A magot is not a maggot

Simone de Beauvoir in an unnamed cafe. Photo source: http://fuckyeahexistentialism.tumblr.com/post/3736286827/simone-de-beauvoir-says-celebrate-international.
Simone de Beauvoir in an unnamed cafe. Photo source: http://fuckyeahexistentialism.tumblr.com/post/3736286827/simone-de-beauvoir-says-celebrate-international.

I’ve always been attracted to depth over breadth.  Visiting a new city, I might eat in the same restaurant every night, trying to explore the entire menu.  Discovering a new bookstore, I’m unlikely to only visit the sections that I’m interested in and know that I’ll buy from, but very likely to walk around the entire store, seeing what it’s strong in (in Denver, the former Borders in Northglenn for judo, the Tattered Cover for history, Barnes and Noble for obscure French books; in Paris, Gibert Jeune for theoretical semantics, Attika for bilingual French/English novels, and Gibert Joseph for cheese, kids’ books, and general linguistics).  This makes me a super-boring person to visit a new city–or a new bookstore–with, but I love the feeling of knowing a place deeply, and prefer it to knowing lots of places more shallowly.

I’d always been interested in an in-depth exploration of the cafes of Paris, but had trouble finding a good, and preferably literary, guide to them.  Then today I read a chapter in John Baxter’s Five nights in Paris: After dark in the City of Lights on just that topic.  Baxter starts by debunking the myth that Parisian writers work in cafes.  He says that Hemingway was the last writer of importance to actually write in cafes in Paris.  He also, however, quotes a friend as saying that only one of her writer friends still writes in a Parisian cafe.  There’s a clear inference from this: writing in Paris cafes has certainly been popular, and people still do it.  I will even confess to having spent a pleasant afternoon or two sitting on the terrasse of a Paris cafe working on a (not very interesting, unfortunately) book myself.  He lists a number of cafes frequented by writers, musicians, or other folks of interest; I’ll round it out a bit with material from Graham Robb’s Parisians: An adventure history of Paris.

  • Cafe Procope: I’ve heard different stories as to whether this was the first cafe in Paris, or the first successful cafe in Paris.  Graham Robb describes the original offerings: coffee and sherberts.  Habitués over the years have included Voltaire, Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, Thomas Jefferson, and Léon Gambetta.  6th arrondissement, which I think is not its original location, but I haven’t been able to verify that.
  • Les Deux Magots: one of the most famous cafes in Paris.  It was opened in 1885 in the former location of a silk store.  According to the Paris-Bistro.com web site, the name comes from the two magot, or seated Oriental figurines, that are mounted on the wall and are the last vestiges of the silk shop.  Expect to pay about double the cost of a coffee or beer anywhere else in town for the privilege of hanging out in the same place as Rimbaud, Mallarmé, André Breton, Paul Eluard, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, and Bertolt Brecht, once did (list from Wikipedia and the Paris-Bistro.com web site).  I was really surprised at how small it was on the inside–it’s easy to imagine the air choking with cigarette smoke and the smell of espresso.  6th arrondissement.
  • Cafe Flore: right up there with Les Deux Magots in the fame department, and still popular.  Like Les Deux Magots, it was built in the 1880s.  Habitués have included Pablo Picasso and Zhou EnlaiAdam Gopnik‘s essay A tale of two cafes (reprinted in his Paris to the Moon, which I can’t recommend highly enough–my favorite book about Paris) contains a variety of wildly speculative explanations for why Les Deux Magots stopped being the cool place to be while the Flore remained popular; all or none of them may be true.  6th arrondissement.
  • Cafe Beaubourg: Edmund White hung out here.  As Baxter relates, and White himself says in his memoir Inside a Pearl: My years in Paris, part of the attraction was walking by the air intake of the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique afterwards, so that his dog could poop in it–a dispute over being refused an interview.  4th arrondissement, in the Marais.
  • La Closerie des Lilas: Hemingway liked to write here.  Other habitués have included Pablo Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Gide, Paul Éluard, Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett, Man Ray, Ezra Pound (list from French Wikipedia page).  6th arrondissement.
  • Café Fleurus:  I haven’t been able to find much in the way of information about this one, but it appears that Gertrude Stein lived right up the street, at 27 rue de Fleurus.  14th arrondissement.
  • Wepler: This was a favorite of Henry Miller.  The character Joey in Miller’s book Quiet Days in Clichy has a relationship with a prostitute that he meets there.  18th arrondissement.
  • Tournon: This was a favorite of post-war African-American expats in Paris, as well as the early male-female transsexual April Ashley.  6th arrondissement.

As Baxter points out, these days Paris cafes are about food as least as much as coffee, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend eating at any of these.  A number of the cafes that I’ve listed are in the 6th arrondissement.  If a cafe tour takes you there, I would recommend that you eat at Au Pied de Fouet.  This is an island of affordable meals in the midst of a sea of super-overpriced places, and the food is some of my favorite stuff in Paris, particularly for French stuff (yes, Paris has a bazillion great restaurants serving things other than French food).

For a Zipf’s Law connection, let’s look at the vocabulary items that appear in some of the cafe names:

Do you have a cafe to add to my list?  How about mentioning it in the Comments?  I’ve focused here on cafes with some literary history; you can find a list of other cafes here.  Some of them look pretty interesting.

