August 08, 2014

French Friday: Au café

When I'm lucky enough to be in Paris, I love to sit in a café, sipping expresso or a lovely glass of wine while scribbling in a journal. Although there are great terraces all over the city, it is always a treat to visit one of the iconic cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Sure, the prices a bit higher, but along with a beverage, patrons get a side order of literary history.

Les Deux Magots had been a popular rendez-vous of the literary and intellectual élite in Paris since the waning days of the 19th Century. Writers like Oscar WildePaul Verlaine, Authur Rimbaud, and Stéphane Mallarmé sipped absinthe on the terrace during the Belle Époque and gazed across the square at Paris' oldest church. In the 1920s, Les Deux Magots became the general meeting place of artists and intellectuals as André Breton and his surrealist friends, Louis Aragon, Paul Éluard, and Robert Desnos met regularly to discuss politics and philosophy. When WWII started, the café became a center of political debate. During the liberation, the existentialists, led by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, turned les Deux Magots into their office, coming daily to write and argue philosophical views. Expat writers and artists also frequented the café including James Joyce, Pablo Picasso (who paid for his drinks by drawing on napkins), and Ernest Hemingway who wrote and, of course, drank here (and almost everywhere else on the left bank). By the way, "Les Deux Magot" refers to statue of the two Mandarins inside the restaurant. "Magot" means "stocky figurine from the Far East" and is pronounced "mah-GO" (not like "maggot" which would be quite unappetizing).

Le Café de Flore, separated from Les Deux Magots by the narrow Rue Saint-Benoit, was and perhaps still is, one of the most fashionable café in the world. French actress, Simone Signoret wrote in her memoirs: "I was born in March 1941 at night on a bench of the Café de Flore." Singer/Actress Juliette Gréco moved to Saint-Germain-des-Prés in 1946 and immersed herself in the neighborhood's post-war bohemian lifestyle. Jean-Paul Sartre said that she had "millions of poems in her voice" and she became the Muse of Existentialism at the Café de Flore, where she also met Miles Davis and Jean Cocteau. In the '60s, the café became a meeting place for filmmakers and actors, including Roger Vadim, Jane Fonda, Jean Seberg, Roman Polanski, Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Catherine Deneuve, and Jean-Paul Belmondo. Fashion designers like Yves Saint-Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, and Karl Lagerfeld began frequenting the  Café de Flore in the late 60's; Lagerfeld can still be see there on occasion. These days, the café's website says that "Saint-Germain-des-Prés has become the most famous village of France in the World" where once and a while, you can still spot international celebrities. The café's literary tradition also continues with play readings on Mondays and philosophical debates at 8:00 pm on the first Wednesday of each month.

Which is your favorite café in Paris or at home? 
What do you order? Do you journal, people watch...?