vendredi 24 septembre 2010

P is for Paris

Ce café, c’est du jus de chaussette — This coffee tastes like dishwater

I love Paris. I even love the Metro which, as anyone who knows my views on the London Underground in general, and the Central Line in particular, may come as a surprise.

I love the way so many stations are named after people, from the well known —  Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Alexandre Dumas and Franklin D Roosevelt — to the not-so-well known. Richard Lenoir station, for example, is named not for one person but two: François Richard and Joseph Lenoir-Dufresne, industrialists who brought the cotton industry to Paris. After the death of Lenoir, Richard went by the name Richard-Lenoir. Étienne Marcel, who died on 31 July 1358 was provost of the merchants of Paris under King John II, while Gabriel Péri was a prominent French Communist journalist and politician.

Can you imagine that in London? ‘Excuse me, can you tell me how to get to William Shakespeare?’

‘Yes, change at Winston Churchill, then take the Tony Blair direction, and change again at William Wordsworth. Whatever you do, don’t get off at Simon Cowell, Robin Hood or Lennon and McCartney. Sorry, I have to go, I’m meeting someone at Dame Vera Lynn in 10 minutes.’

Of course, the stations are often named after streets, which are named after the person the station commemorates. But nevertheless, unlike Shepherds Bush, Mile End or Acton Town, you generally don’t have a clue where you are. However, London Underground lines are more imaginatively named: Bakerloo, Victoria, Jubilee… beats Ligne 1, 2 or 3 any day.

Above ground, you tend to find yourself in the midst of the sort of scene I remember Bill Bryson describing in his book, Neither Here Nor There, but thought was somewhat exaggerated. Not so. (Sorry for doubting you there, Bill.)

There comes a point when you have to try to cross the road. You wait patiently by the kerb for the green man to appear. In the meantime, two parties of Japanese tourists, several women pushing baby buggies, a man with a guide dog and a couple of drunks scurry across the five lanes of traffic in complete safety. The green man appears, so off you go. His appearance lasts about 5 seconds, leaving you in the middle of the road with those five lanes of traffic heading straight for you. Luckily one of the drunks spots your plight, heads back to the middle of the road and puts up his hand to halt the cars. You mutter a polite ‘merci’, which he probably doesn’t hear through the resultant symphony of car horns, and run for your life.

Paris is a good place to discuss coffee. Hands up if you’ve heard of Cappucino’s Law? No? It states that the smaller your cup of coffee, the longer you linger at the table of the boulevard café you’ve chosen to patronise.

Some say that ordering coffee in Starbuck’s isn’t without difficulty, given the choices involved. It’s not that easy in France either. Ask for ‘café’ and you get an espresso. If you want anything larger, ask for a ‘grand café’ and if you want milk with that, add ‘avec lait’. Or you can ask for a ‘grand café crème’. Either way, your large coffee isn’t going to be that big. Order a cappuccino and more often than not it will come as a black coffee masquerading as a cappuccino by having a large dollop of Chantilly and a few chocolate sprinkles on the top. But whatever you order, you always get a little biscuit with it.

The strange thing is, when the French sit in a café, they enjoy the smallest coffee you can find, yet for breakfast they love huge bowls of the stuff. And whatever we give them is never strong enough. We’ve even had people at our chambre d’hotes surreptitiously sprinkling a sachet of Nescafe in the coffee we give them. So we gave up and installed an espresso machine in the room — at least they can have strong coffee for the rest of the day.

Contrary to popular belief, you can get a decent cup of Earl Grey in France. But they really love their tisanes here — tea of every aroma you can think of. I like
the vanilla and the caramel flavours, but am not too keen on the apple and cinnamon. You can even buy special boxes so you can offer your guests the choice of a dozen different flavours. Just sit back and wait for them to choose!

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