Will the coronavirus kill French cafés? I certainly hope not! As you’ll see in the photo, the café (this picture was taken at the Café des Foudres, Place Martin Nadaud, Paris 20) is my office – and I’m not alone. The day the charming waitress (can one still say that? or is it “wait person – oh well, whatever) snapped this photo I happened to be alone which is most unusual. I normally would arrive around 10:30 or 11 am., order a big crême, pull out the manuscript of my latest book and happily scribble away until shortly before noon when the waitpeople would start setting up the tables for lunch. And NEVER, not once, did anyone tell me to pack up and leave. When I would make motions to get out of their way so they could do their job, they would always tell me to relax, take my time, they could set the table later. I don’t know if that was a way of tipping their hat, showing their respect, to writers but I remember thinking that it was part of a solid writer-café tradition that has lasted through the years.
Well, as usual I am not quite telling the truth. ONCE an evil café owner – I will not divulge the name of the café and anyway, it closed even before the coronavirus – decided he had had enough of customers bent over scripts and book manuscripts for entire days, paying for only one drink and using his electricity for their computers. One fateful day signs on each table appeared, telling us that we could not stay unless we ordered a drink every hour (!) at a minimum price. The result was foreseeable. Suddenly, almost everyone disappeared and the café went bankrupt. And that was BEFORE the coronavirus.
Truth be told, Paris is not the café mecca it once was. In fact, since 1994, 300 cafés have vanished. And that is beyond sad. I am hoping that the coronavirus will not sound the death knell for two reasons: the first reason is selfish – I like to write in cafés with a buzz of conversation and laughter in the background. The second is that cafés are a meeting place for very different groups of people, from street sweepers to white collar workers to artistes (lots of the latter in this outlier neighbourhood). The French complain a lot about inégalité but you won’t find that in your typical French café.
Sure, you will tell me, we now see “co-working” places where you can both work and buy coffee But those cold, soulless places resemble cafés and the café spirit about as much as elephants resemble tigers.
Not all cafés are warm, friendly spots. Hemingway in A Moveable Feast depicted the Café des Amateurs on the rue Mouffetard as a “sad, evilly run…cesspool”.
Fortunately for me, I met my French husband at another well-known café that Ernest haunted as well and that was far from a cesspool – Le Select on the boulevard Montparnasse. It was a warm, summer evening. I was a young, flighty American on my way to Argentina. He was a handsome well-dressed French man in a blue blazer and white shirt – and he made me laugh. I cancelled my trip, married the man, and, as they say the rest is history. All that, thanks to meeting in a French café. Vive la France, vive les cafés!