing time with friends, and simply watching the world go by in front of them.
With all the hustle and bustle of the big city, Paris is still an amazingly chill type of place. That’s because down every street and seemingly on every corner sits the greatest of Parisian traditions – the local café. Paris café culture is all about slowing down when you can and taking a look around, even when you might be in a hurry to do something you feel is important.
In the mornings, commuters run in to their local café and get their café creme and a croissant for only about two Euro (about $2.25). It’s a tradition that doesn’t need to be on a menu or even mentioned. Starbucks could learn a thing or two about that. The coffee is good, cheap, and never burnt. And the croissant is fresh – not out of a case where it sat for a day, after being taken from a refrigerator where it sat for a couple days, after being taken off a truck, after being taken from a warehouse, etc. You get the picture. Oh, and there are no freakin‘ drive-throughs.
Conveniently, and contrary to many French restaurants, most cafés are open continuously from morning to night, not closing between servings. Service is slow and deliberate, but ever present. Order a café and pâtisserie in the morning, a salad or sandwich and a fruity and spiced soda or Fanta for lunch, a tea in the afternoon, or a beer or glass of wine in the evening and you can pretty much sit there forever and simply take in the world around you. There is no turn-and-burn pressure.
And what about the wine? Paris cafés are about keeping life simple so it can be enjoyed by friends and lovers. All the cafés have wine, but lists are small, if they exist at all. Usually, you will have a choice of five or six wines by the glass, half carafe, full carafe or bottle. You might get to choose from a Burgundy, Rhone, Bordeaux, Languedoc Roussillon, Alsace and maybe a Champaign. Brands are limited, but the wine is good – and cheap. Usually $5 will get you a glass and a $20 will get you at least a carafe, and often a bottle. Again, here is where the French have it figured out. The same amount will get you a bottle of mineral water, a beer, a glass of wine, a cup of tea, or a house cocktail. Order what makes you happy, not what you think you want to afford.
In Paris, cafés are ubiquitous. They exist and thrive because they fill a definite need. They serve excellent drinks and simple food at reasonable prices. They do this because the Parisians spend their lives there, simply enjoying life and looking around so they don’t miss it. If only we could incorporate this little slice of French café culture into our daily American lives.