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A Coffee Barfly

A writer finds that the quest for coffee shapes not just her day but also her life.

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.

This cafe is called Di Simo, and it is located in the middle of the long Lucchese shopping street, the Fillungo. The coffee bar is carved mahogany with stylized lilies and acanthus leaves cut into its front and a top of green marble. But I don't stand at the bar; I take a seat in the smoky body of the restaurant. Usually I bring my notebook and write. It is a writer's cafe. There is a plaque on the wall wherein, carved in stone, is the proud boast that many famous poets have regularly come here. It mentions Quasimodo, Ugo Foscolo, Ungaretti and "the American poet Robert Lowell." Once, on a busy morning, the waiter saw me writing and opened the back room for me. "There are too many shopping ladies chattering," he said. "You need to concentrate to write well." He used the Italian word chiacchierare, a perfect onomatopoeia for chattering, gossip. For the next two hours, he brought me cup after cup of cappuccino. When I left the city, knowing that I would not be back in the cafe for at least a year, I felt that I was losing a blessing.

In Siena this year, I found a coffee bar that looks as if ample-bosomed, bejeweled divas will drape their furs over its wrought-iron seats. The ceilings are pressed tin; over the bar there are cloudy pastel murals of dandies and their ladies getting out of carriages. In the showcase, there are confections as beautiful as hats, but I opt for the native Sienese ricciarelli, sugar-crusted almond confections that are delightful with my late-afternoon espresso. It was winter when I was last there, and the museums and churches were empty. I could clear my brain from the demanding work of looking at the truly great Sienese painters--Duccio, Simone Martini--and stand at the bar, imagine the leisure of the Belle Epoque and, after 10 minutes, with a lucidity that the dandies and their ladies had no need of, return to the hushed splendor of great rooms where the gentleness of Madonnas pressed itself on backgrounds of beaten gold. I could be with the images fully; my torpor had been diminished, and with it my sense of unworthiness to have such greatness to myself. And why had I believed myself unworthy? Because my eyes were closing with the efforts of concentration; no beauty on earth was stronger than my exhausted mind's impulse to shut down. Without coffee I would have looked but not seen; I might as well have been asleep. With it I could, in seconds, fly backwards 500 years.

Right near the Pantheon in Rome there is a large, inelegant cafe called Tazza D'Oro whose murals are not Belle Epoque but Caribbean. Here I can have the best coffee in Rome. But I am never tempted to linger. There are the always compelling streets to call me, and perhaps the imperial simplicity and the monumental ambitiousness of the Pantheon discourages lollygagging. I try to get there around 11, when it is still respectable to have a cappuccino. I do not have the moral fiber to risk the Italian disapprobation of having a cappuccino after noon. A cappuccino at Tazza D'Oro is a miracle of strength and creaminess, a sweetness (I do not use sugar) that seems to come from a deep foreign place and to have been refined by thousands of years in the company of a people devoted to pleasure, honor, beauty. I walk past the Pantheon, looking upwards at the sky through the ceiling, or roof, that is open to it, pass Bernini's elephant obelisk, make my way to the splashing gods in the Piazza Navona, and there is nothing in life that cannot be mine.

It's always hard to come home after this. But it is another sign of Italian genius that there is a different Tazza D'Oro in Fiumicino Airport. So, along with luxury leather goods and ceramic replicas of ruined gods, you can, if you wish, purchase a jet of liveliness to carry you through the grief of parting. But part I always must, and luckily there are places in New York to indulge my passion. My favorite is Sant Ambroeus, whose original, or older sister, is in Milan. There at a zinc bar I am served a cappuccino by an Asian man whose technique is the equal of that of his Milanese counterparts. I feel I can have a cappuccino at 4 or even 5 here if I like. This is America, my home. I'm not a stranger; there is no one whose coffee-linked reproach I need truly fear. I pay the cashiers, young women in impeccably cut uniforms who, I believe, have spent more for their perfect haircuts than I earn in a month. But, no, it isn't about money; they were born that way. Or perhaps it's drinking all that wonderful coffee that makes them so beautiful, so elegant, so gracious without a hint of sycophancy, so welcoming and yet so formal. It must be the good coffee that gives their eyebrows that particular arch and their skin that particular tawny underpainting. They couldn't possibly have got that way on tea.

Mary Gordon's two most recent books are Seeing Through Places (Scribners) and Joan of Arc (Viking).
Published September 2000
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