As I settled into the cold iron seat resting lopsided on the uneven sidewalk, I sighed heavily — a release of the stresses from travel mixed with the exhilaration of my first morning in Paris. I love mornings everywhere, in any city. There’s always a quiet buzz, a certain energy still anchored by sleepiness. It’s a transition period; we are waking from our slumber, adjusting to the bright light of the sun, breathing in air consciously and deliberately. I hadn’t spoken French in a few years, and anxiety crept in as the waitress approached my tiny bistro table. ”Que préférez-vous, mademoiselle??” she asked. ”Un cafe crème, s’il vous-plaît,” I replied, hoping my American accent wasn’t obvious.
The sidewalk café in Paris is a universal meeting place. Found on nearly every street corner, sometimes three or four in a row are adjoined, all equally boisterous, full of tourists and locals. The only criteria, it seems, is that there’s a table available. People are seldom alone (though there are few single patrons, like me), and the entire experience is intimate. The tables are mere inches apart from each other, the groups sit closely, leaning in, lost in conversation.
The café is literally part of the sidewalk, one feels connected to the rhythm of the city. Tables litter the path of pedestrians: people walking to and from somewhere, entering and exiting the metro, in and out of the cafe. Though transient — new patrons fill freshly opened tables immediately — the cafe is a place where one may stay for an hour, longer. There is no rush, no limit to the conversation, no haste in time spent with those accompanying you.
As a writer who seeks good coffee for a living, and relishes her morning coffee the most, I found this cafe experience to be a conundrum. The time spent was rich and rewarding, yet the coffee, far from. I expected this, as I’ve been to Paris before. And I’ve talked to many Parisians who acknowledge this, too. The coffee in Paris simply isn’t very good. Most brew low-grade beans, usually ground days, perhaps weeks before, prepared in automatic machines.
Recently, a handful of specialty coffee shops have popped up in Paris. Skilled baristas, quality roasted coffee, and beautifully designed spaces are growing, connecting those who love coffee in one of the most culinary cities in the world. Yet as soon as my plane lands in Paris, all I can think of is sitting at a sidewalk café, a notebook in one hand, and a cup of bad coffee in the other.
Paris is where many of my favorite writers drew inspiration before me, and Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Flanner all wrote at cafés still standing today (perhaps nursing a cafe crème, I imagine). Rarely, one’s environment may outweigh good coffee; in this case, it’s the people that fill those iron seats, past and present, who truly have my attention.
Nearly every street corner of Paris is occupied by a typically vibrant sidewalk cafe, packed with Parisians sipping cafe crèmes and espresso; the image is chic, beautiful, and simply, Parisian. Yet the coffee contained in the delicate china cups patrons sip from is an entirely different story; the coffee is, frankly, bad (Oliver Strand from the New York times wrote about coffee in Paris “sucking” a few years ago, which set off a firestorm of sorts). Even my fifteen-year-old Starbucks-drinking self, nearly eleven years ago, was not impressed by the coffee I was imbibing (though still consumed in copious amounts).
Parisians are often the first to admit, their beans are generally robusta, pre-ground and presented as an unidentified blend. Yet a new wave of specialty coffee is slowly taking hold in Paris, with an awareness of sourcing, roasting, and preparation. Of this handful of cafes, a favorite is Télescope Café.
Located on a Rue Villedon, a tiny side street near Le Palais Royal, owners Nicolas Clerc and David Flynn came together in hopes of revolutionizing the Paris coffee scene. Clerc, a photographer, fell into the coffee business when asked to photograph for an article about coffee in Paris. “At the time I didn’t know there was any interest in coffee,” Clerc explained. “When I understood what it was about, and how amazing it could taste, it quickly became an addiction, and a passion.” Clerc trained at the highly respected (and oldest of Parisian specialty coffee establishments) Caféotheque. While there, he met Flynn, who has honed his skills in the states, at coffeehouse standouts like Peregrine and Murky Coffee in DC.
“Paris was drastically missing a coffee shop the way we intended it,” and their intention is arguably modern, with a rustic flair. The space is tiny, minimalist, white and airy. The palate of sky blue and white creates an ethereal, peaceful energy — like a sunny Sunday afternoon. The menu is succinct, offering a few baked goods and afternoon snacks, as the focus is undoubtedly on the coffee.
Télescope roasts their own beans as well, and the barista prepared a cafe filtre, via the Kalita Wave (a kind of pour over with a flat bottom) of my current favorite, a Kenyan Nyeri. It was perfectly roasted: fruity, deep, and sweet.
As for the future of coffee in Paris, Clerc thinks something is percolating. “We have the feeling that something is happening, by doing things the way we want,” he says. “People are following up, you know, like when Forest Gump started running.”
