Frank Chen

Frank Chen

through the looking glass (paris series 4)

cafés & people watching

"There's nothing more Parisian than sitting at a café and watching the world pass on by."

Before France, I was already a fan of enjoying vibey coffee spots, but I didn't subscribe to people watching as much as I do now. I was always "doing" something, whether it was writing, work, or reading.

Paris changed that up that right quick.

It's hard to not people watch in Paris. When the late afternoon rolls around, you see patrons both young and old flock to various outdoor cafés scattered across the city, enjoying espressos, aperols, and cigarettes. Work becomes an afterthought and in its place, there's meetings with friends and lively conversation, or for some others, a quiet date with a notebook and pencil.

The cafés are set up in a way that facilitates people watching. Outdoor chairs are purposefully faced towards the street, as if it was theater seating and the world was the stage. From the outside looking in, it feels like you're performing. You see quiet eyeballs on you as you walk from east to west. Some folks rudely stare at you, perhaps unaware that they're gawking or locking gaze for far too long. Others keep it cool by breaking eye contact quickly and re-engaging in conversation with their seat mate, an almost natural move to dissipate the tension. Others remain completely oblivious to the world, sip their wine and tap away at their phone. Rest assured (or maybe get creeped out?) you are very much being watched, but you're also part of the milieu - enjoy the ride.

Le Bonaparte (6éme) captures this essence really well. They've got balling seating for the peanut gallery, not to mention a peppery saucisson and decent espresso. 😋 Smoking is allowed. Loud conversation is welcome. Dogs are allowed in the mix too - just make sure you bring something for them, otherwise:

This idea of "theater" is actually a motivation to dress better too, since you might as well look pleasant for others if you're being watched. "Going to the theater/opera" back in the day (and even today) is an experience that you'd dress up for. Bourgeois for sure, but if we think about it as being part of the entire scene, it's less about individual perspectives and more about the coming together of beauty and how people fit together, including you.

Theater aside, I find that people watching is a good way to self-critique, simply because it pops you out of your own narrative. For me, the curiosity keeps me in the present, but also opens a line of inquiry into my own preferences, values, and shortcomings.

"What's the relationship between these two, and also the group sitting behind them?" (catch the in-betweens of human interaction?)

"I love this man’s penny loafers, scarf, and maroon tweed suit - so put together." (maybe a style I'm interested in?)

"Ugh, why is this guy SO LOUD and trying SO HARD to make others laugh?" (maybe some latent shadow-self coming up?)

"This girl's look is so 'Parisian Summer' and everything about her - her purse, her dog, her trying to feed her dog with other coffee shop dogs eating the meal, I love it all." (some kind of lived-in camaraderie as pet owners?)

Play with people watching and see what you find. Be a part of the world. Feel good in your own skin. Staying curious keeps you alive, keeps you interested and interesting, and is a valuable tool for self discovery. You might even become the inspiration for someone else.

For those who are envious of folks who are constantly traveling, I encourage you to master the art of people watching. It's leisure, it's imaginative, it's curiosity - it’s the ultimate form of travel. You won't even need to travel anymore if you learn how to people watch (maybe only half true 🧐). You can easily observe 100, maybe even 200 people in the course of several hours. It's not just looking at their physical being, it's their mannerisms, what they're talking about, how they act around others, and how they click into society at the current moment. Marinated with your own thoughts and judgments, it becomes a powerful catalyst for self discovery and presence in the moment.

Here's a people watching kit:

  1. dress up nicely (theater remember!? but also, be a part of the world, a possible inspiration to others)
  2. dog or partner or friend (optional, but ideally, they should stfu and also be people watching)
  3. pick a vibey coffee spot, café, or park that's bustling with people
  4. sunglasses for anonymity and staring capabilities 😎
  5. sit, sip, judge, imagine backstories, discover preferences, introspect, and narrate for them because they're doing the same for you 🥰

Special thanks to Ryan for visiting and all the great perspective pictures!