Thursday, September 25, 2008

Humility and Pride

Some people, such as the German philosopher Nietzsche, see humility as a weakness. But the ancient Greeks knew it to be an essential quality of heroes, a product of courage and self-knowledge. Humility is the antidote to pride, which the author C. S. Lewis once damned as the "greatest sin", the vice that leads to every other vice.

"There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves," he wrote last century.

Lewis also wrote that, unlike other vices, pride was intrinsically competitive, getting "no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man". He described it as a "spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love or contentment or even common sense [emphasis added - RC]".

from Miranda Devine, SMH

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Where to get a good (and bad) coffee

Every country has its own particular foibles, it's little eccentricities that make it unique. However, there are certain things that cross the board that you can judge a country on.

Transport is one of them. Food is definitely one of them. Toilets are one of them. And, if you're anything like me, coffee is one of them.

I like coffee. I need coffee. When I wake up in the morning, there's a good shot of the black stuff between eyes opening and brain functioning.

But there's more to my love of coffee than a simple caffeine hit. I love the ritual of coffee. I love heading over to my local cafe and chatting to the barista, Andreas, while he works the espresso machine like a farmer milking a cow. I love an afternoon espresso standing at a bar, talking about football.

To me, coffee's all that's great about the world. So when a country takes it seriously, and does it well, it's got a friend in me.

Coffee when you're travelling is different to coffee when you're at home. It's no longer just an excuse to get out of the office for 10 minutes or so - it's a way of feeling another country's culture.

In somewhere like India, it's a chance to pull away from the manic streets and relax in a little secluded corner of the world. In Europe it's a chance to mix with locals in the town squares as they observe centuries-old rituals.

A coffee break is a chance to chat to locals, a chance to make friends ... and a chance to drink more coffee.

So, where's the good stuff?

Now, I realise I'm not exactly reinventing the travel writing wheel here, but the best coffee in the world has got to be in Italy. Smooth, rich and served at the perfect temperature, it's heaven in a cup.

And in my humble opinion, the best cappuccino in Italy is not in some little back-alley cafe in Rome, or, shudder, lining St Mark's Square in Venice - it's at the humble Autogrill service stops that dot the Autostradas. That, friends, is coffee at its finest. You might need a degree in astrophysics to figure out the system for ordering the stuff, but it's made by absolute professionals who probably dish out thousands of espressos a day. It's worth the hassle - they know what they're doing.

Away from Europe, I was surprised at how good the coffee was in Vietnam, particularly the cold coffee - an espresso poured into a glass of ice and condensed milk. Team that with a Hanoi pastry and that's your breakfast sorted. Malaysia is almost as good.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, Argentina is also home to some of the best java going. I could (and did) spend all day hanging around the piazzas of Buenos Aires drinking cafe chicos, eating medialunas, and wondering why I still couldn't speak Spanish.

There's also a lot to be said for those who like their coffee thick and strong, like in East Africa or Turkey, where it takes a fair amount of sugar to help work that sludgy espresso down. Still, it's well worth it if you don't want to sleep for the next few days.

Much as I love coffee, however, there are a few countries where it's probably best to ditch it in favour of the local brew - mainly because the other stuff is so good. Indian coffee isn't bad, for example, but you'd be crazy if you weren't drinking the street chai.

In Bolivia and Peru it's best to go for a mate, or coca leaf tea, to ease the pain of altitude sickness; and the green tea anywhere Asia is always worth a go.

But then there are countries where it's best to avoid the coffee for another reason: it's crap. I know the cafe culture is catching on in Britain, for example, but if someone is spruiking the only decent coffee in London as being made by antipodeans, they've clearly got a ways to go. (NB: Caffe Nero is not coffee.)

French coffee isn't great either, despite the country's proximity to some of the cafe kings. Although going by the stories I've heard, that could just be down to me not knowing how to order it properly.

And, much as I hate to kick the Yanks around all the time, for a country seemingly obsessed with coffee, it's mostly pretty bad over there. As you'll note when a barista hands you a bucket of steaming cappuccino, quantity does not equal quality.

Oh yeah, there's one country I've neglected to mention in all this: Australia. Maybe its our rich pool of coffee-loving immigrants, but it's pretty easy to get a damn good coffee around here, which goes some way to explaining why Starbuck's failed so spectacularly.

It fact, I'd say ours is some of the best in the world.

And as for which city has the best coffee? Well, that's easy. It's, um ...

Which country do you think makes the best coffee in the world? How about the worst?

from here