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.