An Afternoon of 'Café Life'

photo: cafe la centre ville, rain

Into every day of Café Life a little rain may fall,
especially in Paris.

This Time, the Real Thing

Paris:- Wednesday, 16. May 2001:- In case you haven't figured it out, I am telling you right here and now that I am a fraud, a faker, a phoney and a humbug. I am not the real article. I do not sit around in cafés in Paris, thinking, contemplating and writing poetic little notes about what I witness or what occurs to me.

It is only at the weekly meetings of the Café Metropole Club that I actually sit in a café for any length of time. All the rest of my 'café life' is in the express lane, standing at the bar, having an express café, and moving on.

A long time ago I found out that being the 'Internet Reporter for Paris' excludes the dream part - sitting around in cafés or on their terraces, and simply absorbing Paris. If you have been envying me for having this job, forget it.

This does not mean there are no people who do this. Somebody has to sit in the cafés - sometimes for years - in order to write all the books and essays about Paris. There must be hundreds or thousands of them, but I do not know exactly because I do not have time to read their compositions.

I am in my number one café, Le Bouquet, fairly often - and in my number two café, the Rendez-Vous, less often. I go inside these places and get an express 10 minutes of contemplation while drinking a double-express café. If it was only the thimble-sized one, it would only be five minutes.

I guess it was sometime last year that I saw Dimitri in the Bouquet and we were talking in West Coast English and Dennis overheard us and introduced himself.

Dennis is from San Francisco like Dimitri. Unlike Dimitri who has been here a long time, Dennis did his life's workshift on the west coast, did a lot of theatre on the side, got his kidsphoto: frog & rosbif, dennis through the schools and when all of this was completed, he bought an apartment in Paris and had it renovated and moved into it to live here and become a beginner of a resident.

In the Frog & Rosbif Dennis browses through the dailies from London.

Dennis gets up early in the mornings and goes to the Comédia café, which faces the market square, where the open-air marché happens on Tuesday and Friday mornings. He has a café and he takes his time with it and he sees a lot of things that are going on.

He buys what he needs in the other small food shops near the marché too. These are not like supermarkets. If you ask, like Dennis does, the fish guy will tell you about the shop's own fishing boat. The butcher shop a few doors away is not suffering from any 'Mad Cows' or hoof and mouth diseases - the butcher knows his cows personally.

Even if you speak French like Dennis, and if you try and ask questions in places like these, Parisians will tell you what they do and how they do it. It is a good way to learn French the way Parisians speak it - even if they are relative newcomers too.

After Dennis has his café and does some shopping he goes back to his place and writes about what he has seen and heard, until about noon. Then he has breakfast or lunch. After this he goes out and sits in cafés - and does what I'm supposed to do, but don't.

This afternoon Dennis invites me to tag along. He intends to do his standard routine. This begins on the corner with the Afghan café on Rue Boulard, where our paths intersect on the way to where we are supposed to meet in front of the Bouquet café.

We go along Daguerre to the avenue and use the métro entry. Dennis has a Carte Orangephoto: passage du grand cerf ticket for a month, and I just use one of my carnet tickets. He wants the middle of the train when it comes. "There's always empty seats," he says.

I tell him about picking métro wagons according to their position in relation to the exits at the destination stations. There are about 350 of these to keep track of, so picking a wagon for its empty seats is just as good.

Downtown 'passages' are handy for taking dry shortcuts.

We get out at Etienne Marcel, which is just north of Les Halles, and go over to the big Frog et Rosbif café on the Rue Saint-Denis where the Rue Turbigo slants across diagonally.

It is a barn of a place, tricked up to look like a cross between an Irish and a British pub. Its attractions are its free British papers and the little freezer holding three frozen bottles of Absolut vodka. Dennis orders a lemon-flavored one and looks more closely through the Guardian and the Independent than the Times.

Tony Blair, running for re-election in Britain, is shown in a big color photo eating fish and chips somewhat clumsily, on the Guardian's front page. Being folksie somewhere in the Midlands. I guess the paper's editors used their worst picture of him so it wouldn't be a boring cliché.

Dennis points out a headline in the Times, that seems to be congratulating itself for some journalistic feat. The papers do not get a good going-over. UK news is offshore. Iceland, also offshore, has volcanos at least.

On the Rue Saint-Denis, he shows me the entry to the tidy Passage du Grand Cerf and we go through it, past its tidy boutiques, to the Rue Dussoubs. Dennis wonders if the Place Goldini is also a marché, but we do not find any tell-tale holes for the posts that would hold up the awnings.

In the Rue Marie-Stuart we note the odd restaurants. None of them are 'fixed up' to be modern, they are all unique in their individual ways. At the end of it we are at the market street of Rue Montorgueil.

Dennis bee-lines across it to a sweet shop named Stohrer. 'Founded in 1730' impresses him. The interior is even more impressive in decor, and contains many fancy things to eat. We get a couple of them, to go.

A couple of doors further along, at the corner of the Rue Mandar, Dennis indicates a plain café terracephoto: strohrer, chocolate palace as our goal. We sit down, facing a big fruit and vegetable shop. There is a butcher shop to its right and after a closed shop, there is a fish dealer.

The Stohrer shop is a chocolate paradise for Dennis, or anybody on Montorgueil.

To the left, on the corner of the Rue Greneta, there is the old-looking café, Au Rocher de Cancale. It is this café's second location, and it has been here since 1845.

