On Thursday night I flung the windows open and braved the elements. Huge snowflakes fell from a pitch black sky before settling on the rooftops across the road. It was the night before the much anticipated winter (the cold has been threatening for days) and I breathed in the chilly evening air feeling like a child the night before Christmas in a moment so, utterly beautiful.
I write this post from Café Bonaparte in the 6th arrondissement and not far from home. Three older ladies sit just down from my table in huge wool coats and one wears flared leather trousers. As the smallest of the three and hardly able to see over the café table she is also the chattiest, and if I was only in closer earshot I would be able to decipher what it is she is actually saying. Her taller companion shouts ‘bon! mais oui’ at the end of every sentence and the third woman- not tall and not short, smiles on in agreement with almost everything they say.
The next table is made up of four younger men who frantically discuss an application that they wish to develop and one is becoming so impassioned with every word, that I fear he may explode. The thing I love about listening to younger people speak in French is the way in which they throw their hands around with vigorous intent, before adding a smattering of words taken from Hollywood movies into their monologues- lines which are steamrolled by the next sentence en très rapide français.
And finally, the beautiful couple who sit on the table beside me. She is pretty and blond and wearing no makeup- her face is easily one of fifty years but fresh with youth and her companion is handsome, enthusiastic and smitten with both her and the salad that she has ordered for lunch. ‘Superbe’ is the word of the moment- everything from her salad, to his coffee, is just superbe.
It’s no secret, my love of people watching and the inspiration I draw from eavesdropping on conversations, particularly in cafés. I could spend hours picking through words that make the base of (often mundane, sometimes exciting) conversations and I find this exercise much more enjoyable than say, jogging in the freezing cold. Along with watching the television and listening to the radio, eavesdropping is a very good way to practise my French and learn about what is actually happening in the worlds that belong uniquely to the inhabitants of this country and les tables de cafés.
During the week I had ‘one of those days’ where I overthought everything and became frustrated with everything else. The morning class filled me with dread as we began to structure sentences seemingly backwards and dreaded little articles from French classes of years gone by, began to reappear. ‘They just replace an item or a place, don’t be afraid of them,’ our Prof explained in response to resounding huffs and sighs from around the classroom.
The stairs in my apartment aside, nothing frightens me more than pesky little grammatical so and so’s, which I take personally, in the belief that they are designed to ruffle only my linguistically challenged feathers and my carefully structured sentences. As the clock struck midday, I left class with my collar firmly turned up under my chin and my hands jammed equally as firmly into my pockets. Stepping out into the freezing cold I made my way into the afternoon blanketed in sunlight beaming from a million miles away, as I blew freezing, steamy breath into the air which threatened to drop below zero degrees.
I headed to lunch on the right bank where I enjoyed a delicious, soul fuelling Ramen with friends, in a Japanese café just a stones throw from l’Opera, and during my walk home under a dark, afternoon sky, I took a moment to look up as seagulls swooped and musicians played under the arches of the Louvre courtyard, while old men sang on the Pont des Arts. It’s moments like these that serve as a welcome reminder that regardless of anything, this city is a stage and each day is a performance. As much as at times it can be frustrating with some days seeing inevitable smatterings of self doubt as the grammatical so and so’s continue to play their role in keeping me on my toes- I am, for the better part of each day, undoubtably grateful to be able to soak up the views and listen in on the banter, as I become one step closer to understanding it all.
Later that evening I sat at a café not far from home and set up my textbooks as I attempted to complete pages of pesky grammatical articles. As I sipped my wine and rearranged endless phrases, the new waiter at my local who is all of seemingly twelve years old, danced around the café tables taking orders in a thoroughly practised American accent. I do everything to avoid him and his Converse shoes, as he sings orders in a whiny voice at the sheer sniff of an accent associated with the English language. He’s been working at the café for a matter of weeks, and as much as beggars can’t be choosers, I always try to secure a seat at the other end of the terrasse in the hope that I’ll get my favourite waiter who ignores my accent when I speak in his language and he refuses to speak in any other language with me, than French. On this occasion, luck wasn’t on my side. I watched on as the new kid flirted with a pretty American girl and ignored the instructions from the Napolianesque maître d’ before striding to my table, ‘Oh my god, it’s my Australian friend, here, take this’ (placing a glass of boiling water onto the table) ‘you’re, like, totally freezing’.
I wasn’t really, quite the contrary actually, and he went on to add that he is ‘a total peach’.
The occupants on the table beside me laughed and started cajoling him in French, asking if he was capable of doing his job- or, was he just there to take telephone numbers from pretty American girls. I listened on as I continued to write line after line in my textbook, thinking that eventually I’d explain to them that he also irritates me beyond belief. But they didn’t stop, and when he returned from arranging to move in with the American girl on the next table, I could see that they’d really hurt him. His Converse shoes turned inwards as his lip dropped and he asked if they always go to cafés and scrutinise the behaviours of waiters.
A man in a perfect double breasted ensemble worn over immaculately pressed grey flannel trousers sat to my left, nursing a freezing cold beer as he puffed aggressively on cigarette after cigarette, totally oblivious to anything. I wondered what was going through his mind as he stared straight ahead and as I returned to my textbook, I agreed in my mind that I’d pay more than a penny for his thoughts.
Standing up to leave, I went to the whining waiter and soothed his ego with clumsy phrases, explaining that while I had initially thought my neighbours were funny, on second thoughts and after endless taunts, I’d concluded that they were quite stupid- at least he is making an effort, I explained, before thanking him for my hot water.
He asked if I was looking for a French tutor, an offer I politely declined, before nodding at my double breasted neighbour and making the short walk home.
Life is full of characters and as I finish typing this, 17 Chinese people have arrived at the café in a huge tour group lead by a chubby homme chinois who is shouting instructions to French people in English. ‘Occupied’ he yells as they go to sit at one of the many tables he’s now claimed as his own. At least 30% of his group are wearing dust masks that would be better suited to a building site riddled with more asbestos than my grammar book has challenges. His group has taken over the whole terrasse and the waiter is counting cappuccino orders shouted in English, with the patience of a saint.
On that note, the beautiful couple have just agreed that lunch was indeed ‘superbe,’ but now is as good a time than ever, to call it a day. And with that, they have settled l’addition, greeted two old friends on the table across the way with a kiss on each cheek, and left the café.
As the bells chime (signalling 2pm), from the Abbey of Saint Germain des Prés – the burial place of Merovingian kings of Neustria and just a stones throw from where I sit, I think I will do exactly the same.
Pictured: the Christmas tree at the wonderful Galeries Lafayette.