What Parisian Cafés Taught Me About French Culture

By Nathalie Bradford

My heart was racing as I stepped off the plane and into the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. The exhaustion I felt from the twelve-hour flight melted away almost instantaneously. Having never lived on my own before, let alone in another country, I had no idea what the next five months had in store for me but I was excited to find out.

I crammed my massive suitcases into a taxi and did my best to pronounce the name of the street my apartment was on. After I arrived at my apartment I unpacked quickly and attempted to map out a way to get to my first class, which began the next day.

After about two hours of taking the wrong metro lines I managed to locate my classroom and ran inside. The professor gave a brief introduction to the course and began to explain our first assignment. We were to conduct a semester long ethnography on a Parisian café of our choosing. This meant we needed to choose a café and visit it at least 3 times a week for two hours at a time until the end of the semester, making detailed observations of everything and everyone while we were there. Initially, this assignment did not seem too intimidating to me; I mostly saw it as an excuse to drink copious amounts of coffee.

That afternoon I stopped by the café right across the street from my apartment as it seemed to be the most convenient option. The waiter was cold and seemed irritated with me for not knowing what I wanted to order right away, but the coffee was great so I decided to choose it anyway. Over the course of the next month I visited the café for two hours every day. Having a cappuccino at 4pm after my class became as routine as setting my alarm for the morning. I did not feel as if the wait staff was becoming much warmer to me nor did I think they noticed how often I was stopping by.

However, sometime during the start of my second month in Paris, my friends and I made plans to see a movie after class and I did not go to the café. The following day when I made my appearance at 4pm as usual the waiter looked at me exasperatedly and asked me where I was yesterday. We ended up talking for quite a while and he gave me a pastry on the house. Over the course of the next few months the polite conversations became longer and more personal, and I got to know the wait staff better and better. At the end of the five months, I told them this would be my last week in Paris. They were genuinely sad and even threw a little party for my friends and I at the café.

This experience taught me that although some French people may initially come across as standoffish, once you develop a relationship and become a regular part of their lives they really have your back. I have a huge admiration for how much the French value loyalty and realizing this helped me develop friendships that I can safely say will last a lifetime.

Featured image from Wikimedia Commons

Nathalie is an undergraduate sophomore who is currently pre-med, majoring in Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, and hopes to get a minor in Dance. She is from Los Angeles and loves exploring new countries. She also loves classical ballet and is one of the co-directors of the USC Chamber Ballet Company. During her first semester of college she studied abroad in Paris, France and visited several countries including Italy and Romania. She really enjoyed her time abroad and loved getting the opportunity to become friends with people from entirely different cultures. She has a passion for learning foreign languages and is part of USC’s Italian Club. She speaks conversational French and Italian, and is fluent in Romanian, as half her family is from Romania.