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Coffee, Coffee Everywhere But None That's Fit to Drink

Valerie Schneider

We spent twenty hours traveling halfway around the world, a journey which included an eleven-hour flight that seemed to stretch on interminably and rendered me senseless, not to mention exhausted.  When we emerged from the discomfort of the stale-aired metal tube into the cold jetway at Washington’s National Airport, we sucked desperately for fresh oxygen, supporting ourselves on the flimsy walls while our fellow passengers jostled us from behind.  Despite having the relative comfort of the three-across seats to ourselves, providing a little room to stretch out, I still couldn’t sleep on the plane.  I never have, in all my trans-Atlantic flights, so I guess my inner clock figured 'why start now'.  My normal onboard routine is to shift to find a position, settle in for about ten minutes before getting a muscle cramp or a sleeping limb, shift again which wakes up Bryan, and then repeat the cycle.  Round about Hour Six of the flight, I opened my eyes thinking we must surely be flying over the American continent, only to gaze in horror at the display on the monitor screens screaming out to me that I had five more hours to endure until touch-down.  In Chicago.  Then we had to make a connection to Washington, DC.  Don’t you love the logic of the airlines’ hubs? 

Groggy and a little disoriented, we entered the terminal to be met by my smiling uncle who greeted us with the warm welcome of, “good lord, you look like crap,” thus confirming that we resembled exactly how we felt physically.  Air travel saps the body’s moisture faster than a hot July day in New Mexico’s desert and leaves me completely drained and blotchy-faced.  How my fellow travelers can maintain a seemingly-attractive skin condition and chipper disposition in such conditions makes me envious.  I consoled myself with the thought that I had arrived after only twenty hours of traveling time, in total, as opposed to my ancestors, who spent a month in transit -and probably seasick in the bowels of the ship- to arrive. 

For the first time in 20 months, we laid our feet on American soil.  We thought it was time to return for a visit, to show our relatives that we had not dropped off the face of the earth and that we did, in fact, still care for them.  We also thought it a good idea to tune in to what is happening in the home country every now and again.  Life in Italy can easily cause one to slip into a parallel universe of un-reality as far as American culture is concerned.  We have noticed, for example, that as far as the Italian populace and media are concerned, there are only three candidates in the primary elections (Hillary, Obama and, of course, Giuliani).  We have paid zero attention to what films were released in the past year.  And, we have become so ingrained in the pattern of life here that we had forgotten how early our countrymen rise to carry themselves off for their long commutes.  Imagine my surprise to find that people line up single-file and orderly at a counter, and public toilets are not only widely available, but are clean and well-stocked to boot. We had also forgotten that iced tea can be had without being syrupy, and that ice cubes do exist, never mind that they want to give you gallons of tea and bucket-loads of ice.

The main catalyst for the trip, though, was merely to spend time with our families and enjoy some ethnic food.  Nearly every cultural cuisine under the sun can be had in America; all the things we cannot eat in Italy we enjoyed during our sojourn.  Well, almost everything.  Having lived in New Mexico for twenty years I do draw the line at trying to find decent Mexican fare, because I know there is nothing east of the state line that will satisfy my cravings.  (Please don’t write me letters that such-and-such a restaurant in Texas, Omaha or Chicago offers great Mexican food. For me, if it’s not covered in New Mexico green chile, it won’t measure up.)  The only Italian meal we consumed was one I prepared while at my uncle’s house, not because I am tired of the stuff (I’m not) but a break now and then is nice, too.  Besides, the plate of rogan josh with basmatic rice at Café Tandoor in Cleveland Heights, and the various Turkish samples at Zaytinya in Washington, DC offered up flavors of rich spices we just cannot procure here.  We also indulged in Afghan, Japanese, Chinese, and some good ol’ American fare.  It’s amazing my intestines didn’t go into revolt at the shock of so many variations being consumed in such a short amount of time.

The one thing we couldn’t find during the two-week trip, however, was a decent espresso.  This was a particular source of aggravation to my husband.  Bryan willingly (dare I say, proudly?) admits that he is a coffee snob.  The theme for the entire duration of our stay was Bryan’s quest for un caffé italiano.  There are coffee shops on nearly every corner, so you wouldn’t think it would be so hard, would you?  But then you don’t know Bryan and his coffee scruples.  He has brought many an Italian barista to awe and admiration by telling them how he has never, ever allowed American coffee to pass his lips and pollute his body.  Once they have expressed their pride in him, they then stand together in solidarity discussing the disgusting acqua sporca that millions of Americans consume as “coffee”.  I, too, love Italian caffé, but I admit that a brewed mug of rich Columbian on a cold day, nursed while watching the news or reading the paper, wasn’t so bad to me.  I’m sure Bryan will call me a heretic when he reads this.

I guess it’s telling that he never drank coffee at all until our first trip to Italy.  Jetlag will do funny things to the body and the mind and, desperate to stay awake to feed the cravings in his stomach for the wonderful aromas wafting down the street from the trattorias, he succumbed to an espresso.  One packet of sugar to sweeten the brew and his eyes perked up and a smile crossed his face; he had found true love.  He returned home and purchased an espresso machine.  Here in Italy, he has his ritual caffé times, just like the locals.  The neighborhood barista starts to worry about him if he hasn’t arrived for his afternoon post-lunch intake by a certain time.  He avoids certain bars that don’t meet his standards.  Come to think of it, he really is a coffee snob. 

