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