I started to drink coffee when I studied in France. It sounds romantic enough, but in actuality it was simply the easiest thing to say. To ask for “un cafe” leaves little margin for error, and I hate to be wrong. (At 21 I wasn’t so big on “vin” yet—but it’s pretty easy, too).
After my a week and a half in a London hotel room the size of a pantry kept warm by only a space heater the size of a boom box, I flew into Cannes for three weeks of prep study before heading to Paris. I arrived with out any towels, so my first French outing was a trip to Monoprix to purchase two very thin, pale blue towels and a cake of soap. I listened to George Harrison’s song Apple Scruffs and Wilco’s California Stars on a portable CD player as I wound my way down a narrow, hilly lane filled cars so small they looked fake, and at the bottom of the hill, past some thick stone walls and gnarled, leafless trees and bocchi pits was the sea.
In the mornings the college provided us with breakfast—cereal, coffee and hot chocolate, fruit and bread with butter. But the weekend “brunch” was the real treat, with croissant and nutella in a mixing bowl the size of my head. We had four hours of class every morning, starting at nine. At eleven we got a break and were allowed to spend tokens given to us at by the front desk in exchange for gingerales, cokes, or, in my case, coffee. We had to order in French, of course, and weren’t supposed to speak English, despite the fact that every student (even the non-Americans) spoke it.
There were a group of ten or so Chinese kids, their intonation so different from my own it was actually better to try to converse in French. At least in French we were all slow and careful, more willing to ask for a repeat without fearing the other person would take offense.
No one was French except the teachers and “workers” at in the computer labs and “cafe.” When I shyly asked for my coffee the French “aid” would smile encouragingly and hand over the bitter, thick drink in a plain white cup and saucer. And, without really liking it, I drank it, because I’d paid for it and it was warm to hold in my hands, the solid heat against the drafty, damp Cote Azure winter.
For the first week I would return to class after the coffee and my legs would dance beneath the table, wild with caffine as I tried to answer baby French questions from strangers seated across from me.
I never ordered a latte for fear of the complication—I wanted to seem French and have that understated simplicity, undilluted black in a plain white cup, no frills, no fuss, like Francoise Hardy’s hair blowing in the breeze.