Un P’tit Café?

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At the end of a day filled with linguistic miscommunications, or maybe just blah weather, I dream of soy chais and pumpkin spice lattes. Although I was never one to miss burgers, peanut butter, or Chipotle, I can’t help but long for Starbucks at the end of an all-too-common gray Troyes day.

I’ve always appreciated coffee-house culture. As Howard Schultz coined it, it’s the perfect “third place.” Not home, not work, but that third place to call your own. I love that you can walk into a coffee shop book in hand, or laptop bag slung over your shoulder, or talking a mile a minute with a group of friends, and feel like you’re walking into a space that for the next minute, hour, or day is your very own.

I have so many memories at coffee shops: of meeting up with high school friends after semesters away at university, of writing term papers or studying for tests, of curling up to read a good book, of spending far too much of my Peace Corps monthly allowance at the ONE decent coffee shop in all of Ukraine.

And of course, there is the drink itself. In a paper cup to go, a ceramic cup to stay, or a travel mug for the eco-friendly, milk never knew it could be so good. A simple cup of home brewed coffee or tea is wonderful to get me started in the morning, but on those special days, I do miss the foam, the espresso shot, the picturesque swirl of white and tan topping your steaming cup of heaven.

France doesn’t do coffee shop the way America does. Cafés exist aplenty, offering up wine, kir, beer, espresso, and even tea (although if ordered, the waiter will look down on you with disdain at your tragically British taste). Yet the speciality coffee drink is absent. And the atmosphere is different. The café is the place to meet up with friends, maybe just after school or work, or perhaps  before going out to the bar. If you’re in Paris at 5am, it’s the place to wait until the metro reopens and you can finally make it home after a dizzying night out en boîte. To sit down in these cafés with your laptop and work for hours, or to think of the space as your own: on fait pas ça.

Yet different coffee culture  doesn’t mean that France doesn’t love coffee. Oh but it does. Just in different quantities and at different times. I’ve never gone to a friend’s house for dinner and not been offered coffee at the very end (by which time it is probably near midnight). Coffee right before bed: bah, ça c’est normal! 

Yet nighttime is just one time among many that France seems to enjoy coffee. And I do mean among many. A cup in the morning, a cup once you arrive at work, a cup with lunch, and a cup during break between classes. A cup at home after work, and finally, that last cup right before bed. Loreli Gilmore would be in heaven. And while I miss the foam and fuss of American coffee, I do also appreciate the French style too.

At every work place in France, there seems to be an ancient automated coffee machine. Bulky and loud, they remind me of the 1950s and America’s Automat diners. Kept working for decades by users’ sheer forces of desire and addiction, these whirring machines produce caffeine in a cup for just a few cents. 40 centimes gets you a little-bitty plastic cup with hot water, powdered milk, sugar, and instant coffee. Not the best coffee in the world, but  far cheaper than any item on a Starbucks menu.

And just as your cup of Starbucks goodness buys you more than just coffee–it’s your lease on a table, the right to sit and read or chat or work for hours on end–so my 40 cents buys me more than a flimsy yellow cup of instant coffee. They buy me the time to stand around chatting with other teachers at my school; they buy me an improved French vocabulary and new French friends. I buy the right to be two minutes late to class. Instead I finish my cup of coffee with colleagues, complaining about the weather or discussing the next exposition or play coming to town.

During those minutes while I stand in the teachers room with my little plastic disposable cup, I get to pretend I’m French. A real French woman, with a real French job, in my quaint little French town. 40 centimes buys me a culture and a country.

And during those moments, I really don’t miss Starbucks at all.

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4 thoughts on “Un P’tit Café?

  1. Awww – Starbucks is a luxury to me – yes, I have a ‘card’ and use it but not often and I don’t lounge in the cafe; I usually enter, order, leave or buy when I walk into Tom Thumb grocery store, put the cup in the cupholder cuz the coffee is way too hot for me and by the time I make it to the back of the store where the milk is kept, I’m ready to drink MY pumpkin spice latte – which is my favorite and I’m sad that it’s not offered all year round. I wish I could walk into a French cafe with you or to meet you, Alexandra – what a joy that would be for me…to hear of your day teaching English to the French children or whatever is on your mind. I envy you and your life and style! I send you hugs and kisses from Texas…’you are always on my mind’ is an old country song that comes to mind! LOVE YOU BIG, my dear niece.

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