Time, Ghosts and Coffee


Main Canal (Thiou), Rue de la République, Annecy. Autumn planting for flowers with jumble of medieval buildings and distant mountains

To walk the cobbled streets of Old Town, Annecy, one strolls a time machine. Underfoot are time-worn stones, irregular and smooth, in staggered rows and circular patterns. The colors of facades, some freshly painted, derive from a pallet of the south of France, such as Riviera Pink or the Patina-like Chinese Vase Green. Certain window lentils are elaborately adorned with friezes and the occasional balcony sports a Rococo railing that catches the eye on some street corners.

It would have an air that would seem ‘démodé’ (stale, outmoded) where it not for another element that brings time screeching, jarringly into the present. The storefronts one passes are nearly all the ubiquitous brands of any mid-sized city almost anywhere in the world. On display are the latest fashions, books, housewares, greeting cards, toys and eyeglasses that one could expect. Whether you, dear reader, might find the cookie-cutter of modern, retail commerce discouraging or comforting, I admit that during the bi-annual sales, the presence of so many customary brands (Zara, Nocibé, Esprit, Timberland, Boss, North Face, Bennetton, et ainsi de suite) can make this an absolute paradise for the fashion-conscious bargain hunter. I say that particularly because I now live in Switzerland, where it seems the Helvetian borders shelter prices that are often one-third higher or more.

After a reflective lunch at L’En-Cas this solo plunge might seem a strange catechism in the streets of Annecy which burgeon for this New Year’s Eve of mild weather and madding crowds. Nonetheless, I have a mission. I used to live in this town and I welcome its chaos as familiar. In particular, that is because I know that this jostling frenzy of pedestrianized streets hides its secrets too. I make may way to one of them now.


Church steeple of Eglise de la Notre Dame de Liesse, Annecy

Leaving the luncheonette, I cross through a small park, bishopry’s Garden (Jardin de l’Evêché), and find my way through the arcades that border a section of Canal du Vassé. The canal, one of the two primary outflows, takes its water from Lake Annecy, goes subterranean for 250m under city streets and reemerges in this segment, before it passes under the garden and the foundations of the Church, Eglise de Notre Dame de Liesse (with its gold-plated Virgin ‘en vigie’ or in vigil).

Time travel begins in this cloistered dampness along the canal. I arrive at the busy Rue Vaugelas. Ten years ago, this was a main, exhaust-choked thoroughfare through town. Now, it permits only buses, cyclists and the occasional disoriented tourist looking for his hotel. With narrowing step, I approach a crowded crossroads. This next pedestrianized street pulses with the animation of a salmon migration to the spawning ground. This is Rue Carnot, an important shopping street that stretches several blocks through the heart of Old Town, Annecy.

Just a minute away from the address I seek on the medieval-gone-modern shopping street, the phone vibrates in my trouser pocket. I look to see a text message from K. She has only just learned from her friend (HdC) that the coffee roaster has died suddenly, of an aneurysm. Her message didn’t say when. Was that today? I’m stupefied and wonder (in retrospect, callously). And, what about K’s coffee?! The shock is that it is to his coffee shop I go at this very moment.

I gather myself and wonder tentatively should I go see if perhaps there hasn’t been some confusion. And so, seconds later, I step into an untamed flow of people, bikes, and impatient clients of roasted chestnuts, the Rue Carnot in full force.

When I at last gingerly approach the storefront, I see a small paper sign on the entry door. I slow to narrowly avoid collision with a hunter of said chestnuts and see the paper lists the shop hours, not announcing a memorial service. The interior is dark. I am nearly ready to yield to the inevitable and turn to walk away, thinking disgruntledly, I’ll have to go to Brand Coffee on Rue République (sigh). Then, like an angel, at the very instant this thought coalesces, I recognize a paragon of style and beauty approaching me. Her hair has grown longer than I ever remember before. Nevertheless, I certainly know this ravishing agent, this elegant woman. It is none other than Madame Déjos (Day-Joe), the wife and fellow shopkeeper of the (so far, uncertainly) departed coffee roaster of Café Annécior.

She is smiling perhaps in recognizing me, perhaps simply because that is what pretty women do most naturally. I hasten to catch my breath and try not to appear as if I’d just seen a ghost, and ask her if the shop is open. Thinking the worst, she replies in all matter-of-factness, of course, at two-thirty, as always after lunch.


Canal de Vassé in mantle of snow

Well, I had completely neglected to notice the time with the disconcerting thoughts of death and a morbid lack of Italian Dark Roast. She says, I’ll open the door in just a minute and then disappears around the back entry. I take a position in front of the door and realize that life has me in its clutches. I look across the eddying waves of people streaming by this afternoon on the year’s final day and think how we all follow a trajectory that carries us along a path we do not always fathom. The shop door opens.

I am met with an inscrutable smile of welcome. I remember that. She greets me with her softly restrained familiarity (I am after all simply another customer to whose gustatorial needs she remains dedicated; in spite of it all, it seems) and we exchange greetings again. The young assistant, who I recall as being awkward, busies himself with the kilogram of Italian Dark Roast I request. He runs it through the noisy grinder adjusted to specifications for my espresso machine. He seems to carry a new swagger. Could it be with greater responsibility he assumes. I do not ask. In any case, it could be my imagination, as madame shows no sign of mourning. Unless that is something that might have made her more beautiful than I remember. I avoid pondering this.

As the assistant hands me the two bags, I comment, almost out of habit, that the aroma of fresh ground coffee is the most seductive I know. Lingering on the words, which in French cause a slight pucker to the lips, I resist the temptation to glance at Madame Déjos. I tuck the redolent, warm bags into my little daypack, swing it round my shoulder, careful not to knock against the crowded shelves of teas and accessories, and I depart. ‘Au revoir’ I say. With palpably more than a single sense aroused, I cast off now to fetch chocolate.

2 thoughts on “Time, Ghosts and Coffee

  1. What a beautiful post, so eloquently written. Annecy would have to be my favourite place thus experienced in all my travels, a beautiful and picturesque town both serene yet vibrant in all its medieval glory.

    • Thanks for your kind comments. I am terribly happy you enjoyed the story. My wife and I felt so lucky to have passed some time living there. It is a species and beautiful place. Do you have pictures of the town to share?

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