The cafe-bar is to France what the all-night diner is to the United States. Americans and others have long been romanced by it, with the aid of the writings of Hemingway and the lush black and white postwar photographs by Doisneau and others. You cannot walk more than five minutes in Paris without passing one, usually with small tables out front (even when the temperature drops) and chairs facing the same directionideal for people watching.
Unlike the United States, it seems that there are no establishments here that do not serve alcohol. There is, to my knowledge, no such thing as an establishment that serves only non-alcoholic beverages. This would seem to bein the U.S.akin to a fast food burger place that didnt have fries (the very fast food chains that in France, by the way, serve both wine and beer). So all these cafes are really bars, a combination of the neighborhood java stop and pub. But due to some cultural differences, drinking a beer in the middle of the morning is not a habit limited to alcoholics; instead, it is rather commonplace, just as it is to bring in ones dog to a restaurant. This was the very sight I saw a week ago when a 60-plus woman entered a cafe on an overcast morning and stood at the counter drinking a Kronenbourg while little Toto waited patiently on his leash at her feet. A few minutes later, she downed the last of it and the two of them continued on their stroll.
Of these cafes, some more than others cater to tourists, featuring menus with English translations. Some more than others evoque the belle epoque of Paris. And yet still others are simple, with utilitarian decor and purpose. They have some chairs and tables and a bar without stools, the days papers nearby. I spent the better part of a morning at a cafe on rue Beauborg in the 4th arrondissement called La Comedie. It is a modest cafe, with a capacity of about 30 people, plus six chairs outside. The owner, Jose, a 44-year old emigre from Portugal came to Paris in 1970. He is the 9th of 12 children, and followed many of them to France when there wasnt much work where his farming family was trying to make a living. I asked him why France and not Brazil or the United States. At that time, Jose explains, there was work here for immigrants like him. He took different jobs and eventually bought the cafe, 14 years ago. He and his wife operate it, and they live, along with their 23-year old daughter, in one of the dozen apartments above it.
Because it is just him and his wife, they do all the work; on the day I was there, they both shared in pouring the beers, making the coffee and hot chocolate, preparing the sandwiches and other uncomplicated foods they offer as well as doing the cleaning and the bookmaking. The clientèle ebbs and flows. For a half hour, after my arrival, there is nobody else in the cafe, yet moments later, it gradually fills up with some 15 people, half at the bar having a coffeeequivalent here to an espresso Statesidebefore getting on with their day. Jose says that the most crowded it gets is between noon and 3 oclock, but he knows that his place has a different appeal than the other nearby cafes. "There are others places, on these streets nearby," he says, " that are a bit classier, and they are always full of people. It is different. It all depends on the placement of the cafe."
It is interesting, his clientèle, considering that it is only a minute away on foot from the Pompidou Center, one of the main culture landmarks in Paris, and consequently one that adds to the bustle of the surrounding establishments. Joses cafe has its share of regulars, from a shoemaker down the street who comes in every few hours for a couple of minutes each day, never taking off his apron, to the older gentleman, a seller of roasted chestnuts on the street fifty yards away, who may or may not be originally from a Baltic state. It is a working class joint, to be sure, and the absence of suits and ties or boisterous monoglot tourists are not missed. There is no English heard in this bar and neither he nor his wife speak it.
As it is in a American diner, or bar, the cafe, with its flux of people in and out, its newpaper headlines laying open waiting to spur an argument, I ask Jose if his place has its share of heated political discussions. I am expecting, in light of the times we are in since September 11th, to hear about conspiracy theories, boorish commentaries or Sartre-infused pontifications about the trajectory of world affairs and their philosophical ramifications. But instead, Jose tells me his clientèle mostly talk about soccer. Very little politics. No, it is soccer, they do get hot under the collar about it, and though fights are rare they do happen. And it is Jose, (who, despite being Portugese and not French at all, actually resembles both in looks and not-so-large physique, the late Francois Truffaut) who is the bouncer of his own establishment.
In Europe, by and large, one is never rushed out of a restaurant or a cafe. I have seen signs in some cafes in Chicago and university towns that politely ask patrons not to hog their booth or table for too long. Here there is never a rush. I ask Jose about this, who tells me that people have been known to use the time alotted to them. "I once had some guys in here from noon until 2am, a full 14 hours. Over the course of that time they ate, drank and played cards. But that was an exceptional case, obviously. Normally, those who stay long, it is just an hour, maybe two, maximum."
He speaks highly of his regulars, those whose names he knows, who are part of his daily routine as well, like the shoemaker or chestnut seller, those who come in for a drink and for food and conversation at the appointed hour each day. "I have clients who have been coming in here for 14 years ,since the beginning of my time in this cafe, for two hours every day, from noon to two, and others, in the evening, at 7, who stay until 9. Every day. For an aperitif, a laugh, some amusement, and to eat. A few days later they pay."
For awhile I sit and read and watch the variety of people come in and out of La Comedie. The few who come for lunch, well-dressed, and the rest, a guy without paint on his clothes, a woman with messy hair and a german shepherd and those that enter and are greeted by all, because here, at this time of the day, Everybody Knows Your Name. They talk and laugh and at one point we all find ourselves distracted by the sight of some young men trying to push a very large crate into the cargo hold of a truck. They have been at it for about ten minutes, unaware of the peanut gallery inside across the street. They are stumped. Eventually they figure out how to incorporate the power of the lift ramp, along with their own counterweight, to ease it in. This results in laughs and cheers that the workers do not hear. Inside the cafe, the conversations start up again, business resumes. Jose pours a glass of red wine for a gentleman who just entered while his wife sings as she does the dishes in the back. I slowly eat my sandwich of crude ham and butter and dont leave anytime soon.