Phares overlooks the Place de la Bastille, seemingly oblivious
to the noise and the clamour, the soot and grime, the fumes
from the endless trail of automobiles that clog this dreary
roundabout like metallic litter.
not a lovely place. It hasn’t got the grace of those splendid
cafés that line the Boulevard St. Germain. Nor has it the
charm of a quaint little spot in La Marais. The tables are
dirty. The chairs a bit bruised and prone to wobble. The
coffee is slightly bitter. The food is far from sublime.
here I sit, contemplating the monstrous new Opera across
the way. I’ve come to see for myself why des Phares is such
a phenomenon in a city where cafés are a way of life. Or
were, at any rate. In the past year the press has reported
that over 6,000 have packed it
in, bolted the door and moved away.
ask the daughter of a friend, “What is it about this place
that so attracts you lot?”
says, with a twinkle in her eye, “but you must come at night
- or on a Sunday!”
she is right. At night the place is transformed. Every chair
is occupied. The tables are spilling over with food and drink.
There is an energy, a vitality. You feel it in your skin
- that electrical tingle. You see it on the faces of the
clientele, in the darting eyes, hungrily devouring everything
that isn’t fixed to the floor. The crush, the heat, the motion,
the buzz - they all combine into the zeitgeist, that curious
mix of ingredients that creates something special out of
has happened? Looking across at the Place de Bastille, I
see that even the ugly roundabout has now blended into the
energised ambience. The darkness has painted over the grime.
A steady stream of polarised lights bathe the road in a golden
hue, pulsating with a rhythm that’s almost psychedelic.
a new world has been created. Life has emerged from the metal
and clay. A form of transmutation has occurred. Natural boundaries
have been broken. For de Phares is a café of ideas. And ideas
create their own fantasy. Here, conversations and discussion
reach across the room, beyond the edge of the tables, hover
in the boisterous, smoke-filled atmosphere only to be grabbed
and played upon by anyone who cares - or dares.
is a café of youth in a city that has become somewhat old
call it a café phylos,” says my friend’s daughter. “A café of
a new sort...”
new sort?” I ask. Though I try to restrain myself, I can’t
help but raise my eyebrows. “Don’t you know of Les Deux Magots?
Or La Coupole?”
laughs. “Oh, who goes there? Just the tourists and the wealthy
she is right. Les Deux Magots. La Coupole. They are just
relics. Museums of romances past that now have grown cold.
But I struggle to make the point. “A café is not a place,” I
say. “It’s a state of mind...”
looks at me questioningly. I try to explain: “A friend of
mine spent his childhood tethered to a table at Deux Magots.
His father was a painter, a refugee from the Spanish Civil
War, and a close comrade of Sartre’s. My friend grew up with
great philosophical debates as the background noise of his
childhood. The intrigue of the Left Bank in the 1950’s was
played out in the cafés of St. Germain. So it is hard for
him to go back without hearing the echoes of past lives,
of feeling that sense of presence once again. And so he goes.
Even though he has no one to speak with any more and has
to pay a fortune for the coffee. And when I first came to
Paris, I too made a pilgrimage even though the people who
gave those cafés a name were no longer there. But, of course,
it was nothing more than going to the Louvre. A painting
hanging lifeless on the wall of a museum needs the help of
one’s historical imagination in order for it to have meaning
again. It’s the same with the Great Cafés.”
makes an expression that the French do so well when something
means nothing to them. The lower lip is pushed slightly out.
The sound is sort of a “pufff”, a little gust of air. “I
am not so interested in Great Cafés,” she says.
reply, “like art, perhaps Great Cafés are in the mind of
the beholder.” But I am interested in something else as well.
The fascination of cafés for me lies in the movement of ideas
and the interchange of cultures. A truly great café is a
café of the world - a meeting ground where distinctions of
class and background are overcome by the pleasures of shared
experiences. A great café is a crucible where the most marvellous
things are invented - where unity is crafted from diversity,
where ideas are honed in the dialectics of discourse.
shakes her head. “A café is a place to have fun, to meet
people and to get away from the things that trouble you.”
are places of communication,” I tell her. “As communication
evolves, so do cafés. Have you heard of the new cybercafes?”
of course. There are fifteen of them in Paris!”
take her to my favourite. It is Le Web Bar, tucked away in
the old quarter of La Marais. We enter through an ordinary
dining room and head toward the back which opens up into
a rotunda. The rotunda has a glass roof and when the sun
is out, the space is filled with the kind of light a painter
dies for. The floor is concrete. The tables are rounded stone.
The chairs are stone as well, but fortunately relieved by
some bolstered softness.
enormous room is filled with art. Tapestries and paintings
hang from the walls. Tables share floor space with sculptures.
Floral displays reside in hand crafted pots. The café is
as much a gallery as indeed it was in a past incarnation.
what, she asks, makes it “cyber”?
point to the circular balconies above. The computer stations
are there, placed, unobtrusively, high up on the wall.
can feel the youthful energy in the art and in the clientele.