The Short North neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, once home to abandoned factories and high crime rates, has become a trendy arched district of boutiques and restaurants, particularly blossoming in the past decade. The gentrification would not be complete without a specialty coffee shop or two; one of these shops is Impero, a three year old cafe and roastery located on the main thoroughfare of North High Street.
And though their pourovers and cold-brews are delicious, one particular drink stands out: the espresso and cream-laced John Wayne.
Indicative of it’s namesake, this delicately crafted drink is taken all at once, in one shot. The contrast of hot and cold, sweet and strong, coupled with a dose of caffeine, makes it go down smooth; yet once imbibed, it’ll kick you from behind, in a good way.
Poured slowly and deliberately, the John Wayne is comprised of one’s choice of flavored syrup, a band of half and half, and topped with freshly pulled espresso — all suspended above each other like oil and water. Toss it back, and off to the races one goes.
In the ever-rushed, coffee-to-go culture of New York City, specialty coffee shops have managed to convince city dwellers that macchiatos taste better from ceramic cups, and a one minute pause can make a world of difference in one’s day.
Blue Bottle Coffee is pushing the city a moment further with their intimate siphon bar on the second floor of the recently opened Chelsea location.
Unlike the Williamsburg cafe, located in an airy, rustic garage, the Chelsea location is sleek and tiny, neighbor to posh Milk Studios, and a stone’s throw from the West Side Highway along the Hudson River. The baristas are clothed in matching chambray shirts and leather chuck tailors. Somehow, it just seems more Manhattan.
One hazy summer morning I voyaged through the West Village’s cobblestone streets up to the Chelsea cafe. Upstairs, I met barista Mac Malikowski, who was beginning to dial in the coffee for the day. The siphon bar was designed as “an homage to the intimate coffee bars of Tokyo,” the roaster’s website reads, and intimate it is. Six seats to one barista promotes conversation, with a ceremonial preparation and serving aesthetic that borders on beautiful.
Created in 19th century Germany, the siphon brews via vacuum pressure (for brewing science, read about my siphon experience in Portugal, here.) It has a relatively short brewing time of one minute. Malikowski described the siphon as a sort of hybrid of many different brewing technniques: “it’s a full immersion process, without sediment, with a cotton filter and vacuum suction. And heat is being applied the entire process;” a unique experience unlike any other brewing process.
It’s “the best of that bean, the superlative,” he continued, “don’t expect to overpower the palate.” Culturally, third-wavers have been interested in high dosing for a rich, full bodied cup. The siphon, as Malikoswki explained, allows one to step back, to enjoy a delicate, clean, tea-like brew.
Mac began to brew a washed Ethiopian Amaro Gayo on the siphon; it tasted of berries and bourbon, with a dark chocolate finish. A cup of cascara tea — tea made from the discarded skin of the coffee cherry — was served to cleanse the palate, alongside a bourbon infused marshmallow. Second, he brewed a Rwandan, the siphon bringing out flavors of hibiscus tea.
While at the bar, one may also order a cup from the Nel, which brews via flannel filter; this brewing method extracts a completely different flavor profile from the bean, a much denser cup. Mac expressed his love of cold-brew coffee, and his propensity to drink it year round; yet for those super cold days where one can’t bear anything iced, he prepared a “warm-brew” of a Mixed Natural Brazilian. The recipe, from Blue Bottle founder James Freeman, takes elements of cold brew — a higher concentrate of coffee, a longer brewing time, and cooler water temperatures — to mimic the syrupy, rich flavor of the iced version.
And though most may still find it hard to sit long enough to enjoy it, the siphon bar at Blue Bottle is truly a coffee experience. As Rachel Bleiweiss-Sande, manager of the Chelsea cafe hopes, “everyone thinks of coffee as cluttered cafes. We want to create an aura, a respectful way of drinking coffee.”
And as Bleiweiss-Sande wondered aloud, “people are willing to slow down for lunch, why not for coffee?” I peered at the cluster of people packing into Chelsea Market, and couldn’t agree more.
Cumberland Island, Georgia may be the most magical place on earth. Only accessible by boat from Amelia Island, Florida, the island is 19,000 acres of beach and maritime forest. Dirt “roads” lead one to mansions built by prominent American families, one burnt to the ground in the ’60s remains as “ruins.” One such mansion is now the Greyfield Inn, built by Thomas Carnegie for his daughter, Margaret. The original furniture still furnishes the house today, the library is full of old books that they read. Outside the window, feral horses graze the grounds, and further in the forest alligators roam the marshes. The bike ride to the beach is like a tunnel through tangled oak trees and spanish moss; the beach remains completely undeveloped — not one home, hotel, and sometimes, no other person, obscures the natural coastline.
