November 22, 2010

Cafe Culture

I was interviewed by a professor of mine about coffee culture, or cafe culture, or something along those lines. The interview was relatively brief - probably no more than 10 minutes - because I was working at the time. Which is all the better, probably, as that's a topic so broad, so dense, that I could spend all night attempting to untangle it, and make no more progress than Sisyphus.

That said, I think I have some idea what he was getting at. His thesis work is on cafe community, as near as I can tell - to what extent such a thing exists, and what such a thing can be said to be. My role is this was twofold: I am a barista, first and foremost. By this I mean, as I've said before, not just that I make coffee, but that I've crafted much of the persona that is "me" around this fact. From that perspective, I can speak. But I am also, of course, a consumer of this culture.

The questions tended towards a inquiry in to why people go to cafes. It is a question worth asking, because it is one which seems to have an answer so obvious that no one knows it. That is, people go to cafes, and have for long enough, that why they go no longer seems worth asking.

But he is asking it; and last night, he asked me. I don't have a transcript. If I did, I would certainly post it here, because I felt, at the time, like was answering the questions with a degree of lucidity. But I can regurgetate my general thoughts, to some extent.

Coffee as a community endeavor goes back as far as coffee goes back. Though coffee's origins are as murky as the brew itself, there seems to be something like a consensus that it was consumed as a part of religious rituals in ancient Ethiopia. To minds not numb to artificial stimulation, a hearty brew such as that most surely was, could easily lend a sensation beyond the typical wired jolt we know today.

Coffee was consumed, throughout history, as a communal event. It was as food was, a thing to be had, but also a thing to be shared. One did not simply drink coffee as a morning pick-me-up.

But of course, these days are not those days. Not even close. These days, coffee is a stimulant, as often enjoyed in a car, or a pre-dawn kitchen as any other place. So, then, is there still any sort of cafe culture? Or is it just any other fast food stop?

The answer, to both I think, is yes. Yes, one can grab a coffee, quick as you please, and be on their merry, now caffeinated way. That is certainly possible, and in fact, a daily routine for many.

But there is, I think, a communal aspect to coffee, and thus the cafe, that can't be ignored. As I've said before, "having a coffee" is a cultural euphemism for meeting, for chatting, for breaking ice or burying hatchets. And I can't say why this is, for certain. While coffee is a stimulant, there is no particular reason why it should be the social lubricant that it is, and not some other beverage. No reason, other than history, which is often reason enough. That something has been done for many years perhaps shouldn't be grounds for its perpetuation - but it frequently is just that. People have been getting together over coffee for as long as there has been coffee.

Granted, there are infinite varieties of social interaction playing out at every cafe, every day. Perhaps students are meeting, using the tables to lay out notes, and the caffeine to stimulate tired minds. Around them, there are old friends and new ones, strengthening and creating bonds.

This may sound overly romantic, but I don't think it is. Humans are, at heart, social creatures. And so seek to find, or even create, society wherever we come together. A cafe is no different, in that regard.

There is more to be said on this subject, to be certain. Truthfully, there are volumes more to be written, perhaps books - both fiction and non. But for now, this is all I will say: Coffee's most potent stimulatory effects are not caused by caffeine, but rather, the thrill of genuine social interaction, the palpable satisfaction that can only be derived from looks and words cast back and forth across a table.

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