“How do you say ‘I love your fluffy cats’ in French?” I whisper to my husband.
He blinks at me. “Why would you ever need to say that? I don’t think you should say that.”
“I would like to compliment the owner.”
“Dara.” My husband’s eyes are a bit desperate. He has given me this look before. It is the look reserved for when I am begging to adopt a 100-pound pit bull for our 500-square-foot apartment, or for when I order off the children’s menu. “Please don’t say, ‘I love your fluffy cats.'”
It’s a frigid fall day in Montreal, and we are standing in the cramped foyer of a cat café.
The crowd that winds out the door and around the block is mostly 10-year-olds, McGill students, a few dads gamely herding broods in Frozen gear. In the café, we can see a dozen tables, anchored by mismatched antique chairs and squashy cat-shaped throw pillows. The airy room is decorated like a Barbie Dream House for the Cat Fancy set: towering cat condos, cat shelves, cat toys, a burbling water fountain for cats.
After an hour of waiting, stamping cold feet in the sub-freezing temperatures outside, we are admitted entrance. A server seats us at a table in the center of the room, dropping off menus.
I can’t be bothered to look at a menu. There is a pair—nay, a small heap—of kittens sleeping on a shelf above me. I start snapping photos. A representative from the kitten pile stands up, stretches, and curiously sniffs my iPhone.
I consult the plastic card on our table, which identifies the café’s dozen feline residents.
“This is Luna!” I introduce Luna to my husband, but he is kneeling on the floor, petting a zaftig, slightly dyspeptic-looking tabby called Gustave. I go off to explore the room, which is teeming with people and cats doing cat stuff: darting under tables, chasing a laser pointers, receiving belly rubs, walking primly along a catwalk suspended from the ceiling.
Humans sip lemonade and cappuccinos, their eyes darting back and forth as if they were at a tennis match: Look, over there! A tuxedo cat licking itself! Servers walk through the crowd, depositing steaming bowls of soup and mugs of hot cocoa, answering questions and benevolently replacing cat toys.
In a squishy armchair tucked away in a corner, a beautifully dressed silver-haired woman reads the paper as a cat winds around her Hermes Birkin. She is, I think, my Patronus.
This is my happy place.
Café Chat L’Heureux opened in the fall of 2014, one of two such cafes in Montreal and the first of their kind in North America.
Cat cafes were all the rage in Asia in the late ’90s but never quite made their way stateside. The first opened in Taiwan, where postage-stamp-sized apartments often precluded pet ownership. Patrons paid a cover charge or an hourly fee to play with the cats. International travelers enjoyed the kitty cafes and soon, the feline phenomenon spread to the Middle East and Europe. Now, it’s finally finding its home in North America. And it seems to be a welcome trend: Before its opening, Café Chat L’Heureux’s crowdfunding campaign raised more than $40,000 in just over a month.
Kitty-themed cafes are pure fun, but Chat L’Heureux’s mission is also noble: Its cat residents are rescues from the greater Montreal area. In many ways, the café is a modern form of shelter, where humans can relax and kitties can be socialized in mutual enjoyment. The cafe promotes the healthful benefits of cat-human interaction (le ronronthérapie, literally “purr therapy” but somehow more adorable in French).
The owner also leads interactive workshops and events with feline experts and veterinarians. Montreal’s other cat café, Café des Chats, operates much the same way: Its kitties come from the Montreal SPCA.
Oh, to be so spoiled as to live in a city with dueling cat cafes. Americans, take heart: According to Wikipedia, a number of cat cafes in the U.S. are slated to open by year’s end under such names as Purringtons Cat Lounge (Portland, Oregon) and Catmosphere (Cincinnati).
Back in Montreal, my husband and I order lemonades and grilled cheese sandwiches and tasty little squares of apple crumble. We break out the guidebooks to plan our afternoon: to the Museum of Fine Arts, to the Centre Bell. To the other cat café, on Rue Saint-Denis. I absent-mindedly reach my hand under the table to pet Gustave’s neck as we chat and sip; it feels natural, like how I interact with my cat at home. Eventually, Gustave tires of me and makes a slinky exit toward the woman with the Birkin bag. Fine, Gustave. Have it your way.
It is late in the afternoon and the crowd begins to taper off. Once a seven-year-old’s birthday party leaves, their giggles and screams fading into the street and the shadow of Mount Royal, the cats seem to tire out. They disappear into cozy cubbies and through a hole in the wall that leads to a quiet, feline-only space. In the kitten pile, a tiny black cat stretches and sits back down on the head of another, who swats her away. Luna sleeps on.
I finish the dregs of my lemonade and gather my coat and scarf. I give Luna one last affectionate pat; she mews a bit in her sleep.
The café owner, a slim Frenchman, is wiping down coffee mugs behind the bar. He too seems a bit tuckered out.
“Je t’aime la chats fluffy,” I say to him.
“Yes.” He smiles, a little bit bemused, and shows me the door.
Onto the next one.
(Top photo: TripAdvisor, LLC; all other photos: Dara Continenza)
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