Senior’s Honors Thesis, in Three Languages, Examines Café Mystery

William Doak ’17 with Massimiliano Rosati from Gran’ Caffè Gambrinus in Naples

It was an observation made when passing through the Bologna airport — that its café, oddly, had no chairs — that led William Doak ’17 to write a trilingual 146-page honors thesis in English, Italian, and French.

The chairless café piqued Doak’s curiosity about why people stand up to drink their coffee in Italy, rather than sitting down as they do in neighboring France. That question led to a research project that covers the cultural history of French and Italian cafés, and how coffee drinking is tied up with modernism, industry, and the national identities of the two countries.

The simple question, “Where did all the chairs go?” is the inspiration of Doak’s thesis, French and Italian Café Spaces and the Third Places They Create. After spending a semester studying abroad in France, Doak was accustomed to hanging out in cafés where people linger over drinks while sitting at tables, watching street life, and chatting with friends. In Italy, on the other hand, customers tend to amicably greet the barista, who they probably know well, order an espresso, slurp it down while standing up, and move on after just a few minutes.

Espresso machines from the Milan coffee-making machine museum, MUMAC. Photo by Will Doak.

But why? After doing a semester of research at Bowdoin, Doak received a Grua/O’Connell grant from Bowdoin to explore archives and conduct interviews in France and Italy over the winter break. He visited Milan, Rome, Naples, Trieste, and Paris, and spoke with café owners, baristas, and roasters. He interviewed historians, architects, a journalist, and an espresso machine collector, Enrico Maltoni, who has opened a museum in Milan dedicated to coffee-making machines.

It is rare for a Bowdoin student to write a thesis in three languages. Two programs in the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures — Francophone Studies and Italian Studies — supported his endeavor. Doak’s advisors, Professor Arielle Saiber of Italian Studies and Associate Professor Katherine Dauge-Roth of Francophone Studies, said Doak’s thesis stands out not only for its command of foreign languages, but also because it is intellectually sophisticated and beautifully written. “Will worked at the research level of a graduate student, facing head on the wilds of critical theory, history, and data gathering in archives…” they wrote in an email. “He did truly original research, exploring a question that has not been discussed in academic or journalistic sources.”

An interdisciplinary achievement
Will Doak’s committment to his project had him reading widely and deeply into the history of coffee and the café in Europe, according to his advisor Arielle Saiber. “He engaged throughout with complex and varied sociological, philosophical, political, psychological, and aesthetic debates on the use of space for seeing and being seen, and for various forms of exchange,” she said. “Will’s project is a model of what a liberal arts student can envision and produce: an original, interdisciplinary work that demonstrates expertise in critical, analytical, and creative thinking.”

Doak starts his thesis by introducing the café as a kind of third space that exists between home and work. It’s a public place where people congregate in a voluntary and informal way, and because of this, it reflects its culture — particularly in countries like Italy and France where cafés are so popular. “The café experience in French and Italian cafés expresses the ways that people there like to process the world or think about the world,” Doak said.

To answer the question about why these third places in France and Italy are so different from one another, Doak points to political and socio-economic changes that began to manifest in the countries around the turn of the 20th century. These shifts coincided with the emergence of such art movements as Futurism, and the development of the espresso machine. Designed as a beautiful contraption to perfect the art of coffee bean extraction—it’s “express-ion”—the espresso machine delighted and fascinated Italians. It used steam, much like train and factories did, and it symbolized industry and modernity.

“It expressed an ideal,” Doak said. “It was a way of interacting with modernity, when Italy was trying to catch up to the industrial pace of other nations. So having an industrial-strength, speed-fueled pause in the café was like a daily reminder of the direction they might like to take themselves.”

Thanks to these technological and cultural forces, Italy, over the 20th century, replaced its sit-down café culture with a stand-up, fast-paced, and energetic one. “As Italy began to craft an image of itself as a unified industrial state…the espresso machine technology of the era facilitated an accelerated café experience in Italian bars relative to the slow, sit-down pace of French cafés,” Doak writes. “In the economic boom of the 1950s, a veritable stand-up espresso culture developed across the Italian peninsula. Standing at the bar in the absence of chairs allowed Italians to celebrate and savor the fruits of the postwar era: Italian industry and espresso that tasted better than ever.”

Espresso machine in the Milan coffee-making machine museum, MUMAC. Photo by Will Doak.

On the other hand, France in the 20th century held fast to the traditional role cafés had played since the Enlightenment, when the space was a democratic meeting spot frequented by writers, artists, philosophers, and revolutionaries. French citizens “would sit down and discuss their ideas in a setting that blurred the lines between private and public,” Doak explains. In today’s cafés in France, people buy a coffee to enjoy “a prolonged pause,” in part “because of the historical social capital placed on conversation and on a methodical — albeit lengthy — digestion of the day’s events…and reflections on the world at hand.”

Doak extends his historical analysis to contemporary café culture, which he sees as continuing to evolve in response to national and international trends. Both France and Italy are grappling with globalization and technology, which have pushed the countries toward “new café cultures and toward a new sense of third place,” he argues.

Whereas once they celebrated technological innovation and industrialization, Italians are now resisting what they see as the frantic and impersonal nature of industry, according to Doak. Many Italians have embraced the Slow Food movement, which emphasizes the artistry of coffee beans and its production over quickness. This celebrates the original idea of caffe’ espresso: the individualized cup of coffee, made “expressly” for a single consumer. So, those chairs? “The chairs were once there; they went away; they might even be coming back,” he writes.

Doak’s personal interest in coffee began as a way to connect with his family, he says. He started drinking coffee when he was eight to be able to participate in after-dinner conversations with his parents and older siblings. (And it didn’t prevent him from falling asleep, he said.)

He began learning French at his high school in Nashville, Tenn., continuing his study at Bowdoin. He also took up Italian at college, and credits the Italian department here with helping him become fluent quickly. (An aside: Doak also speaks Creole, from spending two summers in Haiti.) Majoring in Romance languages and literatures, and minoring in chemistry, Doak plans to attend medical school and become a primary care doctor.

In fact, he draws a line between his research into cafés with his desire to be a physician. “This thesis is about how certain spaces can create a sense of place, and I would like to think that if and when I become a doctor, I will know how to convey a sense of space where people feel comfortable expressing themselves,” he said.

After graduation, Doak will work as a community health worker for Maine Migrant Health, based in Augusta, Maine, which supports migrants who come to Maine to work the blueberry harvest and for other seasonal agricultural work.

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