Paris in winter was frequent gunmetal skies which, along with those somber limestone façades cutting canyons along the boulevards, turned my long, aimless days into beautiful brooding monochrome canvases. It was very cold and I didn’t have a good coat but it didn’t bother me much: I ran on an internal engine stoked by art and cobblestone ghosts, and warmed my corporeal self at regular intervals in cafés during my daily five- and six-hour walks around the city. I was a typical poor student—having partially financed my sentimental education by working as an au pair—but a café crème or an express was cheap, as was a petite buttery croissant or two.
Likewise, I could always nip into a bakery and buy a slim baguette, or procure a small sandwich stuffed with fine ham; good chocolate was as abundant as spring pollen, and savory tarts filled with greens and cheese helped propel my wanderings. I hadn’t the fortitude to brave French cheese shops; so much of what I anxiously gaped at in large, mirror-like vetrines was as alien as pornography, with—should the door open—great feral odors wafting out to shock my virgin nostrils.
First the RER train from Enghien and then the métro from the Gare du Nord popped me up on the Boulevard Raspail early every morning. But before heading to class at L’Alliance Française and the half-hauteur of Madame Hingue, my instructor, I tucked into my adopted café Le St. Placide for morning coffee. I’d read a book, or study French verbs, or scribble in my journal.
There was no barista culture in the States back then, and none of Starbucks’ dark-roasted creep over the American landscape. I was a coffee rube from the Midwest who drank Folgers out of a Mr Coffee like my mother did. It might sound like hyperbole to say that Paris’ cafés civilized me, but it’s the gospel truth. The ritual of coffee—nay, the culture of coffee—slowly insinuated its way into my blood. Sitting in a warm café—or in finer weather, outside on the pavement under an azure sky; the brisk and efficient and smartly-turned-out waiter; the quick service—the coffee set down with a neat flick of the wrist and a dollop of politesse: voilà, mademoiselle! The small, clean, marble-topped table, the cane chairs, the china cup and saucer, the pleasant clink of a demitasse spoon against them. Sitting, sipping, sitting—as long as you wanted, with no wifi to encircle you in a plume of isolation. Then asking for the check, participating in another little verbal dance of courtly manners, and going on your way: altogether a civilized expanse of time—what I suppose we might call a “curated experience” today, not unidiotically.
These rituals which Europeans have constructed are the bricks in a wall that shores them up against life’s vagaries, disappointments, and tragedies. In such a stylized yet unprecious landscape, pausing for coffee affords them a moment of beauty: it elevates the mundane into the realm of something more, if only briefly. Which is why I loathe paper coffee cups. Or plastic coffee cups. Or—Jesus Christ almighty—styrofoam coffee cups. And their wretched plastic lids.
I can hear the protests swelling up from the pit—groundlings crying out about convenience and the need to transport their 20 oz. concoctions in handy bucket-like conveyances, something that will fit neatly into the cupholders of SUVs or grocery carts. Since when did coffee go from an urbane beverage over which to debate the philosophy, art or politics of the day to merely a tankard of fuel to be gulped in the mad pursuit of life, liberty and happiness—these days all but a euphemism for consumerism?
Sadly, imbibing coffee from paper cups makes sense. As Americans, we deny ourselves pleasure, relaxation and art for art’s sake because of our entrenched puritanical mean-streak, the subconscious impulse to self-flagellate, and that Protestant work ethic that demonizes earthly enjoyments. Rather than being happy hedonists—like the Italians, say—we are a guilt-ridden race of stressed-out consumers, literally and figuratively. Enjoyment is something we fitfully deny ourselves on a daily basis: we suck our triste coffee out of utilitarian cups while scurrying off after something that forever eludes us: money, love, fame (real or Instagram). It doesn’t occur to us that happiness—a lovely, pure drop of it, anyway—can be found in the slowed-down ritual our European gurus call “taking a coffee.” This is why, when we go to places like France or Italy, our dehydrated souls become deliriously drunk with joie de vivre.
“These Italians really know how to enjoy life!”
“Everything tastes so much better here!”
“I could get used to this.”
So why don’t we get used to it? Why don’t we allow these moments into our own lives, let them wash over our tired bones like water? Strolling with a beautiful lack of purpose in Florence or Rome, a good gelato in hand, beside our wife/boyfriend/kid/friend—our synapses firing pleasurably—the realization alights on our consciousness as softly as a sparrow: “Hey, life is good.” Sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris, watching the cool stream of humanity for just 20 minutes or a half hour, we’re recharged. But we Americans are a relentlessly flailing, busy people, magpies of consumerism, tanks forever on the verge of empty—which explains our penchant for depressingly pragmatic, outsized cylinders filled with double- and triple-shots of bitterly-roasted java.
We seem categorically unable to bring this way of life home; if we try, it suffers a sea change. The workaday tyranny of the throwaway coffee cup encroaches yet again. We fall back on our worship of convenience, of quantity over quality, fuel over sustenance. Again we forget: it is experience that make us richer, not stuff. Or better, in the absence of the stuff we think we really want, experiences go at least a little way toward mollifying us.
It’s why the Italians, for example, can put up with high taxes, corruption, the mafia, entrenched nepotism, earthquakes, exploding volcanoes, tiger mosquitos, and Berlusconi. Stop for a sublime little macchiato amidst the companionable hiss, clink and clatter of a warm, bustling coffee bar in Via del Corso and, for five absolutely perfect minutes, none of the other bullshit matters.
Is there a more American phrase than “For here or to go?”
When I’m in a coffee shop and I clearly, if not adamantly, state my desire to drink my coffee here, I am still given a paper to-go cup and plastic lid with a tiny hole out of which I will presumably suck at my beverage—a stingy synthetic teat for a tactile-craven baby. The existential implications are apparent: we are seldom here, present in the moment; instead we are in perpetual motion, an eternal state of going. We drink our coffee on the run, the way we do so many things that ought to be reserved for mindful attention and fulsome enjoyment. Eating, for instance.
I, for one, crave the here-ness of a china cup and saucer. Though my blissful coffee moment may be fleeting, I want to savor it and at least brush my fingers against the implied permanence and steadfastness represented by a material that can’t be trashed or composted. Moreover—and I state this petulantly—I’m a grown-up, and I want a proper goddam cup. If I try to explain all this to my tattooed barista, I am met with a stare that suggests I just asked her to urinate into the milk steamer.
Ask yourselves: is this, then, our gift to civilization? To-go cups and to-go containers? An unwillingness to reside in the present moment, to commune with ourselves or others, to merely slurp and feed, like animals? Each small, jewel-like moment in which we connect with a civilizing influence has the power to change us, smooth us over, to make an ever-so-slight tectonic shift in the hardened crust of our psyches. And, yes—though perhaps as ephemeral as a dewdrop upon gossamer thread spun by a unicorn—a lovely coffee served artfully and without pretense in a real cup in a clean, well-lighted place may very well keep us from becoming savages.
These days, in America, resisting the encroachments of savagery certainly feels like a tall order. Or is it a venti?
[Aside: my Portland pick for a civilized coffee experience is Caffè Umbria]