Le Café des Sports: the indispensable French institution
Travel around la Belle France and you will find one in so many villages and towns! Le Café des Sports has been around for decades and is an integral part of French local life.
It is a café. It is a bar. It can be a restaurant. More often than not it is the place where locals meet early in the morning, after work or on market days. The clientele may vary throughout the day but there are definite “habitués” (regulars.) It also serves as the headquarters of local athletic associations or clubs. It’s essential to French life, “un lieu d’échange” (a place for cultural and social exchange.)
L’Isle Jourdain a small town 35 kilometers (22 miles) West of Toulouse in the Gers area is part of the larger Occitanie region. Back in the day this corner of France was known as Gascony. It’s quiet (population 9,000+) and so close to Toulouse the town’s increasingly considered a suburb of France’s fourth largest city. Not all suburbs are created equal. In 2023 L’Isle Jourdain remains a pretty pleasant place to live.
A Toulouse native I spent many summer days and Holiday seasons in L’Isle Jourdain where my paternal grandparents settled down in the early 1960s after our family left Algeria. My grandfather Georges (a longtime farmer with an entrepreneurial spirit) and his wife Sidonie bought a small business in town known as “une bonneterie.” They ran the store successfully for years until Georges became ill and had to retire. Their daughter, my aunt, helped run the store for a while. She raised her three children in l’Isle Jourdain. She still lives there today and has just turned 96.
Whenever I am in town, I take a trip down memory lane.
Family trip to southwestern France
Last week our extended family gathered in town for my cousin’s funeral (she was one of my aunt’s two surviving children.) In her late 60s, a familiar face in L’Isle Jourdain where she had returned years ago, B. passed away after a long illness. My parents, brother and I scrambled to head south on fairly short notice. I flew into Toulouse from Strasbourg. They took a train from Paris to Bordeaux then drove south. They had an eventful trip involving SNCF delays… and the local gendarmerie! Enough said.
My brother, my parents and I booked one night at a local three-star hotel where we stayed after the funeral. There aren’t that many in town. “L’Echappée Belle” is an elegant property with a restaurant and a solid local reputation. After inviting us to dinner my father balked at investing 18 Euros per person for the breakfast buffet the following morning (after all, my mother eats like a bird!) He announced before going to bed he’d be fine with some coffee and “des tartines beurrées” (buttered baguette slices) enjoyed at a local café on Saturday morning, market day. We would then visit my aunt before heading back north.
I got up early and went scouting for the perfect breakfast spot. I know the few cafés in town, including the place next to my grandparents’ old business where we used to go and pick up ice cream for dessert at the end of large family gatherings.
Not a single one of them had “tartines beurrées” available. Just coffee, “croissants” (displayed in basket on the counter) and a couple of “chocolatines” (otherwise known as “pain au chocolat” in uncivilized parts of France or “chocolate [Kr-Oah-SS-Onts]” in other corners of the world.) This wouldn’t do.
I was ready to give up when I checked out one last place, the former Café des Sports sitting at a major intersection at the town’s entrance. We’ve sat there often, inside or “en terrasse” over the years. The café has now changed ownership and is named “O’ Café Pascale.”
I entered and headed straight to the bar where I ordered my morning staple “un café noisette.” Then I looked around.
Once a Café des Sports, always a Café des Sports
Around 9:00am with many locals browsing the wares at the market, the place was quiet. Behind the bar, a woman with colorful glasses prepared drinks for a table of four (“Des habitués,” I decided) bantering with her customers. The conversation was animated and infused with the delightful local accent, my favorite in France. It wasn’t hard to see the place is proud of its southwestern roots.
When the woman placed the cup of coffee in front of me, I inquired whether “des tartines beurrées” were available for breakfast and confessed I had failed to find them in L’Isle Jourdain so far for my father.
The answer was negative. I sighed and she saw the disappointment on my face.
I told her we had returned to town for my cousin’s funeral. When I mentioned St Martin’s collegial church where the service had taken place the day before the woman seemed to know who my cousin was. B, after all, had joined the city council in 2020 even if her illness had prevented her from being as active as she would have liked for the past year.
“Votre cousine était une personne dynamique et sympathique qui essayait de faire bouger les choses.” (Your cousin was a nice, energetic person who tried to make things happen.)
I nodded. A few seconds later, she offered: “Allez chercher vos parents. J’ai du beurre dans la cuisine. Allez à la boulangerie à côté. Apportez ce que vous voulez. On se débrouillera. A la bonne franquette.” (Go get your folks. I have butter in the kitchen. Go to the baker’s next door. Bring what you want. We will manage. Easy peasy.)
I thanked her profusely; reported back to my crew at the hotel. They approved of the plan. On the way back to the café, I picked up a couple of baguettes, some jam and apples.
When we arrived, “Valou” (Valérie, the woman with the fun glasses) welcomed us and gave us a spacious table at the back of the room. Regulars had arrived by then and most tables in the front were full. She quickly brought some butter, paper towels and knives. “Voilà. Vous serez comme des rois!” (There you are. You’ll be as comfortable as kings!)
We ordered coffee (“deux cafés au lait, un allongé, et un express.”) A la bonne franquette.
My parents ate with gusto, my mom slathering butter on large pieces of baguettes.
Valou kept checking on us while waiting on other customers, stopping for a few minutes to chat each time.
I thanked her profusely for her hospitality.
She shot back: “Nous vivons dans un drôle de monde. Nous avons tous besoin de chaleur et de bienveillance.” (We live in a strange world. We all need warmth and kindness.)
“What a special place you have here!,” I commented.
Valou replied: “Il y a des années, on avait 11 coiffeurs et autant de cafés à l’Isle (Jourdain.) Aujourd’hui, nous ne sommes plus très nombreux. Et pourtant… qu’ils étaient importants, ces cafés, lieux “multi-service,” agences matrimoniales, agences immobilières… Ici, le matin surtout, la communauté existe toujours.”
(Years ago, there were 11 hair salons and as many cafés in L’Isle Jourdain. Today there aren’t many of us left. And yet… how important they were, those cafés, “multi-purpose” locations, dating agencies, real estate agencies… Here, in the morning especially, we still have this community feeling.)
I could only agree. Out of sheer luck I had chosen the (former) Café des Sports and in France, some things will never change.
Merci, Valou, for your kindness.
Rest easy, B.
A bientôt, L’Isle Jourdain.
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