May 25, 2004

Café sans frontières

Mark Liberman over at Language Log confronts the rather distinctive bipartite division of coffees in Montreal: velouté or corsé? I was a student when I lived in Montreal. The answer was always corsé. Montreal coffee culture is a bit different. Instead of Starbucks, Van Houtte is the place for du vrai corsé.

But what makes this really funny to me is that I had the same experience in reverse.

To tell this story, I have to set the wayback machine all the way back to 1994. Pink Floyd had just released The Division Bell and High Hopes was on all the time at CHOM 97.7 FM. Bill Clinton was in his first term, as was "Ti-Jean" Chrétien, and your humble narrator was a wee grad student toiling in the vaults of the Pavillon Lionel-Groulx at the Université de Montréal. Having recently scored a job translating a computer manual, I went and bought the most expensive computer I could afford: A 486 DLC-33 with 4 megs of RAM and a 40 meg hard drive. I had Windows, but I mostly ran DOS.

As a grad student, I had certain privileges. Well, one privilege. I had an Internet account via the university and access to their bank of 9600 baud modems. Through this medium, I met this woman in California hanging around in German chatrooms.

Long story short, come July I'm on a Greyhound bus bound for Santa Cruz, California.

I had never been west of the Rockies before. So, the very first time I entered California was on a bus headed out of Reno, a day and a half after leaving Canada. It's an experience that is certainly memorable. My bus from SLC had pulled into Reno around six in the morning, exposing me to my first Cantonese-American breakfast across the street from the Greyhound terminal.

From Reno, you go west on I-80 over the dry floor of the Truckee River valley. Most of Nevada looks just like the area just west of Reno: dry scrub, wasteland, cattle. Nothing worth staying awake for. But don't fall asleep. About 20 minutes after getting on the freeway, you are confronted with a wall of rock with a single canyon in the middle. Those are the Sierras.

The freeway plunges into the canyon and the whole world changes. For the next hour or so, you are in the mountains. It's all pine trees and canyons until you hit Emigrant Gap. The transition from the Nevada desert couldn't be sharper. For a flatland city boy like me, it was dazzling.

You move quickly through an odd city in the mountains called Auburn, and then the road flattens out. Before you and below you lies an enormous valley, too large and too smoggy for you to see the ends clearly.

The road widens in Auburn and the traffic picks up, and just as you're reaching the level floor of the valley, you start to see something. Something which - in 1994 - I had never seen before except on TV: Palm trees.

It was the first moment when the whole thing became real, when I realised that I was in California and that California was not like where I came from. I was the heir to a century of imagery and myth about the promised land on the Pacific coast, and for a brief time, I actually dropped my Gen X cynicism long enough to wonder if, this one time, it might actually all be for real.

It isn't. But I didn't know that until I had lived there for a while.

Anyway, a few hours later I'm in Santa Cruz, and this woman who I had met on the 'Net is at the Greyhound station to meet me. Let's skip the first meeting scene. It's distracting and impedes the narrative.

Since I'm at the tail end of a 48 hour bus trip and need coffee, she takes me to a local coffeehouse. Rebecca's Mighty Muffins. There, I was confronted with something I had never seen before: a coffee menu, scrawled laboriously on a big green chalkboard covering an entire wall. There were dozens of different coffees.

And me, all I knew was décafiné, corsé, velouté. I couldn't speak. I didn't know what to say. My wife (for you see, some years later I married the woman I met over the 'Net and who was there to meet me at the Greyhound station) still tells the story of how I was panicked by the coffee menu at Rebecca's Mighty Muffins.

In the end, I couldn't even find the words in Engllish to express myself and ended up saying 'Stie, tout ce que je veux c'est un crisse de corsé!. The barista gives me this great, more Eurotrash in California sort of look. Finally I pulled myself together enough to speak Engish, finding myself, somehow, thrown back to the New Jersey accent of my adolescence. I said, Yeah, look, can I just get a black coffee?

That day I learned my first word of Californian: House coffee.

(Images from Eric Buchanan's Highway Photos Web Site)

Posted 2004/05/25 23:06 (Tue) | TrackBack

Wonderful story. Thanks!

Posted by: David Yaseen at May 26, 2004 5:14

You're welcome.

Posted by: Scott Martens at May 26, 2004 13:45

It is a great story. But what's "'Stie"?

Posted by: language hat at May 26, 2004 17:35

Contraction of "maudite hostie", I bet. (M or F? I don't know how to sex wafers.)

Just from casual info, Catholic cursing seems to be derived mostly from the Church, and is usually euphemized. Sources: Flann O'Brien, Rabelais, and various travellers I've talked to. The Protestant cursing I grew up with is based on bodily functions and sex.

The amount of euphemism in Rabelais is shocking. His themes are very frank and anti-clerical or worse, but he avoids many bad words.

Posted by: john emerson / zizka at May 26, 2004 20:18

It is, indeed, a more phonological way of writing the sacre québécois derived from hostie - e.g., communion bread.

It is pronounced with a distinctly affricated "t". It sounds like the way you would pronounce "stsee" if that was an English word.

Posted by: Scott Martens at May 27, 2004 0:44

If you're ever back in Santa Cruz, stop by our new store and have a House Coffee on me. We are moving our location so you won't be able to reminisce as well, but we will probably have the same green chalkboard. Great story!

Posted by: Rob at April 6, 2005 7:47
Post a comment

Remember personal info?