The Paris waiter6/29/2016
The Paris waiter stands immobile at the top of the sidewalk. Tall. Imposing. White shirt, black vest, white waiter’s arm cloth, black bowtie, white apron, black shoes. Everything is where it should be. His right arm tucked behind his back and left arm bent to drape his white arm cloth, ready to wipe a spill or wrap a bottle of wine. Cars speed behind him. He is unimpressed. This is his show. Eventually, a customer’s finger raises, a head nods, a glass is emptied. And the waiter, with measured dignity, not too fast — not too slow, comes to the table. Silently. Competently.
“Gunmen have shot dead 12 people at the Paris office of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in an apparent militant Islamist attack.” BBC News, January 7, 2015.
“The Paris area reeled Friday night from a shooting rampage, explosions and mass hostage-taking that President Francois Holland called an unprecedented terrorist attack on France.” The New York Times, November 13, 2015.
“Rapidly rising storm waters across Paris have forced thousands of people out of their homes, while museums scramble to protect world-famous artworks and artifacts from the worst flooding seen in decades, officials say.” CNN June 3, 2016.
Shortly after midnight, warm light spills out of the Cafe de Flore. The heat lamps, high above the outdoor tables, can be felt all the way to the chilly sidewalk on Boulevard St. Germain. Giddy with the beauty of Paris, my wife and I are unwilling to let the night end. And, of course, there are those heat lamps and the lovely waiter and perhaps another glass of wine.
“Monsieur and Madame, of course you can have that table.” The waiter from the sidewalk responds to my bumbling French with a wide sweep of his arm, a ready smile, and good English. It’s late. Near closing time. The waiter must want to go home. But we are invited to stay. Really?
Cafe de Flore is a landmark cafe in the Paris scene. It is the old stomping grounds of Picasso, Hemingway, Sartre, de Beauvoir. Even today, it sponsors it’s own yearly literary award with a prize worthy of someone who enjoys the pleasures of life — 6,000 euros and a glass of a fancy white wine at the cafe every day for a year. The reviewers say it is impossible to get a seat at Cafe de Flore because it is wildly popular as a Parisian hangout. And be warned, they say, the waiters can be a bit snooty. “Aloof” is the word they use. “Best to speak French,” they all caution with some trepidation.
So we sit down at closing time at the Cafe de Flore, unaware of the traps and dangers and unsophisticated things we might do.
“How about a creme brûlée to go with our wine?” I ask our waiter. Not in French.
The waiter stands before us. Respectful. Quiet. Smiling. There will be no introductions. There will be no inquiries about our day. Nothing will be said about the weather. He will never ask if we like the food. And I will guarantee that nothing will be written on the tablecloth in crayon. He is simply there to serve. This guy’s a pro.
“I always try to makes happy my customers, try to feel their moods. Some want to be quiet reading their books or working. Some want to come to have fun. Some pick up the same newspaper everyday. Some want their coffee very hot — so we put hot water in the cup before we serve. Some want their bread toasted at the same time as the coffee. Some want their orange juice filtered. These are many of the small details that makes the difference.”
Dany Sou, our waiter, is giving me a lesson in what it means to be a Paris waiter at Cafe de Flore.
“Cafe de Flore.” Sou brightens. “You can work in many different restaurants as part of the trade, but when you’re in Cafe de Flore, it is like you’ve never worked before in a restaurant. It is like a lot of small details. Like these are digestifs for outside. The plate is white for the outside. Silver for the inside. It is all small details. It is like a body, right? It is like, I don’t know how to explain this, like this lady’s body is moving all the time and you have to respond.”
A moving woman’s body? Did he just say that?
Cafe de Flore is a professional waiter’s dream. “You start at small restaurants with two table and you finish at Cafe de Flore,” says Sou. People come for the waiters; all are hired for their personality. And the feelings of attachment are strong. “I love this place.” Sou says.
So, Dany Sou, what about the terrorism and the flooding and all the angry, scared people, doesn’t that change the Paris of old, even for a waiter?
“This year was hard with terrorism and the flood, but what makes me question about my job is whether people come to a restaurant to have human interactions or do they just come to have a coffee or have a salad? That’s probably why I wanted to work so much at Cafe de Flore. There is definitely a strong and charming spirit behind this cafe, more than just food. This is about people.”
Other waiters are leaving for the night. Before they depart, they come out to the sidewalk and shake Sou’s hand. One after the other. Ritualistic, formal, and respectful. It’s just what one is supposed to do at the end of the day. Terrorism and floods are buried under tradition and good manners and civility.
It is also time for us to go. Sou shakes our hands. Why not? A large smile appears.
“You like Paris; I’m very happy.”
We smile back, also happy, and head off down the softly lit boulevard.
Of course, Paris is easy to like. Who doesn’t? But a Paris waiter at Cafe de Flore after a hard year? The creme brûlée at the end of a long summer evening. CV
Joe Weeg spent 31 years bumping around this town as a prosecutor for the Polk County Attorney’s Office. Now retired, his wife is once again assisting in the prosecution of war criminals in the Netherlands. He’s along for the ride and writes about being an Iowan in Europe on his blog at www.joesneighborhood.com.