How to Behave in the Most Important Place on Earth – La Vie en Cafe

Frankly, Darling, you’re embarrassing me. Really dear, we need to work on this. I know your mother had so much on her mind, she couldn’t quite find the time to impart the necessary pearls of wisdom, and you weren’t blessed with a sister who had a few good marriages and several great affairs who could take you in hand. But I don’t want a repeat of last summer, with me having to turn the other way and hid under my tres joile chapeau every time you walked into a café. Yes, it’s summer and café time again and, darling, before you put one pedicured, Arche-clad foot (or, sigh, a lumbering, Birkenstocked foot) into a café. Do me, do the universe, a favor and memorize this.

First we need to define café. Starbucks is not a café. You may use the following wisdom in a Starbucks, as you are free to wear your best jewels to a McDonalds, but do not pretend your grandmama’s pearls makes Micky D’s a fine dining experience. Cafes are either old or they look old. They are singular, with a personality set by the owner, wait-staff and customers, not “corporate headquarters.” They have espresso and sturdy chairs. They have wooden, marble, or zinc tables. They do not have menus in more than two languages (and if you are smart – you NEVER look at the menu anyway).

Now, how does one go to a café? First of all don’t take this lightly, this is a vital element of being a member of human society, so consequentially we must break it into steps for you. First, you have two choices. One is to be yourself. Go on in like a bull in Limoges shop. Be American. Be proud. Wear (I shudder) comfortable clothes: Gap clothes, baggy khaki shorts, tennis shoes, (I shudder) matching warm-up suits, sweat pants, sweat shirts, t-shirts with writing on them, comfortable walking shoes, anything from Magellens, TravelSmith, Eddie Bauer, or Lands End. Revel in your essential Americaness. Speak loudly. Order “water.” Take out a calculator for figuring out the exchange rate, a pocket dictionary, maps, a (I shudder) camera, a cell phone, a computer, a palm pilot (I feel sick). Maybe the waiter will be kind to you. Maybe he or she will see you as whimsical, as a busy person with many responsibilities.

But there is also the chance you will be over-charged, ignored, or given the wrong items. In this happens: you may not complain. Not a whimper of protest do I want do I want to hear from your chap-sticked lips. You walk into a café where Proust sat, where Oscar Wilde sat, where Hemingway sat and you are dressed like a five year old on the way to play group, acting like a brat and you expect good service? Sacre bleu. It is utterly astounding to me that the good cafes of Paris haven’t simply given all waiters license to dump scalding coffee on the heads of all people who walk in wearing sweat pants, bleating out instructions into cell phones and asking for ice.

Long ago, when I was a mere diva in training, I was visiting New York with my Papa. He said “Where do you want to go?” And I said, of course, “the Plaza.” We went to the Plaza, but as we were about to get on a long plane ride, we were dressed like Americans about to go on a long plane ride, i.e. like kindergartners. So we were sat by the kitchen door. I saw more of the Plaza kitchen than the dining room. Lesson learned. You want to swing with the big cats, you better be in a cat-suit.

So that is your first lesson: if you act and dress like yourself then take the consequences. If you accept that going to a café is a heavy responsibility, shoulder your responsibilities and act like a grown-up.

You want to act like a grown-up, you say. Very well. I shall continue the lesson. How to go to a café. Second part: do your homework. Before I’m going to let you out of your hotel, you must learn the following words in the most commonly spoken language in the country:



Thank you

I would like a coffee (or tea)

Notice I said, “your hotel,” not “your hotel room.” No, I don’t want you sitting on the bed struggling over vocabulary with some horrid little phrase book. Go to the front desk, even if it’s the owner’s grandmother sitting on a sofa watching soap-operas, and start practicing. Fine, she might laugh. Fine, you are providing amusement for the world. There are worse ways to affect a person. Practice and practice until those four expressions roll off your tongue.

Second, find out (by examining posted menus at other, not-your-style cafes) the range of prices and common selections available. Get the cost of a cup of coffee down, doing the exchange rate in your head. Examine at least five menus, see what’s usually available and the average price. Make sure you have twice that amount in the correct currency on you, some of it in small coins and bills.

Three, walk around a bit, see what part of town you like best and what cafes you like. Are you a plaza person? Student hang-out? Trendy? Fusty? See what the people are wearing in the kind of places you want to be.

