Café Klatsch



By Francesco Bianchini




In frequenting cafés, I have come to the realization that not every establishment lends itself to creating a special bond with its clientele, in building lasting habits, or becoming laboratories of flavors, smells, and memories. The storied cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Près in Paris, for instance, seem now to be monuments taken by storm rather than places for solitary reverie and creative concentration. During the months I spent in Paris, I preferred to take long walks in the parks and sit in the sun on the green enamel chairs that the city makes available in them.

In Trieste cafés are a way of life, however; a badge that proclaims who you are – based on which café you frequent, and at what hour. In my distant university days, with the exception of Caffè degli Specchi – which had been restored in the 1970s in a pitiless and commonplace chrome style – the other cafés remained faithful to their central European imprint. Beneath chipped stucco ceilings, waiters wandered among the forest of Thonet tables and bistro chairs, along smoky cream-lacquered walls encrusted with freckled mirrors, like figures in inexhaustibly wound music boxes. On some winter mornings I’d stop for a hot cappuccino at the San Marco, lingering on my way, and find myself staring into that time warp at the froth congealed against the white porcelain, at a nickel-silver spoon resting on the green marble counter, edged by a brass rod. On afternoons there, with a cup of tea and a piece of pinza – a kind of large brioche, neither sweet nor salty, and accompanied by a slice of cooked Prague ham – I indulged in the privilege of spending hours in the warmth of the room, reading worn copies of Le Monde from a few days earlier. The Tommaseo used to be more dilapidated: caryatids with breasts and bodies shedding flakes of plaster supported the ceiling in remarkably uncomfortable poses; the amaranth-color leatherette sofas were shredded and pockmarked by cigarette burns, and mice ran to and fro on the baseboards in search of this and that fallen from the tables. There, after dinner, university professors, music critics, former editors of the local paper (Il Piccolo) and ladies with dyed golden manes gave way to us students. Amongst coffee cups, glasses of beer, countless cigarette butts, we amused ourselves by babbling in Triestine dialect – something that hardly amused the waiters.

Caryatids supporting the ceiling in remarkably uncomfortable poses, Caffè Tommaseo, Trieste

You go to Café Gijon, to actually get stunned; for one thing, because you are in Madrid, along one of its main thoroughfares, Paseo de Recoletos, and in Spain, the decibels go up by default. The violence of the din deafens you even before you cross the threshold, wrote Hector Bianciotti in one of his novels. And the Gijon, which has not changed much since the late nineteenth century – tiled in checkerboards of ivory and burgundy, and lined with wood panels – has seen its lion’s share of Spain’s people of letters, arts and new ideas, as well as the Hollywood crowd that frequented the Spanish capital in the 1950s: Ava Gardner, Truman Capote, Orson Welles. Nowadays one can barely speak, let alone write verse or anything else. To be heard everyone projects in tones louder than their neighbors. But one can sit and look, perhaps finding inspiration in the little scenes that la vida madrileña offers: gawk at the many office workers and business types, and just as many tourists, before or after they’ve visited the nearby great museums, the Prado and Reina Sofia in the lead. The patron that stands out upon setting foot in Café Gijon is the majestic chula who, sitting with a friend or in a group of three or four, dominates the landscape with her starched and teased locks, the trail of perfume that permeates the air around her, and that garrulous machine-gun fire of words: not classically perfect; suggestive, conquering, as if she possessed a sorcerous talisman of love. (Emilio Carrere)

Café Gijon, Madrid

During the winter of 2012, Dan and I rented a house just under the walls of the castle São Jorge, with its windows overlooking the red expanse of tile roofs of Lisbon, and beyond to the graceful bridge that spans the Tagus. Sometimes we’d find a table in the café A Brasileira in the Chiado neighbourhood on the opposite hill. On those damp afternoons, when the place was crowded with chilled patrons, we’d nurse our coffees and, while eating a pastel de nata – a creamy tart crusted with brown sugar and cinnamon – play our longstanding game of picking out nearby customers, those who stimulated our curiosity, and imagining their life stories. There could be many interesting characters in this same city of Pessoa, where at any hour of the day or night you might spot one of the poet’s doubles, sporting a dark hat, overcoat, pencil-thin moustache, and round glasses; like the bronze effigy of the writer ensconced at a table in front of A Brasileira.

Fernando Pessoa’s bronze dopplegänger, A Brasileira, Lisbon

The Grand Café de Paris, fanning out at a busy intersection at the edge of the medina of Tangier, is the place to go to ogle and be ogled. So different from European cafés – those frequented for the sake of good intimate chats – this Moroccan one, with its large plate-glass windows and strategically placed terrace tables, is where no one can be missed, and everyone can be appraised. A place of somewhat dubious fame, I was warned. Natives, middle-aged men, could be recognized by their tendency to sit alongside each other, alone, or in silent groups, in drooping overcoats, behind thick glasses and gray moustaches; eyes fixed outwards, motionless, in front of endless teas, seeming to be able to regard time as if they could actually see it. I ordered glass after glass of sugary mint tea to warm my numb fingers since the café – like every other place in that city poised between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic – is not heated in the balmy winter. On sunny afternoons I could sit on the terrace in the shade of drowsy palm trees and let myself be distracted by what was happening around me. A young Indian couple watched the antics of a wandering cat, trying mischievously to shoo it away. They left their food untouched on the table, signifying to the waiter that the presence of the cat had curtailed their appetite. When they’d left, an elderly man, a bit sinister with dark glasses and dyed moustache, took their place and asked the waiter to take his photo with his iPad.

Time squandering at Gran Cafe de Paris, Tangier

 Extra sugary Moroccan mint tea