Photo: Stefano Ember/Shutterstock

When Paris Isn’t What You Expected, Go To a Cafe

Food + Drink Paris, France
Photo: Stefano Ember/Shutterstock
Elisabeth Sherman
Sep 23, 2019

This is the Travel Take, where Matador’s writers and editors make the case for their favorite travel hacks, tips, and personal tics.

In her 2001 memoir
Comfort Me with Apples, restaurant critic Ruth Reichl recalls the tastes that, for her, embody France: soft white bread and pots of bitter coffee. At the time, her ideal morning in Paris was spent sitting in a cafe. It’s mine, too, and it should be yours.

Paris is a city so wrapped up in mythology that most people have entirely unrealistic standards about its atmosphere. There is a name for this type of culture shock. It’s called Paris Syndrome, and it left some tourists so disenchanted with Paris that they needed therapy, according to reports from psychologists and foreign embassies in the city.

The truth is, Paris can be just as enchanting and magical as everyone says — as long as you can accept its flaws. Because Paris can also be cold, aloof, even a little unkind to newcomers. It does not, as the postcards might have you believe, immediately reveal its true nature the moment you step into the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

That’s why your first morning in Paris should not be spent hustling between your hotel room and every tourist attraction in the guide book, but quietly and calmly sitting in one of the outdoor cafes that dot just about every corner in Paris.

But I have an itinerary! you insist. Throw it away. Paris is not going to run on your schedule. Your first priority should be to get to know the city’s distinctive pace. I’m not spoiling much by telling you that it’s slower than you might be expecting.

New York is full of kinetic, chaotic energy at every moment. Paris isn’t exactly relaxed, but it is a bit too blasé and sophisticated to be truly phased by the world moving around it. It can be oddly unnerving for tourists who value productivity to be confronted with a lifestyle in which sitting at a table with a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper for an hour is not a luxury, but a God-given right. It’s best to let that unnerved feeling go. Sometimes, all you need to be doing in Paris is nothing.

Once you pick an outdoor cafe at which to settle — Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots are both popular choices for tourists, but really any cafe will do — you might not see your waitress for some time. Once you do order your coffee, it might be even more time until you see it.

Americans are used to hyperattentive waiters rushing about like mice, never daring to keep a customer waiting, so this experience might be disturbing at first. Take it as an opportunity, not a reason to get flustered. Open the book you’ve been meaning to read or write postcards to your loved ones. This city has some of the best people-watching on the planet, and there’s no better place for it than an outdoor cafe. Sip your coffee and observe the inhabitants of this mysterious, guarded, and endlessly intriguing city.

My personal Parisian treat is a coffee with cream, and when that’s finished, one or two glasses of rosé, regardless of the time of day. The last time I went to Paris, I bought a book and then sat in a cafe, drinking coffee and pink wine in the sun. When I finally got up to leave and walked out onto the street, the city seemed to undergo a sudden transformation. Its charm had felt out of reach until that moment, but as soon as I surrendered to its rhythms, Paris swept me away and I felt totally at home. Maybe it was just the wine, but I felt both peaceful and a tingling thrill coursing through my whole body.

Paris will capture you, but you have to be patient. Don’t try to force that fluttering feeling in your heart that you get when you fall in love with a new city. Let it appear to you in its own time, at a plain old cafe or at the bottom of a cup of bitter coffee.

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