Giannis Tsarouchis, "Cafe Neon at Night"
The City

Café d’Athènes

Jonah and I met for a late morning coffee at the newly renovated Zonar’s, re-baptized as the Café d’ Athènes, a once grand literary café frequented by such luminaries of the Athens intellectual and cultural firmament as composer Manos Hatzidakis, poet Nikos Gatsos and writer Nanos Valaoritis. Zonar’s is, or rather was (its clientele now the wealthy shoppers of the very upscale department store above the café), the Athenian equivalent to the legendary Romanisches Café in Berlin, a hangout for a Who’s Who of the German intelligentsia in the early years of the Weimar Republic: Berthold Brecht, Max Beckman, Kurt Tucholsky, George Grosz (who apparently would appear in full cowboy drag, right down to the spurs on his boots), Heinrich Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Oskar Kokoschka and the trio of film directors Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch  and Billy Wilder.

As I said, very little is left of the allure of its earlier incarnation as a meeting place of writers, actors, painters, journalists and the like. That Zonar’s is now gone, along with a litany of other cafés and restaurants in the city (enumerated with affection in Μονά-Ζυγά). It now has the dubious reputation of offering the most expensive (but otherwise unremarkable) cappuccino in one of the most poorly ventilated, smokiest salons in the city. Unlike the Romanisches Café, which housed, as David Clay Lodge notes in his extraordinary Berlin: A Modern History (a classic of urban historiography), both the “swimming pool” for the fat cats with big wallets and the “wading basin” for aspiring artists, the Cafe d’ Athènes is all about money now. Blatant money. But Jonah comes from an old-moneyed Athenian family and neither the prices nor the arriviste clientele fazes him.

Jonah is elegance personified, always impeccably dressed, understated in manner. He has what Castiglione called sprezzatura, “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” He’s the kind of man who for a dinner party will buy the best wine he can afford but only as good as the most knowing of his guests can appreciate, and would never reveal the price he paid for it.

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Image: Christian Schad, Sonia at the Romisches Cafe (1928)

There’s a noble  fragility about him, perhaps due to his small frame and deliberate slow carriage, but I only glimpse this occasionally; the dominant impression one has of Jonah is a man very much at home in the world. Ironically, he is less and less able to indulge in some of the pleasures of which he is such a connoisseur. He told me his doctors had recently uncovered the reason why he had been plagued for so long by diarrhea: gluten intolerance. Which means an end to his beloved malts. It made me think again how aging is an exercise in loss: a succession of adieux, to hair and muscle, to memory and stamina, a retreat from the minor vices of everyday life as inexorable as the receding of gums and hairline that accompanies one’s passage to the last farewell.

We exchanged New Year’s  presents, but only after I had foolishly recounted the inappropriate Christmas gifts I had been given over the years,  starting with the scented aftershave my grandmother gave me year in year out (I never wear cologne) to candies that my ex-lover brought as a house gift on his last visit to Athens  (one would think he would  have remembered I don’t eat candy).

I gave him a Suicide Bunnies desk calendar, which I thought went well with his quirky iconoclastic wit. His gift to me was a stunning cobalt-blue silk tie. I almost never wear a suit, and certainly don’t have one nice enough to go with the tie. But Jonah quickly rescued me from my embarrassment, saying “you should have at least one good tie in your wardrobe. Think of it as a start to your new wardrobe.”

The Romanisches Café came to mind as we sat sitting lazily sipping our latte for another reason. Because of its reputation as a hangout for left-wing intellectuals, the Berlin café was trashed by the Nazis during rioting on the Kurfürstendamm in 1927. Just ten days ago during rioting in central Athens, triggered by the killing of a 16-year old boy by a policeman, masked “anarchists” smashed the glass doors to the relatively exclusive gym I go to, which is right behind Zonar’s and which was apparently perceived as a symbol of conspicuous consumption. Sad.

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Image:  Giannis Tsarouchis, “Cafe Neon at Night”, 1965

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