cafe

La Bastille

I head toward the Place de la Bastille where a tall column stands inside a traffic circle.

Cafes and shops today instead of a prison

Cafes and shops today instead of a prison

This is the previous location of the infamous Bastille prison. Stones in the pavement here show the outline of the old fortress. One fateful day, in 1789, the French reached their boiling point–so sick and tired of watching the King pass by in his golden carriage as they were starving to death in the filthy streets. They grabbed their pitchforks, attacked the prison, grabbed the guns and declared a revolution.

Place de la Bastille is a time-honored place to fait le grève (to strike). The CGT (Confederation Generale du Travail) is a French labor union that’s been around for more than a hundred years. People of all ages are walking around the plaza with red stickers on their jackets. A music truck is blaring music. Booths, banners and flyers. Snacks, drinks. It’s a lot more fun to fait le grève today in Paris compared to 1789.

I walk down Boulevard Henri IV, then turn south toward the Seine. Over the Pont Sully, and past the Arab Institute. To my right is the Lambert building where Voltaire once lived. Everything seems much sweeter when I get to Ile St Louis. Beautiful shops, quiet streets, and pleasant cafés. I bet no one is allowed to fait le grève here.

The little bridge called Pont Saint-Louis is a favorite place for les accordéonistes to gather; they play the old  French songs like La Vie en Rose for the tourists. I stand there, breathing in the crisp air, gazing at this gorgeous city built by kings.

Just then at my elbow appears the most weather-beaten, old woman I have ever seen in my life. She is short, bent over, hobbling along, and holding out a tiny, paper espresso cup that’s dirty and wrinkled. She bumps her cane against her bandaged leg as if to show me a good reason to give her money. No problem – I want to give her money just for having lived so long. She was a little girl when electric toasters were mind-boggling, new inventions.

I drop enough coins into her cup so she can buy something in a boulangerie, but when she smiles up at me, there’s something about her that makes me wonder. Is “madame” really just a young man in heavy theatrical makeup?

 

 

Love in the afternoon

After walking a bit, I head toward Place des Vosges and consider Ma Bourgogne. I know this is considered a good bistrot, and might cost a bit, but I need some pleasure. I walk in and stand at the entrance. I try to sound confident as I say, “Bonjour monsieur, une personne” to the waiter, a man in his 60s. He nods and takes me straight to a place in the back of this cozy cafe with 17th-century stone walls. There is banquette seating along the back wall where he seats me. He hands me the large menu with a slight bow, then promptly leaves. A man and two women are seated next to me.

The pale pink cloth napkins have the words Ma Bourgogne stitched in white thread. The white plates show Ma Bourgogne printed in black. I see the typical red and yellow zig-zag pattern of Burgundy on the ceiling between dark wooden beams.

I’m starving so anything on the menu will do, but I decide, close the menu and lay it on the crisp white tablecloth.

Vous avez choisi?

Vous avez choisi?

 

 

I look out the window. I read my Kindle. I feel odd. Everyone else has a partner. I was so confident in my twenties and thirties. When I was younger, I could eat alone in a nice restaurant without thinking twice about it.

When the waiter returns, I speak French and it’s good I get no puzzled stare from him. I order the salade de tomatoes et haricots verts and also the risotto des poissons.

I try to read my book again. I hope I appear calm, but inside I’m screaming. I should have grabbed a take-away dinner and gone back to my room. What was I thinking to come here to a nice place all alone? Is everyone talking about me?

The waiter places the salad plate slowly onto the table in front of me. It’s a movement so gentle and careful, I feel as if he cares about me. I know that’s ridiculous, but that’s how it feels to have someone be so gentle with my salad.

The people next to me are speaking so softly in French, I can barely hear what they’re saying and I’m only three feet away from them. In fact, everyone is speaking so softly, it melts into a low, constant rumbling, like the purring of a well-oiled motor.

I feel my nerves begin to relax. The lights are low, the décor is dark, and I sink slowly into the sweet calm of this good French bistrot. Now I nibble on the vegetables like a contented rabbit in a quiet meadow.

When the waiter sees I’ve put my fork down and stopped eating, he quietly comes to my table.

Vous avez fini, madame?” he asks in a soft voice reserved for lovers and dying mothers.

Oui, monsieur, merci,” I purr at him, smiling. We are all purring now. He carefully takes my plate away as if it’s a fine objet d’art that he will return to the Louvre. He loves me. I know it. He comes back with a bowl of seafood risotto that he places before me carefully as if I am the Queen of Sheba. The bowl is the size of a large casserole dish.

