My 'Home' Café

photo: cafe daguerre

The terrace is better than the bar at this busy café.

Closed For Facelift or Renovation?

Paris:- Friday, 7. January 2000:- What kind of New Year is this? Survive the masses, survive the countdown, survive the disaster 'bug,' survive a sort of the end of the world as we know it in our hearts and minds - and trip up on a café closed for reconstruction!

About ten days ago, on a Wednesday, in the café closest to where I live - which is not only my favorite but the handiest café - Martin told me it was going to close for renovations, for six weeks.

Six weeks. Without a 'local' café. This is a hard New Years pill to swallow.

There are about ten cafés near where I live so you wouldn't think one of them closing for a few weeks would cause any particular stir. But it isn't just any one of these other cafés - it is the one.

In fact, nobody in the café on that Wednesday evening seemed to realize the implications of the closing. The café had been open for so long, nobody could remember when it last had a prolonged closure.

Some said its toilet needing a re-do anyway. There was a foolishly festive air. Customers were devil-may-care. But already, there was a nakedness, with the illegal roller-ball slot-machine gone. Its empty place seemed to haunt the café like a missing refrigerator.

For me, new in the neighborhood, new in finding a new and congenial café - not directly across the street like the laundromat, but the closest one at that - I knew its closing was going to upset some fundamental rhythms, shatter some local people-geography.

I asked Martin for the name of the backup café. Le Bouquet has 30 to 40 regulars, and theyphoto: cafe tabac brezin would have to go somewhere. I was hoping that there was a standby, a consensus café - partly because Le Bouquet closes all day Sunday anyway.

An older, roomy café, but without much ambiance.

Martin thought the '48' - three or four blocks up the Rue Daguerre at number 48 - might be the standby café. He thought it; he wasn't sure. I asked Dimitri; he hadn't thought about it. They couldn't see doom looming.

Le Bouquet is a popular café for a couple of reasons. The staff are alert and friendly - a raised eyebrow gets me my double-espresso - regulars can run up tabs and pay at the end of the month - which is pretty rare in Paris. Its food, at ordinary prices, is said to be good.

The other thing is the café's layout. A lot of Paris cafés have odd layouts. After being remodeled, they usually have stupid layouts. They get full of fi-fi trick stuff and winky lights.

Le Bouquet has windows on two streets, and inside it has an 'L'-shaped bar with a high ceiling over it. It has headroom. There is someplace for the smoke to go.

Also with the 'L'-shape, there is interior geography, and no group nails itself to one place or the other. Even if the customers seem to be in groups; the whole group changes café sides, from one end of the 'L' to another. Every time you enter, the people layout is different.

It is like a theatre with a new play every night. Only the bend of the 'L' is not good. This is where the bouquet towers. You can't see through it or down the arms of the 'L' and your back is to the door. It is the draftiest spot, and has the least view of the windows.

The regulars in Le Bouquet are pretty relaxed, especially around eight at night. Last week they weren't thinking about backup cafés or what might happen to their favorite café. They were like squirrels who don't stash their acorns before winter.

Last Friday, Le Bouquet was a bit more dismantled by the time the last drinks before renovation were served. I'd gone in Thursday morning and photographed the place - for the eventual 'before and after' - to have a historical record.

This Friday was New Years Eve, so we were to start 2000 without our favorite café. With Saturday as a holiday and Sunday as Le Bouquet's day closed, the regulars didn't bother thinking about where they were going to have their cocktail hour on Monday, until Monday.

On Mondays I do other stuff, so I got on this case on Tuesday.

On my tour of the nine other nearest cafés, I saw three Le Bouquet regulars in one - the Daguerre Village. I sawphoto: cafe & caves peret the owner of Le Bouquet and one of the waiters in Le Naguère. In another six, I didn't see anybody I know. The '48' was closed.

With wine as a specialty, this café is a bit up-market with its terrace heaters.

Before you think I am going through a lot of cafés, you need to know that most cafés in Paris have full-sized windows - many from floor to ceiling. So it is possible to cruise by and see who is where without having a drink in each.

After Tuesday's circuit I had an espresso by myself in the Rendez-Vous on the avenue - where the waiter greeted me. This is the café I use for Sundays, so I am a semi-regular.

The Rendez-Vous is a big 'avenue' café. It is okay even if it a bit of a bus station on account of being near the métro's exits. There are more than 300 métro stations in Paris, and many have more than one 'Rendez-Vous'-type café near them.

These near-métro cafés are the reason the RATP has no toilets. However the café owners don't see it exactly like the RATP, and expect people who may need to use the toilets, to have a drink.

It is impolite to twist the arms of ladies this way, so they usually have to pay two francs to use the toilet - even if they have a drink too. It's not fair and somebody should do something about it.

On New Years Day the Rendez-Vous was still open at 01:45 after I got back from the Champs-Elysées, so there is this good thing about it. Its food is supposed to be good and its kitchen stays open late too. Drink prices, including café, go up by a franc after 22:00 though.

