At the centre of Paris are two small islands in the Seine River: the Île de la Cité and the Île Saint-Louis. If you stand on one of these and face downstream, so pointing due west, the part of Paris to the north of the river will be on your right; the part to the south will be on your left. Hence the terms that for centuries have defined Paris’ geography – the Rive Droite (Right Bank), and the Rive Gauche (Left Bank).
In the late 1800s, the artistic heart of Paris was in the Montmartre district, in the shadow of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica on the Right Bank (see my previous post The Fall of Paris). But the yuppies of the day, attracted by the area’s trendy reputation, progressively colonized it and made Montmartre an incredibly expensive place to live. By the end of the First World War, prices had risen well beyond the means of most struggling artistes.
So they began searching for somewhere cheaper, and eventually found Montparnasse, a grungy, poor and unloved neighbourhood on the Left Bank. Over the next twenty years it experienced a massive influx of artsy folks, from Paris, from all over France, Europe and North America, and even as far away as South America and Asia. Montparnasse had a bursting creative energy, which attracted creative types like moths to a flame.
Residents included artists like Duchamp, Dali, Picasso, Miro, Soutine, Modigliani, and Chagall (my favourite artist – see my previous post The Unexpected Chagall). There were also writers, like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett and Truman Capote. Not to mention countless poets, singers, composers, photographers, and experimental jazz musicians.
Today many of these may have become household names, but a century ago they were aspiring nobodies, mostly young and mostly penniless. They gathered in Montparnasse to live and to create, setting up impromptu communes in the buildings that lined Boulevard Saint-German, Boulevard Saint-Michel, Rue Bonaparte and Rue de Rennes.
After a while this growing artistic community attracted the nouveaux-riche of that time, being les Américaines. Wealthy socialites like Peggy Guggenheim decamped from their uptown New York apartments to Paris. Here they befriended the artists and writers, revelled by association in the bohemian atmosphere, and through their patronage amassed priceless collections of art.
Political exiles like Trotsky and Lenin made Montparnasse their home as well. Future Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai lived in the neighbourhood during his university years in France. So too did many other students, owing to the proximity to the Sorbonne. Some of whom – like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir – went on to become household names in their own right.
In short, Montparnasse in those days was possibly the most extraordinary cultural and intellectual hothouse the world has ever seen: a unique fusion in time and space of global philosophies, music, literature, arts and politics. The phrase “Left Bank” became much more than a mere description of place, and came to stand for radical intellectualism, bohemian counterculture, and unbridled creativity.
As Marc Chagall put it when describing Montparnasse: “I aspired to see with my own eyes what I had heard of from so far away: this revolution of the eye, this rotation of colours, which spontaneously and astutely merge with one another in a flow of conceived lines. That could not be seen in my town. The sun of Art then shone only on Paris”.
All these deep thinkers and creative spirits needed somewhere to hang out. Somewhere that would tolerate indigent, brooding young men and women loitering about for hours on end, smoking endlessly while aggressively arguing their ideas.
That somewhere was the local cafes on Boulevard Saint-Germain, where two in particular became especially popular. The first, Les Deux Magots (at Place Saint-German des Prés) had been there since 1885. A few hundred yards down the road (at the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue St. Benoit) was Café de Flore, there since 1887.
For the first thirty years of their existence, these were just two regular cafes on the Left Bank. Then they were adopted by the neighbourhood’s new arrivals, and both quickly became “in” spots. Back then, had you popped in for a quick cuppa you may very well have found yourself seated alongside Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus or Brecht. For many of these future intellectual luminaries, the cafe was not just a place to get a caffeine fix or meal; it was also an office, study and meeting room, all rolled up into one.
Jean-Paul Sartre described it as follows: “We are completely settled there; from nine o’clock in the morning until midday, we work, we eat, and at two o’clock we come back and chat with friends until eight o’clock. After dinner, we see people who have an appointment. That may seem strange to you, but we are at home… ”.
It wasn’t just the intellectual crowd either. Painters and sculptors gathered in the cafes to share thoughts and compare techniques; writers and poets came to swap notes, or to read early drafts of manuscripts that went on to become standard high-school reading material around the world. The very word “surrealism” was apparently coined in the dining room of Café de Flore; while the Dadaist art movement was supposedly born at Les Deux Magots.
In short, Le Deux Magots and Café de Flore had starring roles in the emergence of many of the great philosophical and artistic movements of the past century. And in the process, these otherwise ordinary Parisian cafes became almost as famous as many of the patrons.
Thus it was that while in Paris a few weeks ago I found myself on the pavement of the Boulevard Saint-Germain, on a sunny Sunday morning, engaged in a massive philosophical debate of my own: brunch at Le Deux Magots, or brunch at Café de Flore?
Now granted, perhaps this may not seem like a big deal in the overall scheme of things. But if you are like me – that is, someone who likes their coffee, especially when served up with a good dose of history on the side – you will understand how heart-wrenching it was for me to have to choose between the two.