Bon appétit, madame,” he says, bowing his head, and then leaving. No judgment, no attitude, no comment. This bowl is enormous. I hope he assumes I’ve been starving in the forest for days. I swirl the creamy concoction with my spoon, looking for seafood. The smell of la marine wafts up to my nostrils. I slip a chunk of lobster into my mouth and flavor explodes with rich cream, wine, butter, and this sweet flesh of the sea. Mmm, a scallop, here a mussel. I nibble like a drunken kitten with milk-covered whiskers.

He gently takes away the bowl, he asks if I want the dessert menu. I laugh. He smiles. This man doesn’t tell me dessert is bad for me. He loves me. He wants me to enjoy life. He thinks it would fine if I wanted some chocolate now. I love him with an undying love. I will never love a man as much as I love this man. But I know I must stop. Gluttony is a sin.

Oh, non, non, non ! C’est trop !” I say. (Oh, no! That’s too much!)

Voulez-vous un café, madame?” he asks, tilting his head to the side like a puppy. Yes, I do want a coffee, my darling, if only to see you tilt your head to the side again.

There is no struggle to get the check this time. As he takes away my empty espresso cup and saucer, he purrs quietly, “Quelque chose d’autre?” (Something else?) and in my stupor of lobster, cream sauce, wine and love, I manage to say “Non, monsieur. L’addition, s’il vous plait?”

He bows again before the queen and returns with the bill on a porcelain tray. I slowly pull euro notes from my wallet, and in a daze I lay the bills down, including an extra tip for him, because I know he loves me and I love him. Ours was a brief affair.

You want a what?

This morning, the delicious, flaky pain au chocolat is gone. Yes, I succumbed and gobbled the pastry down last night. There’s nothing to eat in this apartment.

I take a shower and get dressed in my black slacks, black top, black coat and black-and-white scarf. I feel most comfortable wearing black. In Paris in the winter, everyone wears black and I like that. My mother used to say in her Southern drawl, “Darling, just remember, black covers a multitude of sins.” (By that she meant bulges.) One day I might be bold enough to wear my red scarf and draw attention to myself, but not now. These days I want to hide. I get my bag and nervously check its contents. Here is the key to my apartment. I have my key. If I lose it, I will have to sleep in the Bois de Boulogne tonight and nobody wants to do that.

Just down the street from my apartment is a little café. I push open the door and sit at the first table. This place is more like a long hallway. From the menu, I order the lemon piccata chicken and a cup of coffee.

The waitress looks at me like I just walked out of a spaceship.

Un café?” she asks, her eyes big. I wonder what the big deal is. Yes, sometimes on a cold day, I like to have a cup of coffee with a meal. I reassure her that Oui, je veux un café, s’il vous plait. She blinks, shakes her head and goes away.

There are four young, handsome men at the table beside me. And when I say “beside me” I mean I could lean my head on this guy’s shoulder if I wanted to. This is so different from the United States where our tables are set five feet apart. We don’t take chances with strangers putting their heads on each other’s shoulders. And it’s unusual to be this close to someone I don’t know—I can even smell his musky cologne.

Perhaps this close proximity is what has generated so many great ideas, artistic movements, and political changes in Europe over the centuries. This closeness allows easily made acquaintances, and intimate conversations.

These guys are speaking French so quickly that I’m baffled. I guess my listening skills are not as vigorous as I thought. The waitress brings my lunch on a beige plastic dinner plate, a presentation reminiscent of a school cafeteria. Not what is usually expected in Paris, but it’s cheap, and I’m starving to death, and…oh….oh! this lemon piccata chicken is the most heavenly morsel I’ve ever put in my mouth! It’s so delicious I might pass out.

After a few more bites, I’m convinced this must have been a happy, little French chicken pecking away at worms in the moist French soil. I’m sure it enjoyed the warm French sun on its fluffy white feathers every day. And it was loved dearly by the farmer’s little daughter who cried when this poulet gave its life for the great Republic of France.

As I’m gobbling down my meal, absolutely grateful that France knows how to raise delicious chickens, the gorgeous guys have finished their plates and are now sipping tiny cups of espresso.

That’s when it dawns on me. I forgot the French drink coffee after their meal. So that’s why the waitress looked at me like I was ET in the closet.

Relaxation

I nibble contently on my salad, sip my wine, and watch the stream of humanity passing by. Everyone in the café is speaking in such low tones the ambient sound is like the soft rumbling of distant thunder. I am slipping into a deep relaxation, feeling like a cat on a windowsill.

