I fell in love with coffee many years ago while living in Rome. Funny thing is that I fell before the first sip.
I was working at the RAI, Italy’s national broadcasting company, where coffee was the drug of choice among the journalists (closely followed by wine… served in the cafeteria, of course). One day, a co-worker said to me “Prendiamo un bel’ café.” Literally: “Let’s have a beautiful coffee together.”
More accustomed to hearing “Boy, I need a coffee,” in the U.S., this phrase “Prendiamo un bel’ café” was like an arrow to the heart.
First, there’s the communal “let us.” It’s about sharing, about having the same thing together. Then it goes singular with “un café” as if we’re going to split it. We are definitely having a coffee here. Even more intimate. But then, oh then, there came the word “beautiful” used to describe… coffee. It turned it into a celebration of what I’d only thought of as a black, caffeinated beverage. Rather than a slog to the break room for a pick-me-up, it was, well… special.
This common phrase, for me, captured a culture. Italian cultural critic, Barzini, says that Italians will tolerate incompetent generals, presidents, tyrants, bureaucrats, and captain of industry, but will never tolerate incompetent opera singers, conductors, courtesans, actors, film directors, cooks, baristas and tailors... Essentially, in a world of fraud and corruption, only beauty can be trusted. I remember being at dinners hearing diatribes about the ineptitude of the government, which would soon turn to “que si puo fare?” (what can you do?) followed by enjoyment of each other, the meal, and the evening. Whether a an exquisite opera performance or a well-pulled espresso, beauty in the moment is a thing—maybe the only thing—worthy of celebration.
Of course I grew to love the actual espresso--not to mention the black and white clad baristas, gleaming espresso machines, their levers rising and falling, the clink of heavy porcelain on a zinc bar, and the jostling and humm of it all. But my first love was the words which, for me—twenty-five years later—embody not just Italy, but a way of life: Life and beauty and the precious “moment” should be celebrated and shared with others. It’s all we really have.