Last week in Cannes I stumbled on the most stunning sight: Starbucks. Right there on Rue Jean Jaurès, the street extending along Cannes’ revamped train station.
The vision was stunning in its most rudimentary sense: I was stunned. True, a few Starbucks already scatter around this area – in Nice Airport, for one, and in Cap 3000 and Nicetoile, two American-style shopping malls. But these places don’t count. A few Starbucks outlets have broken into Marseilles, the sprawling metropolis a couple hundred kilometers down the coastline, and one has snuck into the borders of the Principality of Monaco. But none, until this one, has opened directly onto the narrow, chaotic, quintessentially French streets of the Côte d’Azur.
Truth be told, Cannes’ Starbucks already popped up last summer but I missed it. Still these are early days in what is presumably a trend. For the longest time France’s Starbucks have confined themselves to the north, centering unsurprisingly on Paris, with one more adventurous outlet creeping as far south as Lyon. But that was it. The surge is now on.
In this context, French Lessons is keen to share its very first extract from a much larger Work-In-Progress – the real-life story of my family’s earliest days getting settled in Bellevue, our home in Antibes. In the intervening years, our town has sprouted a few artisanal coffee shops – Choopy’s and Lucky Break being personal favourites – but I appreciate them more today thanks to the past. Enjoy this glimpse back to one grey, caffeine-craving day in May 2007.
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I’m dying for a coffee. There’s no time this afternoon to bike to a café and have it French-style: ordering, waiting, and lingering with a chatty amie or a stinking cigarette over a white, porcelain cup. I’ve just returned home from hours of shopping madness at Carrefour, an aircraft hangar of a superstore having 75 checkout lanes and shop assistants who wear rollerblades.
Never again will there be anything I need that much.
My time for coffee is short today, but then so is my fuse. I’m longing for a Starbucks – not the brand so much as the convenience. I want a takeaway coffee in a paper cup with a sipping lid. And I want to pick it up at a drive-through.
I’m hallucinating, of course, but the four kiosks on the sandy beach near Bellevue make a sudden, caffeinated leap into my head. I don’t know what took them so long. If these kiosks make coffee, surely they have takeaway cups. I slip on my (very un-French) purple Crocs, grab my handbag and head to the beach.
Coffee is one of my ongoing studies in this home of the taste bud’s pleasure. To be precise, my passion is to find the perfect latte. I know what makes a great one. I know myself how to make a darned good cup; one of the few culinary luxuries occupying our kitchen in Denver [our then home-base] is a professional Pasquini espresso maker and bean grinder. And I know where to find great lattes outside my own front door, too – as long as I’m not shacked up here in the Côte d’Azur.
I miss the profusion of artisanal coffee joints that populate the US, and the way they let you Have It Your Way. Folks in Antibes don’t understand that coffees can come in different shapes and sizes. They don’t appreciate the game of packing syllables into a coffee order. Mine’s a mundane skinny latte, but I can’t help admire the peacock-like display of adjectives that artists can summon in the bespoke world of joe – yielding the extra-hot-almond-milk-half-caff-two-vanilla-pumps-extra-whip-and-caramal-drizzle monstrosities that emerge from the other side of the counter. And critically, the cafés here don’t allow the artist in you to get your preferred brew in an oversized, disposable, grown-up version of a sippy cup.
My purple Crocs shuffle along the sandy boardwalk. Clouds and breezes have kept the crowds from the beach this afternoon, but the windows in the kiosks still prop open for the few customers who stumble their way here. Within minutes I’m standing in front of Kiosk #1, a steel frame mounted with wooden siding. The menu board on the shack’s exterior doesn’t mention coffee – but good news, there’s a single-sized espresso maker sitting right inside on the counter!
Knowing never to ask for a latte in this land, I go for its French sister: the café-au-lait. Could Barista #1 please make me a café-au-lait, s’il vous plait, to take away?
He shows me one of his plastic coffee cups. It might hold an egg yolk.
He lifts a clear, plastic glass from a towering stack and turns it in his fingers. It’s the exact model that airlines use.
I think about ordering six of these, filled to the brim, but I don’t want to look greedy. I settle on one. What about skim milk?
Oui, I have it.
Well, non, it’s half-skim.
Pause. Okay then.
Actually, non, it’s whole milk.
I walk toward Kiosk #2.
The artist in me fades away in the world of French coffee. In this land you move from a blank canvas of all possibilities to connect-the-dots and paint-by-number. The French stick vigilantly to three standards with only modest variations: espresso, cappuccino, and café-au-lait. I guess there’s also the basic order – the standard filter, or as a Bosnian friend here calls it, “coffee soup.” But in ordering a simple café – or at least when a French person orders a café – he gets an espresso, no milk, and sugar. For sure, sugar. But that’s it. No sizing options. No milkfat choices, or soy or almond, for that matter. No decaf or half-caff. No extra hot, extra wet or extra dry. And flavor shots are simply not French.
The signboard of Kiosk #2 actually lists the phrase “café-au-lait.” Could Barista #2 make me a café-au-lait to take away?
He shows me the same egg yolk cup.
Anything bigger? (Can I possibly sound greedy here?)
He, as it happens, has the Ferrari of takeaway coffee cups. A white plastic model, shallow with a wide-mouthed brim, complete with a tissue-paper-thin, white plastic handle. He thinks the cup is enormous.
I hesitate, calculating the volume of the Ferrari. Barista #2 reads my mind. If I want something even bigger, he suggests the old airline glass, doubled to contain the heat.
And then I do something instinctively. Something surprisingly French. I settle on style. I go with the Ferrari.
I cannot see Barista #2’s handiwork, but it sounds promising. A milk foamer squeals and froths. Beans grind, although their route into the brewing section of the coffee dance sounds disconcertingly automatic. Finally Barista #2 produces a white, plastic cup of java with a thin, white, foamy head.
I sink the first taste. It’s actually not bad. I pay him two Euros and start retracing the sand-strewn boardwalk, sipping the brew that wobbles in my fingers on its flimsy handle. Steam wafts into the cool air and hits my face. My stylish café-au-lait is losing heat rapidly, sloshing around in the shallow, wide-lipped Ferrari cup having no lid.
As my treasure loses its attempt at perfection, I realize it’s not only my purple Crocs that make me look foreign here. It’s the fact that I’m walking with this coffee in my hand and, horror of etiquette horrors, I’m actually sipping it on the move. Coffee should be taken seated, lovingly.
It’s the consumption of coffee that’s an art form here, not what’s inside the cup.
I stop walking and perch on the boardwalk’s cement wall, looking out onto the vacant bay. The waves slap and recoil rhythmically along the sandy shoreline as I sip my precious café-au-lait in its skeletal, white cup. My mission to find a takeaway latte is wholly defeated, but the views are marvelous. I remain until my cup, growing increasingly lightweight, begins to dance in the ocean breeze.
Back home Philippe brims with his latest accomplishment. Right here in the South of France, he has located a supplier of professional coffee equipment. He has ordered our very own cappuccino maker.