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Alice B. Toklas

The Bohemians ate well when they had money and poorly when they did not; they ate in jocular company at cafes and in the "comfort" of their own attic lodgings. Their menu varied from extravagant delicacies to prosaic staples, but every meal featured good conversation with friends.

The most famous café frequented by Bohemians was the Café Momus from Scenes de la Vie de Boheme; it was later mentioned in the opera La Boheme as well. It was a real café where Murger and his comrades spent much of their time. Alexandre Schanne, the model for the novel's Schaunard, wrote that "at closing time this refreshment housekeeper and courtier of the Muses would stand beside the counter smiling or not at the customer, according to whether the latter was a wielder of the pen or the brush". The four main characters of the novel frequent the Momus until they are no longer permitted on the premises on account of their overdue bills. Inside, they took over a room of the café "where forty people might have been accommodated, but they were usually there alone, inasmuch as they had rendered the place uninhabitable by its ordinary frequenters" .One of Thackeray's characters, Philip Firmin, ate at a restaurant called Flicoteau's:

The main beverage drunk at cafes was coffee; very few alcoholic beverages, excepting punch and mulled wine, were ever consumed. Smoking, on the other hand, was prevalent; "the pipe, now replaced by the cigarette, was in high esteem; the students even made it an accessory to their costume, and when it was not in their mouths, they wore it in their buttonhole" .

In Les Miserables, Hugo writes of one member of the Societe de l'ABC: "He was one of the students who had learned the most during their course at Paris; he knew that the best coffee was to be had at the Cafe Lemblin, and the best billiards at the Cafe Voltaire, that good cakes and lasses were to be found at the Ermitage, on the Boulevard du Maine, spatchcocked chickens at Mother Sauget's, excellent matelotes at the Barriere de la Cunette, and a certain thin white wine at the Barriere du Compat"

Day-to-day bohemian meals depended on the current financial state of the diners. When Rodolfe in Scenes de la Vie de Boheme was feeling especially generous, he treated his friends to lobster. ("Under the pretext that he had studied natural history, Schaunard suggested that he should carve it".) This gathering also included many sorts of wine, such as "three bottles with red seals … three bottles with green seals … one which by its neck topped with a silver helmet, [which] was recognized as belonging to the Royal Champagne Regiment - a fantastic champagne vintaged at Saint Ouen and sold in Paris at two francs a bottle …". On another evening, however, the Bohemians are left with only thirty sous with which to feed themselves dinner; they eat "three dishes most symmetrically arranged - a dish of herring, a dish of potatoes, and a dish of cheese".

The first Bohemians were the young Romantics in the Impasse du Doyenne in the early 1830s; and Arsene Houssaye, who was one of them, declared that there would never be a last as long as there were poets living in Paris.

19th century England produced eccentrics such as Edward FitzGerald and Ouida, aesthetes such as the Rossettis and William Morris, socially unorthodox writers such as Swinburne and Wilde; but these Bohemian figures seem to have been exceptional. 

There is a world of difference between the Cafe Royal and Dinochau's, or the Brasserie des Martyrs. Besides, as Andrew Lang remarked in his article 'Three Poets of French Bohemia, England has never combined the university with the capital, nor fixed so wide a gulf between two classes of men of letters. The English undergraduate in the nineteenth century came, almost certainly, from the upper or middle classes, and he did not know the poverty of the student on the Left Bank. He might (as Shelley did at Oxford) write a pamphlet on the necessity of atheism. He might (as Byron did at Cambridge) show his scorn of convention by keeping a tame bear in his rooms. He might be unorthodox in his creeds, extravagant in his behaviour, but he would not lead a tavern life; he would not live on a crust of bread with a seamstress in an attic.

After the failure of the Revolution of 1848, the socialist movement in France collapsed, finance capital and the credit system prospered, Paris was virtually rebuilt by Haussmann, the boulevards glittered with department stores and smart cafes, architects imitated baroque mansions and Roman palaces, painting became decoration, operettas displaced serious music, literature was read only for light entertainment, and art that posterity would enjoy was appreciated by the few and financed by almost no one. Many artists found this bourgeois paradise too offensive for comment or too powerful to condemn. Instead they preferred to inhabit a world of their own, both through their work and by gathering in those literary cafes where the fairground world of Louis Napoleon was less audible. The most famous was probably the Brasserie des Martyrs, a smoky, noisy cafe in the rue des Martyrs at the corner of rues Breda and Navarin. The Brasserie was a cafe for rebels, outsiders, failures, writers or painters like Murger, Baudelaire or Courbet who had to fight official silence or hostility. Many of its clients felt its name might have been chosen with more tact.

One, Alfred Delvau, wrote in 1857 that if all Paris had burnt down except for the Brasserie, a fascinating new city could have been built using only the talents of the survivors, although it might not have looked exactly as Haussmann had planned. The Brasserie was the Cafe Procope of the Second Empire. In the 1850s its clients were more famous, the waiters busier, the repartee was faster than anywhere else. The two high rooms, upstairs and downstairs, were furnished with flaring gas lamps, elegant divans and polished oak tables, but the mirrors, prints and gilt mouldings, caryatids and artificial flowers, were less tasteful - total aesthetic quarantine was impossible even in the rue des Martyrs. Among its habitués were unknown artists like the serious if shy young painter Claude Monet, and eccentrics like the astronomer Alexis Morin who denied the existence of the sun but tried to placate public opinion by allowing the existence of the moon. Or there were faded models and young girls with nicknames like Cigarette, Moonlight, Fried Eggs, White Grape. 'The Brasserie des Martyrs,' wrote the Goncourt brothers who disliked most literary cafes, 'a tavern and a cavern of an impotent and dishonest world, of all those nameless great men and minor Bohemian journalists who try their best to pick up a new five franc piece or an old idea while those they insult have to fight, live and die in solitude, quiet and hard work.' Told about a duel that had begun in the Brasserie the police commissaire told Bosquet: 'But if someone insults you there, you must take a knife and kill him! The police would never dream of interfering

Personally, I have always had a special admiration for those people, whether they are poets, novelists or journalists, who write in the noisy privacy of cafes. Settling down in the morning with a coffee, a croissant and a blank sheet of paper, and filling it as the cafe fills, these may be the most civilized of all human beings, the ring of the cash register serving for them as the ring at the end of a typewriter carriage, the shouted orders and the hum of voices providing background music for the arrangement of words on a page.

Selecting one's favourite cafe is much a very personal affair. It makes no difference however, whether one sits at an establishment that is world famous or one that has never been heard of outside of one's own neighbourhood. Even architectural design and ambiance are a matter of individual taste. Some find themselves comfortable in the modern establishments that boast an abundance of glass and decoratively used structural steel building components. Others will find a place such as that described by Lawrence Durell, "with nothing fancy, but with the added a small garden, one where the sun is always more friendly and the charm of knowing that hidden behind a small kitchen one will find rain more tempered."

True devotees of the cafe life never restrict themselves to sitting at any single location. Like Don Juans and nymphomaniacs, they are always in search of someplace new. They may have their regular morning or evening ports-of-call but any excuse at all will do to have them sampling the coffee and ambiance in whatever new cafe catches their eye. Such people are not so much fickle as they are adventurous, at least in their desire to sample as much of life as possible.

© Daniel Rogov

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