PARIS – Owners of the bistros and terrace cafes that are integral to the Paris way of life want the “je ne sais quoi” of their establishments to be recognized as of broader value and endangered.
They have launched a campaign to be named by the United Nations’ cultural agency as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding.” UNESCO has given that status to traditions as varied as a Mongolian camel-coaxing ritual, Iranian sailboat building and the sung prayers of indigenous Peruvians.
Members of a bistro owners association gathered Monday at Le Mesturet in central Paris. With its zinc counter, wooden tables and chairs and wine bottles for decoration, it is typical of the kind of establishment where people were relaxing outdoors when extremists shot at them on Nov. 13, 2015.
They said the bistros of Paris play a key role in bringing people of all origins, religions, social classes and age together in a cheap, open place to drink a coffee or share a meal. The bistros also are threatened by increasing rents and competition, and their number has dropped by half in the past 20 years, the owners argued.
“Our most beautiful love and friendship stories were often born in bistros and on terraces,” said Le Mesturet owner Alain Fontaine, the association’s president.
A visiting tourist “will find a lively place, a place to share with the people of Paris — the people of Paris of today, not the people of the past,” Fontaine said. “A multi-ethnic, inter-faith, socially varied people. All of this disappears inside a bistro.”
The association hopes to see its candidacy examined by UNESCO next year. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo supports the initiative.
Stephanie Mathey, 39, owner of three bistros in Paris, said she enjoyed having coffee in such places even before they became her life work. Her husband grew up in the bar his parents owned.
“Later, he went to the United States for a long time, and when he came back, he said, ‘It’s really something that I missed — the bistros,’” Mathey said. The couple eventually decided to open their own.
Alain Fontaine stressed that the “real Parisian bistro” offers homemade food and accessible prices — like a coffee for 1 euro ($1.1) and the days’ special with a glass of wine for 12 euros ($14.)
Fontaine gets emotional when discussing the November 2015 extremist attacks that targeted a concert hall and a soccer stadium as well as cafes, leaving 130 people dead. His ancestors moved from Brussels to Paris in 1784, and he represents the ninth generation living in the same neighborhood.
“I can’t talk about the attacks,” he said, looking at a wooden table built by his great-grandfather. “I was hurt because it targeted Parisian ‘art de vivre,’” the way of life.
“We built this over centuries — these terraces and bistros … and I thought about these colorful Parisian youths, from different ethnic and religious backgrounds on these terraces and bistros,” Fontaine said. “These people were targeted. People who were Parisians.”
After the attacks, Parisians rallied to cafes and terraces in a show of defiance.
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