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“An hour of conversation is worth a volume of letters.”

–Thomas Jefferson to John Adams.

This is the starting point for a movement of cafes all over the world where people gather just to slurp, nibble their tapas, and yak even if they’ve never met before.

Conversation Cafés.

In election year, I can’t think of a better idea.

They started in Seattle back in 2001. Three friends, Susan Partnow, Habib Rose, and Vicki Robin – and here I’m quoting from their website – “believed that more spontaneous and drop-in public dialogue would serve democracy, critical thinking and neighborliness.”

So they did an experiment.

“Each sat in a different café once a week and invited whoever was there, plus friends, to dialogue about things that really mattered.”

At the end of that summer, 9/11 happened, and they realized that their idea could be important. Conversation Cafes have since spread to over 70 cities in the US, Canada, and around the world.

They have cafes that do this from New York to Belarus.

But not San Diego.

The nearest one is in Santa Monica.

Me, I love the idea. I’d much rather have a conversation with someone I don’t agree with than just go “yeah, right, I agree,” shake our heads sadly, and that’s it.

And I don’t go with the ‘”I keep my politics/religion/musical tastes/jokes to myself” attitude. Heck, didn’t our forefathers, from those argumentative Greeks onwards, fight for the right to talk openly about anything and everything without fear of Big Brother breathing down their necks?

Good argument-conversations are brain sharpeners. You’ve gotta back up your claims, listen to the other guy, be ready to even concede they’ve got a point if they score a logic body-blow. Sometimes you even actually learn stuff. If you keep in mind Conversation Café’s advice to argue “in the Socratic tradition of respectful dialogue.”

That’s what’s good about bars, I guess. Whoever’s next to you is next to you. And here’s the irony: Before the French Revolution, what “café/restaurants” they had in Paris were basically plank tables with bench seats, probably in the street, and you ate and drank with a bunch of strangers you pretty-much had to start talking to.

The irony? It was only after The People took over in 1789 that cafés and restaurants – run by out-of-work aristocrats’ cooks - set up individual tables where you could be “private” in public, or whisper sweet nothings to your mistress. Be more ex-clusive, rather than in-clusive.

So Conversation Cafes? First step in the other direction. That Jefferson quote is their starting point, and the rise of coffee culture is the launch pad.

“At a Conversation Café there is nothing to join,” says the website (www.conversationcafe.org, 804-784-2626), “no homework, no agenda, just a simple process that helps to shift us from small talk to BIG talk, conversations that matter.”

So, sans our own Conversation Café, where to go?

Some places, it just ain’t gonna happen. Places where people go to curl up with their laptop and be alone. But some places are loud. Specially ones with streetside patios. They almost beg you to come, sit down, and argue. Even if it’s just the presidential election.

Places like, oh:

-Rebecca’s (3015 Juniper Street, at 30th, South Park, 619-284-3663)

-Café Madrid (outside Bay Books, 1029 Orange Avenue, Coronado)

-Caesar’s Hotel restaurant patio (1059 Avenida Revolución, at 5th Street - Calle 5a - Tijuana, 011.52-664-685-5608)

-Sótano Suizo (Swiss Cellar, Centro Plaza Fiesta, Isla G. Local 1 y 8-12, Avenida Paseo de Los Heroes 9415, Zona Rio, Tijuana, 011 52.664-684-88-34)

-Potato Shack (120 West I Street, Encinitas, 760-436-1282)

-Neighborhood (777 G Street, at 8th, 619-446-0002)

So hey, where are yours…?

Because, as the website says, “When you put strangers, caffeine and ideas in the same room, brilliant things can happen.”

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Ian Pike Aug. 28, 2012 @ 5:55 p.m.

I think it's interesting that we are so unlikely to talk to strangers and make new friends that we need special conversation cafe's to foster what, at least to my mind, should be the kind of things that happens in cafes as a course of regular events!


Ed Bedford Aug. 29, 2012 @ 12:49 a.m.

Yes, I have to agree. And having anything too formal would scare me off, too. But most of the time it's hard just to butt in to someone else's life without some excuse to bridge the gap. I like the way the French (in the countryside anyway) always address the crowd inside as they come in, "M'sieur-Dame!" And some Japanese chefs call out to you as you come in and leave. Anything to create a link, break the ice.


Ian Pike Aug. 29, 2012 @ 12:54 p.m.

Yeah! I dig that "irasshaimaise!" shout out. It's pretty hard to be uptight when the whole staff says "hi, pleased to have you here!"


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