The Other Side of the Bar

…or One Bar, Two Buses, Six Coffees and a Funeral.

PMU The other side of the barDon’t we all just love it? The thought of a nice little bar in France, open from early morning, evoking visions of rustic charm, the smoke of half-a-dozen Gauloises (not any more!) and some animated exchanges over the morning’s St Tropez Daily Worker? At first glance it’s a dream, but the reality is somewhat different. Those bars that open early are serving coffee and often all kinds of strong spirits, by staff who have been on their feet since 6am.

All of you who have travelled to or through France might have noticed those PMU signs over little bars. That means it’s a bookies as well as a bar. That is for some an irresistible combination! You can drown your sorrows after losing your shirt, without moving from your vinyl-covered banquette!

If you want to see a real French bar then seek out a PMU. Don’t go to the smart touristy cafes (you can always spot the English, they are the only ones drinking large milky coffee in the afternoon), but try the local bar of choice, stand at the ‘zinc’ and order a café or a noisette, which is a small espresso with a dash of milk.

The distinguishing feature of a PMU is the TV broadcasting non-stop horse racing and other bettable sports. The addition of the gambling side of the business contributes a lot to the bar’s finances. The men can keep an eye on ‘le foot’ and the ladies can buy a Lotto ticket. Most linger for a coffee or a small glass of something, and that gives the bar the air of a private social club.

I can’t understand the interest in betting so I’m there to people-watch. There’s often a little old man in a shabby black suit sitting in the corner showing no interest in the proceedings. He doesn’t watch the TV. He doesn’t join the general conversation but the patron will serve an unending supply of coffee that seems to arrive unordered and to go unpaid for. He must be a relation… or the Mayor!

My friend Stephanie had a bar in a small village in the north of France. The doors opened very early in the morning to provide small strong coffees to the mine workers who were waiting for the bus to take them to the pit. The miners would consume a line of waiting coffees in just a couple of gulps. No words were exchanged and the bill would be paid every other week.

Stephanie’s bar was conveniently the terminus for two bus routes so there would be a guaranteed clientele of at least the bus drivers. Passengers would congregate in the bar for a coffee or a glass of red before taking the bus to the nearby town. The hospital was in that same town and treated the ex-miners who had contracted pneumoconiosis (black lung disease) or emphysema. The terrible legacy of mining is the breathing problems from working in that dark dusty environment. Men would spend years suffering ill-health before passing away, like generations of miners before them.

The days when there was a funeral were incredibly difficult for my friend. She would have known the dearly departed very well. She would have served him his morning coffee when he was still able to work. She would have made sure he had a nice glass of something warming while he waited for the bus to take him to the hospital, and now she had to juggle the duties of both bar-keeper and mourner at the time of the poor man’s funeral. If the circumstances had not been so tragic, the sight of my friend sprinting in full black regalia from graveside to bar would have been comical. But it was her last duty to the mourned to provide refreshments for the funeral guests. The proceedings could last many hours, miners being shift-workers, with each of the deceased’s colleagues wanting to pay his last respects.

We suppose that life in a French bar would be romantic and convivial. Most bars rely on a few regular clients but even in tourist areas trade can be unpredictable. The early morning coffee is still popular, and warm summer evenings encourage people to stay late. It’s long hours of work and there isn’t much time to be convivial.

I am glad that someone looks after the bar, but me, I don’t envy them. I am right behind the people behind the bar!


Travel review by Chrissie Walker © 2018


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