Devotion Tidbit #3 - Cafe de Flore

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Devotion Tidbit #3 - Cafe de Flore

Unread post by fireflydances » Sat Sep 29, 2018 12:09 am

Cafe de commons credit BKP

Café de Flore

Before we begin, I want to explain why I chose to write about Café de Flore as I have. Because the café is now a much described landmark, there is no lack of information. Tourists seek this spot out. Journalists find angles to report on it, and there are many books which tangentially include the La Flore because it makes such an attractive subject. And I haven’t even included all those food writers. So, my angle. After much thought and too much research I decided that I wanted a tidbit that supported our book discussion. I wanted to feature things that, for me at least, fit somewhere into the circle that surrounds Patti’s book.

I wake early, walk over to the Café de Flore and have a plate of ham and eggs and black coffee. The eggs are perfectly round, set upon a perfectly round slab of ham. Devotion, page 13

Café de Flore. An emblem of Paris street life. Not so great coffee, but wonderful tidbits of tasty food and a place to sit. Sit and watch, sit and read or write, sit and talk. Cities are famous for such places -- so many people alone, so many seeking out that niche on the edge that allows one to be surrounded.

I live on the east coast, used to live in NYC, and I’ve indulged in the pleasure of the local coffeehouse for decades. And quite honestly, sometimes where I landed wasn’t a café, not even a coffeehouse, but a diner, or a breakfast place open all day. Any place that encouraged sitting while permitting a minimal intake of food. I don’t know that this culture of being alone while also present to others exists in all the nooks and crannies of American life, never mind the wider expanse of places you, dear reader, may call home. But it is endemic to the culture of Paris.

Café Culture

On the terrace in front of the boulevard the chairs face out; people-watching is de rigueur. Inside, the din of voices makes it hard to hear anyone beyond the circle of tables surrounding you. And it is indeed possible to strike up a long conversation with a stranger, or become submerged in your book. Coffee is secondary; a way to hold a table, although Parisian waiters rarely pressure anyone to move on. Cheap, harsh industrial strength Robusta has been the coffee de jure for decades, although this is beginning to change.

The saying goes, “you are where you drink.” And that has been a fact since the first café opened. Cafés tend to attract a following, sets of people who share something in common, which could be culture, class or even interest. Certain cafés have been identified for decades as the literary center of the universe, or the place for fashion titans exchange glances or film types plot the latest production or politics. In essence the café is an extension of one’s home, whether you are in the mood to dine alone, or share your table.


So where did it start, this alliance between coffee and public space that blossoms into the café or coffeehouse?

Historians point to early 16th century Mecca during the Ottoman Empire. Located on trading routes coming up from the Yemeni port of Mocha, Mecca is full of travelers and traders -- those interested in buying and selling, in keeping abreast of the latest news from the political realm. And because coffee is a natural stimulate and doesn’t cloud the mind, it soon becomes the preferred beverage for a new type of forum, one that is social but also secular. One that encourages the discussion of ideas and even political debate. But how did that fit in a society organized around religion? This is a new phenomenon for Muslim Ottoman Empire, and there are serious attempts to ban such establishments in the early years.

But good things have a way of getting ‘round.

A small coffeehouse in Vienna begins catering to travelers and traders in 1645. Five years later, a coffeehouse in Oxford serves drinks to student class, and then in 1652, London’s own first coffeehouse opens. Parisians are introduced to coffee by Suleiman Aga, Ottoman Empire ambassador to the French Crown in 1669. Aga came amply equipped with piles of coffee beans, and the drink is taken up by Parisian society as a whole. An actual café will take longer.

In 1672, a small table is set up in a tent at the annual St. Germain spring fair. The drink wins many fans but the vendor is unsuccessful in his attempt to translate a temporary outpost to a storefront. One factor apparently is that Parisians prefer an array of beverages --tea, chocolate, ice cream, confitures, and even liquors -- and a luxe setting. One that features gold paint, mirrors and tapestries. We are talking the reign of Louis XIV, after all.

So it is that Café Procope opens in 1686 on what is now Rue de l'Ancienne-Comédie in the district Saint-Germain-Des-Prés. Known as a café where a gentleman could find coffee and light fare such as sorbet, Procope sits directly across the street from Comédie-Française, and becomes home to the theatre crowd, which brings in the intellectuals. It is a free-wheeling place with a culture open to all levels of Parisian society. Except women, that is. Before the French Revolution the cafés of Paris are judged not suitable for women. Still, there are ways to circumvent the rules, and it is not unusual for a noblewoman’s carriage to pull up outside the café, place an order, and await the delivery, on a silver tray, of some tasty drink or cold treat.


