Did you ever have the sacrilegious wish to fly to a famous city—like Paris—and spend your time doing nothing? Nothing,
I mean, except sit in a café and watch the world go by? Skip the Louvre and a dozen other museums, chuck the sightseeing bus, the bateau mouche and the climb up the Eiffel Tower. Not even a walking tour to fulfill your duties as a serious visitor. Has your imagination whispered into your ear that simply sitting in a café doing nothing could give you the keys to the city, the people, the whole culture of the place?
Of course, it would have to be a particular café, located in the center where you can feel the city’s pulse and excitement at any time of the day. Your first thought might lead you to the hotspots, the famous Café de Flore or the Deux Magots, both on the Bd St. Germain, but you might soon be annoyed by the snooty waiters who are masters at ignoring you, and by the bands of Germans insisting on noisily moving their tables and chairs on the terrace to catch the sun. You might come to resent the rowdy Russian or Ukrainian bus groups and the international youngsters swarming in and out with their backpacks rammed into your head and shoulders.
Your second thought—the famous Café La Coupole on Bd Montparnasse—would be another unfortunate tourist mistake: even though the café is open all day, Parisian life at La Coupole starts around midnight. (Check it out in my memoir Kiss Me Again, Paris —chapter 4, “La Coupole, Midnight.”)
A café not just for tourists, then, but for the locals and the connoisseurs. To shorten the suspense: how about Le Rostand at the interesting junction of Montparnasse, St. Michel and St. Germain? Full disclosure: the Rostand has been my café of choice for over thirty years. It is the place where I went almost daily when I was young, to write about culture and review my amorous adventures. Le Rostand figures in almost every book I published, starting with my very first, Sex and Other Sacred Games (with Kim Chernin). Naturally, it also plays a role in my memoir.
Why Le Rostand?
Here, across from the Luxembourg Gardens, with the Panthéon in view, you have the ideal Parisian café: intellectual and down-to-earth, cultural and culinary (in the sense that bistro food is on the menu all day long and the baguette comes in freshly baked three times a day, in the best French baking tradition).
Bistro food of decent quality and good coffee brings in the publishers and authors from St. Germain, students from La Sorbonne, bohemians and writers like me, and the little ladies of the quartier who come in for their afternoon tisane—the French lemon-verbena infusion that is indispensible for a cozy neighborhood chat.
So you, the observer, can eat and drink around the clock while studying French people and French life. You will notice some national characteristics right away: even without cigarettes, the air seems thick with words, quick, excited repartees, a verbal speed that you would find hard to follow even after some serious studies at the Alliance Française. But you will pick up the essential, as Gertrude Stein did in her 1939 portrait Paris France: France and French people are “peaceful and exciting.”
You will also notice any number of Parisians working, either together or by themselves. The tables are square and big enough to write, spread out books and manuscripts, or unfold a newspaper without hitting your neighbor. The high value French people place on individuality does not mean isolation, however: tables are placed on different floor levels in a sort of choreography that invites gatherings and also allows couples to hunker down in a cozy corner with banquettes. You will feel what the tout Paris felt when the first café opened in 1686, setting the tone—the famous literary Café Procope (today a restaurant).
Here you could warm up, read the latest news bulletin, and let the coffee fire up your thinking. You may agree with the French café premise that the creative mind is at its best when its privacy is surrounded by other creative minds. At the same time, nothing inspires French conversation like a cup of good, strong coffee. In Paris you don’t just have coffee, however. You partake in what I call a cultural achievement: your café au lait (or crème, for the initiated) at places like Le Rostand is served in two little pitchers: one with espresso, the other with steamed milk. The waiter, in the traditional penguin look of a starched white apron and black vest, swings his little metal tray with the two pitchers onto your table so you can create your very own, perfectly balanced cup of crème. Vive l’individualité! Vive la créativité! If
you are a penniless student or bohemian, as I used to be, the extra milk in your little pitcher will allow you to refill your cup and hang out for another hour or so without having to place another order…
You who have come to contemplate Frenchness at a great café, will be charmed by the fact that the women around you seem comfortable, whether alone or in company, whether eating, reading, writing or simply staring at the chestnut trees in the Luxemburg Gardens. They seem self-assured and independent; they are chic, revealing in their nonchalant (inimitable) way of draping shawls and scarves around their necks and shoulders that being a woman may be a desirable thing in France. But how about that young, Jeans-clad mother by the window, who is engrossed in her magazine, not paying attention to her two preschool tots? Is she perhaps a tourist? A look at the impeccable haircuts of all three gives it away as easily as the impeccable
manners of the children who already seem to know how to be citoyens, tiny citizens of a grande culture. Impeccable haircuts, perfectly tailored chestnut trees… You start to wonder: what about this French fondness for shaping trees? There it is right in front of you at the Jardin du Luxembourg, the strict geometry of French park design. What is the point? Is it a French obsession to create an aesthetic balance between nature and culture? Taming nature? Is this what makes everything here peaceful and exciting?
All of a sudden, while enjoying your Jambon beurre (a fresh, crispy piece of baguette with butter and ham) and your crème, you have turned cultural philosopher, in perfect tune with the history and atmosphere of the Parisian café. Ask yourself which bus tour, museum, or Roman church would bring you this close to Paris, France? By simply being and doing “nothing…”