People-Watching in Paris

This month's great read, selected by our editors: The sacred pastime of people-watching still has a prime place in the French capital.

From the October 2015 issue of Traveler magazine

"Une place, madame?” Seated on one of the mismatched chairs at the café La Bourse ou la Vie (“the money or your life”), his yellow suspenders holding in a roll of flesh, my interrogator peers at me through round-rimmed spectacles, waves me past, and turns back toward his companions.

He is telling a story, ostensibly to them, but from the bombastic way his voice echoes off the yellow ceiling, he clearly wants me to hear it too. It’s a folktale, drawn from the works of the 17th-century fabulist Jean de La Fontaine, of a heron that refuses to eat anything but the finest food. The man spreads his arms in imitation of the bird—nearly knocking one hapless diner off his feet—and begins to chirp wildly. Then he stops. He has spotted someone he knows, driving down Rue Vivienne.

On this balmy June afternoon, the café doors are wide open; nothing separates us from the pavement and street outside. He calls to his friend, who brakes in front of the café. They chat—about work, life, politics—oblivious to the motorists honking around them. At last he waves his hand. The friend drives on, and the raconteur resumes his storytelling.

It is only when I glimpse the painting on a nearby wall—of an almost naked man posing, pinup style, in round-rimmed spectacles—that I realize he is Patrice Tartard, the owner.

Next, a young man arrives. Effusive in his greetings, he shakes his host’s hand with what looks like a mix of reverence and terror. He picks up a menu; his host yanks it away, barking, “Un autre poulet—another chicken.” The waiter hustles off.

Someone else now catches Tartard’s eye, a motorcyclist riding by, chatting on his cellphone. This Tartard dislikes. He lets loose a stream of epithets—colorful to profane—until the rider has passed. He returns at last to his tale, winking my way as he again poses like a heron. His dining companions look at me helplessly across the table.

“Typical French,” one sighs.

FEW THINGS ARE more French than the artful interplay of voyeurism and performance that takes place at a Parisian café. People-watching is, after all, among the most entrenched of Parisian pastimes. In the 1800s, as industrialization transformed Paris into one of the world’s great metropolises, flânerie—a word meaning to stroll around aimlessly but implying an attention to passersby—was raised to an art form. Flâneurs such as novelist Honoré de Balzac and the poet Charles Baudelaire would promenade down the newly constructed grands boulevards of Paris’s Right Bank, where broad sidewalks and proliferating cafés provided a perfect vantage point from which to cast a glance at memorable passersby. Some flâneurs, gossip has it, promenaded with pet turtles to ensure a slow pace. Whole books were devoted to “la ville spectacle,” the city of entertainment, as Paris was known then, urban field guides to particular types of passersby one might spy en flânant.

As a child growing up on Paris’s Left Bank, I dreamed of living in the 19th-century Paris of flâneur writers like Balzac, Baudelaire, and Émile Zola. I rode my bicycle through the warren-like streets of the city’s 9th arrondissement, home of Zola’s courtesans and Baudelaire’s degenerates, and up the cobblestoned streets of Montmartre, in love with the Paris of the novels I had read and the centuries in which I had never lived. That led me to my doctoral studies in 19th-century French literature—and, now, back to Paris, where I am about to become a 21st-century flaneuse.

I begin where I cycled as a child, the 9th arrondissement boulevards once paraded by a burgeoning bourgeoisie. To my dismay, I find little echo of the world Baudelaire and Balzac described. Globally branded stores glitter under wrought iron balconies; the Parisians hurrying past them don’t look up from their phones. If anyone should chance to bring a turtle here, it would soon be crushed underfoot. Undeterred, I turn off Boulevard Haussmann and head toward Galerie Vivienne, one of Paris’s famous passages, or glass-roofed shopping galleries. Few structures evoke the 1800s like these galleries inspired by Middle Eastern souks. Parisians added a vital element—glazed roofing—which allowed light to flood the interior, creating what 20th-century social critic Walter Benjamin called “a city in miniature.” Forming a nearly continuous trail from the grand boulevards to the artists’ haunt of Montmartre, the galleries were places where people, like wares, could advertise themselves. In other words, a flâneur’s natural home.

