Stephen Clarke: How to re-learn the art of being Parisian

Author Stephen Clarke is re-learning the art of being Parisian © Tim Wesson

Author Stephen Clarke is re-learning the art of being Parisian © Tim Wesson - Credit: Archant

FRANCE Magazine’s Paris-based columnist reflects on the skills he has lost during lockdown and how he plans to find them once more

Cafe culture is part of daily life in Paris © Simona Sirio Getty Images

Cafe culture is part of daily life in Paris © Simona Sirio Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

For those of us, me included, who have tried to follow the Covid precautions, it’s been a whole year since we were really Parisian. It’s going to be like returning to the Tour de France after a long bout of saddle soreness. So what are the main skills that we will all have to re-learn?

Actually, that’s the first one – asking rhetorical questions. With hardly any literary festivals for a year, I haven’t had to use this typically French tactic at all. When you first arrive in France, it can be disconcerting. You’re discussing any subject – say, the fact that the more snobbish intellectual French publishers think it pointless to design interesting covers for their books – and someone asks, “Why is this?”

And just as you’re about to reply – “Because they’re intellectual snobs?” – you realise that the person has carried on talking. It wasn’t a question at all. This happens so often that I personally hesitate before answering any French person’s question. Even if they just ask me the time, at first I don’t reply because I assume they’re going to tell me.

But for me the most important Parisian skill to re-learn will be how to go and stand at the bar of my corner café. It sounds easy but it’s not. For a start, you have to summon the energy to leave the house, a skill we’ve forgotten during lockdown. Why not just stay at home and make your own coffee? (Sorry, that was a rhetorical question. I’m practising already.)

Quite often, the café will be crowded. On market days the daily regulars will be outnumbered by outsiders. So, imagining the worst-case scenario, you might have to hover at a stranger’s shoulder – another habit we’ve totally lost – before catching the barman or barmaid’s eye and confirming you want your usual coffee.

Then you’ll probably need to edge forward so you can put one hand on the bar and stake your claim. The barman or barmaid will then come and place a saucer and spoon by your hand. This should act as a signal to the people on either side of you to budge over and let you in. As soon as your coffee cup arrives, you might need sugar. If you’re lucky, the barman or barmaid knows you well enough to bring over the dish containing the long single-dose packages. If not, by now your neighbours might have made room for you to have your own space at the bar, in which case you’ll feel secure enough to go and fetch the sugar yourself.

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But if your neighbours are pretending they haven’t noticed you, you’ll have to hang on in there, hand still on bar, and say, firmly, “Bonjour, pouvez-vous me passer le sucre?” This cry for help should finally ensure that you’re given room to pour and stir. You may even get to drink your coffee while actually leaning against the bar, especially if one of the other customers pops outside to drink their coffee while smoking.

After the first sip of espresso, you’re on to your next target – to read all or part of the morning paper, which will be somewhere on the bar or beside the till. The man who does the crosswords is usually willing to give up the other pages if asked nicely. Is he here this morning?

Sorry, was that a rhetorical question? That last one definitely was. They’re getting out of control. I seem to be panicking at the prospect of re-learning the most basic aspects of being Parisian. And I don’t even know yet if my corner café will survive the economic impact of successive lockdowns. It’s shaping up to be a tough springtime in Paris....

Stephen Clarke writes a bi-monthly column for FRANCE Magazine. His latest novel is The Spy Who Inspired Me, a spoof thriller set in Occupied France.

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