The Café Constant on Rue St Dominique in the 7th arrondissement is situated on a corner, as indeed are most cafés in Paris. It's empty this early in the morning (it's 7am) except for one man in a red wind-breaker and peak cap who is sitting at the counter reading a newspaper over a cup of espresso. He's been here every morning this week: this is his routine, how he starts his day, and since arriving in Paris a week ago, it's become my routine too.
The Café Constant has a perfect Parisian atmosphere: gold embossed ceiling, wood-backed chairs, mosaic floor, glowing wall sconces. My coffee is hot and my croissant is cold but fresh. It makes a sound that I think of as “croissant crackle” every time I take a bite, and a confetti of crisp gold flakes flutters down onto my napkin.
The first morning of my arrival, I pushed through the door of the cafe dragging a suitcase that weighed more than I do, fresh (irony intended) from a long sleepless flight from Asia. I felt massive and cumbersome with my heavy suitcase clonking along behind me, and the barista manning the espresso machine (impossibly young with glowing flushed skin) looked up with an expression of surprise tinged with dismay in his brown puppy-dog eyes. It was like a rhino on rollerblades had just came blundering into his dainty cafe.
Today, my last morning in Paris, I am a little more unobtrusive, and I even flatter myself that I blend in perfectly with my chic checkered scarf and black turtle neck, and my ability to order my cafe au lait and pain au chocolat without pointing inanely at the basket of vienoisserie like a street mime.
The waitress lugs a vacuum cleaner up the wooden staircase and a minute later the electric whir and bump of the machine filters down to the ground floor. A staff member in the kitchen at the back bursts into song—a traditional French tune that sounds soulful and wistful. The man at the counter looks up from his newspaper, chuckles and says “C'est Bon” and something else I don't understand, and we share a smile.
By 8am the cafe is getting crowded with local Parisians, who stand leaning on the counter, chatting and sipping espressos. Their murmured conversations drift over me unintelligibly. It's neutral and soothing; just part of the atmosphere. A blast of cold spring air knifes into the café every time a delivery man arrives at the side door near my table: trolleys of wine, boxes of serviettes, and a cooler of seafood judging by the pungent briny smell.
Unexpectedly, I have attracted the attention of the man in the peak cap, and he asks me where I'm from. A charming conversation ensues and although he speaks perfect American English with only a slight accent, I assume that he's French because he speaks French—I've heard him speak French. I feel absurdly proud to be making successful contact with a real-life inhabitant of one of the most beautiful cities in the world … but I discover that he's an American who has lived in Paris for twelve years and my euphoria deflates with an uncomplimentary speed that is no reflection at all on my charming new American friend.
When he has finished his cafe Americano, he says “Auvoir,” and I go back to reading my Guy de Maupassant short story. He is considered by many to be the father of the modern short story and the rhythm of his writing starts to affect my thought patterns. He asks rhetorical questions constantly: Why? To what purpose?
Who knows? Who cares? It's the start of another perfect day in Paris.
139 Rue Saint-Dominique
Victoria Tan-Childs is a freelance travel writer based in Singapore.
(Image Credits: Café Constant by Laura Thayer, Cafe au lait by Verity)