Wander 9- Café Ideology
Updated: Apr 24
Paris is a city of the damned. And any city of the damned is a city for artists, expats, and youth.
Yet Paris is also a city of salvation.
And for anyone who has spent any amount of time in Paris is bound to realize, the character of a true Parisian is found in their café ideology...
First and foremost, you must never go to an empty café. If it’s empty - especially when it’s raining outside - take a hint from those absent. But you mustn’t go to a too-full café. You shouldn’t have to fight for a chair or a spot at a table. Shoved elbows and loud voices will only muddle your work.
Cafés shouldn’t crowd you, only offering attendance when needed. Best way to establish this? Pull out a journal, order an espresso, and start your work. As the loneliness seeps away, the weight of eyes cast down upon your solitude is lifted. Paris respects the written word.
Cafés shouldn’t sell themselves to you- they shouldn’t have to. No shouting in the streets, no herding you in as if you were an unsuspecting tourist, no calling you Mademoiselle, no waving a menu as if it was a banner of revolution. If a café is good, people will come. Trust them.
Yet you also don’t want a disinterested café. They should be polite, but not too eager. They should be encouraging, but not snobbish. Your presence should be wanted, not demanded.
And you must find a café that’s warm. Remember, a café isn’t for sale- no bright lights and obnoxious colors. It can’t be just a physical warmth for even pastel Paris is subject to showers of chilling rain. No, the warmth is something deeper...
As a writer, you need the kind of café where they move you away from the chill of the door, even though they know you won’t order anything more than café crème. A café where they light a candle for you alone so the light flickers on your quickly filling page. A café where crystal glasses create a kaleidoscope on the table. A café where they tell you to take your time, even once you’ve finished your coffee. A café where they see you as something of importance, even if that importance is simply one of presence.
You’ll work best in places of warmth.
Cafés are built either for intense, intellectual conversation -- or none at all.
A drink is always the best way to open conversation- a bottle of wine, a pot of tea, or a few (too many) cups of strong coffee - and soon the words will be pouring out to your companion, whoever or whatever that may be.
For me, my intense, intellectual conversation happened between myself and the paper at hand, the mouthless victim to my observations, epiphanies, and otherwise.
You dream about being young and in love in Paris. But it is a different thing entirely to be young and alone in Paris.
It’s freeing to be by yourself, writing. You have to have the writing if you’re going to be alone. No one can touch you then. No one will want to. They’ll speak their conversations, some empty, some with laughter, and I write mine- none empty, some with tears. It isn’t lonely after all. It’s liberating.
And we cannot forget the coffee.
Coffee should be hot. Warm enough to melt away whatever it is you’re holding back. All too often let our coffee go cold without realizing. We commit the same fallacy in life: letting the bitterness hide the cold.
Perhaps more importantly than any other commandment is this: the coffee at a café must be strong. In this life we cannot settle for weak coffee.
Insist you might on convolutions- americano, au lait, or with crème. But it must be bold and unapologetic in its flavor. Strip away the dilutions of sweeteners and facades of syrups. Take it for what it is -- or not at all. Wonderfully bitter, tauntingly strong.
A good coffee alone in the right café will make your hand work fast and your mind even faster. Suddenly, the words run: a bullet becomes a battle, a breath becomes a ballad.
I was in Paris once. I sat in cafés. Ones I’d never find again, ones I couldn’t tell you the name of. I drank coffee. Strong and hot. And I wrote. I can tell you about the warmth. I can tell you about the taste of a sugar cube melting in espresso. I can tell you how a street light looks reflected in the puddles on cobblestones. I can tell you how snow feels when it’s falling in Paris for you alone.
There are a number of subjects I am not equipped to discuss. There are hundreds of things I will never understand and millions I will never know. But I know cafés. I know coffee. I know writing. And through that, I know life.
It’s a peculiar task to learn how to live. It’s never something you think you have to re-learn. From the moment we breathe air in this life, instinct kicks in. We eat, we sleep, we cry. Then, the sanctimonious simplicity is suddenly corrupted. You become a product and not a person. The only growth you know is how it feels to grow tired, tired of acting as if you are a thing that must be sold to the world.
Here’s the answer- my answer. Maybe it’s not true, but it’s honest, absolute.
To live is to walk into a café- one you feel and not settle on. In Paris or right where you are. Order a coffee. Tip them the change. Let them bring it to you. See and be seen. Sit down, claim your corner of the world, no matter how small. Get to know the people around you. Know them by watching their aloneness, that familiar insignificance. Know their hands. Warm yourself with that bitter black liquid. Open your journal, and let ink bleed on paper. Watch your words transform. Watch yourself, transforming with them. Drink in the deepness. Feel it as it consumes you. Write. Write. Write.
That is what it means to live. Through the written word you shall find your salvation.
Life is meant to be more than tolerated.