By Simran P. Gupta
It is often said that Paris is a mecca for history savants, fashion lovers, and the chic-at-heart romantics. Equally important, however, is the role of café culture in the literary history that Paris is famous for. Although it was history that first drew me to Paris (in the form of a lifelong fascination with Marie Antoinette), it was the literary ghosts that chained my heart to the city once I arrived.
When I think of my favorite experiences in Paris, what comes to mind is the small handful of times I wiled away a couple hours at the Café de Flore, the famed literary landmark situated in the Saint-Germain-des-Près neighborhood of the 6th arrondissement.
My first visit to the café was with a dear friend from my study abroad program, another literature student. We were seated in the terrace of the café; in the winter, this is the possibly covered and always heated outside seating area, often reserved for those simply enjoying a quick drink and a bite as opposed to multiple dishes.
Despite the fact that it was only the beginning of February, my friend and I weren’t cold at all, shrugging out of our jackets as we were seated but keeping our scarves draped over our shoulders. We were astonished over the prices for wine, pastries, and anything resembling a meal (my friend needed to eat something substantial before his conversation club meeting later that night.) I settled on chocolat viennois (hot chocolate with whipped cream) while he opted for coffee and a quiche.
When the waiter brought our food and drinks, our neighbors commented on the horror of mixing cheese and chocolate amongst themselves in French. We smirked at each other over our cups; the joke was on them, because we could understand everything.
I am not exaggerating when I say it was a magical moment. Perhaps it was the location (St Germain des Près is a neighborhood of great literary importance in general), or the company. After all, it helped that my companion was just as passionate about literature as I was. Our excursions to Café de Flore always included the liveliest discussions about feminist literature, among other things. In fact, during that first visit, he dashed out of the café for a few minutes and into the bookstore right next door. “L’écume des Pages has exactly one copy of La Deuxième Sexe!” he cried while looking at his phone. “I need to go grab it.” I remember laughing in disbelief. Had I really found a friend who would run out to buy the last copy of the first tome of one of the great (western) feminist bibles?
Above all, it helped to be sitting in the very establishment that housed the famous discussion of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, as well as her mentorship of the famed author Violette Leduc. I sipped my hot chocolate, listening to my friend flip through the pages of his new purchase and exclaim over how excited he was to read it in French this time, not English. We discussed her famous quote, that “one is not born a woman, one becomes a woman” over the course of her life.
Looking back, there is nothing earth shattering about this moment that I can point to. It was a few sips of rich, creamy hot chocolate, a collection of laughs and ideas, and the start of a wonderful bond. There was something more to it, however.
I could have sworn I felt Simone de Beauvoir smiling over my shoulder.