Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Writing in Cafes

Friends often say they'd like to travel with me, but actually I am a boring travel companion. I don't really to do much of anything. I don't go sightseeing. I don't head out first thing in the morning to capture a sunrise or stand in line to be the first into Pompeii. I've never made it inside the Duomo in Florence.

What I do almost every morning when I am in the road is go to a cafe. And there I sit and write and watch the world go by. I sit with my journal and paints and perhaps a book I am reading or one I am writing. I edit, draw, and scribble. And I generate new material. Cafes are is in fact where I do most of my work. And especially when I am away.

I used to think that it was odd that I spent much of my travel time in this way until I read about Graham Greene. Every winter he went to Capri for a couple months and here he did all of his writing. Then he returned to England where he revised and tended to the business of his life, but he never actually wrote anything there.

And so, when I'm away, I search for the perfect cafe. It has to be one where they let you sit for hours. Here I'll work, not on a laptop, but by hand in my journal or on yellow pads. Clearly, especially in Europe, there is a tradition for this. Once when I was living in Rome, I met a screenwriter who told me to stop by his "office" one afternoon and talk about film. His office turned out to be a cafe off the Campo di Fiori where he sat all day, sipping espresso, mineral water, and, later in the day, compari and soda.

I have taken to finding my own office wherever I go. In Vienna recently it was the Cafe Eiles. Truly one of my favorite cafes in the world. One of those Old World places where men and women come and take one of the many newspapers available on those long wooden sticks (I don't know what these sticks are called. Is there a word for them?).

At the Eiles my husband, Larry, and I would find a table that didn't get too much sun, but was light enough. We'd ordered a Viennese breakfast of coffee with whipped cream and bread and butter and jam. And there we'd sit. Hour after hour. The drawing from my journal here is a page I made at the Eiles. In Florence it was the Gilli at the Piazza della Republica. In every city I find one of these cafes and make it my own.

Except Paris. I know this will sound strange, but in Paris I have had a difficult time finding just the right spot. The tables are too small and too close together and, despite France's literary history, the waiters actually don't seem very patient with a writer taking up a table all day long. What's the point of sitting and reflecting if someone is mad because he cannot turn his table around.

In New York, Brooklyn, near my home I have several haunts and this summer in Spain they sprouted up everywhere. Even a short walk from our house in a little square that served wonderful coffee and tapas in the morning and poured effervescent glasses of the Basque wine called txacolin in the early evening. Apparently, I read recently, Americans are reluctant to start and finish their day at the same establishment.

Hence we have our coffee shops for the early part of the day and bars for the evening. But in Europe these places are contained in one so you can literally begin and end your day in the same spot and I must admit I have done this more times than I can remember. I can see why writers have always been drawn to cafes. Life goes on around you, yet somehow you can be isolated and contained. No one bothers you and yet you are never really alone.


  1. Just returned from an ill-fated weekend in Paris (got sick, alas) and I think you are right about Paris cafes. Maybe we need to find ones never frequented by tourists, somewhere way off the beaten track? Where is this cafe in Vienna? I have lots of favorite cafes there, but don't know this one. When are you coming to Ferney-Voltaire, anyway?

  2. Hi there!!! Nice hearing from you. Yeah, too bad about Paris, but glad you agree. The Eiles is in the Museum District, sort of, on Josefstradt. I'll give you exact coordinates when you are going. Meanwhile we need to watercolor again. I'll try and visit you. How are you going???

  3. I can completely relate to this post. Have you ever tried writing in a bar? It doesn't work too well.

    My personal favorite is Caffe' Sant'Eustachio in Rome--where a scene from 'La Dolce Vita' was filmed. It's a bit touristy, but such delicious coffee & beautiful church bells chime every hour, reminding me that the world outside still exists.. Or 'Caffe Greco' with lovely old paintings, plush velvet furniture, and waiters serving in tailcoats. I love your blog!

  4. Thanks, Naomi, for the tip on the Rome cafe! I can't wait to get there. Glad you love the blog.

  5. I work in a coffee shop and I am addicted to the potential atmosphere and nostalgia that exists in a good coffee shop. I think that more so than even the coffee, a shop's walls tell the secrets of a place. One must listen closely to the whisper of the walls and breath in the aroma of the building and those who are regularly inside of a building's walls.
    I am going to Vienna this summer and I cannot wait to visit Cafe Eiles to experience the history, memory, and culture of the city and its people. Thanks for your post, I completely agree with your last few lines especially!

  6. I love writing in cafes - and have written in a few in Vienna that I adored. I've had the good luck to scribble a bit in Paris cafes, but it is rather hit or miss. When I lived in Oxford for a year, my favorite places were cafes - I could sit by the hour, sipping tea and nibbling scones, and scribbling happily away.

  7. Mary, you just killed me. Ugh, I wanna go back now, feverishly. Instead, I guess I'll go search for a cafe in Harlem. Right now (7:33a.m.). You and I could definitely travel together!

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  9. I work in the Gypsy cafe in Westgarth, a suburb of Melbourne Australia, or the Tin Pot, nearby in North Fitzroy. The only problem is the rapid pace of gentrification in these areas. Melbourne, despite an unpromising location facing Antarctica, is a truly European city thanks to early Brit and Irish arrivals, and then massive postwar immigration from Greece and Italy. The latter provided the coffee.