Every week at the Troubadour, pints of Campus beer cost two euros during happy hour. But every Tuesday, it is also the meeting place of the Café des Langues, an underground initiative created by the Troubadour – the most popular bar in Metz, a small city in the east of France. Its purpose? Providing a place for travel junkies, old friends, regulars and Erasmus students to chat, have a few drinks and have fun. The Café des Langues is a popular concept in many cities, but particularly popular in Metz. At first, it was a way to extend and organise “Erasmus parties” in Paris, allowing expats to socialise with one another.
House of Cards, cool stories and Mirabelle plum jam
Having just returned from my Erasmus semester abroad in the Finnish cold, I can safely say that I’m familiar with these kinds of European drinking sessions. Since I arrived in Metz last September, I’ve been waiting to have a free Tuesday night to get a pint at the Café des Langues. I thought it could be a good opportunity to widen my social circle and show off my rusty English skills; a chance to brighten up my morose life as a master’s student in the lifeless and ageing town that is Metz. Even as the capital of the Moselle region (in the east of France), it’s a social black hole known only for three things: its dull weather, its Christmas market and its Mirabelle plum jam. Armed with a camera and a notebook, I set off to the centre of town.
After getting myself a pint, I went down into the “basement” of the bar and found a small group of people sitting around a table, joking in French. So this was it, the Café des Langues. Deciding it was too early to judge, I chatted with *Thomas and David, the two organisers. These two, both in their thirties, wear an orange badge to help newcomers get settled before joining the group. Thomas is a bus driver and David works in retail. They have been members of the Café des Langues for years and give me a detailed run-down of the key moments in the history of the initiative, which has become an informal club of sorts. This house of cards for expats in the east of France is no longer what it used to be.
Small internal struggles, love affairs and ideological conflicts are what formed this weekly get-together. It started off as a popular Couchsurfing group before becoming a very structured multicultural group, and the initiative has now taken on a hybrid structure. The Café des Langues is now organised via a simple Facebook page managed by Thomas; it is open to all and very popular among the expats and students of the city. The 2,000 page followers exchange knowledge and customs. For expats arriving in Metz, it’s often the only way to establish an initial social circle.
Drowning your sorrows at the Café des Langues
David explains that their main goals are to “relax, drink a few pints and hear some cool stories.” At the start of the evening, Thomas recounts the ten years of anecdotes from the Café des Langues. Two members who met there and who later got married still attend almost every week to have drinks around the Troubadour’s wooden tables. Thomas mentions the complicated past the founders faced. A few years ago, one of them tried to make the Café “too official, with a framework like a real organisation” and expand the concept further to bring in even more people. This impromptu “big boss” wasn’t to the taste of some other founders. He left the group fairly quickly, which seems to have a positive move.
My eyes quickly turn to the table where the group of core members are sat. Everyone knows each other well and they are plunged into various deep discussions. This closeness is intimidating for a newbie like me. I introduce myself as a journalist “on a break” who has come to throw back a few beers, leaving behind my professional conscience.
Erasmus students gradually start pouring in to the basement, and my arrival coincided with the start of the second round. The space fills up quickly and my second pint marks the peak moment of the Café des Langues. By now it has finally started to represent the ‘language’ element as German and Arabic echoes in the basement that, until then, had been dominated by French. No English though. Unfortunately, the Café is not subject to international standards and I have to make do with French; a disappointment that I soothe with my third pint.
Thomas and David are sitting down somewhere in a corner of the basement, already tipsy and busy preparing a game. It’s the last Café des Langues for 2017, so everyone has to find the equivalent of “happy New Year” in ten or so different languages and write these down on a piece of paper. The first team to correctly fill in the answers wins a pint, so everyone works hard and works drunk.
I first meet Said, an Algerian member of the Café since 2008. He’s a nice, engaging and curious 30-year-old. In a slightly hidden corner of the bar I meet Ahmet. He is an Afghan agricultural engineer who arrived in France a couple of years ago (don’t ask me for the exact date, I had already been offered two or three pints more at this point) and has found “absolutely no jobs in the area.” Many expats that I got to know that night with my trusty notebook in hand seem to have struggled to integrate in the Northeast, and take advantage of the weekly Café meetings to have as much social contact as possible. Samad explains to me that, despite speaking French perfectly, “it’s very hard to find a skilled job as an expat.” As an Afghan in his thirties, he is often faced with intense discrimination. He doesn’t have all of the qualifications and training he needs to be hired, but these qualifications are “far too expensive” for an expat who can barely get a job.
I talk at length with Habib, originally from Marrakech, who has been a regular at the Café des Langues for several years. He’s wearing a blue badge, a symbol of his status as a “true” member. That is, someone who didn’t go back to their home country too quickly and who stayed long enough to become a “regular”. Habib tells me that: “It’s a change from being at work.” He’s made quite a few good friends at the bar. For him, there’s nowhere else he’s rather be on a Tuesday evening.
A few hours into this weekly meet-up, a group of German students arrive, sit down and start playing the “happy New Year” game. For them, the Café is a break from the generally gloomy atmosphere in this small eastern French town. At the bar, many Erasmus students are drowning their sorrows as they regret their choice of destination. The lucky ones only have to stay for one semester.
One big family?
The mix of groups is complicated. While the old-timers stay at the same table, the Erasmus students and young expats have active conversations and seem more inclined to make new friends. There’s a real generational gap in the basement of the Troubadour. Thomas and David, improvised heroes, try to gather everyone and liven things up.
“It’s not easy to keep the game going when everyone’s distracted by beer,” Thomas sighs. He has to ask for the member’s attention several times. While trying to create a bit of team spirit and push for new links to be formed through the game, the organisers underestimate what they’re working with. Even with the help of alcohol, it’s hard to bring together different cultures, especially when those cultures are already spread across groups of friends.
The hours go by and I find myself battling with Habib to find out how to spell “aam saiid”, the Arabic translation of “happy New Year”. While this is happening, the three German students finally manage to find the correct translations at the end of the evening. The efforts of the organisers did pay off then, and the happy winners get a pint each.
Between bursts of laughter and a lot of stumbling around, the night comes to an end. I leave with the impression that the Café des Langues is not just an informal gathering. It can seem a little disorganised, but it remains a hugely important meeting place for expats. Whether that’s for drinking, making new friends or escaping the gloominess of the town, the members of the Café gather old and new friends alike. It’s a big family of strangers with only one thing in common: beer.
*Names have been changed for anonymity