During its long tenure, Café Procope will become home to such notables as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and attract visits from both Benjamin Franklin, during his role as US commissioner to France (1776 - 1785) and Thomas Jefferson during his own tenure there (1784 - 1789).

So when did Café de Flore enter the picture?


Quite a bit later -- 1887 to be exact during the Third Republic (1870 - 1940) which follows on France’s defeat by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War. While the early years of the Third Republic are characterized by political turmoil, there is astounding dynamism occurring in the arts. Called the Belle époque (1871 - 1913), or the Beautiful period, this time is defined by the rise of the Impressionists --Renoir, Sisley, Monet, Degas, the American Mary Cassatt. Cézanne’s sun-filled paintings of southern France, become the bridge between Impressionism and Modernism, and as the century turns, Picasso arrives in 1902. The world of music is equally expansive during these years, with composers such as Bizet, Saint Saens, Debussy and Ravel center stage.

Café de Flore -- The Beginning

The opening of Café de Flore roughly coincides with a changing of the guard on the literary scene. Victor Hugo dies in 1885, and hundreds of thousands gather on the streets of Paris to acknowledge his passing. The short story writer Guy de Maupassant passes in 1893, the poets Verlaine and Rimbaud in 1890 and 1891 respectively.

By the early twentieth century, Café de Flore is full of artists and writers. But who are they? Who is sitting in Café de Flore and gazing out on the crowds in that first decade?

Guillaume Apollinaire, for one. Born in Rome, he arrives in Paris in 1898. By 1902, at the age of 22, he is actively involved in the avant-garde movement. And during the course of the next sixteen years, he will found his own literary journal, write art criticism that will massively impact the direction of art in the century that follows. Apollinaire will even coin that ubiquitous term, “surrealism.” But many critics view his most significant contribution as his re-thinking of French poetry. For example, his new poetic form -- the calligram. We look at them now and we see nothing extraordinary because we have grown up with such images, but when Apollinaire created these amalgams of word and image, he blew apart the old rules of poetry and opened it to continual re-invention.

Apollinaire in Picasso's studio.

An Apollinaire calligramme

He makes friends widely. The artists Pablo Picasso, Max Jacob and Raoul Dufy, before they were famous, and poets and writers such as André Breton, and Gertrude Stein, who labeled him a human “hyphen,” because Apollinaire spanned disciplines and that helped push both modern art and modern poetry forward into the realms of cubism and surrealism. So perhaps we can almost see him at Café de Flore? Moving from table to table?

Apollinaire dies relatively young. He enlists in the French infantry at the start of WWI, suffers head trauma and is sent home to Paris to recover. Instead, in 1918 he becomes one of those cut down by the Spanish flu pandemic that sweeps across the world -- dead at 38.

Le Flore Es En Vogue

We are at the café during the years 1930 - 1939. It swarms with notables from the wide world of the arts--Intellectuals, painters, publishers, the earliest filmmakers. In other words, everyone who recognizes themselves as belonging in such a gathering. Among those present: philosopher Albert Camus, poet Leon-Paul Fargue, novelist Georges Bataille, poet and early Surrealist Robert Desnos, Roger Vitrac, founder of the Theatre Alfred Jarry with surrealist Antonin Artaud, film director Marcel Carné, whose film Children of Paradise (1945) is considered one of most important films ever made, and Theatre of the Absurd playwright Arthur Adamov, and all the others who I’ve left out to avoid running out of space. Imagine all of them, sometimes two or three at the same table, or leaning from one table to another, engaging, absorbing, refining, bringing one thing to the discussion and coming away with another -- surely this is the best way to go about the act of creating.


Another habitué during these years at Café de Flore is Raymond Queneau (1903 - 1976) a novelist, poet, editor, and co-founder with the mathematician François Le Lionnais of OuLiPo or the Potential Literature Workshop. We will run into Queneau again, so let’s stop and meet him. Born in Le Havre, Queneau comes to Paris to study philosophy. Early on he defines himself as a surrealist. But while surrealists draw on the creative energy of the unconscious mind, Queneau’s interest is in creating a new kind of writing that is both logical and fantastical. His writing is quite literally an outgrowth of his desire to create a literature that marries philosophical thought to story narrative. An example can be found in his first novel, Le Chiendent (Witch Grass 1933). Basically nothing less than an attempt to transform Descartes’s Discourse on Method into “the language of the ordinary man.”

