One afternoon, I was sitting at yet another café working on my thesis. A couple was eating at the table in front of me. An elderly gentleman who had ordered a café double a few minutes earlier winked at me as he left the restaurant. Two men were enjoying a pint of Stella in the corner effortlessly guiding their conversation between French foreign policy concerning Afghanistan and a new exposition that had just opened at the Grand Palais. I took a moment to reflect on the scene.
The bartender sung as he cleaned the tables, saying a warm “bonne journée” to each customer who exited the restaurant to go on about his day, many of whom he knew by name. This jovial atmosphere was eatable.
The restaurant owner busied himself cleaning the small bits caught in the meat slicer while juggling a call from the coffee-machine repair man, all the while chatting familiarly with the new clientele who entered the door. Meanwhile, the server approached my table to clear my lunch plate. He remarked that I had left all my tomatoes, and jokingly asked me why I was prejudiced against them. I laughed, muttering something in Franglish. He smiled forgivingly and asked if he could bring me anything else.
“Après,” I said motioning to my wine. “After.” I felt no time pressure to leave or to hurry, no obligation to buy anything else in order to stay in my place for as long as I wanted.
I felt alive in a sense I’d rarely felt before. “This is Paris,” I whispered to myself, “a collection of people who live but for la joie de vivre – for experiencing moments, for loving, for interacting.” I’d never felt such a contagious sensation of inner peace than at that moment.
“Jeans?” The barman repeated incorrectly, clearly confused and understandably so as it was only two o’clock in the afternoon.
“GIN, alcohol, with water, lemon.” Repeated the lady, this time very loudly. The antic amused me. When someone can’t understand someone else because of a language barrier, I’ve never quite understood why the speaker then repeats the same phrase, the same way, only twenty decibels louder. After all, the person isn’t deaf; he just didn’t understand.
“J-u-n et tonique,” the owner called over from his washing station to clarify, emphasizing the French way of pronouncing Gin.
In France, in little bistros like this one, I was learning to be alive from people who love living, perhaps for the first time in my life. I was learning to want as much as I needed, not as much I could possibly have. I wanted, as it turned out, so much less than I had thought I needed in my former life. In my past quest to acquire the biggest and the best – to succeed according to someone else’s definition – I had lost sight of why it was I wanted those things in the first place. There, sitting at that table in Paris, I was free from the grasps of the machine that is major advertising. I saw a lifestyle that prioritized people, relationships, enjoyment and health, far above objects – a life that privileged living in the moment rather than constantly obsessing over the next appointment.
I scanned the little bistro. The tackiness of the old café warmed my heart. This prime real-estate in Paris’ 1er arrondissement, just around the corner from the Palais du Louvre, was one of the true beauties of Paris. Nothing about it was chic or glamorous. The décor was leftover from the 1970s. Sprinkled throughout the city, these little places are a microcosm of Paris itself, embodying the mantra of French life and their joie de vivre: Live in sips, taste in bites, and enjoy the bits of time as they pass.