Aix-en-Provence has a bit of a Mafia problem and it bleeds into the way its cafés have been run for over a century. We spoke to a waiter who spends his time stuffing cash into envelopes for anonymous men in suits and ignoring tourists.
Foto: Jenny Downing via Flickr
Aix-en-Provence has a bit of a Mafia problem.
I'm not talking Goodfellas here, but there are a handful of families—primarily Corsican—who deal in protection rackets. When I was about 12, one of the Irish pubs in town got firebombed, most likely because they didn't pay up.
"The mafia culture is extremely present here," says a fresh-faced, 21-year-old waiter—lets call him Bruno—working at one of the town's oldest, most respected establishments. I'll keep the name under wraps, for both our sakes. "The café itself is run like a Mafia. The employees are protected by the restaurant and paid in cash every week. We can even go to the boss with our personal problems."
The café sits in the shade of the plane trees that tower over one of Aix's main avenues, and has been around for over a century, playing host to local heroes like Paul Cézanne and Marcel Pagnol. Bruno has only been here for four months, but says that, for some of the employees, the place is their lives. "It's literally all the have," he says, puffing away on a cigarette. "There's a waiter who's been working here for 45 years, and many others who have spent well over 20 years here."
A couple of times now, Bruno's been ordered to put an undisclosed amount of cash into an envelope, only to have an impeccably dressed man come and pick it up.
We talk during one of Bruno's cherished smoking breaks, but his eyes still flick in the direction of his tables. He's new. He doesn't want to make mistakes. He might not want to end up as one of the place's managers who "likely spend their whole lives working and eventually die here," but his job is highly coveted in the area. People work tables, or stoves, to the death. They are respected.
"My previous manager worked himself into a heart attack in the kitchen," he says solemnly. Dedication means something else here. The lines separating home and work bleed together. "If the manager's family or friends want to get in touch, they actually call the bar instead of their homes."
That people surrender their lives to the daily runnings of a café show how important these places are for Aix's culture. Sure, on the surface this café—and others in the town—might just look like old bars, but they are the backbone of the place. Time, and life, moves through them like a slow breeze.
"There's a huge regular clientele," says Bruno, "whose parents came here before them, and grandparents before them." Of course, what with Aix being a ridiculously picturesque town in the South of France, tourists flock here like mosquitos to bare ankles. So what does this mean for a café like this, run with more than faint mob undertones? Treating non-local regulars like something you'd find on the bottom of your shoe, basically.
"We attract hundreds of tourists," Bruno whispers, "and are made to bend over backwards for the regulars. When an order comes into the bar or the kitchen, we are immediately told whether or not it is for a regular." You can't help but think of Silvio Dante throwing daggers at virgin Bada Bing clientele. In these places, you want your own around.
As a testament to this unfriendliness, later on I check out the place on TripAdvisor and find dozens of one-star reviews, claiming everything from "appalling service" to "ignorant waiters." People even say they've spotted rats. It doesn't affect business. "Health inspections are pretty rare," says Bruno, lighting one Camel off another. "I honestly don't know if the beer taps have ever been cleaned."
Maybe it has something to do with the unspoken protection the place has. An invisible shield to external problems. He goes on to explain that, a couple of times now, he's been ordered to put an undisclosed amount of cash into an envelope, only to have an impeccably dressed man come and pick it up. Save a curt "hello" and a firm handshake with the manager, no words are spoken.
Give me an espresso in a filthy cup with not even a hint of a smile, and I feel like I'm home.
"The café makes up to €30,000 a day on weekends and throughout summer, but only a couple of the employees' salaries are declared. I get my wages in cash at the weekend in an envelope." He narrows his eyes. "You better not be lying about this anonymity thing."
All this shadiness is reflected in the general identity of the city. Nothing has really changed since I first moved here as a six-year-old. I live in London now, but sitting on the same shitty plastic chairs I sat in as a boy and seeing the same, shitty, grumpy old waiters shuffling around (I genuinely wonder if they're immortal) makes me happy. You'll probably get a better coffee from an earnest-yet-friendly, bearded man in Shoreditch, but give me an espresso in a filthy cup with not even a hint of a smile, and I feel like I'm home.
The whole service thing is different here. As a non-regular, you fare well if you pay as little attention to the waiter as possible. A ten-minute wait after sitting down is the bare minimum. After that, there is only one simple phrase to utter: "un café, s'il vous plait." Another ten minutes—if you're lucky—will pass, and your espresso (thick and syrupy, like an electric paddle to the heart) will arrive with a glass of water. No one orders anything else. If you do, or if you show even a flicker of impatience, you'll stick out like a sore thumb, and can expect another 15 minutes of waiting time. Waiters here thrive on customers' discomfort.
All this is to say, for all the dodginess and borderline sociopathic service in a place where people come and sit because they just want a coffee and a little bite to eat, there's a beauty to its defiance. The staff and their regular clientele are basically like family, so why shouldn't they be allowed to treat them better? Yes, it might mean anyone not within that demographic is treated like the supposed vermin scuttling around the kitchen, but to those who moan, especially the whiney ninnies on TripAdvisor, I say suck it up.
Don't get me wrong, manners are great, but in our generic, clean, service-with-a-saccharine-smile world, coming to a place like this is (almost free) theatre. For it to change truly would be criminal.
Just keep an eye over your shoulder.