ordinary pleasures : café culture

As an undergraduate, I often spent my time in between classes at coffee shops on campus.  On occasion, I made genuine attempts at academic progress, but in truth, anyone trying to work was better off in the dorms or the library.  The coffee shop, in essence, was a not-so-subtle locale to see and be seen.  There I’d sit - staring at the same page, rereading the same line - hoping that my crush-of-the-moment would happen upon me nonchalantly reading Rilke.  (As if the average undergraduate male actually cared what the heck I was reading).

But a true café - that European or Europhilic wonder of the world - resembles neither the collegiate coffee shop (a slightly less commercial variant of your local Starbucks) nor a silent study hall.  It has a character all its own - charmingly unchanging despite generations of regulars, who ultimately leave it high-and-dry after an intense stint of unflinching fidelity.  It’s a quiet, yet buzzing corner of the world, best suited to the grad student, youthful researcher or urban creative - thinkers entrenched in their own ideals and interests, both incensed and mellowed by the fog of sleepless nights.

Which brings me to the subject of sustenance.  Some café creatures seem to live on black coffee alone.  Others drift towards cigarettes or café crèmes.  But my favorite cafés are those who provide a little something more to chew on (as endless hours of reading seem to have a way of cultivating oral fixations).

In Paris, my café of choice was the Café Maure at the Grand Mosquée de Paris.  Built in the years following World War I, La Grande Mosquée remains the only official mosque in Paris, despite the significant growth of the capital’s Muslim population.  The mosque itself is typically closed to all but the faithful, but on the corner of Rue Daubeton and Rue Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire, a Moorish archway invites the curious in - to sip sweet mint tea, smoke hookah or nibble on honey-laden pastries under the shade of fig trees. There I would spend many an afternoon, induling in Kaab el Ghazal (half-moon pastries perfumed with orange flower water) and reading French philosophy).

Back in New York, there’s no shortage of cafés worth frequenting in the city, but unlike Paris, those worth lingering in are a bit harder to come by.  Morningside Heights' Hungarian Pastry Shop is one of these rare gems, located just outside the thumping heart of Columbia’s main campus.

The leaner (and thriftier) among us will rave about Hungarian's free refills, but my indulgence of choice is their baklava – honey soaked and nutty as the day is long, somehow simultaneously flaky and densely chewy. (When I worked at Columbia, the walk home past Hungarian was treacherous.  The only thing that saved me from poverty-by-pastry was the fact that the desserts are not quite viewable from the window).  And with an ambiance fitting of an old Woody Allen film (or Love Story, if the protagonists had attended Columbia), there’s enough 1970s flair to sustain the whole neighborhood’s charm.

True, it can be hard to find a seat here – but in warmer months the sculpture garden at St. John the Divine (just across the street) is an enviable extension of HP’s café culture.  At worst, if it’s too cold or crowded to stay, they’ll wrap you up a snack in an old-timey paper box with striped pastry string.  An adorable consolation prize for your efforts.