Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My sidewalk cafés

Going up the stairs of Café des Nattes
Given the choice, I could spend all-day sitting in a sidewalk café, which the francophone prefer to call “café trottoire.”

What makes a city, town or village habitable, to my mind, is its cafés. My belief goes as far back as I can remember. Maybe because I grew up in a sidewalk café, a trademark of the Mediterranean way of living... The right sidewalk café can become a sanctuary where you can sit and drink, eat, think, read, write, chat, meet people and watch the world go by. What else would you want?

Café des Nattes in Sidi Bou Said
When I lived in Tunisia, the idyllic place to be and be seen was the little hilltop village of Sidi Bou Said, some 60 kms out of the capital, Tunis. Tunisia was then the tourism country par excellence. Summer festivals and concerts played at the Carthage amphitheater were renowned. And it is at Sidi Bou, as it is fondly called, that everyone congregated past the afternoon siesta until the wee morning hours.

I took up my first summer job in Sidi Bou at the age of 12, helping out in a boutique. My dad used to drive me there and then pick me up at 10 p.m. On our way home, we would stop in one of the village's small alleyways, where an enterprising baker had set up a coal oven and baked taboun bread, which he sold with a newspaper cone of black olives. I was too young to go out alone at night and had to beg my sister and brother to take me along. That didn't happen often, but when it did, the fun and excitement were thrilling.

Sniffing jasmine..,
When I grew up and started to move around without a chaperone, it was up to Sidi Bou that I went every afternoon. We lived 10 minutes away, and I would walk there to sit at the famous Café des Nattes. It is at the top of the village with stairs where nattes, or mats, were left dangling on both sides. That's where you gathered to be seen and watch people go by. I used to spend all my summer holidays sitting there, sipping mint tea with pine nuts -- aux pignons – and sniffing jasmine. I was so much part of the Café des Nattes that I was pictured there next to the entrance and figured on Sidi Bou Said postcards. Tourists who bought them would come up to me and point it out. I have some of them somewhere and this blog would be more colorful if and when I unearth my trove of pictures.

I think sidewalk cafés were the Twitter and Facebook of times gone by – times when we gathered, met new people, exchanged dreams and ideas, lazed about or listened to The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Halliday, Edit Piaf, Jacques Brel...

I wonder if it is still the same... I went back to Tunisia in the 1990s, but didn't have time to soak up the atmosphere in the café where I grew up.

In Beirut, I missed my cafés during the civil war because no one risked sitting outdoors. All public places were closed shut most of the time anyway.

But when I relocated to London and settled just off Kings Road in Chelsea, I quickly spotted my sidewalk café of choice. It is called Picasso (and you now know my love for anything related to the great Master!). It is one of the oldest establishments on Kings Road and did not change since it opened. Until of late, the owners’ premise was that "if it isn't broken, why fix it?"

Picasso on the Kings Road
The friendly Italian, Polish and Portuguese staff, all led by Signor Modesto -- who managed the café for some 50 years starting in 1956 -- became friends. I passed by every evening after work to unwind, catch up and savor a cappuccino.

While waiting to migrate (yet again) to Dubai, I wasn't working and spent even more time at Picasso. I went for breakfast -- a cappuccino with toast and Marmite -- and skim through the morning newspapers. I came back in the afternoons, mostly to touch base with the “regulars” -- Roger, Ian, Ramzi, French Peter, Sibel (who introduced me to my favorite author Orhan Pamuk) and several others. Everyone knew us and nodded their greetings whether patrons or passersby. They always expected to see us there.

Picasso was the favorite spot for past and present football stars, chiefly the incomparable George Best, who passed away in 2005. Marianne Faithful, Gary Waldhorn (of the Vicar of Dibley fame), Seal, Eric Clapton (who lived close by), Bono and Jay Kay of Jamiroquai with his funny hats all came to Picasso. Bob Geldof passed by daily for a coffee and tricolore salad when in town. Gordon Ramsay was there at least once a week, on his own or with his son (you can read his review here). And in 2004, Woody Allen used Picasso to shoot a scene for his London-based movie Match Point.

There was never a dull moment at Picasso, and it is one of the few places in London that I miss. But I am told it is now being renovated, so I dread to hear what they will do to it.

With Lynn (@lnlne) at Café Younes in February
When I finally went back to Beirut late last year, a café was the first thing I looked for. At first, I opted for Bread Republic in a small alley along Hamra Street. But on my second visit, I shifted to Café Younes, which quickly became home away from home. I would settle there with my laptop most evenings and rapidly be joined by several friends and tweeps. There is no shortage of sidewalk cafés in Beirut, but Younes suits me just fine.

And it is the sidewalk café that I miss most in Dubai. The weather doesn't help, as between May to October you can't really sit outdoors. A coffee shop in a mall is no match. So I haven't found my niche yet. So is it time to move on? I wonder...