Photo: Martin Gommel

Starbucks democracy

For writer and critic George Steiner, the café made Europe. In the light of disappointing turnout for this year's European elections, La Vanguardia laments the disappearance of these places of debate.

Published on 10 June 2009 at 16:50
Photo: Martin Gommel

There’s a lot more to a cup of coffee than a break and a stimulant. The very blackness of this bracing brew holds a refreshing sensation, the beat that begins the day, the highlight of lunch, or the passing of idle hours. It represents the illusion of opening up the doors of perception, clearing up confusion, or providing a painless panacea for the occasional indisposition. “Let’s have coffee” remains an excellent and concise formula to express the desire for a get-together replete with confidences, closeness – in a word: sociability. “A little cup of coffee”, we say with a touch of tenderness. The important thing is to utter this magic word, which gives meaning to a social engagement and fosters the culture of conversation.

At a talk he gave in Amsterdam five years ago entitled “The Idea of Europe”, George Steiner ventured a seemingly frivolous assertion: “As long as cafés are still around, the idea of Europe will endure.” So in view of the massive abstention and electoral autism exhibited in the latest elections – only 43.1% voted, 59.6% didn’t bother, beating the 2004 record for abstention – I can’t help wondering what has become of the great European café.

From the noisette at the famous Parisian café Deux Magots, through the maquillato at the Paduan Pedrocchi, to the Hawelka’s Viennese blend served with Buchteln [yeast pastry], the coffee cup has been the mighty agora of thought and social life on the Old Continent.

The history of Europe was written in the 19th-century modernist cafés that catered for the avant-garde: the Florian in Venice, where Giacomo Casanova seduced his mistresses and Proust got his wind back; the table at the Café Flore where Sartre wrote his expositions of Existentialism; or the Antico Caffè Greco in Rome, once considered the navel of the world, whose high tea enthralled the likes of Lord Byron, Schopenhauer, Wagner, Henry James, and Leopardi, as well as the Spaniards Fortuny and Rosales.

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But nowadays these clubs of the mind are nowhere to be found, and the waiters no longer wear bow ties; now they only call you by name – or rather, holler it out – at Starbucks. Nowadays we do more networking at the gym, at the hairdresser’s, or on the plane than in coffee shops. Europe, which is falling more and more out of love with itself, increasingly abounds in antisocial areas whipped clean by the prevailing winds of pragmatism and resolution. We socialise in cyberspace, in the hygienic solitude of the computer screen, with no wisps of cigarette smoke curling about us, no poems penned on napkins. In famous coffee shops buried under bricks, like the Canaletes or the Zurich, the Europe of cut-price retail outlets, street-hawked pirated CDs and Internet cafés prefers sheltered security to the hazards of experience.

But between the massive columns and the café au lait, the Greens are re-emerging on the Old Continent. Out of the ashes of the much-reviled May 1968, Dany the Red – the only one, according to Libération, to have actually talked about Europe instead of joining the parochial fray around the parish pump – is resurrecting the old, albeit decaffeinated, utopia.

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