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Coffee with culture

Way back in 1674, the Women’s Petition against Coffee sought to prohibit men under 30 drinking the drying, enfeebling liquor. Coffee led men to waste their time, spending their money on a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water. A Prince of Spain once passed a law that men should not repeat the grand kindness to their wives, above nine times a night. Yes, nine times a night! But with the advent of coffee, men apparently were no longer capable of performing those devoirs which their duty and our expectations exact.Coffee, it would appear, far from being the stimulant it is today, actually hampered a man’s performance in bed.

Perhaps, though, it was men’s absence from the marital bed that hindered their performance. Perhaps it was because men chose to spend their time in coffee houses, which as well as places to drink and meet, were sites of political discussion, literary review, and late-night high-brow chat. The Spectator magazine was founded in a coffee house. Lloyds of London began life in one. They were cultural places to plot, discuss, and argue…

Hot gossip and grand designs

Coffee kick starts the day, focuses the mind, and readies the body for action. It witnesses the highs and lows of daily living. It’s party to hot gossip, innermost secrets, vengeful plans, and grand designs. It’s a perfect partner in solitude. The world is put to rights by someone, somewhere, every minute of the day as they take the time to sink into a comfy chair and sip their way to sanity. Is there a nicer way to start the day than with a classic Americano, its dark black sheen in stark contrast to the white ceramic cup? Is there a more relaxing mid-morning interlude than a frothy cappuccino that oozes opulence? Is there a better pick-me-up than the liquid gold of an afternoon espresso? And where better to enjoy this simple pleasure than in Budapest, with its tree-lined streets and pavement cafés.

Whether you prefer the old-world luxury of the Centrál kávéház or the retro feel of Ibolya on Ferenciek tere, both offer a refuge from the teeming masses. They are oases of calm in a city that is becoming increasingly westernised, with manic materialism and sterile sameness the order of the day. A little further up the road, Bali Café on Károly körút, contends with the heavyweights Costa Coffee and Coffee Heaven. These international chains are sucking the lifeblood from the city. Budapest’s laid-back café culture will soon be enjoyed only by tourists and those diehards who want to preserve the sanctity of a cup of coffee. The rest of the city, the harried workers and those too busy to stop and smell the coffee beans roasting are being slowly annihilated by ‘the enemy’-  a paper coffee cup, aka coffee-to-go.

Starry-eyed in Starbucks

All week, I’ve heard people talk about the new Starbucks in WestEnd; how exciting it is to have the world’s most famous coffee chain come to Budapest. In some people’s minds it seems to show that the city has arrived.  How short-sighted, I say. It is but the beginning of the end. In my mind, Starbucks and its ilk are responsible for the homogenisation of the world’s coffee culture, destroying individualism, wiping local joints off the table and replacing them with carbon-copy cut-outs. Those cardboard cups with their plastic lids hold within their simple design a force of destruction more powerful than any legislated social change. Like Tesco’s, McDonald’s and other mass-produced industrial landmarks, Starbucks is soulless, another extension of our fast food culture, which is completely counter-cultural to what coffee houses were founded to do.

I moved east because I wanted to get away from the mass consumerism that has engulfed the so-called western world. I wanted to disassociate myself from that throwaway culture, where everyone and everything is moving at an increasingly faster pace and the common chorus screams ‘I don’t have time’. I wanted to go some place where it was normal to sit and dissect the world over a cup of coffee, or simply smoke a cigarette and read a book or newspaper, while enjoying the bittersweet taste, senses undisturbed by bland uniformity. I wanted some place where I could drink in a little atmosphere along with a shot of caffeine, places like District V’s Csendes or District VIII’s Csiga.

