Cafe Life

     On the corner of Rue St. Dominique and Rue La Tour Maubourg is an ordinary cafe.
     I only stopped there once while in Paris. It was the end of a long, rainy day after visiting a crowded Musee D’Orsay and walking to Notre Dame, only to find it closed.
     The cafe was on the way back to the apartment we had rented for one week. My girlfriend and I sat outside on the “terrasse,” where small tables and chairs are jammed against each other, and had a beer.
     Sitting next to us were two women, one younger, one older. They were talking about life and boyfriends. But it was the rhythm of talk that I heard, the inflected, droll, colorful language French use in casual conversation.
     They were smoking, which is what most French people do on terrasses.
     And although I had seen it over and over — groups of women in twos, threes and fours, sitting on a cafe terrasse, having a coffee or a drink, smoking and talking about life — it was only in that ordinary place at the end of a long day that I realized what my mom had missed so much.
     My mom was a Parisian.
     She married my dad, a world War II infantryman, and they went to live in Pasadena where he taught photography at the city college.
     But she never completely got accustomed to the house-bound life of a small American city. And as public opinion and advertising swung against smoking, she smoked by herself, refusing to heed the criticism of her habit.
     But, one time, a group of Danish friends came to visit and we had dinner with my mom. Afterwards, the girls, who were in their early thirties, stayed at the table with my mom to talk and share a smoke.
     She was, quietly, in heaven.
     I could see and feel how much it meant to her.
     But it was not until I got back to Paris that I understood why.
     That is how Parisian women unwind, it is part of life, a regular thing, to meet a girlfriend, take a walk in the city, and stop, have a drink and a smoke and talk about whatever comes to mind.
     And that she could not do in Pasadena.
     The terrasse was also a testament to the immutability of fundamental aspects of French life. I had read articles about the disappearing cafes in France, how they were falling victim to late hours at work, fast food and television.
     But I found cafes all over the place during the week in Paris. In the two blocks around our apartment in the Invalides neighborhood, I counted four cafes and three boulangeries.
     On nearby Rue Cler, there were another five cafes in one long block, and, on a Saturday evening, having just arrived in Paris, they were a sight to behold.
     With awnings extended on a cold, dark, wet night, the large terrasses were packed with people smoking, drinking and eating simple bistro food.
     The interiors of the cafes were bright and busy as waiters walked briskly in and out. At the Cafe du Marche, from a young waiter who was both very busy and attentive, I ordered a leg of duck, french fries and the house Cote du Rhone. It was good food, not great, not fine cooking, but a good, basic meal.
     In the mornings, a cafe on Rue St. Dominque called the Bar du Central became a favorite. One waiter often worked in the mornings.
     Correct and effecient, he dressed in a white waiter’s coat, had a fine, waxed mustache and was slightly balding. It was easy to get his attention.
     A cafe americano came with fresh squeezed orange juice and a croissant or small basket of fresh bread.
     I ordered an omelette one morning and it was a different thing altogether than what one might get in California. There was no cheese, no mushrooms, no bacon, nothing but a couple eggs.
     It was miraculously light, moist and delicious. Satisfying yet not filling, with no heavy spices. I added just a bit of salt.
     And that too reminded me of my mom.
     Alone, she would sometimes cook herself a small omelette for lunch. It was light, simple and above all moist and tender. She would have it with a glass of beer.
     She had wanted to see Paris once more before she passed away but a fall in the dark had dissuaded her. It had taken me an awful long time to realize what it was she missed so much.

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