(james benedict brown) on the road

Non, une rallongé! une ra….

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 20 March, 2007

The French verb flâneur translates as ‘to stroll’ or ‘to wander aimlessly’. It seems to have different conotations on different sides of the Atlantic. In Montréal and other parts of Québec you’ll find it on signs in privately managed shopping malls, usually to the effect of il est interdit de flâner (‘it is forbidden…’) as if it’s a bad thing. Here in France, it seems to have a much more positive connotation. One of my favourite cafés in Strasbourg is described in the 2007 Petit Futé city guide like this:

Sur la rive gauche… de l’Ill, ce café d’angle (aigu!) dispose d’une belle terrace (chauffé l’hiver) avec vue sur la Petite France et le flot de voyageurs en transit entre le centre-ville et la gare toute proche. On peut d’ailleurs aussi grandement profiter du spectacle à l’intérieur, le café etant largement vitré. Bref, un endroit pour flâner.

Which means:

On the left bank of the River Ill, this (sharp) corner café offers a pretty terrace (heated in the winter) with a view of Petite France and the constant stream of travellers en route between the city centre and the near-by railway station. One could also enjoy this spectacle from inside, as the café is well glazed. In brief, a place to flâner.

A café is evidently not a place to stroll or wander aimlessly. The word has a different meaning over here, and the emphasis is more on the aimlessness. All day long, people come and go and spend ten, twenty, thirty or maybe sixty minutes having a coffee (espresso, ralongé, café au lait etc). Nobody goes to a counter to order a multi-syllabic coffee to go, that can be drunk in safety through an anti-spill anti-burn lid while they rush to their next important obligation. That’s not how coffee is drunk. We’re so far removed from that consumer culture of coffee, than the coffee isn’t really the reason people come to the Rive Gauche. They come to sit and watch the world go by, maybe talk with friends, but usually just to smoke a choking cigarette, read the paper, and watch the busy street scene outside. That’s why out on the pavement all the wicker chairs are lined up facing the same direction: out onto the busy junction, so that you can sit and enjoy an uninterupted view of the ongoing theatre of Strasbourg’s city streets.

Stopping off for an early morning coffee on the way the studio, I take note of what I can hear from inside the café. It’s not quite 08h30, and even though the café is busy, it’s very hushed. Music is playing somewhere behind me; the sound of engines, squeaking brakes and the odd car horn rushes in and recedes as traffic flows through the lights in front of the café. Newspapers russel, small change is left on table tops, and flimsy tea spoons chink against heavy coffee cups and saucers. Somebody repeatedly tries to light a cigarette with a nearly empty lighter, and the barman re-arranges the glasses behind the bar.

In the perfect morning sunlight, everything is calm. I have no desire to order an extra large skinny Americano and keep on moving. It is bliss just watching the pale yellow film of foam spin on top of my coffee, and leave a dirty stain on the inside of my cup like a badly poured stout. The steam rises from it and mixing with my anonymous neighbour’s cigarette smoke. Outside, people are rushing into town from the railway station, and across the river two trams slide past each other and in between buildings.

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