It’s true what they say about cafés in Paris. And I didn’t believe it either, till I saw for myself. Chairs all facing the street, espressos in pristine mini-cups, a glass of wine and a lit cigarette on every table, the smoke mingling with the Chanel perfume, conversations in rapid french surrounding one lost Indian. They’re everywhere, the cafés. One can spend hours at a go, walking down the rues (streets), weaving through the crowd, waiting for that one café that’s unique enough to pull you in.
They come in different sizes, décors and themes. The bigger ones, like Café Delmas, or maybe the more famous Les Deux Magots, are full by the evening, and a little daunting to venture by oneself. I found the smaller ones like Café Tournebride and Le Vin Sobre a bit more inviting to the lonely traveller, and even after one whole month of spending my evenings there, I couldn’t get enough of the wine, or the stillness of sitting, while the world around you continued to talk and move and live their life. That’s something I starve for, if in a café by myself. To be left alone. Fleeting looks and smiles don’t feel invasive. I don’t sit there cowering, afraid of being judged by everyone including the waiter.
And then there are cafés in Delhi. The cafés here are not like the cafés in Paris. Loud, invasive conversations. Enrique and electro-pop, instead of jazz. Nothing sober about this place. Hell, I’d take a coffee on rue Mouffetard any day over this, even if I have to sit on the street with my back against a wall –it really has a charm of its own, with the street performers playing the accordion, the out-of-tune flute, maybe even some acrobatic action. The sublime experience comes full circle.
Indian cafés (can I even call them that?) come with the full package of LCDs, noisy insect killers, the lukewarm espresso served in cappuccino cups, and of course, the quintessential freak who can NOT sip his/her coffee without staring at you, judging in their own tiny way. What you are doing interests them more, than if a fly fell into their latte.
Sitting alone? Stare.
With a girl? Double-time.
Writing or reading? Stare.
I can’t help but crave the anonymity I had in Paris. The French don’t stare. They don’t look at you from head to toe, when you’re walking on the street: brand-analyzing and class-differentiating you. The people in Paris walk past you without so much as a cursory glance. Maybe that’s the reason behind the common fallacy of them being stuck-up and cold. I’m afraid they simply can’t be bothered to give you the time of day, give you the validation you seem to crave so much. People crib about how much everyone stares here. Don’t blame the people, its Delhi culture! We’ve literally made a habit of analyze, judge, and tell yourself you are better.
I’ve seen people go out for a drink in what I only want to call a night-suit, walking in a market with shoddy work-out clothes (read boxer-esque shorts and ratty t-shirts). In Paris, if you’re wearing pyjamas and trainers, you better be out for a run. Yes, the people in Paris would do up their hair and dress up smart even for a quick dash to the supermarket. So, no you won’t feel the need to rip out your eyeballs at the cham-cham salwars, the sequinned jeans and the embroidered shirts with the skinny pants. Walk free, the streets are chic. You may have a homeless man run up to you and slur incoherent French at you, but it’s all in good humour. No one takes offence to it. Here, we avoid them like the plague.
It’s not just the people. I found the food in Paris to be just as different. Of course it doesn’t come as a surprise, but it’s just one of the things that simply demand a mention. Oh, and I’m not talking about your Coq au vin and french onion soup and blue cheese ravioli, when I say food, I want to talk about the eighty-centime-baguettes, the freshest fruit off the farmer’s market at Mouffetard, and every damn thing from the fromagéries (cheese shops). I have scavenged for fresh raspberries everywhere, and everyone just equates them to be gooseberries. Yeah, we like to call our gooseberries raspberries. Nobody knows where I can buy a good loaf of bread from, and I mean a loaf, not the fancy little sliced bread you get in bakeries.
And let’s not forget the wine. Give me a minute while I roll my tongue and revisit the flavours. With the cheapest bottle priced at a euro (yeah, one fricking euro!), I was flabbergasted at having to pay over a thousand bucks for one bottle of white wine. I realized I should just stick to Sula in India. Leave the Pinots and the Chardonnays for Paris! That one bottle of wine had me scraping the bottom of my wallet, and it still sits unopened. It kills me. I swear it does.
Now, to avoid sounding like an NRI chacha (uncle), let me get to the point I intended to make, but have clearly forgotten, thanks to my rant. When you travel by yourself, and you don’t have the pressure of keeping in tune with someone else’s interests, you have the liberty to design your own travel experience. And that is exactly what I did. I left all the touristy bullshit for the end of my trip and spent my month in Paris drinking wine by the Siene, taking hour-long walks, picnicking in jardins (gardens) and just soaking in everything I could. And I would sit, and look at people passing by, on their way home from work, just the way they do back here. A man and wife, dressed in corporate formals, out with their kid in a tiny little garden, playing with him, feeding him a snack, calling out his name with alarmingly unconditional love.
That’s not a French thing, I realised. It’s a human thing. We can build our nuclear bombs and unleash wars upon each other but when we love, it’s this staggering, disarming love. It doesn’t change from India to Paris to New York to Tokyo. A father’s love is a father’s love. A girlfriend’s kiss is a girlfriend’s kiss. The customary “bonjour” is not replaced with a “what do you want?”
The river doesn’t flow the wrong way in Paris. Crime isn’t an alien concept. People lie, steal, embrace, enrage; they’re no different from you and I. The day lasts way into the night but when the sun sets, it’s just as beautiful. So you can go to Paris with this romanticized expectation of coming back a changed person. But once you get there you’ll see for yourself. Night falls in Paris too. The sun sets in Paris too…