The Kind of Afternoon You Want to Lose

Matt was standing outside – about to message me – but I spotted him through the window.  I was working at Le Poncelet, my favorite cafe in the 17th, the arrondissement I spent my first year in Paris in.  I waved him in.

Le Poncelet for me is a perfect modern Parisian cafe.  It has trouble-free wifi, a great lunchtime special, usually around 12€ (and is sold out of by 13h00), and an unhurried manner that never makes me feel guilty when I sit and work there for hours on end.

Matt and I met for coffee at 10h00.  At 11h45 he signaled for another coffee and Anne-Sophie (one of the four waitstaff, who, in addition to the owner, I’ve come to know by name) politely told him in French that they were going to need our table for lunch.  Understandable: Paris cafes are a sort of no-go zone for the casual coffee drinker between the hours of 11h30-13h30 for the simple reason that the cafe wants to maximize dining revenue by using every available table.  You can always sit or stand at the bar during this time period – the prices are cheaper anyway – remember that an espresso at the bar might cost you 1€ whereas the exact same one sitting down might run you 2€.

Matt and I had separate plans to go elsewhere and simply work digitally after our coffee.  I needed to continue to move closer to the Louvre, as I was giving four guests a private tour there that night.  We were not far from the Champs and I picked a zany and open Starbucks location there where we might chat in peace and not be pressured into more coffee.

I ordered an Uber for us.  It came 2 minutes later.  I raved about how great the service is in Paris, and he reflected that his terrible experiences on Uber in our city may have been a result of always needing to order a van (he is married with three daughters).

We kept chatting at our new location – where we watched a professional panhandler do laps among the crowd, all with a fake crutch.  He occasionally helped himself to abandoned muffins and juice.  Finally a Starbucks employee chased him out.

Matt and I were continuing our conversation – we had long ago left visas and expat topics, which was probably the original premise of the coffee (I love to meet my readers in person).  We were now into the area of monarchy (I’m a royalist) vs. anarchy (Matt is an anarchist) and I was making the case that both of these systems depended heavily on personal responsibility.

We had almost finished solving the problems of the world when I suggested we move one more time.  Again to a Starbucks (I’ve explained before how useful they are as lily pads), but this time close to the central tourism office near the Garnier Opera so I could buy the Louvre tickets I would need for my guests.

We commandeered two seats upstairs (where we had this view), and got to work.  Matt got the coffee, as I had gotten another Uber to catapult us here.

Ultimately, I wish that kind of luxury that Matt and I had that afternoon for all of you.  Yes, we had work to do, but, yes, it could wait.  We were having that kind of conversation – the kind that many of us associate with a fireplace or a holiday or preceded by a number of adult beverages.  We were stone cold sober, in the middle of a beautiful Parisian afternoon.  We were Americans far from our old homes, who had intentionally created lifestyles that meant we could have this kind of rich and thoughtful conversation on a random weekday – a true sharing of ideas, not in which either of us attempted to “convert” the other on particular issues but in which we basked in the challenge of seeing things from another point of view.

When was the last time you had that kind of conversation?  I reckon you’re overdue.

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Starbucks in Europe

Americans take it for granted that they can sit in most coffee shops or Panera-like establishments and work for hours, after buying one token item of food or drink.  If the place is busy enough or you don’t plan to be there very long, you don’t even have to buy anything.

Starbucks staff, I feel, are trained not to come up and accost customers who haven’t purchased.  This is probably due in part to Howard Schulz’s “third place” philosophy, in which he aims to create an additional place of comfort that isn’t work or home that people wish to go to in order to relax, meet friends, or work (for more on Schulz and his underrated ways of thinking or management, read the worth-your-time Pour Your Heart Into It).

Why is Starbucks a valuable resource for the practical European traveler (who doesn’t carry the angst characterized by “I would never go into a Starbucks in any country” hubris of the wannabee coffee snob or aspiring hipster)?  Three simple reasons:

1)  They are everywhere.  You’ll find them in Berne, Switzerland, a little gem of a town, or in the heart of bustling Paris.

2)  They will let you sit down, charge your devices, use the wifi, and go to the bathroom, all without necessarily making a purchase.  The last particular point in a city famous for its lack of available toilets is an “amenity” truly worth the price of admission.

3)  You can sit and work, or chat with friends, uninterrupted, for as long as you need.  This has been a big part of why my Paris Chess Meetup meets at Starbucks (and why I have a book club event there next month).  Sometimes the staff comes over to watch us play, even, but we are always made to feel welcome.  The majority of us buy food and drink, of course, but that’s more about wanting to, not feeling obliged to.

This is to say nothing of the dozens of students that camp out at the huge Bux locations on Rue de Rivoli or near St. Paul in the Marais.  Laptops and books splayed out among study groups – these students are doing what they CAN’T do in a traditional Parisian cafe: study and work together.  Parisian cafes are great for writing (I’m writing this piece in one of my favorite ones right now, Le Poncelet in the 17th), but for student work and collaboration, when you likely live in a closet like my first apartments in Paris, you really can’t beat the Bux.

