First Contact in a Coffee Cup

by Don Webb


Issue 721 has two other memoirs — one real, one fictional — that describe in different ways what can be learned from contact with other cultures. Anyone writing science fiction stories about “First Contact” with space aliens might do well to take note.

I’ll take the opportunity to add a story of my own. It’s one I never tire of repeating, because it contains a lesson...

My first contact with coffee came when I was about eight years old, at a dinner that was a festive occasion: grandparents, parents, uncles, cousins... the works. All the adults were drinking coffee.

In my necessarily childlike way, I asked, “Can I have some?” The general response was generous: “Well, okay, why not?” I took a swig. I don’t remember the taste but, to this day, I can see myself contemplating the dregs remaining at the bottom of the cup. I asked, “Is this supposed to be good?”

What else could I say? I’d tasted nothing like it before. And what could the company do but enjoy a laugh? That was a first “First Contact,” even though it was within my own family.

In later years, I developed a taste for coffee. And, ultimately, the French style: a demi-tasse of brew hot, black and strong. Superbe ! Or “chewy,” as my mother would say.

On a visit to France in 1963, I was hitchhiking with a friend. One could still do that in those days. We split up on occasion and, while waiting for him in Nîmes, I think it was, I frequented a café near the youth hostel.

At the bar, a barman was taking orders and shouting them to another worker busy operating the coffee machines.

In France, be more polite than in the U.S. “Un café noir, s’il vous plaît, monsieur,” I asked. And don’t smile. Americans consider a smile a friendly greeting; the French will wonder what’s funny.

Un noir,” the barman shouted to the coffee-making man.

Later that day, my friend rejoined me, and I took him to the café. Ever the diligent language student, I was ready: “Un noir, s’il vous plaît.

Une pression,” the barman shouted to the coffee man. I added “pression” to my vocabulary.

The next morning, I sidled up to the bar. No worries about the crowd: in America, personal space is arm’s length; in France, forearm’s length. Determined to display my language skills, I said to the barman, “Bonjour, monsieur,” — I was becoming a regular customer — une pression, s’il vous plaît.”

Un nature,” shouted the barman.

Say what? I was floored. “Nature” is feminine in French. But “un” was obviously correct; “une” would be absurd. The barman must be abbreviating something like “un [café de l’ordre de la] nature.” I took frantic mental notes.

That afternoon, on my last visit, I was determined to mine this barman for all the vocabulary he had. “Un nature, s’il vous plaît,” I asked confidently.

The barman turned to the coffee-machine man and said, “Un café noir.

We had come full circle. And I had learned consciously something that I — and, apparently, everyone else — had always assumed instinctively. Don’t repeat word for word what someone has just said to you; the mimicry might be taken for mockery, even if it’s unintended. The barman was being polite. And, with the time lapse between visits, so was I.

Does the principle of non-repetition hold in all cultures? I don’t know, but I suspect it does. When the space aliens finally land, will we be able to talk to them? We have enough trouble talking to each other. If the space aliens have a taste for coffee, I recommend they go to France. Like me, they may find there’s more than coffee in the cup.


Copyright © 2017 by Don Webb

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