In August, I visited Alassio – a small town in the province of Savona. My home for the week was hidden away from the chaotic din of the town, situated upon the rugged cliffs, overlooking palm trees and roofs of terracotta. With Lucifer – an aptly named torrid heatwave – running rife in Europe, the forty-minute trek to the shops and sea was a commitment. There was no to-ing and fro-ing, no ‘nipping’ back to the house draped in a towel; when I ventured down those sloping streets, I intended to stay until dusk. Thus, I was left no choice but to seek refuge from the unrelenting sun in a myriad of coffee shops. At about the same time every day, when the sun was at its meanest – licking at my already pink and peeling skin, I would navigate from towel to towel across the scorching sand on the tips of my toes and seek shelter in the most Italian looking café I could find.
On one particular day I visited ‘Caffé Roma’. It was everything you would imagine an Italian café to be: its décor evocative of a bygone era; the room filled with euphonious Italian and broken English. It had the rich, romantic history every café dreams of, with artists, entertainers and expats flocking here some fifty years ago. This was a spot particularly beloved by Ernest Hemingway – a coffeehouse connoisseur who has peppered many a page with sensuous depictions of café life. Sipping my espresso in the breeding grounds of brilliance got me thinking about just why so many great artists and writers turned to cafés for creative charge and inspiration. What is it about coffee shops that is so magical?
I would suggest part of the allure to be in the unique opportunity they offer to observe mankind in relative anonymity. They house an arbitrary array of people with radically different lives; all drawn in by the welcoming scent of coffee calling weary legs to rest. Due to these microcosmic qualities of café culture, there is no better place to observe the workings of society than in a coffeehouse. They have, consequently, steadfastly and subliminally strengthened our comprehension of each other – bridging gaps among diverse groups of people.
This may all sound rather hyperbolic but cafés have long been at the crux of social progression. For centuries, they have served as a scene for discussion and an arena for debate; where patricians and proletariats alike have freely chewed over issues of a political, religious and philosophical nature. Parisian cafes in particular were, in the 19th and early 20th century, inextricably bound up in intellectual and political life, with the French Revolution itself borne out of a café at the Palais-Royal!
(It was at this point in writing that I realised) I may be harkening back to an era long since gone; that, for me, much of the magic is rooted in what I imagine cafés to have once been rather than what they are now. In this day and age, Starbucks, Costa and co. are my generation’s haunts. A symbol of consumerism, capitalism and quick-fix caffeine; these chains are an entirely different species altogether – connected only by their shared commitment to coffee. Packed with mothers, babies, buggies, and babyccinos; the modern day café is catering for a far from rebellious demographic. Facilitating take-outs for those on the go in need of a pick-me-up, it is now about the coffee itself and the speed with which it can be provided. Thus, in them, I am unlikely ever to find the genesis of intellectual conspiring.
Afflicting all European cities, these coffee empires are leaving small, local coffee shops somewhat endangered. Such ‘imperial’ expansion compromises the romantic idiosyncrasies inherent within independent cafés. Nowadays, a sharpie inscription of one’s name (or thereabouts) on the side of the cup is about as personal as things tend to get. As a result, less and less people are venturing to cafés for the ambience – the ‘experience’. But, perhaps it is unfair to blame the likes of Costa for the cafés reduction to merely a place of consumption. Arguably, it is a simple repercussion of a change to the entire culture. Whilst the café remains a place to eat, drink and type away on a laptop; it is not so much, anymore, a place for intellectual debate among strangers or endless hours spent watching the world go by. This may be because society itself has changed.
It would seem then that what I am really writing is not an ode to a coffee shop so much as it is an elegy to one. But perhaps, even then, what I am truly lamenting is the decrease in human connection – of which the change to café culture is indicative of. I contend the dichotomy between the café then and the café now to perfectly illustrate our growing connection deficit; to demonstrate the shift from physical interaction to interaction of a technological nature. Returning, then, to the coffeehouse, upon reflection I would conclude it to still spark inspiration and house intellectual debate, but in a modern, substantially less magical manner. So, perhaps artists and academics continue to conspire in cafes. But it is now with their cookie-cutter cappuccinos that they connect, via high-speed broadband, with their co-conspirators whom are sat, correspondingly, with a coffee in one hand and an iPhone in the other at various franchises of the same café chain across the continent.
Written by Maisie Le Masurier
Maisie is a first year English Literature student at the University of York. Her love of literature is rooted in the knowledge that, in the right hands, it can be an agent of social change – serving as a means to raise awareness, highlight injustice and empower the people. It can bring, to public attention, the plight of society’s misunderstood or marginalised. As a member of the developed world, Maisie believes she has a duty to lend her voice to those in need of one. As such, in 2013, she became a Young Ambassador for the Global Campaign for Education, with schooling something she considers a powerful deterrent for conflict and poverty. She is an ardent advocate for debate, believing that communication and conversation is the first step towards action. On the personal side, she loves travel, coffee and films from Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’.