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.
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”.
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.
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.
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 subsidies 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”.