But Queneau is also a witty writer who manages to create a relaxed, spontaneous feeling that is also quite modern, as captured here in two very small snippets:

he suddenly had a vision of a civilization of down-at-the-heel-shoes, a culture of worn-away soles[/souls] . . . in the process of being reduced to the remarkably minimal thickness of the paper tablecloths in restaurants for the hard up.” (and) “The assistant manager was always maneuvering her into a dark corner, and so was the manager. No sooner had she got away from their hands than she became exposed to those of the metro. And no sooner had she finished work there than she began all over again here [at home].” from Le Chiendent (1933)

Queneau also has a major impact in freeing literary French from the formal bonds of academe. A perfect example of what this means can be found in his novel Zazie dans le metro (1959) where Queneau coins the phrase Doukipudonktan, which is exactly what the words sound like when people talk to each other, rather than the very formal D'où (est-ce) qu'il pue donc tant. (Gee, could have used him in Level 4 French, no?)

Finally, his OuLiPo. Think math + narrative. A systematic, self-restricting way of creating a story. For example, a novel with no word containing the letter “e” or the formula n + 7 which “replaces every noun in an existing text with the noun that follows seven entries after it in the dictionary” (Poetry Foundation). If you are a long-term ONBCer you’ve run across OuLiPo before. Daniel Depp, Babylonian Nights. Find the tidbit. And, as I said, we will be running into Queneau again.

A Subdued Flore

In 1939 Paul Boubal purchases the café. One of his first acts is to install a large stove in the center of the room. Good timing. The next few years will definitely require any form of warmth possible.

Paris during the Occupation. The Nazis take Paris in June 1940, parading their troops into the city, and marching down the boulevards. Truly an eerie sight. The French surrender rather than engage in a battle that would surely have destroyed the City of Light. Parisians describe the city as a darker place. “The cacophony of daily urban engagement -- passersby, hawkers, street minstrels and performers, construction work, and especially traffic noise ---(is) severely diminished…writers of this period, such as Colette, emphasize how quiet Paris became….Sometimes the silence brought benefits, when pleasant sounds --birdsong, music--were able to reach Parisians’ ears….But mostly, the new silence in such a vital capital must have been confusing and intermittently frightening. Police sirens (are) more menacing, airplane engines mean danger, a shout or scream demand(s) a more nervous response.” (Ronald Rosbottom) Contemporary pictures show smiling soldiers sitting in café terraces, strolling down the boulevards. A city that had been French for centuries suddenly has new owners with a completely different vision for what Paris means and what it should be.

Most of us are familiar with the notion that Parisians fought the Nazi vehemently during the occupation. The reality of those years is more complicated, even ambiguous. The Nazis make strategic use of the city records to identify the names and addresses of Jews. Friends and neighbors disappear from school, the office, even taken directly off the street. French police forces assist in rounding people up. And average citizens keep to a narrow track, striving to insulate themselves, to hold on to some element of the old life. Some become outright collaborators, but many find themselves wrapped in guilt about the loss of so many friends, and a great deal of uncertainty as to what constitutes a collaborative act as opposed to passive resistance. A gutting of the soul, of one’s belief in humanity can be overthrown during such a time.

Simone de Beauvoir by Brassai

Café de Flore’s website claims Simone and Jean-Paul Sartre as steady customers during the war years. Wiki claims Simone actually wrote her second novel The Blood of Others (1945) over a period of months at a table in La Flore. I was unable to confirm the accuracy of either piece of information. Other journalists and historians place their time at the café during the period after World War II (1946 - 1950) and state that during the war years Sartre and de Beauvoir frequented Les Deux Magots, a café located across the street from La Flore and also frequented by many literary luminaries. In any case, The Blood of Others is a novel that emphasizes individual responsibility in the context of a diminished Paris and opposition to the Nazi. I have to say, there was something perfectly and romantically right about Simone with her cigarette and an espresso cup filled and re-filled by the waiter at Café de Flore as she scribbles down sentences. Take your truth. The vagaries of research dependent on the internet, sigh.

Café de Flore Becomes an Icon

The café’s popularity grows exponentially after WWII. During the late forties and early fifties, many are drawn to the café because of the presence of de Beauvoir and Sartre. Others come wanting a chance to rub shoulders with luminaries such Ernest Hemingway, Picasso, and Albert Camus.

Pablo Picasso at Cafe de Flore

Ultimately, the sixties transform La Flore from a gathering place for writers, artists and philosophers, to a cultural icon, and a destination for tourists. The re-definition begins with La Nouvelle Vague or the New Wave movement. Beginning with Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows (1959), a new generation of French filmmakers, eager to create movies that express the personal vision of the director, walk away from the studio system. With modest budgets, hand-held cameras, and a strong preference for spontaneity in dialogue and action, these filmmakers take the industry and film audiences by storm.

