One question that I often receive from friends back in the U.S. is, “Where do you go when you want to spend time with a friend?” When I first heard the question I laughed out loud. I thought, “anywhere”, but the question, after my initial reaction, made me think and reflect a bit more about my life in France and where I actually go. When I want to talk with a friend, I go to the café.
Well, what is a café?
When walking around in the streets of France, one can know he/she is looking at a café (other than by looking at the name) by noticing groups of people sitting in a stretch of circular tables and chairs along the outside of a building, drinking coffee or wine, smoking a cigarette, and talking. Often times these groups of chairs and tables stretch across a sidewalk and are arranged facing the street, not towards one another. In a café, it is possible to order a coffee, of course, however, oftentimes it is also possible to order wine, beer, tea, and just about any other kind of drink as well.
The centrality of the café
For France, the café is a huge aspect of normal everyday life. From my experiences, the café often is the place to go when spending time with a friend to chat casually. I don’t know why it is but the café is the perfect place to do what one does when being social. It is possible to smoke because of its outside setting and to drink a coffee or glass of wine, but most important of all (at least to me), the arrangement of chairs creates a juxtaposition of intimacy and distance between individuals by being so close to one another due to the small size of the table in between, yet also being across one another because of table in the middle, which makes the perfect setting for conversation.
Additionally, the orientation of the chairs inspires thought as their alignment and position which, many times, faces the street, enables the individual to get lost in thought by observing the life that takes place in the street.
It also allows for conversations to pause without awkwardness, being more natural, rather than forcing one to always speak out of pressure in facing one another.
With its importance and centrality to French life, to escape the presence of the café is quite a task. I cannot go anywhere in a French city without stumbling upon at least one within several blocks. A café can be found on street corners and street sides; alleyways and squares. I can walk ten minutes in any direction (provided I am in the urban setting) and find, at the least, five. In Paris, in the same duration of time I can find nearly double the number of cafés.
To be honest, I don’t mind going to them. For me, I love the ambiance, being able to outside rather than inside (unlike in the States), watching others walk by, enjoying the day or evening, speaking with a friend, or just thinking.
What is so special about the café?
In the U.S., sure, we have cafés, but I would say that the experience is quite different. For example, it is much harder to find a café that offers alcoholic beverages whereas in France it isn’t difficult to find one that does (it is as if the cafe in France shares a blurred border with the brasserie). Also, I found it quite a novelty upon arriving in France that cafés oftentimes turn chairs to face the street rather than to one another. Above all, perhaps the key difference, especially back where I was living in San Francisco, the café is often used as an extension of the workplace. To illustrate, if I were to walk into a café in the States, I would find many heads down in laptop screens, working away, making up anywhere between a third to two-thirds of everyone inside. This is also true to a certain extent in France, however, I would say it is so to a much lesser degree.
Thus, the centrality that the café plays in social life is lesser in the States, greater in France.
Whenever I have a free day or leave the university early to spend time with friends I often head to a café. Since moving to France, the café has also picked up an important role in my social life as I further adapt from my life in the States. In many ways, I acknowledge the significance of the cafe–its place in French life as a concept of living. To attest to the greatness of the café, the Lost Generation and the milieu of influential writers and thinkers after them gravitated towards the cafés and spent much of their time drinking and thinking in them (Sartre comes to mind immediately).
It is impossible to pass by any cafe without seeing strangers sitting, laughing, talking, and thinking–it is impossible to not do the same.