I always knew that I would end up being a coffee drinker.
My dad wakes up every morning at 5:30 a.m. He takes a hurried shower, dresses in blue jeans and a faded t-shirt, combs his hair back, packs his lunchbox, then slows down to make himself a proper cup of coffee and enjoy it from his favored armchair. He likes his coffee to be as black as night.
When I was young I would start my day a couple hours later, but the familiar aroma that came from his French press still lingered around the living room and the hallway leading to my bedroom.
Every so often, I would wake up early and he would offer me a sip from his mug. The taste seemed bitter to me, too smoky, but I was certain that I would grow to like it. Like the strongest of relationships and the deepest of loves, some cultivation was required.
Unlike my husband, who is Latin and has been drinking café con leche since his birth, and probably all the while that he was in the womb, coffee was something that I grew to like after taking a series of conscious efforts and steps.
I started on the sweeter drinks: a white chocolate mocha, then a mocha, moving on to a latté with a shot of hazelnut syrup that turned into a plain latté with time, soon to be an Americano with two sugars (or three if nobody was looking) and cream, then one sugar, and finally, I graduated to enjoying a pot of black coffee. All this in about a week.
Then came my first job in a small café where I was trained to brew and create my own specialty coffees. Our boss allowed us to drink as much as we wanted at no charge, and I ran with it. One of my coworkers mentioned that it was possible to drink up to 12 shots per day and get on just fine. I have never verified this statement, but I did start to live by it, and somewhere along the way I began differentiating tastes and aromas, and developing preferences for certain beans.
Even after leaving that café, coffee remained a part of my life. Like the rest of us, I grew into the Seattle culture and passed most of my waking hours in and out of coffee shops. It’s where I went to study, to have an interview, to go on first dates, to meet up with friends, to catch up, to kill time, to read a book, to write and to work. That’s what we all do, right?
We get so wrapped up in our coffee culture that a dilemma arises when we leave our bubble. On out-of-state vacations when the familiar Stumptown Coffee or Caffe Ladro is no longer in the area, I have learned to stick to chai tea varieties or to abstain all together. The trip would only last a few days, after all. But now I live in Paris, a city with minimal coffee culture, void of coffee shops – and there’s no return date in sight.
Oh yes, Parisians also spend their time buzzing about street cafés, perhaps even more so, but coffee is not their drink of choice. Specialty coffee in particular is almost unheard of. There are no verities, no options to have soy or non-fat, shots of flavor or iced-drinks. Instead, they prefer to sip Coca cola from a glass bottle with lemon or a variety of wines. If you want coffee there is one drink, a shot of espresso, straight up, and though it looks sophisticated served sitting atop a small white plate in a tiny white glass, it is not good.
Parisians have created their own sort of coffee culture. This burnt shot of espresso has certain constraints that are to be respected. Coffee has been a part of French custom since the 17th century, and it seems that nothing has been done to cultivate the taste since then, though it remains a practiced tradition.
In the mornings, Frenchmen congregate around the restaurant’s standing tables or lean against the bar and have their first bit of espresso before heading towards work. It is only a shot and they drink it on the spot while standing. To-go cups do not yet exist. For the time being, women seem immune to this practice.
Later in the day during their two-hour lunch break, where most go to restaurants, another shot of espresso is administered as a last course if they feel so inclined. The same happens at dinnertime, although this shot is decaf.
Foreigners of my variety have been able to pinpoint six acceptable coffee shops. Six. In the entire city. Among these six, you then choose between a good cup of coffee or a good environment, whichever suits you better that day. Attempt to open up your laptop at any old shop and you will be shunned.
I almost don’t blame Parisians for not drinking coffee; it is similar to our own relationship with wine – something that they themselves have mastered. Though some wine connoisseurs exist in Seattle, they are a rare bread and remain somewhat of a mystery to the rest of us. Certainly we enjoy good wine when it is around, but we do not always know the science of how to detect or obtain it. In the same way, when I bring a French friend to one of my favorite coffee shops, they look blankly at the chalkboard of options, the same way the average Seattleite wanders aimlessly around the aisles of wine at the local grocery store. If it’s not good, few can tell the difference.
In Paris, though, I have learned a great deal about wine and now enjoy it to the same degree that I enjoy a well crafted soy latté. It makes sense that Parisian cafés are filled with people enjoying a glass of rosé with their lunch and meeting after work to share kir (white wine with an added syrup, often peach or cassis). Wine is for anytime, whereas coffee is reserved for special occasions, to set an evening apart.
Coffee, has remained a regular component in my own life. Every morning I wake up early, shower, head to my local café and settle into the day with a shot of unremarkable espresso, remembering how good you have it on the Hill.