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Coffee Bliss: First Café Crème in France

Editor’s Note: This past May I had the pleasure of teaching a Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Provence for The Writer’s Workshop. During the class, the students experienced the magic of Provence: wonderful restaurants like Maison Drouot in St. Remy de Provence , fabulous wineries like Domaine de la Mourchon and fascinating historic sites like the St. Paul de Mausole mental hospital where Vincent Van Gogh painted The Starry Night. I’ll be sharing the stories they wrote over the next few weeks, exploring the beauty, history, food and wine culture of this amazing place.  I’ll be teaching a similar course in Rioja, Spain this spring (May 21-27):

Coffee Bliss: First Café Crème in Vaison la Romaine, Provence
By Guy DiRe

Coffee. My search begins at the edge of town. Vaison la Romaine in the Provence region of France.  It is my first morning here after arriving yesterday afternoon. I had yet to make it into town, partially by design, mostly by the practicality of settling in at a new place for the week to come.
It’s morning. Well, it’s morning for me. That would make it around five. The sun just barely up, just making its way into the start of a new day. That’s when everything happens. That is when the town wakes up, when the sun is young and all the promise, expectation and excitement of a new start is out there to grab.
Coffee. For me, a Seattle native, the land of Starbucks, coffee is a necessity (tall drip Pike no room). From our hotel at the top of this hilly town it’s an easy ten-minute walk into the heart of Vaison. Made easier by the fact that there is no one else in sight. This being my first time in France I don’t know if this is the norm. Are the French late risers? Well at least not the first person I see. She is wearing an out-for-dinner dress, high heels and last night’s makeup. I would bet a euro to a dozen croissants she has yet to be to bed, to sleep anyway.
Downhill. The cobblestones in the center of the street have been replaced by large grey slate tiles and rough asphalt. Then a bridge built by the Romans.  A truck rolls by, the garbage man. Another hung with ladders and pipes, plumber? They must have stopped somewhere for a cup. There has to be something open.
I enjoy the empty town. It gives me and the town, a chance to introduce ourselves. We are alone. There are no groups of cameras following a bright pink umbrella. There is no reason to rush to the church tower that appears right in front of me. I can take the time to discover the towns corners. We can slowly get to know each other.  If only it would introduce me to an open café.
I turn right from the main street and the town square opens up. It’s ringed by restaurants. Old red green and white tattered banners announce who’s been in business the longest. Patassier, Pizzeria, Glacier. They all stand empty. No coffee.
On the next street I see a light. A truck idles in front of a café. Success.
And then panic. No French for me. Can I pull this off with a nod towards the espresso machine and a poorly accented mumble? The shop owner looks up, a friendly smile of anticipation, “Bon Jour.” Is all I catch from the three or four or five sentences that flow out of her. She waits, the smile slowly fading into a hint of exasperation. “Bon jour,” I mumble. “Café?” she nods. “Si,” I nod back. Si? No, oui. She smiles and turns to the burbling machine. I believe I ordered a coffee. I have no idea what form it will take, but it will be hot, and black, and heavily caffeinated. Success. She waves towards an empty table and give me a sympathetic smile.
It is hot, black, bitter and smooth. A light caramel colored foam rims the tiny white cup. A packet of sugar, a small biscuit and a little silver spoon sit alongside. My first café crème.     
I have fallen into the diner, the shop, the café. The gathering place for the town’s restless early risers and working men. Everyone greets each other with a comfortable smile and cheek kissing. The noise level rises, the conversations and the sun warm the shop.
A large man in Carhart  jeans, scuffed boots and the smell of diesel walks in. Anna, the proprietress, looks up and makes an obvious attempt to ignore him. He is looking for someone. Perhaps it is his partner, his helper, maybe his boss. Everyone in the shop keeps their heads down stirring their coffee. He pushes past an older woman, whose coffee slops from her cup onto her white skirt. He yanks the bathroom door open, takes a quick glance inside, slams the door shut and storms out.
The conversations resume but the light morning tone is gone. Hands fly, heads nod vigorously toward the door until the panic recedes. I take a careful look at the man seated at the table next to me. My raised eyebrows and pursed lips ask him. He checks over his shoulder and slowly leans in to me, “la espouse” he whispers. No need to say more.
I tip my cup and drain the last of the sticky thick liquid from the bottom of the delicate demitasse. Before I can set it down Anna is there with another, a croissant a pat of butter and a tri-color of jams.
I have found my place. My mornings will start here. I have joined a community simply by showing up. I can get what I need without the trouble of words. I am sure I will be kissing cheeks by the end of the week.

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