Week 1: Bar // Coffee Shop
Having grown up in Seattle, you could say coffee culture has played an important role in my life. I fondly recall playing Connect-4 with my older siblings at Victrola's on 15th while my mom desperately tried to find a moment of peace to grade her student's papers. From peaceful mornings with a newspaper and earl gray, to late afternoon double cappuccino's in preparation for a late night of work, the ritual of beverage weaves a definitive thread in fabric of my daily experience. Most recently, I've turned to the epitome of the coffee shop for a beautiful solace which yields unwavering focus.
Arriving in Rome, the motherland of espresso, I was eagerly looking forward to discovering the coffee culture of Italia. While filled with grand visions of Romans enjoying long breaks from work, sipping macchiato while reading, enjoying a latte, deeply engaged in emphatic conversation with friends. My imagination couldn't have been much farther from reality . . .
Day 1. 7:40 AM. Time for coffee. Four amici amble 'cross the rain-darkened cobblestones. Aroma approaches. Crossing the threshold.
Entering into Bar Del Cappuccino, an oblong coffee bar, dusted with mementos and paraphernalia akin to the oh-so-familiar office of a high-school English teacher nearing retirement, was running into a wall: unfamiliar-yet-delicious scents, a crowd fit for a concert performing every line of a Shakespeare comedy in unison, the soft hum of an espresso machine wafting as background steam, interrupted in tempo by the ear-scathing whirr of coffee bean pulverization, and entering stage-left, crossing to center, the barista – tall, quick smile, sort-of friendly eyes – delivers the opening line: "prego?"
All-in-all, it was a clockwork opera as viewed through the first-ever color-television, my nose pressed to the screen as my hand frantically (desperately) searches for the volume knob.
Since crossing the threshold, I've learned the repertoire of phrases, spoken in off-beat Italian, to add my Americana dreadnaught to the orchestra, and come to love the chaotic familiarity of the uniquely Italian coffee bar.
The archetype consists of a short list of essential elements:
- The barista
- The bar – meant for standing
- The glass reliquary of pasta (pastries) // By midday the contents are replaced with panini and tramezzini (look 'em up)
- Menu with prices x2: A4, relegated to a obscure corner
- Panini press
- Ceramic and glassware of specific shapes and sizes
- Worn cash register
- Posters advertising the brand of espresso served by the Bar
Unlike the American standard (Starbucks) there is no queue in a Bar, one simply squeezes into a semi-un-occupied segment of the counter, calls the attention of the barista, and confidently, succinctly states their order.
- While waiting: Conversation
- cappuccino interjection
- While drinking: absorbed in a momentary paralysis
- 8 oz. consumed
- Exchange: 1 E+ for a printed receipt
- Farewell: "Ciao, buona giornata!"
In comparison, the Italian system is not only quicker, but more personal, more accommodating. After a few weeks of patronage, Luigi knows me by name, he's taught me names of most Italian breakfast pastries, and, most importantly, he does this out of care, an essential trait of a good barista, rather than due to corporate mandate. Not to say there aren't friendly and caring barista's in the US, simply that the Italian Bar culture puts the experience of the coffee above all other distractions. The Bar is a sanctuary, a breath of comfort, a moment for conversation piqued by the short silence of a full immersion into the flavor and aroma of expertly brewed espresso. There are no to-go cups. It is a ritual of frequency, dividing my day into segments of energy and focus. The price of coffee doubles if one elects to sit at the rarely occupied tables. For panini, it triples.
Enjoy-first-pay-later: The exchange is not the focus, the individual is treated to every gallantry, the experience envelops, with currency acting as a token of appreciation rather than a toll for entry.
Pay-first-consume-later: The queue: enervating, The lackluster employees: a factory, The consumables: uninspired. The attitude: escape-as-soon-as-possible, The alternate: engage-headphone-personal-bubble+write-essay-as-fast-as-possible.
Both systems are clockwork. Both experiences optimize speed and provide identical services. The difference, culture. Italians value the process, the timing, savoring every moment, by attitude, nothing in the process is tedium. The Americans seek instant gratification, wishing helplessly that the coffee could appear in ones hand without any effort or precious time wasted.
In a strange way, these contrasting attitudes apply very directly to the conceptualized purpose of design. One could view design as a process of purely addressing human needs. A simple and direct model in which a designed object, system, or interaction eliminates a singular need. However, in such a simplified relationship, the meaning of the process could be ignored. Rather than viewing design as a pure means of satisfying needs, why not use designed objects to create meaning? To inform culture? To move beyond a singular form and function, becoming inspiration and motivation, imbued with thought and perspective. Becoming art worthy of our time and patience.
" . . . All-in-all, it was a clockwork opera as viewed through the first-ever color-television, my nose pressed to the screen as my hand frantically (desperately) searches for the volume knob . . ."
" . . . Enjoy-first-pay-later: The exchange is not the focus, the individual is treated to every gallantry, the experience envelops, with currency acting as a token of appreciation rather than a toll for entry . . . "
For more of day-to-day life in Rome, check out my friend Suzie's fantastic video blog: