A round-about return to (The Great France Art Tour of 2017)
On that first Japan visit, I stayed at the Tokyo Hilton in Shinjuku district. The commute to the office was by shared cab. After a quick breakfast at the hotel, the four of us, shepherded by our new manager from Singapore, piled into a cab procured by the hotel’s taxi valet, a tall, eager young woman in a long grey coat and cap, and zoomed off to the office. Where cartridge coffee was available.
Four in a cab, with little time for the privacy this introvert craves to stay sane. And coffee that was just not so good. Early the next morning, I managed to evade my workmates and happily discovered the reliability and solitude of a Starbucks within walking distance of the hotel. What a relief!
Yes, there are Starbucks in France. Although, not many. I looked for one so I could buy a souvenir mug. Seriously. I’m not big on souvenirs, but having a Starbucks mug from Tokyo, or Paris, or Taipei, I confess, it’s a thing. Anyway, I did get a Paris mug, not far from Notre-Dame, but I never drank Starbucks coffee in France. Still, I don’t have a problem with coffee at Starbucks.
Say what you like, many scorn Starbucks as an American plague like McDonald’s. Whatever. I never drink a “Grandé One Pump Half-caf Soy Pumpkin Latte”. (Though even in the USA I sometimes have to accept a substituted “Café Americano” to get decaf.) I can say that at most Starbucks around the world I order my favorite “Half-caf Iced Coffee” confident that this will be a drink of the same quality and flavor regardless of location, whether the barista is Japanese, Korean, German, or French.
That’s the coffee. Be careful, or you may painfully discover, as I have at least once, the milk, cream, or whatever else you might put in your coffee, is a completely different matter, with special risks.
As I said, I never tasted Starbuck’s coffee in France. Because when I visited Rennes in 2011 and Paris in 2012 a request for a café crème at just about any brasserie or café resulted in a rich, flavorful cup of coffee served with steamed milk or cream, sometimes brewed in an espresso machine, but sometimes in some other mysterious fashion. But always good. I thought. Did I believe this just because I was in France? I’m not sure.
Flash forward to The Great France Art Tour of 2017—one of the Rick Steve’s podcasts about France included an interview with writer and Paris resident David Sedaris, who remarked in a masterful sardonic aside,
“Well, you know… coffee in Paris is really not very good.”
Really?! I thought, how can you say that? Okay, maybe not the coffee served in a paper cup at the De Gaulle airport, but otherwise I’ve always been pleased with my café creams!
Alas, the decline of coffee and the rise of the machines in France is evident and largely attributable to the ubiquitous prevalence of Keurig-like coffee machines in restaurants and hotels. Especially in hotels.
If they don’t use Keurig-type cartridges in their breakfast buffets, they establish these horrible self-serve, push-button grinding machines. The machines contain a plastic bin of probably stale, low-grade beans, ground on demand, dumped onto a rolling paper filter (reminiscent of the cloth roller towels once prevalent in public restrooms). Tap water pours over the grounds and depending on the buttons pushed, various powdered or liquid additives are mechanically injected into the waiting brew to convert it into a mockery of espresso, cappuccino, or làtte. This unfortunate situation was true of our 2017 stay at hotels in Paris, in Arles, Avignon, and Nice.
We are not fooled.
Though I normally prefer a simple brewed cup, it seemed the only way to get “real coffee” was to explicitly order espresso or cappuccino.
You would think, one might saunter into a café and feel some relief to see a “classic” espresso machine behind the bar. A beautiful work of craftmanship in brass and copper, a small golden eagle perched on top, its wings outstretched. Maybe you’re looking at a Vesubio, a Gaggia, or a La Pavoni. Surely the sight would give you the confidence to order that cappuccino? Beware. Proceed with your order, ONLY if you may observe its actual production. Because to my horror, in a little ocean front café in Nice, in exactly that situation, I did that, ordered, and watched the waiter walk into the kitchen, punch a few buttons, and produce a so-called “cappuccino” from one of those infernal cartridge-loaded, machines while the Gaggia sat idle, cold, unused.
Keeping that in mind, we might even have created a small redemption for buying your coffee at Starbucks, in France. Because at least, it will be real, not cartridge, coffee, and if it’s expresso, you can watch them make it. That’s just about it for coffee in France.
All that’s left now is the question, “Quel genre de toilettes ont-ils en France?” a topic that seems to have attached itself to this long essay like a remora on a Blue Shark. I’ve previously mentioned the ancient urinals that have vanished from the Champs-Élysées. I won’t comment on the weird, uritrottoirs street side, red urinals placed around Paris in 2018 (as far is this memoir is concerned, that’s in the unknown future). Oh sure, in your desperation, you might happen upon a café toilette just off the Rue Mouffetard on your way to the Jardin Des Plantes with nothing but a hole in the floor in a tiny tiled closet, I did, but that’s uncommon. France gave the world the bidet, the precursor to the Superlet and other Asian innovations, and most hotels and many apartments and residences sport bidets, really as something to be taken for granted, not remarked upon.