Historically, cafes have served as meeting points, places of conversation, of discussing concerns and drinking. Ever since the first cafes were opened in the Middle East, and to their introduction throughout the world, they have served as places for socializing and even making big decisions (political or otherwise).
Today, in a time when many cities in the world share common characteristics, regardless of their geographic position or socio-political organization, it is difficult to find a person who has never been to a cafe. They have become so common and, if I may, necessary, that people can seldom summarize their day without including coffee at some point — a meeting in this or that cafe.
This comes naturally. It is better to meet someone at a neutral location (cafes belong to their respective owners) because it creates an equal playing field, it evades situations in which one may feel uncomfortable as a result of being in the other’s environment. It is also an issue of power relations, although this is more relevant in cases of formal meetings, rather than meetings between friends.
All this justifies, and gives meaning to the existence of cafes, their social importance etc.
Let us stop and ask ourselves: what does a 12 year old do in a small city in Kosovo?
Nevertheless, there is, inevitably, another side to this coin, especially in a country in which cafes are places where political coalitions are broken up, governmental agreements are reached, electoral promises are shaped, votes are traded, diplomas are bought and sold, board members are appointed… the list goes on.
Now let’s stop and see. Seeing that cafes are, and historically have been, one of the most popular, prevalent and accessible meeting points, what is their alternative? What place, organization or public space can people meet each other, talk to each other and discuss concerns without being obliged to drink a macchiato?
Have cafes substituted all other public and social spaces, all other forms of social organization, all places in which people (who more often than not share common opinions) come together? It seems so. At least in our country.
Cafes and their alternatives
During the ’80s and ’90s, cafes were more scarce, and there were more alternatives. Even smaller cities, let alone Prishtina and Prizren, had cinemas, and those spaces were utilized for theatrical plays (and even campaigns, although political campaigns were rarer at the time) and other social events.
There were also libraries which people visited more than they do today. There were places where you could play pool or table tennis. There were sports centers. In the capital, there were also ice skating rinks, and many other things.
Perhaps these places are irrelevant for politicians and businessmen, who can go to the southern hemisphere should they have the desire to skate. However, they are nevertheless very important for a crucial stratum of our society: the youth.
Let us stop and ask ourselves: what does a 12 year old do in a small city in Kosovo? Where do they spend their day after school? Where do they meet their friends? Where do they go during lunch break? What about a 19 year old who is not studying? Where do they spend 16 hours of their day? What about a 62 year old who is close to retirement?
Room for everyone
Cafes are not the issue per se. But they become an issue when they engulf a whole society. When they become the only option for social life. When they are imposed on you as the only option for spending time.
A small city in Kosovo with approximately 20,000 residents has at least 20 cafes, which means at least 1 cafe for every 1,000 people. If we exclude categories that are usually not clients, in any case it takes on the literal meaning of: “there is room for everyone.”
The alternative to cafes is cafes.
The alternative to cafes is cafes. Sometimes we see that a business, a cafe, has closed down, and we ask ourselves: I wonder what they will open here? Two months later, voila, another brand new cafe! A better one, they say. With better espressos. With a more modern interior. With educated waiters. Blah blah blah.
If you visit smaller cities in Western Europe, you will not find as many cafes, or they will not be full of people throughout the whole day. But it is likely that this will not be the case in other countries in the region. If there are a lot of similarities with other Balkan countries in this regard, it is inevitably an indicator of underdevelopment, crippling unemployment and a lack of social conscience.
I repeat, cafes are not an issue in and of themself. The issues lies in what cafes have substituted. When a young person (a minor) has nowhere to go to spend their time — which unfortunately and in many cases is more than enough — they will go to a cafe. And, knowing our level of social responsibility, they will unlawfully have access to alcohol, and even narcotic substances.
The issues lies in what cafes have substituted.
This is not because the owner sells them, but simply because cafes are meeting points for people who do sell and buy them, of people who give and take them. It is because cafes have no alternative. You can imagine how much a glass of rakia or wine costs in Rahovec, for example, and how accessible they are to minors.
I don’t know if the state or municipalities can do anything about regulating business activities within designated areas of spatial planning. I don’t know whether or not intervention or regulation would represent a violation of the right to exercise economic activities unimpeded. But there is one thing that we can be sure of: overcrowded cafes are more a reflection of overall social misfortune, than a reflection of the welfare of people who have half a Euro to buy a couple hours of their life.
This article was originally written for Kosovo 2.0 and has been republished here with permission.