The Spirt of Coffee Houses

It was good to learn this morning that the French are returning to their cafes and coffee houses as a show of defiance. In sympathy with the French, I am reposting this blog I wrote some time ago.

It was a pleasant café, warm and clean and friendly, and I hung up my old water-proof on the coat rack to dry and put my worn and weathered felt had on the rack above the bench and ordered a cafe au lait. The waiter brought it and I took out a notebook from the pocket of the coat and a pencil and started to write. Hemingway

Over thirty years ago I bought a book titled Coffee Houses of Europe. I don't know how I managed to save it all this time, since it is a large, heavy book, filled with beautiful color photographs of some of the most famous coffee houses in Europe. Really, it’s a coffee table book and apparently it has become quite a treasure.

I’ve also had a life-long interest in the coffee house culture and the spirit that it is said to engender. No doubt that’s because most of the cities I’ve lived in have not been blessed with coffee houses or its culture. But in those that I have visited in France and Italy, I’ve felt their warmth and congeniality.

In his Introduction to the photographic plates, the Hungarian-born writer George Mikes distinguishes between the classic coffee houses of Central Europe--Vienna, Budapest, Prague—from those of Lisbon, Paris and London. He calls the latter “places,” while those in Central Europe are “a way of life…a way of looking at the world by those who do not want to look at the world at all.”

While the distinction is untrue, the classic coffee house often becomes a habitual part of a “regular’s” daily life and for some, a place where most of the day is spent. “There were coffee houses for writers, journalists and artists, and these were the most famous, because their members were…”

Mikes must have a thing against the French because he asserts, The French simply use the cafes; they don’t live there.” He claims they actually go there to have a cup of coffee or meet a friend. That is contradicted by my brief experiences at the cafes around the Sorbonne. There I have observed lively conversations between students and their professors that have surely lasted more than the hour or so of my visit.

In The Great Good Place Ray Oldenburg writes, “The coffee house, however, was fundamentally a form of human association, a gratifying one, and the need for such a society can hardly be said to have disappeared.” This has been the case from their beginning in Istanbul, where the first coffeehouses were established during the sixteenth century.

A French observer described these early coffeehouses as settings where “…news is communicated and where those interested in politics criticize the government.” Games—chess, backgammon, checkers—were also played and writers of the days read their poems and stories. This tradition spread to England and the countries of Western and Central Europe during the following century. Again their central features were sociability marked by congeniality, conversation, and social equality.

The spirit of the classic European coffeehouse has all but vanished in this country. Instead, they have been transformed into solitary, monastery-like places of keyboards and screens. Where there was once a lively conversation, now there is silence. Where there was once a group of friends and colleagues gathered around a table, now there are solitary individuals. Where there was once writing notebooks, now there are laptop computers.

Malcolm Gladwell put this as well as anyone: “I like people around me; but I don’t want to talk to them.