In America there are basically two coffee options, regular or decaffienated. In France, coffee is an art form. Espresso, cafe au lait, cafe Americain, regular coffee which is a cross between espresso and a normal cup of the dark liquid, cappuccino, flavored coffees. The list goes on and on. And at a pastry shop, or coffee bar the choices will be spelled out for you.
Where things may go awry, however, is in a nice restaurant where ‘beverage’ is listed with your meal choices and the wait staff is in charge of taking your order. At least that is where I went off track. In the smaller villages of France, this is unlikely to happen, as the staff will gently tease out of you which type of coffee you prefer. Parisians have no patience for this.
My advice, make no assumptions whatsoever when ordering in Paris; especially when ordering coffee. Even if you have ordered the American Breakfast choice from the menu, the coffee will not be cafe Americain unless you specifically ask for it. Even when asked whether you want chocolate or coffee with your breakfast, do not be quick to answer. You must do the teasing out of choices when in Paris.
I made this mistake after nearly two weeks of successful ordering with restaurants throughout France. This wasn’t even my first trip to France, nor to Paris. I offered a greeting upon entering, sat where they suggested and ordered the American breakfast; after days of consuming bread and pastries, it seemed like I needed a little protein. Then the handsome young waiter asked if I preferred chocolate or coffee. Simple. Two choices. Coffee I said. It came to the table like a cup of ink.
I asked for cream.
Day turned into night as darkness consumed the restaurant. If this were a movie, the screeching stabbing music would have cranked up. “You asked for coffee!” The waiter was insulted as he had brought what I asked for. “You ordered coffee. I brought the coffee.” “Yes, and now I would like cream.” I was ignorant of the problem. He gave me two choices and I chose one. It wasn’t as simple as bring me a pitcher of cream. “If you wanted cream with your coffee then you should have said so when you ordered it!” And they say Americans are arrogant. I fought every urge to say that I only chose one of the two singular choices given to me. Which is when I realized my mistake. Parisians will not present you with every possible option. It is the sole responsibility of the patron to know how to order and how to ask questions. They are not raised to be assuming about anything. So, I let it go and added a citrus press and only drank enough of the thick, strong coffee to prove that I had the chops to do so.
But the entire day was spoiled for the waiter. I could hear him telling everyone that I didn’t know how to order and then he assumed I understood no French and to nobody in particular began to chant a little angrily from behind the bar ‘she ordered coffee, coffee she said, then wanted cafe au lait, bring some cream, what does she think this is!’
My dining neighbors were grinning and lifting eyebrows, some at me but mostly at him. He brought the rest of my meal quite elegantly though and then occurred to me that perhaps I had made another incorrect assumption in thinking he was offended. Perhaps he was just being theatrical in teaching an American how to order coffee in Paris.
Not desiring to make another faux pas, I left a tip and said, “Au revoir” as I exited his establishment, the Marco Polo which is right across the street from the Concorde Hotel. Some of the other diners actually said it back to me as though in sympathy or perhaps they were just glad to see me go. In Paris, you cannot make assumptions!
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Sooooo true. They are equally scandalized when I want café crème in the evening, which doubles its price, and seems to be altogether different from café au lait, the breakfast beverage that provides coffee and hot milk in separate containers.
Anyhow, you gave me a delicious laugh here before breakfast.
I guess we are just a couple of crazy Americans!