Therefore, when he awoke to find himself in the Washington metro area with a fuzzy head from jetlag he decided that the only cure would be a morning espresso.  No problem, said my chipper uncle, there is a Starbuck’s down the road.  Can you hear that screeching sound?  That is what was portrayed on my beloved’s face at the mere mention of that famous coffee purveyor ‘that serves swill at grossly inflated prices’.  He got lost in his usual diatribe about how it tastes burned and so on.

“Uh, Bryan, I think you’re a little passionate about this”, replied my ever-patient uncle.  Thus started The Quest.  Like the wine-seekers in the movie, Sideways, Bryan embarked on a search for a great caffé in America, a hunt that would prove as difficult to him as my endeavor to find Affordable Pants That Fit in Italy.  His first attempt occurred in the District when he tried a coffee at one of the Smithsonian cafeterias.  It seemed like it would be authentic enough, since they served gelato and had a big sign proclaiming ‘Espresso’.  The girl presented him with a good six ounces of liquid.  “I ordered an espresso, not an Americano,” said Bryan, thinking the brew was for someone else.  “That is an espresso,” she protested.  “Actually, no.”  She said it was a double, which he didn’t want.  “But it’s the same price and you get more.”  He continued to argue that he didn’t want more, he wanted espresso.  She rolled her eyes and started over, the resulting coffee taking up less space in the cup but having none of the characteristics of espresso except by virtue of quantity.  He took one sip, scowled, and threw it away.

Day Two...Bryan commandeered my uncle’s iPhone to search for independent coffee houses in Alexandria, where we were staying.  He pulled up the listing and asked which were closest.  Ever-patient Uncle drove us to one in Old Town.  The aroma was fabulous.  We spotted actual porcelain cups.  Uncle and I exchanged little smiles; this would be a good one.  We were met by a smilingly-friendly student who immediately asked what we’d like.  Bryan optimistically asked, “can I have a caffé macchiato?”  But of course!  Sighs of relief.  “Would you like a single or double?  Whole or skim?  Paper or china?”  Rapid-fire questions shot through the air.  Bryan froze.  He looked at me with a deer-in-the-headlights face; too many questions!  Before caffeine, even!  I ordered for him and for myself.  He staggered to a table to wait for the results.  It must be said that I found it completely adequate.  There was something “off” in the taste, said Bryan. 

Days Three, Four, Five…well, let’s just chalk them up to misery as far as Bryan is concerned.  I used the Lavazza I’d found in my uncle’s cupboard to brew drip coffee in his kitchen, figuring I’d wait until our arrival at my sister’s for espresso-based drinks, since she had taken possession of Bryan’s espresso machine when we moved.  Bryan, however, was on a pursuit that couldn’t be stopped.  Every day, another place, another disappointment.  It became comical to see the results and even I began to think that there was not a single place in DC that knew what real espresso was; to order a caffé macchiato brought out a bottle of caramel syrup…what they’d do with that I didn’t even want to know, and Bryan would quickly yell, “HALT!  No syrup, I beg you!”  He would shake his head and exit the shop while muttering that they have bastardized caffé in America.  Why, he whined, do they brew it into a little metal pitcher then pour it into the cup?  It takes away the crema!  He really was becoming the Sideways guy.

By the time we left for Cleveland, my uncle was glad to see him go and pass him off onto my unsuspecting sister.  I think you already have realized that even his own espresso machine no longer met his standards and that the quest continued for several more days, with me pleading, “Bryan, just give it up.  You’re not going to find coffee like in Italy,” while he was driven to keep trying.  Finally, near the end of the trip he received an espresso that made him smile.  Another sip and he closed his eyes, nearly swooning.  I was incredulous; after ten days he encountered a “real espresso”…in little Norwalk, Ohio of all places.  I thought he was going to kiss the barista; his effusive, teary-eyed thanks met with a confused, but pleased face on her part. 

Between coffee disasters we enjoyed many a fabulous meal, laughed uproariously with family, and saw relatives we’d not seen in years.  We caught up on news and happenings, and learned that we had more Italian in us than we’d realized; we responded automatically in Italian to certain requests or statements, surprising even ourselves.  That the poor waiters or museum staff didn’t understand us was a sign we’d finally assimilated to Italy.  We missed our afternoon riposo and missed our daily routine.  We remembered many of the little things that lured us to Italy in the first place.

When we returned to Ascoli Piceno we stepped into our neighborhood bar that first morning.  The barista smiled broadly at Bryan; no words were exchanged, but Gianluca patted Bryan’s arm reassuringly, somehow knowing Bryan’s angst.  “Bentornato,” he finally said quietly.  Then he slid a perfectly-crafted espresso in front of him.  “I think you need this.”  Bryan sighed in relief, “ah it’s good to be home.”

Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2008

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