A moment in time - men in cafés

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

"Men - the art of the cafe is mostly a male preserve – have been nattering in cafes for centuries." Brian Johnston - Traveller.com


Yesterday was International Women's Day, and at one point my husband said in a somewhat aggrieved tone that there wasn't a Men's Day. I was temporarily confused as to what to say to this although in my head I was thinking, but men are not disadvantaged in the same way that women are. So when I recounted this at my book group later in the day, I heard a rather better response from one of my friends there - "But every day is men's day." Yes alas this is still true although in smaller ways than before. In the western world anyway. Women in the poorer parts of the world, and the poorer parts of the western world, still get a poor deal.


Obviously the generalisation that women are disadvantaged and men are not is too sweeping to be quite true, and it is certainly true that men have issues that are not always recognised but nevertheless the general assertion is correct I think.


Anyway it made me think of the next photograph in my 'moment in time' collection - the first one on the Blog page of this website - and shown above. And that made me think a bit more about men and cafés and how men spend downtime in general. Well a few random things anyway.


That photograph was taken in Rome a few years back. We were wending our way up the Janiculum Hill just above Trastevere where our apartment was located. And if you are ever in Rome, it is worth the climb. You pass by memorials to Garibaldi, and the beautiful Tempietto designed by Bramante, although the real prize is the view from the top - one of the best in Rome, particularly the view down to the Vatican.

Anyway, here are these two men, sitting in the sunshine in the afternoon, with, seemingly nothing else to do. Who are they? Why are they here? This is not an area for heavy foot traffic, so the main reason that people give for sitting in cafés - watching the world go by - is obviously not the reason. Neither is socialising. They are solitary males. Maybe it's just a moment to sit in peace and quiet. Chill out in modern terms. Away from women?


In Europe it seems - well from a tourist point of view anyway - that if you see groups of locals sitting in cafés they are often men. In the heavily frequented tourist spots it's much more mixed of course. Tourists don't tend to travel in groups of men only. Mind you - the photograph on the left below was taken in Trastevere's main square and these men do not look like tourists. And behind the men in the square itself are little groups of men standing around or sitting around with friends or on their own. The other photograph is in the middle of one of the Cinque Terre villages - the hundreds of tourists must be just out of sight. All we see are two young men idly sitting alone, like the older ones in Rome.

Why would this be? It either demonstrates that men have much more leisure time and the women are slaving away at home, or that the men are sadly out of work with nothing else to do. Although you would think that if this were the case, they would not be sitting in prime position in a prime tourist location, paying above the odds for a drink. In the villages of Europe, where you see the same phenomenon it is mostly older men, retired men in fact, and yes they are just socialising with their friends. The old ladies don't seem to do this as much. They sit in groups on benches or stone walls, or on chairs outside their houses, so that they can dodge inside to watch the dinner that's cooking or the children calling for attention.


The men also gather in groups here and there of course. Mostly old men. Are they gossiping, or talking about more worthwhile things like politics, economics and the state of the world? Or is it just the latest football score, or how their car is going? In France, when I stayed in my village on the Loire, I was intrigued to see lots of men fishing on the river as if they had nothing else to do. Maybe they didn't - and maybe on their fishing prowess depended dinner. I don't think they fished in groups though. It was a more solitary occupation.


One doesn't think of men as being social animals but of course they are, and I don't know why we think they aren't. Men have always gathered together in groups over a drink or over a game - pétanque is the obvious European example of this. Women do play pétanque. We saw them participating in a pétanque tournament in a village that we stayed in once. But on the whole it's an exclusively male domain. Then there are the soccer games of my youth - women never went to them. In fact you would have to be a brave woman to go. There was never any question of my father taking my sister or I to the West Ham game, although once old enough my brother always tagged along. We - the girls - were never even asked if we would like to go.


Then there were the pubs. Before the 1980s there were no cafés, no coffee hangouts in the anglo world - and that includes America. There was the pub and these were sexually segregated. It took a brave female to go into the Public bar in a pub. We were supposed to go into the Lounge bar, where the drinks cost more. And even in non segregated places such as our university bar, it would take twice as long for a girl to get served as a boy, and if the visiting rugby team was in the bar, then it was not a good place to go. Effectively you were banned. And the same held true for the Australian pub.


"Not everyone felt at home, or indeed was welcomed in the pub, despite its mythology as a place that was emblematic of 'the Australian way of life'" Emma Felton - M/C Journal


Then came Starbucks - apparently inspired by the founder's trips to Europe where he was captivated by their café society. After Starbucks came a myriad of imitators, from major companies - Whitbread (a beer brewer in England) took over Costa Coffee for example - to individuals. And now in all of those countries we have a café society - which to a casual observer's eye might be a female thing but which actually isn't. Indeed I found a thread of conversation on the net about cafés in Oakleigh and other Greek enclaves, asking if women were actually allowed in. The majority of responses were that yes you were but you'd need to be a bit brave and you weren't welcome.


Cafés became popular for women for a number of reasons:


"The open shop fronts favoured by most coffee shops have an added bonus for many women because they literally provide a transparent view of the interior. In most pubs it’s simply not as easy to peer in and work out if this is going to be a friendly environment or not. As a lone woman, the idea of pushing the saloon bar door of a pub only to find that the dingy interior is occupied exclusively by men can be daunting. In coffee shops that’s almost never an issue."

And yummy mummies will have less problem if travelling with babies and toddlers:


"Most people’s houses don’t allow unlimited space for the increasingly big prams and buggies that now abound." Jacqui Farnham - BBC


And yet, according to a survey carried out in England:


"men are more likely to visit a coffee shop on a daily basis, whereas women are more likely to visit 2-3 times a week. Women tend to stay longer once they get there though and they are more likely to use a coffee shop for socialising as well. Women are also more adventurous than men in the new drinks they are willing to try." Jacqui Farnham - BBC


I think the implication is that men go to cafés for the coffee and to work for a while away from the office, and that they do this alone. Not in groups.


I wonder do men feel daunted by a café overwhelmingly populated by women? I doubt it. Men, it seems to me, have an inherent sense of privilege, a feeling that they can go anywhere, whereas women, even today, may need to think more carefully before they enter - a pub for example.


The most intriguing thought though is that men actually like to socialise. We somehow think they don't do this, even though they have been doing it for centuries.


"The diverse clientele of the coffee house is recorded extensively in the diaries of Samuel Pepys and unlike other social institutions of the time, was defined by its inclusivity of men from all walks of life " Emma Felton - M/C Journal


I suppose the real difference today is that sometimes - just occasionally - men and women meet together for a cup of coffee and a chat. Not very often though is it? Over dinner yes, or even the all-day breakfast. Lunch too. But not a casual coffee and cake - or a game. Maybe all that is saying is that we like to get away from each other now and then. And why not? We are different after all. And we do probably talk about different things. They say men talk about ideas or things, and that women talk about people, but I think that's a bit patronising. Women talk about ideas too. Mostly ideas to do with how you live your life perhaps, rather than grand ideas about how to run the world. And they talk about things too - different things to male things though.


So here is David with one of our good friends on one of our holidays together. I have several similar photos. I wonder what they are talking about? They look very earnest but maybe it's just gossip.





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