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Café life in Paris

Famous literary haunts are perfect places to seek out the city's artistic legacy -- or to simply watch the world go by

By PETER OLIVA
Special to The Globe and Mail
Wednesday, July 9, 2003 - Page T2

PARIS -- I am sitting in Café de Flore on the Left Bank in Paris, where Jean-Paul Sartre wrote the immortal line, "Man is condemned to be free."

And I do feel free. The waiters are busy ignoring me, so I am free to stay, I am free to sit here for hours without buying anything except for an expensive hot chocolate, or I am free to go. To the people in the café, it makes no difference whatsoever.

A service charge is included with most everything here, so the waiters can afford to be rude. Like the city itself, they know the intrinsic value of ignoring someone. They will be chased, pursued by waving tourists, and admired all the more if they play just a little hard-to-get.

Café life may be one of the easiest ways to find a bit of isolation in a big city such as Paris. Wedged behind a little table, on a long padded bench, with my back against the wall, I look out at all the philosophers and writers who sit at their tables thinking up the Next Big Thought or writing the Next Big Book.

My "chocolat spécial Flore," as thick as an Aero bar, arrives in a scalding-hot silver teapot. There is a paper wad, chalk-white, on the handle to protect my fingers. Beside this sits a single piece of chocolate. Silently, my waiter delivers this on a silver tray with a complimentary chaser: a tiny glass of water. The water offers little more than a dash of wetness and the idea of clarity, but it is enough to make me smile with gratitude. All this for the princely sum of about $9.

It's a deal, no matter which way you look at it -- for the exquisite hot chocolate that clings to the side of my cup, or for the afternoon's rent that I have paid for a seat that overlooks Boulevard Saint-Germain.

An omelet du fromage sails past my table. A different waiter skirts past with a café au lait and a tiny $5 bottle of Perrier. (The slice of lemon is free.) More indulgences await: chocolate croissants, salad nicoise. These are simple, if expensive, pleasures but the waiters are indifferent. "Choose whatever you like," one says. "It makes no difference to me in the least."

A series of rattan chairs and small tables spill onto the street and I watch people passing by, hailing taxis or walking to the park.

A glance around the café reveals that the main room is a kind of upscale diner, something out of Casablanca on a sunny day. The room is bright. In an outside atrium tourists, writers and lovers either practise the art of smoking or of not breathing in too deeply.

The lovers are all smoking and, just like lovers, are oblivious to the outside world. They are in Paris, and they are free to kiss and smoke as they want to.

The scribblers, for their part, stare openly at the lovers. Laptops don't exist here, but Café de Flore makes this writing business seem easy. There are so many people scribbling in the café, I have the vague impression that each of us is writing about the other.

Of course, the waiters are used to this sort of thing. The café has been hosting writerly antics since it opened in 1887. Like most cafés in Paris, Café de Flore sponsors a book prize every year, the Prix de Flore, regarded as the most provocative Parisian prize and usually given to younger writers.

Sartre once wrote: "We installed ourselves completely: from 9 to 12 a.m., we worked, then we had lunch, and at 2 p.m. we came back and spoke with friends we had met, until 8 p.m. After having dinner, we received people with whom we had fixed an appointment. This could seem strange to you, but at this Café, we were at home".

On this morning, one scribbler two tables over is an unshaven rake in his thirties. He is wearing a huge, yellow scarf, cashmere-soft, which he has tucked into the collar of his shirt so that he looks like either a man in a very expensive sauna or a boxer before his fight. There is something noble about the way he is sitting rod-straight on the bench. He has a pen in his hand and is busy writing.

The woman next to him glances occasionally at the scarf. She, too, has a notepad. She's wearing a brown dress and a hat. Her bright eyes dance and follow the waiters and the writers with a sort of bemusement that they all ignore with professional courtesy.

The scarf reaches for a cigarette. Sartre -- perhaps in this very café -- said that smoking is "the symbolic equivalent of destructively appropriating the entire world." The writer knows this, probably. He's done some research and likes to quote these things at cocktail parties.

The tourists, for their part, examine various guidebooks and watch their luggage. They are multi-tasking. They fan the cigarette smoke away from them, or debate the merits of living in a city that seems so bent on ignoring their desires.

After sipping on my second hot chocolate and my second mini-glass of water, I climb the stairs and hand the bathroom attendant 50 centimes to sit on the one chair that greeted each of the greats who've visited here. Hemingway, Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, André Gide, Jean Giraudoux, Jacques Prévert, Sartre: If any of them went to the bathroom here, then they sat on this one chair, in this very cubical.

At least one of them must have got an idea sitting here. A very good idea, perhaps. Guillaume Apollinaire coined the word "surrealism" in this cubical, I decide.


  Jean Paul Sartre. A french philosopher of the 20th century.
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