As a fan of John Hemingway, Henry Miller, Oscar Wilde, Orson Wells and even Jim Morrison, I had always heard rumours of the Parisian sidewalk cafe’s where these famous writers had spent mornings, afternoons and evenings creating their masterpieces. Each resource I consulted before visiting Paris pointed to three famous sidewalk cafe’s on Rue St. Germain: Les deux Magots; Cafe de Flore and the Brasserie Lipp.
From afar in the US, these cafe’s seemed like healing baths for the struggling writers of the world, and that to proceed to the next level one must sit where the master’s sat, eat the same baguets and cheese the master’s ate, and drink the same house wine they drank by the barrel.
My search for writing inspiration on the Left Bank bordered on romantic and cheesy, but since my wife Jenny witnessed me reading Down and Out in Paris and London, listened as I recited Hills Like White Elephants to her, accompanied me to a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, and shared my love for the Doors, she still thought of my quest as romantic. So when we ‘accidentally’ ended up on Rue St. Germain one afternoon after spending the morning walking the entire Champs Elysees, to and from our hotel in the Left Bank, it was not only perfect timing to beat our thirst and hunger, but also ‘cute’ in her eyes.
Rue St. Germain is like any busy boulevard in New York City, packed with people and cars and action. The energy on the sidewalk is electric, especially in the afternoon, as random bands play at street corners, beautiful people shop, smart cars honk, cyclists dart in and out of traffic, and foodies populate the sidewalk cafes.
Our fist stop was the Brasserie Lipp, reportedly Hemingway’s favorite. The Lipp is less sidewalk cafe and more restaurant, so we sat inside, by the window. Our waiter looked just like Hemingway did before he died; a good-looking, but old and rude gentleman who insisted we try the steak tar-tar.
We politely declined, had a beer to quench our thirsts and watched as our American neighbors mowed some raw hamburger covered with raw egg, remarking how, “delicate” it was. Feeling uninspired and wondering what my idol ever saw in the place, we left and skipped across the busy boulevard to Cafe de Flore.
Now this was a traditional sidewalk cafe! And apparently the favorite hangout of Morrison, whose grave we had visited the day prior. The problem was, there were no tables open on the sidewalk. Again, we were forced to sit inside as we sipped Memosa’s. It was like being barred from the VIP section, and as with the Brasserie Lipp, I felt nothing special in terms of writing inspiration. So we left.
As we approached Les Deux Magots we laughed at the name, but kept an open mind that perhaps the hangout of Wilde, the freakshow that he was, would drive some sort of inspiration. A dark-haired waiter approached as we entered the foyer, smiled and made a table for us on the sidewalk. Literally, he grabbed a new table from his back pocket (?!), along with some settings, pushed some other tables of people out of the way, and made room for us. We felt so special!
Soon we were squelching our hunger with a cheese plates, a couple of Croquet Madam’s, some Saumon fume de Norvege et toasts (salmon and cream cheese on toast), and the house white wine. It was bliss. A jazz band played across the street while we drank freely, and ate, and discussed American inhibitions for the next four hours.
We fell in love with the Parisian way of life that afternoon, with their love for everything food, wine, art, women and conversation.
I could finally understand why my heroes had chosen these cafes and this street to conduct their business. The creative inspiration sits before your eyes in the food, the wine and the people that surround you; all the texture of our lives intertwined like a braid on a busy Parisian street. All it took to open my eyes was an afternoon lounging at Les deux Margots.