The ‘Happiness in Paris’ experiment – part two: writing in cafés
A month ago I embarked upon a research project called the ‘Happiness In Paris’ experiment. The premise: by cultivating ten small behaviours I would unlock the secrets to being happy in the French capital.
The first of these behaviours was to spend more time writing in cafés. I’d spent far too many early Parisian evenings hurrying past inviting terrasses rushing to get home and back to my endless to-do list.
The right to linger in cafés was a reward I felt I didn’t deserve. At least not until after I had written another chapter of the book or edited this week’s blog post. Then it occurred to me, that perhaps by combining the two, I might just find that perfect balance, between productivity and pleasure, and be happier as a result.
Jean Paul Sartre and Ernest Hemingway might have preferred the intellectual ambience of the Left Bank, but as a proud Right Bank resident, my experiment concentrated largely on the cafés of the second, the ninth and the tenth arrondissements.
The French café reality
The notion of writing in cafés is one that appeals to many. The reality, however, is never quite so attractive. Many waiters in the French capital don’t bother to disguise their displeasure when your order of espresso comes with a side of BYO laptop.
Apart from the passive-aggressive hovering, one also has to deal with the self-doubt that seems to accompany any act of public writing. In the immortal words of Carrie Bradshaw: “I used to think those people who sat alone at Starbucks writing on their laptops were pretentious posers.”
An Australian influence in France
And so I set out, one cool Monday afternoon, on the hunt for the café that would become my writing haven. I had read good things about the KBCafeshop, including their promise of free Wi-Fi and the elusive soy-brewed Chai Latte. Plus, I’d heard the owner was heavily influenced by his time spent in Australia.
It was true, my laptop and I were welcome there, but perhaps a little too welcome. I arrived to find the place already filled by an army of fellow ‘Macbook-toters’. The only space left was on the (unheated) terrace, so with a regretful backward glance at the unbeatable Sacré-Coeur view, I took my Chai to go.
Tea and French sympathy
Back down on rue Montergueil, I considered the row of cafés that lined either side of the bustling market street. How to choose? One boasted a (heated!) glassed-in terrace, but seriously inflated prices. Another was watched over by a somewhat formidable maître d.
A little further down, I stopped in front of the unassuming Café du Centre. Its décor was unremarkable, and it was buzzing, but not busy. I headed inside. I ordered a pot of tea (un thé aux fruits rouges; no exceptional choices on offer here) and settled myself at an unobtrusive table tucked next to a side door.
I pulled out my laptop and opened my latest novel-in-progress. Almost immediately, a young waiter appeared by my side. I sighed, expecting him to launch into the lingerers-not-welcome speech, but instead, he simply voiced his concern that I would be too cold so close to the door.
Writing heaven in the French capital
A week later, I followed the Parisian blog buzz to the newly opened tenth arrondissement branch of Café Pinson. I was late enough to miss the breakfast rush and too early to bother the lunch crowd; and so with glee was afforded my choice of seat.
I dawdled over the decision. Would I prefer the cosy-looking chaise lounge in the corner? Or perhaps one of the sturdy, school-desk-like wooden tables? Neither seemed quite right. Instead, I took advantage of their ingenious banquette with a street view.
Ordinarily, one has to choose between the incomparable comfort of sitting on a padded bench seat, or the opportunity to admire the passing foot traffic. At Café Pinson you can have both. For the price of one mug of delicious Pukka Herbs organic tea, I enjoyed a solid two hours of quality writing time and vowed to return for their delicious smelling lunch.
Twilight writing French-style
Another evening, on a Wednesday in late January, I found myself suddenly without plans, so I headed out for a twilight writing session. I had first discovered the Belgian chain bakery Le Pain Quotidien in Lille, when, after three solid days of champagne aperitifs and feasting en famille my body was crying out for a little balance.
Their recycled wood furniture and bright lighting make their cafés feel young and vibrant, while the communal tables seem designed to encourage entrepreneurial spirit. My local branch, also on the rue Montergueil has the added bonus of being home to Paris’ happiest waiter.
Are French cafés a happy place?
By focusing on writing in cafés, this month has seen me not only become a more productive writer, but one step closer to achieving my own ‘Happiness in Paris’.
And whilst Café Pinson and Le Pain Quotidien have made it into my regular rotation, I’m always on the lookout for new places to work, and I’d love it if you shared your suggestions with me.
What’s your favourite café for writing in Paris? Have you also started the ‘Happiness in Paris’ (or in another city) experiment? Share your thoughts in the comments below.Read more on the ‘Happiness in Paris’ experiment:
Part 1: introduction
Part 2: writing in cafés (this page)
Part 3: living on French time
Part 4: health and well-being
Part 5: living vicariously
Part 6: helping others
1. Happy Street, by Latente on Flickr.
2. Carrie Bradshaw, by el frijole on Flickr.
3. KBCafeshop, Premshree Pillai on Flickr.
4. Cafe Pinson, by Yelp.com on Flickr.
5. Le Pain Quotidien, by jkleske on Flickr.