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”.

Bon Voyage!

Every now and then I come up with a topic for my blog, and then the topic somehow surfaces in the natural course of conversation later the same week. It’s a little unnerving – perhaps divine intervention – to watch someone bring up something you hadn’t thought about in years, or at least until a few days earlier.

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Such was the case this week when I opted for a (virtual) visit to Mont Saint-Michel, the majestic island commune and fortified abbey just off the coast of Normandy, France. Mont Saint-Michel came to mind because I received a mailer from my alma mater advertising a ten-day trip to the region next summer. The itinerary includes a stopover in Paris, a base hotel in the historic seaport village of Honfleur, extensive tours of Normandy focusing on the events of World War II, and finally, a full day exploring the island of “St. Michael’s Mount.” Mon dieu, what an adventure!

Mont Saint-Michel has a remarkable history on top of its dramatic architectural elements (which you can read about here).  Its buildings date to the 8th century, with the Romanesque abbey and monastery at the very top (“closest to God”), literally supported by a vast network of halls for stores and housing, and finished elegantly at the bottom – outside the walls – with individual houses for the handful of fishermen and farmers who live there.  The church inside the abbey is partnered with an open-air cloister (a square covered walkway for reflection).  A statue of the archangel Michael watches over the land from the very top of the church spire.  Magnifique, no?

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Here’s an interesting bit of trivia about Mont Saint-Michel.  You may think the following photo is a distant view of the island.  Au contraire.  The Mont has a “sister” across the channel near Cornwall.  England’s island of “St. Michael’s Mount” is much smaller, but it still shares the characteristics of Mont Saint-Michel, including the significant rise/fall of the surrounding tides, the conical shape of the island, and a chapel at the top.

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In today’s world Mont Saint-Michel is a little touristy for my tastes, so perhaps it’s just as well I’ve never made the pilgrimage.  2.5 million visitors descend upon the island every year, hosted by only 25 full-time inhabitants (monks, nuns, and shopkeepers).  Tourism is literally the only source of income.  Besides a walk through the abbey and the spiraling streets, you’re channeled into the requisite shopping area, for food (including the famous to-go omelettes), and for purchases that can only be labelled as “tacky”. I actually have one of these souvenirs (below photo). Sacre’ bleu!  Maybe if they’d left off the sailboat…

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To further detract from the mystique of the Mont Saint-Michel, a permanent walking bridge was built three years ago, allowing round-the-clock access from the mainland car-park.  Once upon a time you had to wait until low tide and then quickly walk across the natural spit of land before the water returned.  Now you just cross whenever you want.  Too bad, but apparently the channel was filling in with silt and a bridge was the only way to keep the island an island.  C’est la vie.

My first introduction to Mont Saint-Michel was forty-odd years ago on the shores of California, not France.  San Diego County hosts elaborate sand-castle building competitions on its beaches, and one year I snapped the following photo of the winner.

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To visit Mont Saint-Michel, you’ll need to drive four hours to the west of Paris, all the way to the coast of the English Channel.  Unless you have a hankering for WWII history, there isn’t much else to draw you to the region.  Which brings me back to the start, and my comment about topics resurfacing later in the week.  Three days after I wrote this post, I was having a beer with some older friends and we got talking about the movie “Saving Private Ryan”.  One of the guys said his dad served in WWII and he’d taken him back to the beaches of Normandy, where he’d spent part of his time as a medic.  “Normandy?”, I said.  “Yes”, he said. “You know, in the northwest of France near Mont Saint-Michel?” To which I almost said, “excusez-moi?”

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