The Rue Montorgueil used to be part of the fish route from the coast to Les Halles, so it retains aspects of its former self while Les Halles' market area is completely gone. The street has only restricted traffic and is paved in small, white tiles.

After the cafés come and we eat our sweets, Dennis begins his 'observing.' He comes to La Centre Ville café often. Many passers-by live in the quarter and Dennis has seen them before, and points out the regulars like the hawk-eyed old man who moves carefully on crutches and wears a 'Nike' cap.

Little herds of school kids are shepherded past. A younger man strides by carrying his son on his shoulders. Various sorts of older people wander past us, and Dennis has remarks to make about some of them. Nearly nothing is ordinary for him.

A little DHL van goes by - going the wrong way on a street with restricted traffic. Only a few other cars and vans pass slowly, in the right direction. Other people on the terrace seem as firmly planted as we are, and it is the same thing on the terrace next to the one we're on.

Then the storm breaks overhead and rain falls in torrents. Umbrellas quickly pop open, but most people head for more substantial shelter. Thunder booms a couple of times. The rain continues, quite seriously, and our table's empty chairs with their backs to the street get pebbled with drops.

It feels pretty good to be having this real 'café life,' with no urgency to go anyplace, be anywhere else. Rain, take your time.

It does, and then finishes off with short blazes of sun, that make the wet white tiles glisten. After having gotten two cafés to last 90 minutes or two hours, I go inside the café for its look-over.

It is a sturdy place, not new, not old, and with nothing that shouldn't be in it. It is just a decent café - with some interesting photos on its walls, but otherwise it is themeless. It is a café-type café.

Dennis and I drift up Montorgueil to Rue Réaumur, slowly taking in the other food shops. Any of the similar cafés could substitute for the one where we were parked.

At Réaumur you can get into another scene, but I don't feel like it and I talk Dennis into taking a look at the Rue Bachaumont. This is two blocks backphoto: la centre ville terrace, dennis and to the right, and its interest is in its not looking like Montorgueil at all.

It is wide and is lined with more bourgeois buildings, in contrast with Montorgueil's more working-class look - but the transition from one to another is within a few metres. There is a big and interesting-looking small-windowed black-painted restaurant, but it has always been closed before as it is closed now. Its posted menus have classic dishes.

The terrace of 'La Centre Ville' café is enough to serve its purpose.

Except for a hotel and a formerly famous passage, the street is nearly deserted, as if it is nowhere near the market life of Montorgueil, nor near much else.

At the Rue Montmartre we jog to the right, then left into the Rue d'Argout. This modest street contains the neatest 'American food' snack café I have ever seen. Its French owner has decided a brightly-painted chalet is the way to do it. A little further on, an 'exotic' café-restaurant has a leopard-skinned bicycle parked out in front.

In the Rue du Louvre, heading south towards the Seine, Dennis starts to feel that there is a nearby café he wants to find again. I think I know it and it is where I think it should be, at the corner of the Rue Coquilière and Rue du Bouloi.

From the Rue du Louvre we can already see that changes have taken place from the tell-tale lamps inside, but we go in anyway. It is worth a thimble-sized express café only - compared to its former funky glory which would have been worth a double-express if not more.

We keep going down the Rue du Louvre until we get to the quay, which seems to be a stinking tin river of totally foul shining paint and glass and hot rubber and oil, cans full of bad-tempered, grilling sardine-people.

This is in contrast to the depths of the city's centre, where we have passed the afternoon in peace and calm. The only way out of it is to get on the wooden stage called the Pont des Arts, and get over the middle of the Seine, to be tranquilized by the river and its space.

On the left bank we turn around the Institut de France into the Rue de Seine, go past La Palette, and up to Mabillon and a little west to the now renovated Rue Princesse, where Dennis introduces me to the Village Voice book shop and its owner, Odile Hellier.

After giving the shop a good look over, upstairs and down, Dennis has one final place to show me. This involves turning right at the Rue Guisarde - lined with restaurants - to come face to face with the restaurant called Aux Trois Canettes, in the Rue des Canettes - also lined with restaurants.

From outside we can see somebody in the kitchen in the back through its open door, and he - Alexandre of 'Chez Alexandre?' - sees us and waves us in. We go through the small darkened restaurant part to the smaller kitchen, where the light seems greenish.

My idea of garlic cooking is yellow. Pots are simmering and the chef lifts tinfoil off a pan of sizzling squidphoto: rain rue montorgueil to tempt us.I am suddenly very hungry. If I win the Loto, I will be back! I will make Chez Alexandre my canteen for life.

Passing pedestrians and waiting shoppers in Montorgueil's rain.

At the Place Saint-Suplice, I have half a mind to hoof it the rest of the way. But by now it is cocktail time in our own quarter so Dennis and I scoot over to Rue de Rennes and jump onto our private métro line that brings us right up to Daguerre and all we have to do is walk past its three cafés and all of its market stalls to the Bouquet.

We've hit it right on the time for the day's last double-express. When this is finished we are out on Rue Boulard again, at the corner with the Afghan café place - where we met, was it earlier today? - and here the cafés and the walk and the talk is over.

Here you have it. An afternoon of 'café life,' not from this faker, but from the viewpoint of somebody new to it. Somebody who really does do it, nearly all the time.

In case you think this all adds up to a certain shallowness, or it is all fluff, Dennis also has a 'Paris nights' life - which, added to his morning 'writing life' and his afternoon 'café life,' totals a full-time job. But the 'Paris nights' is a story for some other time. I'll just say that TV is not part of it.

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