Monday, May 23, 2016

The Next Time I Travel I'm Packing A Barista

There are moments in life when you just have to stop and ask yourself, “How did I end up here?”  My most recent “What were you thinking?!” moment hit one Monday afternoon in Paris, France, while I stood alone at the intersection of Rue Auber and rue the day I stepped onto that airplane because it was two o’clock in the afternoon and I still hadn’t located a decent cup of coffee and I couldn’t speak enough French to ask where I could find one. There were rumors of a McDonald’s in France. I had seen the advertisements. I couldn’t find a pair of golden arches anywhere.

Coffee.  I just needed one decent cup of coffee. Just one. Was that too much to ask?

All my life I’ve been told that Americans are culinary Neanderthals. I'm not buying it. Europeans think they have coffee.   Espresso, essentially tar in a tiny cup (and only half a cup at that), is a delicacy to be sipped and enjoyed.  The only alternative to this heart stopping caffeine bomb that tastes like the sole of my shoe is Nescafe. Seriously.  Nescafe.  It’s the used-car lot of instant coffees. Any self-respecting caffeine addict would rather have DT’s than drink that sludge.  It was in every hotel room and on every breakfast table.  There wasn’t a middle ground.

I know that I should have been enjoying the stunning architecture of the Place de l'Opéra, which was right in front of me. And at some level, I did.  It’s a big, old, building with lots of “gilded galvanoplastic bronze busts,” (I stole that line from Wikipedia) but quite young by European standards, having only been built in the 1860’s. At that moment I had bigger issues, one being my long delayed breakfast beverage and the other being I had no idea where I was or where I was going and had long since given up hope of finding my anchor landmark, that one iconic French structure that told me the general direction of my hotel.  The Eiffel Tower is shorter than you’d think.  So if you decide to use a landmark as your base of reference for travels, pick a tall one. Paris, I quickly realized, is uniformly seven stories tall with winding streets, which made locating the tower nearly impossible if you wandered more than fifty feet away from its base.

I experienced a moment of almost spiritual ecstasy when three miles to the east later I saw a Starbucks. My inability to speak the language took a second seat to the knowledge that I could get my fix.  I mustered all my courage desperation and entered the store, knowing that a few basic rules could get me to my goal. First and foremost, it is important in France to acknowledge the person who is waiting to serve you by looking them in the eye and saying, “Bonjour!” That’s easy enough.  Show them respect as a human being by saying “hello.” Americans could practice this more often.  The second rule is to end the transaction with “merci.”  Since the average non-French speaking American is completely at their mercy when conducting business as important as getting your first decent cup of coffee for the day, saying “thank you” is a good thing.  It’s also shorter and easier than asking Google to translate into French, “Oh thank you, dear Jesus, for providing this life-giving nectar of Colombian goodness and the sweet barista who provided this joy. Mademoiselle, will you marry me?”

I stood back and watched a few people in line just to get the ebb and flow of the place before I stepped up and ordered. I had been practicing, muttering my order over and over until it was my turn.

“Bonjour!” I smiled at the barista. 

“Bonjour,” she replied. 

“Un venti café, S'il vous plaît.” One venti-sized coffee, please. But my pleasure at ordering in French was short-lived. I was at Starbucks, where any order that doesn’t have 17 steps just simply cannot be believed.  

The lady behind the counter looked at me and asked in heavily accented English laced with disbelief, “Just black coffee?” 

“YES!” I shouted gleefully.  Several customers turned and stared.  There weren’t a lot of raised voices in France.  Outside of a moment of sheer terror when it looked like the Citi issued credit card would not work (I have a LOT to say about dealing with Citi) and I didn’t have a Euro to my name, the remainder of my suddenly well-caffeinated day of exploration was enjoyable. I meandered through the streets of Paris indulging in every architectural sight that caught my eye until I was completely lost.  It was fun.

Yes, Arby went to Europe, where every day felt like it was man against the world. It was an eighteen day adventure with the The Boss, a cell phone, a few friends, and our wits.  And if you want, you can read all about it here. I’ve decided that it is time to Return to Bedlam.


Kathleen said...

Ecstatic that you've returned! And so glad you were finally able to secure some coffee. There are indeed McDonald's in Paris - I visited many of them when I was 10yo and was in en route from Africa (where I hadn't had McDonald's in 4 years) to America. My parents were sorely disappointed that I oohed and ahhed more over the Golden Arches than any landmarks.

Linda said...

Ah, your fist mistake! Espresso is NOT to be sipped. One is to add a bit of sugar, stir briskly and down the elixir in a few swallows. (or, at least that is the Italian way. ;) )

The Boss said...

It amazes me that we were on the same vacation, yet had such drastically different experiences there. :)

Michelle said...

Bahaha!! Boss, I agree with you. I've decided that if we ever decide to travel overseas I'm taking someone with me other than Kevin. He's been to almost every country that I want to travel to and has already made comments like, "I've already seen that. It was okay." Or, "why would you want to go there? Its boring."

Sigh, I'll need another travel partner. Boss, I'm calling on you.

the boss said...

I'm in!