I have a very favorite place in the Universe. Granted, I have not been everywhere in the Universe, but I have traveled enough and seen enough to conclude that for me, the Café Les Deux Magots in Paris, France is absolutely it.
The café has its detractors. People say it’s overrun with tourists, and the servers are surly. Well, let the people go somewhere else. We’re all tourists on this planet in some form or fashion. As for the staff, if surly means efficient, conscientious, traditionally attired and expedient, then, bring on the surly.
There is a word in French for what I am. I am a flaneur, a walker, a stroller. Never satisfied with having seen enough, I just keep exploring until my legs feel as though they might not carry me another step. At this point my big adventure will hopefully have led me to the threshold of Les Deux Magots.
It’s a seat on the terrace I crave, whether it faces the Boulevard Saint-Germain, or the Eglise Saint-Germain-des-Pres, the beautiful church on the square. Just sit me down and let the heavenly respite begin.
It might be a little bit before my server arrives. He darts around, deftly balancing glassware, weaving his way between the tiny tables with chairs clustered about them. I am elbow-to-elbow with an elderly woman and her teacup Yorkie. She has offered the dog a bit of her baguette in return for a bisou (kiss). I don’t mind the wait. I know my server knows I’m here and he will get to me as soon as he is able. He will be appreciative of my patience, as I am respectful of the seriousness with which he applies himself to his work.
Settling in, I take note of my café-mates. The coiffed, well-heeled one in the corner, she is definitely Parisian. The couple jammed together between the gentleman reading Le Figaro and the girl with the map, are obviously in love.
Then, at the exact moment when my stomach begins to cry, “Empty!” a mustachioed, commanding figure in classic black and white café garb alights before me.
“Madame?” With a slight raising of brows and a pursing of lips, he acknowledges the fact that I am desperate to be fed.
“S’il vous plait, monsieur, un sandwich jambon et un coca-cola.”
Bits of conversation, in French and German and English fly about, mingled with the sounds of street traffic. A sudden gust of crisp Fall air blows my scarf up around my head and the woman with the little dog, cries, “Oh,la,la!” I thought people only said that in the movies.
I ordered a ham sandwich and a coke. When I was a kid, that’s what I used to pack in my lunchbox, along with a bag of potato chips. The recipe was simple: take two pieces of Wonder Bread. Smear them with a bit of mayonnaise. Then peel two pieces of baked ham from the plastic wrapper and fold them to fit neatly between the slices of white bread. Wrap the sandwich in aluminum foil. I ate this every day in the school lunchroom for about 8 years and never grew tired of it.
Now I find myself, well into adulthood, stuck on the same old thing, except that here at Les Deux Magots there is absolutely no resemblance between the ham sandwich of my childhood and the Parisian version called sandwich jambon.
I put out my hand for the little Yorkie to sniff and she looks up at me, two pink-ribboned plumes of hair by the corner of each eye, vibrating with interest. But before my hand and her nose make contact, she is swiftly yanked away by her owner, with a terse apology, “Pardon”. I am about to respond by explaining that I love dogs, when in one adept, sweeping gesture, my food and drink is set before me with a slight inclination of the torso and a “Voila, Madame!”
I let out a little yelp of delight and my diminutive canine friend does as well, as if to confirm delivery of something very yummy.
Set crosswise on the plate is my ham sandwich, which I will try to create a vision of, to the best of my ability.
My baguette has a crunchy, beautifully oven-brown-and- gold exterior. The bread inside is light and airy and carries a fresh aroma. The thinnest layer of butter, more like hardened cream than the packaged butter we buy in the States, has been applied to the inside of each half- baguette, and spilling out beyond the edges of the bread, are delicate slices of the sweetest, pinkest country ham I’ve ever had.
The first bite is difficult. The crisp end of the baguette rubs the top of my palate raw and my lap is full of crumbs. I stop to sip my coke. I don’t know why, but this coca-cola tastes better here than anywhere else. Maybe because it’s bottled in glass. I notice the extreme effervescence.
The rest of the sandwich is consumed by nibbles and turns and nibbles and turns, until I have worked my way into the center of the thing, stopping frequently to wave errant piles of crumbs in the direction of the dog. Occasionally, when the attention of her mistress is directed elsewhere, she manages a mouthful, then looks up at me, approvingly.
All the while, I am consummately absorbed in studying the relentless ebb and flow of humanity all around me. My appetite sated, I can get down to the serious business of people-watching.
Mistress and dog prepare to depart. I scoot over a bit, so they have room to come out from behind their table.
Coat buttons are fastened and little pink ribbons disappear into the recesses of a Vuitton purse.
“Au revoir”, I offer meekly and it is met with an equally weak smile. What I really am thinking is, “Next time you come to America, you must try our Wonder Bread.”
CAFE LES DEUX MAGOTS
6 Place Saint-Germain-des-Pres
Hours: Daily 8am-2am
People Watching At The Cafe