Sunday, January 4, 2009

Coffee, Please!

This is a rerun of an early Cassoulet Cafe post...enjoy!

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 Belle 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".


Ivy said...

Happy New Year to your and yours. We had the same experience when in france a couple of months ago. When we ordered un café s'il vous plaît, we got that tiny espresso coffee which I hate and the waiter explained that we should say un "un café allongé", which means a coffee with a larger quantity of water, in a larger cup. Unfortunately you can't get refils neither in Greece and I have only seen that in films, which I always thought it was a great idea.

~Tessa~Scoffs said...

How do you say "Un Half-Ton Vat du cafe, s'il vous plais?"

Stacy's Random Thoughts said...

Visiting from SITS - I had to go refill my coffee cup before proceeding to read through your post...thanks for the reminder! ;) Thanks for the 'warning' about coffee in France - I'm working on talking my hubby into taking me there, and we both love our coffee, so it's a big help to have this info in advance! (grin!!!)

Laura said...

I almost spit out my earl gray tea while reading this post. Happy New Year to you and to your family. I love the image that you painted with the french truckers staring at you as you ordered your coffee to go. Each time I travel I ask myself "What would the Romans do?"

Mama H said...

So funny! I've never been to France, so thanks for the little glimpse into what it would be like. Diet Pepsi is my morning coffee... do they have that over there and do the same rules apply? Just wondering...

Insanity Kim said...

I love coffee

Hubby is French, I am Italian

We have 18 years combined experience in the coffee business.

I have been drinking it every morning since the age of 9.

Hubby takes the espresso in it's purity, for purity's sake...

If it's coffee, he's done it: bought it, roasted it, cupped it, designed it.


me likey.

Not The Rockefellers said...

I loved this!
and coffee as well!

Peace - Rene

Anonymous said...

Isn't it amazing the differences in cultures in something so small as drinking coffee?

Sounds so fun, I love ppl watching!

Cassoulet Cafe said...

It's funny how you said you've only seen refills in films, all my foreign friends say the same thing :)

Just like you said, "Un Half-Ton Vat du cafe.." lol

I hope you get your wish and get to France! It's wonderful (though frustrating, as you can read in my early blog posts) :) Merci beaucoup for stopping by!

Spitting out tea? Then I achieved my goal! (grin). So happy to make you laugh. Hugs!

Cassoulet Cafe said...

Mama H,
Oh yes, Diet Pepsi exits, though I believe it's called Pepsi Max. Thanks for coming by here! :)

(gasp) you're a professional coffee person? And you visit MY little ol' blog? I'm so happy! Me likey coffee too. Me likey you too.

Rene, thank you :)

Yaya, Yes, I love cultures and seeing the differences...even in little things like a cup a joe. thanks for coming by :)

alexandra's kitchen said...

it sounds as though the French really know how to do it right. I've never been to France, but I have been to Greece, where I spent many hours it seems drinking coffee outside at little cafes — somehow that just wouldn't fly here. it's a shame, really.

Happy New Year!

La Belette Rouge said...

Where is my coffee? I am waiting.;-)

Le laquet said...

Vraiment tu as raison sauf que maintenant il y a des machines de cafe dans les station de services sur l'autoroute avec "café à emporter" pour 1€ ~ bonne route!

But wait ... mince... I just realised only Simon and I drink the coffee in the car, all the real French people stand next to the machine and sup - so there's still no real café à emporter.

Cassoulet Cafe said...

Le laquet,
Oui, t'as raison, les machines existent pour le cafe automatique (lol), mais, comme tu a dit, they drink them standing up next to the machines!
Zarbi, les francais. :) lol

Anonymous said...

This cracked us up, especially the "Coffee Preschooler" appellation! But you are spot-on in describing the French perspective!

Sorry to gross you out on the Paris-George situation. We are totally destroyed because we had to read about in *so* many articles just to select those headlines. An occupational hazard it seems.

Smiles at you Miss Cassoulet,

Paula said...

Hahahaha - love the description of the truckers sipping their coffee cups. A wonderfully written post as always :)

Vicki said...

Pas problem pour moi. Je deteste le cafe!

Mimi from French Kitchen said...

I have never had a bad cup of coffee in France, I swear. I once had a cup out of a vending machine at Gare d'Austerlitz and that was even good. When we go to France, we always come home with a couple bags of coffee which get popped into the freezer so we can have French coffee until the next trip.

Cassoulet Cafe said...

I'm sorry to hear about your occupational hazard. Do you get workman's comp? You need it! :)

Why thank you :)

Non non non, c'est pas possible!

Coffee in France is one of my favorite things ever! :)