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.

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  1. #1 by mike lovell on December 3, 2008 - 16:21

    When it comes to beer, it was a long time coming acquired taste. The ful flavored heavy beers go straight to my head, so Bud Light is plenty good enough for me. The wheat beers…..yucky! I took too long to even enjoy wheat bread growing up, I will not give wheat beers such a chance to take hold of me.
    My mom learned to cook after having me, and most foods were bland growing up, so maybe my tongue has learned to avoid culturally flavored foods, I don’t know…it irritates my wife when she’ll season something to her liking because it is often too strong for my taste buds.

    When it comes to coffee, I rather enjoy my watery American style coffee…literally loaded with enough sugar in each cup to put a diabetic into a coma. My wife and mom say it will catch up to me. My reply for the last 13 years is..WHEN? I used to have a Bosnian neighbor, and she usually had me over for coffee in the afternoons when I would help her fix something or move something heavy around. (Personally I think I was eye candy until she culd fnd a suitable well built Bosnian fellow, but oh well) It was a bit bitter at first, and I was forced to use the creamer (she had no sugar), but I got to the point of liking it, although not as much as my regular stuff.

    Call me the Anti-snob!!!

  2. #2 by Scott Erb on December 3, 2008 - 16:28

    LOL! Great comment. I used to tease my mom that I could see the bottom of the coffee cup, so now she makes coffee “extra strong” when I visit. But I want to put in a plug for a good German Hefe-Weizen. It’s a sweeter beer, not a bitter Pils, and most Americans like it. (And I still prefer white bread). When I first got to Italy I drank the coffee there (espresso) black, and the Italians grimaced and said no Italian would drink it without sugar. So I put quite a bit of sugar in mine (and then sometimes have a pile of sugar at the bottom that tastes really good to use the spoon to finish up). My family has a sweet tooth though — it’s so bad that Ryan, the five year old, turned heads when he loudly commanded me in the grocery store, “Daddy, go the aisle with the stuff that has the most sugar!”

  3. #3 by Eve on December 4, 2008 - 04:49

    Scott, I so identify with what you wrote about German beers. Being half German and having had a lot of exposure in and to the culture, of course I’m spoiled. Still, I hardly have the head or stomach for many German beers. American beers? Ugh.

    I was recenty offered the opportunity to go to Rome with my soon-to-be sister-in-law, a fashion designer. I have never been there and am SO excited! I’ll get a week in Rome at some luxury hotel close to everything. What do you advise for the first-time visitor? I will be on my own all day and can hardly wait. The trip will be in September so I have some time to plan. Thoughts?

  4. #4 by Eve on December 4, 2008 - 04:49

    P.S. And the very idea of a travel/educational trip to Italy… well, just wow. May I sign up as a student? I will be quiet as a mouse and your best pupil!

  5. #5 by Scott Erb on December 4, 2008 - 14:34

    Rome is a fantastic city, Eve, you’ll love it! For your first time there, I’d say focus on the major sites: the forum, the Trevi fountain, the Pantheon, the Vatican and Sistine chapel, and hang around some of the interesting piazzas — Campo dei Fiori, Piazza Navona, etc. I found it fun to read the book “Angels and Demons” by Dan Brown and go to some of the chapels and sites he describes. One part of Rome that is a ‘must visit’ for its charm is Trastevere, a section with quaint shops and two of my favorite cathedrals: Santa Maria in Trastevere, and a more quaint but nonetheless relaxing Santa Cecilia, also in the Trastevere district.

    Our next educational Italy trip is coming in February — February 12 through 23rd. We’re heading to Venice, Florence and Rome. In the past we’ve had enough students that we’ve gone with four faculty — a music historian, an art historian, a literature prof, and me (covering politics and history). This time we’ll probably just have two, me and the Art Historian. You can sign up if you want — it’s two credits tuition plus a travel fee of $1700 to cover flight, rail, hotels and the like, but we’re buying tickets soon. We plan to do it again, hopefully with all four faculty, in May 2011. In May 2010 we are planning a Germany-Austria trip. All of these are open to the anyone who wants to go, so long as they sign up for the course!

    As you get closer to your Rome trip, I’ll send you some more detailed suggestions and information we’ve learned bringing students there so far four, and soon to be five times. September is a good time in that the rush of tourists will be gone. Also, if you know the name of your luxury hotel, I can check it out when I’m there in February (unless, of course, you decide to sign up for the travel course) and let you know what’s close by. Rome is an awesome city, you’ll want to go back (and if you throw a coin in the Trevi fountain, you will!)

  6. #6 by Eve on December 5, 2008 - 22:50

    Scott, be sure to post when you go in 2010 to Germany. I’m serious when I say I may tag along. Wouldn’t that be fun?

    We have an exchange student arriving from Buenos Aires for the whole month of February, or I might just run away from home. As it is, I think I’ll take my sister in law up on her offer of Rome in September.

    You’re so lucky to get to travel as you do!

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