Four: decide what (or who) to take with you. Now see, I told you to examine things thoroughly. It’s not just the clothes, it’s the accouterments. In the States you can’t go wrong with Vogue (British version only), Town and Country, or Smithsonian; People is acceptable only because it is so completely unacceptable, working with the ‘it’s so bad it’s good’ principle.

If you want to read Cosmo, Esquire, The New Yorker, or The New York Times, I suggest you ingest your coffee exclusively at Dunkin’ Doughnuts. In Europe, The International Herald Tribune is always allowed, as are any newspapers in the native language, if and only if you read it well enough so that you don’t need a dictionary. Depending on the style of the café, a book is OK (and understand, love, by “book,” I mean “a hardcover book,” not some grimy paperback. Read paperbacks on airplanes between Seattle and LA). Or a plain-paper book in which you are writing is allowed (but if you act the teeniest bit pretentious, I’m going to instruct Edgar to dump a tray of lattes all over it. What? You don’t know the difference between simply writing in a day-book and inscribing your most intimate deep thoughts in a personal journal with handmade paper and the I-Ching on the cover which your soul-mate gave you just before you left? I’m sorry, there’s only so much wisdom I can impart at one time. I’ll deal with pretentious writing later). Postcards are tricky, full details below.

Now if you are going for the full mufti effect, before you head out to your café, go to a store and get some food that requires a full kitchen to prepare. Artichokes are perfect. You can’t cook them in a hotel, much less youth hostel. A few artichokes in a bag say “I live in this city, I am not just passing through for two days trying to soak up enough culture to make up for growing up in a place where most recipes start ‘open a can of cream of mushroom soup’ and the men put on a suit to get married and to be buried.”

Five: go back to the hotel room and get dressed. No, don’t whine at me. If you are going to start in on how difficult this is, go get a coke at Micky D’s and be done with it. You want to swim with the big fish, you got to put on a wet-suit. All of the first steps can be done while you are wearing whatever you want, but if you want to go to a café (and, honey, saying “to café” as if the noun is a verb is an offense deserving a no-holds-bared slap) you have to blend in. No, don’t you start moaning about how you couldn’t fit a little black dress and heels into the duffel bag you are schlepping around Europe for two months. You should have packed one good outfit with one good pair of shoes. No one cares what Cal Ripkin wore during warm-ups, but when it’s game time, the man wore his uniform because he is a real man and not some plastic fly-by-night twirp. No one cares what a conductor wears during rehearsals, but when it’s show-time, he or she is in tails. The things you need to see and learn in Europe are not all accessible while wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Get dressed like a real person.

Six: choose the exact café you are going to bless with your presence. Yes, I understand that mere mortals just go to whatever café is around when they are tired and thirsty and hot, but then, if you are a mere mortal, this article is not for you. Go play with your game-boy; get your refreshment from a soda machine. You aren’t ready for a café.

Remember – never enter a café out of desperation. You may be a bit parched, but not in wilting stage. You are in control; you are the captain of your destiny. You do not make moves out of recklessness. You look around carefully. You sniff the air. You get your fingers ready, as if you are about to play a particularly tricky sonata. You listen closely. And then, after much careful deliberation, you pounce.

Now you may look marvelous (of course you look marvelous) but if you mess up your entrance, you will show yourself as a mere amateur (and embarrass me). This is where most Americans stumble, might as well just go ahead and stamp “I have no sense of culture, grace or appreciation of the finer things in life” on your forehead if you just collapse into the first empty table you come to. Darling, you must chose your table with as much concentration as you chose your bed linens, aperitif or best girlfriend. Of course, you should have scouted out the general lay-out during your reconnaissance mission, but some in-door cafes are hard to figure out until you are through the door and committed.

Don’t panic, don’t bolt. Stand. Look around. Where is the best location for people watching? Where is the good lighting? Which pictures on the wall best complement your complexion? Give yourself some time. No sudden moves. Maneuver, with deliberation, towards the prefect table. Yes, people are staring at you, but once you are settled, you will stare at all the newcomers too. You are part of the game. Don’t wimp out. It doesn’t matter if you have to saunter past ten empty tables, or ask people to allow you to pass, you are General Patton. You are on a mission for the perfect café table. Do not back-down. Do not surrender. Do not accept compromises.

