Before I go on, it should be said that I am one of those people who assumes that the past was better—especially the Europe of the past. Like Owen Wilson's character in Midnight in Paris, I grow nostalgic for things I've never known and sometimes wallow in the idea that I was born too late and on the wrong continent—which makes me a romantic or kind of a dick, depending on how you want to look at it. But it's difficult to compare the bohemian splendor of Baudelaire's Café Tortoni to, say, the Starbucks near Kinzie and Orleans and not find the latter somewhat lacking. It may seem like a false analogy on its face, but the European cafe, with its collection of newspapers and little cakes, where it was not uncommon to pass hours at a time, was the forerunner to our modern coffeehouse. And while today you may be able to find a decent cafe creme or the occasional linzer torte, the European cafe's role as the heart of creative and intellectual life is something coffeehouses can't seem to capture.
For a long time I had only a vague idea of what caffeine addiction actually meant in scientific terms. I'd read that, as with many drugs, you build up a tolerance to caffeine and need more and more to achieve the same effect—but most articles didn't go into detail about exactly why. A year or two ago, I came across the fascinating blog You Are Not So Smart, written by journalist David McRaney "to publicly explore our self delusions through literary journalism." Most of the posts focus on psychology, presenting a commonly held belief about the way we think and then meticulously explaining why it's wrong, often over the course of several thousand words. The one McRaney wrote about coffee stood out to me because it's the best explanation I've seen of caffeine addiction.
You may already know this, and if so my apologies, but the Spanish language has a single word that means both scatology and eschatology—that word is escatologia. You might say that the sensible Spanish see no reason to distinguish between divine and earthly rewards. You might not. At any rate, it's a matter that begs to be discoursed on, and this kind of discourse is what coffee was put on earth to abet. There is, in fact, a particular coffee that perfectly suits the occasion.
In Europe, Central America, and the Middle East (the only places outside of the U.S. that I've traveled, not counting Canada), one thing you notice is the number of coffee shops full of young people sitting around tables and chatting, smoking cigarettes, and drinking coffee or eating small sandwiches. The last time I traveled out of the country—to Israel, 15 months ago—an American expat friend of mine told me that one thing she loved about her new home was the act of socializing at coffee shops over cigarettes. It reminded me that this used to be one of the best parts of living in Chicago, a scene that in hindsight was its own little subculture, the loss of which is palpable today.