Back in 1674, women were ready to ban coffee to preserve the grand kindness that men should do their wives. Me, I’d swap that grand kindness for the simple, pure taste of a dupla cappuccino from Café Alibi on Egyetem tér, with its caramel-and-chocolate-syrup butterfly painstakingly hand-drawn in the froth. This is feeding neither a physical dependency nor an addiction. It is a coffee unspoiled by commercialism; a coffee with culture.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 July 2010

Butterflies, tigers and Budapest bars

Art is making something out of nothing and selling it… or so said the legendary Frank Zappa…and I think he said it after one of his trips to Budapest. Whether it be the light features made from empty wine bottles in Köleves, the seats made from old bathtubs in Szimpla kert, or the complete interior remake from someone else’s trash in Csendes, the Hungarian ability to make something from nothing is artistic simplicity at its best.

I had the (mis)fortune to be in Alaska when the Celtic Tiger took up residence in Ireland. Happily ensconced in my log cabin, hundreds of miles from the nearest city, I was quite oblivious to its antics. Ireland had practically full employment; GDP was growing in double digits on a yearly basis; and for the first time in living memory, emigrants were returning in their droves. And I missed it all. While I was living off Copper River reds, frying up moose-burgers and chewing my way through last-season’s caribou jerky, Ireland was wining and dining in Michelin-starred restaurants, gorging herself on oysters and caviar, and becoming all too familiar with Dom Perignon and Ms Bollinger. And I was happy for her. Her day had come.

Pubs with soul

Before the Celtic Tiger was born, you could find pubs in Dublin where floors were covered in sawdust and used as ashtrays; where granny’s hand-crocheted anti-macassars decorated flea-ridden sofas whose patterns had long since faded into oblivion; where grandfather clocks signaled closing time. Pubs where musicians on their fiddles and tin whistles and bodhráns lulled us merry punters into a happy melancholy, providing a soundtrack for the heady Guinness-fuelled opinionating on everything from the state of world politics to the odds of Dublin winning yet another All-Ireland final. Pubs where elderly couples sat in companionable silence, having said all there was to say and the boys in the back played the odd hand or two of cards for a few quid to carry them over till payday. Back in the day, before the Celtic Tiger, pubs in Ireland’s capital had soul.

Everything measured, everything matched

But as the Celtic Tiger grew into an all consuming monster, the slow death of tradition began. I know we welcomed it with open arms…and who could blame us? After so many years of playing second fiddle to other EU states, it was time we had our turn on the world’s stage, and we relished it. But at what cost? Old pub interiors were gutted and replaced with shiny new wood and brass fittings. Quirkiness was replaced with more of the same. Designer candles took centre table. Cocktail menus offered screaming orgasms, sex on the beach and long slow comfortable screws up against the wall. Everything was measured; everything matched. Yes, the price of a pint had gone through the roof but sadder still, that witty deconstruction of the week’s events had been replaced by a dreary discourse on the price of property. With the smoking ban in place, smirting (smoking and flirting) outside in the freezing cold was nonetheless much better craic than staying indoors to be browbeaten by loud piped music and tales of killings made on the stock exchange.

A Magyar tigris

I moved to Budapest for many reasons and for no particular reason at all. Perhaps I was hoping to get in on the földszint of what I was sure was going to become another European success story. To see first-hand what happens when EU money swells the coffers of a relatively impoverished nation; when foreign investment wipes out unemployment; when talented emigrants return to the fold bringing with them a new perspective; when non-nationals flood to the country, armed with exotic languages and spicy foods. But now, two years later, there’s ne’er a sniff of a Magyar tigris. The only black and orange creature I’ve seen here is a butterfly. And when I sit in one of the many ruin pubs in Budapest, I give silent thanks.

I dare not say aloud what I am thinking. Selfishly, I want the bars in Budapest to stay as they are. The collection of random furniture; the smoke-filled rooms alive with animated, intelligent conversation where music accompanies thought rather than drowns it out; long tables scattered with half-smoked boxes of cigarettes and novels in many languages; people moving effortlessly from Hungarian to English to German so that everyone is included in the conversation, the toe-tapping beat of gypsy jazz. Nothing matching; nothing measured; everything unique.

And then I look across the road and see the shiny modern interior of a new pub through huge, brightly lit windows…and the smudge on the glass looks remarkably like a paw print.

This article was first published in the Budapest Times 12 October 2009