Archive for December 3rd, 2008

Beer, Coffee, and Travel

After I returned from a year studying in Italy I learned the lesson all travel lovers learn.  First, the travel experience is so rewarding and meaningful to ones’ life that one wants to talk about it a lot.  Second, unless one is talking to a ‘fellow traveler’ all the talk of foreign destinations and different customs can be annoying to others.  It can sound snobbish, “well, in Italy I was at a cafe along the Venetian canal when…”   We don’t mean to sound that way, it’s just that it’s hard not to talk about travel experiences, they change lives and perspectives.

However, in terms of beer and coffee, travel has turned me to a snob.   I don’t like American beers or American style coffee.   I’ll drink coffee for the caffeine here, but I get little taste satisfaction from the experience.  Except for rare occasions I’ll just forego beer and go for wine instead.

Today I stopped by a local convenience store, Ron’s Market, because someone said it had a good selection of beers.  I’ve driven by it many times, but it’s not close to where I live and looked like just another of those dime a dozen convenience stores.  I walked in and headed to the beer section.  Whoa!  I could not believe my eyes, they had Schneider Weisse, a Munich wheat beer that has since 1983 been my favorite beer in the world.   They also had other Weissbiere (wheat beers): Ayinger and Franziskaner, both quality beers, but it’s rare to find Schneider Weisse here in the US.  They had two.   I bought two.  And I told the woman at the register that if they keep getting that brand, they’ll have me as a loyal customer.   To be sure, at $4 a bottle it may be only one or two a week.  But what a treat!

Tastes are interesting things.  There can, of course, be no “best” beer, coffee or pasta sauce.  People like different tastes, smells and textures.  Moreover, taste can also connect to emotion.   Back when I visited my pen pal Gabi in Eichstätt, Bavaria (coming up from Bologna, Italy, where I was studying) I made a lot of friends. I also was introduced to Hefe-Weizen, a Bavarian wheat beer or Weissbier which I loved immediately.  Unlike the bland American beers I was used to (my favorites had been “Old Style” and “Strohs”), it was rich, full, had a thick foamy head, and color was clouded by yeast sediment that gave the beer a yeasty taste and smell.  It was sweet, delicious, and in trying different brands I finally decided that Schneider Weisse, which I tried in Munich at the Schneider Weisse beer garden, was the best.

When I open a Weissbier I am transported back to Germany and that year when I was first discovering travel in foreign lands.  Before 1982 I had never been outside of the US except to skim through Canada on a spur of the moment college jaunt from Sioux Falls to New York City. Then after getting into the MA program at Johns Hopkins SAIS,with the first year in Bologna, Italy, I headed off alone to Europe, not really knowing what to expect.  I would learn new languages, new cultures, and new tastes.  Smell and the taste are more than an experience of the senses, it connects one with the past — I connect with the feelings and excitement I had that year in Europe.   When I drink a Weissbier, part of me is in the past, with friends in a beer garden; I can almost taste the Weisswurst and sausages that might go along with the experience.

American beers have no chance.  While other European beers — Oktoberfest beer, Pils, Kolsch, and some from outside Germany — are enjoyable, they all connect with my travels in some way.  They are special tastes, I’m not just drinking a beer, part of me is traveling.  But American beer?  If I can find an “Old Style” (not sold in Maine), I may connect with college, but otherwise, they’re just bland and sometimes refreshing.  But not really worth drinking much of — why have those empty calories?  So, I’m a beer snob.

The same goes with coffee.  All that year in Italy (where I actually lived) I drank espresso.  Now, in Italy espresso is the normal thing you get when you order coffee.  You don’t have an option for an American style of watery weak coffee.  You can have a latte (with hot milk) or cappacino (a breakfast coffee with frothed hot milk), and a few other variants (I like the macchiato, espresso with a drop of milk).  I’ve now done four travel courses to Italy, and we faculty who go on those really love espresso.

Again, it’s an experience.  When I smell espresso, and taste the rich coffee (with sugar), I’m back in Italy, at least a bit.  Espresso, contrary to popular belief, does not have more caffeine than a cup of American coffee.  Dark roasted coffees have less caffeine, and espresso is drunk in very small quantities — you’ll get a lot more of a caffeine buzz from your local Starbucks brew.  I do like other coffees.  When I traveled all too briefly to Greece and Turkey, I got hooked on Turkish coffee (which the Greeks, of course, call Greek coffee).  On flavor and taste, Turkish coffee beats Espresso.  But while I still remember being entranced by Istanbul in the brief four days there (a city I really want to revisit, though I think it’s doubled in size since I was there in 1985), Espresso and Italy are so deep in my memories and experience that when I think of coffee, I think of espresso first.

American coffee?  I’ll drink it for the caffeine if needed.  I can drink it cold, I can drink it old (my joke with the Provost’s AA after, to her horror, I once drank coffee that had been sitting and getting heavily concentrated all day, is that if I have meeting scheduled to just leave the coffee out all night so I can have day old coffee at the meeting).  It doesn’t matter because, well, it’s just bland American coffee.  And those who love Dunkin Donuts?  WHY?  (Yikes, that’s the snobby part coming out).  McDonalds coffee tastes weird to me.

For those Dunkin Donut coffee lovers out there thinking of avoiding travel so as not to lose your connection to your current favorite coffee, don’t worry.  Each person experiences travel differently and brings home some connection with another culture.  Italian gelato is another favorite (though I still love good old American Dairy Queen cones), German breads (yet I still love almost all kinds of bread), and Belgian chocolates top the list.  Travel changes a person because it alters perspective and gets you to look at the world differently.  The special tastes and connections we bring back, whether with coffee, food, or art, reflect our inner desire not to let go of that experience, to remain at least in part, a traveler.

So tonight, when my work (and work out) is done, I’ll relax.  I’ll get a tall Weissbier glass, and poor the Schneiderweisse slowly in, enjoying the smell and the look of my favorite beer.  Maybe I’ll put on a Udo Lindenberg or Konstantin Wecker CD, or perhaps a German film like Lola Rennt.  Maybe I’ll listen to the songs popular when I was there the first time: Nena’s 99 Luftballons, or Falco’s Der Kommissaer. But I’ll sip that beer, and part of me will be not only back in Germany, but back in time, remembering the emotions of those travels long ago.