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Ever since the first Parisian cafés opened in the 1600s, they have been the place where the city’s aristocrats, artists, flâneurs, philosophers and students have met to gossip, fall in love and foment political and artistic revolutions. In this new series from Curious Minds favourite Lisa Pasold (Rebel Paris, Inventing Modern Paris), we’ll take a thrilling journey through the history of these vibrant meeting places and discuss how the Parisian café became a glittering spectacle. From radical philosopher Voltaire to Revolutionary politician Robespierre, from Americans like Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s and James Baldwin in the 1950s to Algerian-Parisian writer Leïla Sebbar in the 1980s, we’ll meet the famous denizens of these cultural hotbeds and examine how café culture helped created the city we know and love today.

Led by Lisa Pasold, a Governor General’s Award–nominated writer, journalist (The Globe and Mail, Chicago Tribune) and television host of Discovery World’s Paris Next Stop.

Registration: $49 (Hot Docs Members: $33, $27, Free)


Lecture 1: Café Philosophe
From Voltaire to Roland Barthes, philosophy has been a constant unbroken tradition in Parisian cafés. In the 1600s, coffee was the latest new thing in Paris, gradually filtering down from the aristocracy. Coffee was savoured in court, then in open air markets, and suddenly, finally, in the first prototypical Parisian café, Le Procope, patronized by coffee enthusiasts like Voltaire and Rousseau. How has the sidewalk café become the defining symbol of Parisian life and thought?  Have the elegant formalities of café culture created a specific kind of French intellectual approach?

Lecture 2: Café Révolutionnaire
Political discourse and debate flourished in the Parisian café, and these coffee table arguments brought about immense change in the real world. We’ll look specifically at the café’s importance during the French Revolution, and consider the rumour that Napoleon drank more coffee than any other ambitious general of his era. Was that the secret to his success? And we’ll drop by the fashionable Café Regence—where Ben Franklin once played a chess-playing automaton.

Lecture 3: Café des Artistes
No surprise, artists gravitated to the café from the beginning, as a source of artistic exchange, gossip, and inspiration, and more simply as a place to stay warm. We’ll dive deep into the new artistic movements that sprang up from coffee grounds, where artists paid their bills with now-priceless paintings and sketches. And we’ll look at some illuminating café moments, including the duel between art critic Duranty and Impressionist painter Manet.

Lecture 4: Café Américain
‘Le Select’, ‘Closerie des Lilas’ and ‘La Coupole’… the glittering café names that conjure the Roaring Twenties in Paris. The Lost Generation of dreamers and anarchists, bankers and flappers hit the terrasse with a raucous shout, changing the way both expat and French creators approached the written word. The legacy is still reverberating. Even today, the historic Café Wepler sponsors its own literary competition and the elegant, modern Café Beaubourg has its own magazine.

Lecture 5: Café des Intellos
In the post-war shift of the 1950’s and 60’s, the focus of intellectual fervor spun around Les Deux Magots and the Café Flore. Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Camus fought brutal intellectual wars from the headquarters of their very own café tables. We’ll discuss how disagreements about Stalin broke up friendships, how James Baldwin forged his path in Parisian café culture, and how lesser-known Queer cafés allowed alternate voices to flourish.

Lecture 6: Corner Café
To wrap up our series, we’ll step into the cafés of today. For locals and tourists, the Paris café remains an integral part of life. The small cafés on nearly every Parisian corner have survived despite the pandemic. We’ll sit over an espresso and examine the traditions that citizens everywhere long to emulate. And of course, we’ll talk about how Starbucks was inspired by the European café tradition, what Starbucks says it is selling us, what it sells us instead, and what Parisians really think about coffee ‘to go’.

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