One of my favorite things to do in France is sit in a café. That’s it: just sit. I realize this may not seem exciting, but there is something I find so pleasing about French café life.
It's nice that I can go somewhere to sit and think and no one will tell me to move on until I’m ready. Once I’ve been to a place several times, I pick my favorite spot. I get to know the waiters, the owners, and the other regulars.
I’ve spent hours reading, writing, and daydreaming in cafés. No one questions if I’m alone, waiting for someone or a whole group of friends, or if I’m doing something or nothing; no one is judging because everyone is just sitting.
I once watched a television documentary that explored the differences between France and the US. It concluded that the French are thinkers and Americans are achievers. That description got my attention because it was so simple and yet so accurate. I think it actually describes the best of both cultures. If you admire the French lifestyle it’s because thinking is what you care about. On the other hand if you are a go-getter and want to achieve the American dream, then the US is the place to do it.
According to my research, the first café in France was Le Procope.* Located on the Left Bank near Boulevard Saint Germain, it opened in 1686 and quickly became the center of Paris’s artistic and literary community. It didn’t take long for cafés to open in every town in France, becoming an essential part of French life. Cafés became the meeting places, neighborhood hubs, conversation matrixes, rendez-vous spots, and networking sources; cafés are places to relax or to refuel; they are the social and political pulse of the city.1 Cafés are the perfect place to watch people go by—one of France’s most important pastimes.
Cafés have certain characteristics that make them unique. Seating is always available both inside and out. On the inside you will always find a bar. If you choose to stand at the bar instead of sit at a table, you’ll pay less. Often but not always you’ll also find that cafés include a tabac, the spot to buy tobacco products, stamps, newspapers, phone cards, and lottery tickets. Although you can sit for hours without being asked to move, be warned that if the waiter asks if you want something more and the café is getting crowded, it’s probably a good idea to order something else—“Oui, encore un express, s'il vous plaît.”
Your local café is like your second home. So if you are visiting France, you need to take time to enjoy what it has to offer. That can be hard for Americans who want to see all the sites to make certain they don’t miss anything. But try to take the time to enjoy the café way of life. Sit down, read, watch people go by, and think about the world before you get up to see your next site. As far as I’m concerned that is the only way to start to understand what it means to live the French lifestyle.
*Le Procope is still open as a restaurant in the same location, 13 rue de l'Ancienne Comédie 75006 Paris. It’s fun to go and be a part of French history.
More blog posts on traveling in France to come.
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