A coffee addict in Prague

09-07-2006

Coffee is just one of those things that North Americans and Europeans will never agree on. Both claim to be the originators of contemporary coffee culture. Europe has been importing and serving it in its cafes since the 16th century; however, it was probably the mass coffee shop chains of North America that made the activity of "going out for coffee" a part of the everyman's daily routine and a form of entertainment as commonplace as going to the movies. The only thing that both cultures do agree on, it seems, is that coffee is delicious.

Being a self-proclaimed coffee addict, one of my first missions upon arriving in the Czech Republic was to find the best cup of coffee this country has to offer. I wasn't disappointed. There are plenty of excellent places to meet for coffee in Prague, or to just enjoy a quiet afternoon people-watching or reading a good book while sipping a cappuccino. But I must admit that coffee culture in Prague takes some getting used to as a North American. As John Travolta's character in Pulp Fiction says, "it's the little differences."

The first striking difference is the relative absence of takeaway coffee, although you will occasionally see signs advertising coffee to go, or "s sebou" (literally, "with you"). Coffee in Prague is generally a sit-down affair, something you indulge in during your free time. You won't see long lines out the door of the coffee shop first thing in the morning as people are headed to work, unable to start their day without a jolt of caffeine. If it's a pick-me-up you are in need of, it's provided by the vending machine down the hall in most offices and workplaces.

The next visible difference is the size. I've heard more than one Czech scoff at the buckets of coffee North Americans guzzle on a daily basis, while most North Americans would grumble about the thimble-sized cups of espresso that are standard fare here. It's probably better for my digestive system in the long run, but sometimes even a triple espresso isn't enough to satisfy me after years of Grandes and Ventis - medium and large, for those not accustomed to Starbucks-speak.

The ordering process is a completely different affair. A "regular coffee", let alone a "double double", won't mean much to the average barista here, since filtered coffee is a rare breed to begin with. If you are the kind of coffee drinker who likes to add milk, as I am, remember to order it separately, since it's usually not included and a condiment truck is nowhere to be found. And always, always clearly specify that you want to take your coffee to go if the option is available, unless you want to make a sworn enemy of the server who has unnecessarily dirtied a cup.

The best rule of thumb is to keep it simple: no Kafkaesque orders, along the lines of "I'll have a medium half-caf, half decaf, non-fat latte, extra hot, in a large cup with a shot of mocha." Café employees should be thankful that the phenomenon of idiosyncratic coffee modifications hasn't quite reached Prague yet.

But there are signs that coffee culture is changing in the Czech capital, even if the traditional sit-down café isn't going out of style any time soon. The few Western-style coffee shops, with their flavoured coffees and oversized paper cups, are certainly more appealing to foreign tourists than natives, but I have seen the odd Czech strolling down the street with a latte in tow.

It's hard to say who has the right idea. While I must admit I do love the freedom to pick up a coffee on my way from point A to point B, it is nice every now and then to really belabour the experience. Not to mention, it pains me to think of the millions of paper cups and plastic lids that are thrown away each day across North America. Maybe both cultures have something to learn from one another, after all.

09-07-2006