Of course the thought did cross my mind that brunch at one followed immediately by lunch at the other might solve the problem. But the weather that day was perfect, and no matter how historically significant the coffee, strolling the streets of Paris rather than languishing around eating seemed like a much better use of time. And anyway, having two meals in rapid succession just to afford equal homage to a pair of cafes did seem like it might be a bit excessive and piggish. Even for me.
In the end, random chance prevailed – Café de Flore was closest to where I was standing….
The sidewalk out front was a classic French cafe scene, composed of stylishly dressed men and women sitting two-by-two at little round tables. They were all facing outwards to watch the world go, their eyes shielded behind dark sunglasses as they calmly sipped on cups of coffee or tea. Many also had glasses of wine or beer, even though it was barely 11am.
Yet as quintessentially Parisian as this scene may have been, it was nothing special – frankly, you can see the same thing on just about any old Paris street corner. No, the main action was inside, in the surprisingly compact dining room of the Café de Flore, which was packed to near bursting that morning. Literally hundreds of boisterous diners had been jammed into it, cheek to jowl. In fact the dining room was so full I thought it would be impossible to get a table, and turned around to leave and try my luck up the road.
But a smartly-dressed maitre-d’ spotted me, intercepted my path, and in fluent English invited me to follow him inside. There, in equally fluent French he barked violently at an elderly couple who had the audacity – sacré bleu! –to occupy a four-person table. The guilty parties immediately bowed their heads in shame and shifted over to free up some extra seats. A waiter appeared out of nowhere, pulled out the table so I could slide in along the banquette, and then pushed it back in, hermetically sealing me in place. This was no time to suddenly need the bathroom.
Once firmly ensconced, the first thing I noticed was the Art Deco décor, which has clearly not changed one bit in more than half a century. Heavy mirrors hung on the walls, the glass stained with a deep patina that comes only from age. These were the same worn red leather seats that Picasso may have warmed his bum on, and my elbows were leaning on the same etched mahogany tabletop that Sartre may have crouched over. It felt like I was inside a time capsule, where the clock had been stopped sometime in the mid-1930s.
Then I paid attention to the waiters, a small army of whom were milling about the room. They were all, without exception, men, mostly old white-haired career waiters, but in and among them were also a few handsome young bucks, standing tall and proud with neatly slicked-back hair. They were all dressed in the same standard issue black jackets and waistcoats and bowties, with floor-length white aprons tied around their waists. So the waiters looked a lot like a flock of human-sized penguins.
Choreographed penguins, actually, because they were moving around the room in what can only be described as a delicate dance of sorts. Thus when one waiter hoisted a huge tray above his head, precariously loaded with glassware and plates, another waiter stepped aside and leaned backwards to let him pass, and a third ducked his head down and passed right under the raised arm of the first. They each played their part in the performance without so much as even looking at each other, and despite having not much more than a few centimetres gap between them in which to move. It was fabulous to watch.
One of the penguins approached. He spoke no English at all. So in broken French I ordered breakfast from a menu that, like the décor, probably hadn’t changed in fifty years either. There was coffee and hot chocolate served by the pot (none of this silly Starbucks-inspired espresso-culture here); croissant, flaky pain au chocolat and exquisitely crunchy baguette; scrambled eggs and various types of omelettes.
Plus that ever popular French café staple of croque – a toasted cheese sandwich smothered in béchamel sauce and topped with a runny egg. Although for a five euro supplemente, the waiter suggested I should swap the French cheese for something a touch more exotic. Like fromage du Chester, or as we otherwise know it in English, cheddar cheese. Go figure.
Much more so than for the décor or the food though, this is a place you visit to see, and be seen in. It has been that way for the last hundred years, and it still is that way today. So with a fresh pot of coffee at hand and breakfast on the way, it was time for the main activity to start: people watching, which I always find to be an awfully pleasant way to while away a few hours. And Café de Flore, for its part, did not disappoint.
Starting on my right, there was the elderly French couple who the maitre-d’ had earlier scolded into submission. Probably in their late seventies, they had dressed for the occasion: he in a suit and tie, she in a long dress, an elegant jacket and brooch, and full-make-up. By the look of things they probably had been here every Sunday for the last thirty years, and they chatted with the waiters like they were all old friends. One penguin plonked a basket of fresh baguette in front of them before taking their order – two prawn salads and a half-bottle of rosé to share.
To my left was a group of four mid-30s women enjoying a Sunday breakfast together, talking incredibly loudly, one over the other. They were all quite smartly dressed, in brand-name sports tops and designer jeans. All four picked at plates of plain scrambled eggs accompanied by glasses of mineral water. The contrast to the old lady on the other side, sipping wine and eating prawns in her Sunday finery and make-up, couldn’t have been starker.
