Monday, March 31, 2008

More Café Musings

I’m not really obsessed with cafés, and it’s certainly not as if I spent an inordinate amount of time in them, but the coffee discussion got me thinking about their appeal….The other morning, I was feeling a bit out of sorts, nothing major, just that vague, itchy feeling in the back of my brain that didn’t really correspond to the present reality. I was attending to business at city hall (that sounds important but really I was just signing a form), and I thought, hey, I have a half an hour, why not? And I went to a nearby café and ordered a coffee. The coffee was mediocre (I forgot to try asking for a “serré”) but the experience was just what I needed: a good half hour of doing nothing in particular. It occurred to me that perhaps that is the main draw—in a café you are allowed, nay, encouraged, to do nothing in particular. In fact, the whole café-going enterprise is a royal waste of time—and therein lies the beauty of the thing. How often in our daily rush-around lives do we get to do something as non-productive as sit around drinking coffee and staring out the window?

Here is where café culture in France is clearly superior to that in say, New York City. I am proud to say I lived in New York City for 13 years, but when I think of the difficulty involved in achieving the perfect zombie state in a café there, well, it gives me a headache. I lived on the Upper West Side, but to get to a café that was actually comfortable and welcoming (and not a coffee bar with painfully high stools), I’d have to walk a good 30 blocks to La Fortuna on West 71st street. Assuming it’s still there, Fortuna is the only place I know above 14th street where you can actually find an old Italian grandmother hanging out at the manager’s table. And if you look carefully, she will be staring out the window, doing absolutely nothing, as is only right and proper. For me, it was rare to have the time and energy to get there, and once I was it was already an event, which meant I needed to be doing something important, like talking to a friend, or writing, or meeting the love of my life.

But in France cafés are everywhere, and more importantly, they are not filled with Julliard students or West-siders trying to make a point. They are generally not even filled, just lightly dusted with a quirky clientele (depending on where it’s located) mostly concentrating on doing nothing. Communing with the ectoplasm of lost souls who have haunted said café for decades or even centuries. Outside of an ashram or a cathedral, where else are you allowed to empty your mind and let your thoughts wander in the company of strangers—for the price of a cup of coffee?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

There’s coffee and then there’s café

A comment by Teena in Australia made me think about the French coffee conundrum: How can a country that has one of the world’s most developed café cultures not have the best coffee? One could go on for days about the unique quality of the French café, or the quintessentially French nature of it’s customs and clientele, or the long list of Famous Writers and Thinkers that have created great works while sitting in one. But does anyone really have anything to say about the coffee? There’s the wonderful shape of the tiny cups, there’s the deep blackness of the mysterious brew within, but what about the taste? Does anyone really care?

It’s hard to tell. The quality of coffee in Parisian cafés can range from acrid to excellent, but it’s rare that you’ll come across a cup that would make your average New York coffee freak sing. I think it’s an acquired taste. If you are expecting Italian espresso, you’ll be disappointed. But if you are willing to accept your coffee cup as merely one piece of your overall café experience, you’ll soon find that it’s syrupy, bitter quality is the perfect complement to the peculiar atmosphere that reigns in a Parisian café. Now that there’s no more smoke (see The End of the Smoky Café), it is the coffee that must express, as it were, the gestalt of the establishment. The French are not afraid of the negative, in fact they often embrace it whole-heartedly. So if their coffee is slightly acid, or harsh, well, hey, so is life. Chances are, the person behind the counter is not going to feel like prettying up the bitter reality of the dark liquid that seeps out of the massive machine behind him or her, nor is the customer at the zinc bar going to expect it. Which is one of the reasons that I think (hope) that Starbucks, despite its current invasion of Paris, will never really catch on.

We bought an espresso machine last year, and I was surprised how little interest my coffee mania inspired in my French friends, or in the machine sales people, for that matter. Though weak, American style brews are simply not tolerated here, coffee is coffee for most French people, and that could mean anything from drip to pods. Nespresso has made huge inroads here, probably mostly thanks to George Clooney’s mug on the advertisements. People like the gadget, but no one seems to really get worked up about things like grind, aroma, or beans (which are really hard to find). That’s OK, we managed to find a good machine, and to my delight I’ve realized that you can find Italian espresso in the supermarkets here, if you dig around a bit. But you’ll still be hard pressed to find a decent cappuccino in this city, which is perfectly understandable to a Parisian. After all, this is Paris. They just don’t do frothy here.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Attack of the Motherboard

I haven’t posted in a while because a tragic mishap befell my computer. A couple of weeks ago, I caught a bad cold and decided to work from bed. I got all comfy with pillows and put my laptop on my knees and managed to be quite productive despite my malaise. Feeling pleased with myself, I climbed out of bed, placed my closed laptop on my dresser, and plugged it in to let it charge. About a half an hour later, careening around the apartment getting ready to go pick up my son from school, I tore into my room, tripped over the cable, and watched my computer take a four-foot dive onto the floor, where it bounced with a grisly thud. I felt like I was watching a small child get into an accident. I gingerly picked it up, hoping and praying that the “titanium” exterior of my beloved PowerBook protected its fragile insides. Alas, when I booted up, it made all the appropriate noises, but the screen remained distressingly black.

As soon as it was physically possible, I ran my computer over to the nearest Mac hospital, and explained what had happened. The technician looked grim. “We won’t know anything until we open it up,” he warned, as he prepared to wheel my laptop off to surgery. “It could be a simple matter of changing a minor card, or it could be that we’ll have to change The Motherboard.” There are few words fraught with as much tension and danger as the word “Motherboard.” It makes one think of some enormous, ominous-looking spacecraft hovering over Earth, threatening to blow up the planet. Another unpleasant element was that in the first case I would be out a mere 350 euros, and in the second, over 800 euros, clearly more than my three-year old was worth.

I went home, relieved that my computer was in capable hands, but nervous about the diagnosis. Two days later, the call came. “I’m sorry to tell you this. It’s The Motherboard.” Shock, dismay, existential angst—a whirlwind of inappropriate emotions overcame me. How could I feel so emotionally attached to a bunch of circuits? I couldn’t help it. I felt I was looking into the void. No more Internet access. No more e-mail. No more writing. What would I do? What would become of me? What about The Future?

After several hours of such gloomy thoughts, it occurred to me that I could simply buy a monitor and hook my laptop up to it, since after all, the computer worked, even if the screen was whacked. And my husband brought to my attention the fact that if I bought the correct cable, I could even hook it up to our flat-screen TV, which is how I am currently writing these words. But between the accident and the cable hook up, over a week passed by where I did not have a computer. I have to admit, it was kind of a revelation. First of all, I realized that I can talk to my friends by telephone. Then it occurred to me that if a pen and paper were good enough for Shakespeare and Dickens, they were good enough for me. Most importantly, my insomnia, which has been cursing my existence since I had brain surgery in June (I can’t wait until I get to use that line at a cocktail party) vanished during that week.

Mark Bittman wrote a lovely article in the International Herald Tribune (March 3) about the terror and joy of turning everything off on the weekend, pointing out that not so long ago we all lived without cell phones and Internet and were none the worse for it (and perhaps better off). While I have no intention of tuning out, this experience has made me rethink my priorities a bit, and where exactly my computer should be on that list. If nothing else, for the sake of my sleep cycles, I shall henceforth shut down after 9pm. The Mother of the Motherboard has spoken.