Every now and then the New World teaches the Old World a thing or two.  Even if the Old World doesn’t listen, or as in the famous case of the Montmartre Starbucks, fights back, it doesn’t mean you can’t leverage the secret.

Photo by Dmitriy Nushtaev on Unsplash

cafe paris

7 Tips for the Paris Cafe Experience

One of the most famous aspects of Paris is the cafe culture.  Keep in mind, this is not the same as a coffee culture (to be discussed in the future).  There are some unwritten rules that you learn over the years.  Here are a few I’ve compiled to help you the next time you find yourself at one of these treasures.

1) Be polite

In the States, as well as Anglo-culture in general, there is a traditional belief that the French are generally stuck up and rude. The reality is exactly the opposite. The French are very polite, provided that you are polite to them to start with. When entering a cafe, do not get agitated if you are not served right away. Eating is a totally different culture here. It’s not meant to be a time to stuff your face and run on to the next activity. It’s meant to be a passage. An enjoyment, a respite, culminating in good, peaceful digestion. Appreciate this difference and be patient, be sure to be polite to the waiter (who is not your slave, rather he has condescended to assist you… for a price), beginning with “Bonjour.” This will auspicious start will help provide good service.

2) Know what you want

Many French cafes do not have menus, since they more or less serve the same thing. Coffee, naturally, bread and cheese, sandwiches, pastries and small savory offerings. The local cafe is not a full service restaurant. You should already know what you want before you go to order, because it is very inconsiderate of you to make your server stand there while you mutter, “Ummmm…. nah. Hmmm… maybe… nah.”

3) Drink what you want

A cafe in Paris does not only serve coffee. Here in Paris, as in most of Europe, a cafe serves coffee, mineral water, beer or wine. The waiter will most likely take your drink order first. Be prepared for what you want (see above).

4) Blend in

Whether you stand or sit, there is a certain level of decorum with which the French conduct themselves in cafes which it would be good to observe. It is cheaper, pricewise, to stand at the bar to eat or drink than to sit down at a table, but if you do sit, you should not sip your coffee loudly, nor chug your beer like you were back in college.  Enjoy your food and concentrate on enjoying it. Chew softly, maybe while reading a book. This is leisure time!

5) Take your time

If you sit down, plan on taking your time. You aren’t just buying food, you are buying an experience, an atmosphere. Plan on hanging around for a while, the staff expects you to take your time. They are not trying to frantically turn tables to get as much money out of the clientele as possible. You are invited and encouraged to take time, read a book, do nothing, people-watch, write out some postcards to family back home, etc.

6) Perpetuate the gentle hum of conversation

It’s best to keep the quiet atmosphere of the cafe: set the ringer on your phone off, laugh more quietly at jokes. When you are ready to go, the normal signal that the French use here is to place their fork and knife on their plate, or, one can use the symbol which works just about everywhere in Europe, to pretend to write on your palm when/if you can catch the eye of your waiter.  You’ll want to ask for the bill 10-15 minutes before you really want it. 😉

7) Be graceful

Gratuity is already factored in, therefore leaving another 15% tip immediately identifies you as a tourist. A little extra for outstanding service would not be out of place, however.

If you do not speak French very well, the French are appreciative of those who try to use basic polite phrases without asking if they speak English. Once the initial effort is made, more often than not, they will kindly offer to speak to you in English if you begin in French.

The Paris cafe experience has been memorialized in books, films, poetry, and art.  Take the chance to insert yourself into those narratives in a harmonious way.

Photo by Alex Harmuth on Unsplash

Work – Life – Space

I think work/life balance is a lie modern man talks about because he has lost his way.  He thinks that if work and life is strictly separated, and then “balanced,” that all will be well.

What should be our mission and goal is not only to see work as a positive good and normal part of our existence as humans, but also to see all of our existence as life, pure and simple, and try to grapple and take hold of it.

I run several businesses, none of which require me to be inside, though it’s easy to be outside in the lingering remains of a Parisian summer.

The cafe is a classic place to work.  Pay a couple euros, stay as long as you want, and if you know your wifi spots or if your data plan is good, you’re set up.

I choose some quieter places, as the day and inclination invite me.

How about an out-of-the-way hidden neighborhood garden?  Quiet.  Flowers to inspire you.  A bench to yourself.

Perhaps a more crowded park?  Hang with the ducks?  Watch people feed them.

Or my personal favorite: a lesser-known, beautiful church.  You have room and quiet.  You have unmatched views.

Want something really unconventional?  A cemetery.

A workspace can’t and shouldn’t be a sanitized “clean space” where you have no distractions.  You should bring discipline and purpose to your work and choose a workspace that will invite the brightest distractions and recollections, whenever you need to take a break from your work life.

I was asked to write this for and their recent “Where do you work?” campaign.

Photo by Antoine Similon on Unsplash