What is it about cafés? Even on McGalliard, quite possibly the ugliest street in the world (yes, the world), stepping into Panera brings me into my own. Having the day off from mom duty today, I of course head to the “local” mega chain café to get my fix. I feel calm and excited all at the same time because any café conniseur will agree that the café makes the coffee, it’s an experience not a drink. Sitting here looking out at the vast and never ending garden of, well, cars and pavement outside, I cannot help but think back on all the cafés I’ve seen.
My first café experiences were in France where I would venture to bet, most Americans picture all French men and women spending their leisure days. Berets sit jauntily to one side of their little têtes and of course they all wear black and white striped shirts and have a baguette sitting in their bicycle baskets. They while away hours smoking cigarettes and bavardé-ing. Of course, this is just a stereotype, but I must say they do all spend their days in comparison to our hyper drive lives, pretty leisurely and most will visit a café at least one during their day. While smoking is on the decline in France, the majority of them will be seen with a small little puff of smoke lingering around them when they drink their petits coffees. This idealic experience is exactly where I fell in love with the café experience, and my addiction to coffee truly began.
And then, withdrawal…I remember my first visit to a coffee shop in Chile. My host family wanted to take me out. I was extremely excited after having what I considered terrible instant coffee in their home. I had conversed with another coffee addict friend and she confirmed that the coffee at her home was instant as well…sigh… Being in South America, just a few countries away from Colombia and her amazing coffee beans, I imagined deep, rich and bold cups of coffee.
I decided to order a cappuccino. When they brought me a tiny little mug, I discovered the Starbucks version I had in my mind was turning out to be a Nescafé. Sadly, this was the same experience in every café I stepped into in Chile until one day when wandering down the winding streets of Valparaíso, I found a small café that had amazing cups of coffee in large white mugs the size of bowls and deliciously creamy milk that didn’t taste like it had come from the boxed milk we had in our homes. The atmosphere was just like what I imagine walking into a chic English woman’s kisch cottage in the country would look like. Vintage decor peppered the walls and we received our breakfast of toasted crusty bread and jam on little delicate trays. This was not the ordinary Chilean cafe that had the tiny, red Nescafé mugs (if you could call them mugs) and plastic chairs and tables. While some people remember their first kiss like it was yesterday, others their first vintage bottle of wine, I have vivid memories of tiny cafés with amazing cups of coffee.
Spain was the experience I expected in Chile. The Spanish personality, contrary to popular belief, is gruff and abrupt. Yes, they love to party and enjoy themselves but compared to the joviality and openness of the Chileans, Spaniards were brief and concise in their communications. They make New Yorkers seem delightfully kind and warm. When I would have an extra five minutes on my morning walk to class I would stop into my favorite bar to grab a quick café con leche.
This is how every café trip would go:
I sidle up to the bar and sit on the high chair next to all the workers taking their morning breakfast break at 10 AM.
“Buenas. Un café con leche y una tostada.” (Morning. A coffee with milk and toast.)
No response from the bartender, just a confirmation nod while he simultaneously adds my little white mug to the line of mugs at the massive expresso maker which is rapily firing out hot shots of pure black coffee.
Half a minute later he hands me my coffee and toast with olive oil and crushed tomatoes on top.
I eat and drink. Two minutes later I make the sign for la cuenta to the bartender (I act like I’m signing a bill in the air).
He nods and hands me my little white ticket.
I lay down my cash and leave.
Brief, abrupt and perfectly Spanish.
Here’s to a morning cup of coffee – one similarity that crosses all borders.