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Café Tour
Some of the best hangouts in Amsterdam to eat, drink and ponder the laid-back charm of this wonderful town
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CAFE DES PHARES

by Bob Biderman

Café des 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.

It’s 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.

Yet 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.

I ask the daughter of a friend, “What is it about this place that so attracts you lot?”

 “Ah,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye, “but you must come at night - or on a Sunday!”

And 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 the ordinary.

What 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.

Suddenly 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.

It is a café of youth in a city that has become somewhat old and tired.

“We call it a café phylos,” says my friend’s daughter. “A café of a new sort...”

“A 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?”

She laughs. “Oh, who goes there? Just the tourists and the wealthy bourgeoisie!”

Again 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...”

She 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.”

She 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.

“Well,” I 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.

She shakes her head. “A café is a place to have fun, to meet people and to get away from the things that trouble you.”

“Cafés are places of communication,” I tell her. “As communication evolves, so do cafés. Have you heard of the new cybercafes?”

“Yes, of course. There are fifteen of them in Paris!”

I 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.

The 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.

But what, she asks, makes it “cyber”?

I point to the circular balconies above. The computer stations are there, placed, unobtrusively, high up on the wall.

You 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 friend’s daughter.

“We 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.”

I 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.

But why, I ask, have cybercafes become such a phenomena in Paris?

He 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.

My friend’s daughter likes that. Coming from him, that is. I have the feeling she would have liked whatever he said.

Later 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.

I 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?

Paris, 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.

When 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.

After 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.

Of 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.

It 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.

I 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.

Now she comes in. She takes a seat at my table.

“Coffee?” I ask.

She shrugs. “OK.”

I motion to the waiter.

“Why did you go away?” she says, looking slightly hurt.

“It 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 patina.

“You didn’t give it much of a chance,” she says in an accusing manner. And she looks at me severely. “I thought you were doing research...”

“I am.”

“Then you must give it a chance. How can you know if you don’t give it a chance?”

“Perhaps you’re right,” I sigh. “It’s just my ears...”

“Your ears!” she says impatiently. “Oh, puffff...”

Somehow I feel truly chastised. Would I have walked out on a more exotic culture even if my ears did hurt?

The 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!”

“Perhaps because they are so ordinary,” I reply.

“Ah, yes. You speak in riddles. You like to speak in riddles.” She looks down into her coffee again.

“Would you like me to tell you?”

“If you wish.”

“Would you like to hear?”

It’s the smile of the Sphinx, I fear. “Perhaps.”

I reach for my coffee and take a sip. I put it down again and point to it. “It also has to do with this.”

“A cup?”

“What’s inside the cup.”

“Coffee?”

“Coffee. 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 that is.”

“Forever?”

I shake my head. “Three hundred years,” I say. “Perhaps a little more but not much.”

“Where do they come from then?”

Outside, 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.”

She seems a bit more interested now. “What was it like I wonder? A Paris without cafés?”

“A Paris without coffee. Without stimulants. Without techno...”

She looks down in her cup.

“What do you see?” I ask her.

“Blackness. Oh, I see my reflection.”

I drop in a cube of sugar.

“Now what do you see?”

“Ripples.”

“The ripples of time,” I tell her. “Now close your eyes and listen...”

 


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