From Candida Mannozzi. You can reach her at [email protected].
Bear with me, Borderstan, I’ll get to the meaning of the German title word in a bit. But as you may have guessed from “Kaffee,” I’ll be writing about coffee. Specifically, coffee houses, coffee habits, coffee culture. Any takers?
If there’s one thing (and there are many) that’s significantly improved since my arrival in the US in the mid-1980s, it’s the coffee. Imagine my disbelieving shock when I, an Italian “fresh off the plane,” raised on cappuccino and caffe’ first saw a cup of American joe. It was pale brown, practically see-through, essentially flavorless and served in such quantity that I wondered how anyone could manage to walk more than five feet before needing to beeline for a restroom after finishing their cup! Yes indeed, the coffee is much better in America these days. Bravi!
A Few Favorites
With improved coffee came a better era for the coffee shop. Borderstan can pride itself on a couple of great ones, in my opinion. Pitango may not offer huge amounts of seating, but their product is tops. I’ll never forget reverently clasping my cup of “marocchino” (espresso with Italian chocolate stirred-in) in both hands after the first sip, it transported me back home so viscerally. Java House is another favorite because it’s so close to my apartment and because I enjoy a casual, unhurried atmosphere, especially around my caffe’. Peregrine Espresso manages a fantastic creamy foam on its cappuccino. U Street Café is a regular haunt for several of my friends and we know some of the baristas (esp. the weekend shifts) by name. Had my bookstore stayed open longer, I would surely have explored linking-up to ACKC next door. Then there’s the wonderful Big Bear Café on 1st and R Streets NW, which I especially like to visit during the months the Sunday farmers market is open on its block.
As with any food or drink, with coffee comes culture. I promised, so let’s get back to the title word: “Kaffeeklatsch” is German for coffee-chat. “Klatschen” is German for clapping, but colloquially it also means chatting, shooting the breeze. That they coined a word specifically to identify the chatting that occurs in a coffee house is significant. No eye-rolling, please! It actually stems from decades of people gathering in coffee houses. Intellectuals, artists, writers, critics, philosophers, politicians met and debated, confided, explored and often launched or furthered new political movements (the Italian Risorgimento) or artistic trends (Dadaism) from the coffee house. What Ancient Greeks started in the agora, Mitteleuropeans continued indoors, over the aroma of roasted beans and whipped cream.
This brings me to my question: Is that the kind of exchange we typically encounter in our neighborhood coffee shops, Borderstan? I do often see at least a couple of friends having an easy, unhurried conversation over a chai or a macchiato here and there.
But I’ll never forget one sunny afternoon this September, when I walked past Java House’s packed outside seating area and every single table was occupied by a solitary person staring into their laptop or iPad. I was looking at an outdoor sea of bowed heads and tapping fingers, many with headphones plugged in to boot. I almost laughed out loud at the spectacle and wish I’d taken a picture of it! Why had they bothered to go outside, when they weren’t looking around?
Now, while there are no rules about having a conversation vs. working on your term paper or marketing pitch in a coffee shop, I wish we’d behave a bit more like Europeans when it comes to being in a public space that’s designed to accommodate a leisurely and collegial moment.
Still, just as I’ve witnessed the coffee improving significantly over the years here, I’m hopeful the attendant culture will gradually come with it too. Or maybe we promote this trend ourselves? Borderstan, let’s get out in front of the pack on this one!
Mini-Italian lesson on a few basic coffee terms: caffe’ denotes an espresso. Our basic word for coffee also signifies the concentrated shot that any barista will serve you. And “latte” simply means milk. So don’t order that in Italy, unless it’s what you intended. Ask for a “caffellatte,” which is the name for coffee laced with hot milk. “Macchiato” means “stained,” i.e., a caffe’ (espresso) barely stained with a drop or two of hot milk, still reduced enough in size to fit in the “espresso” cup.