Under Galerie Vivienne’s glass ceiling, set off by painted nymphs flanking neoclassical archways, I linger by an antiquarian bookshop, ready to practice a little flânerie of my own. The shop’s windows reflect nearby café tables, allowing me to observe a charismatic young man and an impeccably dressed 40-something blonde who sit at adjacent tables, their eyes purportedly on their books. I watch their reflections as they glance at each other in turn, as they smile. I reach back to grab a book I can pretend to read as I peep at them, realizing too late I’ve opened a volume of erotic nudes. By the time I swivel back, they’ve set their books down and are making small talk. By the time I leave, they’re laughing.

Each of Paris’s galleries, I’ll discover, has its own stories, only half-told by the time I pass through. In the Passage des Panoramas—famous, in Zola’s novel Nana, as the place where his titular courtesan meets her lovers—the story may be missed opportunities. I spy a woman of a certain age, overdressed in blue chiffon, sitting alone on the terrace of L’Arbre à Cannelle, a traditional brasserie with a 19th-century facade of delicately carved wood. She sits straight-backed in her chair, her dyed blond hair arranged in a flapper style. Passersby jostle her on their way to Noglu, a gluten-free takeout spot next door, but she takes no heed. She appears to be waiting for someone. No one comes. Across the passage, in a dealership of rare stamps, the elderly proprietor sits alone at his register, nursing a steak tartare and a glass of red wine. He may be a widower, unaccustomed to solitude—or he may have dined this way for 65 years. Every character in this city where everybody is watching is an unanswered question. Their stories are left to my imagination.

I finish my walk through the 9th arrondissement at the Musée de la Vie Romantique, devoted to the lives and loves of such 19th-century bohemians as the author George Sand—nom de plume of Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, famous for her feminist novels and tempestuous affair with the composer Frédéric Chopin—and the painter Eugène Delacroix, flâneurs in their own right. A pinch-nosed matron leads schoolchildren around the museum, reciting facts about Sand, who was “great at many things. A great writer. A great intellectual. A great amoureuse.”

But here, as in the galleries, it is the present, not the past, that seizes my attention. The lovers who interest me are not the ones behind glass. An elderly couple meanders through the museum, whispering and holding hands so devotedly that at one point they trip over an antique chair. When I spot them later in the garden, he’s showering her hand with kisses—an intimate moment only a flâneur would be privy to.

IF THE BOULEVARD CAFÉS and the galleries represent two of the great urban theaters of the ville spectacle, the third is the department store, what Balzac called “the great poem of display, [chanting] its stanzas of color from the Madeleine to the gate of Saint-Denis.” In the 19th century, these establishments, innovative at the time, were more than places to buy goods; they were venues in which to see and be seen, runways where one would compare sartorial choices. Studio 54 with cash registers.

I meet my childhood friend James Geist—a Parisian law student of Franco-Algerian descent—at Le Bon Marché, Paris’s oldest department store, which inspired Zola’s novel of commerce and seduction, The Ladies’ Paradise. While Printemps and the Galeries Lafayette are better known, Geist tells me, it’s only at Le Bon Marché, farther from the tourist hordes, that one finds remnants of old Paris, including the interplay of flânerie and showing off that defines so much of Parisian culture.

“In this city, it’s all about seeing and being seen,” Geist says.

Today is a perfect day for flânerie, he informs me. The soldes, a government-determined period for sales, are taking place; all Parisians, rich and poor, are coming out to shop—and see who else is shopping. “Everything is a symbol,” Geist says. “In New York or London, labels are what matter.” Here, he notes, distinctions are more subtle: the construction of a shoe, the stitching on a handbag, the design on a scarf—all form a complex visual language through which Parisians communicate.

As we ascend an escalator to the women’s section, light from the stained glass ceiling illuminating wrought iron balustrades, Geist points out Parisian character types. There’s a man he identifies as a dandy from the trendy Marais district, with a long beard, sailor shirt, turquoise scarf. Near him, a balding businessman hunts for a suit with his mother, a dowager with lips that signal contempt.

“But maman, this one isn’t as good as the Saint Laurent!” he whines as we pass. “Just get it,” she snaps without changing her expression.

Then Geist spies our target. Barely five feet one, with immaculately highlighted hair and a face moisturized into agelessness, she represents the ultimate Parisienne of eras past. Her understated Hermès bag and high-waisted trousers signal her identity as a matriarch of the 7th arrondissement, Paris’s bastion of vestigial titles and inherited wealth. She roves through the shop floor at right angles, picking up and then discarding scarves, blouses, shoes. She is mechanical in her search for that single object that will bring her outfit together.

Geist laughs. “In Paris, even leisure is a craft,” he says.

