Now seen as quintessentially French, the café was slow to catch on in Paris. But once it did, it was an irreplaceable feature of life in the capital. Some of the earliest Parisian café patrons were traders at the great St-Germain fairs, and foreigners and working-class people who frequented the Turkish-style coffeehouses around the St-Michel bridge. With the opening of the Procope near the Comédie-Française in 1689, the café became fashionable—a place to see and be seen. Paris, said historian Jules Michelet, was “one vast café.”
Cafés were also places to debate and exchange ideas. Michelet and many modern scholars see coffee drinking and the rise of the café as fueling (at least in part) the Enlightenment, the French revolution, and the spread of scientific, artistic and philosophical ideas in France and Europe. From Voltaire at the Procope to Robespierre at the Régence, Simone de Beauvoir at the Deux Magots and James Baldwin at the Select, writers and artists have gathered at cafés. These more or less egalitarian “third spaces” were no less important to those unknown to history, or to us today. Cafés have been escapes from cold and poverty, de facto offices, places to meet friends and lovers, or refuges where one can simply sit and observe. When we go to them, for whatever reason, we are taking part in the comédie humaine.
Our trip will feature walking tours led by novelist and storyteller Lisa Pasold, museum visits, a cooking class, and plenty of time to enjoy Paris’s many distinctive cafés. We’ll study these thinking/drinking spaces primarily through the works of the prolific writers Honoré de Balzac and Emile Zola—the first a consumer of prodigious quantities of coffee, the second obsessed with food and the way it is bought, sold and eaten. We’ll also look at selected poetry and short fiction from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Modern-day flâneur and cartoonist L. John Harris will share with us his writings and drawings on café life.
Join other bons vivants for a relaxed yet stimulating exploration of Paris’s fascinating café culture and history.
Prepare for your trip with virtual walks with Lisa Pasold on her Improbable Walks podcast series and Melanie’s blog post on reading Zola: Blood, Sex and Money, Second Empire–Style.
The name of our trip is indebted to the book The Thinking Space: The Café as a Cultural Institution in Paris, Italy and Vienna, edited by Leona Rittner, W. Scott Haine, and Jeffrey H. Jackson