How to be a Parisian: Café Culture

How to be a Parisian: Café Culture

Stephen Clarke discusses great ways to keep warm and dry on a cold winter’s day in Paris.

Winter in Paris has evolved a lot in the time I’ve been living here and the biggest change in daily life for me has been the ban on smoking inside cafés. Time was, as a non-smoking caffeine addict, in a Parisian midwinter you had the choice between freezing on the terrace (except for your tongue and tonsils that were being broiled by your hastily-downed espresso), and stumbling blindly through the fug of smoke indoors to a seat or the bar, navigating by the orange flashes of cigarette tips as their owners inhaled.

Keeping warm in cafés was a less attractive proposition before the smoking ban © Shutterstock

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

There were theoretical non-smoking areas, but what was the point of sitting one table away from an army of exhaling Gauloises-smokers?

I remember one waiter came up with the most cunning piece of smokers’ repartee I’ve ever heard. I went into a big café near Montparnasse with my children and, wanting to protect their growing lungs, asked the man with the apron where the non-smoking area was. “Sit anywhere you want,” he told me, before adding, “ici, c’est mixte”.

The Musée Marmottan © Shutterstock

It took a second for me to realise that this was less friendly than it sounded. The café had a ‘mixed’ smoking and non-smoking area? Didn’t that mean that it was all smoking? We went to the café two doors down the street. Nowadays, you can spend hours inside a Parisian café on a wintry day, reading, people-watching, using their wi-fi, and the only danger to your lungs is the smoke from the kitchen as Chef torches the crème brûlée.

Paris is, of course, a great city for walking, and on a damp day my favourite place for a sheltered hike is an art exhibition. There, you can get all the exercise your leg muscles need, covering several kilometres in a single building, while avoiding the winter weather. If I want to avoid the crowds, I like to go to the Musée Marmottan, out in the west of Paris at La Muette. It’s much less well-known than the Musée d’Orsay or the Orangerie, but it has some of the finest Impressionist paintings in the city – and that’s saying something. It occupies a fabulous 19th-century mansion once owned by an art historian called Paul Marmottan who, ironically, hated Impressionism because he thought its hasty dabs of paint looked lazy.

He probably wouldn’t have been thrilled to know that the Marmottan now houses Claude Monet’s personal art collection, including more than 100 of the Impressionist-in-chief’s own paintings, lilies and all.

The Musée Marmottan is a pleasant half-mile stroll away through a park from La Muette Métro station, and even this short distance seems to discourage enough tourists to ensure that you’ll have a peaceful hike around the museum once you get inside.

Berthe Morisot’s painting of her husband and daughter © Marie Liss

A Warm Impression

On a chilly day, the brilliant splashes of paint and the sheer optimism emanating from almost every Impressionist picture never fail to warm me up. It seems to me that Monet and co were all about sun, fun, fresh air, friends, and family.

This was especially true, I find, of Berthe Morisot, the sister-in-law of Édouard Manet. My favourite painting at Marmottan is her double portrait of her husband and daughter on a garden bench, surrounded by flowers. The little girl is showing dad some toys while he seems to be thinking, “it’s lucky my wife is an Impressionist, because it means she paints quickly and I’ll soon be able to nip off to the café for a smoke and an absinthe – neither of which are banned yet, because this is still the 19th century”.

No, that’s the cynic talking. On the bitterest of days in Paris, a great Impressionist painting will warm your heart much more efficiently than central heating, an espresso, or even a cigarette.

From France Today magazine

Lead photo credit : Stephen Clarke at his local café in Paris © Caroline Harrap

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