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Tuesday, 27 November 2012


There are some things that the continentals take their time with - and coffee is one of them.  It is an art form and a pleasure to watch.

Although coffee shops have been introduced to England, they are a rushed affair, often requiring much multitasking - combining coffee in a plastic cup whilst balancing a computer on your lap, holding a business meeting against the hubbub of chattering voices and tills being rung continuously, answering a mobile before hurriedly dashing off to another appointment.  There is a utility, a functionality, a practicality to the English coffee shops.

The English don't seem to have quite caught onto the joy of the leisurely - the good life luxuriating in the slowness of simple things.  It is no coincidence that two phrases that sum this up were created by the French and Italians - joie de vivre and la dolce vita.

Florian, Venice where many romances have begun

Continental cafe society is a rather slower, considered and therefore elegant affair. There is, after all, as one individual said: "no elegance in haste".  For coffee is produced in a cup and saucer or a teapot with your tasse de the.  There is ceremony in the whole process.

And so civilised is this society in France that should you have purchased a delicacy at an adjacent patisserie the cafe is quite happy for you to eat this with your coffee.  In fact the waiter may even suggest a good patisserie to select such a morceau delicieux.  This is a time for pleasure, something to savour.

Step inside many of the older continental coffee houses and you find yourself in another world.  Unassuming from the outside, inside they are often bedecked with gilded mirrors, frescoed ceilings, glinting chandeliers and intricate tiled floors.  Dimly lit corners with luxurious velvet banquettes turning them into intimate boudoirs where one can spend an hour or two with a loved one without interruption.

Others, particularly those in Vienna, may be wood pannelled with the musty smell of centuries offering the opportunity of a cosy, comforting respite from the chill outside. A time to watch the street theatre of life, old ladies cloaked in furs, young couples sharing a bench, perhaps even a tiny dog asleep on a man's lap - all is normal in the day of the Viennese coffee house.

Of course, there are opportunities for a quick espresso - such as in the bars of Milan - but one stands at the bar, never sits down and then moves on.

But if you choose to take a seat in a cafe in France, Italy or Vienna one has all the time in the world.

Of course, European cafe society has always had a close kinship with the bohemians - writers, artists, philosophers - those who spent their time discussing ideas, revolutions, life. And although Paris is known for it's cafe philosophers, Vienna also had it's own bohemian enclave at the time of Klimt and his millieu of other non-conformers who would thrash out their own views - challenging society and the status quo.

As Stefan Zweig quoted in his essay "The World of Yesterday" in 1934:

" ... it must be said that the continental coffeehouse is a particular institution which is not comparable to any other in the world.  

As a matter of fact, it is a democratic club to which admission costs the small price of a cup of coffee.  Upon payment of this mite every guest can sit for hours on end, discuss, write, play cards, receive mail, and above all, can go through an unlimited number of newspapers and magazines."

And the same democractic principles of continental coffee houses still exists today.
After all, romance and revolutions take time to evolve.

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