Monday, March 31, 2008
More Café Musings
I’m not really obsessed with cafés, and it’s certainly not as if I spent an inordinate amount of time in them, but the coffee discussion got me thinking about their appeal….The other morning, I was feeling a bit out of sorts, nothing major, just that vague, itchy feeling in the back of my brain that didn’t really correspond to the present reality. I was attending to business at city hall (that sounds important but really I was just signing a form), and I thought, hey, I have a half an hour, why not? And I went to a nearby café and ordered a coffee. The coffee was mediocre (I forgot to try asking for a “serré”) but the experience was just what I needed: a good half hour of doing nothing in particular. It occurred to me that perhaps that is the main draw—in a café you are allowed, nay, encouraged, to do nothing in particular. In fact, the whole café-going enterprise is a royal waste of time—and therein lies the beauty of the thing. How often in our daily rush-around lives do we get to do something as non-productive as sit around drinking coffee and staring out the window?
Here is where café culture in France is clearly superior to that in say, New York City. I am proud to say I lived in New York City for 13 years, but when I think of the difficulty involved in achieving the perfect zombie state in a café there, well, it gives me a headache. I lived on the Upper West Side, but to get to a café that was actually comfortable and welcoming (and not a coffee bar with painfully high stools), I’d have to walk a good 30 blocks to La Fortuna on West 71st street. Assuming it’s still there, Fortuna is the only place I know above 14th street where you can actually find an old Italian grandmother hanging out at the manager’s table. And if you look carefully, she will be staring out the window, doing absolutely nothing, as is only right and proper. For me, it was rare to have the time and energy to get there, and once I was it was already an event, which meant I needed to be doing something important, like talking to a friend, or writing, or meeting the love of my life.
But in France cafés are everywhere, and more importantly, they are not filled with Julliard students or West-siders trying to make a point. They are generally not even filled, just lightly dusted with a quirky clientele (depending on where it’s located) mostly concentrating on doing nothing. Communing with the ectoplasm of lost souls who have haunted said café for decades or even centuries. Outside of an ashram or a cathedral, where else are you allowed to empty your mind and let your thoughts wander in the company of strangers—for the price of a cup of coffee?