Four examples of Nouvelle Vogue directors along with one film directed by each: Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless - 1960) Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg - 1964), Alain Resnais (Hiroshima Mon Amour - 1959), and Roger Vadim (And God Created Woman - 1956). Now, the directors do not become regulars at La Flore -- they sit elsewhere. But some truly iconic Nouvelle Vogue actors do become Flore fans:

Jean Paul Belmondo, “laconic, tough guy persona, expressive, unconventional looks, and considerable onscreen charm” (New Wave, Belmondo is the actor most closely associated with the New Wave. Among his other films: Truffaut’s Mississippi Mermaid, and Resnais’ Stavisky.

Belmondo in Godard’s Pierrot le fou, which also has the most sublime soundtrack.

Brigette Bardot, international sex symbol discovered when she was 14 years old by Roger Vadim. And God Created Women launched Vadim’s career and catapulted Bardot into international stardom. Without translation, none needed.

Alain Delong doesn’t have quite the profile of the other actors listed here. In addition to his French language films, Delong also appeared in a number of Hollywood films for MGM and Warner Brothers. The Samouri (1967) although completed slightly outside the window called New Wave, is praised for its noir vibe.

Jean Seberg was an American actress first attracted attention in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan. Her New Wave credentials come by way of the iconic Jean Luc Godard film, Breathless with Jean Paul Belmondo.

High fashion, like film, is an intensely visual medium, and it makes perfect sense that once the actors were on the scene, the fashion elite follows. That ever-present eye of the camera has made La Flore into a beautiful object, a wonderful backdrop upon which a new luminati, the fashion elite, can parade in costume. Café de Flore’s own website references the following as alumni: Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Bergé, Rochas, Gunnar Larsen, Givenchy, Paco Rabanne, and Guy Laroche and, of course, the supermodels. One very famous fashion designer makes Café de Flore a home base. “Every morning, he walked the five-minute distance between his apartment and the Flore, sat alone at a table on the ground floor, flipped through an issue of Vogue, and “from his corner table he watched all the comings and goings, the new faces and transforming attitudes …..He saw it all and he noted every nuance, every change in gesture.” (Alicia Drake) And here he is:


In closing, during this small project I found myself wondering about the progression of social landmarks, particularly places inhabited by those who create. At the beginning of the 20th century, those sitting in Café de Flore were relative strangers to the ordinary Parisian. Years ago the rising artist, the writer exploring new territory was able to retain privacy even in a public setting, and I would contend that this ability to be present and also to stand apart is a significant element in the creative process. The Café de Flore of those tremendously fruitful times is gone. What remains is a place where visitors can stand in support of those days. The bigger question, of course, is where in the world are today’s Flore and tomorrow’s Flore, and who is creating as they sit and look out?


Café de Flore website

Café de Flore historical photos

Ditton, Hattie. Café Procope and the Birth of the French Coffee Culture. Culture Trip. 5 October 2016.

Drake, Alicia. The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris Little, Brown & Company, 2006.

Genova, Pamela A. “The Poetics of Visual Cubism: Guillaume Apollinaire on Pablo Picasso.” Studies in 20th Century Literature. Vol 27: Issue 1, Article 3.

Gersh-Nesic, Beth. Apollinaire, the Vision of the Poet a the Musee de l’Orangerie. June 14, 2016.

Gersh-Nesic, Beth. Introducing Picasso’s Gang with a tour of their favorite haunts. August 4, 2016

Guida, James. The Daring Dream Logic of The Blue Flowers by Raymond Queneau. The New Yorker. August 28, 2018.

Goodreads: Raymond Queneau

A Historical Look at Cafe de Flore.

New Wave

Raymond Queneau obituary. New York Times. October 26, 1976

Rosbottom, Ronald C. When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940 - 1944. Little, Brown. (2014)

Yardly, Jonathan. A history of Paris during Nazi occupation. Washington Post, August 29, 2014

Zaimeche, Salah. The Coffee Route from Yemen to London, 10th - 17th Centuries” Muslim Heritage website
"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested." Sir Francis Bacon, Of Studies

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Devotion Tidbit #3 - Cafe de Flore

Unread post by SnoopyDances » Sat Sep 29, 2018 2:05 am

:applause2: Brilliant FF!

So much history in and around a simple coffee house.

I took a cue from Patti’s M Train. Now I go to my favorite restaurants nearby in the late afternoon and bring a book. I sit, relax, read, and just ponder. Lunch is much more of an experience for me now, not just a meal. :agree2: