Welcome to the Café Chronicles, an illustrated and annotated compendium of approximately three hundred cafés that I visited during nearly two years of living in Paris. This is in no way an attempt at a comprehensive collection the city has unfathomably more than 300 establishments that could be called cafés, and I doubt that any single Parisian, or any human being, will ever visit them all. Nor does it include every commerical establishment where I stopped to sip a coffee or beer. For that matter, it even includes a couple of places where I never even purchased a beverage. So what has made it in? For the most part, most any place I stepped into that had the word café on its bill or marquee. Beyond that are several restaurants at non-meal times, a number of bars before evening revelry, and a smattering of other venues with a working espresso machine.
The chronicle is divided somewhat arbitrarily into five chapters, each one covering a time span of between 4-6 months. The breaks between the largest chapters involved a trip back to America, which accounts for the uncharacteristically long gap between cafés stops. They also coincided or possibly even brought about a change in modus operandi in terms of my purpose and movement through the city. The first and last sections, on the other hand, are of a different nature. For one thing, it was sitting for a quiet coffee on the first Sunday after New Years 2001 that I decided to compile a log of cafés I visited. From that point forward, every morning crème, every late-day demi, became a minor but self-conscious attempt to document some personal history in the making, as each one instantly became a moment in the unfolding narrative. Of course to make the project as inclusive as possible, the first four months of more innocent café-hopping had to be reconstructed retrospectively, which I more or less accomplished in one go that same Sunday (with corroboration later that evening from e-mail written to various friends over the previous months). For the next 16 months, the names, locations, and circumstances of close to 300 cafés collected quietly in a list on my computer. In May 2002, however, with less than two months before I was due to move away from Paris, the chronicle took a crucial turn toward its final phase, as I set out to photograph each and every one of the cafés in that list. As a result, the final section, the epilogue, took on a character of its own, since from this point on I was rarely without my camera to snap a picture as soon as I got up to leave a given café. This had the advantage of making it possible to include in the photo any friends with whom I had been to a given café. It also had the (negative?) consequence of making the whole enterprise all that much more self-conscious, especially as my residency approached its inevitable end.
Several locations figure prominently in this story. First and foremost is the one that brought me to France in the first place: a suburb just to the southeast of Paris called Créteil, which is home to the main campus of the Université de Paris XII Val-de-Marne. It was there that I worked three days a week, for nine hours of classroom contact, teaching English conversation and phonetics as a lecteur danglais from October 2000 to September 2001. Paris-XII sort of served as a proxy graduate department, providing most of the social contact I had during my first year in Paris. In that sense, because I was teaching English and spending time with anglophones, that first year was much less different from life as Id known it recently.
In my second year, I was enrolled as an auditeur libre at the Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales (INALCO), known to many as Langues O. Although I started out ambitiously, heading out to the Clichy campus (just beyond the northwestern edge of Paris) three days a week for classes of Persian, Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Spanish, by the end of the year I was only regularly attending this last one. Now it would be unfair to blame only myself for this. Successful language learning requires, at the very least, a consistent and sustained interaction between student and teacher, and none of these classes could be said to provide that. Meeting once a week simply wasnt enough, and being lectured to about a language is barely stimulating even to this linguist. The classroom was simply not, in general, a place for discussion. And yet sometimes these classes were not all that different from French television talk shows, minus the audience: a student might ask a question, but as soon as the teacher started in on the answer, so did the student. Two people talking at each other, neither one in the language being studied.
In a less formal setting, I was a regular member of a Yiddish course at the Bibliothèque Médem, a cramped but convivial library / communty centre just to the west of Place de la République. I even holed up there for several afternoons in the fall of 2001 for some thesis-related research (ironically, just after I left Paris for good, the library relocated to a building on a passgae just around the corner from my apartment). In both years I found myself in classes with mostly middle-age and older folks, the charm of which wore off the second year, when the teacher of the advanced level operated without much in the way of pedagogy and I stopped attending. Yet Médem did provide me with early on with a foothold in something Parisian outside the context of Paris-XII.
In fact I managed to have something of a foothold all over town, since I managed to pass through three addresses in my 22 months there. Shortly after arriving in town I moved into a small chambre de bonne in the 7e, a place whose north-facing 8th-floor view of the Eiffel Tower and the Hôtel des Invalides partly made up for its 10m2 of living space, swank but dull location, eight-floor walkup, toilet down the hall and complete lack of bathing facilities. In early November 2000 I moved into a terrific (if somewhat pricey) apartment on a quiet street in the 14e. It was about to be vacated by an American graduate student whod been renting it off the books from a French architecture student living in Brooklyn. With a 5th-floor balcony overlooking the street, modern double-paned windows in front and rear for coziness in winter and a through-draft in the summer, a comfy bed and furnished living room, I was very well housed. Although it was only a short block away from the central north-south artery, it was the relative distance from the centre of town that made me feel good about moving in July 2001 into a friend's apartment in the 11e. With two digicodes instead of a streetside intercom, an elevator versus five flights of staris, a large elegant foyer with locked mailboxes, three tall classically-French windows overlooking a quiet courtyard, and a short walking distance to some of the citys livelier and more diverse parts, I felt I was moving up in the world. Then one day in early November, I woke up with no feeling in my toes. For the next five months, the area next to the windows served better for cold storage than the refrigerator. Small activites, like stepping out of the shower onto the frigid tile, turned into intimate encounters with nature, or at least with life in an unheated apartment of northern Europe. When my friend, the previous tenant, had asked our landlady, if shed reimburse her for a couple of small ceramic heaters, her reply was, Mais, tu sais il fait froid dehors [But, you know its cold outside]!
Beyond the sights and sounds, there is the cast of characters that weave in and out of the cafés and my life. They more or less fall into the following groups:
The Créteil crowd: an easy-going but disgrunted Irish graduate student in his second year as lecteur danglais at Paris-XII, a thoughtful and outgoing fellow with a tremendous talent for absent-mindedness and a disturbing fondness for things German; a recent graduate of the University of Kansas, the least gifted French speaker of the bunch but also the one with the least existential angst and the best-located apartment; a recent graduate of Leeds University, the most well-travelled among us, and the one leading the most well-rounded, least self-conscious life in Paris (which included a steady French boy); a British grad student in French literature, the most aloof, driven, and professional of the group, the one least involved in the lives of her fellow lecteurs, and yet the most prone to spinning yarns of inordinate length and questionable interest.
Other Créteil-related folks include the lecteurs supervisor of sorts at Paris-XII and the Franco-British expatriot par excellence: a 13-year resident of the Paris suburbs, father of two bilingual girls and spearated from his French wife, working on his own PhD in Phonetics and toward a permanent post at Paris-XII, yet always up for slagging off the locals over a proper, civilised pint; the flatmate of one of the lecteurs, a four-year British expat in Paris and a lectrice at Paris-XII the previous two years, now working part time at a prison while studying for a Psychology degree, and wooing any number of Jewish / Israeli men en route to working in the United States; a fellow lectrice's French boyfriend, working on his degree in Biology at Jussieu (Paris-VII), hes the guy who taught me to speak guitar-French, and whom I taught to play Dylanese. One last Créteil confrere is the University of Kansas envoy to Paris-XII the year following me, whom I met by accident one night as he was walking home past Le Danton in the 6e. We wound up taking in many films and pints together, hitting everything from a teeny-tiny bar in the 18e frequented by an authentic crowd of local artstists and writers to a windy night of Guinness and the spaces in between on a quay down by the Seine .
The Cornell connnections: the grad student in French whom I succeeded at Paris-XII but who, as I would do, stayed a second year in France on fellowship (after which I moved in to her apartment in the 11e). Before I had even made it to France, however, she had written the Cornell/Paris-XII Exchangees Survival Guide, which became my bible for getting settled in. Other Cornell connections include another grad student in French, who was in Paris for the semester when I first arrived, and who came back to live the following year as well. She was sharing an appartment in the 15e with my Cornell successor at Paris-XII, also a grad in French. She also had the distinction of sharing the same birthday as me (and one of the lectrice, for that matter), and we managed to celebrate four in a row together, first with dinner at Gli Angeli in the 4e, a year later with lunch at Le Petit Fer à Cheval, also in the 4e, and most recently with drinks in Ithaca. Finally theres a fellow Cornell linguist and probably my closest friend in Ithaca, who came to visit for a week during the first winter break, which got me out to parts of the city I had yet to discover, and to host my pendaison de crémaillaire (housewarming) two months after the fact.
The Oxford two: a fifty-something Frenchman whom I had met the previous summer on the Yiddish program there. Fluent in English, moderately philosophical, and endlessly romantic about his city. I stayed at his apartment for the first week after arriving which is probably why he got me the chambre de bonne in the 7e so quickly. And my girl during the Oxford program, who managed to make life so interesting during the first few months in Paris. Having just moved to London, she visited on three occasions: first in early November 2000, in what turned into a ludicrous weekend of re-connecction and Yiddish pillow-talk; then later that month, ostensibly with her step-mother and step-brother (but staying with me for a little more Yiddish magic); and finally in early February 2001, in a far more tortured weekend of drama before dissipating into infrequent contact.
The Montreal West wing: an early childhood friend actually, the younger sister of an early childhood friend. With their family living as French expats in the same part of Montreal where I grew up, her brother and I met at nursery school, and our families became friends. Although I did see him several times in Paris (he lived with his cousin in the 9e), I spent alot more time hanging out with her, especially once I moved to an appartment just two métro stops up from her place. She and her brother shared an interesting set of language skills: having grown up in Canada as early bilinguals, their English accents could pass for a natives, but grammatically and lexically it was full of interference from French. In addition, her soon-to-be fiancé and now-husband, spoke little to no English (though understood a good deal more), but he did play a fine folky guitar, and had a certain earthy sensibility that I got along well with.
The Jewish Mens Rap Group & Associates: my closest friend not to come visit me in Paris, though we did meet up for a weeklong roadtrip through Flanders and Holland. He had in fact lived in Paris for a few months the year before me, when he was contracted to write the Paris chapter of a Europe guidebook. I had no notion that Id be moving to France when sent me what hed written, but once I was on the ground there it quickly became my first cat-book. Next theres another of my closest friends (freshman roomate in college) and his wife, who came to France for a month in September 2001 for the main leg of their Last Trip Before We Stop Trying Not to Have Kids tour. Our rental car was breaking down with a puff of white smoke in the Champagne backcountry at the very moment of 9/11, which cancelled our travel plans to Turkey a few days later and provided them with an unexpectedly long stay at my place in Paris. As observant Jews and devout Californians, they had some trouble seeing Paris beyond the ubiquitous cigarette smoke, promiment Arab population, and bountiful kosher eating. Yet through them I did get to meet several other Jews about town, including one before they even arrived: a Masters student in Psychology at Paris-VIII who got in touch with me at the urging of her college friend, my friend's wife. Although we didnt quite hit it off in any useful way, we did hang out several times during my somewhat lonely first summer and when our friends visited just before she returned to the US. But in fact the first friends to visit were other college friends, soon to be husband and wife, who came to town just before Christmas to stay with his dad, whod beeen living in the city during his sabbatical. Since it was in effect a family trip, and since my own parents visit more or less overlapped with theirs, we didnt get to spend an enormous amount of time together, but he did nearly become the only person I knew to donate his tie to the collection at a certain pub in the 5e.
The Paris Jewish gentry: first of all, the most recent in a string of part-Italian Jewesses to have bewitched me. We met at a Rosh Hashana dinner (with my Californian visitors), where we sang a pair of Yiddish songs in harmony and left everyone in the room convinced a match had been made. I was emboldened when she left a message in song on my voicemail, but when I finally made the move a few weeks later in my elevator, after a long afternoon of guitar and what I thought was mutual flirting I was rebuffed. Yet we wound up becoming close friends for the remainder of my time in France (although the boyfriend she chose over me was not among my fans). It was the night before meeting Ruth that I met a nice Jewish boy from Nice with a fairly mainstream and business-y disposition (and a too-lovely Bulgarian girlfriend). He was possibly going to hire me as an English tutor, but that never quite materialized, and we became reasonably close friends. The famous home where I met both him and Ruth was that of a vivacious middle-aged Sephardic couple living in the 11e, who made a habit of taking in wayward Jews from the Rue de la Roquette synagogue at holiday time and generally offerring way too much hospitality.
The latter-day saints: a Canadian-born film post-doc from Harvard, he currently based in Montreal, along with a Polish-born film buff, she most recently a resident of Oxford and about to start a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Chicago. I met him at a party at my Nice friend's apartment, where as a Portuguese speaker he was intrigued by my dissertation topic. It was through him that I met the Polish lass (whom he had met at one of the many lectures they both attended), when she joined us for an absurd western at the Action Christine in the 6e. When he left Paris to travel with his girlfriend and then to return to Montreal (with a brief crash at my place in between), she and I took to doing all sorts of things together, from seeing any number of films I might never have otherwise, to checking out the Portes Ouvertes days organized by artists in the 20e, or just meeting for a drink somewhere other than an Irish pub.
The Two Towers
There are, however, two other figures with more presence and influence in the story than any real person. The major figure looming over the first half of my Parisian life was Fyoodor Dostoyevsky. Throughout that first year or so most stops for coffee included several pages digested from whatever novel of his I was currently reading. Now, Im hardly a voracious reader of fiction. As a matter of fact, I started and never finished several other novels during my two years in France: The Enigma of Arrival by V.S. Naipaul, Kafkas The Trial (in French), and the last volume of Prousts A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, as well as the first volume twice. However a friend had long recommended Dostoyevsky to his fictionalistically-challenged friend. In addition, for my 15th birthday an uncle of mine (who has since died) had bought me a slew of classic stern novels that Id obviously had no compulsion to read at the time, among which, if memory serves, were two by Dostoyevsky. So when I found myself in Paris with time on my hands and nothing compelling to read (I had brought only a couple of issues of the Yiddish Forverts), I scoured the bouqinistes by the river for a familiar Dostoyevsky title. And after reading The Eternal Husband (in French), I was hooked enough to dive into Crime & Punishment, and later even to buy a copy of The Idiot new from the bookstore. I followed that up with the mother of all Dostoyevskys, The Brothers Karamazov, but, true to form, my commitment fizzled out at around page 200, and I still havent tackled the rest of it. Nevertheless, I felt a strange (and mildly disturbing) symbiosis going on between the oppressive damp grey of that first winter in Paris and the intricate inner torment exprressed by Dostoyevskys characters.
Beginning in June 2001, however, the most constant element in the café chronicles (as well as in the photos) became my bicycle, a dark green biped with the name Contina stickered across its downtube. Like many of the cafés themselves, it was a nondescript little unit, a hybrid perfectly adequate for year-round city riding (though I did equip it for some light touring, taking it out in August 2001 on an abortive two-day trip to Ireland via Normandy, and a more successful weeklong tour of Burgundy). In retrospect it seems to me impossible to have lived in and moved through Paris or anywhere with roads without a bicycle, making the cafés accrued in those first nine months that much more impressive. Still, if I had to choose one feeling that both captured more of my excitement about being in Paris, and one that I miss more than any other aspect of the city, it would be almost any of the life-threatening paths I forged on that bike.