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. It certainly is a place that fuels unlimited possibilities for café crawling. Within almost any radius of where you stop walking, a viable opportunity presents itself. Locals readily establish a favorite café in which to hangout in their neighborhood or “quartier”. Here you take a load off your feet, eat, drink, talk, or muse. It’s also the best entertainment to be found.
In telling one of my French neighbors about the ritual I have at a particular café, she informed me that I had simply established “un poste d’observation”. Now that is what I say to my husband when he calls wondering where I am. It’s an activity of high importance, assessing the cast of characters who walk by on any given day. And when he can, he hurries home 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. But the most important is the one closest to where you live. I never know exactly what we will eat until I venture out in the late afternoon to see what looks delectable on our market street. And if there is, by chance, an open café table on the sidewalk, I take it as a sign that I must sit there for a moment or two. In nice weather I can count 11 businesses with sidewalk tables on this narrow street. For my habitual musings and entertainment, I have pledged allegiance to only one. It’s on the corner, as you enter “market street”.
There is a children’s book by Arnold Lobel that goes by the title, 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. This reflects my own experience because on this small pedestrian street is just about everything I could want or need.
Butchers, boulangeries, patisseries, florists, cheese purveyors, dry cleaners, books, jewelry, fruit and vegetable vendors, grocery stores, crepes, sushi, caviar, oysters, Italian-made pizza, middle eastern food, tiny cafés and restaurants, coffee, tea and chocolate shop, wine, champagne and liquor, Italian and Greek delicatessens, kitchen and household products, candles and decorations, and a pharmacy. The only things missing are clothing and shoes. Which happen to be around the corner on a very long shopping street of boutiques.
Before emptying my wallet for the day’s necessities, I sometimes settle into a beckoning chair at my favored poste d’observation. Greetings are exchanged with the server. Usually I order a glass of wine. This varies by the season or time of day. On a warm day, Côtes de Provence rosé or a Loire Valley white wine is standard. In cooler temperatures, a burgundy or Bordeaux is cozier under the overhead heaters. Every apéro beverage comes with a savory nibble on the side. Something salty and always slightly stale. Homemade potato chips are the standard limp offerings. Sometimes a tiny glass of pretzels fills in. It’s what I expect and is always perfect.
On either side of me the tables are full. To the left—a kissing, smoking couple, drinking French beer and sparkling water. To the right—two women of a certain age sharing a crepe sucré. One drinks coffee, the other sips a beer. I give them only a cursory glance because my gaze is focused on the cobbled pathway in front of me. This is where the rest of the world enters or exits “market street”.
The favored times at my café are weekdays during the late afternoon/early evening hours. Or, around noon any Sunday morning. The parade of passersby is constant and unrelenting during either of the preferred times. It requires my full attention. It’s never disappointing. Sometimes I’m absorbed by the range of footwear—spiky heels, stylish boots, flip flops, sandals, platform shoes, sneakers, orthopedic shoes, chic Italian shoes. Other times it might be a whirl of transportation modes to ponder–bicycles, scooters, strollers, prams, wheelchairs, motorbikes, crutches, canes. Shoppers stroll by rolling carts or “chariots” to haul heavy purchases. They carry armfuls of baguettes [always!],
flowers, wine, fruits and vegetables, roasted chickens, oysters or prepared food from the delis. On Sundays, a cacophony of sound permeates the air. Crowds of Parisians are acquiring ingredients for afternoon lunch “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 around, music plays, and always people talk, talk, talk over everything.
The sweetest sights drifting by are small children and dogs, completely comfortable in the hubbub. Once in a while I observe someone watching me watching them. The ritual is recognized. Smiles are exchanged. The parade moves on.
As the wine and stale chips dwindle, I move toward the shops and my own errands. Trudging homeward with arms laden, I pass “le poste d’observation”. Someone is already sitting in the chair I recently occupied. They are watching me walk by. Fait accompli.
Excerpt 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.”