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By Ray Chatelin
(For Travel Writers Tales)

The essence of Paris is not in its monuments, its opera houses or the fashion salons near the Champ Elysee. Nor is it in the great masterpieces of the Louvre, the grandeur of Versailles. or even in the graceful flow and ebb on the Roland Garros Stadium courts during the French Open Tennis tournament in June.

Nice as these places are, the real heart of Paris is found in the mix of humanity that frequent the countless outdoor cafes of the Marais, the Latin Quarter, or Montparnasse.

If you can understand the language of Paris cafes in the spring, summer and fall then everything about the city begins to make sense.

For, you see, Paris outdoor restaurants are for lovers and poets, real and imagined. The French know that. They always have and have never tried to hide the fact.

Pick any single Paris café afternoon, or in the evening - and at every table there's a story unfolding. Sit and watch and it's like chapters in gothic novels come to life.

You can easily pick out the types - lovers meeting, lovers separating, the lonely, the writers, the artists, students, businessmen trying to find relief from sales projections.

And there’s no lack of outdoor cafes to suit every taste. They line virtually every side street and main thoroughfares in each of the twenty arrondissements, the administrative districts that make up the city. Each region has its own sense of character and each brings a different type of resident onto the sidewalk.

My favorite café area is along the narrow, cobbled side streets of the Latin Quarter where it’s easy to take part in its joie de vivre of sidewalk and street cafes, bakeries, bistros and food markets.

The crooked and Medieval-like streets such as the Rue du Chat qui Pêche, take you to intimate alleyways that are as close in character to what the Paris of ancient time might have been like. It’s the narrowest street in Paris at 1.80 m wide for its 29 m length.

The area - located in the 5th and 6th arrondissements and close to some of the city’s great tourist areas such as the Pantheon and Cluny Museum - got its name from the fact that Latin was the only language used at its schools during the Middle Ages.

It has an eclectic mix of sidewalk cafes ranging from the fashionable for the more affluent inhabitants who go to be seen (Les Deux Magot; Café de s Flore); to hangouts for the working class stretched along Rue de la Huchette, where you’ll find the highest concentration of restaurants in Paris..

Café language is an art form in which messages abound without a word ever spoken - a subtle glance, an understated nod, a coquettish glimpse from salad to woman or man to wine and then a sip from the glass.

Reaction is everything. A smile may acknowledge approval, or it might say, "Sorry, I'm taken, but it would have been nice." A frown may be a rejection, or a sign of disappointment. A kiss on the cheek may mean commitment or it might be signal that this is only friendship. It doesn’t take long to achieve a working knowledge of café language nuances.

The rules are simple. Never stare, always play with your food so as not to finish too quickly and suppress the impulse to strike up a conversation.

And should your eyes accidentally contact with someone, just slowly glance away, pick up your wine glass and give a slight swirl of the vin rouge while looking intently on the wine’s movement. The message that you’d be giving should you be caught meddling on someone’s privacy: “Sorry to intrude. My mistake. It won’t happen again.”

The higher end neighborhood cafes cater to a different clientele than you’ll find in working class areas. You’ll notice the difference as soon as you enter and look at the menu. They have broader food and selections and, in the case of those along and near Boulevard St. Germaine in Montparnasse have no hesitancy in declaring they were once the favorite haunt of Ernest Hemmingway, Pablo Picasso, George Sand, and Oscar Wilde.

Whatever your fancy, grab a chair, order your wine and cheese, and open your heart to what surrounds you. There are many ways to allow the imagination of your romantic self to run rampant, to give it free reign to the possibilities that Paris suggests, and watch others play the game of non-verbal cafe-language.


PHOTOS: Courtesy Paris Convention and Tourism Bureau

1. A crowded street of cafes near the Louvre in Paris

2.A typical Parisian outdoor cafe where you can experience a language that isn't verbal

3. Les Deux Magots is arguably the most famous of Paris's cafes. A favorite haunt of author Ernest Hemingway, it's located in the Saint-Germain-des-pre area

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