Hi pressure steam hisses, glasses clink, voices murmur, each adding their own notes to the French jazz playing over the speakers. I sit back with a grin and a bowl of cafe au lait, content to stop racing around the streets of Soho and be transported back to my previous life.
Its been five years since I returned to live in the country of my birth after a ten year absence. I spent my entire twenties living in Europe and my return has been dotted with visits to work in Paris, Beirut, and more recently Afghanistan. I decided to move back to the States on the condition that I could move to the mountains. I love the laid back lifestyle of mountain living. Globally minded communities with small town neighborhoods. No need for wearing make up and the abundance of hats means I can leave the house without using a mirror – something not advisable in Paris and Beirut. I have incredible views everywhere I look. I run and bike endless trails that crisscross the mountains that surround the town.
But my little mountain town is missing something integral to my happiness, and the Balthazar makes me acutely aware of that void. Espresso. The common thread that weaves through all the places I’ve called home since age nineteen is espresso. Creamy, rich, caramel colored espresso. It is at the heart of many of my best memories. As someone who links her travel memories and nostalgia to the tastes and smells of the food around her, espresso is the only constant.
I remember the thinnest pizza margherita in the hole in the wall in Rome, the freshly breaded Jagerschnitzel and pomme frites at the little hut at the top of the tobaggon run in Austria, the chewiest brioche au chocolate in my neighborhood bakery in Paris, the steak and ale pie with homemade crust in the village pub outside Coventry, and the first time I tried sushi in Amsterdam, the risotto nero turned black from squid ink in Croatia, and the falafal stand I stopped at on my to work every day in Beirut.
I’m notorious for ordering the same thing at a particular restaurant, once I find a favorite I stick to it – and looking back it probably works to solidify my memories. My best girlfriend in Darmstadt still emails me to remind me of our evening strolls together to my neighborhood turkish kebab shop despite neither of us having lived there for six years. This is a kebab shop I snuck out of a hospital to visit when I was desperate for some real food (luckily for me the hospital was only three blocks away). I returned to visit Darmstadt three years after I had moved to the States to visit old friends. I arrived into town at 11pm and the first thing I did was drop my luggage and walk into town – making a beeline for the kebab shop. It was the same guys working the counter when I lived there and when they saw me, they placed my kebab order as if I had never left.
Yet despite all these tastes and memories that transport me back to my favorite places, or perhaps helped create my favorite places in the first place, espresso was the one thing that was enjoyed in nearly every city, town, and village I’ve visited. Espresso, cafe au lait, cappuchino, latte…each drink signifies slowing down and the enjoyment that comes from just sitting, watching, and taking in a place. I found enjoyment in my own company when I moved to Europe and discovered the contentment of sitting alone in a coffee house reading the paper or simply watching the world pass by. Its something I’ve never outgrown and even now, given a choice, I’ll spend my free time with the New York Times and a coffee in a cozy coffee joint with a view to the world outside. A morning stroll to a coffee shop to linger over a giant bowl of cafe au lait is pure heaven!
The Balthazar brings that all back. The whole deal – the smells, the sounds, the taste. I’m transported back to every delicious cup of goodness I’ve enjoyed. Foreign cities. Strange languages. Meaningful conversations. The fact is, whether its the lack of patience, the lack of knowledge, the lack of desire, or simply the lack of oxygen – I’ve yet to have the creamy, bliss in a bowl, coffee experience in my entire five years of mountain living. You will still find me at the coffee shop, but now its more for the atmosphere and the community connection than for the actual enjoyment of the caffeinated beverage itself. For THAT, I need the Balthazar.
photo by Christian Ghammachi