Thursday, September 04, 2008

On the pavement



There is a wonderful cartoon by the French cartoonist, Sempé, which depicts a man standing at one end of a café-lined boulevard with an anxious expression on his face. In the next frame, he has emerged at the far end of the boulevard, having slipped around the backstreets and avoided having to walk past all those people-watchers. Believe me, I know how he feels - it takes great courage. In fact, I recently tripped and fell headlong on the pavement in front of a dozen or so cappuccino-sipping café customers. I do believe they were mildly amused – after all, it’s not every day you see a plump middle-aged English woman perform a perfect flying tackle on a lamppost.




Taverns have been around forever but cafés were opened specifically to sell coffee. The first coffee house was opened in Constantinople in the fifteenth century. When the new drink arrived in France in the seventeenth century it quickly became fashionable and in 1686, the first French coffee house – or café – was opened in Paris. It was called the Procope after its Sicilian owner and soon became a meeting-place for writers, artists and philosophers such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Balzac and Victor Hugo. Diderot’s encyclopaedia was conceived here and the French Revolution was planned and plotted. Initially, women weren’t allowed in these dens of iniquity, unless it was to serve. A second café – La Table Ronde - was opened in Grenoble in 1739. Situated opposite the law courts and the theatre, it has had its fair share of famous clientele. Sarah Bernardt drank here as did Fernandel and a host of other actors and singers.


There is a café for everyone in France. If you are of a philosophical bent – like Sartre, for example, who spent most of his life in the Café de Flore in Paris – then the café-philo is for you. You don’t have to drink much but you do have to be able to spout a load of old rot about the meaning – or not – of life. My daughter went once and came back either drunk or extremely bewildered, I’m not sure – in any case, she was completely incoherent. She thought so…therefore, she was…or something like that.





Then there is the café littéraire where completely sober people stand up and recite poetry or prose and then talk about it over a drink or two. To be honest, I’ve never been to one of these – they remind me too much of Eng Lit lectures at University and when I go to a café, I want a drink and a good laugh – not an in-depth discussion of limping iambics.


Another recent phenomenon was the chicha-café. They didn’t last long because of the anti-smoking law which defeated the object somewhat. They had names like Oasis and Le bar à Chicha and had exotic Arabian nights type of décor. Apparently (the information comes from my daughter, who is – as you may have guessed – a regular café-goer) one would lounge around on silken cushions, drinking mint tea and taking regular puffs of fruit- flavoured tobacco from a hookah pipe. In fact, my daughter’s birthday present to me a couple of years ago was an evening out in a chicha bar but I was afraid I would cramp her style – and I wasn’t completely sure I would be able to heave myself up off those cushions at the end of the evening, my knees being what they are. I settled for bath salts instead.




The Irish pub has become very fashionable in past years. Every French town has a Shannon Pub or a Shamrock Bar. These places are usually furnished with wooden benches and trestle tables while the walls are hung with anything remotely Celtic: Guinness adverts, pictures of Donegal, leprechauns, Aran jumpers etc. For some reason, Saint Patrick’s night is very popular in France and most Irish pubs will be holding events such as céilidhs to the accompaniment of fiddles, flutes and bearded bard. Sometimes they get it wrong, of course, and I personally know of two ‘Irish’ pubs called The Loch Ness and The Queen’s Head. Kilts, Celts – it’s all the same to them…

At a café-theatre, you can see up-and-coming stars perform. I saw Charlelie Couture in Périgueux nearly thirty years ago and he is now a household name in France. Many of today’s stars began their career in café-théâtres.


Then of course, there is the café de la gare: the station café. Seedy, moody, depressing plastic-table-topped-Gauloises-smoke-filled meeting places…the stuff obscure French films are made of, quoi…unfortunately, they are rapidly being replaced by cheap and cheerful American fast-food outlets- not half as romantic, I’m afraid, but just as seedy. And of course if you lit up a Gauloise you’d be thrown out.

The French bistrot is just a café with a name of obscure origin. A popular explanation is that it comes from the Russian word for ‘quick’ and originates from the period of the Russian occupation of Paris. However, this is much disputed and the true meaning remains a mystery. Who cares anyway? It’s just a café with a fancy name...



