A Place to Be Alone, with Others

Dear Readers

I’m reblogging something my friend, Janet Hulstrand, wrote this summer. We both learned about the efforts to Save The Paris Cafe. Anyone who has wandered the streets of Paris and stopped periodically for an expresso, a café creme or allongé, knows the joy of taking a rest and watching other walkers as one regroups and chats and considers the possibility of more walking or just letting the world pass them by. Please read her wonderful piece, look at the site and start reading!!!!! https://savethepariscafe.com

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 Frenchhas 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 ParisFrance Today, France Revisited, as well as for her blog Writing from the Heart, Reading for the Road.

Vaux-le-Vicomte

South face of Vaux in the evening with 2000 candles lit in the formal gardens

I had never heard of the Chateau, south of Paris, Vaux-le-Vicomte until one day when I was complaining to my friend Barbara how much I dislike visiting Versailles with all the crowds. She mentioned that there was a precursor to Versailles designed by the same architect, Louis Le Vau; the same landscape garden designer, Andre Le Notre; and the same painter, Charles Le Brun; all of whom were unknown when Nicolas Fouquet hired them to build his masterpiece. She added that on Saturday evenings the whole place is lit up with candles. That was four years ago and I’ve been contemplating a visit there ever since.

North facing entrance to Vaux-le-Vicomte

Vaux is not easy to get to so I was easily put off. It’s best to drive, there is ample free parking. There is the R train that leaves Gare de l’Est and arrives in Melun about 15 minutes away. One has to take a bus, or a taxi or a very expensive shuttlebus. When Barbara asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday, I said I’d really like to go to the Chateau. So with another friend of ours, she organised a Saturday evening visit this past Saturday.

Looking out on the gardens from the entry hall

We entered the Chateau and were given audio guides. As we walked through the rooms, we were entertained by a 3D recording telling us the extremely sad story of Nicolas Fouquet, Superintendent of Finances for King Louis XIV. When Louis’s Prime Minister, Cardinal Mazarin died in 1661, the same year work on Vaux was finished, a conspiracy was hatched to remove Fouquet from office forever. Colbert, who had aided Mazarin in a huge embezzlement of the King’s money, decided to ruin Fouquet so the King would never learn of the theft. He planted suspicions and lies in the ear of the King until the King decided to arrest Fouquet. But before that happened, Fouquet invited the King and everyone of nobility to an enormous feast at the Chateau as it was almost finished. King Louis, 23 years old at the time, was full of jealousy at the beauty of Vaux and arrested Fouquet three weeks later. Fouquet never lived in his chateau or saw it again.

The Salon

All the above characters had their own voices. We could hear Nicolas Fouquet naively thinking how happy the King would be at the Feast. We heard the King calling Nicolas arrogant for thinking he could have a more beautiful place than the King. Learning the story and seeing the harmony of architecture, gardens and paintings made one very sad.

Gobelin copies of the original tapestries that hung in the Chateau

King Louis XIV took many of the furnishings for his own and hired the three artists to build Versailles and its gardens. The three went on to become hugely famous designing and painting many buildings, chateaux and gardens that are known around the world.

Fouquet’s wife held on to the estate but after some time had to sell it. It went through two more owners who changed the name and, after some time, the Chateau and gardens fell into disuse. In 1875, it was in such disrepair that it was auctioned off to whoever would pay anything. It was bought by Alfred Sommier, a 40 year old man, who had fallen in love with Vaux. He changed the name back to Vaux-le-Vicomte and slowly restored the Chateau back to it’s original beauty. The estate has stayed in that family to the present day. The gardens have been fully restored and there was a search for wonderful art to decorate the walls. In 1968, Patrice and Cristina de Vogué, children of Sommier’s nephew, opened the Chateau and gardens to the public on a permanent basis.

One of four 17th Century cabinets at Vaux-le-Vicomte
The dining room

After we had completely walked the Chateau, visited the dome for a 360o view of the gardens and estate, we walked out into the gardens just as the sun was setting. Two thousand candles were lighted. They sat in the windows and lined the garden walkways. It was fairy tale beautiful. If someone visiting me asked ‘Should I go to Versailles?’ I would do my best to discourage them and help them find a way down to the extraordinary Chateau and gardens known as Vaux-le-Vicomte.

https://vaux-le-vicomte.com/en/

A bientôt,

Sara