02/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Cafe Blues

Bernard Picolet, a café owner in Paris, laments the impact of the global economic downturn on the eating habits of the French: "The way of life has changed." "The French are no longer eating and drinking like the French. They are drinking and eating like the Anglo-Saxons." "They eat less and spend less time at it." (1)

Sentence 1: "The way of life has changed." Monsieur Picolet equates the way of eating with the way of life. And it certainly is.

Sentence 2: "The French are no longer eating and drinking like the French." Monsieur Picolet suggests that the way of eating is part of a national character. He is so right!

Sentence 3: "They (the French) are drinking and eating like the Anglo-Saxons." Monsieur Picolet suggests that even a national character can change (if the French can morph into the Anglo-Saxons, nothing is, indeed, constant in this world - which is an encouraging piece of news for anyone working on changing their eating habits).

Sentence 4: "They (the Anglo-Saxons, the British, the Americans) eat less and spend less time at it." Monsieur Picolet might be mistaken about the Anglo-Saxons (particularly Americans) eating less than the French, but he is probably right about the Anglo-Saxons (particularly Americans) spending "less time at it." Thus, Monsieur Picolet suggests that the French way of eating was to take your time at it. Thus, the iconic culture of the cafes with side-walk seating...

So, as the French bid adieu to their café habits, I want to take a brief moment to muse on the psychology of a side-walk café. But, first, let's establish that you (the reader) and I can relate on this point. If you haven't nursed a cup of café au lait on a Parisian side-walk, no problem: the chances are you've at least had a drink of diet Pepsi at an outside table at the French-sounding bakery-café Panera's.

Put both bluntly and psychoanalytically, the psychology of a side-walk café is sublimated loitering. Urban nomads don't bivouac - they buy a cup of coffee. A coffee and maybe a croissant is all you really need to buy yourself a temporary admission to the safe-haven of a side-walk café. With a table, a perpetually half-full cup of coffee, cigarette and, maybe, a newspaper, a Loiterer, an otherwise public nuisance, a person of potential interest to police, is legitimized as a café Patron, and is now free to gawk at whatever he pleases from behind the privacy curtain of his sun shades.

Street side cafes are akin to metered parking which allows a given mind to park its corporeal vehicle of body on a given spot of the side-walk to partake in the ambiance of an urban moment. Indeed, a tea bag sinking to the bottom of a cup becomes a socially-acceptable pretext to cast an anchor in a given moment of time at a given coordinate of the world. This moment of paid lodging is the all-time equalizer of vagabonds and nobles.

At the risk of over-romanticizing, street-side eating is one of the more mindful, graceful and conscious moments in our eating lives. Invested in staying put to finish the voyeuristic peek into the panopticon of human traffic without running up a bill, the street eater takes time: drinks are sipped, not gulped, and food is savored before it's swallowed.

So, these tables and chairs that are scattered throughout the modern world aren't eating stations per se but social observation posts - where eating is but a pretext of human proximity. So, dear Monsieur Bernard Picolet, worry not in principle: whether your particular café survives the economic downturn or not, the French "way of life" - if by that you do, indeed, mean taking time to eat, isn't going anywhere. As long as the nomadic-voyeuristic spirit lives, as long as there remains a drive for a fleeting no-strings-attached social connection, the cafes, coffee shops, bistros, chaikhanas, and hookah bars - with good views and in the hub of human traffic - aren't going anywhere. People have and will continue to use eating as a pretext to socialize and/or to commune with the nature of the place they happen to be passing by in the course of their existence.


(1) Steven Erlanger, "Across France, Café Owners Feel Like the New Miserables," New York Times, Nov. 23, 2008.