European Café Culture

Although the weather in Germany limits sitting outdoors with a cup of coffee, a surprising number of sidewalk cafés do a brisk business between April and November. The latitude in the southern state of Bavaria is at the same chilly level as Newfoundland but that does not stop hardy Germans from enjoying their outdoor ice café or espresso or cappuccino. As the temperature drops café owners offer blankets to keep clients warm. That would be a welcomed perk for the homeless at Starbucks on chilly mornings in Florida.

I am an addicted coffee drinker, especially in company with a good book or a writing inspiration. Germany’s many cafés satisfy this itch. The coffee culture is much older in Europe than in the United States. However, American coffee chains are making steady inroads with their culture of self-service and “coffee to go.”

On the well-traveled sidewalks, there are numerous cafés on each block, sometimes adjoining each other with the distinction between one café and another marked by the color of the seat cushions or overhead umbrellas. The umbrellas are huge, generally shielding a group of tables to protect the white-skinned natives. Customers seem to have their favorite café and favorite times. I am always surprised at how busy cafés are at any time during the day and ask myself why these people aren’t working. Unlike a typical American Starbucks scene, none of the customers has a laptop open or appears to be reading an office or school document.

Another big difference is in the service culture. Waiters always serve coffee and always in a cup and saucer. No one gets their own coffee and never in a mug or, heaven forbid, a paper cup with a plastic cover. Once served, the waiter disappears never to come back to the table unless called. The keep-them-moving culture of waiters repeatedly asking if there is anything else they can get you, while hoping for a tip, a quick exit, and the next customer, is unheard of in Bavaria.

I have two favorite café times. In the mornings, I go to a bakery and have an American-styled coffee―weak by espresso standards―with a freshly baked pastry. In the afternoon, I go to an Italian café specializing in cappuccinos, various ice drinks, and gelatos. Surprisingly, after doing business with these shops for several years and being served by the same waitresses, there is never a smile or sign of recognition. It’s all business. By contrast, the barista at a Starbucks near my marina frequently greet me after a six-month absence with a smile, “Hey, where you been? Tall Pike, right?”

There are a few other café differences between Florida and my Bavarian village. For example, napkins are scarce or too small and non-absorbing to be useful. The concept of a refill is unknown. If you want more coffee, you buy another order. Although there are many senior citizens like me at the cafés, there are no senior discounts. And, no wonder, German senior citizens tend to be the affluent set, having made their money during Germany’s spectacular post-war recovery. They are not viewed as seniors gobbling up the Social Security funds of younger generations.

I should point out that while I am enjoying my coffee addiction, plenty of customers are ordering beer (a.k.a. liquid bread in Bavaria), even at breakfast time. In the outdoor seating area almost everyone is smoking―an irony in a country that prides itself on a high standard of living and worships a green environment.

My corner office

Aside from the half dozen village cafés another of my favorite coffee venues is McCafé at a Munich shopping mall. Here the scene is indistinguishable from McD’s in the United States, except for the many European languages wafting over my table. Still, there are no senior discounts but there is a prominent sign “auch ToGo.” The price is also about twice the US price. Maybe it is time to update the Big Mac Index, made popular by The Economist, with the McCafé index.

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