Coffee Culture in Paris

Some people at our house are pretty serious about their coffee. So serious that they've gone and bought this Aerobie Aeropress thingy for camping and travel that actually makes a decent espresso substitute. However, it's only good on a trip if you remember to bring it.  If you did bring it, though, you'd be missing out on the myriad different ways people in Paris enjoy their coffee. 

There's a coffee and cafe culture here that is very interesting. It's especially interesting since people who are in a position to know, those delightful Paris bloggers and also someone who is related to me, say that the actual coffee here is "vile."   If  the coffee is so bad, how does it makes sense that the coffee culture here is even more vibrant than the hopping coffee culture at home?

I have a theory that it's in part because there are a number of ways to enjoy (or find fault with) the coffee that we don't have so much of at home. For example:

1) Standing at the bar:  In the morning, a fast and cheap(er) way to get a coffee is to go into a brasserie (bar) and stand at the counter to order and drink.  Pretty much everyone orders "un café" or "l'express," which is a single shot of espresso, not a cup of regular coffee.  In general, people don't drink American style coffee, don't get their coffee to go, don't get a triple mocha or any of the other floofier drinks, and don't get much, if any, food to go with their day-starter.  You stand at the bar, perhaps with a smoke, chat with the proprietor, and finish expediently. 

2) Sitting at a brasserie: For the privilege of holding down a seat at a brasserie with your morning coffee (outside on the terrace is best, and space heaters above keep you warm in inclement weather) you'll pay a little more. Breakfast with the coffee is usually a croissant, tartine (baguette with butter and jam), or perhaps a pain au chocolat. I've never seen a French person order eggs, bacon, french toast or any other thing that I'd consider a real breakfast. I have made the mistake of ordering a fried egg here and been very sorry to receive an egg that was cooked on the pan side, but still gelatinous on top. This is yucky, even if you are in France. 

3) At a coffee shop: On previous trips, we had to make a special foray to find a "coffee shop" or place that prides itself on its coffee. What's been interesting on this trip is seeing the increased popularity of American-style cafes. Yes, there is a Starbucks around the corner and perhaps that has something to do with it. By American style cafe, I mean a place that's spaciously laid out, has modern tables and some comfortable chairs, where you order at the bar and take your drink away. Oh, and also the tables have enough space for your laptop so lots of people bring their Macbooks.  I don't think I've seen a PC laptop here.  

An aside: According to DavLeb™, the two best places to get coffee currently are: Malongo Cafe and Espressamente.  And I know this because I sent him an email and he actually wrote back. I'm still in a blogger-rock-star daze. 

The other time that people drink coffee in France is after a meal. It's sort of de rigeur, the only civilized way to end a meal, especially since smoking is out in most places now.  After lunch - coffee. After dinner - coffee. And I do mean after. Coffee comes after dessert which I think is a bit of a bummer, since I like dessert with coffee. Again, the coffee is a tiny espresso; a thimbleful just  big enough to leave that bad coffee taste in your mouth.

All this is just to point out that coffee has a somewhat different place in peoples' lives here. It's all about the ritual and the relationships and sitting outside on the terrace and (unlike everything else) not about the connoisseurship. You can't walk 100 feet without running into a place where you could get a coffee. It's all around you, whether you know it or not.  What it seems to be about is:  sitting in that third space, meeting friends (or your petit amour) for an animated discussion, and watching the world go by for as long as you want. 

The other day, as we were going to get coffee in fact, our friend Paul (who had just arrived in Paris) said - "The reason Americans love Paris so much is that it has everything they wish they had at home - all the little shops and neighborhoods and fun places to go."  And it's true.

It's life on a human scale and in a beautiful place, where the city is built to accommodate the people more than the cars. Everything you need on a daily basis is all around you, within easy walking distance. It's basically living in a big village and it just makes you happy.  Whether or not the coffee is good.  

"Coffee came to France by way of Turkey and was first sold by street vendors at the St.-Germain fair. In spite of warnings that it caused impotence, the new beverage swept Paris by storm. Armenians opend the first cafes, but it was an enterprising Sicilian street vendor named Procopio di Coltelli who in 1686 hit on the right formula, serving coffee, chocolate, alcohol, and food, while encouraging customers to smoke and gamble. it was so successful that France's greatest historian, Jules Michelet, wrote that coffee was in part responsible for the Revolution because it made people talk more than ever."   -- Dana Facaros

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