Marc Augé: an ethnologist at the bistro

Marc Augé: an ethnologist at the bistro


Following the attacks on Paris by Islamic territorist belonging to ISIS, a French gourmet guide – Le Fooding – launched a hashtag that soon went viral on Twitter: Tous au bistrot. Let’s not grant terrorists our fear – this was the message – let’s fill the streets, enjoy living, and so “Everyone to the bistros!”.

A proposal that is equivalent to a cry of freedom. And for journalists in the world of fine foods and wines, it became even more interesting because this message of freedom was conveyed through a particular and unexpected image: that of a restaurant, a bistro to be precise, intended as a container of much larger values.

Marc Augé
Marc Augé

The anthropologist Marc Augé speaks clearly: together with the Eiffel Tower or the Can Can (and we could even add champagne to this list), the bistro represents the quintessence of the art of the French bon vivant. A heritage that is now under fire, and so must be defended and relaunched. Taking control of our joie de vivre once again means enjoying a glass or wine or a doing a quick lunch at the bistro.

And precisely the great French ethnologist Marc Augé comes to our aid with a fully enjoyable and easy-to-read book entitled ‘Un etnologo al bistrot’ (‘An Ethnologist at the bistro’ Raffaello Cortina Editore) – that was released in Italy on the eve of the Parisian attacks. For this reason we now read it together with great interest and emotion.

The bistro is a French invention, a restaurant with no particular pretence, but also a café, maybe with a tobacconist’s inside, where people can eat something or take a brief break during the course of their busy day. Its barycentre is the counter – better if it’s in zinc – where the regulars sidle up and where current events easily prevail over privacy. The buzz increases with each new discussion, in some cases amidst sports bets and lotteries.

Now these objective details gradually begin to take on importance, charging the bistrot with values that become increasingly significant: «What “makes” the bistro – writes Augé – is less its function (as a café or restaurant) than the space or, more accurately, the space in movement. Likewise for time or, more precisely, the use of daily time that, from morning to evening, boasts an absolute availability.»

The wondrous and contagious essence of the bistro is, indeed, precisely this: being always available in time, from morning to evening, with no interruptions, and especially with flexible management during off times. According to the ethnologist, the bistro becomes: ‘a life theatre. Around the bar, as in life, memories are ready to quiver and murmur, but the present becomes impatient and marks the future.’

Libro AugéNot by chance, literature lives a privileged existence in this place: Hemingway, when he lived in Paris, would take shelter during the winter months from early in the morning at La Closerie because there he could keep warm. Maigret, «a client sensitive to the flavour of spirits or a chalice of white wine, allowed the inquiries to proceed at the rhythm of his tab in the various bistros.» The same was true of Verlaine, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and many others.

But it highest value is released above all when it comes into contact with real, everyday life: «When – writes Augé – we arrange to meet someone in a bistro or we ask a friend if he or she has time to join us in drinking something at the bistro across the street, or even when we decide to dine in a nearby bistro… [it is then that] the use of that word seems to almost guarantee in and of itself the fraternal, social, and stimulating nature of an outing in the city, not too far from where we live and work.»

Giovanni Caldara