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’s true that café culture is built into centuries of French history. Within almost any radius of where you stop walking, a “sit down” opportunity presents itself. Locals find 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 also the best entertainment around.
I told one of my French neighbors about my ritual at a particular café on our market street. She nodded and said it’s simply the establishment of 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 on any given day. 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 one is the one closest to where you live.
I venture to market street in late afternoon to see what looks delicious to buy for our evening meal. If, by chance, there is an empty sidewalk café table, I take it as a sign that I must sit down for a moment or two. In good weather, I count 11 businesses with sidewalk tables on this narrow street. For my musing and entertainment, I have pledged allegiance to only 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. This is my experience, too, because on this small pedestrian street is just about everything I want or need.
Butchers, boulangeries, fish market, 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, candles, household decorations, and a pharmacy.
Before opening my wallet for the day’s necessities, I settle contentedly into an empty chair. 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 red Bordeaux is cozier under the overhead heaters. Every 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.
The tables on either side of mine are occupied. On the left—a couple moves seamlessly from kissing, to smoking, to drinking beer. On the right—two women of a certain age share a crepe sucré. One has coffee, the other sips beer. I give them only a cursory glance because my gaze is focused on the cobbled path in front of me. This is where the rest of the world strolls by.
The best times at my café are weekdays in the late afternoon or early evening. Sunday morning is also a perfect time to make important observations. The parade is constant. It requires my full attention. It 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 heavy purchases. They carry armfuls of baguettes.
Or they may be laden with flowers, wine, fruits and vegetables, roasted chickens, oysters or prepared food from the “traiteurs”. On Sundays, a cacophony of sound permeates the air. Parisians are picking up 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 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 my “poste”. Someone else is sitting in the chair I occupied–watching me as I walk by…
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.”