Coffee House

by Beatrix Ost

photography Valentina Ilardi Martin

7 April 2015

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The egotism of times past forbade the mental symphony of today’s hive mind

There is an invisible explosion, a mutual invitation to work together. Two heads have always been better than one.

I am in Venice, at Caffè Florian. The oldest continually open coffeehouse in the world, since 1720.

My youngest son’s wedding wish was that we—his family, closest relatives, and friends—spend three weeks in Venice for his honeymoon.

The hotel had a garden, and there was a motorboat we could use to run to the Lido for a swim. Caffè Florian invited us to meet daily. Just to hang out together, or to play tourist.

When I am in Venice I feel like a Venetian citizen from all previous centuries simultaneously. We have come to this city at every time of year, including Carnival, and woken up at Palazzo Bragadin, in the room that sheltered Casanova when he fled prison.

My costumes have long trains of silk and lace. The streets covered with confetti, then swept clean in the morning. I stride through the large north portal built by Napoleon, down some steps, out into the open Piazza San Marco. Above me, the square of sky, virgin blue. The marble I am treading on polished by centuries of conflict.

And there it is, to my right: Caffè Florian, our place. At Carnival, we would always congregate at the cafè. Vittorio, with a blue glass eye, would sweep through the rooms on his way, followed by Casanova, black leather mask and all. A pouch for his penis, to look for prey.

The rooms are small, made for a whisper. They have names, like a relative. Sala Chinese, Sala Degli Specchi, people whispering secrets. You look out from the rooms to the piazza, and into the salas from the arcades, where the movies of the day are playing. The stories of imprisonment, of the smallness of thought. The acrobats of life file past. Genuine desperation. Faces like facades bathed in sunshine, spilled coins while you drink from a fine cup with saucer, thin like tulip petals.

The spectacle of the Florian has a large cast of exquisite ghosts. Napoleon bent over the design of the palace he built across from the Chiesa San Marco, his insignias everywhere, to be removed immediately upon his departure. Giovanni Agnelli eyed the décolleté of Sophia Loren. Silvana Mangano, filming Death in Venice, contemplated her age. Mussolini met with the archbishop to discuss the problem of Hitler. At Aqua Alta, people rested their feet, tired from teetering across flooded piazzas on narrow planks.

In Vienna it is the Sacher. The history of Austria, the dark and the luminous, every vanished past, lives on along its walls. The cheap look of new events, tragedies, the lament of the ordinary.

The cafès of Europe are like grand courtesans. Smoke used to float above people’s plans. The bitterness of a divorce, the triumph of a discovery. Yes, the Secession, and the Bauhaus, created by thinkers and aesthetes alike, were airlifted from the cafès. Schools and movements. The aching beauty of love, born on a sofa in a corner of a coffeehouse. The innocence of hanging out after school, sipping hot chocolate, peering through flawed glass panes into the bitter cold of a dark afternoon.

Cafès invite group thinking.

When we arrived in New York in the 70s, it was denuded of cafès. My imagination panicked. Where does one meet friends, just to chat, to assemble in ordinariness, or to sit in Sunday silence with the paper? I was so used to it all that its absence was an ominous vacuum, almost not believable. The faded walls of used-up decor, the soft sofas dressed in aging cloth, cozy, gemütlich.

To enter a cafè like a casual queen, all eyes falling onto the new New. Oh, the arguments, the fights I have had in cafès. And yes, I fell in love once in a cafè.

And now, what to make of the hot summer streets in New York, without umbrellas of questionable shade but comfortably familiar. The air-conditioned dining joints could not satisfy the many fragments of my desire. The legendary cafès of my past felt like the ringing of church bells. I could only see it in the light of despair.

But then Starbucks happened. It happened everywhere in the city at once. And on a calm morning, the joy of discovery. I could see my longing fulfilled. A small cafè had opened close by our home.

The dawn of a street culture, outdoors, indoors, cafès everywhere. It became chic to sweat a bit. Newspapers unfolded, the past changed to afford the future. My more distant cultural past had penetrated, yes, transformed the received idea that diners could be properly hosted only in a Frigidaire.

I can hardly bear the thought of the past, the spirit of the possible. You choose. Now these new places of leisure let it all happen. The serious tone of an office meeting trails along the barricades of possibility. The remains of croissants lie littered between folders. Cell phones square the baroque landscape of a feast enjoyed. Philosophers eye one another. Notes immediately disappear into computers, like diamonds. The discovery of truth. The waiters are young boys. Reading the cards. The perpetual coming and going of hurried guests, like swallows.

At any time of day the cafè is the room for you. Abandon the cold street for the sake of myriad possibilities, and discover the true design, the face without a mask, the flawless heart, family of man.

The internet cafe is an anomaly. An anti-cafe, really, where you exchange your thoughts with your Apple robot. But the word cafe hangs from its tail! I go inside, walk past the neon-faced, sit down in comfort, and attack my iPhone for enlightenment.

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