Iced Coffee

Place Dauphine

In the airy but over-aired romantic comedy Me Before You (2016), the dashing but damaged Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) laments bygone times when he refers to, “Paris. Place Dauphine, right by the Pont Neuf. Sitting outside the cafe with a strong coffee, a warm croissant with unsalted butter and strawberry jam.” Place Dauphine is not just a scene in Me Before You; it’s a real square in the heart of Paris.  And it probably has Will’s cafe, thanks to the nearby river and central views of the city.  Yet French cafes are growing scarcer every year.  In fact, these quaint little gathering places are disappearing in droves.

Painting by Vickie Wade

If someone asked me to paint a scene from a French country village, I’d surely highlight a charming cafe on a cobbled central space, bursting with patrons.  In the cafe, the proprietor would serve incomparable pastries alongside fine, pressed coffee.  The room would swell with music and chatter; the locals swapping their work-day adventures before heading home to supper.  The evening stopover in the cafe seems to me a staple of French culture.

So it pains me to read about closed doors on France’s rural cafes, according to a recent report of the Wall Street Journal.  Sixty years ago, you would find over 200,000 of them liberally dotting the country.  Today, there are less than 40,000.  “Progress” – in its various forms – has forced the rural worker out of traditional French industries and into the big cities.  Time once spent in the cafe is now given over to the workday commute.  Adds a village mayor, “Without a cafe, a village is pretty much dead”.

A “French cafe” in Ireland

Even though I’ve been to Paris, I can’t claim to have spent time in any of its cafes, not even the famed Les Deux Magots, where writers like Hemingway and Joyce were said to have gathered.  And yet, I’ve still experienced authentic “cafe culture” (and I don’t mean Starbucks).  On a trip to Ireland several years ago, my wife and I concluded our first day of sightseeing by ducking into what we thought was a small pub in downtown Dublin.  Turns out the place was more “French cafe”, complete with black-and-white prints on the walls, candle-lights on the tables, and coffee, tea, and pastries to beat the band.  We were so taken by the place we stopped in every afternoon for the better part of a week.  Perhaps the most showstopping memory of all: we never saw a phone, tablet, or laptop.  Patrons were there to gather and chat, or at least – in the case of a few loners – to lose themselves in a good book.

van Gogh’s “The Starry Night”

The French cafe is made all the more romantic thanks to the artist Vincent van Gogh.  In 1888 in the southern town of Arles, van Gogh observed the play of a cafe’s lights against the nighttime sky, which inspired his painting Cafe Terrace at Night, the precursor to his unequaled The Starry Night

“Yellow vest” protestors

Perhaps you recall France’s “yellow vest movement” a year or so ago, when protestors took to the streets to battle aggressive economic policies.  Turns out the French cafes played a part in the melee.  The government sought to impose an increased fuel tax to reduce the number of cars on the road.  The protesters interpreted the tax as an impolite shove, to get more people to move to the big cities.  In other words, less people in French country villages.  And no people in French country cafes.  Remarkably, one of the government’s concessions following the yellow-vest protests was subsidiaries towards small businesses.  Perhaps the French country cafe is not dead after all.

Had I written this post two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have come up with much positive spin on this topic.  But let’s face it, those of us “sheltered in place” right now yearn for social interaction (not social distancing).  We want face-to-face again, not Facetime.  We want the congregation, not just the church service.  So perhaps there’s a silver lining to the current pandemic after all.  When we return to “new normal”, my hope is we’ll have a newfound appreciation for gathering, instead of hiding behind our electronic devices.  As well, my hope is my next visit to France will find the doors of French country cafes wide open again, just beckoning me inside for “strong coffee and warm croissant”.

Refuge and Reassurance

When the world goes off the rails like it did this week in Las Vegas, the very human reaction is fight or flight. Fight as in help to those who were impacted.  Flight as in shelter; consolation from an incomprehensible tragedy. My own flight, in extreme instances like this one, sometimes takes the form of fond memories of a journey my wife and I made five years ago, to a remote village on the west coast of Ireland called Clifden.

For those who travel to Ireland, Clifden is rarely on the itinerary.  It’s a four-hour cross-country drive from Dublin, and the final ninety minutes meander along a two-lane road through the forested expanse of Connemara National Park.  Clifden has a modest history for all of its two hundred years on the map.  The town evolved from farmers and fishermen who lived in the region, its commerce bolstered by the heir of a nearby castle.  Like most towns in Ireland, Clifden suffered the blight of the potato famine and the onslaughts of rebels from the north.  Its only claim to fame is the location of Marconi’s first wireless telegraphy station to the near south, broadcasting messages across the Atlantic to Nova Scotia in 1905.  Today Clifden has 2,000 inhabitants, still looking the part of “two churches, two hotels, three schools, and 23 pubs” it boasted in the early 1800’s.

As my wife and I discovered, Clifden is the very definition of “off the beaten path”.  We stumbled upon its welcoming neighborhood very much by chance.  Our intended stop was Galway that day, but once in the city-center (and having survived a five-lane roundabout), we yearned for something smaller and less urban.  Heading north along the coast and with dusk turning to dark, we experienced the thrill of the uncertainty of locating our as-yet-unknown destination.

