Caffè sospeso

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Caffè sospeso
Informal practice commonly found in Naples, Italy
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Map of Naples, Italy, where Caffè sospeso commonly takes place.
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Flag of Naples, Italy.
Entry written by Paolo Mancini.
Paolo Mancini is affiliated to University of Perugia.

Original text by Paolo Mancini

Why do many Neapolitans, (napoletani) enter a bar and ask ' C’è un caffè sospeso '? ('Is there a suspended coffee?') Those who ask this question know that an old tradition exists in Naples whereby a customer who has had a coffee in a bar elects to pay for two cups of coffee instead of one, thereby leaving a free coffee for an unidentified future customer.

We can only speculate about the origins and meaning this tradition, as it has not been the subject of scientific investigation. One of the few literary sources associated with the topic is a book entitled ' Caffe' sospeso ', which features a collection of essays on the variety of daily life in Naples, written by a well-known Neapoletan writer, Luciano De Crescenzo (De Crescenzo 2005[1]). Although the book does not detail this particular practice, the subtitle 'Everyday wisdom by small sips' suggests that the caffè sospeso tradition comes from distant times and is deeply rooted in the everyday culture of Naples.

The question ‘C’è un caffè sospeso?’ conceals a rich history of traditions, social and cultural attitudes, and specific ways of determining community life. Firstly, caffè sospeso is informed by a subtle stereotype: the Neapolitan fantasy. People living in Naples are renowned for their creativity and this is often displayed in a tendency to use symbolic language. In this case, 'suspended' indicates that something is floating in the air, moving continuously over the heads of the bar's customers, just waiting to be captured. Caffè sospeso is a metaphor; it is an image that does not go directly to the heart of the matter. A more straightforward expression such as a ‘paid for coffee’, or ‘left coffee’ would have been too trivial an expression, and in Neapolitan society considered almost rude as a question directly addressed to another guest. Equally, an expression such as ‘Would you pay for a coffee for me?' would imply a direct commitment by the donor to the receiver, stressing also possible economic differences between the two persons. Instead, the caffè sospeso question is a gentle query, in which the identitiy of the one who has paid for the coffee and the one who receives the coffee is kept in the background. Neither of them is directly involved in the exchange: the coffee falls down 'from the clouds', not from the donor’s hands (Schwartz 1967[2]).

Iconic and metaphoric language is typical of Naples and constitutes one of the subtlest stereotypes of the inhabitants of this city. But, as Walter Lippman says, often stereotypes are tools for knowledge and for sharing knowledge (Lippman 1922[3]). In other words, simplicity and directness are not typical of this city. Asking for directions in the street will not receive a simple response such as 'Go left'. It would be too direct and definitive, removing the possibility of establishing a personal relationship with the questioner as part of the exchange, something that is considered polite in Neapolitan society. In the context of Naples, the person answering the question would be likely to show his left hand to the enquirer, adding in strictly Neapolitan dialect, ' vai pe sta mano accà ', meaning 'follow the hand that I am showing'.

Secondly, the coffee itself has a specific meaning for the cultural and social background of the city. Here coffee is synonymous with Naples; in Naples it is widely held that there is no other place in Italy in which it is possible to enjoy a coffee of such a high quality. Coffee in Naples is very ' corto ' (small), much smaller than any other Italian coffee. It is 'intense' and 'strong'. Common wisdom states that the very special quality of the Neapolitan coffee is governed by the quality of the water but, of course, no scientific validation of this exists. Coffee embodies Naples more than any monument of the city itself. Along with with pizza, coffee defines the identity, the life and the tradition of this city.

Lastly, it is well known that Naples is a superstitious city. Superstition is part of every act and action of the Neapolitan people (Di Nola 1993[4]). Before doing anything it is necessary for napoletani to ensure that luck will be with them. The tradition of caffè sospeso itself is connected with superstition: through this practice, people aim to gain positive favour from those who may 'decide' their future (patron saints, deceased’s souls, and so on). The action of leaving a caffè sospeso is informed by a kind of reasoning that asks 'If I do not leave an already paid for coffee, who knows what may happen to me?' As superstition is an important part of the culture of Naples, the fear is that the decision not to obey this old tradition may bring a curse upon the person who has declined; therefore they consider that it is a risk not worth taking. This is a widespread, yet largely unspoken dynamic underpinning the practice of caffe' sospeso.