The place is run by a collective. I have spoken before with
Steve Gabison, one of the young directors. He is a slim,
cheerful man with a boyish charm that seems to delight my
wanted a convergence of art and technology,” he says, offering
us a freshly brewed coffee. “Just as art is a window to the
soul, the Internet is a window to the world.”
tell him of a cybercafe in Cambridge run by an academic linguist
who was intrigued by the idea of various forms of conversation.
The walls of the café were lined with books. His notion was
to stimulate three forms of discourse: person to person,
person to author, and person to cyberspace. The café became
his own linguistic laboratory.
why, I ask, have cybercafes become such a phenomena in Paris?
tells me that partly it has to do with the French fascination
with technology. Even more, it’s an outlet for the youth
culture oriented around techno-music and hard rock video.
The electronic sounds and shapes are a natural convergence
in hyperspace. So, too, is the sense of controlled anarchy
that is a feature of the Internet culture. Hyperspace is
the last frontier. It is a place that has yet to be explored.
There are few rules and it is open to everyone.
friend’s daughter likes that. Coming from him, that is. I
have the feeling she would have liked whatever he said.
we go to another one. This time near the underground bastion
of the Parisian demi-monde, Les Halles. Nearby is an old
converted warehouse. Here the techno-beat is strong, the
temperature hot and reality borders on the virtual. She fancies
it. It don’t. The divide, like the music, is just too strong.
leave her there and go to a nondescript café nearby. A quiet
spot where I can mull over the events of the day. I order
a noir and light up a Gitaine. I look around. It’s a place
like hundreds of others in the city. Nothing special. Nothing
distinct. Could it be the reports are correct and that, one
by one, these small cafés are closing down?
to all appearance, is still the café capital of the world.
You can’t walk down even the tiniest street without the lingering
scent of robusta or the distinctive liquorice odour of Pernod
enticing you in. Yet to anyone who knew the Paris of before,
it isn’t the same.
I first came here in 1960, everyone had their own café. It
was simply an extension of their flat. In the morning, you
sat inside and drank café au lait out of a bowl, poured from
two different pitchers in equal amount, along with your croissants
or tartines thick with butter and jam. In the afternoon,
you sat outdoors and read a newspaper while you nursed a
café creme. In the evenings you sat either outside or in,
depending on the weather, and liquified some atrociously
fatty meal with the aid of numerous cafés noirs.
a week or so of this regime, you were finally greeted by
the patron. The café was now yours. It was your second home.
And it was a major offence against the café code to be caught
going to another one.
course, being a café romantic, I was regaled with stories
of those that had come before. “If only you had been here
in the 50’s or, better still, before the war! If you could
have seen Picasso, Dali, Miro. The Cubists had one of their
own. So did the Surrealists.” To go to a café was to see.
And to be seen. It still is. Probably even in the cyber world.
But the economics have shifted. The world has changed. And
so too have these emporiums of earthy culture. It is not
so easy to pay Parisian rents with regulated prices - even
if these prices seem stiff to British and Americans. And,
yes, the French have also become less communal - perhaps
more from pressure than predilection.
is part of a natural cycle, I suppose. The city is an organism.
It grows and it evolves. It changes and contracts. And then
it grows again in another way.
look outside the glass, into the quiet night. I see her face.
She is looking at me like a child might look at a monkey
through a cage. Except I am in my natural habitat.
she comes in. She takes a seat at my table.
motion to the waiter.
did you go away?” she says, looking slightly hurt.
was the music,” I reply, taking a puff at my Gitaine and
letting the smoke drift slowly upwards. I watch it spiral
toward the ceiling and disperse into the yellow, nicotine
didn’t give it much of a chance,” she says in an accusing
manner. And she looks at me severely. “I thought you were
you must give it a chance. How can you know if you don’t
give it a chance?”
you’re right,” I sigh. “It’s just my ears...”
ears!” she says impatiently. “Oh, puffff...”
I feel truly chastised. Would I have walked out on a more
exotic culture even if my ears did hurt?
waiter brings two coffees. She drops in some sugar, inspecting
the process of dilution as she methodically stirs. Then she
looks up. “What is it that you want to find out? Why are
you so interested in cafés?” She smiles again. “Really, they
are so ordinary!”
because they are so ordinary,” I reply.
yes. You speak in riddles. You like to speak in riddles.” She
looks down into her coffee again.
you like me to tell you?”
you like to hear?”
the smile of the Sphinx, I fear. “Perhaps.”
reach for my coffee and take a sip. I put it down again and
point to it. “It also has to do with this.”
inside the cup.”
Yes.” I put two fingers out and press them close together. “They
go like this you see. Coffee and cafés. One is the drink
that stimulated thought, the other is the place that bred
ideas. How long do you think they’ve been around? In Europe
shake my head. “Three hundred years,” I say. “Perhaps a little
more but not much.”
do they come from then?”
in the reflected light, I see an elderly man slowly walking
along the passage. His features are distinctly Arab. I look
back at her and motion in the old man’s direction. “They
were a gift from him.”
seems a bit more interested now. “What was it like I wonder?
A Paris without cafés?”
Paris without coffee. Without stimulants. Without techno...”
looks down in her cup.
do you see?” I ask her.
Oh, I see my reflection.”
drop in a cube of sugar.
what do you see?”
ripples of time,” I tell her. “Now close your eyes and listen...”