When Coffee Isn’t Just Coffee
Two weeks in Paris: it’s enough to make a person want to give up everything and move. Then again, that impulse might speak more to the corollary benefits of being on vacation. I have a feeling I would vastly prefer vacation-Paris to real-life-Paris, so maybe it’s best that Paris remains a utopia of carefree café-au-laits in my mind.
The inaugural morning of our Parisian honeymoon brought the first true autumn chill to the streets in the fourth. We found a comfortable, sunny cafe and ordered a steaming warm café-au-lait, which we sipped from classic wicker chairs arranged on the cafe terrace like seats in a theater — parallel rows facing the bustling kaleidescope of people filling the cobblestone street.
In Paris, we didn’t drink les cafés; we experienced les cafés. The same went for beer and wine.
When the French plunk down their Euro coins for a libation, they are paying not just for the drink, but for the experience of the drink. This phenomenon, we discovered, is clearly reflected in pricing. A better drink experience — better view, trendier neighborhood or quainter cafe — commands a premium, even if the quality of the drink is the same. After all, a drink should be savored with all five senses, so ambiance plays an essential role.
The drink experience obviously includes the quality of the drink itself, and the French do not neglect this. Café is served hot, straight from the barista, and creamy-smooth with warm whole milk. Bier is served in glassware appropriate to the type of brew, chilled enough to sweat the glass most aesthetically. A vin blanc is invariably served on ice; reds, appropriately decanted. The waiters — true to the ideal and brutally honest — steer customers away from sub-par wines, regardless of price.
That said, the drink quality does not constitute the whole experience. Au contrair — one can get an excellent café from the espresso vending machines at the Miniprix (and let me tell you, those are good). The difference is not the quality of the drink, but the quality of the experience.
At a cafe, one can turn a single petit café into hours of relaxed contemplation, long after the bill has been settled. (It’s no wonder Hemingway chose to write The Sun Also Rises among the small round tables of the cafes along Montparnasse.) A single patron will find as much enjoyment from the grand show of people and lights unfolding on the streets as he or she would among company. The weather, trees, people and lights create an ever-changing tableau, characterizing a unique experience for each coffee, each beer, and each wine savored from the comfy wicker chairs of the cafe.
The truth is, this isn’t a phenomenon unique to Paris (though the French do take it quite seriously).
At home here in Graz, the cafes line cobblestone Fußwege and defy the autumn cold with cozy fleece blankets in each chair. One can sip at one’s leisure and not be bothered to move for hours (though in true Viennese fashion, this may also mean one doesn’t see a waiter for hours). Here, a bier is not a bier without an atmosphere bubbling with Gemütlichkeit and furnished with hand-carved built-in pine furniture.
And Italy… Well, the Italians are known for their dolce vita, of which the experience of a good libation is an integral component. Italy would not be Italy without tiny porcelain cups of thick, sweet espresso or three-hour meals requiring multiple, rotund bottles of chianti.
There is much to be said for savoring life along with one’s drink. The cafes of Europe have known this since the time of the first recorded coffee house (Le Procope in Paris, 1686, for those curious). For centuries, they’ve invited passersby under their awnings with warm lights and sidewalk menus that seem to say, Hey, life is interesting enough; who needs anything else? Take a load off and enjoy it for a little while.
I love them all, not just those in Paris, but still, it’s Paris. I won’t soon forget the rows of tables paired with wicker chairs facing the street, or how they invited us young newlyweds to a delicious libation, enjoyed not facing one another, but facing the rest of the world, taking it all in together.