Paris v London: What ever happened to British Café Culture?
I was reading the post of one of my favourite Paris-based bloggers, Becoming Madame, the other day which described a truly resonant and idyllic scene which she witnessed when sitting inside a Parisian café. Like many of the readers who commented on the post, I was struck by how easily one can be drawn into the romanticised ideal of the Parisian café. It was the same when I was there two weeks ago: There’s something about Parisian cafes which exudes effortless elegance. Some of them are tatty, have tired looking waiters who have been doing the same job for years, browning mirrors and horrible toilets. But there’s something about them, with their hand-written blackboards, mirrored walls, wicker chairs and round tables squeezed outside, and cosy booths inside set amongst an array of old posters and photographs, that just IS romantic and offers us the very epitome of café culture. This quintessential idyllic view of the French café was very much indulged in my favourite film of all time, Amélie, and yet, despite the cinematic interpretation, the quirky little cafe captured in than film is wholly representative of reality.
So all of this got me thinking (while stood in a massive queue in Starbucks yesterday), while the streets of Paris are literally dotted all over with cafés and brasseries on every corner, each inviting us to indulge with its cherry red awnings and cosy pavement heaters, why is it that in London, the best we can manage is a starbucks or a Cafe Nero every 100 metres? What happened to the Lyons Teahouses which were at the centre of polite society? Or the little privately run café to which everyone would flock for a gossip? In Paris you sit down and are greeted (not always immediately, warranted) by the friendly(ish) face of a smart French waiter. You order your coffee, you sit back, and you indulge in the sweet pleasure that is people watching. In London you queue for a coffee for what seems like an age. You can attempt to sit down, but most of the cafes are turned over to the takeaway trade, so seating is both limited and purposefully uncomfortable so that the turnaround is quick and no one stays too long. Because of the people rushing in and out, the doors are always open. Your experience is cold and drafty and usually, because of lack of accommodation you have to leave with coffee in a paper cup, the small hole in the lid badly designed for sipping so that generally you get half of the scalding liquid down your face before you’ve managed to sit down and enjoy it. And yet the thing is, these cafés are always full, and you get the feeling that in London there really is a growing coffee culture. So why can’t we have the relaxed café culture of Paris?
I think it only takes a comparison between the hastily enjoyed coffee experience of the average London coffee chain, and the relaxed people-watching indulgence of the Parisian experience to realise that our societies are very different. While in Paris they prioritise the joie de vivre, in London we concentrate on the money, on the stress which has become second-nature to us and, of course, on that rare prize that none of us ever seem to have enough of: time. Take Ladurée. In Paris, they don’t only sell takeaways of those delicious macaroons, but they provide two storey cafés in which to eat the divine treats, cafés of such exquisite elegance that you feel as though you are taking tea with Marie Antoinette. Yet in the London Mayfair branch, a small, bizarrely gold painted, plaster dripping (you need to see it) cavernous shop the size of a small toilet is the only offering. It should be restricted to a takeaway, but they try to add a cafe too, providing two sets of table and chairs, hastily placed on the corner of Piccadilly and the Burlington Arcade from where, shivering slightly, you less enjoy the macaroons as you do a mouth full of CO2 every time a bus goes past.
That is not to say that we don’t have decent cafes in London. In Chelsea, in the suburbs – the province of the Yummy Mummies – there are cafes aplenty, but it’s in London’s centre that the cafe culture of Paris is really missing. And never mind the coffee – aren’t we meant to be at the very apex of the global tea-drinking tree? Surely it’s not appropriate then to take our earl grey on the move while running for the next business meeting?
So I know what you’re thinking: the grass is always greener on the other side. If I lived in Paris, I’d miss London etc. That’s as may be, but there is one area in which Paris will always excel in my opinion, and that is in its cafés. Because for me, they are a throwback to the past – an element of Paris which hasn’t changed, and whose charm is all the more omnipotent for the peeling paint and faded decor. So my solution while in London? Well I go to my local, tatty french eatery – Gastro on Venn Street, Clapham, where all the waiters speak French, where the walls are slightly discoloured, and the interiors are truly authentic right down to the old adverts and trinkets around the Bar. A weekly dose of joie de vivre in Parisian London and I can just about survive.
While I’m here, I thought I may as well include two very decorative Norms I painted back in 2005 when I was painting my bedroom in coffee shades. Included too is my extra large painting of a coffee cup and a 2007 portrait set outside a typical Parisian Café. You may notice a trend here… yep, I like my caffeine. Happy drinking!
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