I hate to hear bad news coming out of France. After spending so much time there, studying the culture and language for so long, and getting to know so many Frenchmen and women I consider France to be my home away from home outside of the U.S. When the country suffers, it hurts me too, which is why I read the following New York Times article about French café owners with a heavy heart. While prudent banks, the risk averse French and an almost complete lack of access to credit cards have ensured that the global financial crisis isn't hitting France with the same amount of drama it has hit the U.S., the iconic French café is still feeling the pinch. Many are simply going out of business.
Of course, the state of the global economy isn't the only factor in the decline of traditional French cafés. Changing tastes and the recent smoking ban are also to blame. And while I understand the pain of business owners who are bearing the brunt of this cultural shift, part of me can't help but wonder if there isn't a silver lining in all of this. Surely the smoking ban was long overdue in France. Some ideas were just destined to go the way of the dinosaurs, and I think the French penchant for smoking anywhere and everywhere (and in surprisingly large numbers) is one of them. I mean, come on, eating steak frites in a Parisian bistro is so much more enjoyable when not accompanied by a side of second-hand smoke. What's more, while we tend to idealize French cafés - they're cozy, they're classic, they're fantastique! - in reality, many are run-down and filled with the kinds of belly-up-to-the-bar men that would make any woman, and some guys for that matter, walk right out the door. A surprising number of cafés are downright unwelcoming, which makes their rapid disappearance fairly unsurprising. If, like the corner establishment in my former Parisian neighborhood did, more cafés have to renovate, modernize and improve their offerings to keep business, we the clients can only stand to gain.
If you're always dreamed of relaxing on the terrace of a traditional French café, don't let the article scare you into quickly buying a ticket to Paris. It's hard to imagine France without a single café left in existence. It'd be like if the U.S. didn't have any diners. Diners might be an old concept, and many have shuttered their doors since their heydey in the 1950s, but others are alive and well and finding a new niche in modern American society. Call me an optimist, but I don't think we've seen the last of the café. Planning a trip to Paris a few years down the road? A steaming expresso complete with charming French waiter and sunny terrace will be waiting for you when you arrive.