Imagine you are in Early 20th Century Europe. Your classes/workday is finished, and you need a place to go. The bar might be good for a rowdy time, but today you just really want to delve into some spirited conversation. Where would you go? Similarly, if you were having this exact same experience today, what would you do to satiate that creative urge you had as a young intellectual? Well the answer for the 20th century was simple: coffeehouses, or cafes.
The coffeehouse in its original intention is truly a product of the 17th century onward. You would meet your fellow gentlemen (sorry ladies, historically like pretty much everywhere, you were banned from coffeehouses), and talk about politics, the world, pretty much anything. You would sit down, and converse with your fellow human beings who belonged to various classes. In that sense, the first coffeehouses were very inclusionary (you know, if you were a white male). Coffee became a way of breaking down false understandings of people from other classes. In England the coffeehouse became such an epicenter for democracy that the British government tried to shut them down. Coffeehouses became more open as society opened up more so too. Famous sociologists from the illustrious Frankfurt School were said to have met at the Cafe Laumer, and discussed social theory. Even Karl Mannheim who was in Frankfurt, but not associated with the school was said to have attended with people like Theodor Adorno, and Max Horkheimer. Hitler, Trotsky, Lenin, and Freud all attended Cafe Central in January 1913. While the list of names might be less impressive, the point being that coffeehouses were a major social phenomena.
For those who know me personally, or even somewhat impersonally, you will know that my love for coffee is borderline problematic. I love coffee for its taste, but its social aspect is equally important. The coffeehouse has disappeared in a sense. No longer do people meet in these spaces to converse, most arrangements in cafe’s centres around small, quiet intimate conversations as opposed to debate and inquiry. It is near impossible to meet people for coffee to talk about the world, unless only two people end up being there. It’s not the world that Sartre and Beauvoir once inhabited. The couple was known to sit in French Cafe’s drinking coffee while working on their books. If you have ever gone to a bar where you were forced to sit with people, you would know how fun it can be to meet new people, or even pick up on their conversations. The coffeehouse was that space and it could be that space again. It says a lot about our society that there was once a place for spreading ideas, and it has been removed, only to languish in the ether of historical romanticism.
For some coffee is positioned as a drug and nothing more, but one of the allures that always drew me to coffee was in some of its social and practical implications. Growing up, my mother like any parent would need a little bit of freedom for me. While she drank her coffee, I was on my own, and she had freedom from the tyranny of my questions, as well as time to do work and read. My family always gathered around coffee, as it served as the time after lunch at Gia Gia’s where we could talk. The adults would sit there milky mediocre coffee and hand and talk about the things that were going on with work, and with their lives. While lunch was the time to eat these massive meals, where more was always an option (those who come from Mediterranean families will understand, although I am sure others will too), coffee was ideally quieter and more social and contemplative.
I began my life-long addiction with coffee at the ripe age of 14. It was just after my parents divorce, and my mom and I would make coffee together, and talk about all the things that were going on in the world, from ideas to current political thinking. My mother once told me that for us breakfast had become the dinner table. Whereas families normally gathered around the dinner table to spread sociality, our relationship focused around breakfast. In reality it focused around coffee. Sitting down for coffee requires you to be patient. You can take a cup of coffee with you to go somewhere, and slowly drink it in snowy slushy Toronto through a busy street, but the second you pour your coffee into a cup and sit down, you are their to savour the moment.