Anatomy of an Espresso

October 23rd, 2015|Comments Off on Anatomy of an Espresso

As a native Italian living abroad, I have observed cultural differences for a while. Ever since I moved to this intrepid and optimistic land, I have learned something new every day, both about America and about myself. And as time goes by, I have not stopped marveling upon the circumstances of being immersed in a culture that is not my native one. In the process, I discovered that I have retained this desire to remain curious and interested in anything new and different. This long journey has been my personal fountain of youth. The inner vitality of newness is one of the strongest forces that make people dream and leads them to foreign shores. Foreign traditions, which appear odd at first, reveal after closer observation distinguished traits of a different philosophy and approach to life. Diversity, so at risk nowadays, both in our biosphere and in the ethnic and political arenas, is fundamental element of survival of our civilization. Diversity should be able to teach us respect for other people’s perspectives, choices and inclinations. I propose today that we visit the customs of our countries with the regard and the sense of awe children have when they are brought before something they have never seen before. Curiosity may save us from the isolation of our cultural cocoons – those private, inner worlds where we all retreat when things look way unfamiliar. Furthermore, I propose that you take some of the bold affirmations in this article with sense of humor. Laughter is always at shortage, and I find that coffee consumption provides a unique opportunity to catch each other in the act. Whether you are a native of this country or an imported talent, you might have gathered by now that things in Italy are done a little differently. Conversely, you must expect that things in the U.S. may appear equally distinct to the eyes of a foreign observer. Italians have contributed to a number of habits of modern life, from slow food to high fashion, and they are quite adamant about such habits. You can hear them scream: “hey, there, cappuccino is not a dinner item!” Americans lead the movie industry and are quite gracious about how foreign individuals absorb their lifestyle. You may do anything you please with American coffee. You may not with Italian coffee. Italian things come with instructions (in case you wonder, American things come with manuals). At any rate, I am convinced that at the bottom of all differences and attitudes there is a lack of knowledge and a number of presumptions, often the hallway to sticky prejudices. I believe that one of the duties of every cultural organization, while preserving distinctions and cultural identity is to dissipate conjectures and resolve differences by promoting understanding. It is evident to well traveled American and cosmopolitan citizens alike that significant dissimilarities exist in the underpinning philosophies of our countries (in this case, Italy and the U.S.). By the same token, it is evident that some differences are as extensive and diametrical as restraint is to luxury ­­–the allusion to coffee is obvious, as we will see in a moment. America, by definition entrepreneurial, stands on this side of the Atlantic Ocean, unrestrained by traditions or history, with its uncanny manipulations, childlike joy and flowing enthusiasm. Italy, in its chaos and constant political instability, remains attached to certain immutable customs, many of which are deceptively simple, and many of which are rather rigid. Coffee is one of them! Ironically, the restraint – manifestly represented both by the physicality and the ritual of an espresso – is considered a sign of refinement in Italy. Coffee, a true parenthesis, away from everything, work, sometime home, and all life’s troubles, is synonymous with indulgence and opulence. Let’s not forget that coffee, when it was first introduced in Europe, was luxury that only rich families could afford. But coffee in itself is as basic and essential as anything. It is also a serious matter. Instead, Americans at the time of coffee seem to be all but austere. Although there are plenty of examples of true simplicity in the tradition of coffee consumption in the U.S., the character of a modern coffee house is rather mercantile, with sales averaging six dollars per customer and a variety of denominations and available flavors that beats Harrry Potter’s Jelly Beans. Now, as an ex-historian, I can easily spot how cocoa, cinnamon and vanilla might have found their way into coffee. Mixing flavors is an ancient weakness of clear courtesan origin, developed (for boredom, acute depression or both) during the decadence of many great European empires, particularly French and Austrian – Italians, in their snobbery, find such custom barbarian. But, rest assured, “perversions” like raspberry flavored coffee have little to do with Europe. Brits are the usual suspects at the time of mixing exotic flavors in, after all, they are the one who first put sliced pineapples over meat. But insofar as in the U.S. a new aroma or denomination (i.e. frappuccino) may make the fortune of its unbridled creator, I dare pronouncing that flavored coffee is in the U.S. as indigenous a tradition as jazz and blues. Italians will never stop arguing over the point of certain oddities. But our interest today is the reason behind habits, not the success of a new formula, which only indicates how people embrace change. And so, while in the U.S. this incessant desire to challenge the status quo ­–plain coffee­– and formulate something new, whether foolish or clever, may never end puzzling and fascinating a foreign observer who witnesses a brewing line with twelve boosted varieties, in the old world, traditions lead to refinement. Refinement is in turn a process which excludes wild experimentation, as it entails drawing near the essence of things. Italian immigrants, no matter how engrossed by their material pursuits in the U.S., have become adept to noticing such differences. Criticizing oddities reminds Italians of their identity, although it is unappreciative of what this land offers. [...]