Once you are a bit more advanced, you can make your decision with a swift motion, glancing over the sunglasses in summer or while taking off your fabulous scarf and artlessly fluffing your lovely hair in winter, but in the beginning, you might need to just stand for a good fifteen seconds or so until you make your decision. We all need to crawl before we can run, nothing to be ashamed of.

So now you have a table, preferable in the corner (but not too far in the corner) or against a wall, or right up front by the sidewalk, anywhere where you have a commanding view of the proceedings. Now, don’t ruin your momentum. Don’t dump your bags on the table, bags go on the floor or on the empty chair. Purse and glasses on the table.  No plopping into the chair: descend (watching Gigi a few times will help). Now fuss a bit, get out your accessories. Lay your pen by your book. Lean back in your chair. Get comfortable. Examine the neighboring tables in a circumspect manner. If you realize your neighbors are some sort of ghastly mutants (talking about any medical procedure, golf, the stock market, or computer programs), then you have my permission to get up and move, quietly, quickly and with a frightened glance back towards the miscreants, so that everyone in the café will know they are not real humans.

Ahh, now. Aren’t you comfortable? Don’t you feel at ease? You are part of the crowd, and yet, still your own unique and special person. And you are a little thirsty. Well that’s the test, isn’t it? If you have accomplished all these steps well, the waiter will come to you in a reasonable time. Now reasonable might be as long as five minutes. And he or she may go to some other customer first. No fretting, no fidgeting. If you have followed my instructions to the letter, you are completely in harmony with the universe in general and your café in particular and your are not being ignored because of who you are, but because the waiter is busy or it’s the rule that all customers get ignored for ten minutes. (I told you, never walk into a café really tired or thirsty!).

Ah, now the waiter has come up to you. Follow closely. 1) Smile, not a stupid, attempting-to-ingratiate yourself smile. A grown-up, warm, mature smile. A smile that says, “Hello, I’m harmless. I can’t speak your language, I don’t fit into your culture, but I will try to be respectful. I will try not to embarrass you or me. Let’s be mature about this.” 2) say “Hello, a coffee please” in the language of the land. If the native language is English or some variation of English, say it in plain American English. Do not attempt to mimic accents or I will disinherit you. The response should be a slight nod of the head or waiter repeating the order back to you. If he or she pretends not to understand, say your order again in the same tone of voice and at the same speed. Not louder and/or slower. If he or she still pretends not to understand, then my dear you have chosen an evil café, and your waiter is the mis-begotten spawn of a dog and a weasel. Leave immediately. Resolutely ignore any further comments from any employee. Even if the owner himself prostates himself at your feet, walk over him and be on your way. Wilful meanness should never be tolerated. I understand you don’t have a great accent or the perfect clothes, but you tried your best and that is not to be mocked. Head out and start over.

Now, assuming the waitstaff has behaved, you are in the lap of luxury. Rarely in life are things so good. You are in a good café, you are part of a good café. You are in the warmest, most lovely and cosseted place on earth outside your lover’s arms. Revel in this. Relax. Commence your activities. People-watch. Eavesdrop. Read if you want. Oh no, that isn’t a Fodor’s is it? Good grief, what on earth were you thinking? Have I been speaking to a wall? All right, all right, apology accepted. We all make mistakes. Maybe I should have gone into more detail on books.

Anything by any major European author is fine, as long as it is impossible to tell what book it is. Any brownie points you might accumulate by reading Dostoevsky are immediately forfeit if it’s possible to tell that the book is by Dostoevsky. No personal memoirs by anyone in this century except Churchill or D.V., following the above rule, of course. Plays or poetry are fine as long as you don’t mutter so much as one trimeter aloud. No self-help books. Ever. Going to a café is self-help. Reading a self-help book while in a café is like wearing a nicotine patch and smoking. No guide books. You read guide books on the plane over, in your hotel room, at the breakfast table, or at important sites. It’s rather charming to see people sitting on the Spanish Steps or outside the Louvre reading guide books. If you read a guide book in a café you might as well wear a sign that says “Every particle of information I know about sex came from three Playboy magazines I swiped from my older brother. I have no world experience whatsoever and it looks very doubtful I ever will.”

