Friday, April 25, 2008


The cool thing about my job is that it allows for plenty of café time, something I consider one of life’s priorities. I have clear, linked memories of which cafés I have read certain books in, written certain journal entries in, met certain dates in, even thought certain personal revelations in. I spend hours in every city just people watching and sometimes bumming wireless internet while getting buzzed on caffeine. The French have a similar reverence for the café, and unlike in America, it’s not just a refueling station for commuters with 24-ounce cups; it’s a laboratory for philosophers, a sanctuary for newspaper readers, and a meeting spot for social papillons.

Cafés are everywhere in Paris, just everywhere! But I had only so many days there, and only the capacity for so much coffee, so I employed my nerdy tour guide, Rick Steves, and his guidebook’s tour of the “Grand cafés of Paris” to narrow things down. I hit St. Germain de Près first, home of the side-by-side institutions Deux Magots and Café de Flore. I randomly chose the latter, with its crammed-full outdoor tables and reputation as Picasso’s favorite hang-out. Without looking at the menu, I ordered my favorite, a noisette, which is basically espresso with a teeny dollop of foamed milk like the Italian macchiato. The whole beverage takes about three sips to finish off, but in this instance, I was paying dearly for sipping in such a prime location. Cafés in Paris may serve nice coffee, but your Euros are really going towards rent, which is why having your drink standing up at the bar can be a third of the price of sitting at a table. It’s all about real estate, and once you splurge on that table, it’s yours til the end of the day if you can sit that long. Once I got over the shock of the bill (€4.60 for those three sips), I milked my spot for all it was worth – wrote three postcards, visited the bathroom to wander around the art deco interior, observed my fellow café-sitters, and watched the frenzy of ancient waiters with extraordinary mustaches and penguin vests.

Because of the cold, it sometimes seemed that my time in Paris was just a race to see things between the many café breaks that were necessary to warm me up and keep me going. And they were sometimes strategically useful. I really wanted to visit St. Chapelle, the 13th century church of exquisite stained glass built to house the relics of Christ, only the wait to get in was outside and endlessly long. One morning, I got up early, found the entrance, and camped out in a window seat of a café just across the street. I waited cozily til I saw others start milling around the ticket booth, quickly paid my bill, and made it just in time to claim the first spot in line.