Friday, October 21, 2011
I am trying to deconstruct the reasons why I actually love Paris and why I am contemplating for the first time since 1968 when I took my exams in a restaurant and was more or less airlifted back to New York (a decision I have always regretted)living here again. I never thought I'd want to live in Paris. I had a million reasons most of which boiled down to the French being too grouchy.
But on this trip I am seeing something else. Or perhaps it is what I am not seeing. I have been here a week and I realize that I do not see people running around with big papercups filled with coffee. Indeed I don't see anyone running around with coffee at all. Instead they are sitting with friends or alone, drinking it out of ceramic cups. They are sitting in the sun. They are reading a book. They are chatting. And they are drinking coffee without being in motion.
I have been thinking a lot about the cafe culture (and the fact that it is called a culture). And I remember something I learned in 2008 - my last trip here when I was in a wheelchair. Larry and I realized that it was fairly easy to get in and out of cafes. They all open up right on to the street and they are set on corners.
It turns out this isn't an accident of fate but actually a carefully conceived urban design. When the city was developed a few hundred years ago, cafes already existed on corners. They were drinking houses, places to socialize, etc. And somewhere along the line it was decided that they should be protected. That is on corners where cafes exist (and I believe there are over 1000) a cafe will always exist. A GAP or Prada isn't going to come in and take over that corner.
This is why some cafes such as the Wepler where we stopped in for oysters and searching for the ghost of Henry Miller who was conspicuously absent (and if you reread the open scene of Quiet Nights in Clichy you will perhaps see why)has existed on the same corner for almost a 100 years.
Cafes and their locations are essentially grandfathered into the city design. Landmarked. In this brilliant move of urban planning Paris will never become a mall.
But New York. Why can't it work there? Or in other cities? Because of real estate, because of the need to do sales of coffee in volume (ie papercups), because our particular brand of capitalism requires us to keep moving.
And the French, who certainly have their own capitalism, also have culture, a way of life, that contrary to our own is literally designed for them to stop. And maybe that's what culture is. It's not just the elites or intellectuals or students either. Today a Thursday coming home at six o'clock, a cold crisp evening, every cafe was literally packed.
In my neighborhood in Brooklyn there is a beautiful fountain at Grand Army Plaza. A gorgeous gushing shoot of water and its loneliness saddens me every time I drive by. I have this vision, foolish perhaps I know, of cafes all around it. I long for it in fact. Of meeting friends in the late afternoon, of bringing a book or my journal, and just for an hour or so in the course of our busy lives also coming to a halt as we sip our cafe cremes.