The “main” road through the island is a dirt path which has survived from the Revolutionary War. I rode along this relic of a road in the back of a pick-up truck, weaving through the forest at 60 mph. Those of us in the back had to duck (often unsuccessfully) from large tree branches that could take off our heads.
Freed African slaves set up a settlement in the middle of the forest, and the first African Baptist Church, built in 1893, still stands today. To walk inside is both spiritual and surreal, an old Bible was turned to the book Jeremiah, the original floors creaking under each step. It’s the famous sight where John F. Kennedy Jr. married his beautiful blonde bride, Carolyn Bessette.
It’s a place of no television sets, no cell phone service, and hardly a car. It’s a place of spiritual growth and relaxation, a place I look forward to returning often.
I’m about to reveal a secret; one that I usually don’t proclaim publicly, but that always surfaces due to the nature of it’s frequency. I’m deathly afraid of airplanes. Terrified, even. Or I was, rather.
The ironic thing is that I fly more than anyone I know. I fly at least four times a month, mostly more. Between my work, my long distance relationship, and my family, I’m in an airplane a lot. This would mean my phobia pretty much nestles itself into my daily routine, as the anxiety usually kicks in two weeks before a flight, leaving only sporadic days where I’m happy to know I’ll be blissfully and indefinitely on the ground — only for the cycle to begin again.
Flying was always a death sentence for me, in my irrational mind. Statistics? Bullocks. I didn’t care if there was a one-in-a-gazillion chance, the fear illogically assumed, this is that one flight. All rationale flew (no pun intended) out the window when I boarded an airplane, as did my shame. There were times the pilot was called out of the cockpit to console me, as flight attendants were wiping tears from my screaming face. I’ve made hundreds of (perhaps unwilling) friendships on airplanes, since when one sits next to me, he or she becomes my unsuspecting caregiver for the day.
Since my number one passion is travel, I’ve been hellbent on kicking this exhausting phobic behavior. I’ve been hypnotized nearly ten times, visited therapists, acupuncturists, and monks, and signed up for countless classes that promised to cure me. Hundreds, if not more, dollars were spent. And yet, every time I stepped foot in that tiny airborne tube, I was certain that it would become my coffin.
I pondered and analyzed my own fear immensely. Was I doomed to have this fear forever? I couldn’t bear it any longer, it was certainly getting in the way of my life. The psychoanalyst in me realized there was something lurking deeper: control. I’m not a controlling person, by any means, but for some reason, in this machine barreling towards the atmosphere at 500 miles per hour, I felt completely out of control.
Maybe if I learned to fly the plane, if I felt in control of the process, I’d feel better? I wondered this for a few years. But flying a plane seemed nearly as irrational as the phobia; it seemed, frankly, impossible. As they say, “when pigs can fly.” And they can’t, so I won’t.
Yet after a horrendous bumpy flight in which I nearly ripped the armrest off its post, (and terrified my helpless travel companions), I decided it was worth a shot. A quick google search later I found a flight academy in Ronkonkoma, Long Island; without much thought, I booked an introductory flight at Heritage Flight Academy. I had nothing to lose.
I arrived a little early, nervous as the dickens; this tiny two-seater prop plane was like my worst nightmare incarnate. Yet I was over an hour outside the city and couldn’t turn back now. My instructor, Matt, was a young man who seemed pretty nonchalant about the whole flying thing. After a quick overview of the flight pattern we’d be flying, we were walking outside to board the plane.
“You do this all the time, right?” I think I asked Matt twenty-five times. He’s logged over 600 training hours, flew a commercial jet for a few years, and takes people up nearly five times a day. As I said before, statistics-schmistics; my apprehension only worsened.
After an extensive overview of the safety checklist, we spent a good fifteen minutes inspecting all aspects of the plane — much to my delight. Everything seemed to be working fine, on the ground, yet I wasn’t quite certain this tiny thing could make it off land.
After some air-traffic control communicating and a bit of delay, we headed towards the runway and began take-off. We lifted off the ground and it felt like a sailboat in the air; the plane bobbed around through waves of wind.
I screamed profanities at my poor instructor, yet his smile and ease made me relax a bit. The view was spectacular and Matt looked as if he were driving a car, completely in-sync with the machine and instinctively guiding the plane up to 2,500 feet. We headed towards the water, practice air space for our plane to roam free.
As we got over the water Matt asked me if I wanted to fly. I had told him prior to the flight that I wouldn’t be touching anything, knowing my spasms might switch a major button or accidentally nose dive us into the land below. Yet in that moment, after much assurance from Matt that there was practically nothing I could do to bring this plane down, I grabbed the wheel and began my first turn. Pulling the nose up every so slightly (as told), I made circles above the water. Matt threw his hands up, to reiterate that I was, indeed, flying this airplane.