Caffè sospeso embodies the very cultural soul of Naples and some of its attributed characteristics. This well-rooted practice highlights the existence and importance of community in Naples. Neapolitans know how to behave when they enter a bar; they know that this tradition exists and that they can benefit from it. In contrast to the criminal reputation that contemporary Naples enjoys, urban legend states that caffe' sospeso was originally an act displaying the elegance and politeness of Neopolitan society. According to some literary sources, the tradition was born out of discussions in a bar between friends and relatives over who should pay for the coffee they had enjoyed. Everybody in the group desired to take responsibility for payment as a way of showing and reinforcing the sense of friendship that bound the members of the group together. It is commonly held that the group, unable to reach an agreement, incorrectly identified the number of coffees needing to be paid for, and overpaid, which resulted in them leaving an ‘already paid for’ coffee for a future customer.

The consequence of this action was that the community embodied by the group of friends or relatives expanded its borders of friendship to include all those who might enter the same bar in the future. (Pazzaglia and Pipolo 1999[5]). The message left by the one who paid is: 'All those living in this area are friends of mine, even if I do not know them personally'. Since caffè sospeso embodies the idea of reciprocity as shared knowledge at the Neapolitan local level, both the giver and the receiver act on the basis of mutual expectation, which constitutes the fundamental roots of a community (Komter 2005[6]).

The idea of community is completed and enriched by a sense of solidarity: leaving an already paid for coffee is recognition of social and economic differences that need to be bridged. It clearly acknowledges that if someone cannot afford a coffee, there is someone who wishes to help by leaving a gift that embodies the idea of community, of 'Neapolitan-ness' itself, (napoletanita), and that is expressed in donating the coffee.

To sum up, lacking any written codification, caffè sospeso is an informal practice, which articulates everyday culture in Naples. Within this practice fantasy, iconic language, solidarity and superstition are mixed together, establishing a shared Neapolitan identity.

Caffè sospeso has been imitated in other parts of the world, where it assumes similar characteristics. Besides several other Italian cities and towns, initiatives of this kind have been reported in Romania (Getlokal.ro n. d.[7]), the Netherlands (AT5 2011[8]), and the UK (BBC 2013[9]). Some of these imitators have highlighted the solidarity aspects of this practice, regarding it as an occasion to offer the poor the possibility of enjoying a coffee, if not a whole meal (Nove.Firenze.it 2004[10], Retedelcaffèsospeso.com[11]). In other cases the practice of charity embodied by caffè sospeso has entered the logic of market competition, becoming an occasion for the social legitimation of important brands of coffee makers and vendors (Reynolds 2013[12]).

Notes

  1. De Crescenzo, L. 2005. Il caffè sospeso. Saggezza quotidiana in piccoli sorsi. Milano: Mondadori.
  2. Schwartz, B. 1967. 'The Social Psychology of the Gift', American Journal of Sociology, 73(1): 1-11.
  3. Lippman, W. 1922 Public Opinion. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace and Company.
  4. Di Nola, A. 1993. Lo specchio e l'olio: le superstizioni degli italiani. Bari: Laterza.
  5. Pazzaglia, R. and Pipolo, O. 1999. Odore di caffè. Napoli: Guida.
  6. Komter, A. E. 2005. Social Solidarity and the Gift. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Getlokal.ro (n. d.) ‘Suspended Coffee in Romania’, https://www.getlokal.ro/en/page/suspended-coffee-romania
  8. AT5. 2011. ‘Caffè Sospeso voor inloophuizen’, 21 December, http://www.at5.nl/artikelen/73480/caffe-sospeso-voor-inloophuizen
  9. BBC. 2013. ‘Would you buy a “suspended coffee” for someone in need?’, 24 April, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-22267613
  10. Nove.Firenze.it. 2004. ‘Oggi giornata nazionale del caffè “sospeso”’ (‘Today is the national day of caffè “sospeso”’), 12 April, http://www.nove.firenze.it/a404120829-oggi-giornata-nazionale-del-caffe-sospeso.htm
  11. Rete del caffè sospeso (Caffè sospeso Network), http://www.retedelcaffesospeso.com
  12. Reynolds, J. 2013. ‘Starbucks joins Suspended Coffee Homeless Initiative’, MarketingMagazine.co.uk, 10 April, http://www.marketingmagazine.co.uk/article/1177756/starbucks-joins-suspended-coffee-homeless-initiative