Mirrored walls surround the patrons scattered about mostly on the edges of leather booths. Each guest grips their own cup of freshly-squeezed orange juice, coffee, or mint tea with freshly plucked mint leaves. Gran Café de Paris, an institution in Tangier for decades, serves as a perfect place for locals to stroll in and pick a seat inside the semi-circle of enclosed glass windows or opt for a wicker lined chair. Each chair wraps around the Gran Café de Paris and allows patrons to pause for a moment away from the traffic circle with taxis speeding past one another.
This legendary cafe has evolved over the years to assimilate the latest technology, but classic details create the impression of a place frozen in the past. The original lights, for instance, are adorned on beams throughout the main seating area with detailed metal plates. In the twenty-year-old portrait of the King, framed above the entrance into the back-seating area, he wears a light grey suit and black polka dot tie; and with their smooth, burgundy cloth smooth jackets, each of the four waiters looks as he has stepped right into the 1950s, not 2018.
All of these elements may have remained the same through time, but the people that have sat on this very brown-leather upholstered booth, where I am now writing, have of course, changed over the years. It was only some time ago that you might have seen some of literature greats here—Tennessee Williams sitting in the next booth over sipping on martinis, or Paul Bowles and William Burroughs gossipping about their fellow expatriates. The Gran Café de Paris was the go-to spot for all writers who have come to love and thrive in Tangier. And now locals come here to take a break from their lunch stroll and order their espresso. Tourists see this cafe as a safe haven from the bustle of traffic near the “Lazy Wall.”
The crowd that is attracted to this cafe is made up of both locals and tourists alike but their behaviors vary significantly. For the couple that just sat down behind me, the man places down his large Nikon digital camera, while the woman accompanying him unwraps a crossbody bag, and both let out a large sigh of relief that they can sit down. The smiling burgundy coated waiter approaches. The tourists seem to have no clue that the menu is underneath the scratched glass on the table. They nervously whisper to each other to find the translation of simple beverages on the French portion of the menu, understandably so, and with nodding heads and smiles order two mint teas.
The local man who just sat down at the next table over seems to be one of a handful of people that seem appreciative of the café’s history. He pulled up a smooth leather chair to catch up with an old pal, and they order drinks, mint tea for one, a classic, and for the other, a coffee. This is not the place to order a pastry—the three croissants in the glass display case seem like they’ve been there for weeks. While the two old friends wait for the waiter to come back, one graciously offers a lighter to his pal, who pulls out a cigarette. The snap of the lighter ignites a flame onto the cigarette, which is a sign for the smoker to breathe in heavily and let out a large puff of smoke in the air surrounding him. The conversation continues as a light grey smoke engulfs them both. They go through the motions as if this was their daily routine, plopping two sugar cubes into their coffee and stirring the mint leaves.
My waiter notices that I am intrigued by the locals’ interaction without any technology, while I’m sitting typing away on my Macbook, and snapping pictures on my iPhone 8. The waiter comments: “I am appalled by the amount of phones that distract patrons these days. When I originally started working here, it was the joy of conversation and a drink that was enough for people to enjoy this place.”
The man is right. The thought of deeply appreciating a person’s company, and how you can never be sure if this was the very same spot where Tennessee Williams might have spilled his martini decades ago, forces me to put away my laptop and finish my “chocolat chaud.”