I’m not sure why I remember it so well. It was such a modest, quiet incident. It was really as much a mood as an incident. And it happened so long ago. But I’ve traveled enough to know that that’s how travel can be sometimes: incidents that didn’t seem like much when they happened turn out to be ones I remember most clearly.
My wife, my son, and I were traveling at the time through Slovenia, a largely mountainous, forested country in central Europe. We’d stopped for a couple of nights in Ljubljana, Slovenia’s capital and biggest city. Ljubljana is an attractive place, with a river running through the center of town, splitting the city in two. We were staying in a pension on the less hilly side of the river, the side that contains most of the downtown. The rest of the downtown, across the river, presses up against a rugged little mountain blanketed with trees.
On our first morning in Ljubljana, I got up early, put on some running gear, and jogged across a bridge over the river to the base of the mountain on the other side. I started along a rocky trail that switch backed up the mountain to a castle at the top. I paused up there a while, took in the view, and then started back down.
When I reached the bottom, I began walking along a broad cobblestone street that took me around the mountain to a part of the city I hadn’t seen yet.
Over there, it was mostly residential neighborhoods made up of tidy whitewashed houses with red tiled roofs—pretty, but nothing much to attract a tourist. Walking a bit more, I saw up ahead a weathered wooden building backed up against the mountain among a scattering of fir trees. The front door was open, and three small wooden tables with chairs sat out on the cobblestones. It looked like a little bar.
I walked over and looked in. It was a bar alright, and like many in Europe, it served both coffee and liquor. A black espresso machine stood against the wall behind a standup counter. In the dim interior, I could see bottles of whiskey lined up on both sides of the machine.
A young woman was wiping down one of the two indoor tables. She glanced up when I walked in. Brunette, probably in her mid-twenties, she was wearing faded blue jeans and a beige tee shirt. Apparently, she was both barmaid and barista.
“Macchiato?” I asked tentatively. She nodded. “One?” I said, holding up a forefinger. She nodded again. I went out and sat at a table.
My tee shirt was damp from my run, but I felt great. When I could, I liked to run early when I traveled, tire myself out, then rev up with a shot or two of espresso.
It was barely 7 am. The summer sun was slanting down, but the air was still cool. The street was deserted. Pleasantly spacey from my run, my mind a blank, I stared out across the cobblestones.
The young woman brought the coffee, along with a slip of paper showing the bill.
Normally, I’d barely notice what a cup of coffee looked like. This one I noticed. It was a work of art, a perfectly rounded mound of creamy foam capping the cup as neatly as a lid. It reminded me of one of those foodie sculptures by Claes Oldenburg.
The espresso was delicious, strong and full bodied, and the foam was thick and dense. It was obviously made with whole milk, uncommonly rich whole milk, a far cry from the tasteless two-percent froth you run into in American espresso chains. I’d never had a macchiato so good.
The street was still empty. I sat back, savored the coffee, and soaked it all in: a wooden table outside a little bar, a cobblestone street out front, a shaggy mountain behind, a smattering of fir trees, the best macchiato I’d ever had, and a neighborhood barista who practiced her craft with the skill of an artist. Something about it felt earthy, elemental, and very Slovenian.
Besides the coffee, I appreciated the simplicity of it all–a barista who just did her job, did it right, did it in an accommodating way. No frills, nothing slick or trendy, barely even any sense of commercialism—a contrast with the more profit-conscious coffee houses in the U.S. where the prodding to buy could be blatant: “Do you want a pastry with that espresso?” (No, I felt like grouching, I would have asked for one if I did).
To be honest, though, I liked those places, too. They filled a need, and I’d spent plenty of time in them. But this was different; this was an experience. The rustic setting, the macchiato, the unassuming barista—it felt like an older world, a world, I imagined, that had been simpler, less showy, more authentic. Sipping the macchiato, gazing out at the cobblestone street, the air now a hazy orange in the morning light, I felt almost like I’d slipped into that world. I sat there a while, basking in the gauzy ambiance, trying to prolong the experience.
Meanwhile, Ljubljana was waking up. A woman walked by, heels clacking on the cobblestones. A truck rumbled past.
I checked my watch and looked at the bill. I put down some coins, picked up the cup and saucer, and went in the bar. The barista was leaning on the counter reading a newspaper. “Thanks,” I said, setting down the empties, “it was great!” The woman nodded and smiled. I headed back to join my wife and son.