Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Un Café, S'il Vous Plaît!

Let's have a little coffee talk. So I'll wait right here while you go pour yourself a cup. If you're not into coffee, any other hot beverage of your choice will suffice. But as for me, I'll be drinking un cafe'.
When we think of coffee, we tend to think of it as the Starter Fluid of the day; a warm companion that we can snuggle up to in the mornings before we face our day. We even go to great lengths to get a paper cup of it later on, maybe placing a group order for a colleague to pick up on her way back from lunch. Each cup check marked in code only a barista (or experienced coffee go-fer) could decipher.

However, in France, things are different. Coffee isn't just the drink, it's the activity. It's the act of sitting down to relax and watch the world go by. Ordering a coffee in a cafe translates into renting your own little piece of La France for as long as you wish to be there. What a bargain! Chairs are strategically placed facing the same direction, lookin' at you kid! If you ever got a complex while touring in France thinking people were staring at you, you were right! they are! But it's not considered ill-mannered. C'est normale, as the French say. It's what you do. People watch.
So in order to rent yourself a slice of France, you just need to know how to order a coffee the way you like it.
My husband was shocked the first time he got a coffee in Paris. He successfully utilized his French lessons to order his favorite hot beverage. But to his dismay the waiter set before him a saucer holding the smallest tea-party sized cup he ever saw, containing a shot of black tar, garnished with a paper-wrapped sugar cube and baby spoon to stir it with. So, as if it was a shot of tequila, he tipped his head back and took one small gulp and voila! It vanished!

Then, he asked me, "Honey, how do I say "refill" in French?"

Now, at this point, anyone who is familiar with France is probably laughing right now. Everyone else, listen up! Refills do not exist in France. Unless you just want to order a whole new coffee and call it a refill to make yourself feel better. But it'll set ya back another 2 bucks or so.

So on his next "refill" he decided to use the sugar cube. It was so cute, wrapped up in decorative paper as if it were the smallest present in the world. He unwrapped it, then carefully lowered it into the precious few ounces of black goo and stirred it with the tiny spoon. However, the amount of sugar was disproportionate to the amount of hot liquid (Cubes big, Coffee Small). So he was in a quandary. Does he order more coffee to dilute the sugar? Or suck down the sickening sweet concoction and say goodbye to coffee in France forever?

Later, after learning there were indeed other ways to order coffee , he quickly honed his skills of ordering it with supplemental ingredients (milk or cream) to increase the volume, therefore extending his sipping pleasure. Café creme, cafe au lait, s'il vous plait.

Something you never see in France is coffee to go. Oh sure, you'll see American tourists in Paris lining up at that certain international chain to get their fix, but the French will be the ones using the tables and drinking from ceramic. Yes, the word "emporter" does mean "to take out", but just because it exists and is even advertised doesn't mean it's the right thing to do when it comes to coffee. I should know. I tried it, twice.

On a road trip from Paris to Brittany, we stopped at a little roadside cafe to counteract the drowsiness. When we walked in, we saw the sign "Café à emporter" behind the bar. I jabbed my husband and said, "Hey! Finally, a place that caters to American coffee drinkers!" So, in my best French I asked for 3 cups of coffee to emporter. The lady looked at me flatly and then said, "Je comprends pas, Madame." I pointed to the sign to explain, and she said, "Yes I understood, but why would you want it to go? Are you sure?"

Then, a few days later on our way back to Paris one morning very early, we stopped at truck stop (no, i didn't know they existed in France either). It looked exactly like a 50's diner you'd encounter on road trip in the States. A long bar with bar stools loaded with big burly truck drivers. Surely, they would do coffee to-go for me here. As I confidently sauntered up to the bar, asked for "Trois cafes à emporter" (3 coffees to go) I heard all 10 truckers whip their heads in my direction and dead silence filled the place. The waitress stared at me. The truckers stared at me, holding their itty-bitty cups of coffee between their fat sausage-like fingers. At that moment, I realized that even big burly truck drivers prefer to drink their coffee sur place and out of a real cup.

I got what I ordered, even if was handed to me in a thin plastic Dixie cup which burned all ten of my fingers.

So the moral of this coffee-flavored story is, when in France, drink coffee as the French. Relax, sit down, take in the sights and sounds around you. This is why you came to France. But under no circumstances, even if it is advertised, order "Un café à emporter".


Adele said...

What a cute post! This is one of the things I love about European culture - the way they take time to enjoy meals, and even just a simple cup of coffee! Thank you for such a nice start to my morning!



La Belette Rouge said...

