I’m writing an essay about coffee. 3,500 words in Italian about the presence of globalization in Italian bar and Italy’s coffee culture in the world. There’s so much I want to write about! I spend hours searching the internet for more and more information, more and more ideas I want to add. Sometime soon, however, I’m going to have to sit down and get writing.
In America or England, the writing process would happen at a cafe. I’d bring my computer, order a cappuccino and sit down for a few hours, trying to get the words out of my head onto the page. It doesn’t matter whether or not the cafe has wifi. Cafes with wifi are good for when you need to research (or use wordreference) and cafes without internet connection are great when you need to write without interruptions. I’ll gladly use both. I’m just at the cafe to have a place to go that isn’t my desk and isn’t the library. It’s surprising how quickly I get sick of the those two places.
For the past couple months, the closest I’ve gotten to this holy grail of cafe that I’m describing is the dining room table. I make myself some moka coffee, heat up some milk and sit down with what I affectionately call an au lait. It’s not the best coffee, but it will keep you company for longer than the similarly potent macchiato will. We sit together, getting work done while wondering what the rest of the world is doing. It’s lonely at my makeshift cafe.
Italy’s cafe culture and America’s are completely different. There are so many reasons for this — I am essentially writing a 3,500 word essay on this as I’ve said above — but I think the biggest difference is seen in how we use the space. Cafes in Italy are for socializing. Cafes in America are for working and living. Coffee in Italy is a quick and efficient jolt. Coffee in America evolved from a long drink that was taken at a diner over a meal. Its’s completely different. The market for American-style cafes in Italy doesn’t exist because the culture doesn’t exist. It’s not that Starbucks would fail in Italy if they came in, it’s just that they would have to create a market for their product and, gosh darn it, that’s a lot of work.
Last weekend I went to Arnold Coffee in Milan to see the difference between the two types of culture first hand. It certainly gave me some food for thought.
Arnold Coffee has solved the creating a market problem by creating cafes by the Universities in Milan. There’s a location near the state university and the catholic university as well as one mere steps away from the Duomo. This is similar to how Buster Coffee decided to set themselves up right by the University of Torino. After all, the library gets crowded, where else are you going to go?
I had moderate high hopes for the cappuccino I ordered there. I wanted something that was a bit like what you’d get at Starbucks milky but with a distinct coffee hit. They, essentially, served me a mug of warmed over milk. That’s pretty low, even for Italian cappuccini which, admittedly, taste milkier than their New York counterparts. I wonder if people are ordering the American coffee there more? Frankly, a pot of festering filter coffee is never my idea of a good time. I don’t think they’re brewing chemex or french press.
Was I annoyed that I spent 2.70 for a drink that I had only a couple sips of? Not at all. I wasn’t in Arnold Coffee for the coffee, I was there for the ability to sit down for over an hour and write. I was there to be able to surf the internet for a few moments before heading out into the wilds of Milan. American cafes — and their counterparts in Italy — aren’t about coffee, but about something else. They’re about sitting down and just being. They’re about getting work done.
The people there were all students. Some were chatting in groups, but a surprising amount were simply sitting with their laptops, getting work done alone. This is unheard of for an Italian cafe. Arnold Coffee may not be a destination in Milan, but it’s a perfect locale to highlight the extreme differences between the American and Italian cafe tradition. Just don’t order the cappuccino.
Do you prefer Italian style coffee bars or American cafes?