Bars – as far as I can gather – differ from cafés in that they cater for locals who just want a shot of pastis and a read of the newspaper – and perhaps a bet on the horses. The bar-PMU doubles as a betting shop and if you accidentally wander into one of these establishments you will be met with cold stares and frosty silence. There will always be a television in the corner broadcasting a horse race and a burly barman who will pointedly ignore you.


In all these places, you can sit at a table – either inside or out – and expect a waiter to come and serve you. This is the theory. In practice, you sometimes have to do a lot of coughing and hand-raising before you manage to catch his eye. And don’t be fooled: French waiters have phenomenal memories. You can give the most complicated order and they will have no trouble at all remembering it along with three or four other orders from other tables. They will also have no trouble at all remembering whether or not you gave a tip the first time – and treat you accordingly on your next visit. You have been warned…

13 comments:

A-L said...

Hey ! I read your blog regularly, but I never wrote a comment let.
But I recognize some pics of Grenoble. Are you living in this area ?

Sarah said...

Don't try the cider though, it's all sweet crap. Or it is in Montpellier. Ask for a dry one and they give you something which makes all your fillings jump in horror.

We have a British pub, The Shakespeare (funnily enough) here.

Gigi said...

Hello, A-L! Yes - I live in the centre of town, near the Place de Metz (behind Place Verdun).

I'll be reading your blog from now on - love the photo of the car!

Sarah - yes, it's not exactly Strongbow, is it? I never touch the stuff.

Michelle said...

I loved your profile I had to read the blog! And I would like to add it to my reading list if that is okay. I just love finding blogs by grown ups who are real people. I'm a pretty crap mother too, but I try my best, and so far they've reached their late teens and early twenties without going to jail, so that's something I guess!

Jonas said...

I love, LOVE, LOVE the cafes of Paris. Oh, how I wish we had something similar here in the US of A!

It is a rare treat to stretch out and watch the world go by as you sip on a glass of wine or beer...

angela said...

I'm definitely one of the people watchers, can't resist it though having bumped into a lamppost and apologised I wouldn't have laughed at you.

Diana said...

this is such a cool interesting blog! (i just stumbled on it) i have been to paris, but sadly not long enough to sit at one of its cafes and, as they say, watch the world go by; a pity since im a huge people-watcher myself. (so i compensate and do it at the theatre instead)

and oh, i dont believe you could be as failed a mother and as terrible a teacher as that! all you need is a little faith and confidence in yourself, and you'll do good =)

Roads said...

How I love pavement cafés, Gigi...

My favourite in Paris is the Café de Flore on Boulevard St Germain.

Out of town, just about anywhere will do. Especially those with the old fellas sipping their pastis under the shade of a lime tree or two.

France. How much that your adopted country has given us!

Roads said...

Ah, a closer look and I see that you've listed my Parisian favourite already.

There's one more genre I can think of, but I'm not sure if they still exist. I'm thinking of those Café des Sports that you used to find, especially in the southwest of France? Full of listless and lovestruck teenagers playing electronic games and old rugby players drinking Kronenbourg.

I must say that in my youth I enjoyed more than a pression and pinball or two in places like those. I wonder if they've survived the era of home computer games and Sky Sports, though. We need to be told.

Gigi said...

oh dear - I've forgotten to comment on the comments...

Michelle - well, my eldest daughter once turned up at the door in handcuffs with two police officers...it wasn't her fault - one of her more dodgy friends had phoned her on her mobile from the flat he'd just broken in to...a heartstopping moment for me :-(

jonas - I try not to sit in pavement cafés any more - I'm a big enough procrastinator as it is!

thank you angela. When will we be seeing more of your Life in the south of France blog??

diana - yes, but good mothers do things like make beds and wash floors and help with homework and bake cakes...don't they? Not plonk themselves in front of the computer trying to write poetry...

roads - I haven't seen a café des sports here yet but I'm sure they still exist. My daughter goes to a bar where they play billiards - perhaps it's one of those?

Roads said...

Yep, a bar where they play billiards. That'll be the one.

Anonymous said...

From popular to elitist order, you have bar (only alcohol), café, bistrot (with snack to eat), brasserie.
There are also places called "Bar-Tabac" (where they sell tobacco) and "Bar-PMU" (where you can bet on horse races).
The french nickname for a café is a "troquet".

Hadriana's Treasures said...

Loved this post. Thanking you and Anonymous for the information on bars, cafes, bistrots etcetera.

(Apologies...I have not worked out how to type accents within Google. I guess I will suss those out eventually.)