A slice of life
You pass by them in the regular course of your day. There are people there from opening to closing, and they seem friendly, too. But you never go in. It always seems like you're an outsider.
A Flemish organisation is working to preserve the heritage of the “people’s café”
You have volkscafe phobia.
Volkscafes, literally "people's cafes", are populated by locals who've usually been going there since they were old enough to hold a beer. They're not big on décor, and they're certainly not on any tourist maps. They run the gamut from looking like your grandma's dining room, with laughing old guys playing darts, to appearing worn out and bleak, the first and last stop for the lonely, who've nowhere else to be.
A project launched by Volkskunde Vlaanderen (Folklore Flanders) called Hart voor Volkscafes aims to preserve and recognise the heritage of this particular kind of pub. They have just published the book Volkscafés: Vrouwentongen en Mannenpraat, which lays out the social history and contemporary use of the volkscafe.
Although mainly designed to promote the Hart voor Volkscafes project, the book includes essays that raise some difficult questions. How do you salvage the everyday charm or the unspoken rules of a particular volkscafe? Will the project establish some of these cafés as protected monuments?
Volkskunde Vlaanderen hired no less a figure than world-class photographer Jimmy Kets to bear visual testimony to the volkscafe phenomenon. He was, he fully admits, reluctant. But, wary of using black-and white-photographs to create some kind of timeless look, Volkskunde Vlaanderen wanted to opt for the young photographer's colourful, flashlight-flooded approach.
But Kets wasn't all that keen. Although one of his photos in the book shows a half-hidden Dimitri Verhulst novel, he has no similar childhood café experiences. "I'm not even a fanatic pub person," he tells me. "At my first meeting - in a pub - with Volkskunde Vlaanderen, however, I did suddenly see some visually enticing details. So I went to a volkscafe in my hometown of Dessel as a test. I was welcomed by a jukebox and some old ladies and took some pictures that reflected my ideas. The publishers gave me carte blanche."
In two short months, the 30-year-old photographed 50 drinking holes all over Flanders. "You can't just go in and start clicking away," he explains. "People have to be put at ease and have the project explained to them. However, when you start off by photographing a plant for half an hour to get it just right, by the time you've finished you've been pegged as a fool anyway, and you can continue taking pictures at leisure."
Gust De Meyer, a professor of popular culture at the Catholic University of Leuven warns in the book of the romantic image of a place where social classes don't matter, and everybody knows your name. Instead, he says, regulars would rather stare in their glasses than welcome outsiders, the point of the place being to seek refuge from home and/or jobs.
Nostalgia, Meyer suggests, might be misguided, a hype "created by so-called cultural omnivores, who in fact prefer to go to Art Nouveau cafés themselves, which they falsely believe to be ‘volkscafes'."
In Kets' experience, the atmosphere depended on the moment and the location of the volkscafe. "The smaller the hole, so to speak, the friendlier the people," he says.
Apart from serving as a press photographer for De Morgen and other assignments, Kets is regularly featured in exhibitions based on his personal portfolio. The FotoMuseum in Antwerp recently hosted Brightside, a collection of photos of people involved in recreational activities. He has also published a photo book of the same title.
Like many Flemish photographers, Kets is known for being honest and unpretentious. "In my personal work, I strive to make pictures that are timeless, less dependent on an article or a caption. You need to constantly remain inspired, even if there's no such thing as the perfect picture. I am perhaps more enthralled by imperfect ones that show emotion and make me wonder ‘how'."
Volkscafes aren't a typical Kets subject, but, then again, he doesn't want to commit to just one subject or mood. "I can be affected by any number of things, whether they make me smile or make me dream." Last year, he produced a series on the city of Las Vegas. "I had gone to photograph the erotic, the sleazy side of the town. But by leaving the casinos and walking off the end of the strip, I discovered the light and the things I really wanted to shoot."
The Volkscafes series records the sometime bizarre activities that take place there (in one case, an agricultural show of chickens, in small boxes attached to the wall) but also men simply looking bored or women applying their lipstick. "To me, photos are a way to register slices of life and show the emotions I've experienced witnessing them, be they sad or funny. You're constantly processing. It involves much more than mere luck."