Oh CC, I have had to give up coffee as of today (probably,just for a few weeks)! So, I really enjoyed the virtual Café creme. Merci. I love taking the sugar cube they give you and put the edge of it in the coffee until the cube is filled with the hot liquid and then enjoy the sugar cube as a sort of coffee candy. Yummy.

Thea LaVigna said...

A very Fun and informative post!!

Cris in Oregon said...

Thanks CC for the comment on my blog post today. Thought I would come & check out yours. Got a chuckle out of the Hubby and his SHOT of coffee. I would have loved to have seen the look on his face when you expained that that WAS his cup of coffee there were no refill's. I shall smile when looking at a cup of coffee again.

sukipoet said...

Hi. Thanks for your comment on my blog today under the "I have offended" post. Life is full of surprises. Glad to find your blog as I love...well Paris esp but everything French. How wonderful you are able to live there. I look forward to reading about your adventures. best, sukipoet

lady jicky said...

I am enjoying your post too!

Betty C. said...

I was indeed drinking a cup of coffee as I read your post, and I did go reheat it (also not a very French thing to do!)

Even after almost 18 years here, I have never managed to enjoy French-style coffee. I like going to cafés for a beer or a Perrier, but I still have my American coffee habits: dragging around a cup o'java all morning at the weekend, for example...which is what I'm doing today, since it's Toussaint in France and thus a day off!

ShabbyInTheCity said...

OH I'm laffing at you trying to hold that hot thin cup of coffee!
And what our U.S. truck drivers would do if they walked into that place and see those big guys with their tiny cups sipping away time.

Cassoulet Cafe said...

LBR, Say it isn't so! You really had to give up coffee? My condolences, lol. But we must be alike because I love to do that too with the sugar cube! Sort of a coffee "canard". Miam!
PS. Love the angle on the "virtual cafe creme!"

Cassoulet Cafe said...

Betty, I'm so glad to see that you are a die-hard American-style coffee drinker, coffee in hand during morning activities, and probably never in a bowl, right?

My husband has to have his coffee in the car on the way to work (something French would never do, non?) and one day a friend came to pick him up and when he saw him get into the car with his mug, the French friend was soooo delighted...he yelled, "Eet eez truuuuue! You drink a coffee in zee car! I love it!" Apparently it's a stereotype that we fully live up to.

So my husband pointed out the cup holder in Friend's car and said, "Well what do you think that is for?" It was a great laugh between the two!

Cassoulet Cafe said...

Shabby...Don't forget, it was three hot coffees in those thin, flimsy cups ;) Oh man, I was dying for a Java Jacket!
Thanks for stopping by!

Randal Graves said...

There isn't a time when I'm not drinking coffee. The second pot is brewing as we speak for the late night at work. I can truly appreciate the sitting down and soaking in the sights as you sip your beverage, the lack of rushing to-and-fro, but the plastic cup thing is just plain rude. Hot is hot in any nation. :)

My Inner French Girl said...

CC, that is the one thing I have no problem with when it comes to coffee, i.e., sitting down and enjoying the java in a real ceramic mug and making it last as long as possible. I only began drinking the brew about a year or so ago and only do so a few times a week, always "for here, in a mug," never "to go." In fact, my hubby and I decided long ago that we wouldn't buy a coffeemaker for the house so that we wouldn't be tempted to treat coffee as "fuel!"

I remember one time, pre-my coffee-drinking days, when I was in charge of setting up a conference at the college where I once worked. I had spent days arranging chairs, organizing the agenda, collating materials, contacting all the participants ahead of time, getting the AV ready, etc. I only began setting up the coffee just a few minutes before the meeting actually began, and you wouldn't believe the grumbling I got from the early attendees as I hastily assembled the coffeemaker, cups and condiments. I thought I was going to be lynched! It was only then that I understood the incredible power coffee has over us.


Cassoulet Cafe said...

You only just began, Marjorie??? :) Well welcome to a whole new world, hahaha! Thanks for sharing, glad you do it right by sitting and enjoying!!!

Jonathan & Kari said...

Oh my goodness - I am DYING. This post single-handedly sums up my life in France.

I must say that the cafe a emporter situation has mellowed a bit in Lyon since the arrical of Starbucks last year. People no longer look at me like I'm crazy when I take my to-go mug from the US on the metro!

Cassoulet Cafe said...

I am so very happy that you came to my blog :)
When did Lyon get Starbucks? I wonder if Toulouse ever will (that is where we lived and are going next month for a month).
Again, thanks for stopping by and glad you enjoyed!