THE NEXT DAY, Geist ferries me to Café de Flore, on Boulevard St. Germain. If the boulevards of the Right Bank were the prime locations for flâneurs of the 19th century, the café terrasses of Boulevard St. Germain became the spiritual home of the café dwellers of the Lost Generation, which came of age during the First World War. The art deco interior of Flore once welcomed intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus. Today, despite the influx of tourists, Geist tells me, Flore—with its neighbor and rival, Les Deux Magots—remains one of the city’s great places to practice flânerie.

No sooner do we arrive than we find our “theater.” Three gentlemen in their 60s, bellies bulging through their blazers, read newspapers around a table. They are, Geist and I both decide, perfect subjects, managing that delicate balance between eccentricity and self-awareness that is so necessary in this city of performers.

A cocker spaniel rummages for leftover pieces of croissants beneath their feet. Its owner, a man with a white beard flecked right now with coffee, raps the dog, Caliphe, on the nose with a newspaper for overindulging in croissants, then announces his departure. “Je vais lire mon roman—I’m going to read my novel.” Rumbling to his feet, he bids his companions farewell.

He proceeds five steps along the boulevard before we see him shrug and turn back, resuming his place, no explanation. His companions require none. Caliphe jumps up to claim an adjacent chair.

The man holds court for two more hours. His companions leave; more arrive. The waiter brings a note, on Café de Flore stationery, from another patron. A young man stops to pet Caliphe, greets the man affectionately. A co-worker brings files, and is persuaded to stay.

“How,” she asks him, “do you know all these people?”

He shrugs and smiles. “I know everyone.”

Behind us, a young man with prematurely white hair and tortoiseshell glasses is leaning in, eavesdropping, just as we are. When the man takes out his camera-phone to snap a discreet photograph, Geist whispers, “Now that’s a real flâneur.” We stifle a laugh. But soon my friend grows serious. Flânerie is more than a source of amusement, he says.

“It’s a philosophy, an ideal. We’re all such egoists nowadays, at least in Paris. People-watching is a way for us Parisians to get outside of our heads and be reminded that others exist.”

As he speaks, we catch a glimpse of the patrician woman from Le Bon Marché. Her outfit is identical to what she wore the day before, with the addition of a shining silver bracelet. She catches Geist’s eye, and for a moment I think she smiles.

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ONE OF BAUDELAIRE'S most famous poems is “To a Passerby,” about a momentary connection with a woman he spots and then soon loses in the crowd. “I know not where you fled, you know not where I go, O you whom I would have loved, O you who knew it!”

As I continue wandering the streets of Paris, Baudelaire’s refrain haunts me. I find myself entering a world not of Balzac or Zola novels but of unfinished fragments, encountering characters whose beginnings and endings I will never know.

There is the man who is strolling along the Canal St. Martin reading a treatise by the philosopher Simone Weil, the book obscuring his face. There is the American girl in an expensive raincoat sobbing in the arms of a French nun on the steps of the Basilique jeNotre-Dame des Victoires. I catch only what echoes off the church’s facade: “… the right person. But I’ve waited so long!” There is the middle-aged man at the small café in Montmartre, nervously clutching a bouquet of pink and yellow roses, who downs a glass of pastis and hurries on. There is the old man on the yellow steampunk bicycle near Boulevard de Sébastopol, with a series of vintage umbrellas fastened to the handlebars.

“What is that?” I ask him.

“Ça?” He laughs as he cycles off. “Ça, c’est la vie!”

ON MY FINAL DAY in Paris, I visit the resting place of one of my idols, Oscar Wilde, who spent his final months in the city and whose essays on artifice and performance made me fall in love with the idea of a ville spectacle. His sphinxlike tomb at the Père Lachaise cemetery is behind glass: So many admirers have kissed it that its surface has begun to decay.

As tourists arrive, leave flowers, and depart, I spy a young woman, in black, who remains behind. Her long blond hair falls over her notebook. I watch as she sits, sketches, looks up at the tomb. I take note of her dark glasses, her copper red lipstick, the way she sighs with relief when each passing tour group departs.

When I get up to go, she stops me.

“Madame!” Her English is halting. “I love your dress.” She nods to the grave. “I feel sure he would have loved it too.”

Only then do I look down at her sketchbook.

There, next to her rendition of Oscar Wilde’s tomb, I see a portrait of me.

Writer TARA ISABELLA BURTON is working on a doctorate in theology and 19th-century French literature at Oxford University. Indiana-born photographer PETER TURNLEY divides his time between Paris and New York.

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