Cafe Days

I am reading Rachel Cusk’s latest book, The Last Supper, about the three-month sojourn she and her family spent in Italy a while ago. It is one of those books that I do not want to end. She visits a café outside Rome. It is crowded and the people are engaged in lively conversation. I stop to recall the memorable café times in my life.

During lunch one day at the Bar Pasticceria Curatone in Florence, I observed a riotous display of friendship and camaraderie. A middle-aged man, sitting by my table on the terrace, was engaged in an animated conversation with the Bar's owner. Soon some old friends happened by and when they saw him, each one, in turn, seemed to explode with shouts of joy and delight, followed by spirited conversation. In time, others passed by who also recognized one or more of the assembled group. Jump for joy, long embraces, happy smiles, long tales of Where have you been? What have you been up to? How wonderful you look. Oh, let me show you the pictures of my baby. As if that wasn't enough, soon after that, I sat astonished as I observed a similar scene unfold at another table.

And then not so long ago I went to a café in Paris for afternoon tea. I went upstairs to have a drink. The café, near the Sorbonne, was filled with students and their professors conversing intensely about the latest intellectual crisis. The memory of that scene lingers.

I imagine a café, a literary café, where I can go at the end of each day. There are writers and readers. We talk about our work, the books we’ve read, the issues we are struggling with. We leave with a “See you tomorrow.” It is a Third Place, the concept discussed in Ray Oldenburg’s The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Community Centers, Beauty Parlors, General Stores, Bars, Hangouts and How They Get You Through the Day. He discusses the German beer gardens, the English pubs, French cafes and the American tavern.

The Third Place comes after the place you live and the place where you work. Oldenberg says it is a neutral ground, where the main activity is discussion. It is accessible and welcoming. There are “regulars” there, unassuming in appearance, offering the freedom to be yourself. It is a home away from home and being there is restorative.

He says that urban life increasingly fails to provide is a convenient and open-ended setting for socializing—where individuals can go without aim or arrangement and be greeted by people who know them and know how to enjoy a little time off. Oldenberg attributes much of the alienation, boredom, and stress of American life to the absence of such a Third Place to repair to when we wish. He says:

“The French, of course, have solved the problem of place. The Frenchman’s daily life sits firmly on a tripod consisting of home, place of work and another setting, where friends are engaged during the midday and evening apertif hours, if not earlier and later.”

I am sure there are such places in this country but I have never found one. I will keep looking, that is for sure.

I remember a blazing hot Sunday in a remote Tuscan village of Italy. No one is on the street. All of the stores are closed. The shutters of the surrounding apartment buildings are shut tight. I park my car in the single open square, get out, and am enveloped by the heat. It is startling. It is wonderful. I look for a place where I can get a drink. The local bar, which in Italy is also a place to get an expresso, a Panini, and cold drink is the only place that is open. The TV is on and a few old men are staring at it mutely. On the screen is a soccer game somewhere in Italy and the crowd is roaring. Otherwise, it is utterly silent in the café and on the street. And it is hot. It is perfect.