When we took the ferry from Marseille to Corsica in June we arrived in the port city of Bastia at 6:00 AM so you had to be in the dining room at 5:15 AM if you wanted breakfast. We opted to sleep in a bit and Bill volunteered to get us coffee from the vending machine at the end of our cabin hallway. He was gone longer than I expected and explained that there were several people in front of him who had the same idea to get their morning started with a shot of caffeine. As we were leaving the ship and passed by the machine I understood even further why there was a delay. Although it was labeled simply enough, “Café”, anyone who deposited a 1 euro coin was then presented with a choice of 16 types of coffee, 4 hot chocolates, hot tea, and hot milk. Can you imagine the poor soul who must decide among café court, café long, café crème, café au lait, and a dozen other selections when the person waiting back in their room has simply asked for “a coffee”?
In a country that is readily identified as part of the café culture, it’s no surprise that there would be so many options. Currently in Paris there are 7000 cafés but when they were the prime meeting spot for famous writers, painters, and cultural icons of the late 19th century the capital city boasted over 45,000 of these establishments. I have a feeling that back then you would get exactly what we do today in Carcassonne when we ask for “un café”: a classic espresso served in a tiny porcelain cup accompanied by a portion of sugar and a little cookie, chocolate, or some other miniature sweet.
A trend started a few years ago in Nice that we’ve seen repeated in a few other cities around the country. When we have visitors who are concerned about their level of the French language we suggest being as polite as possible and always starting any kind of interaction with a shopkeeper, market stall holder, or restaurant server, for example with “Bonjour” and let them take it from there. In keeping with that tradition of politeness, a café posted this coffee price list on their terrace:
- Un café 7€
- Un café, s’il vous plait 4€25
- Bonjour, un café, s’il vous plait 1€40
It would seem that those golden words we all learned as children are still taken seriously here.
Bill and I aren’t immune to searching out a good cup of coffee ourselves. When we lived in the US and made annual trips to France, we always returned home with several “bricks” of our favorite coffee that we still drink today. When we stay in hotels, the breakfast buffet is generally similar everywhere but a tasty café always makes it a standout. We even have a miniature version of that automatic machine mentioned above that grinds the beans, packs it down into a “puck” and then forces steaming hot water through the grounds to produce a perfect cup every time. Ours doesn’t have 16 choices; only 1, so when someone says, “Just a coffee for me, thanks” that’s exactly what they get. (Kate, this one’s for you!)