Caffé with Reggie

(Today’s post is a guest post by Reggie Black.  Thanks, Reggie, for helping me keep the blog going during “moving week” and teaching readers a few things about America’s drug of choice.  Enjoy reading this with a morning cuppa cawfee.  Julie-Ann)

I don’t know why America has no real coffee.  There are endless coffee shops, coffee snobs, roasters, grinders.  There’s no caffé, though.  I miss it.

I’ve made coffee many ways over the years, having first learned the Cuban style from a friend, and ran an espresso machine for a decade and a half.  In Italy, the electricity was so unreliable that I finally retired it in favor of the stove top coffee maker.

That I had an espresso machine at all was odd to my Italian neighbors.  After all, I lived above a bar, and in Italy bars are all about caffé, and caffé is all about being social.  As an American, I was distinctly odd for making my coffee in my own kitchen rather than going to the bar to get it.

For Italian men, breakfast at the bar is very common, usually caffé and a cornetto, rarely more than euro 1.25.  Cappuccino is served until noon, but it’s unusual after that.  Latte (coffee with milk, not the milk with coffee that Americans call latte) is served all day, but the caffé of choice is espresso, sometimes espresso macchiato (espresso with a stain of milk).

There’s also caffé Americano, a double espresso watered down to fill a whole cup.  Consumed only by Americans, for whom quantity is everything.  Standing at the bar, cleansing the palate with the glass of water that comes with the cafe, savoring its richness sip by sip the small cafe tasse, that is the prize.  Not watering it down into a Styrofoam cup and running off to some desk with it.

No one drinks caffé alone.  It’s uncivil.  When I came home from work my landlord and his brothers, cousins and friends would be sitting outside the bar, talking.  The hands would beckon, come join us, have a caffé.  What little Italian I learned, I learned sitting with them there.  The world waits, dinner will come in due time.

When my landlord, who was a friend and a guide as well, wanted to talk to me, he would ask me to the bar for a caffé.  Enzo, the auto mechanic with the uncannily clean shop, would always walk me up the street to the bar for a cafe before we talked about the car.  Enzo also gave me bottles of his delightful homemade limoncello.  Southern Italians are a very generous people.  They don’t have much, but they want you to taste the best of it.

I worked with Americans several floors underground, one who bought property in Italy and has now retired there, the other whose parents came from the heart of Naples and who was fluent in both worlds.  Our day started early in the dark, but we always broke off from everything around 9:30 and climbed up and outside for caffé.  We patronized the outside stand when weather allowed, but there was an enclosed bar on base, too.  On occasion we drove off base to other local bars just for variety.  For a half hour we didn’t talk work, we just appreciated the espresso and sunshine and cleared our heads.

After I left Italy I did my best to carry on, but overcast, chilly, wet England is not conducive to caffé.  I did my best with an electric coffee maker, a plug-in version of the stove top coffee maker.  Every afternoon about two, I broke from work, prepared the caffé, and then poured it for Borut, my Slovenian friend.  We talked about anything but work, and spent fifteen minutes clearing our heads and learning about Americans or Slovenians.

My Spanish and Portuguese friends always had their coffee together in the morning, and my French colleague with his French compatriots.  The Americans went and got their trademarked coffee at the base sandwich shop.

Coffee is about being social.  There simply is no American parallel to that.  I still enjoy the ritual of preparing the pot and making the coffee, but there is no one to share it with now.

On one of my guitar cases there is a sticker with a wide-eyed shock-haired man holding a large cup, declaring “Coffee is my drug of choice.”

I find that sticker so true, and so sad.  Here we treat coffee as a drug, as a pick-me-up, as a stimulant, as a tool to keep us hustling, hustling, hustling.  Coffee shops, in addition to not knowing how to make it (for laughs, I ask the “barista” to make me an espresso macchiato), have drive-throughs so you don’t even have to get out of the SUV to get a half-gallon of it.

I keep making the caffé, but without the friends to sit and share it with, it’s not the same.

I miss caffé.

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6 Responses to Caffé with Reggie

  1. 大熊強 says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on coffee, (also my drug of choice). I really enjoyed it a great deal as I have only just started using stove-top espresso machines, though I am still getting used to using it. I have to admit to enjoying the coffee that comes from it. A big “lol” for the coffee snobs remark. So true!

    • RBL says:

      Thank you for your kind comments. In my experience the smaller pots make better caffe, probably because the coffee isn’t exposed to the water as long, but especially don’t let them boil. Of course, it’s always best when someone else makes it, so share your caffe.

      • 大熊強 says:

        Thanks for the hint. I am using a 2-cup one at the moment, and it packs quite a punch. I share as much as I can, but the selfish side of me is glad that I am the only coffee drinker in the family. 🙂

  2. jbomb62 says:

    Hey Reggie–there’s a need for a caffé shop in Lisbon Falls. Actually, I think Portland is the closest thing Maine has to what you’re talking about; the social aspects of caffé, at least in a few locations around town. Nothing close to the Italian concept, sadly.

    Morris Berman has pounded the drum for years about America and hustling, and our inability to slow down and connect. I’m working on the latter, but it’s harder than it would seem to be.

  3. RBL says:

    So long as everyone drives everywhere in Lisbon Falls, a caffe shop is predestined for failure. There aren’t even the BIW or NAS Brunswick commuters to entice anymore. My landlord rented to the bar downstairs, his Mama lived in her own house out back, one brother lived on one side and had a dance studio on the ground floor, the other brother on the other side had a pizzeria on his ground floor. Life is structured entirely differently, people don’t have much money, but their lives aren’t stuffed with garbage, either. As Berman says of Mexico, nothing works, but it all works out.

    Italians go home for lunch. They stay with their family for a few hours, take a nap. The bar gets shuttered during that time. When that happens in America, then the caffe bar stands a chance.

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