French Friday: American Black Coffee

Virginia Tech Horticultural Gardens

When driving together my husband and I often pull over for a cup of mid-morning coffee that we share. We didn’t use to share coffee when we lived in France. Both of us loved our breakfast coffee served in a bol and our espressos in tiny cups.

My French bol and espresso cup

We discovered mugs in the US and also that coffee could be ordered for here or to go and in different sizes. Most exceeded a typical French serving. We learned how to grind our coffee at the supermarket while it was professionally done in France. Lines at the drive-through puzzled us. We were almost shocked to see some people drink coffee with their lunch. I spent quite some time in the dairy aisle. What did people do with all these flavored creamers and half and half? They seemed to have something to do with coffee.

Things have changed, of course. Here, because all these American things are mine too, even though I don’t use all of them. But also in France. I can no longer say that my mother doesn’t speak a word of English. She drinks her tea in a mug. Since the arrival of Starbucks in the early 2000s, the French also order tall, grande, venti, and for here or to go.

Yet some things never change.

Last month, as my husband and I acknowledged the snaking line at the Starbucks we decided to split. He’d check his email and I’d get our tall black coffee to go.

I waited, sandwiched between a young woman and an elderly gentleman. I had ample time to admire the pierced heart, the flying birds, and the homage to a beloved grandma tattooed on the young woman’s tanned shoulder blades and triceps. Soon, however, I couldn’t miss the conversation happening right behind me. I never eavesdrop, but it is impossible to not hear when people talk inches away from you, right? Appeared that a second gentleman stood behind the first one.

“All this line to get a five bucks coffee!” said gentleman #2. “You can get black coffee for next to nothing at Burger King.”

“Right,” said gentleman #1. “But not as good.”

“Don’t like black coffee no more,” said gentleman #2. “Go to Starbucks for their iced stuff. Keep me awake on the road.”

“Only drink black coffee. Straight up,” insisted gentleman #1.

“Went to the Navy or what?” said gentleman #2.

“Nope. The Army.”

Followed then a detailed description of the awful but necessary black coffee they both drank while in the military.

“I know,” concluded gentleman #1 with a sigh. “Starbuck makes it much better, though.”

The line moved on. Now, he and I stood eye level with the small tantalizing pastry window.

“Not sure Weight Watchers endorses any of that,” said gentleman #1.

By then, I could hardly keep my chuckles at bay.

“Oh, you can afford ALL of them pastries!” he said, visibly addressing me, although we had not technically seen each other.

I turned around and smiled. “You can still have this,” I said, pointing at the boxed Caesar salad.

“Without the dressing and the croutons, though.” And he chuckled back.

My turn had arrived and I ordered a tall coffee.

“With room for cream?” said the barista.

“No, thank you. Just black.”

“You’re a black coffee person too?” said gentleman #1. “But you didn’t go to the Army, right?”

“Right.” And I raised my cup.

“Cheers to that black coffee,” said both men in unison.

I walked back to my husband who had finished checking his email.

“It took you a while,” he said, when I handed him the cup for a sip. “And it was only for black coffee.”

“That’s not any black coffee.”

And I told him about gentlemen #1 and #2.

“I don’t know,” he said. “How you always manage to talk to everyone everywhere we go.”

“I don’t talk to them. I only hear them talk. Then, we talk.”

In the US, it is so easy to strike a conversation with people we’ve never met and won’t ever meet again. Yes, it used to surprise me and almost freak me out, back in the days. Not anymore.

I know that sometimes we’d rather avoid a casual chat. Some days when we feel a little sad or worried or too busy or just want to be left alone. Surprinsingly, it it when I want to stay away from small talk that they happen. But guess what? In most cases, I feel then better than I did previously. Then I’m glad to realize that the pleasure of these spontaneous discussions has never faded away.

Truth is only Americans can chitchat about black coffee with total strangers.


This pine tree, seen at the Virginia Tech Horticultural Gardens, reminds me of these two elderly men who also stood proudly as they waited for their black coffee and iced stuff. 




  1. Love reading about your experiences, simple daily routines that you turn into engaging interactions. Miss having coffee with you!

  2. Had the weirdest experience in New York. I ordered coffee and the guy started pouring cream into the cup before pouring the coffee. I said “No, I want it black.” He then picked up the sugar and was ready to pour it into the cup. Most everywhere else, “black” means “no sugar, either.” So when ordering coffee in New York (except presumably at Starbucks), remember, it’s “coffee, black, no sugar.”

    • This guy must have been one who never drinks black coffee 🙂
      In most cases they ask. I never took sugar in my coffee, even back in France. And I don’t like milk too much.
      Black coffee in the US used to be so-so, but it’s very different now. The whole culture around coffee shops has changed and it’s easy to enjoy a great cup of Joe.
      Thank you for stopping by, John.

  3. Great post! It’s interesting people don’t do this elsewhere? I had no idea. Yes, we do chat in lines. Most of my interaction with strangers comes in lines 🙂
    I like black coffee, but in most coffee, I like cream, flavored or not. I buy Starbucks mostly, out and for home. Former barista there, I loved it.
    My husband, former Marine and soldier both, can tell terrible tales of black sludge he’s had all over the world — but then he can tell you about the coffee in Italy and the chai in Iraq all made up for that 😉

    • I’m not the least surprised that random conversations happen to you too 🙂
      I’m only comparing to France, so I have no idea how it works elsewhere. Not saying that people never speak to strangers there. But it’s never as spontaneous and friendly. I truly believe that Americans are more gregarious in general.
      And I understand your husband 🙂 Coffee in Italy is excellent, much better than in France where it can be a little too bitter. I’ve never been to Iraq but I believe your husband too. I just know that North Africans make the best mint tea!

  4. A great anecdote Evelyne, I love the stories you’ve conjured up from something as simple as black coffee – and yes we do talk in lines in England too, at least in the north 🙂

  5. I have done black, black with sugar and now, coffee with milk only. I cannot drink Starbucks coffee, in any form, hot, iced, with or without – bleah 🙁

    However you like it, I hope the line moves along quickly.

    • I always favor any coffee shop to Starbucks. Unfortunately, like bookstores they are not the majority across our country. So…
      Not a big fans of long lines either. But they make for conversations. Which in turn become blog posts 🙂
      See you on your blog, Dan.

  6. Not only do we drink our coffee in mugs, we drink it in thermal mugs with tops so we don’t wind up having to fix our computers after we spill it. And our mugs are 20 oz mugs. I used to drink out of tiny cups too, but I’m serious about mugs.

    • Yes to travel mugs! I have a few ones too and they are terrific when I leave home in a rush. Safer for computers too, right. I damaged one this way years ago.
      Still love small cups for espressos but I love mugs too. In fact, I started a collection years ago and have quite a few now.

  7. This made me smile. My husband also says that I talk with anyone. It makes life more interesting,doesn’t it?
    I miss our weekly coffees and critiques together.

  8. I’m a chit-chatter. I like it, that a boring wait can turn into a talk-party at any moment. If I’m too long at the grocery, Charlie always asks me if I met somebody I know. Sometimes, I say, “Well, I know ’em NOW.” 🙂

  9. Woah!!
    What an informative and interesting article!!😊

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