Category Archives: Essays

A Place to Be Alone, with Others

by Janet Hulstrand

When people ask me what they should be sure to do while they’re in Paris, I always say the same thing: “Just be sure you leave some time to simply wander—walk, sit in a park or café, and take some time to just watch the world go by.”

I say this even if the person asking me is only going to be in Paris for a day or two. It seems to me to be even more important if you only have a little bit of time in Paris to have this very Parisian, and most wonderful experience—that is, to take the time to do “nothing” and just enjoy the beauty and the inherent interest of the world surrounding you.

The French have a word for this kind of thing: flâner is the verb, and it is variously translated. Most often it is translated as “to stroll,” with secondary definitions including to lounge, dawdle, wander, or loiter. Harriet Welty Rochefort, in her book, Joie de Vivre: Secrets of Wining, Dining, and Romancing Like the French, has a chapter called “Hanging Out Without Feeling Guilty.” It seems to me that this is the best way to describe what it means to flâner that I have ever heard.

Each summer, I assign the American students in my literature class in Paris to find a café that looks sympa to them, and then to spend at least half an hour there. (“Longer is better,” I say.) I tell them they don’t have to order more than a cup of coffee, or a glass of wine if they don’t want to, or can’t afford to. Then they are to spend at least some of their time there writing about what they see, hear, observe, or think about. I give them this assignment fairly early in their month-long stay in Paris because I want them to know that this is something they can do in Paris even if they are there on a very tight budget. And I want them to understand through personal experience that it is indeed one of the most wonderful things Paris has to offer them—and everyone.

Watching the world go by. Photo: Patty Sadauskas

That is, to have a place to go where you can be alone with your thoughts, but surrounded by the interesting display of humanity around you. A place where you can take the time to relax—read, write, think, and watch the passing parade. Perhaps most importantly of all, to not be hurried away by anyone, but to feel truly welcome.

A café doesn’t have to be old in order to be a very pleasant place to pass the time, but sometimes that is part of the charm. My own favorite café in Paris is the Café Bullier, on the corner of Boulevard Montparnasse and Avenue de l’Observatoire. This café has been there for a long time: Hemingway referred to it in A Moveable Feast (as the “Bal Bullier”). When I sit in the Café Bullier, I like to find a seat from which I can look across the boulevard to the Closeries des Lilas, now famous as one of the cafés in which Hemingway liked to work. But what I like most about the Café Bullier is the warm accueil I always experience when I am there, whether I’ve come for a leisurely cup of coffee or glass of wine, or a meal. (The service is always both professional and friendly, and the food is always good too.)

Because of my love for Parisian cafés, as well as cafés elsewhere in France, I avoid going to Starbucks when I am in France. I have nothing against Starbucks in general, but I do feel like there are plenty of Starbucks in the world, and that when in France, it’s better to support local, independently owned cafés.

After all, they have played such an important social function for such a long time—and to me, this being able to be both alone and surrounded by people, to do your work in peace and calm, and to not feel rushed about leaving is truly one of the greatest things about Paris.

Of course one of the reasons Parisian café owners are able to allow us this wonderful luxury is that there are so many of them—so many cafés, so many tables, so much space in which to do this. There is not the need to “turn tables” as there is in other places that are both more crowded and—let’s face it—more mercenary.

But Parisian café owners have to be able to earn a living too. So shouldn’t we all be helping them do that?

Because Paris just wouldn’t be the same without them.

JANET HULSTRAND is a writer, editor, writing coach, and teacher who divides her time between France and the United States. She is the author of Demystifying the French: How to Love Them, and Make Them Love You, and she writes frequently for Bonjour Paris, France Today, France Revisited, as well as for her blog Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road.