Paris with its hundreds of cafés, most famous among them Les Deux Magots in the Saint-Germain-des-Prės area of the city, home of the literati during the times of the Lost Generation, a place where Hemingway, Joyce and scores of others including Sartre, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Picasso would gather to write, drink, and talk about art and matters of the spirit. Budapest, with its Café Gerbaud off the Vörösmarty Square ( itself named after a great Hungarian poet) bathed in 19th Century Hapsburg opulence, and its Café New York where you could find newspapers like Die Zeit, The Paris Harold Tribune, and countless others adhering to long wooden poles that you could bring to your table, and where the waiter would bring you paper and pencil automatically with your order in case you experienced a moment of poetic inspiration. It is where the great satirist, Karinthy would sit daily and write his column on paper given to him, on the table cloth and on napkins which someone from the paper would frantically collect before he got too drunk so that his column would make the evening edition.
Cafés. Who can resist them? And Montreal’s? A friend from the States who had recently visited our fair city told me that his dream was to move here and have a café to call his own where he could sit for hours, people watch, read, and write. Romantic? Sure, but true.
Café life in Montreal blossomed in the 1950s, led by the arrival of the ‘56ers, a group of young Hungarians who arrived and settled in Montreal after the Hungarian Uprising of that year. They yearned for the life they had lost in their native land, the custom of spending each day in a café with friends or reading, so they tried to make Montreal their own. And for a while, they succeeded. Café-Restos like the Rose Marie on Metcalf was among the first to have an espresso machine. It served traditional Hungarian dishes like chicken paprikás, sausages in a wonderful bed of lecsó (a sauce made of onions, green pepper, tomatoes and spicy paprika) and rice, and its famous chicken soup (“tzirke leves,” as Dzimi the Greek waiter would say in his faux Magyar accent). It was a place that Hungarians new to the city could use as their mailing address, where you could keep a tab and eat on credit even though a filling meal cost only $1.50 back in the days. It became the hangout of poets like Lászlo Kemenes-Gėfin (later to become President of Concordia University’s Liberal Arts College) and George Nėmeth, psychologist and writer, as well as the filmmaker Albert Kish of NFB fame whose “The Streets were Paved with Gold” and “Los Canadensis” were Oscar-nominated documentaries. Leonard Cohen ate there regularly in the early sixties—on credit—not because he needed to, being from a monied Montreal family, but because it was the romantic thing to do for an aspiring poet and artist. It is a place where the novel In Praise of Older Women, written by a Hungarian cab driver, was conceived.
And those pastries! The rigó Jansci and the lúdláb (literally translated as “the goose’s foot”), artery clogging desserts that melted in your mouth making you want more! All to be found at places like the Kis Mocca (Little Mocha), later to become the Coffee Mill, run by the irascible Józsi Bácsi, that featured the sinful fatányėros, a mountain of meats, sausages, and roast potatoes all served on a skewer, enough for 6 people, all for $9.00. No wonder the life expectancy of Hungarian males was around fifty-six, what with the eating, drinking, and endless cigarettes into the wee hours. Chief among the cafés was the Pam Pam, where you could hang out after-hours to eat their flourless cakes and sip their divine coffees while the owner, Aunt Gizi, (Gizi Nėni) would come by to put down your order and then regale you with stories of the old country. In those days, the Hungarian population was over 16,000. By 1993, it had dwindled to less than 7,000, and today there exists but two Hungarian restaurants in our city and off-island. Hungarians, having witnessed one revolution already, fled down the 401 for Toronto after the PQ government took power in 1976 when Montreal’s Anglo population was also decimated. Where the Pam Pam once stood is now Carlos and Pepe’s, a Mexican eatery, catering mostly to tourists.
So, what is it about café life? The fact that you can sit there for hours over a cup of coffee and not be hustled to order more? The possibility that someone at the table next to you, so intent on her notebook could be a poet or a writer? The sense that even if you are alone, you are in a community of like- minded souls: people willing to take time out from the chaos of their lives and to unchain their spirit? Maybe, all of this, and more…
So today it is snowing, another Montreal winter storm with supposedly 25 cm on the way. I am alone and have the luxury of having my day unfold as it will. I walk in the snow for half an hour and come to Café Shaika in NDG, a favorite place, enter, dust off the powder from my hat and coat, order a coffee, and sit down by the window that looks onto avenue Marcil. Directly opposite from me sits a young woman, writing intently in her notebook. She has short auburn hair and is dressed flamboyantly in a loose blouse, gathered skirt and high laced-up boots that cover half of her calf. She is beautiful—strange—a mystery, as all women are. She has that intensity I recognize—the intensity of rapture coupled with doubt which is the province of any wordsmith. I wonder about the contents of her journal, about the flow and scope of her thoughts. She looks up for a moment, worry and uncertainty creasing her features, and meets my gaze. I look away quickly in order not to make her self- conscious and wish her a silent “Godspeed” on her own journey.
There is the hum of the coffee machine, the smell of soup, sandwiches, the murmur of conversation all about, and sometimes just the others’ faces and the silence. No end to endless ruminations. I avert my glance from my neighbor, who is now smiling to herself, jotting down some memory perhaps.
I take out the small notebook that I still carry in my jacket pocket, though it has been some time since I have written anything in it.