As for postcards, pay close attention. Writing postcards is within the limits of acceptable behavior but you must walk the fine line between being obsequious and being ostentatious. Don’t attempt to hide them, no sliding them under your newspaper when the waiter comes, but no spreading them out all over the table and muttering “Do I send the Eiffel Tower to Aunt Mabel or Aunt Estelle?” And, yes, you can also address them at a café, but discretion my dear is so, so, so key. Don’t haul out some ratty, old address book and flip through pages, little bits of paper fluttering away. Write ALL the cards you intend too, then stack them in alphabetical order and address them one at a time. Then put them all away. Child, I see you lick stamps in public and I will disown you.

At some point the waiter will come with your drink, you will be too busy engrossed in whatever you are doing to notice how long it has taken the drink to arrive. You will not, I swear by God in heaven, you will not stare at the waiter in the intervening time. Nor will you look at your watch or make pointed comments. You are in a café, you have placed your order, the order will arrive when the order arrives.

And when it arrives, give the waiter your grown up smile and say ‘thank you’, then immediately commence writing, or people-watching or whatever you were doing. And now you’ve got a good two hours to enjoy yourself. If you need to use the facilities, make sure you plan it so that there is still at least 1/3 of your drink left and leave your pen, book, newspaper, whatever out on the table. Leave your wrap or hat, but take your purse.

You have enjoyed yourself as much as humanly possible. You are ready to rejoin the hustle and bustle. Perhaps, if it’s an inferior sort of café, the waiter will have brought you a bill. But probably you have been completely ignored since the drink was delivered (yes, dear, you can always order another, or a little something to nosh on, but remember, you should know what the basic choices and price ranges are – so don’t ask to see the menu, just ask for what you want. If you need to revert to English, that’s all right, as long as you continue to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the local language).

So now AT LEAST twenty minutes before you need to, or feel like you would want to be gone, ask for the bill. Either catch the waiter’s eye and make that little motion as if you are signing your name or, if he or she comes close enough to you, simply say “May I have the bill, please.” Don’t worry if you don’t get a reaction or don’t get the bill for ten minutes. These things take time. The bill may come as a little piece of paper, or it may be a number thrown at you. Don’t be afraid to ask for the sum to be written down. Now, pay the amount. Do not choke at the price, don’t argue unless it is enough to buy as small car. Pay, and if it is not an unreasonable price, leave a small tip, not too much, not too little.

If you have asked for the bill twice and have waited twenty minutes, leave a small pile of money, equal to what the average price you noted at other comparable cafes cost, gather your things and leave. If accosted by the waiter, point at the table and say “My train is leaving.” And leave.

Be sure to note the name and location of the café, if it was bad, you can be sure to ignore it. If it was good, you can use the name as currency, pay back a friend’s kindness or secure future kindnesses by saying, “Oh, you are going to Manchester, I went to the nicest café there, etc.” The name of a good café is more valuable than the name of a good restaurant.

Now for the special situations. First one: going to a café with a friend and/ or a cell phone. One, people in front of you always have absolute precedence over someone on the other end of a phone. Always, darling, no exceptions. Phone calls when you have a person sitting with you are kept at 30 seconds. No, I’m not going to give you any special dispensations. Thirty seconds or I will take that toy away from you.

Here’s the second rule of going with friends: if you are discussing anything boring, you must whisper. No options. “Yes, Mummykins loves you very much and I’ll be home in an hour” is intended for the ears of one person and only one person. Don’t inflict it on anyone else. This law includes all talk about work, weekend plans, anyone’s health, as well as all 12-step, yoga, church, mediation, finger-painting or tofu-cooking classes. Please note ANY and all discussions about postcards, who has written to whom and what was written, are by definition, boring.

Now, if, on the other hand, you are talking about something rather smashing, then you are allowed, nay, encouraged, to talk in a normal or slightly raised, tone of voice. But no cussing or smutty talk, there’s no need for it, child.

“So I walked in, cleaver in hand, and there they were, on the bed, going at it like bunnies, heaps of clothes strewn around the floor. Oh, I was beyond livid. I just walked over and grabbed them and started hacking. No mercy. Bits flying everywhere. And when I came to my sense, there they were, little pieces of couture Armani and Dior fluttering everywhere and those two huddled under the covers. But I was not satisfied, not a bit. I lusted for more. So I raised my cleaver again and advanced. Chopping and slashing, quite out of control. And then again a brief rest, to survey the damage. Every suit he owned was turned into a heap of dust rags. I dropped the cleaver on the mess, walked to the dresser where she had laid her signature long string of pearls, which, as we all found out, weren’t individually knotted. Pearls everywhere. And before I left, I took her purse from the hall table and left a message for her husband, pretending I was from Jewels, you know, that fancy strip-joint. Said I would send it to the address on the driver’s license. Which, of course, I did, third class naturally. Just like them.”  You can have this conversation in an café in the world at any volume. No problem. And I think you would WANT to have this conversation in a café.

