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Sipping Coffee, Savoring Life: Moments at Le Progrès Marais
Cafe Le Progrès Marais has one of those typical Parisian terraces; chairs are tightly packed in rows to allow as many customers as possible, and you have to squeeze in to sit behind one of the small tables. Situated at a busy six-street intersection of the Rue de Bretagne, it is a great spot to feel the vibes of Le Marais.
I was intrigued by the old woman sitting just two chairs to my left. She was dressed in a bright green shirt on a pink top and looked elegant with her straw hat and a leopard-skin bandage. It donned her long grey hair, and under the rim of her hat, I noted her glasses that I recognized from photos of the 1950s. Her skin showed a life lived in the sun and had a parchment structure patented by heavy smokers.
As if to prove my suspicions, she smoked one cigarette after the other, once even using the last bit of the previous cigarette to light the next. She was drinking wine just when I relished my first morning coffee; at least two glasses of white wine, it may easily have been three.
She looked frail, and her hands were no longer steady, but she looked happy with a slight but permanent smile on her thin lips. While she enjoyed sitting at the marble round table, watching the kaleidoscopic mix of Parisians and tourists passing the terrace, I contemplated about choices to be made during one's last years.
There may be a lot to say for starting each day at this terrace, watching the world pass by your table, taking another sip while others hurry to their next appointment, or worry about their problems at work. There must be a moment when even doctors agree that you might as well ignore the health warnings on the cigarette package since long-term perspectives have lost relevance; a time when enjoying what is left should be prioritized above worrying about what could soon be lost.
And then, just when I was about to leave, she examined me with unexpectedly bright, lively eyes, and I was caught off guard when she asked me in fluent English: Where are you from? I answered her that I was from the Netherlands.
She paused momentarily as if she needed time to process that, and then she asked me if I liked the third arrondissement. I answered that I enjoyed getting to know this lively neighborhood better; it has all to offer that makes Paris a unique city: the architecture, grand boulevards, cozy little alleys, and classic cafes with round tables on the pavement. She smiled, took her time to get another cigarette lighted, and then told me she had lived in this part of the city for over 40 years.
I believe it was then that I took over the questioning and learned more about her life. She was born on the outskirts of Paris, and in her early twenties, she moved to London, where she started as an au pair in a family with five girls before moving on to other jobs. But she missed Paris, and when she returned, she found a job translating between English and French.
I looked at her and guessed her working life must have ended decades ago, which may only partly be explained by France's relaxed retirement age. She said she loved Le Marais and always stayed here except for summer holidays. She smiled fondly when she conveyed her memories of the wild landscapes of Brittany. She had also enjoyed spending time on the Cote d'Azur and the area around Bayonne.
She was silent for a moment, then looked me in the eyes again and asked me if I had visited the Marché des Enfants Rouge. Without waiting for my answer, she said I had to go there. The covered market, not far from where we sat, is over 400 years old. She added that the "red children" referred to the dust on the coats of the children who had to carry bricks.
Soon after, I briefly went inside the cafe to pay for my coffee and croissant. When I returned, her seat was empty.
I had many questions left, including her name. The kind pink, green, and grey woman may answer all those next time I am in Paris. So I followed her recommendation and strolled to the nearby covered market, found my way through the fruit stalls, saw cheeses from all over France, smelled the flowers, and browsed through century-old sepia postcards from France and other European countries. I learned there that 'red children' referred to the dress code for orphans in a nearby orphanage; I liked the red-bricks-version better.
But searching on the internet, I found another, and perhaps more plausible version: "Contrary to what is sometimes mentioned in a legend, the orphans of this establishment were not dressed in red - the carmine dye made from cochineals being expensive - but took the name "red children" because they had in common that they had killed their mother in childbirth."
If you ever want to feel the vibe of Le Marais, sit on the terrace of Le Progrès Marais in the morning and let the world parade in all its beautiful diversity while you sip your coffee or perhaps your third glass of white wine. It's a little moment to enjoy before chasing the city's sights. But you might as well skip all plans and weave a string of these little moments as if already in the phase of your life where you discover the luxury of time and can contemplate memories as if walking in the cadence of the Meseta.
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Le Progrés Marais: 1 Rue de Bretagne, 75003 Paris, France