An expat in France: café culture shock

An expat in France: cafe culture shockThe French take their coffee seriously. (Frappuccino? Qu’est-ce que c’est?) From the bowl of café au lait that begins the day, to the post-prandial espresso that ends it, coffee is as much a part of French life as the wine for which the country is famous.

The humble coffee shop has been a fixture in certain European and Middle Eastern societies for centuries. More than just a vendor of hot drinks, the café very quickly established itself as an important social hub, where people could debate the issues of the day and catch up on the latest news and gossip. The café culture has even been credited with jump-starting the French Revolution, according to The Economist:

“It was at the Café de Foy, eyed by police spies while standing on a table brandishing two pistols, that Camille Desmoulins roused his countrymen with his historic appeal — ‘Aux armes, citoyens!’ — on July 12th 1789. The Bastille fell two days later, and the French revolution had begun.”

In those sad places without a true café culture, Starbucks has gallantly leaped forward to fill the void. The iconic green mermaid has even infiltrated Paris. (Almost as incongruous as the idea of a Starbucks in The Forbidden City.) I could never bring myself to check out the Parisian Starbucks, though — there’s something rather perverse about swilling a Tazo iced green tea latte in the city that houses Les Deux Magots, the legendary café where such luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir philosophized over unfiltered Gauloises and steaming cups of joe.

Before the invasion of Starbucks into Canada, the closest thing we Canadians had to a café culture was the homegrown Tim Hortons chain of coffee-slash-donut shops. There’s no denying Canadians love their Timmy’s — the company, established by a former NHL hockey player in 1964, now boasts 3,148 locations in Canada (in addition to 602 in the United States, several outlets in Ireland and the UK, and one at the Canadian Forces military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan.) But you couldn’t really call it a café in the French sense of the word.

So what constitutes a café culture? I think it comes down to ambiance. In France, drinking a coffee is a ritual to be savoured, not rushed. Waiters appear unconcerned over the table turnover rate, and will generally let you enjoy your coffee in peace for as long as you like. The convivial nature of the café is as much a part of the experience as the beverage. Laptops are rare. Chatting with friends over a café crème — or even sitting alone nursing an espresso, smoking meditatively* and watching the world go by — is at the very heart of café culture.

The times, though, they may be a-changing. In North America, you can’t walk more than 10 steps without encountering someone clutching a cup of takeout coffee — an idea bordering on sacrilege in France. But during my recent sojourn in Bordeaux, I was surprised to see a sprinkling of those familiar lidded cups around town. Does this signal the beginning of the end for the traditional café culture? I hope not… but I have a bad feeling about this.

*The smoking ban came into effect in December 2007, just after we left France.

About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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22 Responses to An expat in France: café culture shock

  1. David Lloyd says:

    Starbucks tried to infiltrate Israel. But the chain was here for only a short time before giving up and leaving. It appears that the cafe culture is so deeply ingrained into Israeli society that the Starbucks experience could not possibly compete.

    • Maria says:

      Interesting! I would have said it would never happen in France, either. Then I would have said it would never happen outside of Paris. But there’s a SB in Lyon, so obviously I’m not very good at this prediction thing.

  2. I miss coffee shops.

  3. In total agreement that having a coffee (tea, wine, mineral water, whatever) in a relaxed yet energetic environment is a joy. Add in the companionship of a friend, such a bonus. Yet for many, picking up their morning coffee as they start their day is a cherished routine, one that helps get them in the right mindset. I love having a choice, but I will say that I haven’t purchased coffee ‘to go’ in ages.

    • Maria says:

      Most of the Starbucks locations near my house are small outlets found in Chapters (Canadian bookstore chain) stores. I like the idea of books + coffee, but the coffeeshop part of the equation is usually small and cramped. Not very relaxing! So I usually end up drinking on the go. There’s one location that I love, though, and I’m perfectly happy when I manage to find a seat (especially near the fireplace in winter!) and can curl up into a chair with my coffee and a book.

  4. This is very interesting. About 1995 I took a French course at the local French Cultural Center (in North Africa). Our instructor (from the local country) described cafes in North Africa as you are describing them above, in France. Yet he described the feeling when going to France as being quite different. He said they expected you now (in about 1995) to buy a cup of coffee every 15 minutes, or you were expected to leave and make room for others. But I think this only applied to the outdoor, sidewalk sections. Perhaps if you sit indoors they don’t rush people. I think he was also speaking of Paris in particular. Do you know what he is talking about? Have you heard this? Does it vary in different parts of France?

    Lynne Diligent, Intercultural Meanderings

    • Maria says:

      My experiences in Bordeaux and Paris have been somewhat different. In Paris I’ve always been a tourist, and haven’t wanted to linger too much in a cafe when there’s so much to see and do. So I’ve never spent more than 15 or 20 minutes at a table. During the summer months, when the city is jammed, I can see that turnover might be quicker — even more so nowadays than in 1995. But in Bordeaux, as long as I wasn’t taking up space during the busy times (lunch, dinner), I was never made to feel uncomfortable about staying. I spent my summers in Canada, so I avoided the tourist season entirely. Maybe I was just lucky with my timing.

  5. bookjunkie says:

    I especially love the part that you don’t feel pressured to leave and can sit as long as you want.

    In Singapore…there are just not enough seats and too many people. You definitely feel pressured to not take too long.

    • Maria says:

      I’ve spent hours at Starbucks in Orchard Parade and Liat Towers! Inside at Orchard Parade was always crowded, but I never felt any pressure on the terrace. And the people-watching was fantastic!

  6. amblerangel says:

    Americans have to have passports but only 20% of Americans have stamps in them- Starbucks seems to have “brought” a pseudo cafe culture to the US. Maybe we don’t know how to just sit and talk- and watch. Before Starbucks most people didn’t know what an espresso drink entailed. Interesting – never thought about it- but certainly I do it differently Europe than the US.

    • Maria says:

      Me too — here I often bring my laptop along. I can’t imagine doing that in Bordeaux. But then again, I’ve been away from France for almost four years now, so maybe things have changed.

  7. There’s a “see and be seen” quality to French cafes…there is much to watch and people dress to be admired. What I miss most about France is the quality of life: you work to live, not the reverse here in the US where I live. The idea of actually sitting down, for hours, to enjoy food or drink and with someone else who also has the time or will make the time is almost considered laughable here…people are “busy”, doing what I’m not sure.

    I highly value great food, drink and conversation — and hope to retire to France to do all three.

  8. I don’t care about coffee as long as there’s pastry. 🙂

  9. Sine says:

    Agree on pastry – the chocolate croissants we had in Cannes were the best ever! Maria, great post once again. Funny, I also wrote a coffee post about missing (or perhpas not missing so much) Starbucks here in South Africa, if you’d like to check it out: I came to a similar conclusion as you: While I love Starbucks, I love the sit-down-and-have-coffee culture even more, which Starbucks sadly counteracts, at least with its drive-through locations. South Africa has surprisingly good cafes. I’ve had some of the best cappuccinos ever right here in Johannesburg.

    • Maria says:

      Thanks, Sine, and thanks also for the link. Now the concepts of French cafe culture and Africa Time will be inextricably linked in my mind. 🙂

  10. Sorry this isn’t coffee related but did you ever see a play called The Expat Wife while you were in Singapore? It was hilarious!

    • Maria says:

      I did, and it was! It was strange to realize that just about every expat wife cliche on that stage reflected my own life. 🙂


  12. Pingback: Odds & Ends « Adventures in Expat Land

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