As part of my studies in Paris, I am doing an independent study on French Critical Theory with a professor back in New York and my initial design was to study these writers in the city and if possible the cafés they wrote in. I was especially excited to visit the cafés in Saint Germain des Prés such as La Palette, Café de Flore, and Les Deux Magots: this was the neighborhood where Henry Miller discussed the ideas that made up Tropic of Cancer, where Jean Paul Sartre wrote his famous lines “Man is condemned to be free,” and that Sasha Jansen frequents in Jean Rhys’s novel Good Morning Midnight. However, upon my arrival in Paris, I realized that while these cafés are still functioning they are not the same café that these texts I am studying were written in.
In reference to the cafés in Montparnasse, Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises states: “no matter what café in Montparnasse you ask a taxi-driver to bring you to from the right bank of the river, they always take you to the Rotonde. Ten years from now it will probably be the Dome” (Hemingway 49). As the times change people find new cafés to patronize and those cafés will attract a new crowd. Like this cycle Barnes describes these cafés on Saint-Germain-des-Prés are no exception and throughout the ages have been the haunts for a diverse group of artists and authors from Rimbaud, Wilde, Picasso, Vidal to Chagall. Now, the cycle continues and these two cafes on Boulevard Saint-Germain-des-Prés have taken on this new identity of ironically maintaining their old “atmosphere” to a T to attract fans of the past, while other cafés like La Palette (while not featured in any specific texts, is the site where many of them were written) just a few blocks away on Rue de Seine have maintained their same charm attracting Parisian locals.
One Wednesday, a good friend and I went to one of the two “famous” cafés, Les Deux Magots; I had just finished reading Good Morning Midnight so the name of this café has been on my mind. We were seated in sunroom (to be honest I am not exactly sure what the correct term is, but a picture of the room is attached) the walls are all glass and the chairs are the same as the ones on the patio. The seats lined facing out towards the street full of people eating and drinking. Unfortunately, the only French I heard being spoken was by the wait staff. Aside from the lack of the French people and the dent this visit made in my wallet, I was very pleased with my visit: the waiters were charming and attentive; one kept serenading us with “New York, New York” and joking with us every time he came by. I was especially pleased that the Croque Monsieur I ate was not only the best I have had, but unlike the 6 Euro Cappuccino my friend ordered, it was also about the average price for one.
A week before my visit to Les Deux Magots, I went across the street to the other café on my list, Café de Flore for brunch with some friends. When I arrived my friends were already upstairs, as I was walking up my eye fixated on the art deco tiles and flowers that wrapped the walls. This café is exactly as I imagined it when I read about it in my Paris Guidebooks: crowded both inside and out, waiters running around greeting guests like friends, cafes, omelets and delicious pastries being prepared for order. While it takes up the entire corner on Boulevard Saint Germain, the inside is much bigger than it looks. I felt like I could hide in a corner upstairs but the way customers around me seemed to shuffle in and out did not invite that idea. Although my trips to these two cafés were pleasant enough for me to return, I felt more rushed at these places than in any other I have been to in Paris. The reason that made these cafés the icons that they are is not the reason that they are visited today, now these places are landmarks, just sites waiting to be crossed off the lists of tourists.
La Palette only had a tiny blurb in my guidebook, is next to the site of the Surrealist Gallery, near the hotel where Oscar Wilde died in 1900, and neighbor to Henry Miller and Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, and is still pouring out with artistic and art-loving costumers. Aside from its location and the fact that some of the authors I am studying were patrons, it is just like any ordinary bar and café just one. It is a warm café: its cozy ambiance of comfortable chairs and art on the walls balances the darkness of the wood tables and paneling. The waiters do not give you special treatment and the drinks are about averaged price, but the boisterous crowd in the small salon let me relax and enjoy my drink and conversation with my two friends at my own pace. I sat in this room and I am transported to the 1950s, it feels like local gem. Who knows what it will be like in the future—maybe this is the café that some future author, philosopher or artist will work in or reference or maybe it is the next café in the cycle that Jake refers to. Only time will tell but for now I will continue meeting my friends for drinks at La Palette and going to Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore to get my dose of Parisian Romantic Nostalgia.
Referenced: Fitch, Noël Riley. Literary Cafes of Paris. Montgomery, Alabama: Starrhil Press, 1989. 19-25, 29-31.
Les Deux Magots
Sunroom at Les Deux Magots
Outside of Les Deux Magots
Café de Flore
La Palette from the outside
Inside La Palette