To coffee, or not to coffee?

So instead of my mammoth gym session yesterday, this happened:
Hazelnut mocha, with whipped cream. Heaven in a mug.
And it got me thinking. Living and working in France, I very quickly got used to the idea of café culture. During my first placement, I ran a bar at a small holiday centre in rural Charentes (département 17). I assumed I would mainly serve alcohol and cold drinks, but it was the espresso that people really visited for. It was such an integral part of the day that the owners offered each guest a free espresso in the hour after lunch – dozens would descend on my tiny little bar, crowding together, all at once. Nobody ever ordered coffee, which I learnt had to be distinguished from espresso by specifically asking for café au lait (colloquially known by the French as a noisette, due to the colour the milk makes when mixed with the espresso). As far as tea went, all they served was a variety of tisanes – or infusions – and I was the only one that ever really drank them. My personal favourite was pomme cannelle, with a little bit of brown sugar. Amaaazing. I haven’t been able to find that flavour here, unfortunately. Might have to pop back to France!
Charentes is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. Sunflower fields, traditional French villages, and long sandy beaches – heaven! 
I saw coffee as part of the French culture; a reminder of the days of Sartre and Hemmingway; of Left-Bank cafes, frequented by artists and literary types. When I got to Paris, I wasn’t disappointed. I occasionally spent my lunch hour sat at a table outside a café on the Avenue de l’Opéra, sipping espresso and watching the world go by. To me, that was the quintessential Parisian experience – away from the groups of tourists on the Rue de Rivoli, at the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe (and of course, the Champs Elysées).
In fact, thinking about it, I didn’t visit the Louvre once in the whole six months I lived there (though I did visit as a tourist a few years before). I climbed the Eiffel Tower just once, and that was because my boyfriend visited me from England and asked me to take him. By living and working in Paris, I experienced it in a completely different way. I discovered the hidden shopping arcades by the Palais Royale; I cycled a vélibthrough the centre of Paris in the middle of the night, weaving through crowds of people during the Nuit Blanche. 

The Tour Eiffel sparkling with hundreds of tiny lights, and the Hotel de Ville covered in LED signs with ‘Love Differences’ in dozens of different languages – the Nuit Blanche was spectacular.

So there I was yesterday, sat in Café Nero, thinking about the differences in café culture here and in France. The English may not be big on espresso – they may prefer the big American chains to little independent cafés, unlike in France (I’m generalising) – but there seems to be an overlap. The Anglo (American, really) café culture is spreading across Europe – there are as many Starbucks in Paris as there are in central London, although the French haven’t warmed to them quite so much! I’ve seen plenty of French articles over the years referring to Starbucks coffee as ‘jus de chaussettes’ and ‘pipi du chat’ (rough translation: not proper coffee) and most of the Starbucks I went to in Paris were full of Asian tourists. 

Whilst we may not place as much importance in a good quality cup of coffee as the French do, we certainly drink a heck of a lot of it. It seems to be something people do without thinking – they queue at Costa or Nero when they get to the train station in the morning, and swig from a takeaway cup as they rush for their train; they put the kettle on the minute they get into work, making a coffee for anyone else who fancies one (pretty much the whole office, usually!); an hour later, someone else will fancy a coffee and the office drinks round begins again. In every office I’ve worked in, drinking coffee seems to be the way to meet people and make friends; the kitchen is the social centre of the office, as making a coffee is often used as an excuse for a break and a chat.
I’ve never been much of a caffeine junkie. When I’m at work, I’m perfectly happy to just drink water throughout the day. But I’ve realised that by not drinking coffee (or, of course, tea) I’m almost excluding myself from the social side of things. I accepted that in France, whether you drank coffee or not, the after-lunch espresso was compulsory, but I had always assumed that we had a different mindset here. In reality, the only difference is that we don’t (usually) drink espresso.
I’ve started joining the drinks round just to draw attention away from myself. In my first week, when I declined a coffee in front of my boss, I was jokingly asked if I was a ‘robot that didn’t drink’. For a moment it took me right back to my first week in Charentes, when my boss, astounded, exclaimed ‘Tu bois pas du café? Putain, tu bois quoi, alors?
It seems that in some ways, we’re not that different at all.


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