He explained that the plane was inherently balanced. It will always finds its equilibrium. If one is turning the wheel, and lets go, the plane finds its center once more; if one raises the nose, and releases, the plane levels off immediately. It’s engineered as such. A machine that once seemed so frighteningly silly to me, is actually a brilliant and wonderful (and safe!) invention.
After guiding the plane in circles around the water, our forty-five minutes came to a close in what felt like a minute. I turned the plane towards the runway, in which Matt took over to land back at the airport.
I exited the plane buzzing with excitement and adrenaline. But more than anything, I was happy — peaceful, even. I felt this overwhelming trust for aviation, for that little propellor plane, and for the pilots trained to navigate these things — something that I could never say before. Airplanes are intelligent, intuitive, and meant to be in the air; what a breakthrough for someone who thought them to be her final resting place. It was a priceless experience, $129 well spent — if I could only get a refund from all those therapy sessions.
I can’t wait to continue onward with flight training, since now I’m working towards my pilot’s license. In other words, pigs still can’t fly– but I apparently can.
Donkey Coffee, 17 1/2 W Washington Street Athens, OH 45701
Athens is the epitome of the college town, fraught with once stately – now dilapidated – grande houses adorned with various greek lettering; winding paths through greenery and 19th century brick facades full of college kids proudly wearing their future alma mater on sweatshirts, t-shirts, and flip-flops. It’s definitely “college,” through and through. But with a closer look, the small town of Athens boasts a vibrant local culture and an arts community. And there’s something about a college campus — the diversity of the student body, the youthful optimism of possibility, learning and sharing of ideas — that can be inspiring.
My fiance is a medical student at the university, so I have begun to split my time between New York City and Athens; going from the big city to a small college town never ceases to shock the senses, but the long drives through wide open spaces and green fields are something I look forward to each month. Naturally, I gravitated towards the town’s coffee shop, spending long days writing and drinking coffee while my fiance was off learning about bones and such. Donkey Coffee has become my haven in Athens.
I met with owner Chris Pyle in his eclectic office; located on the top floor of the cafe, it’s more a museum of his extensive music collection and paraphernalia — record players, amps, posters and vinyls in every direction. The idea for Donkey Coffee came about nearly twenty years ago, born out of Pyle’s love for community, social justice, art, and music, more so than coffee; “I wasn’t really into coffee then, but I was excited about the idea of the coffee shop,” he told me. “I like the idea of people in the community, working through issues of the day.” A stint after college as a missionary echoes his passion for community and social change, something which pervades every aspect of the cafe. Music is also clearly important to the Donkey community, fostered by Chris himself. There’s always a new band in rotation, and the cafe doubles as a performance space.
Chris’s wife Angie is the real “coffee connoisseur” of the cafe-owning duo. Together, they carefully chose a coffee roaster that reflected their values and worldview; Dean’s Beans, based out of Massachusetts, is “more of an activist than coffee roaster,” Chris explained. “We’re not just selling widgets. We’re selling something that we believe in, something that changes lives,” he says of the fair-trade beans they sell in-house, as well as their ethically made t-shirts and mugs. A tiny room separating two larger seating areas is full of flyers, stickers, and posters for various social causes; they call it the “justice room.” A poster reads: “We are the 99%.”
Pyle says that while he likes coffee, he loves running a coffee shop. His self-proclaimed inability to multitask keeps him away from the bar during busy hours, but he hires and trains baristas who clearly know what they are doing, and are consistently open to learning and growing in their craft. The menu features cortados and cafe cubanos, well-made cappuccinos, and single-cup immersions a well as drip-coffee.
Donkey celebrated their 10th anniversary with some new renovations: an updated espresso machine, outdoor patio space, and renovated upstairs apartments for rent. “I’m exhausted,” Chris tell me of this past year. And though he plans on a year of rest (he and Angie are also parents of two), his ideas for the future of the coffee shop are ever-evolving. “We never want to be snobby ,” he says of their coffee ethos — so much so that it’s in the Donkey manual; “there’s a huge difference between a music geek and a snob,” he says, and the same goes for coffee.
Two-stories large, multiple rooms, plush couches and outlets at every corner make Donkey the perfect college coffee shop. A staple in the community, local art adorns the walls, and locals sit amongst college kids and professors, all brought together by well-made coffee and good music. The cafe represents the idea that progressive ideas and great coffee can be found anywhere, even in an unassuming university town in Ohio.
Because, as Chris told me, “What it means to love each other in the community, is just as important as making a cup of coffee.”
Lovely video of Donkey, staff and owner Chris Pyle here.