PARIS — Nothing during the 11-week coronavirus lockdown could replace the ritual: a table in the sun with a tiny cup of black coffee on it. On Tuesday, Parisians rediscovered their favorite moment of sociability — coming together, while remaining apart.
Cafes throughout France were allowed to reopen and the relief was universal, if dispersed.
Many kept tables resolutely piled indoors. In Paris, still officially classified as a virus risk zone, cafes were not allowed to serve inside. No downing the petit noir — the little cup of coffee — at the bar. On the outdoor terraces that did open, tables had to be three feet apart. And they were not overflowing with customers. This liberation is too new.
Still, Tuesday brought a welcome hint of the life before. From luxurious carriage-trade establishments like the mirrored Left Bank Café de Flore to everybody’s grimy neighborhood “zinc” (argot for bar), Paris reconnected Tuesday with a key element of its urban life.
Parisians could once again sit down with one another, separately. They could be convivial without getting too close to one another, a French ideal. They could be in roughly the same space together, without ever having to talk to one another (only tourists talk across neighboring tables to strangers, a strict Parisian no-no). They could linger for hours if they needed to: the essential difference between the French cafe and its trans-Atlantic cousin.
On a brilliant spring day, the moment could be savored, even if with reserve, restraint and logic.
“It’s obviously the most important turning point for returning to true Parisian life,” said Michel Wattebault.
A retired employee of the nearby Bank of France, he was sitting at one of the handful of outdoor tables at L’Avant-Première, just behind the Palais Royal. “We’ve been waiting for this moment with impatience,” said his friend, Amélie Juste-Thomas, a translator.
It helped that, with the total absence of tourists, the street was as “quiet as a Sunday in August,” Ms. Juste-Thomas said.
Behind them, lingering over his coffee in the sunshine, sat a curator from the grand establishment across the Rue des Petits-Champs, the National Heritage Institute. Farhad Kazemi was planning to find another outdoor terrace at noon, for lunch. It was only about an hour away.
“It is a super pleasure,” said Mr. Kazemi, smiling. “I’ve been waiting for this moment.”
The relief Tuesday was all the greater as Parisians, cooped up in small apartments, are used to treating cafes as an extended living space, a release they have been deprived of for nearly three months.
“It’s my second living room,” said Mathieu Nogueira, settling in at last at Les Quatre Saisons, in western Paris. “Mine is too little. Less light, and less beer,” he said.
Café owners and managers spoke Tuesday of a moment of release after weeks of being cooped up and cut off — from customers, cash and commerce. At L’Avant-Première, Sébastien Fumel was in no doubt that the moment was long overdue.
“Oh, yeah, it was necessary,” he said. “Mental reasons. Personal reasons. Professional reasons. Human reasons. Just a mix of things, you know? This is all about the human. About exchanging,” said Mr. Fumel, as he tended to a customer’s demand for an ‘‘express,’’ or espresso.
At the delightful, wood-paneled Bar du Moulin, in the nearby Place des Petits-Pères, the manager, Alex Cardao, had taken over the tiny side street, setting down tables with the required distancing. He was beaming as he ferried out round trays of steaming ‘‘express’’ to the customers basking in the sunshine, and could barely stop to talk.
“This does me such good! Two months sitting at home, doing nothing!” he said.
The area around Les Halles — the old Paris market, gone for a half-century — is normally buzzing with cafes, tables, customers and activity. It was quiet Tuesday. The reopening was muted, as if the shock of such a long closure had not worn off yet.
On the Rue Montorgueil, owners and managers were still setting up their tables Tuesday morning. The Café du Centre was open, but Paulo Vieira, the manager, was busy counting up what was missing.
“Having to shut down for so long, it’s been a huge economic loss,” he said. The cafe has had to furlough one third of its employees, and has lost about 600,000 euros in revenue, or about $670,000. Mr. Vieira said that he had halved the number of tables available on his outdoor terrace.
“We are going to have to muddle along for a bit” before things return to normal, said Vincent Bielhy, the manager at Chinchin, next to the Parc Montsouris, in southern Paris. The clientele was still sparse: fewer than half a dozen people.
In provincial France, the cafe is dying. Some 7,000 close each year; in 1960 there were some 600,000 cafes in France; now the figure is around 30,000.
In Paris, though, they are vital to the city, places where people go to read, study and flirt. The poet Verlaine drew dissipated inspiration from Le Procope, Apollinaire and Jean-Paul Sartre from Flore, Hemingway from La Closeries des Lilas. All of them are still in existence.
On Tuesday, Julie Cholley, 20, a student wearing earbuds and sunglasses, had her math books and her scribbled equations strewn in front of her at Chinchin. “So nice,” she said. “That we were deprived of it makes it all the more desirable.”
On Rue Montorgueil, the cafe as a source of inspiration was on the mind of Jean-Claude Haag, settling in Tuesday morning at the Bianco. “Ideas, projects were born on these terraces,” Mr. Haag said. “Paris without its terraces would not be Paris.”
Constant Meheut, Theophile Larcher and Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting.
Orignially published in NYT.