Photograph of people gathered at, and strolling past, a Parisian café at dusk.

“Paris sidewalk scene at night” by tbeckeryvr is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Before actually arriving in Paris, I dreamed about all the work I’d get done there. In the weeks leading up to the trip, I’d heard in detail from Francophilic friends, a variety of travel guides, and various other sources about the unique atmosphere of the Parisian open-air café. As a lifelong aficionado of American coffee shops, I pictured myself sitting hour hours at a sidewalk table with my laptop, a cup of strong coffee near at hand, and letting the atmosphere of a new city inspire and permeate my work. It sounded heavenly — and, of course, was entirely bogus, the product of my own foreign preconceptions.

By my second day there, once I felt reasonably synched up enough with the local time zone to get some work done, I realized that while had indeed seen those cafés lining most every street — just as promised — I had not noticed a single open laptop in any of them. Under ordinary circumstances this detail would have escaped my notice, I’ve no doubt, but I’d cranked up my sensitivity to avoiding ugly-American tourist stereotypical behaviors to such as degree that this discrepancy between assumption and reality penetrated even my jet-lagged perception.

So — in the safety of my little hotel room, far too European-cozy to work at length from — I performed a little research. Quickly I found the article “My Favorite Working Cafés in Paris” by Anne Elder, which opens thus:

Working at a café goes totally against French nature. Cafés are for socializing, for relaxing, for having apéritifs after a long day of work. For dipping croissants in café crèmes so the crumbs don’t get stuck to your sweater. Cafés, historically, are the antithesis of work.

This certainly jibed with my observations! Further research taught me the purposes of and the protocols for proper customer behavior at one of these sidewalk establishments. In a nutshell: if its tables have no cutlery, then just seat yourself, face the street, and sit quietly. Eventually, a waiter will approach. Say “Merci” when the drink arrives, then enjoy it as slowly as possible while doing absolutely nothing “productive”. Feel free to chat, if you happen to have brought a conversational partner, and otherwise sit in quiet contemplation of the urban scene around you, watching the people go by.

I am pleased to say that I did participate in this very Parisian ritual once during my two weeks in the city, at a randomly chosen café in the first arrondissement. I felt treated like any of the establishment’s native customers, albeit with the patient server kindly switching into English as soon as she heard the grubby accent of my “Bonjour”. When have I last felt so completely welcome by a foreign place, and so rewarded for putting a soupçon of assimilatory effort in? Emotions well up, just recalling the experience now, despite its utter (and utterly intentional) uneventfulness.

So, yes, I did get rather little work done in Paris, compared to my expectations. I breathed in the air, I’m afraid. I arrived determined not to stand out unpleasantly, a foreigner but not a tourist, and it seems I succeeded well enough to learn a half-lesson: I learned to participate in languid part of the French attitude towards life, but without staying long enough to comprehend how these people manage to get things done just the same.

But I have since returned to the United States, so I shall set aside this highly un-American apology to myself and come to the business of offering three suggestions, in order of decreasing impressiveness, for places in the city I did discover as laptop-appropriate. (Please do consider them an addendum to the lists in Elder’s article, if you wish.)

I found The American Library in Paris through a tip-off from my librarian spouse and traveling partner. A true oasis for any Anglophone in the City of Light who wants to sit ensconced in their mother tongue for a few hours — and who can get to the seventh arrondissement without too much trouble. (That’s the one with the Eiffel Tower in it.) Friends, I learned to ride the bus in order to get there.

Working at the library requires the purchase of a permanent membership or a visitor’s pass; the latter costs 10€ per day, or 30€ for a week. I gladly took the latter option, and made the library my daytime base of operations for the length of my stay in Paris. I found the space comfortable, the staff kind, and the vending machine in the lobby to serve the best vending-machine coffee I’ve ever tasted, because France.

Before discovering the American Library, though, I made use of the rather more visible Anticafé, a business located variously around the city. Besides explicitly welcoming laptop-toters, it features an intriguingly inverted business model: you pay a flat fee of 5€ per hour to stay, and during this time the staff will make all the hot or cold drinks you may desire. You can also make use of a kitchenette out back to fix yourself some snacks, like toast or simple salads.

The Louvre-neighborhood Anticafé let me take my first gulping breaths of internet after several days away, while seated at a bright, sidewalk-facing window, and this buoyed me. I stopped visiting Anticafé once I worked up the nerve to ride the ligne 72 bus from the hotel to the library (board at the front, press one of the red buttons request a stop, then exit out the middle only), but I feel thankful to have discovered it early in my stay.

And, both last and least, you can always fail over to Starbucks. I came across Starbucksen at around the same frequency as I would in any American city of significant size, which is to say that no major square went unblighted by one or two. The inside of every Parisian Starbucks looked like the inside of any other Starbucks I’d seen, including its population of my fellow sad laptop-hunchbacks. Its coffee tasted exactly the same too.

But I don’t list Starbucks here just to bad-mouth it: it’s good to have a fail-over, when in a foreign place. Not speaking the local language carries a heightened baseline of stress — even if you can get by with English plus basic host-language politesse. Sometimes you just want to slip back into your comfort zone, or something close enough to it, even if it seems to run against the spirit of your journey. And sometimes you don’t want to travel more than one block to get there.

To that end, I willingly entered a Starbucks in Paris at least twice, over the course of my trip. Maybe as many as three times. I state this with neither pride nor defiance, but in memory of the fleeting but valuable relief they brought me, with their watery café Americano and their free wifi, before resuming my role as foreigner under the Gallic sun.

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