How to Sit in a Sidewalk Café—Lessons from Paris

Paris– In between le café La Contrescarpe and le Delma, in Montparnasse, Paris, on a chilly, overcast evening, though it’s June, I sit. And I observe carefully. Rain may come—then again it may not.

There is a proper way to sit in a café.

In Paris, all café goers lining streets, whether with one partner or several, face the passersby. In case of several people sitting at one table, the art is to construct an experience where one eye is on the intimacy of the moment while the other is watching, observing, taking in the street, the activity. This is very different in other places.

I just came down from Lund, Sweden, where café goers face each other, sometimes even sitting in cafes that are behind small iron fencing or behind a waist high canvas partition sporting the café’s name. The experience is about what’s happening right on the table or across from you.

In Buenos Aires, the sister city to Paris, the Argentineans face one another. Perhaps this has something to do with how Argentine culture has evolved, its blending of Spanish, Italian, French, English and German smudged with strong Mediterranean roots, has produced an amiable culture where intimate contact is de la rigueur. Even the embrace in Argentina is different: it’s not the soft, proper joue á la joue, one side then the other, but a strong kiss and often an embrace—between men, between men and women, woman to woman, and so on. Thus the Argentinean is fixated on the other, the third essence—the state of being—that’s created in an intimate exchange. For the Argentinean it’s about the here and now; there may not be another time. Argentine history bares this truth.

This is not to say that the significance of the intimate exchange is wasted on the French. Not at all. It’s different, looking to bring into the intimate fold a larger, more expansive experience that looks beyond the immediate; that acknowledges place and fleeting time; that gazes with anticipation for the welcomed unknown.

Jacques Derrida says that, “In general, I try to distinguish between what one calls the future and ‘l’avenir.’ The future is that which—tomorrow, later, next century—will be. There’s a future which is predictable, programmed, scheduled, foreseeable. But there is a future, l’avenir (to come) which refers to someone who comes whose arrival is totally unexpected. For me, that is the real future. That which is totally unpredictable. The Other who comes without my being able to anticipate their arrival. So if there is a real future beyond this other known future, it’s l’avenir in that it’s the coming of the Other when I am completely unable to foresee their arrival.”

The proper way to sit in a sidewalk café—facing passersby—is the only way to look with anticipation for the unpredictable. No other culture looks with such total expectation towards the unforeseeable. It is here where “a real future” resides; it is also where the imagination can be given full play. One eye on the other sitting beside you, also looking out, and one eye looking with anticipation for the Other surely to arrive at any moment.

The unpredictable is constant. In American culture, with its demands on ideology buttressed by reason, the unpredictable is condemned. This is why one Holiday Inn looks like another, whether in New York or Kansas City. Why we gorge on fast food. We don’t want to experience the jolting emotional effects unpredictability brings. We want the stultification of the predictable.

The French, however, an older culture, have learned to welcome unpredictability, a friend. It is a future that, emotionally and intellectually, comes as a surprise. Change is in the offing. This is a good thing.

In one of the most literate cultures of the world, the appreciation of unpredictability and change is a habit that’s been taken to an art form in the café. Even sitting across a small square from another café, eyes meet, contact is made, and the unpredictability of that encounter, which suggests possibilities, never fails.

L’avenir is always occurring; it is always unpredictable. We watch for it. The past can only teach us, if we listen; the present is fleeting, here one minute, gone the next. But the future, well, it comes without us being able to anticipate its arrival—and this makes all the difference in the world.

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One thought on “How to Sit in a Sidewalk Café—Lessons from Paris

  1. Reblogged this on The Uncanny and commented:

    I received a note from a student who lives in Paris and well … I’m hankering for Paris, too. I’d like to spend a year, at least, there … Have to come up with a project….

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