Volkscafés portrays people but also inert objects, like tiled floors and ash trays. Kets is in general focusing more and more on the material traces people leave behind. How they've created their own space for their own enjoyment. "Like when you see garbage bags piled up a certain way, almost like modern art," he muses. "Someone must have made the effort to put them exactly so."
Kets finds some countries emotionally - and thus photographically - more appealing than others. "Ten days in Vietnam didn't bring me a click," he says. "I'd take lots of photos in America, but maybe none in Germany. And of course when you aren't feeling well, you shun happy people, so to speak, and feel more drawn to the sharp edges and dark corners. Because you follow your emotions."
Kets can find this country super alluring too, photographically speaking. "Sometimes Flanders is so hideous, it becomes beautiful again," he laughs. Driving to an assignment down a steenweg, for example, between Lier and Aarschot, I could stop every five meters to take pictures. One day I might."
Volkscafés: Vrouwentongen en Mannenpraat by Volkskunde Vlaanderen, Davidsfonds publisher, €22.50
Help Volkskunde Vlaanderen register worthwhile volkscafes on their website
Understanding the language of the volkscafe
Café: initially denoting a fashionable 18th-century coffeehouse, this general term currently equals the UK pub or the American bar. It encompasses all the haunts listed below.
Herberg: Mediaeval term for a café dating from a time when major thoroughfares offered the perfect location for meeting places. Beer was rich in calories (hence: a liquid lunch) and cleaner than water. Even kids drank it. Weary travellers could sleep in a herberg, too. If horses could rest there, it was known as an afspanning (un-harness).
Staminee: initially offering a separate room for closed meetings. Short-lived term supposedly based on the 16th-century Spanish phrase Esta minéta? meaning "Are there girls?"
Bruine kroeg: in the Netherlands, a kroeg equals a café, but in Flanders the bruine kroeg is a specific type of dimly-lit city café, in which 1960s intelligentsia gathered and saved the world.
Taverne: serves food. The dawn of the 20th century saw the bourgeois and clergy frequenting their own establishments, preaching against the lower class volkscafe. Commercial opportunism has "taverned" many cafés since, refurbishing them with shiny wood and red velvet upholstery.
You know you're in a volkscafe if:
1 There are old ladies in front and behind the bar. These cafés have supplied generations of families with extra income, and often the women have spent their lives running them while the men worked other jobs. They are indestructible. "I'm 90, but I'll never quit. Why would I? I would rather talk than watch TV." They own the joint and are the undisputed bosses. "You have had enough."
2 Only beer is served. No tap, just bottles from the fridge or cellar. Soda for kids. Asking for coffee is being fussy. There's no till, and prices are kept low and simple. "I multiply by seven best."
3 The name of the establishment refers to its location ('t Hoekske) or sports (De Sportduif). Some refer to its former doubling as a cattle farm (Den Bonten Os), a grocery shop (De Koophandel) or a blacksmith (In De Oude Smidse). Names are usually simple (Welkom) even if sometimes weird (Trouwe Lassie). Regardless of the sign above the door, locals will use the name of the owner (Ik ben bij Jef en Marie - I'm at Jef and Marie's).
4 No food. A hard-boiled egg or dried sausage at most.
5 Open every day and all hours. Or not. "I only open when I feel like it."
6 Iconic Sansevieras plants (or vrouwentongen) in pots adorn the windowsill (supposedly to purify the air).
7 The toilet is a ditch or a primitive wooden seat with a hole. "Where is the koer?" is a regular question. Looking for it will take you on a tour through the proprietor's private quarters until you end up outside again. Try the backyard or behind the shed.
8 The consistently unchanged 1930s to '50s interior usually consists of a bar, a wooden bench against the wall, red Formica table-tops and kitchen chairs. White neon lighting.
9 Silences are important. Minor gestures signal for another pint or a round. Rarely a TV. No music. The occasional vintage jukebox only plays the landlord's favourite songs.
10 Stray kids who accompany their drinking fathers. They're probably plotting to write a book later on this bonding but horrifying experience, like Dimitri Verhulst did.