The Magazine

Walking Tall Mocha Skim Latte

Claudia Winkler, problem drinker.

Mar 8, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 25 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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THE OTHER MORNING, I came to grips with a minor disability. Thrusting aside residual feelings of guilt, I poured my morning coffee into a travel cup. Then I went outside and, walking down the street from my house to Union Station, I drank it.

In the process, I laid to rest the ghost of Mlle Vallet.

This formidable maiden was in her seventies when she taught me science and math at a small girls' school in Paris in the early 1960s. In appearance, she might have been designed by the creator of "The Simpsons": Short, wide, and fierce, she had about her an insalubrious whiteness, from the curls upswept on the top of her head, to the puffy double chin, to the strong, preternaturally thick wrists. In a rare personal confidence, she told us she hadn't married because all the good men had been killed off in the First World War.

Mlle Vallet (not her real name) was nothing if not rigorous in her instruction of us in geometry, biology, and elementary physics. Each trimester, our math exam consisted of four hour-long tests, in theorems, proofs of theorems, algebra problems, and geometry problems. She tested us not on a random sample of theorems, but on all the theorems, requiring us to write each one out word for word.

Yet this was no mere pedant. Mlle Vallet believed in educating the whole girl, inculcating discipline--eye contact with the teacher was required at all times--and moral principle. She disapproved of makeup. She was given to recruiting girls to stand on a corner of the Avenue Victor Hugo with a collection box for charity. And she felt a special burden to enlighten us as to the shortcomings of Americans.

One of these was my nation's fanatical insistence upon cleanliness. Compounded by Americans' mania to inoculate themselves against every possible disease, this meant that when they traveled abroad and drank the water, they got sick as dogs. That is just what such stupidity merited, was the implication. Mlle Vallet would sweep the room with her pitiless gaze (I was the only American there) to drive home the perversity.

But this failing of my race was as nothing compared with the revolting habit of eating and drinking in the street. So addicted were Americans to this crude indulgence, she explained, that in their cities they placed vending machines on every corner, the better to avoid having to go even a few paces without a Coca-Cola in hand.

Now, you might say I should have had the strength of character to ignore these diatribes, just as I dismissed Mlle Vallet's proselytizing for her pendule, a small, bullet-shaped metal object that hung from a string and was used for divination. Held over a map of the Mediterranean, she told us, just such a pendule had yielded vital information about the location of ships in the Second World War.

But I was already on the defensive when it came to manners. Plucked from an American junior high and set down in a milieu where 10-year-olds greeted each other at school by shaking hands, and small girls routinely curtsied to adults, I knew I was hopelessly out of my depth when it came to politesse. In the France of those days, every conceivable behavior was either prescribed or prohibited. If a thing was done, it must be done. If it wasn't done, any girl who did it reaped utmost scorn and the label "badly brought up."

I'm embarrassed to admit it's taken me decades to get over Mlle Vallet's indoctrination. Years after I came back to the States and eventually started working, I still inwardly winced when colleagues walked into meetings carrying their diet colas. Once, an imperious European friend employed by an American firm confided his indignation at a female subordinate who, summoned to his office, had arrived mug in hand. I sympathized entirely--with him.

Slowly, though, it's dawned on me: Nice people sometimes do this, intending no disrespect. The freewheeling young do it, but so do courteous seniors. As a matter of fact, I've gradually come to see, there's no reason why they shouldn't. It's the custom here.

Thunderstruck by this insight, I've started noticing all the provision the consumer economy has made for drinking in transit. Cup holders are everywhere. They pop out of auto dashboards and are built into arm rests. Recently I saw a state-of-the-art stroller with a cup holder in the handle, ready to receive a Bobo mother's designer water or morning latte.

Still, it was a step from realizing that everybody does it to joining in myself. That's the breakthrough that came the other day. An unexpected phone call threw off my morning routine. The coffee steamed invitingly, but there wasn't time to drink it at home. I took the plunge.

It felt like a liberation. I walked, as I drank, with a spring in my step, nodding in solidarity at passing Starbucks patrons. I thought of Mlle Vallet, with her Coke machines and her theorems and her pendule, and wished I'd had a flag in my pocket. I would've let it fly.

--Claudia Winkler