Across the aisle from where I was seated were two men of indeterminate age. One was in black denims and a rumpled black t-shirt; the other in black denims and a rumpled black turtle-neck sweater. They were both nursing black coffees and furiously discussing something known only to them, although obviously it was incredibly important given how much arm waving was going on. I was a few metres away but could still see little bits of spittle flying from their mouths as they shouted, and I could even see the tips of their slightly scruffy, matching goatee beards quivering from the exertion. Seriously, I thought to myself, they don’t come more faux-intellectual than this pair of poseurs….
Along from them was a youngish fellow, wearing a pair of oversized headphones and bopping his head up and down to music that only he could hear. He wolfed down a whole brioche in three big bites. Next to him another young man was writing in a notebook and puffing on an electronic cigarette, ostentatiously blowing the water vapour created by these new-age cigarettes into the air around him.
A pair of young Asian girls – they looked like exchange students – sat to the left of him. They were both so completely engrossed in their mobile phones that they barely looked up at one another the whole time. I suppose they may have been texting each other from across the table. And just along from them a group of four unshaven, elderly men were holding court. They looked distinctly Mediterranean, with pendulous paunches hanging over their belts. It could easily have been my Dad and some of his pals.
And after them were the foreigners – a table of incredibly loud Americans, and two tables of Chinese package tourists, snapping photos of everything, flicking through brochures, poking at the strange food, and generally looking lost and confused.
I could go on, but you get the point. It was, all in all, first-class people watching territory, with a fantastic cross-section of humanity on show. I was enjoying myself immensely.
Then, just when I thought it could not possibly get any better, it did.
The maitre-d’ ushered in a man and woman, to seat them at a table that had become vacant a few metres away. They were both tall, elegantly dressed and quite regal in their bearings, probably mid-40s. The woman was holding a leash in her right hand, and prancing along behind her was a mid-size white poodle. Of course the pooch was elaborately shaved and primped, so it was just like a scene from a movie: a Parisian café; a woman in a fur coat; a ridiculous show-poodle with an even more ridiculous pompom tail. If I hadn’t seen it for myself, I mightn’t have believed it was possible.
But wait, there’s more!
As they passed by the table where the two faux-intellectuals were still arguing and showering each other with spit, the poodle froze, sniffed the air imperiously, and then yelped. Immediately, the yelp was returned, from a small rat-like dog that was lying at the feet of the faux-intellectual twosome, hitherto unnoticed. Seems they had brought their doggie along for Sunday breakfast, too.
Without warning two more dogs emerged from under other tables. Evidently, in France your chien is as welcome to dine as you are, and it seemed like a whole sub-strata of canine life was in the Café de Flore that morning. Within seconds the dogs were all barking and growling at one another, straining at their leads, and for a few moments Café de Flore was transformed from an historic old café into the holding cell at your local SPCA kennel.
The most amazing thing, however, was the reaction of those in the room.
Anyone who was not French – like the exchange students and the American and Chinese tourists – looked up immediately, in shock, to see what all the commotion was about. I mean, it is not every day that a dog-fight breaks out inside of a café while you’re eating breakfast, right?
Anyone who was French, by contrast, barely batted an eyelid. The lady alongside me continued to sip her wine and delicately fork shrimp into her mouth, as if this was all perfectly normal. The faux-intellectuals kept on shouting and gesturing and spitting; the younger women continued their healthy breakfast and chat without interruption; the fellow with the electronic cigarette didn’t even look up from his notebook.
And the waiters continued to dance around as before. One waiter even deftly stepped over the yapping poodle, oblivious to just how vaudeville the whole scene had become.
The German occupation of France in the 1940s was the start of the end for historic Montparnasse. The artistic community fled; those that remained were annihilated by the Nazis. After the war the area remained a centre for intellectual life for the next two decades, but never quite managed to reclaim its former glory.
In the mid-1960s Yves Saint Laurent opened his first store in the area. Little by little the streets of Montparnasse were taken over by the fashion and luxury goods industry, so that today it is home to brands like Dior, Cartier, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Armani. Nearby the Cafe de Flore I passed the Christian Louboutin flagship store, where a queue of people was lined up on the footpath, waiting to get in. They were cordoned off behind velvet ropes, and were being admitted into the store one by one, by two burly securities. Just like in a nightclub, only here they were simply trying to buy some shoes….
It seems that after almost five decades of continual gentrification Montparnasse has become one of the ritziest, glitziest, and mostly widely visited parts of Paris, a wall-to-wall village of designer boutiques and high-end retail stores. A local art gallery employee summed it up quite simply, in saying that when it comes to modern Montparnasse, “money has replaced the existentialist philosophy”.
Little now remains to remind that this was once the stomping ground of great artists, writers and philosophers. Except, that is, inside the venerable old dining rooms of Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots, thanks to the aged décor, caricature people, dancing penguins, and barking dogs.
That Sunday morning, for a short while I was not only visiting the Paris of 2014. I was also visiting an older Paris, a city that once was, almost a century ago. And at the same time I was visiting a Paris that never was, which exists only in my imagination.
It is magic moments like these that can make travel so utterly wonderful.