During our first week in Paris, Morgan and I dined at the famous Café de Flore. It is a pretty café to imagine: crisp white awnings trimmed in green, dark wood and brass, waiters in black tie who serve with efficient grace; clustered wicker chairs filled with convivial people, and the flore: flowering plants that grow wildly from the exterior like living symbols of great ideas that refuse to be contained.
It is famous for what it was, not for what it is. Picasso, Sartre, and Camus were regulars, but I don’t think that crowd would approve of the current iteration. Today, the café uses the lingering scent of history to attract and oversell; you pay extra for the possibility of the past.
“How did Hemingway afford to eat here?” Morgan asked, jokingly. She looked overwhelmed by the prices. “The young one, before he was rich.”
“The cafés were different back then” I said, “but isn’t that why we’re here?”
“I guess so,” she said “seven euro for a coffee is a little steep.”
“You pay extra for the history.”
“But do you really?” Morgan said in her playful way. There was often wisdom in her teasing, and I knew that she was right somehow.
Cafés became popular with artists and philosophers because they were cheap, warm, and well lit. Low rent Paris apartments – imperative to artists – were cold and dark. The cafés offered a comfortable place to work in warmth and light, and maybe have a meal too. In this way, cafés were more like offices than restaurants. They aided writers in their work; they weren’t solely a reward for it. Once the days work was finished, the café transformed into the social scene. Creativity was discussed, ideas were born, and debauchery overflowed. The next day, in the too-bright light of morning, the writers would stumble back into the cafés, order a crème, sip it slowly to make it last until noon, and write the next page.
The Flore hasn’t lost its authenticity, but that authenticity has changed to suit the clientele. Today its a mix of three-part tourists, one-part locals. Morgan and I fit somewhere in the mix, but we didn’t know our part yet.
“What’ll you have?” I said, signaling to Morgan. She hadn’t seen the waiter standing behind her.
“Je voudrais la Salad Nicoise, sil vous plait” she said, timidly; we dwelled only on the language we did not know, not the language we had learned, or could learn, but it was all the same language in the end.
The waiter gave a single nod, then looked to me. There was no need to write it down.
“Le omelet avec champignons, et…a café au lait” I said. My order was inelegant, but our serveur understood. He grabbed our plates, menus, and wine glasses at once, in what seemed like a single motion; then vanished.
Any tension of the moment burst through Morgan’s enormous smile. Her smile could effortlessly lift even the heaviest moods. We delighted in our bourgeoning French, but the Portuguese woman sitting at the table to my right hated us for it.
I could see she was a tall, imposing woman, even when sitting down, and her long, unnaturally-blond hair flowed perfectly straight down from under her wide-brimmed black hat, passed her roman nose and tanned concave cheeks to rest on the coyote-fur collar of her impermeable, black winter coat. She didn’t look at us. She didn’t feel that she had to. She only saw the little waiter as he took our order, and hated him for taking it. Our American English and poor French inconvenienced her. The only adequate sound was silence. She cut the tomatoes in her salad with the rancor of a wronged executioner.
Get a load of this woman, I silently implied with a steady eye roll.
Morgan glanced, but couldn’t be bothered; or if she was, she didn’t show it. I admired her strong sense of self; she instantly recognized the woman’s hot air, and if it had been contained in a balloon, she would’ve popped it with her fork as though she were casually swatting away a fly.
“How’s the nicoise?” I said after a few bites.
“Salty” Morgan said. She paused, “but still good. And your omelet?”
“Delicious.” I said.
It was filled with forest mushrooms, and the inside was perfectly runny. I tore off sections of the crunchy baguette, wiped up the egg, and the taste was very good. The café was strong, but not bitter, and the mellowing milk was full fat; the cream melted in the hot coffee and settled on top in rich, oily dots.
It was halfway through our meal that the Portuguese woman’s date arrived. The newcomer was a robust French woman who also looked imposing in a tight, long black dress that was void of any lint. Her figure was like that of a Maillol sculpture, though her face was sharp and angular, but somehow kind. She sat down opposite her companion with the muscular grace of a mid-summer deer kneeling to lay before an impenetrable evening forest. Not a moment passed before the Portuguese woman voiced her disgust. She made sure to speak loudly so that we should hear. Our American accents were mimicked between rapid Portuguese, making reference to reality TV and iPhones, and drawing clumsily from the list of clichés for which Americans have become known.
The mockery soured the good tasting food a little. I pressured the Portuguese woman with a look-to-maim, but she did not have the courage, or decency, to look back. Her companion’s eyes were apologetic, though she still crafted a smile to please her friend. I was sorry that she had to endure the trivial tongue lashing, especially in a venue as storied as Café de Flore.
It was exciting to be where my heroes once sat, and to think that maybe some of their genius would rub off on me through the spoons. I knew that wasn’t true, though it was fun to think so; but also sad, because in the end your left with overpriced coffee and the stale hope of connecting with the past.
