When our son made his first trip to Paris in 2008, he wryly observed that the city seems to be founded on the notion to stop, have a drink, and talk with someone every 50-100 feet. Café culture is built into centuries of French history. Within almost any radius of where you stop walking in this city, a sit-down-and-take-a-break opportunity presents itself. Locals always have a favorite café in their neighborhood or “quartier”. Here, you take a load off your feet, eat, drink, talk, muse, or hang out. It’s easily some of the best entertainment around.
When I told a French neighbor in our apartment building about my ritual at a favorite café on our market street, she nodded and said I had established my “poste d’observation”. Now that’s what I tell my husband when he calls wondering where I am. I’m involved in an activity of great importance–assessing the cast of characters who walk by my table. Sometimes he hurries to join me.
Of course, there are market streets all over Paris—open markets, covered markets, farmers’ markets, daily markets, bi-weekly markets, organic markets. The most important is the one nearest to where you live.
I venture to our market street in late afternoon to find something delicious for the evening meal. If, by chance, there is an empty table at my café, I take it as a sign that I must sit down for a moment or two. In the season of warm weather, I count 11 businesses with sidewalk tables on this narrow street. For my musing and entertainment, I have pledged allegiance to only this one. It’s on the corner where all the action begins.
There is a children’s book by Arnold Lobel called On Market Street. It tells the story of a little boy enticed by shopping on a particular street. He buys everything from A to Z, then trudges home carrying it all. That is my experience, too, because on this small pedestrian street is almost everything I want or need.
Butchers, bakers, patisseries, florists, cheese purveyors, books, jewelry, fruit and vegetable vendors, grocery stores, crepes, caviar, oysters, homemade pizza and pasta, middle eastern food, cafés and restaurants, coffee, tea and chocolate, wine, champagne and liquor, Italian and Greek delicatessens, candles, household decorations, a pharmacy and a dry cleaner.
Before opening my wallet for the day’s necessities, I settle into an empty chair at my “poste”. Greetings are exchanged with the server. I order a glass of wine. This varies by the season or time of day. On a warm day, Côtes de Provence rosé is standard. In cooler temperatures, a glass of Bordeaux feels cozier under the overhead heaters. Every beverage comes with a savory nibble on the side. Something salty and slightly stale. Homemade potato chips are the standard limp offerings. Sometimes a tiny glass of pretzels. It’s what I expect and is always perfect.
The tables on either side of mine are occupied. To the left, a couple moves seamlessly from kissing to smoking to drinking beer. To the right, two women of a certain age share a crepe sucré. One has coffee, the other sips beer. I give them only a brief glance because my gaze is focused on the cobbled path in front of me. This is where the rest of the world flows by.
Best times to be positioned at the “observation post” are late afternoon or early evening. Sunday morning is a perfect time to make important observations. The parade is constant. It requires full attention. And never disappoints.
Sometimes I’m absorbed by the range of footwear–spiky heels, stylish boots, flip-flops, sandals, platform shoes, sneakers, orthopaedic shoes, even chic Italian shoes on a man with crutches.
Shoppers use rolling carts called “chariots” to hold and carry heavy purchases. They carry armfuls of baguettes.
Or they may be laden with flowers, wine, fresh produce, roasted chickens, oysters or prepared food from the “traiteurs”. On Sundays, a cacophony of sound permeates the air. Parisians are picking up ingredients for lunch at home “en famille”.
Vendors hawk produce, servers rattle glasses and silverware, babies cry, friends greet each other with kisses, dogs bark and fight, children laugh and run, bikes and scooters roll by, music plays. And always, people talk, talk, talk over everything.
The sweetest sights drifting by are small children and dogs, completely at home in the hubbub.
Sometimes I notice someone watching me watching them. The ritual is recognized. Smiles are exchanged. The parade glides by.
As the wine and stale chips dwindle, I move on to the shops and my own errands.
Trudging homeward with arms laden, I pass the chair I recently occupied. Someone else is sitting there–watching me as I walk by…
except from On Market Street by Arnold Lobel, illustrations by Anita Lobel
“The merchants down on Market Street were opening their doors. I stepped along that Market Street, I stopped at all the stores. Such wonders there on Market Street! So much to catch my eye! I strolled the length of Market Street to see what I might buy…
My arms were full on Market Street, I could not carry more. As darkness fell on Market Street, my feet were tired and sore. But I was glad on Market Street, these coins I brought to spend, I spent them all on Market Street…
On presents for a friend.”