The phrase “profite bien” is one that comes to mind when I think of life in Paris. It translates roughly into “enjoy it” or “take advantage of it” and is often used to discuss vacations or a new experience. French, specifically, Parisiennes are experts at this. People watching, taking one’s time, and fully enjoying something are all tenet of the terrasse. Terrasse seating at any cafe or restaurant is coveted in Paris. Whether they are profiting off of good weather or an excellent plat-du-jour, Parisiennes and tourists alike take their time and squeeze onto terrasses day and night.
The history behind why terrasses are so popular can be traced back to the early 19th century and the industrial revolution. During this time period of great change the art of flâneur (to wander aimlessly) took shape. While the word originally had a negative connotation, during this era the connotation changed to a more wealthy, rich and leisurely stroll decidedly for artists and authors of the time. Flâneur became an experience and a way to take in and truly experience the newly paved boulevards and arcades without purpose and without pressure. Historically, writers have often described the flâneur as a male of privilege observing beautiful women, architecture and language as he passes by. Flâneur has devolved from its original bourgeois art-form into terms like tourist, spectator, or people-watcher. This is where the terrasse comes into play.
Instead of walking around the city making social, cultural and aesthetic observations, now people are more apt to sit on a terrasse and watch the day pass them by. Getting a seat on a terrasse in Paris is simple: most places work by a “seat-yourself and wait for the waiter to notice you” system. A majority of the time, smoking is allowed and ashtrays will be provided. Ashtrays and blankets for the chilly weather, along with a carafe of water if you ask are all standard for restaurants in Paris. During the day, if the tables are set that indicates you are expected to order a meal at that table whereas, if you sit at a non-set table ordering just a drink is acceptable.
What makes a good-terrasse depends on your objectives that day. There are trendy, plant-filled terrasses where the waitresses look like models and the clientele probably are. There are tourist-trap terrasses where the menu outside will have English translations and maybe even wifi if you’re lucky. Then there is the traditional neighborhood cafe terrasse where you may need to ask the waiter to clean the table before-hand but you’re bound to run into someone you know walking by or sitting down also. In fact, one of my best memories on a terrasse involved sitting for a ‘networking-type’ meeting and the person I was with noticed a woman she wanted to introduce me to crossing the street! We all ended up sitting together and sharing a drink and exchanging contacts. This chance encounter would not have happened if we were sitting in a booth inside only looking at each other. Facing outwards and gazing at the street ahead while simultaneously sitting next to someone is a perfect scenario for sitting outside in Paris.
So, this fall do yourself a favor and plop down at a terrasse. Before it gets too cold. Before you can convince yourself of more “productive” things to do. Have a look around at the architecture and the people passing by. See if you can decipher any of their conversations as a sign that your own French is improving. Most importantly, profite bien!