After a middle-of-the-road stop for a funeral procession (popular guy, judging from the dozens of people descending upon the nearby church), and then passing by the dignified Kylemore Abbey, little Clifden emerged from the coastal fog.  We stopped into the first bed-and-breakfast we could find, but there were no rooms at such a late hour.  Instead, we were directed to the larger/older Foyle’s Hotel a couple of streets away.  What a blessing in disguise.  Foyle’s was the perfect introduction to the charms of Clifden.  A turn-of-the-century grand dame with wide hallways, creaking stairs, and no elevator, we felt like we’d stepped back in time a century or more.  Dinner was served in an elegant main-level salon just off the reception area, soft music playing in the background.  Our spacious room looked down on the center of town from one of the second-floor windows you see here.

The next morning, we took to Clifden on foot, wandering its quaint, narrow, up-and-down streets.  We stopped in at Walsh’s Bakery for breakfast, walking away with a few of the more tempting choices from the case. We then stopped in at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, one of the two spires accenting Clifden’s modest skyline. We climbed to the higher part of town for a look down to the lazy harbor activity along the quay.  More than any sight or sound, we simply embraced Clifden for what it was; a quiet seaside village; is inhabitants contentedly going about their business.  In contrast to bright and busy Dublin, Clifden summoned a much-needed deep breath and a moment of halcyon reflection.

Perhaps our travels will bring us back to Clifden someday.  But the more I consider the idea the less inclined I am to make it happen.  Our idyllic experience was predicated on the chance decisions making our visit happen in the first place, the wandering road leading us to its cobblestone streets, and the saving grace of vacancy at the Foyle’s Hotel.

In Gaelic, Clifden means “stepping stones”.  That’s a nice coincidence, since my fond memories seem to guide me back to a more content frame of mind.  I keep the following illustration in my home office.  With just a glance I can find reassuring refuge once again.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

Can We Talk?

We lost a good friend last month.  Wisdom Tea House, one of our local cafes, closed its doors for good after eight years of business (and a little snow).  And that’s just sad.

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Why am I sad?  Let’s start with a quick tour of the house itself.  You walk in the front door to the roomy foyer, commanded by a large hutch with dozens of tea cups – choose your own – and a welcoming kitchen where you place your order. If the scrumptious lunch items don’t tempt you, the fresh-baked goods on display certainly will.  Then choose from any room in the house and pull up a chair. Perhaps the living room with the small fireplace. Or one of the upstairs sitting rooms with their small couches and comfy chairs. Your tea and cakes will be delivered no matter where you sit.  This could just as easily be your grandmother’s house.

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Here’s what I’ll really miss about Wisdom.  You won’t see people talking on their cell phones or working away on their laptops.  You won’t plop down next to a large, loud group of people gathering after work for a drink.  Wisdom’s music is quiet and instrumental.  The tea and coffee are served in their simplest forms (no Oprah Cinnamon Chai Tea Latte here).  In sum, they created a gathering place for requiescence – a bit of rest to escape the bustle of the world beyond the windows.

As I reminisce on Wisdom, I’m sitting at Starbucks.  I typically appreciate the convenience of the drive-thru, but today I’m on the inside, observing Starbuck’s brand of “gathering place”.  Open floor plan.  Hard surfaces.  Rock music.  A few high tables for two and one large low table for many.  Stools at a counter facing the windows with no view to speak of.  The handful of patrons I observe are to themselves, engrossed in all forms of personal electronics.  The few engaged in conversation raise their voices above the music and the baristas just to be heard.  It’s all just so “un-Wisdom”.  But that’s Starbucks – and it works.  It’s grab-n-go coffee, especially with that drive-thru lane (churning out cars so much faster than people passing through the front door).  Having your coffee inside a Starbucks almost feels wrong.

A few years ago my wife and I visited Ireland for the first time..  If you’re ever in Dublin, find your way along the cobblestones to Wicklow Street (just off the wonderful Grafton Street shops), and stop into a little cafe called Gibson’s.  Gibson’s is akin to Wisdom Tea House.  Order at the counter (the pear tarts are a must) and choose from one of the dozen small tables just beyond.  Take in the gentle ambiance and soft decor, and breathe deep.  The Irish come to Gibson’s to meet and to chat; to catch a break from the fervor that is downtown Dublin.  We stopped in several times during our trip and it was always the same: happy patrons engaged in quiet conversation with – at least for the moment – no cares in the world.  I can still picture one particularly well-dressed gentleman a few tables over from ours, sitting alone with his coffee and reading a book.  The very picture of requiescence.

Perhaps you have a Wisdom Tea House in your town.  A place the locals seek out to unplug, and to spend a quiet moment or two with each other.  If you are so fortunate, be regular patrons and keep your little gathering place in business.  Without Wisdom, our little town has precious few places to rest.  We might as well just head home instead.