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Monday, April 16, 2012

My View of French Coffee

   It has only taken me a day to learn a significant cultural difference between the United States and France.  Despite the fact that the French are known for their coffee, they seem to have a problem pouring out more than a few ounces of it at a time.
   It is one of the first phrases I learned to say after we landed.  Je voud rais un cafe.  I was proud of that one.  And the mademoiselle behind the counter did not bat an eye, turned, poured out, and handed me what looked like a free sample that we might see being offered outside a coffee shop.  It was not free.  It was very good, don't get me wrong.  So I figured maybe it was just the fact that it was coffee from an airport-- high priced and a small amount.  But after getting coffee in a local cafe, and then buying coffee in the early morning hours at a little patisseries, I was beginning to see a pattern.  I'll be humble enough to accept the fact that we Americans are spoiled, and perhaps overindulgent.  So I won't say the French are stingy with their coffee.  I'll simply say we Americans drink a lot of coffee.  And I wanted a lot.
   We arrived on Sunday, which we had been warned about.  Nearly everything is closed here on Sunday.  Which is sort of ironic, since the once puritan United States has abandoned its closed-on-Sunday routine.  But here in France, the State has set Sunday as a no shopping day with only a few exceptions.  In the tourist areas, a few types of stores are allowed to operate.  Supermarkets are allowed to be opened until 1 pm.  Here at St. Sulpice, by the time we were situated in our little home, everything was closed except one cafe.  Most importantly, that meant we had no coffee of our own to brew!  So, as I often do, I awoke early and was out on the street looking for coffee. 
One lone light in a window tells me
I am one of the few Parisians awake
as the sun begins to fight off the dark.
   Okay, so Paris is not a morning city.  Yes, there were a few people out and about.  But nothing was open.  It was seven in the morning and nothing was open.  I walked all along Rennes Avenue, down to St. Germain Boulevard, and still nothing.  I passed by the iconic cafes Les Deux Magots and Cafe De Flore and apparently Jean Paul Sartre had never been up early looking for coffee.  So I tucked my chin into the cold morning wind and went looking for Rue du Dragon.  I'd read about it in a history book, and really wanted to get a look at it.  It is a beautiful little street and it was right where I expected to find it.
   Turning into it, I forgot about the coffee and began to take pictures.  It was a perfect little spot.  I saw a glimmer of hope when I spied a little place called the PDG Restaurant, with the words American Restaurant in red neon.  The lights inside were on.  Coffee!  These guys surely understood my need to have a big cup of coffee!
   No.  Not open.  Still looking.
   But what was this?  A patisseries!  Wonderful, glorious pastry shop!  The little French Grandmere smiled at me.  She was open!  I grabbed the door and pulled.  Locked!  Now, I'm getting the idea that Paris is laughing at me.  But then, along comes a dandy-looking elderly monsieur who said bon jour (of course!) and pushed on the door.  It opened easily enough.  The stupid Americain couldn't figure that one out.  But I was in!  I might still survive.
   "Bon JourJe voud rais deux cafe, s'il-vous plait."  (And hold up two fingers, just in case she doesn't recognize the word for two.  Because, you know, she might be a beginner with this language too!)
   Two sample cups coming right up.

Rue Du Dragon in the
early morning hours.
   She put tin foil over them so I could take them back to the apartment.
   Well, it was a start.
   I also ordered the pave suisse and a brioche.  The first looked like an egg and mushroom sandwich sort of deal, the second I knew was a sweet bread.  Okay, we had the beginnings of a breakfast.  (The pave suisse turned out to be a sweet bread with cheese and chocolate, which was a surprise, and a happy one to be sure.)
   After carefully transporting the precious coffee back to our apartment, up the six flights (eighty stairs, yeah, I counted them), I arrived triumphantly with the coffee!
   Jennifer looked at my two little cups and was not very impressed.  Well, I did the only thing a husband could do, and let her have both of them.
   But it was getting close to opening time for the local market.  I went back down the stairs (80!) and back out into the cold wind.  Around the corner back onto Rennes Avenue.  The Franprix, the local equivalent of a Piggly Wiggly, was finally open.  I hurried in, not caring what language they spoke, ready to battle whatever cultural barriers remained in order to buy coffee.
   I could not have been more at home.  One thing I know is how to shop.  And this was simple and as familiar as shopping at our local Market Basket.  I grabbed a basket, and began collecting orange juice, milk, bananas, everything a man needs for breakfast.  Just one more item to capture: coffee.
   You're kidding me, right?  Where the heck is the coffee?  I searched every aisle.  Nothing!  Lots of wine.  But where was the coffee?  This if France!  They had to have coffee.  Unless I was in the middle of a really bad nightmare, there had to be coffee.  Right?
   Wait.  A little staircase in the back corner led to a second floor.  I heard angels singing.  I saw the golden glow.  There, on the second floor, tucked back in the corner, I finally saw the holy grail.  Shelves of coffee.  Cafe Noir.  Cafe Delicate.  Cafe Intense.  Cafe Nuit (decaf).  All sorts of coffee.  Sailing through the checkout line, I was back to the apartment, back up the stairs (80!) and through door.
   The sound of a coffee machine never sounded so good.

This corner in Montmartre was used in the film French Kiss.
It is just around the corner from Sacre Coeur.  Click on the
picture to better see the guy in the funny hat.
   Fortified with coffee, we set out on an extraordinary day at Pere LaChaise Cemetery and Montmartre.  I'll tell you all about it another time.  For now, I'm going to have another cup of coffee.

A chimp gargoyle on one side of La Basilique du Sacre
Coeur de Montmartre

This little spot is on the back side of Montmartre.  Be
prepared to do a lot of climbing around here.  But
don't worry.  Every step is worth it.  This place is
as beautiful as a French Painting...which might
explain French Paintings.

One of the most moving
scenes at Pere LeChaise

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