Harrington: Cafe Culture

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The history of Parisian cafés is monumental: the city basically
invented the café concept in 1686 when coffee became widely available
there. It was the perfect beverage for talking politics, and by the 1789
Revolution, Paris had 1,800 cafés. The 1920s attracted philosophers,
writers, and artists to the city – so cafés proliferated. Counts vary,
but there are still at least 7,000 cafés for 2 million Parisians.

cafés are unchanging period pieces: you can still eat blanquette de
veau at Hemingway’s Brasserie Lipp or sip espresso at Café de Flore,
where Picasso once pondered Cubism.

Writers still find
sustenance in the city’s cafés, says a French magazine. Well-dressed
businesspeople meet for lunch and locals hang out.

A similar
eclecticism can be found in Vermont’s cafés, where political and
business types make plans, retired friends meet for tea, and the
self-employed type away on their laptops.

I never saw a Wi-Fi
sign in a French café – nor a laptop – except for a Starbucks or two.
Most café-goers were talking. And talking. They’d share an iPhone photo –
but that was it for electronics. Solo café patrons in Paris read the
newspaper or write in notebooks.

Cafés in Paris feature dark
wooden interiors, gleaming brass, framed prints, and often, rose-tinged
walls. Vermont coffee shops favor farmhouse or minimalist interiors, and
exhibit local art. French cafés offer only their menus; our cafés also
sell mugs, t-shirts, and coffee for home. Conversation is the soundtrack
in Paris; our coffee shops play jazz and offer live music on weekends.

sit at tightly-packed small tables – round or square – often in twos,
side by side, looking out to the street. Vermonters sit at loosely
arranged tables – facing laptops or their companions.

Patrons in
French cafés may eat quiche lorraine with mesclun salad, bread, and a
glass of red wine – or sip identical espressos, sodas, or Heinekens with
a friend. Vermonters enjoy coffee (plain or adorned), along with
muffins, scones, and soups produced on site.

French cafés
recently went smokeless – a change still being finessed by
establishments and patrons. On a rainy afternoon on Rue Cler, we sat
inside an enclosed space, four inches from the wall of the café – but
our neighbors all judged themselves to be "outside" and smoked freely.
Vermont smokers must head outside, regardless of weather.

café staff are surprised by "to-go" requests. To go where? Why not sit
down and enjoy that café Americano and lemony madeleine right here?

I’m now back in a Vermont coffee shop, conducting this highly
unscientific survey and enjoying our own burgeoning café culture. It
includes establishments like Burlington ‘s Uncommon Grounds, Richmond’s
On the Rise Bakery, Middlesex’s Red Hen Café, and Rutland’s Coffee
Exchange Café – to name just a few.

It’s chilly outside as three
teenagers pile into Capitol Grounds in Montpelier. They place their
orders, sit down, and turn to their iPhones. After texting and checking
Facebook, they settle down for a friendly Vermont coffee shop chat.

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