I was once lucky enough to spend a summer in Venice, immersed in the local culture of Italy and far from the buzz of tourists swarming San Marco at all hours of the day. I fell in love with the natural beauty, the art, and, yes, the wine as well. But above all of that, my favorite thing about living on these slowly sinking isles was the way they took their coffee. The venetian café culture taught me the difference between drinking coffee and enjoying it, and I think we should all take some inspiration here from across the Atlantic.
Each morning, shortly after sunrise, everyone living on our canal would leave their homes and gather at the little coffee shop by our footbridge. They would order an espresso (or, in my case, a doppio) and perhaps a pastry. So far so good. But then they would do something that I, the coffee chugging American, found positively shocking the first time I witnessed it: They stayed.
For these Veneziani, the morning coffee was not just a means of rousing themselves for the tasks of the day. On the contrary, whether they stuck around for twenty minutes or two hours, this coming together at the café was the highlight of their day. It was the time to partake of leisure before the hectic quotidian rush began, to laugh with friends and to join with neighbors, to celebrate and to realize their little canal community.
I quickly acclimated to this leisurely coffee culture, but my European friends maintained a deep distaste for the way Americans consumed coffee. To better understand the Veneziani view point, I’d like to propose a thought experiment. Imagine I am a citizen of the city of—lets call it Bacchanville. I leave the office every Friday night and walk straight to my nearest Grapevine location to purchase a Venti Vino. My extra-large and oh so pricey to-go cup of red wine in hand, I rush out the door.
With no pomp or circumstance to speak of, I chug down the beverage alone while in transit, just to get myself a little buzz, as I rush downtown to meet up with friends. By the time we reach each other, they’ve all already had their Grapevine drinks on their own as well. Now tipsy and content to come together, we’re officially ready to socialize on this lovely weekend evening.
This hypothetical city’s wine culture ought to strike us as an unusual state of affairs, to say the least. Even overlooking the issue of open container laws, there is a perversity we can recognize in these Bacchanvillian citizens’ reduction of the drink to the status of a mere utilitarian commodity. And yet in an analogous realm, we Americans have enshrined an attitude that many of our European neighbors consider to be similarly perverse.
Whereas the Bacchanvillians remove all social liturgy from wine, handling it as valuable only insofar as it gives them a buzz, so also does the United States today strip away all the liturgical elements surrounding another beverage that I now consider sacrosanct: coffee. Just as wine is for more than mere inebriation, so also can coffee be for far more than mere caffeination.
It took four thousand miles of separation to give me perspective on our American coffee culture. But having lived the European alternative, I understand their disdain for the way we do it. I hope I won’t be accused of anti-patriotism for saying so, but I think that we have something to learn from Europe’s treatment of coffee.
Photo by Minato