jeudi 2 février 2012


I 'm pondering the meaning/symbolism of coffee in my two cultures today.  The idea of "to go" coffee, you know, the sort you can buy in a drive-through.

One of the reasons that this type of dispensary could not exist in France (aside from the fact that the French are not a car culture) might be grounded in the idea of coffee, of having a coffee, being an excuse to congregate, rather than a fill a physiological need to replenish one's energy supply. Sure, I've downed an expresso at 16h00 when my head starts dropping onto my desk...but it has always been inside a cafe, either at the "zinc"--the counter--or sitting down however briefly at a little round table amongst the smokers. It involves an exchange with the cafe owner ("Bonjour Monsieur") as well as an exchange with the waiter ("un express, s'il vous plait") and some chit chat with any other regular I might recognize in the cafe where I go near my office.

What I'm highlighting here is this idea of connection, communication, exchange...these subtle threads that are so important in helping one feel a part of a larger community. And this is what the drive-through cannot provide. I do understand its role in American culture: these drive-throughs offer convenience, an adrenaline fix for a tired mom with two kids strapped into carseats in the back who otherwise would not get the recharge she needs to keep on going, sustenance for the communter who overslept that morning and did not have time to make his own brew...and I'm glad that one has the option available to fill up his styrofoam cup at the same time one fills up his gas tank. Choice and availability are but two of those things that American marketers do best.

But I wonder if there are still places here in California where one can go to find community and coffee...and I'm talking about coffee as a pretext to sit and shoot the breeze, not designer $4.50/350-calories-a-cup coffee taken to go. In my hometown, there are no more diners. Heck, the old bars which lined a certain section of Fourth street during my childhood, with their untrendy names like "Pago Pago", "The Gold Clown", "The Vault" are all gone, replaced by Peet's and Starbucks. The old guys of San Rafael, on their fixed pensions, can't afford the products sold in these places, and they certainly would not find companionship nor conversation amongst the clientele who frequents them.

After a recent hike out in west Marin, I took the kids to an old, authentic eatery out in Point Reyes Station. And I pointed out to them the old timers, the Portuguese immigrants who came to west Marin to work the land, the dairy ranches. I went to high school with their kids whose names seemed so exotic to me: Texeira, Nunes...I made it a point to show the girls that these guys came to this particular place to linger over a plain, black cup of coffee. That they probably would sit there all day, just enjoying the talk and the gossip. And without places like this, the threads of the community would be hard to keep intact. And that we were very lucky to still have these watering holes on every corner of every street in France. Serving good, inexpensive coffee, plain or fancy. And a side order of conversation and connection.

1 commentaire:

  1. I just discovered this blog a few days ago, and I've been reading it steadily ever since. I love it!

    It's very sad to me to think of a place where one cannot go to simply drink a cup of coffee. Yes, as a mom of two kids (7 and 3...and boy, is that 3 year old crazy) I like a drive through coffee every once in awhile. But a non-Starbucks, sit-down place is very nice as well.