Eli, as directed, entered the cafe and asked for, casting about, spotting the menu of options, “a, … un cappuccino, er s’il vous plait”.
“Er, sorry? Pardon?”
“OK. Follow me please.”
The waitress lead him to the back of the cafe, away from the window seats he’d had his eye on, the ones on full display to the street, over to an awkward combo of small square tables against the back wall. She dragged one out and ushered him in. Back to the wall, on a cushioned bench seat. A good view of the whole cafe, and the street. The research had begun.
The waitress was a combo of calm and hurry. A lot of toing and froing for the five groups of people at tables. Everyone got seen to quickly, but then a significant delay before their order was delivered.
Three other tables received their drinks, mostly coffees, before a small glass was placed before Eli. No handle. An extremely creamy looking coffee. Very frothy, brittle-looking foam. A tiny sugar cube in a paper wrapper. He started preparing a sentence to request more sugar, but it soon became clear that what he had was enough for the tiny amount of actual coffee.
As he sat, waiting for the cappuccino, he’d tried hard not to start analysing. Just taking stuff in. Wide-eyed. Placid.
The first sip of very pleasant coffee reached his tastebuds, and he sat back again. The background, white nose of his attention got louder, rapidly, coming to a crescendo as he flicked from item to item in his view. A surge, a breaking wave, and he was analysing.
He was in Paris, a few minutes walk from Gard du Nord, in one of the ubiquitous street-side, see-and-be-seen cafes, drinking an expensive coffee. Almost every aspect of his experience was new, different from London.
The weather was a different grey, and wet. The cars were largely silent, electric, and so many taxis, also silent. How could they be making a living? The traffic was dense, slow moving, and more than half taxis, of which more than two thirds showed a green light, ready for hire. Intermittently darting forward, but with no revving noise. Horns used frequently, but in quick bips.
Next to him, some retired-age people discussed something earnestly, but appeared to be here for as long as it took. Possibly two of them were a married couple, but perhaps not, since there was camaraderie rather than familiarity.
The decor was neat and precise, not placed randomly. Dark reds, dirty cream, brass fittings on the bar.
On the other side, by the street window, a much older couple, definitely a couple, nibbled on their pastries. A tray of small baguettes, no, croissants, was carried in through the front door. A bakery within easy walking distance. Croissants delivered fresh and warm, not heated in the cafe.
The old couple’s conversation seemed very gentle, a murmur, more tonal than actual words. Lots of eye contact from the lady, but the man was not looking up from his plate. Every crumb had his full attention.
A new arrival was ushered in, to a window seat. Well dressed. long hair. Split-knee trousers. Champagne Gold mobile phone used as a mirror almost before the waitress had walked away. Back again soon after, asked in English, like to a child. The same voice he had gotten. Reply was an American accent. “Do you do hot chocolate?”. The answer was “yes”.
People were here for a, not a drink, not the food, a discussion (to his right). But the others? Why were they here? For the ritual? To be seen? To be part of Paris? To support this cafe? To support cafes like this one? To keep this way of life going? To support Paris? To support France and Frenchness? Their overpriced coffees were a happily-paid tax to maintain this way of life? Lots of cliches here.
New arrivals. Two men seated nearby. Talking as animatedly as the threesome. A pause. Something is not quite right. The two look over to at the other three, waiting to interrupt. The three don’t notice, so one of the two butts in with a question.
Immediate response from most of the three, turning round. Some more words are exchanged and one of the three has lifted his seat around. The groups are about to join. They don’t seem to actually know each other, but they know of each other. Credentials are offered and accepted. The lady seems slightly put out, but the merging is going to happen. Who is to join who? The three joins the two. Conversation is buzzing. The French is far too fast. Eli locks onto individual words in the flow, but many other words sweep past unrecognised.
A very weak hypothesis formed. Two different groups of taxi drivers, or maybe they had taken taxis to get here. Eli would never know.
The street was busy. A continual flow of cars, and lots of motorbikes, big but with two small two stroke engines. Many with double front wheels, and lap and leg covers. Small crash helmets. Lots of weaving between cars.
Pedestrian crossing was well behaved. Some pedestrians cross on red, but carefully and quickly, under control. No accidental jay walking. The cars stopped immediately on a red. No-one pushes it. Drivers who hesitate were tooted immediately, but just toots, no long honks.
The cars ran quietly. Electric. The loudest vehicles are the motorbikes, some with baffles opened.
A young black man, at the bar, is told politely but firmly that the windows do not need nettoying. He walks quickly out and away. Doesn’t look back. Doesn’t look upset. He carries some gear. A small bucket, a handle (of a mop?). A sack of bits and bobs.
The windows. There are alot. First estimate is 50 panes of glass.
- coffee is tasty
- To gulp, or to sip?
- Omelette looks tempting, although there is almost no other option.
- Traffic noise is muted. No raised voices inside. No music. The TV is on, at the far side of the cafe, showing news, a riot at Calais? No sound.
- A few exchanges between the waitress and the barrista.
- Paying. Triggered by an awkward hand wave and “L’addition, s’il vous plait”.
- Walking out
- Have paid the Paris tax. This life should continue.