Sunday, 20 June 2010

Seen from the terrace of a café

Funnily enough, I finished reading Richard Cobb's essay on Normandy just before Nige's return from what sounds like a splendid break there.

I have a soft spot for Normandy. It was the first place I went on holiday without my parents. Not that I was on my own: I was with my girlfriend of the time, camping. It was the same for Cobb except he really was on his own when he went there as little more than a schoolboy, establishing the pattern of seemingly welcome loneliness that accompanied a good part of the rest of his life. It made an impression:
What might have been the high spot of my Rouen stay was attendance at Pontifical High Mass on Easter Sunday in that fantastic cathedral [by Monet, bottom]. I remember a very old Archbishop, Mgr de Villerabel, all bent up, lines of white-robed monks from Saint-Wandrille, choirs, etc etc, the organ growling, in fact the works. I was fascinated and repelled; it was a bit like being in the enemy camp: there were young women with faces of extreme devoutness, one of them, quite close to me - I had got myself a chair on the aisle - suddenly went down on her knees, in the middle of the aisle, and kissed the Archbishop's large reddish ring, she kissed it gluttonously, almost as if she were going to eat the whole hand off as well. But the Mass was not like going to the cinema or sitting on the terrace of the Café Victor, for it did not give me the impression of belonging; quite the contrary...

The trip also set him on his way to a lifetime of studying France, which for him was indistinguishable from enjoying it. His accounts of spending time not doing very much - 'sitting on the terrace of the Café...' - are delightful. They convey better than anything I've read the pleasures we Brits receive from the minutiae of French life, the everyday but to us idiosyncratic to-ing and fro-ing of the café, rue, pavé.

Visiting Rouen when much older he stays up all night, for no better (or worse) reason than curiosity. His flâneurie continues into the morning:
I decided to see it out till a bit after first light... I walked down towards Martainville and, already pretty tired, sat down on a wicker chair at the terrasse of the big café-tabac, rue Paul-Louis Courier, ordering a strong coffee and a small calvados. After perhaps an hour, I woke up with a start; my coffee was quite cold, but the glass of calvados was shining a brownish gold in the pale sunlight. Its sharp taste revived me and I prolonged the taste by sucking on the sugar lump that I scooped up from the bottom of the curved-liped glass. But there was not much to watch, I was the only occupant of the terrasse, and the street was almost empty, save for a few women in flowered aprons carrying black shopping-bags. There was a boulangerie open a little further down the street. The women must have lived near by, for they were all wearing slippers, one with pink pompons, the others in check patterns. The pavé had been given an early morning hosing, but it was now quite dry. The big tabac was open, two men in corduroy caps were buying cigarettes and loto tickets. A postman in a smart blue uniform brought in a pile of letters in bright yellow envelopes and trade magazines tied together in elastic, pushing the packet through the little window reserved for cigarettes and cheroots, hastily shaking hands with the female tabagiste, and then hastening on his rounds all the way down the street; some of the shops were still shut: he pushed the packets under the closed doors or wedged them in the space between the glass front and the wooden lintel. One packet, containing a thick wad of blue envelopes, he handed over to an oldish man in a crumpled blue suit who was walking a black-and-white dog on a lead, the dog stopping every now and then to raise its leg. The dog was wearing a tight-fitting tartan jacket; it seemed much smarter than its owner, who stuffed the blue packet in the pocket of his suit and shook hands with the facteur...

And so on.

I'm sorry if that seemed a little boring, what with so little happening (I wonder whether there was a time when I would have thought it a little slow) but I find it very enjoyable: for me it entirely captures that delicious feeling of sitting in a French café (or Italian or Spanish, etc.) and giving yourself over entirely to watching, to the leisurely appreciation of what is really quite humdrum but also deliciously characteristic.


worm said...

I had a similar epiphany last friday, sitting in a greasy spoon in Dagenham! I had a wonderful time drinking a big mug of tea and watching lots of shaven headed men with rolled up copies of The Sun in their back jeans pocket buying bacon butties & red sauce.

Gareth Williams said...

I suppose you were surrounded by French tourists who were also drinking in this charming and characteristic scene.