Irregular IR-class verbs, or why I’m not losing weight

Exploring group III French verbs through my failure to lose weight.

So embarrassing–I had a great opportunity to use an obscure IR-class verb (mincir, meaning to lose weight or to make you look thin) yesterday, but in the first person singular present tense, not the third person plural present tense that we worked on last time–and I blew it.  Attempting to explain the connection between the delicious French-Canadian dish called poutine–fries covered with cheese curds and gravy–and why I’m not losing weight, I conjugated it as an ER verb, not IR.  !@#$%$!  I guess I just gotta work on those IR-class verbs some more.  So, for the moment let’s just point out that there’s a Montréal restaurant, La Banquise, that serves 25 different kinds of poutine, agree amongst ourselves that I’ll go there this week when I visit our neighbors under the Big Red Maple Leaf, and focus on irregular IR verbs.

In that spirit, let’s look at the present tense of some irregular IR verbs.  In the singular forms, the final written consonant is the same, but where the regular IR verbs have the vowel i in front of that consonant, the irregular IR verbs do not. We’ll use finir (to finish) as our prototype of a regular IR verb–all of the other verbs in these tables are irregular IR verbs:

finir courir dormir partir sortir
je finis cours dors pars sors
tu finis cours dors pars sors
on finit court dort part sort

In the plural forms, the regular IR verbs (like finir) and the irregular verbs (all of the other verbs in this post) are quite different, and actually look a lot like ER verbs:

finir courir dormir partir sortir
nous finissons courons dormons partons sors
vous finissez courez dormez partez sortez
ils/elles finissent courent dorment partent sortent

Similar verbs include mentir (to lie), sentir (to smell), and compounds of all of these.

How many verbs like this are there? It’s surprisingly difficult to say. It’s even unclear what exactly “this” means. The traditional answer would be “the set of third-conjugation verbs,” but “third-conjugation verbs” include a number of verbs of entirely different classes. Just looking at the example verbs on this page, there’s a clear difference between verbs like courir and verbs like dormir–they share the same endings, sure, but the stem of the verbs like dormir lose a consonant in the singular forms.  Would you count mourir?  The endings are the same, but there’s a change in the stem vowel.  How about démentir (to deny)?  It’s conjugated like mentir,  but while the past participle menti is invariable, the past participle of démentir can be inflected for gender, and be démenti or démentie.  Does it count as like “this”?  And, there are words related to the words that I’ve used as examples here.  For example, related to courir (to run), we have (from the web site L’Obs–la conjugaison):


Counting word types is always an ugly business–this shows you one thing that contributes to that kind of ugliness.  Mincir (to lose weight) is totally regular, by the way, although at this point in my life, for me to lose weight would, unfortunately, be quite irregular.

3rd person plural present tense of regular IR-class verbs: anonymous sex in the Tuileries Garden

The Tuileries Garden today. Source:
The Tuileries Garden today. Source: “Tuileries gardenview” by User:Munford – Own work (Taken by me). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tuileries_gardenview.jpg#/media/File:Tuileries_gardenview.jpg

There’s good evidence that men have been jumping the walls of the Tuileries Garden (built in 1564) to have sex with each other at night since at least the 17th century.  We know about this because although France has no laws forbidding sex or marriage between consenting adults today, it wasn’t always so enlightened.  At one time, the police paid men called mouches (flies) to entrap gay men into making sexual propositions and then have them arrested.  The police reports of the mouches give quite a bit of insight into gay cruising culture in the decades before the French Revolution (1789).  In 1791, the new French penal code decriminalized homosexuality.

Now that I’ve got your attention, it’s time to get back to the basics.  I’m preparing for a French certification test (see this post for a description of the oral comprehension portion), and I am realizing that I am woefully out of practice with the conjugations of some verb classes.  About 20% of French verbs end with -ir.  The 3rd person plural present tense of these verbs (they walk, they are walking, etc.) is a weakness for me, so humor me and let’s work on it.

For the 80% or so of French verbs that belong to the ER class, the 3rd person plural present tense is pronounced the same as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person singular.  For the IR verbs, the stem is pronounced the same as the 1st and 2nd person plurals.  (It’s always written differently from all of the others.)  The ending for the 3rd person plural present tense of regular IR verbs is -issent:

je finis nous finissons
tu finis vous finissez
on finit ils finissent

With that reference in hand, let’s practice. A list of sentences follows. Change the highlighted pronoun and verb to ils, and give the appropriate verb form.

  1. Nous ne choisissons pas notre orientation sexuelle.  We don’t choose our sexual orientation.
  2. Je vomis les “mouches.”  I loathe the “mouches.”
  3. Je suis ravi qu’il abolit les lois contre l’homosexualité.  I’m delighted that he is abolishing the laws against homosexuality.
  4. Est-ce que tu rougis quand je parle de ces affaires?  Do you blush when I talk about these things?
  5. Réfléchissez-vous à ce que j’ai dit?  Are you thinking about what I said?


  1. Ils ne choisissent pas leur orientation sexuelle.
  2. Ils vomissent les mouches.  They loathe the mouches.
  3. Je suis ravi que qu’ils abolissent les lois contre l’homosexualité.
  4. Est-ce que ils rougissent quand je parle de ces affaires?
  5. Réfléchissent-ils à ce que j’ai dit?