The hours I have spent in cafes are the only ones I call living, apart from writing – Anais Nin
The rain started to pitter patter just as we ducked into Café Le Prince Racine, a charming little nook tucked behind the Luxembourg Gardens at 22 rue Monsieur Le Prince. 22 had serendipitously followed me around all summer – my flight seat number, my apartment number, the number of students in the Paris Writing Workshop. We scanned the space, settling into cobalt wicker chairs in a cozy corner. A couple of café crèmes ordered and our conversation turned literary. I was lucky enough to have Don George, the author of The Way of Wanderlust and Lonely Planets Guide to Travel Writing as my captive companion to discuss my writing and share his wisdom about the creative path.
“I spent all day yesterday sequestered in my room trying to focus a story about Hemingway in Paris and all I wrote were 2 paragraphs. I’m just so stuck. Would you mind looking at it?” I pleaded to Don.
A few glances at my computer screen and he responded, “What’s the point of the story? Why do you want the reader to read this? The personal should also be the universal.”
Fueled by caffeine and a shared love of words, we continued talking tête-a-tête for the next hour about writer’s block, about the nature of inspiration, about the purpose of writing. Time took on a hazy hue and the sounds of espresso machines and café customers disappeared in the background.
“All stories should ultimately be about the meaning of life,” Don boldly proclaimed with the Zen of a Buddhist monk.
For a minute, I thought he might levitate. Eyes wide, I paused to take his words in. I wanted that. I wanted to write as a way to tap into the meaning of life.
Don soon needed to go, and after we double bisou-ed goodbye, I took his seat nearer to an outlet and perhaps nearer to his wisdom. Another order of café crème and I began clickety clacking the keyboard, plugging into a feverish focus.
Four hours later, the story was miraculously finished.
I stared at the computer in disbelief. Was it the din of noise of the cafe, the lack of distractions, the eyes of accountability that allowed my ideas to flow so easily? What made a café such a time-honored and historically documented place to write, to think, to connect? Especially the Parisian café?
I began to think of all the legendary places in Paris I had visited over the years, places I made pilgrimages to, hoping to tap into the spirit of writers past. I remembered Noel Riley Fitch’s pocket size book Literary Cafes in Paris I had since college, a semi-sacred text helping me navigate the neighborhoods with its now dog-eared pages. Fitch said the most popular cafés carry the same criteria: easy access to a metro stop and a grand terrace on a large boulevard. Staring into space, I began to daydream about those authored outposts.
My first visit to these venerated places began on Boulevard St. Germain in the 6th arrondissement, where I ate to-die-for deviled eggs at Café Deux Magots. A long list of artists had connected and created under its teal awnings since 1875. Albert Camus sipped strong coffee and philosophized. Oscar Wilde and Djuna Barnes drank absinthe with wormwood. And Hemingway and Janet Flanner lingered over cheap white wine while discussing their fathers’ suicides. The café became such a famous meeting point that it started its own literary prize in 1933.
From the Café Deux Magots, I could see its rival across the street – the Café de Flore. Writer Adam Gopnik highlighted the feud in his New Yorker article “A Tale of Two Cafés” which revealed the popularity contest among the literati. At the Flore, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre, legendary lovers and 1940’s existentialists spent entire days there, writing Second Sex and L’Etre et le neant (Being and Nothingness). Sartre said they “more or less set up house in the Flore” amid the homey “red banquettes, mahogany, and mirrors.” Not to be outdone by Deux Magots, the Flore also began a literary prize.
Down the street, I could have traded in my coq au vin for sausage and saukerkraut at the Alsatian Brasserie Lipp. When Sylvia Beach, owner of the bookstore Shakespeare and Company, admonished Ernest Hemingway for not eating, Hemingway went to Brasserie Lipp. His meal is now famously recorded in A Moveable Feast:
“The beer was very cold and wonderful to drink. The pommes a l’huile were firm and marinated and the olive oil delicious. I ground black pepper over the potatoes and moistened the bread in the olive oil. After the first heavy draft of beer, I drank and ate very slowly. When the pommes a l’huile were gone I ordered another serving of cervelas. This was a sausage like a heavy wide frankfurter split in two and covered with a special mustard sauce.”
I was not sure if the food lived up to this luscious description, but the bench where he sat near the mirrors seemed to hold his substantial spirit.
My mind wandered to the 14th arrondissement on Boulevard Montparnasse where many cafés are now considered lettered legacies. At La Rotonde I devoured a dish of sole meunière with a group of writers as we sat in rich red leather seats. This brasserie had seen the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Elliot, and Gertrude Stein. Hemingway even mentioned it in his book The Sun Also Rises. “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.” Montparnasse was home to many of the see-and-be-seen hot spots for the Bohemian crowd of the 1920’s. La Select, Closerie de Lilas, and Café du Dome, all in walking distance from each other, hosted many of the literary greats of the ex-pat community in Paris.
In the Latin Quarter, La Procope boasted being the oldest café in Paris. Opened in 1686, this historical spot was where Jean Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire talked enlightenment over coffee. American revolutionaries Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson frequented the café, fueled by the Age of Reason. During my visit there, I sat outside on the narrow terrace with a bottle of cold rosé, but inside the establishment hung chandeliers, 18th century oval portraits, and supposedly Napoleon’s hat. Its narrow cobbled street location on 13 Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie seemed perfect for a clandestine rendezvous of revolutionary makings.
“Désirez-vous autre chose?” The waiter broke my reverie asking if I’d wanted anything else.
Back in Café Prince Racine, I asked for l’addition and began to pack up my things. I noticed a plaque on the wall commemorating the 17th Century French playwright Jean-Baptiste Racine, the cafes namesake. Born on December 22nd, he lived in the neighborhood and wrote plays for the local theater. I imagined him in a café such as this, holding a quill and inkwell on a candlelit table, concocting characters and plotting scenes. I imagined his talking to other writers about writer’s block, about the nature of inspiration, the purpose of writing.
I imagined he wrote feverishly for four hours until miraculously his story, like mine, was done.
Literary Cafes of Paris by Noel Riley Fitch – Aunt Jane gave me this small pocket book in 1989
Literary Paris: A Guide by Jessica Powell
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway