Conversation at the Café de Cluny

upstairs, cafe de cluny
Upstairs is not like a regular café; nor is downstairs.

More Binge than Gab-Fest; Carried Over to the Flore

Paris:- Wednesday, 11. March 1998:- Coming out of the métro at Saint-Michel, it is raining and it looks like it is going to do it all day. As I round the corner to the boulevard, the fountain is doing a lot of water too.

It is a sneaky kind of rain. It doesn't look like much, but as soon as you take the hands out of pockets, they are wet. For once, though, I am not going far.

I dodge puddles and low umbrellas from the place Saint-Michel, up the boulevard to the Saint-Germain corner. At the Café de Cluny, which is right here, I am five minutes late. This is not bad, after spending some time looking for posters on the Champs-Elysées, and taking a couple of shots on the boulevard here.

What I have here is a 'rendez-vous.' If you live in Paris more than a month you have these instead of 'meetings.' On account of soterrace, cafe de cluny many people wearing raincoats and trenchcoats today, I want to call it a 'treff' but if I do I will have to explain that it is German spy-jargon for a 'meeting-place.' It is a long time since I used 'treff' as a matter of routine.

Warm yellow upstairs, blue on the terrace.

It is not that kind of meeting anyway - or is it? We will be sort of conspiring, planning attacks; but I think we will talk about a lot of other things too - and the conspiracy part may not be the most important.

I manage to get in to the café by pulling on the left door-half after having no luck with the right. Potted palms are to left and right and the manager's counter is straight ahead. I remember correctly, from the last 'treff,' that upstairs is around to the left.

In the big 'L'-shaped room, which overlooks the intersection of the boulevards of Saint-Germain and Saint-Michel and the Musée de Cluny beyond, I peer around for the recognition signal - for this 'blind' date.

How bright will the yellow be and how red the red? I survey the few people, spread around the room. It looks like nearly everybody is waiting for somebody; but if some are waiting for anybody, it is not me they are waiting for.

As I am asking the wrong person if they are the right one, a waitress appears to tell me the target is over there - behind a wood and glass-topped divider - between more potted palms, on a dark red 'moleskin' - fake leather - bench-seat, behind a plain, dark wooden table.

The yellow is mostly hidden and because of the dimness, it is hard to see the red, but it is not something to make an issue of.

There is an initial awkwardness which I mask by taking off my baggage, coat and hat in the wrong order. This is not 'spy' business, but it is a first meeting and every one of these is a new experience of starting something new. You never know where it is going to go, if anyplace.

The upstairs of the Café de Cluny is a good place for a 'treff' like this. It is big and roomy and there is service when you want it and it is not obtrusive when you don't want it. Other customers come in and find tables for the duration, and beyond this there is not much traffic - or any otherentry, cafe de cluny distractions. This is another of the 'Philo-Cafés' - which has meetings every Wednesday from 18:00 to 20:00 - and it is perfect for it.

The Musée de Cluny, when it was an abbey, was an overnight stop for pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostela in Galacia. Before that it was a Roman bath-house and now it is the museum of the middle ages.

The good Baron would have liked it, and probably did.

Baron Haussmann fixed up the intersection in 1860 and the Café de Cluny opened in 1869. It was and is close to the courts, the schools, the publishers and theatres - and one of the first 'big names' to hang out in the café was Nicolas the First of Montenegro.

The national association of bookshop owners was founded here in 1892. Starting in 1894, Paul Verlaine and his pals hung their overcoats up here. Verlaine was painted by Ernest Delehaye, on the ground floor, sitting behind a glass of absinthe. In the 1920's, the Café de Cluny was a favorite of Chinese revolutionaries, for playing bridge and drinking bordeaux.

'Burned' by the post-war existentialists, Arthur Koestler returned to his pre-war place at the Cluny. 'Tapped-out' by events around Saint-Germain in 1968, Marguerite Duras came to listen to Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre in this upstairs room.

The tradition continues, with the Goncourt book prizes being announced here, and around 50 other literary associations using the café as a clubhouse - as well as publishers using it for launching new books.

As the rain falls outside, the hours drift by. The empty cups of café are long cold before the waitress eventually collects the money because she is going off her shift. More people drift in; some to meet other people already here, some bringing their own groups.

One man looks like one of the Smith brothers, with a high-crowned round-topped hat and a white beard about 30 centimetres long. By now the café is half-full and I feel I have been too long in one place; some three hours. Time goesterrace, cafe mabillon fast when there is an interesting conspiracy to discuss.

To head off the waiter who is ready to spring in and take an order for more café, we decide to leave. This is all we've decided; because on the sidewalk we have to make up our minds where we are going - and the decision falls on 'west,' as in, 'west along the boulevard Saint-Germain.'

This is the Mabillon, with a heated terrace, but no takers.

It is still raining a bit and it is harder to talk while walking and dodging other pedestrians; to hear over the noise of the traffic heading east along the boulevard.

Just before rue de l'Ancienne Comédie, we turn into the cour Saint-Andre, which runs behind Le Procope, with its rough cobbles glistening and blue. Then we are at the Buci intersection and we continue past the market, around back to the boulevard - where we keep going west.

By the time we've passed Saint-Germain, it is cold, and the Café Le Flore looks warm. It was opened in 1890 and for a short time had a right-wing cliental before it went left and became yet another one of Sartre's many canteens.

Le Flore has less of a terrace than the Deux-Magots a block to the east; so the commentaries about the passing parade are more... 'pointed.' The 'salle' is smaller and here we take a wall spot, again sitting on moleskin. There is a little-known upper room - which I have not seen - but it is probably where this café's 'philo' sessions are held, on the first Wednesday of the month.

Neither of us has had lunch so onion soup is ordered and I order another double-café. Here too, talk runs on; we are trying to fit in about two-year's worth all at once in case there won't be another opportunity for a long while.

Outside it has turned from grey to blue to dark blue and the lights are on. The Flore is like a yellow hive, withinterior, cafe de flore its constant circulation. There are not a lot of others sitting inside, but there is a bit of in-and-out from the terrace.

At last, the warmth of the Flore; with onion soup.

Inside as well as outside, it is the end of my time. We head back along the boulevard and I do not take the métro at Saint-Germain because the conversation is not yet finished. At Odéon it is not finished either and it continues in the rain and the blue and the neon and the headlights.

Finally, a temporary and mutually-agreed period is put on it. For me, it is later than usual, and for the hour, I am surprised at the number of passengers in the métro.

It is the same after the change at Châtelet, as far as Etoile, and I am lucky to make a quick connection to the train at La Défense.

The day's quota of photos was not reached, for the first time in years. The quota of talk was reached, for the first time in years. It was over-reached; it was a feast of a talk, like you can have in Paris.

In places like the Cluny or the Flore, more is expected by the walls, and today was a binge, pure and simple.

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