By Ray Chatelin.

The real language of Paris isn’t even spoken. 

Yes, of course, it helps if you speak French. Any serious traveler understands the value of knowing the language of a place. But Paris, the city of light, is different. 

Parisians understand that the essence of their city is not in its grand monuments like the Arch de Triumph, the Eiffel Tower, and the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in Montmartre, the most visible and tourist visited church in Paris now that Notre Dame is, sadly, a burned-out shell.

Nor is it in its two major opera houses, the fashion salons near the Champ Elysee, in the great masterpieces of the Louvre, the grandeur of Versailles. or even in the graceful flow and ebb on the Roland Garros Stadium courts during the French Open Tennis tournament in June. 

Nice as these places are, and as frequently as they are promoted, the real heart of Paris is found in the mix of humanity that frequents the countless outdoor cafes of the Marais, the Latin Quarter, or Montparnasse. 

You see, Paris outdoor restaurants are for lovers and poets, real and imagined. The French know that. They always have and have never tried to hide the fact. It took me several trips before I fully understood this about the city. But, once I did, I felt more a part of it.  

Pick any single Paris café afternoon, or in the evening and inconspicuously look at the tables in your sightline. Eventually, you’ll find one in which there’s a story unfolding. If you pick the right table, you can sit and watch and, in your mind’s eye, see the chapters in a gothic novel come to life.  

You can easily pick out the types – lovers meeting, lovers separating, the lonely, the writers, the artists, students, businessmen trying to find relief from sales projections.  

You don’t eat at a sidewalk cafe to conduct business. The French appreciate this. As do the Italians and Greeks. The British don’t quite understand it nor do the Japanese, the Swedes, or the Germans. 

The French, Italians and Greeks know that sunshine melts the brain, and that while fresh air and wine stimulate many appetites, they do nothing for business.   

Participating – even from afar – is an art form in which communication abounds without a word ever spoken. The language is clear, the messages are unmistakable – a subtle glance, an understated nod, a coquettish glimpse from salad to woman or man to wine and then a sip from the glass.  

The French love intrigues even when it amounts to nothing. Reaction is everything. A smile may acknowledge approval, or it might say, “Sorry, I’m taken, but it would have been nice.” A frown may be a rejection, or a sign of disappointment. A kiss on the cheek may mean commitment or it might be a signal that this is only friendship.  

It’s all part of the French mystique and their historical love of intrigue. Go to the great palaces of Versailles, Chantilly, or Fontainebleau outside Paris and among the glitter of jewels, mirrors and ornate furnishings are wonderful stories about love and betrayal. 

It’s the Parisian style and it’s this skill of form that separates the French from other Europeans. In Greece, the style is group showmanship, and the entrances are everything; in Italy it’s individual flamboyancy exhibited at the table. In France, it’s subtlety. 

It’s easy to tell a North American tourist from the rest of the occupants at a Paris café. Tourists from New York, Detroit, Los Angeles, Toronto or Vancouver are generally there to eat or have a glass of wine. Some may have their eyes focused on whatever travel guide they may have brought with them, checking out their French phrase book, or just giving their feet a rest. 

Besides, in North America – and in most English-speaking nations – eating alone is a suggested admission of relationship disappointment, and most singles bury their faces in books and magazines while they eat. 

Yet, eating alone in Paris can be an advantage, allowing you to watch the action and take in the essence of the city and the culture. 

So, by yourself? Put down your guide or mystery novel and instead just sip your wine, lift your head without being obvious and watch the mini stories that surround you.

The rules are simple. Never stare, always play with your food so as not to finish quickly *and suppress the impulse to strike up a conversation.

And should your eyes accidentally contact someone obviously there for more than food, just slowly glance away, pick up your wine glass and give a slight swirl of the vin rouge while looking intently at the wine’s movement. The message that you’d be giving should you be caught meddling on someone’s privacy? “Sorry to intrude. My mistake. It won’t happen again.”

In Paris there’s no lack of outdoor cafes to suit every taste. They line virtually every side street and main thoroughfares in each of the twenty arrondissements, the administrative districts that make up the city. Each region has its own sense of character, and each brings a different type of resident onto the sidewalk.

The higher end neighborhood cafes cater to a different clientele than you’ll find in working class areas. You’ll notice the difference as soon as you look at the menu. The high-enders that cater to the tourist crowd have broader food selections and, in the case of those along St. Germaine des-Pres, have no hesitancy in declaring they were once the favorite haunt of Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso, George Sand, or Oscar Wilde.

However, you’ll find a distinctly different clientele at the cafes in the chic Trocadero region in the 16th arrondissement where it’s common to sit near a table, as I recently did, where a woman of a certain age wearing her Chanel casuals, sat with her white miniature poodle on her lap, sipping her glass of champagne while unobtrusively taking in the action – with an occasional puff on her cigarillo.  

The time of day is a key factor for any kind of worthwhile and subtle café-people watching. Forget breakfast for anything except getting the day started. No point looking for anything resembling style or subtlety at that time of day. A cup or two of café au lait, a croissant, a read of your guidebook and then create your must-do list of the day’s activities. 

Life in the cafes really begins at lunch and then picks up steam in the late afternoons and into the early evenings, especially around seven or eight o’clock when café-life exhibits its full energy, and the cares of the business day are exchanged for the stuff of life that really matters.

If it’s cuisine that you want without distractions, just leave the sidewalk tables, and walk indoors at one of the many intimate cafes and restaurants that dot the Paris landscape. There’s no shortage. 

 But to experience the working-class essence of Paris, walk along the narrow, cobbled side streets of the Latin Quarter and give your senses a workout and take part in its joie de vivre of sidewalk and street cafes, bakeries, bistros, and food markets. 

The crooked and Medieval-like streets such as the Rue du Chat Qui Pêche, take you to intimate alleyways that are as close in character to what the Paris of Chopin’s time might have been like. 

The Latin Quarter area – located in the 5th and 6th arrondissements and close to some of the city’s great tourist areas such as the Pantheon and Cluny Museum – got its name from the fact that Latin was the only language used at its schools during the Middle Ages. 

And this neighborhood is still famous for schools and universities like the Sorbonne and 20-plus other learning institutions. Thus, its youthful energy provides a character of place that you won’t find in such abundance elsewhere in the city.

Most of all, it has an eclectic mix of sidewalk cafes ranging from the fashionable for the more affluent inhabitants who go to be seen (Les Deux Magot; Café de s Flore), to hangouts for the working class along Rue de la Huchette.        

Whatever you fancy, grab a chair, order your wine and cheese, and open your heart to what surrounds you. There are many ways to allow the imagination of your romantic self to run rampant, to give it free reign to the possibilities that Paris suggests. 

Even if you’re with someone you can still play the game without, of course, the freedom that awaits you if you’re alone. That’s when you can more fully watch others play the game of cafe-language and pick up a dialect that isn’t even spoken.


BIO: Ray Chatelin is a Vancouver, Canada based writer/journalist who specializes in the arts and cultural travel. Stories and books have been published world wide.

Photo: Wiki

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