If you don’t do a single other thing in Paris, you must sit in a cafe for at least two hours some afternoon. Nothing will teach you more about the city than this simple adventure.
You’ll realize right away that cafes are not restaurants. I could rhapsodize endlessly about French food and wine: meltingly tender duck confit under a blanket of crispy skin; chewy chunks of baguette with eye-wideningly tart jam made from the freshest summer fruits; mounds of soft, lightly-dressed greens surrounded by an inventive combination of accomaniments (ever had a Caesar salad with dried plums, olives and hard-cooked egg?) And while most cafes serve above-average to excellent cuisine, for most of the day, most of the customers are not eating anything.
Next you will realize that cafes are not bars, either. People generally have drinks in front of them, but they’re as likely to be Cokes and Perriers as they are cocktails and wine. And they don’t drink with any kind of purpose: after an hour or two, they might have consumed four ounces of liquid, but they will almost certainly not have ordered another.
In fact, there is no word in English for cafe — we stole the word from the French, but we have no concept that matches it. If a child asks, “What’s a restaurant?” we might answer “a place to eat,” which implies that going there when not hungry seems a pointless waste of time. Likewise, a bar might be “a place to drink alcohol,” so if we don’t drink it would be silly to go. By this definition, perhaps a cafe is simply “a place to be.” Your 3-euro kir or 6-Euro Evian buys you a spot at the table for as long as you care to stay there. You can use it to talk, think, write, watch or just sit. You’ll see plenty of all of those going on around you.
You won’t need a reservation at a cafe; in most cases you won’t be able to make one anyway. You don’t need to be seated, either. You just walk in and sit down. A server will approach you eventually (it may be a couple of minutes) and will greet you with a classic French phrase: “Je vous ecoute.” I’m listening to you. On a practical level, it means, “What’ll it be?” but I love the intimacy of that statement, wrapped in the formality of proper etiquette. It so perfectly characterizes French servers, who take their craft very seriously in a country where the service industry is a valued profession and not a last-ditch grab at gainful employment. Your server won’t presume to tell you her name and instruct you to “just holler” if you need anything. (You certainly won’t hear my least-favorite question, “Have you eaten here before?” which seems to imply that this place is so different from its contemporaries that you’ll need an orientation session just to be able to navigate the menu.) She’ll just bring what you need and then disappear while you enjoy it.
Perhaps you’ll ask for a menu, but most likely you came in knowing what you wanted: a coffee and an ice cream, or a citron presse and a croque-monsieur. Unless the sign says “service continu,” you might be out of luck ordering food between lunch and dinner hours, in which case you’re welcome to have a drink and wait it out.
You’re probably sitting outside regardless of the weather, because being in a cafe is about the best of both worlds: the privacy of your own table amid the public environment of the room / sidewalk / street / neighboorhood. You want to be outside. If it’s raining, move beneath the awning; if it’s cold, they’ll turn on the heaters. But unless it’s really foul, especially during the long summer days, you will do what you can to secure a table where you can feel the breeze on your face.
Since it’s so easy to absorb the Parisian ambiance — arrive, sit down, order and soak it all in — you’d think the cafes would be stuffed with tourists. And some are, but the vast majority aren’t; the tourists are out pounding the pavement, cramming their schedules and complaining about the lack of public bathrooms. The French, meanwhile, are nourishing their minds along with their bodies, exchanging ideas and banter as they dig into their dinners and linger lazily over dessert.
I remember so vividly what I ordered the first time I went to Paris at 16 — a jus d’abricot, which came in a tiny glass bottle that I saved for years afterward. My friends and I were making the most of our limited free time before we had to rejoin the group, and when nature called we remembered the proper thing to do: go to a cafe, sit down, order something to drink, and then politely ask to use the restroom. It seemed ridiculous at the time. But once we were all seated, facing each other with sodas and juices, we discovered we had things to say to each other, jokes to make, and above all, experiences to be had. I remember that afternoon more than I remember all the cathedrals and monuments we saw on that trip: for the first time I realized what it was to be French, and I fell in love, hard, with the culture that had birthed that manner of thought.
Paris is an incredible city. You hear the word and you think Christian Dior, Eiffel Tower, Les Miserables, Veuve Cliquot: iconic, monumental and expensive. But what makes it Paris are the hundreds of ordinary cafes, each microcosms of the city’s raison d’etre: a place to be. A place to live.