by Sandy Ikeda
The life of a city mainly consists of what goes on in its public spaces. In New York, and increasingly in other American cities, coffeehouses are a vital part of this public life.
According to Café Life in New York, “cafés” or “coffeehouses” as I prefer to call them, “function mainly as gathering places with coffee and/or tea as the central offering. … These cafés beckon the patron who has come to stay awhile, often a long while – order a single cup of coffee, and you are welcome to stay as long as you wish … the primary purpose is to provide a ‘third place’ – beyond home and work.” (I’m not really recommending this cute little book, subtitled “An insider’s guide to the City’s neighborhood cafés,” because it doesn’t mention any, not one, of my favorite coffeehouses!)
While it may not be as old, coffeehouse culture in its various forms thrives in New York. But if I may generalize there do seem to me to be important differences.
First, and I realize this isn’t an original observation and I’m certainly not an expert on Paris, but I’ve noticed that few people there seem to have coffee-to-go. I didn’t see many places where one could even do this, although I did find a Starbucks in central Paris. (I probably should have gone in and ordered a “Venti Java Chip Frappuccino” to do a comparative analysis, but the idea just seemed too bizarre.) There it seems to be the rule, and please correct me if I’m wrong, that if you want coffee you sit down or stand at the counter. I don’t think this is entirely due to the French having lower time costs than New Yorkers (although this is probably true, I don’t have the corroborating data). The preference for lounging in coffeehouses may simply be stronger there on average.
My next observation is about Europeans in New York. I’ve noticed that when groups of Americans sit together, they usually have their cup of coffee or whatever and then leave within 10-15 minutes. The Europeans I’ve noticed in my local hangout, French and Italians as well as some who to my ear have Slavic-sounding accents, tend to sit down and talk over a single cup of coffee for at least 30 minutes. For them, coffeehouses appear to be much more than just places to have coffee. Americans on the other hand seem to focus more on the coffee (or various coffee concoctions), than on socializing, conversing, or people watching.
Finally, in New York when it’s warm enough to sit outside, if say the side of the table toward the street or pathway is at 6 o’clock, the chairs are generally placed at 3 and 9 o’clock, facing each other. In Paris (and elsewhere in France), I’ve noticed that the chairs tend to be placed at 11 and 1 o’clock facing the sidewalk. This is well-illustrated in van Gogh’s famous “The Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, At Night.” The French it seems are more forthright in their recognition that one sits outside to watch people.