Waiting for cafe culture

7 minute read
'Sidewalk Café,' by Trudy Reeder: Perchance to dream.
'Sidewalk Café,' by Trudy Reeder: Perchance to dream.
Waiter! Waiter! Or,
Why we're still waiting for Café Culture


“Waiter! Waiter! Beniamino, the service here is terrible…” she says. It’s then that I remind my Italian friend that in this Starbucks “café,” there is no waiter. You’ve got to go the counter, and they’ll give you your coffee in a paper cup.

Rosella says something unpleasant in Sicilian dialect, and then asks me what the hell a grande is. You see, in Italy — where there are real cafés — there’s no grande. You have a few coffee options, and that’s it — which is OK, because the coffee is great to begin with.

Why are there no real cafés in Philadelphia, and why is that important? Like most things, café culture — or the lack thereof — really stands for something else. Europeans, especially the French and Italians, love speaking in metaphor anyway. So I will carry on that tradition in explaining the grand metaphor of the café, with its waiters in clean white shirts and pressed black pants, exuding not too much patience, but a great deal of charming world-weariness.

Yes, I am an American. But I spent more than a decade overseas, and I’ve I passed many a happy hour in cafés in Rome, Florence, Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona, Paris, Istanbul and other locales, arguing philosophy and otherwise trying to act cool, like the Europeans I saw around me. At Williams College, we had a name for those students who went abroad for their junior year and came back like that: Euro-trash. Yes, I became one of them. I enjoyed the delights of a smooth espresso in Italy, a stiff bica in Portugal, tasty churros dipped in a cup of pure hot chocolate in Spain, a satisfying café au lait in Paris, and fragrant çay served in a delicate tulip-shaped glass in Turkey.

Bastardized drinks, courtesy of Starbucks

To be sure, in America you can get an espresso too. But you’re also exposed to some really bastardized drinks, courtesy of Starbucks. True, the corporate giant has been enormously successful proffering drinks that sound European — grande latte and all that — but they are about as continental as hot dogs.

Also, the coffee at these corporate simulacra of cafés is horrendous. I’ve read about how Starbucks buys the best beans, but their coffee is really just not good. There are better American brands, such as Pete’s Coffee and Seattle’s Best Coffee, but when it actually comes to getting a truly European-style cup, you’re not going to find it easily here. The closest thing I’ve had is the coffee in Toronto’s Italian and Portuguese neighborhoods.

Rude waiters, snobby waiters, but...

But of course it’s the culture, not the coffee, I’m talking about here. Europe abounds in actual cafés where you can stop, spend an afternoon, drink coffee or something harder, have a snack, read, chat, debate, or watch passersby. The waiters are almost always men and almost always abrupt, but they’re professionals — people who serve customers for a living, for a lifetime. They can be rude or snobby, but at least they are real. In America, we don’t have professional waiters — just students, actors, and other people working as waiters, on their way to a “better” career.

In Paris and Rome, you find cafés all over the place. How do they stay in business? Part of it is the fact that there still are small businesses in Europe. In America, even cafés face corporate competition nowadays. European café owners are content with a modest living for the sake of their independence and the joy of serving their customers — businessmen, students, tourists or pensioners with nothing to do except nurse a drink and read the papers. Forget wireless access; Europeans don’t need a reason to idle at a café.

Idling. That’s something we seem only to do in our cars in this country. Sure, we hang out in bars, but American bars are often dark, almost covert places, where we retreat rather than engage the world that is passing by, as one might do in an outdoor café.

Where upper and lower classes meet

The problem here also concerns class. In a true European café, you’ll find all classes of people: the snooty old woman with her poodle held tight, delicately drinking a cup of tea; the gruff laborer enjoying a cool beer after a hot day’s work; the reedy philosophy student from the Université de Paris. Despite our rhetoric about American egalitarianism, there aren’t that many American places these days where the classes mix that way. Starbucks tends to be filled with nervous suburbanites, and the sidewalk cafés in posh areas of Philadelphia such as Rittenhouse Square tend to be filled with… yes, posh people — or at least, posh posers.

Another factor is the size of apartments. In Europe and most other highly urbanized parts of the world, people simply don’t have a lot of living space. In Rome or Paris or Lisbon or half-a-dozen other such cities, middle-class people live in quite modern but also quite crowded circumstances. Whatever the drawbacks, this kind of lifestyle has one very positive effect: it gets people outside.

Too much time in the office

Then there’s time, or the lack of it. Americans are said to spend more time on the job than any other culture. That means we’re working too hard just to stay where we are economically, or it means we’re not working efficiently. We ridicule Europeans for their shorter work weeks and longer vacations: When I worked in Europe, it was standard practice to stop working mid-morning to pop out to the café for a chat and an espresso. But somehow European companies produce products and provide services without compelling their employees to work overtime.

In any case, the excessive hours that Americans spend working mean that many fewer hours at the café. Want coffee? Have it in the office, so you can get right back to work. Every American office has the coffee pot — or a whole mini-kitchen or even an on-site cafeteria. The mere idea of actually leaving the office for a break is taboo. In the afternoon, same deal.

Guilt about doing nothing

Americans also squirm at the idea of sitting at a café and doing nothing. For Americans, time is a precious commodity that must be spent in work, hobbies, home repair or a workout at the gym. By contrast, even in Asia, with its legendary work ethic, I noticed that the Taiwanese spent many weekday afternoons just sitting around over tea and a snack. Even in Japan, you’ll find many cafés and coffeehouses where people are taking a break from the office, sipping a beverage and browsing a magazine.

Cultures in Europe, Africa, and Asia also value conversation itself, something for which true café culture provides the perfect environment. Americans’ vanished ability to engage in and enjoy conversation has been noted by observers like Stephen Miller (Conversation: A History of a Declining Art) and Robert Putnam (“Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital”).

Philadelphia in some ways seems the perfect place to develop a real café culture. We’ve got beautiful small streets with humane architecture and broad French-style boulevards. More and more downtown restaurants offer outdoor dining. But the key ingredient is still missing. We lack a culture that’s truly ready to ease up a little, to mix classes a bit, to engage in low-key conversation over some good coffee. We’re too hyped-up on some super-sized drink from Starbucks, rushing back to the office or into our SUV.

Creating a café culture is no mere matter of: “If you build them, they will come.” It’s a case of: “Slow down, and the café culture will arise.” Until we start to live differently, we’ll have to continue turning to Europe for that sublime charm.♦

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