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?


David said...

I love your blog, but I always had issues with the cliché that is "French cafés are a place where you go to do nothing" and such (well, I have issues with all French clichés, but let's not get off track).

So no, French people don't go to a café with "doing nothing" as a goal. It may appear this way to an American eye but this is a cultural misunderstanding.

Sure you'll see people doing nothing in cafés, but they'll most likely be one of the following:

- an American poser trying to look French.
- somebody waiting for somebody else that is late as cafés are a common meeting point for friends, dates, etc.
- somebody waiting for their next business appointment next door.
- somebody on a shopping spree or a tourist in between two visits and talking a break.

As you see, except for the American poser, all the other ones inactivity is a consequence, not a goal.

So, sure, French people go to cafés to slow down a bit and not just to have a coffee, but the main reasons they go to cafés are:
- to socialize and hang out with friends (a little bit like French people don't go to restaurants just for the food).
- to find some calm to read, write, prepare stuff (meetings, lessons, etc.)

Definitely not with "doing nothing" in mind. And I definitely understand why Americans think they do nothing... It comes from the fact that in the US if you're not rushing and/or stressed when you do something, that means you're doing nothing...


Margie Rynn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Margie Rynn said...

I sincerely hope you didn't read my first response to your comment, which sprang from the conviction that you were my brother in New York, who also happens to be named David. Anyway, I'm glad to hear you like my blog, but I want you to know that I had no intention of making judgments, clichéd or otherwise, about French people. My point was merely that doing nothing is a noble and worthy activity, and one that you can do without anyone giving you a hard time in a café. I do believe that French people, and Europeans in general, value doing nothing more than Americans, who often have a hard time with the concept. I recall the first time I went on vacation with French people—I was appalled because there was little or no activity other than hanging around on the beach. Finally I realized—that's what you are supposed to do on vacation, vacate!

David said...

No worries about the other comment. I had figured out you mistook me for somebody else.
What I was trying to point out is that what you (and/or other Americans) consider as "doing nothing" in cafés (stuff like reading, writing, or just drinking a coffee actually) is not considered as such in Europe.

I think Americans consider to often that if you don't rush, you're not being efficient or even active... Hence the fact that they misunderstand what's actually going on in French cafés... :-)

David said...

I'm glad this misunderstanding has been clarified and that I had nothing to do with it! ;-)

Also, I think you're both agreeing with each other, as do I. We Americans have to learn to enjoy the living part of life a little more, instead of rushing from one appointment to the other.

Another great post.

-David (The Brother in NYC)

Starman said...

I suppose one's idea of "doing nothing" depends on how it is defined. Having a conversation with friends is one of the most enjoyable ways of doing nothing. Waiting is another way in which to achieve that state. I don't need an excuse to do nothing. I thoroughly enjoy it. And no where do I enjoy it more than at a café terrace in Paris (or Lyon, or Toulouse, or any other city in France or Europe).

Abfab Art Studio said...

Hi there Margie,

It's Teena in Australia, and I only have 9 sleeps until I get on my flight to Paris, arriving Saturday 7th June - woohoo!

I look forward to checking out more Paris cafes this trip - maybe even catching up with you, and to checking out some of your restaurant tips in your book, which is now dog-eared and well-read (funnily enough I bought it on my last day in Paris last June).

PS I hope to have a European cellphone by then too, to guarantee I'll be accessible by phone AND email :-)

A bientot!!