The pure joy of people-watching

— by Judy Rumbold

Photo: Charles Loyer for Unsplash


To the casual observer, it may look as if I’m simply loafing around in a Parisian street cafe, idly toying with a café crème. But behind the vacant-looking facade, I’m in fact extremely busy. I’m appraising, deducing, registering and surveying. I’m surmising, supposing and judging. The pavements are heaving with delectable human traffic, and I’m fully engaged in an epic session of my very favourite pastime, people-watching.

Spring is here, people are emerging from their wool-swaddled torpor, and I’m more than ready for them. Is there a better way of whiling away an hour or two in a bustling bar than positioned at a ringside table, nursing an apéritif and watching the comings and goings of complete strangers?

Foreign cities with a vibrant cafe culture offer the richest entertainment, because in general, British people hate being looked at. They’d rather stay indoors. A deeply embedded, highly combustible combination of crippling self-consciousness and a never-far-from-the-surface sense of boiling outrage/suspicion means that our version of people-watching often ends badly. In the UK we call it staring, being nosy, poking around in other people’s business.


The Boot Cafe. Photo: Jan Mitchell for Unsplash


But, wow, how very entertaining it is. In France, Italy, Spain and countless other cities, people-watching is regarded as a joyous, mandatory part of outdoor socialising, and rarely ends in fist fights or calls to the emergency services. Indeed, outrage only tends to surface if you’re NOT looked at. What’s wrong with my outfit you wonder, as you sashay past a lively brasserie, garnering not a single glance from the assembled crowd? Must try harder, you think. An extra flick of the hair next time, a swish of the coat, maybe an additional layer of swaggering, look-at-me mystery afforded by a pair of sunglasses or flamboyantly-knotted scarf.

Because the sure knowledge you’re going to be forensically scrutinised as you go about your everyday business keeps you on your toes, presentation-wise. And that can be a good thing, right? In other, more flagrantly exhibitionist countries, there are entire words dedicated to the art of showing off. La Passeggiata in Italy is the evening tradition of meeting, mingling, spectating, admiring and generally indulging in a mutually enriching display of public theatre. What’s the purpose of an Esplanade, a Piazza, a Promenade, if not an open invitation to strut and preen for the endless delectation of random onlookers?


Parisian Cafe. Photo: Elif Sari for Unsplash


Still, to the novice bistro-based spectator, there are certain unspoken rules. The trick to successful, non-aggravating people-watching is to coolly observe, not brazenly gawp. You must adopt an air of casual but detached interest, not slack-jawed staring. Ogling, perving and visual undressing are unwelcome interlocutors in the general code of conduct. Don’t even think of pointing or laughing, and for pity’s sake put your camera phone away; you don’t want a cease and desist order to take home to Blighty with you.

Finally, pick your spot. Urban pedestrianisation is the greatest modern advancement in the sport of people-watching. Choose a bar where roads converge, a busy corner, a bustling shopping street, and time it right for maximum traffic. Lunchtimes, rush hour, pre-dinner, sit back and marvel: this delicious scenario may take some time to chew over. Monsieur? Encore de Kir Royale, s’il vous plait….


Judy Rumbold is a freelance writer and journalist and new TNMA contributor. 



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