In the romantic city of Paris, people-watching is an art form. 

"Une place, madame?” Seated at the café La Bourse et la Vie (“the money and the life”), his yellow braces 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’s telling a story, ostensibly to them, but he clearly wants me to hear it too. It’s a folktale, from the 17th-century fabulist Jean de La Fontaine, about 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’s spotted someone he knows, driving down Rue Vivienne.

On this balmy June afternoon, the doors are wide open. He calls to his friend, who brakes in front of the café. They chat, oblivious to the motorists honking around them. At last he waves his hand. The friend drives on, and the raconteur resumes his storytelling.

 

 

"An artful interplay of voyeurism and performance takes place in a French café"

 

 

It is only when I glimpse the painting on a nearby wall—of an almost naked man posing, pin-up style, in round-rimmed spectacles—that I realise he is Patrice Tatard, the owner.* 

Someone else now catches Tatard’s eye, a motorcyclist riding by, chatting on his phone. This Tatard dislikes. He lets loose a stream of epithets—colourful 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 companions look at me helplessly.

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 industrialisation transformed Paris into one of the world’s great metropolises, flânerie—a word meaning to stroll around aimlessly but pay attention to passers-by—was raised to an art form. Flâneurs such as novelist Honoré de Balzac and the poet Charles Baudelaire would promenade down Paris’s Right Bank, where broad pavements and proliferating cafés provided a perfect vantage point.

Growing up on Paris’s Left Bank, I yearned to live in the 19th-century Paris of flâneur writers such as Balzac, Baudelaire, and Émile Zola. I rode my bicycle through the warren-like streets of the city’s ninth arrondissement, home of Zola’s courtesans and Baudelaire’s degenerates, in love with the Paris of the novels I’d read. That led me to my doctoral studies in 19th-century French literature—and, now, back to Paris, where I’m about to become a 21st-century flâneuse.

I begin on the 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 don’t look up from their phones.

Undeterred, I turn off Boulevard Haussmann and head toward Galerie Vivienne, one of Paris’s famous passages, or glass-roofed shopping galleries. 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. 

Under Galerie Vivienne’s glass ceiling I linger by an antiquarian bookshop, ready to practise 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 blonde who sit at adjacent tables, their eyes purportedly on their books. I watch their reflections as they glance at each other in turn. I reach back to grab a book so I can pretend to read as I peep at them, realising 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. 

 

 

"I grab a book so I can pretend to read as I peep at them, realising too late I’ve opened a volume of erotic nudes"

 

 

Each of Paris’s galleries, I’ll discover, has its own story. 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 straight-backed on the terrace of a brasserie. 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. 

If the boulevard cafés and the galleries represent two of the great urban theatres of the ville spectacle, the city of entertainment, as Paris was known, the third is the department store. In the 19th century, these innovative establishments were more than places to buy goods; they were venues in which to see and be seen, catwalks where one would compare sartorial choices. 

I meet my childhood friend James Geist—a Parisian law student—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, James tells me it’s only at Le Bon Marché that one finds remnants of old Paris. 

Today is a perfect day for flânerie. The soldes, a government-determined period for sales, are taking place; all Parisians, rich and poor, are coming out to shop. “Everything is a symbol,” James says. “In New York or London, labels matter.” Here, he notes, distinctions are more subtle: the stitching on a handbag, the design on a scarf—all form a complex visual language.

As we ascend an escalator to the women’s section, James 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 and turquoise scarf. Near him, a balding businessman hunts for a suit with his mother.

“But maman, this one isn’t as good as the Saint Laurent!” he whines.

“Just get it,” she snaps.

Then James spies our target. Barely five-foot-one, with immaculately highlighted hair and a face moisturised 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 seventh arrondissement, Paris’s bastion of inherited wealth. She roves through the shop, picking up and discarding scarves, blouses, shoes, in her search for a single object to bring her outfit together.

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

The next day, James 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, Flore remains one of the best places to practice flânerie.

No sooner do we arrive than we find our “theatre”. Three gentlemen in their 60s, bellies bulging through their blazers, read newspapers around a table. They are, we decide, the perfect subjects, managing that delicate balance between eccentricity and self-awareness.

A Cocker Spaniel rummages for leftover pieces of croissants beneath their feet. Its owner, a man with a white beard, raps the dog on the nose with a newspaper for over-indulgence, then announces his departure. “Je vais lire mon roman—I’m going to read my novel.” 

He proceeds five steps along the boulevard before we see him shrug and turn back, resuming his place with no explanation. The man holds court for two more hours. His companions leave; more arrive.

Behind us, a young man with prematurely white hair and tortoiseshell glasses is leaning in, eavesdropping, just as we are. When he takes out his phone to snap a discreet photograph, James 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. People-watching is a way for us Parisians to get outside our heads and be reminded that others exist.”

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

One of Baudelaire’s most famous poems is “To a Passerby”, about a momentary connection with a woman he 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 novels but unfinished fragments, characters whose beginnings and endings I’ll never know.

On my final day, I visit the Père Lachaise cemetery. Oscar Wilde’s sphinx-like tomb is behind glass: so many admirers have kissed it, the surface has begun to decay.

I spy a young woman in black and 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 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.  

 

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