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The Idea of Europe

Catriona Seth
Rotraud von Kulessa

47. The Café: The European Place for Socialising

Texte intégral

1For Louis-Antoine Caraccioli (Paris, the Model of Foreign Nations or French Europe), the café seems to have become the quintessential place for socialising in every major European city of the eighteenth century.

On Cafés

2Who would have imagined, two hundred years ago, that a tiny bean from Arabia would lead a multitude of establishments to sprout up across Europe, as practical as they are pleasant, where citizens would gather, foreigners would meet up, and sorrows and woes would be dispelled through innocent pastimes?

3Rome, Paris, and London relish the value of such an institution every day. In Venice, even the most distinguished ladies frequent the cafés, proving by their example (which might perhaps be followed on occasion) the extent to which a decent place, open to all respectable people, encompasses pleasures and charms.

4We have cafés to thank for an infinite number of connections formed between travellers. In every city, they are a rallying point, and a good many people would find themselves with too much time on their hands if they did not exist.

  • 1 The Encyclopédie, compiled by Diderot and D’Alembert, an Enlightenment bestseller, contains a shor (...)

5The Encyclopaedic Dictionary1 describes them as ‘workshops of wit, both good and bad’, and one must admit that they often provided a sparring ground for authors. People still remember how full the cafés neighbouring the Comédie Française were, whenever fashionable writers dispensed wisdom on the topics of politics, literature and philosophy there.

6Such places still exist, where a foreigner can learn to reel off the latest news, whether true or false, and discern good comedies from bad, provided that the theatrical cabals do not interfere.

7Moreover, since cafés are a meeting place for young people who follow the prevailing fashions of the day, one is sure to see the newest crimps, curls and fabrics there.

  • 2 The French term frac used here only made its way into the Dictionary of the Académie Française in (...)

8This is true of cafés across the nations. The travelling Frenchman, keen to see and to be seen, never fails to show himself there, and in the blink of an eye he teaches all who are present how to do up a tie, how to layer their hair, and how to button up a tailcoat.2 They stare hungrily at his dashing and elegant figure, while he commands the attention of those who have gathered to listen.

9If he does not know the local language, he speaks his own. Those listening whisper in one another’s ears that he is truly fascinating, and each one commits to imitating him. That very same day, tailors are summoned, in order to copy the exact style of his outfit.

10Fathers, attached to the old way of life, consider these developments to be an attack on their traditions; they grumble and get angry: but their sons are already dressed in the latest fashion—it is a flood that cannot be stopped.

11Thus, a thousand times over, in the cafés of Munich and Berlin, of Liège and Rotterdam, after just one glimpse of a Frenchman, his way of dressing, of behaving, and even of existing has been adopted.

12Since cafés are the usual haunt of many young people, who have the singular talent of embracing innovation, it is always through them that the elegance of fashions first makes its appearance. It is a delight to see them flying the flag of variety.

13At one time, Europeans kept themselves cooped up in their houses; now they show themselves and take joy in conversation. If there are still any proud nations, afraid of compromising themselves by appearing at a café, princes themselves ought to have taught them that one’s stature is not harmed at all by doing so. More than once, they have showed up there incognito on their travels, although everyone recognised them. This does not prevent the café from being a pitiable place for those who spend their days languishing there, and unfortunately there are only too many idle folk who subscribe to this way of life. They are there from ten o’clock in the morning, waiting impatiently for lunchtime, and they return there at three o’clock on the dot, with the prospect of a light supper in view.

14Louis-Antoine Caraccioli,
Paris, the Model of Foreign Nations or French Europe (1777).

Read the free text in the original language (1777 edition):​ark:/12148/​bpt6k1156961
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1 The Encyclopédie, compiled by Diderot and D’Alembert, an Enlightenment bestseller, contains a short anonymous article on ‘Caffés [sic]’ according to which: ‘these are places established as the result of the consumption of coffee: all sorts of liquors are imbibed there. They are also workshops of wit, both good and bad’.

2 The French term frac used here only made its way into the Dictionary of the Académie Française in its sixth edition (1832–35): ‘An item of clothing for men that only covers the chest at the front, and that ends at the back in two long, more or less narrow tails’.


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