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September 14, 2017

Cafézoïde — A Café for the Community

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We stepped through the door into bubbling laughter and the clanking of dishes, yelps and skittering feet. Guitar notes swirled from unseen strums. Outside, the sun spattered the sidewalk in yellow light, yet it seemed brighter inside.

“Voilà Cafézoïde.”

I had come with a professor for lunch after a late morning tutoring session. Ségolène lived in the arrondissement (neighborhood) and came here often with her daughters.

It wasn’t an ordinary café. It was made for kids and run in part by kids. The “premier café culturel des enfants” (first cultural café for children), as its website advertises, Cafézoïde serves up food for the body and the soul. Beyond the traditional services of a café, it provides books, musical instruments, computers, games and costumes. It also hosts a variety of artistic workshops, from music to theater to dance, geared towards kids 0 to 16 and their families.

Ségolène had just begun explaining how kids could “work” here to “earn” a snack or a drink by helping to plate and serve food — when her eyes caught on the staircase. A man and two little girls were emerging from upstairs. The bouncing girls threw themselves into her arms; she laughed and introduced me to her daughters and husband. A few words and a sheet of tickets were exchanged.

“For food!” She smiled. She tore off stubs and handed them to a hearty woman behind the counter, who asked if we had any dietary restrictions. I mentioned that I was vegetarian, bracing myself for the usual confusion or exasperation or classique French utterances of frustration but her response surprised me. The day’s meal was entirely vegetarian.

Her curly-haired 5-year-old climbing on her legs, Ségolène explained that vegetarian dishes were not infrequent at the café, though not exclusive, either. According to the website, the cuisine is “slow food,” a distinction that seemingly has less to do with the food and more to do with the way it’s eaten. Diners are meant to savor both food and company.

Within minutes, heaping trays of food appeared on the counter. We carried them upstairs, past a child-safe gate at the top of the staircase, past a game of cards sprawled across the carpeting, to a sunny table by the windows, in view of a communal garden on the balcony outside.

After coercing a board game tournament to shift to one end of a table, we plopped down. The dish boasted a colorful salad of cucumbers and tomatoes, with lentils and brown rice tumbling onto the tray. I couldn’t stop eating. In contrast to my typical lunch of diabolically-caloric-cheesy crêpes from streetside vendors or slightly-burnt-yet-simultaneously-undercooked pizza from the school cafeteria, the meal was a welcome change  not only for its nutritional content, but also for its context. I appreciated that its purchase supported a local community of children and adults and families, of artists and musicians and probing minds all coming together to live and learn about the world and each other in one shared space. It was food I felt good about eating, not because of where it came from or how it got there, but because of where and how it was prepared and enjoyed.

Dining is normally an individualized experience: Customers arrive on their own or with people with whom they already have some connection and eat amongst themselves. Interaction with wait staff and other customers isn’t expected. Waiters act invisibly, filling glasses and transporting food without the customer’s acknowledgement. Customers exist on islands of their own eating experiences, oblivious to foreign conversations sailing past them. Booths construct barriers between tables.

At Cafézoïde, dining is an entirely communal experience. Food is prepared by community members and eaten amongst community members. While we were eating, Ségolène’s neighbors and friends and acquaintances came over to our table to greet her and then me. They asked where I was from and how I liked Paris, how I knew Ségolène and how I heard of Cafézoïde. Though an outsider to the country, I was treated as a member of the community.

Customers don’t go to Cafézoïde to eat; they go to connect. They go to reflect upon their lives and to continue living together, feeding their bodies culturally and artistically and literally. In providing a place of enrichment as well as one of nourishment, Cafézoïde imbues its guests with the understanding that art and music and theater are just as essential for personal growth as food itself, that people need to feed their bodies in all aspects. Though they may come with their parents, children are drawn into a communal rearing process, learning the personal skills of responsibility and more practical skills of serving food and clearing dishes. Cafézoïde raises the community so that the community can raise it.

Music began wafting into the room on familiar guitar strums. “Dans la jungle, terrible jungle, le lion dort ce soir…” (“In the jungle, terrible jungle, the lion sleeps tonight…”).

“A music workshop must be starting!” Ségolène enthused. She sent her curly-haired 5-year-old to go sing as we finished up our meals. The sound of children singing intermingled with the smell of food cooking downstairs. Sun streamed through the window onto my back.

In the jungle of a foreign country, a lion was singing.