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A Parisian Tête-à-tête: Kindling the Inner Sartre and  de Beauvoir in the Cafes of the East Bay

A Parisian Tête-à-tête: Kindling the Inner Sartre and  de Beauvoir in the Cafes of the East Bay

  • Where one can meet like-minded people, steeped in humanity, and interested in whiling away the golden hour just to gather delicious crumbs of life from the most important macaroon.

It has been a while but the memory of famous French cafes is deliciously ingrained in my memory. Fresh crisp baguettes cut lengthwise and smeared with butter and rhubarb jam in Les Deux Magots teases my tastebuds. Our favorite haunt, resting spot and a literary delight on Rue Saint Germain de Pres. This famous landmark in the French capital embodies two wooden effigies that have witnessed scintillating conversations between writers like Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir. The air is perfumed with historic vibrations of meeting of the minds. The air is congenial — not sterile and off-handish like some of the coffee shops in the U.S. Not like a Starbucks. I pine for meeting like-minded people, steeped in humanity, and interested in whiling away the golden hour just to gather delicious crumbs of life from the most important macaroon, the lilting human spirit.

Cafe Tellus.

So in search of the charm and magic, the signature ingredient in other French establishments, I travel back in time. I remember us meandering  after a quick espresso on the outdoor terrace of des Magots, reluctant to leave. After thanking our waiter profusely and taking several pictures of the Church of St. Germain des Pre, reflected in our shining cutlery. My daughter giggled in delight when Italian students practiced their classroom French with her. She had to literally drag me out of  Cafe de Flore, because I waxed prolific about Picasso, Descartes and Trotsky hanging out in the very chairs we sat on during World War II. 

We still had to walk a few thousand steps to visit the oldest cafe in Paris. Le Procope was established in 1686 by a Sicilian chef, Francesco Procope. Drinking the then exotic drink “coffee” Napoleon Bonaparte consumed and perhaps left his three cornered chapeaux here. It is believed that Benjamin Franklin wrote an important treaty here and shared a tête-à-tête of the revolutionary genre with Thomas Jefferson. We sat down to have at least one cup of coffee and a croissant here because I had read that Voltaire’s prolific writing was fueled by 40 cups of coffee at Le Procope. He must have had an esophagus of steel because I have to eat a proton pump inhibitor before my morning cup. Perhaps the ingredients they used or their distillation process made coffee less acidic.

I could literally go on and on about the Parisian cafes but since I am not in Paris but visiting the East Bay let me share my experience of the few coffee shops here. My favorite is Cafe Brioche de Paris. Located on Locust street in Walnut Creek, this was the very first coffee shop I fell in love with in the area. About two years back, they had just opened and I sat outside with the lady of the cafe. She was a florist and was elevating the ambience of this cafe in the historic district of Walnut Creek by hand assembled spring bouquets. She told us about her husband, if I remember correctly, who is from Greece and his entrepreneurial spirit stems from his love for baking. 

I ordered cafe latte and a brioche (sweet yeast bread), an almond financier and a chocolate croissant for my daughter. I met the owner and he was very charming indeed. Ever since that day, I love to go to this inviting bakery/coffee shop. The glass cases are stocked with mouth-watering confectionaries: Pistachio financiers, spinach and feta delights, raspberry tarts, chocolate chunk cookies, fresh mozzarella and tomato sandwiches, babkas, citrus madeleines, blueberry scones. One can order crepes in all combinations and options. I remember ordering my crepe with chocolate banana and jambon much to the amazement of my roadside crepe chef and amusement of my daughter who regaled her school friends about how her mother ordered salted and smoked ham with chocolate.

This morning, I was sipping my milky coffee at home in  my pjs sitting at the tiny  ghost table with ghost chairs and carrying on a conversation with Ponderosa pines nodding their heads at me through the bay window when my reverie was rudely interrupted  by a blaring fire alarm. I dressed in a hurry, grabbed my computer bag, wallet and sun hat and scurried out into the hallway. I escaped through the stairwell, sidestepping owners with cantankerous dogs who had probably not  consumed their morning coffee. 

La Brioche

I met the fire testing crew and stopped to ask them why they were early and how they conducted their drills? “Do you light little fires and see if the alarm works, I ventured?’ They were amused at my suggestion and said “No ma’am, we just pull the red handles and check the smoke detectors,” but we are sorry to be so early. 

I was already on my way to a coffee shop so I decided to spend my day outside. On my way to de Brioche, I was discouraged by the thought of a couple who sat by me last time, and spoiled the atmosphere despite ordering large cups of coffee and mouth-watering “build your own” crepes. They kept complaining about “kids with bad attitudes and bad dress sense.” Not in a mood for downers this morning, I decided to try out another cafe. 

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Cafe La Scala, a European style coffee shop was open and I stood outside the large sculpture titled “Lost in Mail” but walked on, thinking about my last evening’s conversations with a mother-daughter from Pune over my chocolate cream puffs that had kept me up for a while last night. I thought of going to Philz coffee but they kept their indoors very cold and in my haste I had forgotten to get my jacket. While I was debating my next steps, I saw Peet’s coffee inside the glass doors of a Capital One Bank. This is a unique concept. Capital One is an online Bank and they sell coffee in their building with the added perks of getting a 50 percent discount by using the Capital One card. I ordered my coffee, made inquiries about their  banking products and went upstairs to charge my phone and write my review. 

I finished my review. It  is past 1‘o’ clock now. I have more cafes to explore. My daughter has a punch card for the eco-friendly Tellus cafe and they serve fresh sandwiches and salads but I have left the card at home and I do not want to venture back lest the fire drill is still ongoing. So I might try another one like Pacific Bay Coffee on Newell avenue but it looks too busy right now. So I might just walk back to Locust street and eat an avocado toast at the Rooted Coffee Co. because my coffee cravings are sated. 

I might meet some interesting people there today. Perhaps people on their lunch hour making plans for the weekend or graduates enjoying a leisurely day since school is out. Images of the Paris Bakery Cafe in Monterey frequented by John Steinbeck and his cronies whet my hunger at the thought of cannolis and creamy lobster claws but that is a bit far as the “magpie flies,” so I will stay in the creek and taste local fare. It is out of question to run into Hemingway here but I might meet the man who claims to have read “The Old Man and The Sea” ten times! Besides, the table behind me is now occupied by boisterous young ladies talking briskly in Mandarin. Perhaps, I will wander into a place that sells flavorful wonton soup. 

With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.

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