Nobody was writing in the café, but even if anybody was, I doubt it would be for themselves; rather an act of reverence or mime that wouldn’t make for good work anyways because the intention is wrong. It is with this same intention that tourists travel to Montmartre to sit for a cartoon portrait: the act is an attempt to connect with the great artists of the past through a small homage in the present. Souvenirs aren’t trivial – the French verb souvenir means “to remember” after all – but as a way to connect it seems disingenuous. Writing at Café de Flore is not the way to experience its history. No amount of charmed spoons or crèmes will bring you closer to the history you desire. You can only experience that history by being a vital part of it, and continuing it. You must work to create, and it is though the tradition of work itself that you pay your homage to those that created before you: before Picasso and Hemingway there was Monet and Emile Zola, and before them Delacroix and Baudelaire, and before them the Symbolists and Romantics, and earlier yet the Neoclassicists, and before them the French Baroque and the old Classicists, and before them the artists of the Renaissance who were breaking the traditions of the Goths; the Middle Ages were built upon the Romans, and them the Greeks, and earlier still there were the Mesopotamians, and before them, people painted in the caves of Lascaux; and it follows all the way back to humanity’s first realization that they could make a mark, and that the mark meant something indescribable in any other form to the person who made it, and it is the entirety of this chain of creation that has lead to my $7 coffee at Café de Flore and the meaningless ire of a Portuguese woman.
She continued to mock behind a long smile, but I could see her eyes were sunken and hollow. No amount of smiling can hide sad eyes, even when they are closed. She sipped her champagne and murdered her tomatoes, and masked some deep pain. I hope the meal made her feel better because she made a lot of noise for nothing, and she was a lousy date besides.
She will forget the two Americans who sat next to her because she never saw our true character and never cared to ask. That is what she wanted. Stereotypes are easier that way. But I will never forget the Portuguese woman at the Flore because of her sad eyes, the uncertainty in her laugh, and the way she made us feel.
“Are you ready to go?” I said, disguising a plea in a question: Let’s get out of here, is what I had meant. I’d grown tired of the mocking.
“Aren’t you going to finish your coffee?” Morgan asked. She wasn’t going to let the Portuguese woman win, and I loved her for it.
“Yes,” I said, a little louder than I normally would, and settled back into my chair.
Just then, a woman squeezed past my left shoulder. She looked as though she had only just realized that she was growing old, and had accepted her age as an irreversible reality, but because of it, a wisdom dazzled in her mica-colored eyes, and this wisdom balanced her jubilant beauty the way a lily pad balances a second lily as it blooms beside the initial flower. She twirled her pastel-pink wool coat off of her shoulders to reveal a yellow cashmere sweater paired with pleated turquoise trousers, and she sat with such matter-of-fact force that the entirety of her body bounced on the wicker.
The waiter knew her well, and promptly brought her a pot of peppermint tea, balancing the dishes on a single outstretched arm like a flock of porcelain birds perched on a taught wire. She held in her manicured hand a little flower-bound book titled, Poésie Japonaise – Japanese Poetry, which the waiter snatched with his trademark lithe skill that I now sincerely admired, and began to read aloud in French. His voice theatrical, his free hand held aloft:
“something something, the horse, something, a moon, something, the river, something something something, is my heart, something something” and slammed the book shut.
We applauded too. It was an endearing performance.
The woman leaned towards me, still sweetly chuckling a little: “Do you like Japanese Poetry?” she asked in French.
“Oui,” I replied, before my limitations gave way to English, “Basho. I like Basho’s poems very much.”
“Moi aussi.” she said – Me also.
It was a small moment, but a genuine one, and we both understood that. The lasting words of a dead Japanese poet, camped up by a sinewy café seveur, had brought us together in sudden twist of fate at Café de Flore. She gave Morgan and I another knowing smile, then pulled the pink coat over her shoulders, poured the tea, and began to read.
“Now are you ready to go?” I said, knowing that the Portuguese woman was no longer consequential. Morgan’s defiance was prescient.
The old woman spoke as we headed for the door.
“Enjoy Paris.” she said, framed by brass and palm fronds.
“We already are. Enjoy tea and Basho.” I said.
She nodded pleasantly, and we left.
It was very cold outside on the street, but we were both of a frame of mind that was only enlivened by the cold.
“That’s the last time I ever eat at Café de Flore.” Morgan said, fixing her beanie.
“At least for a while.” I said. I looked back at the Café knowing we were now part of its history. It isn't a history that other people will visit for; it won't add value to the coffee, or magic to the spoons; but it's our history, and I will hold that very dear.
“Unbelievably overpriced. 65 Euro for a salad, an omelet, and a coffee.” She said, battling the zipper at the base of her coat.
“I know. But I’m happy we went anyways.”
Morgan looked up, and flashed that enormous smile. For a moment Paris felt timeless. The past and the future were at once inconsequential; only this inexplicable, present moment mattered, and I knew that she was happy we’d gone too.