There is a French institution called the bar tabac. It exists in the smallest villages, such as Fitou, and the largest cities, such as, say, Paris.
The bar tabac has no equivalent in the U.S. It sells newspapers and magazines but it isn’t a newsstand. You can buy beer, wine (from a box) and a few basic cocktails there but it isn’t a bar. Cigarettes, candy and lottery tickets are a major part of their business but it isn’t a convenience store. There might be a few tables and chairs outside but it isn’t a café. The rules prohibiting smoking indoors are routinely flaunted. Invariably the décor of these places indicates that fresh paint and sandblasting have been outlawed since Algeria was a colony.
My bar tabac here in Fitou is pretty much the extent of the village’s nightlife. The pizza place (don’t scoff – it’s good) is only open from 6 to 9pm, six days a week. (I want that job.) The few restaurants in town aren’t conducive to anything but eating full meals. And so the bar tabac is the only option for hanging out.
It is located centrally on the Place de la République, which sounds grander than it is. Most French towns have a Place de la République but Fitou’s is smaller than many suburban master bedrooms.
The space is chipped and faded to the point where, if there were not so much human activity, it would be considered dumpy. Stuck perpetually in 1952, its tile floors are stained, its large mirrors tarnished, and the revolving postcard rack dusty.
There is a rotating cast of characters who man the bar, chief among them a 40-something fellow with a wiry salt-and-pepper ponytail and scruggy sideburns. As often as not, he’s occupied intently with increasing his score in Guitar Hero (usually Led Zeppelin). It’s accepted that if he’s mid-riff when you enter, you’ll have to wait a bit to get your pression (draft beer) or Gitanes.
The opening hours are neither posted nor regular. They usually close for a couple of hours at midday, but not always. They’re usually open until 10 or 11pm, but not always. They have wi-fi (password: Kawasaki), and dogs are welcome.
One evening there was a Catalan family sitting near me. I knew they were Catalan because they were speaking Spanish. They also all had black hair and a look that used to be known, and still might be, as swarthy. The parents were in their 20s, there was a boy of 7 or 8 and a girl a little younger.
They were not drinking anything; their only activity appeared to be the purchase and scratching of instant lottery tickets. They treated the process deliberately but with enjoyment. The man walked to the counter and bought a ticket, then returned to his little family, who sat expectantly around one of the marble tables.
Papa placed the ticket in the center of the table and the family leaned in reverentially, in much the same way that Charlie opened his Wonka Bar in search of an elusive Golden Ticket, or like the folks around a Thanksgiving table might lean in waiting for the turkey to be carved. The family members were all talking to each other – real conversation – during the theatrics.
Slowly the numbers were uncovered, the children’s faces drawing in closer and closer. And…a winner!
The kids squealed while dad returned to the counter, but the winnings could not be collected immediately – not until the barman finished a chorus of “Whole Lotta Love.” It looked to be a prize of ten euros, and from his winnings the young man bought another ticket. He returned to his family and the entire process repeated itself several times: sitting, placing the ticket, leaning in, scratching off, conversing. There were no more winners that evening but the little family looked happy as they departed.
Another evening, after having dinner with friends, I dropped into the bar tabac for a nightcap expecting to see the usual retinue of quiet men smoking (fumer interdit), sipping coffee or drinking pastis. I was surprised to encounter a raucous gaggle of teenagers engaged energetically in the consumption of beer and a Guitar Hero competition. Through the din I recognized some English being spoken. One of the guitaristes asked in English if I wanted to play the next game but I politely declined.
It turned out that the four girls and three of the boys were Norwegian; they also had an English friend with them. One or more of their parents have a part-time home in Fitou (up in the “new section,” which, I’ve noted here, bears a strong resemblance to suburban Tucson), and the young people were in town for their spring break.
The kids were friendly and engaging and all spoke excellent English, including the boy from England. One of the boys, whom I shall call Peder, advised me that the group was about to engage in a Scandinavian custom known as “doing shots” and suggested I join them at the bar. I politely declined.
After the so-called shots were “done” I asked Peder what the drinking age is in France. 18, he told me. “And are you guys 18?”
Peder’s eyes darted from side to side and back to center, and a twitching semi-smile forced its way out. That was his only answer to my question.
The conversation made its way to the universal equalizer – Facebook. I made new friends and was made a friend several times over. One of the young men, whom I shall, for today’s purposes, call Fredrik, noticed my Facebook profile image, a photo of me as a very adorable toddler. Fredrik asked me innocently if that were my – it is difficult now even to type the word – if the little boy in the picture were my grandson.
Reflex overtook courtesy and I quickly suggested to Fredrik that he might wish to fornicate with himself, which caught him off guard somewhat. His considerable skills with the English language failed him just then but our nascent friendship survived the momentary tension.
Monsieur Guitar Hero behind the bar indicated that he was ready to close for the evening. As neither the young adults nor I were ready to call it a night, I invited the entire gaggle back to my petit appartement and they accepted.
They had persuaded the barman to sell them cans of beer for the road (à emporter) so my cellar (une boîte de vin rouge) did not suffer too much from the unexpected company. Seating was a challenge but since at least four of my guests were involved in romantic pairings and engaged in another Scandinavian custom known as Lap-Sitting we managed not to have to sprawl on the floor.
Shortly after arriving, one of the young ladies startled me with a question: “Would it bother you if we were to ask if you minded if anyone smoked pot?” Navigating the syntax was the first challenge, and once past that I froze up. I was still considering the best way to respond when my distaff guest let me off the hook.
“Oh, we don’t have any. I just wondered if you were the type who would mind if someone asked about it.” You really have to stay on the ball when you talk to Norwegians.
There was a legal pad on my table and one of the girls asked if she could use it to write me a letter. Of course, I said, watching as she proceeded to fill a page. After a few minutes she asked if she might read the letter to me. It was a wildly touching expression of good wishes for me and my future and I don’t think I’d ever experienced anything like the startling warmth of that moment.
I expect to return to the bar tabac but I can’t imagine recreating that special evening with the young Norwegians.