I can’t help noticing a handsome couple to my right. The waiter comes to their table only when they pause in their conversation. How thoughtful. Perhaps this waiter would rather submit to the guillotine than to bother them. Who knows? They might be falling in love.

le café

le café

Ah yes, the beauty of a French café is that waiters leave you alone. They give you time to ruminate, dream and create. Can you imagine Gustav Flaubert sitting in a café, writing his masterpiece, Madame Bovary, while a waiter keeps bugging him with “Do you want more bread?”

Paris is woven with daydreams of creativity in her fabric. Literature, music, art—such great ideas have been conceived in Parisian cafés—the incubators of genius.

With my glass and salad plate now empty, my mind drifts aimlessly as I contemplate my existence. I dream that I am creating the most exemplary novel of the 21st century.

After an hour and a half of this lovely-Parisian-café-induced reverie, the sun has set and I must move on. I motion to the waiter for l’addition (the check). He nods. Ah, I have communicated my desire by simply raising my finger. Wonderful. But then I don’t see him for fifteen minutes. I catch his eye again. He nods. He goes to every table in the room but mine. I’ve been left alone with my thoughts now for almost two hours.

I’m no Flaubert—I just want to stand up and see if my legs still work.

Finally, he comes with the check. I pull out my Visa card and he says “Ah!” and rushes away. My heart sinks. But in a moment, he returns with a small, hand-held credit card machine. How clever! He runs it at the table, I sign the receipt, and I’m free.

 

 

Dining alone

When the waiter comes back, he leans slightly and crooks his head to the side.

« Vous avez choisi ? » he asks. (You’ve decided ?)

I look up at him, praying he will understand my vowels.

Oui, je voudrais un chablis et une salade vegétarienne, s’il vous plait, monsieur,” I say. What a mouthful. I rehearsed it beforehand, remembering to purse my lips like “oooo” to say une and popping my syllables like marching toy soldiers in ve-gé-ta-ri-enne.

He nods and leaves. So far, so good. He understands me and I haven’t knocked anything over. I feel like I’m on stage in a spotlight. Everyone must be staring at me. I pretend to rub the back of my neck as I turn my head to casually look around the café.

No one is looking at me! What? I can eat alone in Paris and not be considered an odd-ball? In my small town in Florida, whenever I dine out alone, people stare at me like I’m a circus freak, waiting to see what trick I’ll do. In a town filled with tourists, families and retired couples, it’s unimaginable that a woman would sit alone at dinner without a significant other pasted to her side.

I take a deep breath and look out the window. I’m facing east and it’s twilight. On my left I can see La Tour St. Jacques and to the right is the Hotel de Ville. What a beautiful view. This bistrot was opened in the 1800s by a German immigrant named Zimmer. The interior is rich and voluptuous—red velvet curtains, an ornamental ceiling, paneled walls and chandeliers. It used to be the favorite haunt of famous people like Sarah Bernhardt, Jules Verne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustav Mahler, and Igor Stravinsky. No wonder why my beautiful salad of fresh greens with blanched cucumbers, beets, carrots, and green beans costs twenty-four dollars.

 

Une personne

I’m starving, so I stop at Le Zimmer on the place du Châtelet. This café is next to the Théâtre du Châtelet. I have no idea whether this café is good or bad; it’s here and I just can’t walk anymore. Standing at the entrance, I pray that I won’t have to stand here so long that people begin to look at me. I hate it when a group of people turns and looks at me.

A waiter is walking toward me. He comes into my personal space, his dark eyes on me. I can barely breathe. He’s about three inches shorter than me.

Bonjour, monsieur,” I say timidly.

Bonjour, madame,” he says with a smile, then quickly he turns and walks away, expecting me to follow him. He stops at a nice table at the window. He’s standing there, waiting for me. I try to look blasé as I thread myself through a very narrow aisle between the tiny tables on this enclosed sidewalk cafe.

I go slow and take small steps so if I do hit something, less damage will be done. How in the world did all these people get in here? After I finally arrive at a table the size of a laptop, he gives me a sideways glance with a coy smile.

Une personne?” he asks. (One person?)

Oui, monsieur, merci,” I say.

I’m sure he knows English but since I started this game off in French, he’s going to play along.

I slide my rump down onto the small, straw-woven chair, negotiating my belly around the tabletop, praying that I tip nothing over. I put my purse down and pray I don’t forget it. I take the menu from him. He nods and moves away. I exhale. I may never be able to get out of this tiny chair, but I’m here and I’ve got a wonderful place at this window to watch the parade of people on the sidewalk.