Lifestyle

The Paris Cat Café: Le Café Des Chats

Article published on April 26, 2014
Article published on April 26, 2014

I have never been so fond of cats. They are the animal equivalent of the gold digger, all take take take. Or perhaps the prostitute provides a better analogy; cats let people touch them for material gain, but for food rather than cash. I prefer the authentic fidelity of the canis familiaris. But I am very open-minded to say the least, so I went to the Café des Chats in Paris’ 3rd arrondissement

Upon en­ter­ing the cat café I am told to cleanse my hands with vi­cious smelling an­ti­sep­tic. Nor­mally this is what you do after touch­ing an­i­mals, not be­fore. The im­pli­ca­tion is that the hu­mans are dirt­ier than the cats. For­tu­nately I have a thick skin and I’m not of­fended. I’m told that touch­ing sleep­ing cats is for­bid­den.

I de­scend a stair­case to a warmly lit cav­ern. It seems to have been hewn di­rectly from the bedrock of Paris. A cosy dun­geon of sorts. A few cats sleep serenely in wall-mounted nests. One is lying on a table being rubbed by a fam­ily. An­other drinks tea from a bearded man’s mug. It feels like being in the in­ter­net.

But what in­ter­ests me most is not the cats but the hu­mans. What kind of per­son takes their cof­fee with a cat?

I gaze around at the cus­tomers and I can’t help but think they’re the real an­i­mals round here. The cats sleep peace­fully or slink around el­e­gantly. The hu­mans blun­der about, bump­ing into each other, whoop­ing with ex­cite­ment. Two young men de­cide that if they can’t touch the sleep­ing cats, they’ll wake them up so they can touch them. One cat is sleep­ing by a piano. The lads ham­mer the keys, an awful sound is emit­ted, the cat awakes and they whisk it away tri­umphantly.

An Al­ger­ian named Ali is sit­ting in the cor­ner. He’s large and alone but his smile is im­mense. He ex­plains how cats have dif­fer­ent cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance in dif­fer­ent coun­tries. “In cer­tain parts of Africa they burn a cat for good luck when some­one leaves for afar,” says Ali. But in his na­tive Al­ge­ria, “cats come and go as they please. They even go into the mosques.” Ali tells me that when he was younger, he ar­gued with his fa­ther be­cause he would not let their cat eat at the din­ner table, “so I took a table to my room and I would dine in there with the cat. He had his lit­tle dish next to me, we ate to­gether.” Why did he come to the Café des Chats? He takes out a news­pa­per clip­ping from his pocket, show­ing me the ad­vert which in­spired his visit. Then he gets up to find him­self a cat, charg­ing off en­thu­si­as­ti­cally like a bull in a china shop.

Cats, like ba­bies, pal­li­ate the pain and em­bar­rass­ment of in­ad­e­quate so­cial in­ter­ac­tions. If there is a baby or an an­i­mal around, awk­ward si­lences are dealt with by the touch­ing of said crea­ture. You can in­ter­act with­out talk­ing. You don’t even need to have any­thing in com­mon, you just touch the crea­ture and smile at each other, bond­ing over the third party pres­ence. For some cus­tomers, this is the role the cats play. Small groups sit in si­lence gaz­ing in­dul­gently at the cat on their table.

Puss in Boots would turn in his grave if he saw these fe­ro­cious, finely con­structed killing ma­chines curled up on sofas, sell­ing their bod­ies in an un­der­ground cav­ern in Paris. There is a cu­ri­ous ten­sion be­tween the cat’s con­struc­tion and the cat's daily re­al­ity. House cats lead dou­ble lives, ruth­lessly hunt­ing birds and tear­ing mice to pieces, be­fore re­turn­ing home to have their ears scratched whilst they sleep. A human who be­haved this way would be branded a schiz­o­phrenic psy­chopath. The other cus­tomers don’t seem to think so.

Two Amer­i­can girls are in the thick of the ac­tion, scur­ry­ing around, joy­ously chas­ing down the lim­ited sup­ply of cats. I drag them away from the chase to hear their thoughts. Why did they come to the Café des Chats? “Be­cause cats are the cutest things!” Why are they cute? “Be­cause they’re so cute!” ex­claims, Sarah, 21. I mar­vel at the Amer­i­can tal­ent for tru­isms. “They’re very cute,” Sarah con­tin­ues, “and they are re­ally soft. And they are com­fort­ing. They just like to relax and lounge around which is to­tally the at­mos­phere you should have in a cozy café like this. They set the right mood for chill­ing out and en­joy­ing life.”

Sarah’s words prove to be quite as­tute. Nicole, an­other cus­tomer at the Café des Chats tells me about the unique ther­a­peu­tic power of an­i­mals. “In pris­ons they do dog ther­apy,” she says, “and some of the pris­on­ers say ‘if I didn’t have 5 min­utes a day with a dog, I would have al­ready killed my­self.’” An­i­mals are in­creas­ingly being used in pris­ons in a ther­a­peu­tic ca­pac­ity, help­ing in­mates over­come emo­tional trau­mas. In­deed “an­i­mal as­sisted ther­apy” is a recog­nised treat­ment for drug ad­dicts. Are the cus­tomers at the Café des Chats un­know­ingly en­gag­ing in emo­tional ther­apy?

What can the Café des Chats tell us about the state of so­ci­ety? Is it a symp­tom of our ob­ses­sion with sen­sual stim­uli? Ma­te­ri­al­ism in its rawest form? In­stead of stim­u­lat­ing the brain with a news­pa­per, today’s cof­fee drinker stim­u­lates his/her body with a cat. The sen­sual re­places the cere­bral. Or per­haps the Café des Chats is a symp­tom of the lone­li­ness in­her­ent in the human con­di­tion, a lone­li­ness which is ac­cen­tu­ated by the so­cial frag­men­ta­tion of the mod­ern me­trop­o­lis. As we live ever closer to­gether, we seem to grow ever fur­ther apart. Per­haps an­i­mals can help us over­come this alien­ation? Or per­haps the café is a by-prod­uct of an eco­nomic cri­sis that has robbed us of the re­sources to keep our own cats, whilst ramp­ing up our crav­ing for com­fort­ing cud­dles and un­bri­dled af­fec­tion?

As I reach for my wal­let, I am struck by the awful in­dig­nity these cats must en­dure (or would en­dure if they were Marx­ist cats). The in­dig­nity of being man han­dled by strangers who nei­ther know them nor want to; “Your soft­ness for my euros.” This is not a so­cial re­la­tion­ship be­tween fel­low crea­tures; it is an eco­nomic re­la­tion­ship whereby a sub­ject be­comes an ob­ject of eco­nomic value, com­mod­ity fetishism, reifi­ca­tion pure and ugly. But Saman­tha, one of the café’s em­ploy­ees, al­lays my fears. She says the cats are under no pres­sure to per­form; “some­times they de­cide to sleep all day… they only go to the cus­tomers when they want to.” It’s a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship whereby cats and cus­tomers share the emo­tional booty. No time soon will I dance with a cat by the light of the moon, but my pre­con­cep­tions about them have changed.