Many people have the mistaken idea that coffee is just another drink. Well, sure, it is a drink, in that you drink it, but I maintain that coffee is less a beverage than a mark of punctuation--that it has more in common with the semicolon, the comma, the period, the question or exclamation mark than it does with Coke, or orange juice, or that other wet thing that the misguided inhabitants of the British Isles seem to imbibe with such wrongheaded regularity. As we do with punctuation marks, we use coffee to mark our responses to the process of being animals alive in time. First thing upon awakening, it assures us that we are right in leaving the tender world of sleep. Midmorning it revives our sluggish faith, restores our hope; it provides dark vividness in the bleak late afternoon and an ironic note to the ending of a supper, a contradictory prelude to the return to sleep. Coffee is richness and expectation, challenge and consolation; we can trust its comfort because of its underlying bitterness; it places on our tongues, in our throats, on the path down our gullets, a reminder of life's sharpness, but it redefines that sharpness as excitement--a part of a mix that includes sweetness and is, finally, satisfying and complex.
My life can be, and at times has been, ruined by bad coffee. This prospect has had its malign effects on many travel plans. For example, I love Ireland. I often write about it; the landscape fills me with joy, and I have many dear friends there. But outside Dublin (and, indeed, it's a relatively recent sign of that city's growing cosmopolitanism that you can without a week's planning get good coffee there) it's impossible to get a good cup of coffee in any of the country's thousands of enchanting locations. I have dealt with this by traveling with a small espresso pot and a bag of Italian roast. I have taken the risk of hurting my beloved friends, of being thought a foreign weirdo by kindly hosts of B&B's, of forcing my way into the kitchens of small hotels. But, you see, a day of tea just makes me self-pitying. Self-pitying and drowsy. Self-pitying, drowsy and feeling like my life embodies the word slosh. And why? Because of that falsely benign, excessively neutral liquidity I have allowed to invade my gut. One of the reasons I haven't traveled to the Far East is that I can't bear the idea of flight hours in the double digits--or that's what I tell people. But the idea of several weeks without good coffee forces me to wake up in the night with the conviction that nobody really needs to see new places, not if they have a truly satisfying inner life. Not if they can't get good coffee.
There is one place, the place to which I most frequently travel, where I know I can always get good coffee, better than anything I can get at home. This is, of course, Italy. There are some spots in some cities that are dear to me just because of my coffee life there. One of them is an Art Nouveau cafe in the Tuscan city of Lucca.