Here is another excellent conversation to have in a café: you’re ending your love affair with the ambassador because his wife is coming back from her vacation (avec her petit ami) in the Seychelles and you’ve decided to become a nun. You want to do this in an apartment? After he leaves, you’re left alone and what are you to do? Call a friend. No, no, no. Go to a café, bring up the fact that you’re leaving, let him plead. Let the other customers takes sides. Get several opinions, sort it all out. Then if you storm out, he will have people around to console and counsel him; if he leaves, you have a built-in support group. (Although the words “support-group” should seldom leave your mouth. Decent people don’t over use that expression).

And of course, if you go to a café, you must understand that there might be some dramatic scene and you are obliged to jump right into the middle of it, especially if you end up in a front row seat. No hiding behind the International Herald Tribune. Get in there and give your opinion. Participatory democracy is sometimes a heavy burden, but you mustn’t duck your obligations.

Second tricky issue: going to a café with a computer. Don’t. Just don’t. You may, under very special circumstances as a regular customer, bring one in. You may also use one if you are a college student in a college town and you can’t bear your dorm room for one more moment. But otherwise, just stick to coffee shops in airports, or, better yet, stay home. If you must, simply must, lug in your little lap-top and set it up and pretend that you are oh-so cool, hard-working hip-cat and not the ridiculous dweeb you are, then sit in the back, way back, in the worst seat. And no complaining about the time it takes to get a drink or the bill. And if someone dumps their Orangina on it, don’t come crying to me.

Third tricky situation: how to be a regular customer. This takes time and finesse. And, as usual, there are many steps which you must work through, no rushing it. First, when you move to a new town (or if you have finally decided to join café society) you must scout out ALL the options. Nothing is worse than spending six months developing yourself at a café and then discovering a more perfect one a mere two blocks away. Tramp those streets my dear, look into every one in the neighborhood where you work/ live. Ideally you should discover two or three that work for you. For example, I now have one to read books and/ or write letters in, one for Saturdays or Sundays, and one to get a coffee to go in; I also know a good café in two other neighborhoods that I can go to when I’m in the area. But this took about four weeks and lots of bad coffees, icky waiters and patience.

Once you have figured out which one you want to grace with your regular presence. Remember the basics – never over-tip. Don’t try to hard. Go at least once a week. If they have one of those ‘coffee-plans,’ get the card and do get it stamped every time you go. If it’s counter service it will take longer to get known, but if it’s table service, you should around the fourth or fifth trip, begin to drop small bits of information about yourself to the waiter. Waiters love to gossip about customers. But don’t expect too much too soon. You can’t say ‘the usual’ until waiter does, and the first few times the waiter asks “the usual?” you have to say ‘yes’ even if you don’t feel like it.

But if the waiter  makes no sign that this is the 12th time you’ve been in four weeks, cut your losses and go.

After a few months, you should have a nice equilibrium, even if it’s nothing definite – they shouldn’t be pulling chairs out for you, but you should get a nod of recognition, it should be easy to get his eye – and you are allowed to make some mistakes, to misjudge your time and say “Oh, didn’t notice it was five already, I need to go, may I have the bill please” and it should appear immediately.

And now you can expect your favorite imbibement, coffee with a drop – a drop I tell you – of almond essence; decaf with Madagascar (or, in a pinch, Seychelles) vanilla; cappuccino with chocolate milk. I had a café in Cyprus with a fabulous/ hideous hangover cure (pureed lettuce and carrots and something green I don’t even want to think about).

You can even take friends – but be very careful. I once had a lovely beauty salon which I introduced to a friend. Alas, we did not remain friends, and several months later I walk in, ready to escape the world, to discover this woman who I now dislike sitting next to me for 45 minutes while we both had pedicures.

Eh bien, this is all you need to know; all you need do is memorize each word. Think of it as your dowery.