The day before yesterday I ran into Dimitri on the street. He has been a regular of Le Bouquet for a long time - over a decade - and he said he didn't know which would be the standby café. He has lived in the neighborhood for a quarter-century and he knows all about all the cafés.

He knows the nicknames of the cafés. For example, Le Bouquet is called something like the 'Hamon' after the owner's name. This isn't written anywhere and 'H's are dropped in French, so it sounds like 'Amon' to me, but it may be something else. The other places have local names too.

I don't know either official names or nicknames, but I know the café locations, so I can figure out what he means. That evening I found him in the café-tabac between La Belière and the '48,' in Le Naguère - which means something like 'short time' as an adjective.

Dimitri is in the restoration business so he is just as worried about the outcome of Le Bouquet as I am. A good café can be ruined by renovation.

Architects may not like what was a cool style for a modest café in the early '50's, and decide the 'new look' should include chintz. If Dimitri was doing it, it would go back to the 1850's. Maybe that's not right either - Dimitri does a lot of Louis' stuff.

He was trying to remember what the pass-through window from the kitchen is called in English. I didn't know what it's called either, in any language. It is not a 'vasistas' because that is another thing.

Many cafés in Paris have a drop-thing over the bar, which makes the 'behind-the-bar' into a dim slit. Often this false-front part has high-intensity lights blazing down and if the bar is metal-topped, these reflect in your face. You have spots in the eyes before your drink is even served.

So we don't want this in Le Bouquet's new version. Jacquot, one of Le Bouquet's waiters, who was also in Le Naguère - he worked in it for seven years before going to Le Bouquet - tells us Le Bouquet's wooden bar will be sanded and kept.

Jacquot, who usually looks he's just been snitched off to the tax inspector - is a pretty jolly fellow off duty. He spoke whole sentences.

He is the third generation of his family to live near the Rue Daguerre. When he is on holiday from Le Bouquet he spends it in Le Naguère because he doesn't work in it.

He agreed that Le Bouquet's toilet needs some renovation. The one time I saw it, it looked like it was an authentic semi-working model from some '30's crime-movie set.photo: cafe le flashNobody gets charged two francs to use it.

This Le Naguère we were in is a tabac as well as a PMU - off-track betting station - and a Loto outlet, so there is a lot of traffic in and out of its two sets of doors.

It is also undermanned, so it is nowhere as relaxed as Le Bouquet. Getting service is a shout-loud and often business. Looking thirsty isn't good enough.

Le Flash is similar to the Le Naguère, but is opposite the lively street marché.

Dimitri told me the lady who runs the '48' knows everything about everybody, but only opens the place when she's in the mood. I started to think this sounded like some places I knew in Schwabing in Munich.

After all my years of living near Paris, this is the first time I've had a 'local' café. Out in the sticks everything closes at 20:30. It is like a myth come true. During the day, coming and going, I drop in for an espresso. I try to be in it for a half-hour before the evening TV-news comes on.

I've been introduced to other regulars. Many of these are more like neighbors; wives, kids, dogs, grandparents, the girls from the hairdressers, the old-book dealer, the owner of the wine restaurant across the street - Le Bouquet's owner, his parents, his wife, their kids, their part-time café dog.

It isn't a full-time café-dog; it just gets 'parked' behind the bar occasionally. It's only a puppy but it can put its front paws on the bartop and look you in the eye. It isn't supposed to do this.

During the six weeks that Le Bouquet will be closed I think I am going to see a lot of other cafés. This might be a good thing. Paris is a big city. In my apartment building, in my street, I suppose I'm known as the 'new arrival.' Since I am on the ground floor, I don't meet anybody on the stairs.

It could go on for years if not decades. If it wasn't for the café where so many people go, I would hardly have a chance to get acquainted.

The best part is, the closest café happens to be a good one. Six weeks is going to be a long time.

Last night I had to hammer in one of my street-level windows because I lost my key coming away fromphoto: la chope daguerre the Café Metropole Club. I had stopped to take a photo of the mad rush-hour traffic on the Quai du Louvre, and that's probably where the key went.

Warm lights and another heated terrace in winter - adds to 'l'addition.'

With the help of my landlord, who I saw for the second time in six months, and the gardienne who lent me the hammer, I got into my place. People passing by had all sorts of funny things to say. I hoped they weren't the sorts who would try the same thing on my windows themselves.

As soon as I got inside and picked up a spare key I went looking for Dimitri to find out if he does window renovations. I did not find him in Wednesday's café, or in any of the four others I looked in.

Earlier tonight, he wasn't in Le Naguère either. Martin, another one, said I should try the '48.' There's a horrible draft coming in the broken window.

This is the end. 'The End.' Now I've finished writing this, I'm going out to cruise past nine cafés, none of which will become my favorite.

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