It’s All in a Cup of Coffee (or, Indeed, Tea): Does Café Culture Embody the Idea of Europe?

It’s All in a Cup of Coffee (or, Indeed, Tea): Does Café Culture Embody the Idea of Europe?

Update: On June 24, 2016, 52% of eligible voters in the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. This article was published prior to the referendum announcement.

In 2003 George Steiner—a Paris-born, American, UK-based literary critic, philosopher and essayist—gave a lecture in Tilburg, a small Dutch city on the Belgian border. His talk, which he titled “The Idea of Europe,” made some waves in certain circles but, ultimately, wasn't widely discussed. Years later I found a copy of the transcript in Amsterdam’s Athenaeum[1], who had tucked it in the corner of a sunken room on a shelf devoted to "Brexit." I read it the following day while on a train to Brussels.

As I trundled across the Flemish hinterland Steiner’s words, delivered with judicious insight and a reassuring cautionary edge, served as a reminder of one irrevocable fact: that Europe is a continent “of linguistic, cultural, [and] social diversity;” a “mosaic”[2] of communities that have never been united with the same scale and ambition as that of the European Union. But before the contemporary Euro-project, came European café culture.

Cities like Paris, Venice, Copenhagen, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Budapest, Geneva, Lisbon, and even historic Istanbul, have harbored some of the most tempestuous interiors in Europe. Within these cities were, and are, the greatest of the great cafés and coffee houses: Café Central, Café A Brasileira, and Da Florian on Piazza San Marco – “the drawing room of Europe” and the oldest café in Europe; Les Deux Magots and Café Gerbeaud. Places of political discussion, artistic argument, assignation, and conspiracy.

In their heyday they were modern agoras – settings which, in the words of Steiner, were the very “locus of eloquence and rivalry.”[3]  More recent loci, such as the Café Philosophique founded by Marc Sautet at the Café des Phares in Paris’ Place de la Bastille (which ran until his death in 1998), embody this idea: places of discursive discourse and self-reflection. They have allowed people, like Steiner, to feel at home anywhere in Europe; “the price of one cup of coffee, or a glass of wine, buys you the day at the table [of a café]” – with no strings attached. It’s “the most egalitarian society in the world,” he once declared[4].

The basis of Steiner’s argument—that places comparable to the grand intellectual cafés of Europe remain hotbeds of contemporary discourse—is nostalgic – a fact which he himself recognises. These institutions have, on the most part, collapsed into little more than wistful signposts to a bygone European landscape, and now almost exclusively serve tourists. Piazza San Marco is filled, hour upon hour, by quartets serenading patrons of Byron, Proust and Dicken’s old haunt. Café Central in Vienna serves up more Apfelstrudel with lashings of whipped cream to tourists searching for the atmospheric setting that inspired Lenin, Trotsky and Loos than the waiters care to count. These places are no longer real, in the real sense of the word.

The power of sentimentality, which is exploited most superficially through contemporary tourism, should not be underestimated – there is a sinister margin to this “sovereignty of remembrance.” There are, of course, two sides to every story and Europe—above all—has born witness to some of mankind’s darkest moments alongside some of its most magnificent. “Europe is the place where Goethe’s garden almost borders on Buchenwald,” Steiner acknowledges in his lecture; “where the house of Corneille abuts on the market-place in which Joan of Arc was hideously done to death.” A literate European, he continues, “is caught in the spiderweb of an in memoriam at once luminous and suffocating.”[5]

European café culture, as a reflection from and on society, is no less contradictory. The world has globalized and European nations, some of which directly instigated this shift, have transformed alongside it. In 1998, just as Sautet’s Café Philosophique in Paris ceased to be, the Seattle-based Starbucks Corporation entered the European market through the UK. The British, who certainly haven’t cultivated a café culture in the same way as other European countries, have taken to this new, more superficial variant, like ducks to water. Significantly, however, they have been reticent to embrace it as a national trait; chains of the Costa Coffee and Caffè Nero ilk, for example, both rely heavily on pseudo-Italian branding (of an Italy which has never existed).

The United Kingdom, as it’s citizens face the decision of a lifetime and lifetimes to come, must recognise that self-professed differences from ‘continental Europe’ are, in fact, one of our greatest assets. European café culture was, as Steiner credibly argues, a potent facilitator of social change and intellectual progress. But England had the pub, with it’s own cultural “aura and mythology.”[6] The café, like the pub, is immediately recognisable and universally understood as a public interior – at once a cloister and a marketplace; a place for introspection as much for interaction, bound by communal consumption and with infinite variety.

The European Union’s greatest test will be to acknowledge, accommodate, and develop its mosaical identity without the scourge of nationalist rhetoric and without individual states occasionally attempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Challenging times demand collective perseverance and, dare I say, a little circumspection. Striving for homogeneity in Europe is, to my mind at least, not a feasible long-term solution to the difficulties that we currently face, and will face in decades to come.

Although Steiner’s idea of Europe may partly feel a little wistful, it remains poignant and profoundly relevant. “Café culture” represents the ideological embodiment of the notion of the congregational city – of concord, discord and cohesion, even in the most fraught political conditions. If it is a paragon of the idea of Europe, then we should strive for it and accept nothing less. The United Kingdom must be a part of this shared vision and not abandon its promise.

James Taylor-Foster is ArchDaily's European Editor-at-Large.

The Idea of Europe / George Steiner

A literate European is caught in the spider-web of an in memoriam at once luminous and suffocating". These words of George Steiner might apply to the daunting prospect of introducing his work - a writer so erudite and illuminating as to embody the complexity he cherishes.

[1] The Athenaeum bookshop on Spui in Amsterdam was founded by Johan Polak, a Dutch publisher and bibliophile who, according to Rob Riemen, was a strong advocate of George Steiner’s teachings – in particular, his belief in the European ideal of civilization.
[2] “The genius of Europe is what William Blake would have called ‘the holiness of the minute particular’.” Steiner, G. The Idea of Europe. Tilburg: Nexus Institute, 2012. p.32
[3] ibid. Steiner, G. p.18
[4] Steiner, G. in “The Art of Criticism No.2” – Paris Review, Winter 1995 No. 37
[5] ibid. Steiner, G. p.22-23
[6] ibid. Steiner, G. p.18

About this author
Cite: James Taylor-Foster. "It’s All in a Cup of Coffee (or, Indeed, Tea): Does Café Culture Embody the Idea of Europe?" 23 Jun 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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