Monday, May 5, 2008

Dispatch from Paris

Welcome back to Coffee Talk. After a bit of a hiatus, we're back to talk about coffee, New York, daughters, dogs. No big whoop. Stop me if you're too young to get this.

Well, Maya and I crossed the pond for the first time in 9 years. I am ecstatic to report that Paris has not changed a bit. I had my doubts, at first. The view from our hotel in Bagnolet, a few hundred feet outside the city limits, was a dead ringer for New Jersey, complete with the turnpike.

But, cross the turnpike, and suddenly, you are in Paris. It's the outskirts, so the men at the bistro bar will be Africans in tracksuits and the Vietnamese owner will speak some of the funniest French you'll ever hear. Still, all the accouterments of bistro culture are as present as they are on the Champs-Elysees.

Just like in the posh 8th arrondissement, the uniformed waiter will approach you right away, take your order, and if coffee is what you want, he will be back within a minute with two tiny cups on a tiny tray. Just like anywhere in Paris, he will deftly slide them off the tray one-handed, with a flourish, and add a few paper-wrapped sugar-cubes. And just like anywhere in Paris, the coffee will taste like shit. Sandy, bitter and vile, it'll deliver a good jolt of caffeine and a long-lasting aftertaste that will linger until you capitulate and smoke a cigarette, even though you quit years ago.

No one knows why coffee in Paris is as bad as it is. Most blame the 'zinc Mafia' - a clan of migrants from Auvergne that reportedly have a stranglehold on bean distribution. If you dare serve single-origin coffee, the Auvergnois will kneecap your mom. I don't buy it. I mean, is it so hard to imagine a city, or even a whole country that consumes huge amounts of really disgusting coffee?

When you pick up a 32-ouncer of hot swill at a gas station outside Wichita, you don't have the same expectations as when you are served a demitasse on the Rue Rivoli. In reality, though, the two situations are identical. They are both about ritual and caffeine, and neither is about coffee.

At the end, the whole thing just serves to underline the differences between the two cultures. Americans like things big. The French like them pretty. Both borrow, rather unsuccessfully, from the Italians, to make the experience of feeding their addictions more palatable.

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