As I sit here, clutching my second big cup of coffee this chilly autumn morning in the mountains of Italy, I’m thinking about the different types of culture surrounding coffee drinking that I’ve come across thus far in my travels. Yesterday I met a friend for a cup of coffee in the town square. She got an espresso, I got a latte macchiato because, after 2 months of ordering not exactly the right thing here, I finally realized that this is the best way to get a big enough cup of coffee that is not totally watered down.
Whenever I go someplace with a mix of my friends from the United States and the locals here that I’ve met in the Marche region, it seems that we opt for always two very different sized drinks. The Americans usually asking for an Americano and the Italians ordering an espresso. The reason that I have been getting latte macchiatos is because I do take my coffee with milk but it seems that asking for an Americano here and then asking for milk really seems to baffle the baristas. And usually, me too because this then results in a watery milky coffee which isn’t exactly what I want either.
I’ve had an Italian boy tell me that “real coffee is only espresso.” So maybe I’m not a real coffee drinker according to his standards but I do know what I like and an Italiano Americano is not it. This may seem really far off the mark because, not only is Italy known for having some of the best coffee in the world, there are also so many different types of coffee drinks here. After all, Italy is the birthplace of the espresso machine and you can find it at almost every establishment, even at a nightclub at 3:00 in the morning. I know it’s partly my unfamiliarity with the huge variety of what I am ordering and partly a language barrier. I’ve mostly gotten drinks that are way sweeter than I wanted, with condensed milk or a huge dollop of whip cream and very little actual coffee. A latte macchiato here is what I’ve come to know in the States as a latte which, when available, is my preference. When I make coffee at home, it is usually a pour over or with made in a french press and I add in some milk or cream. I love to use a french press because I can sit, write, relax and get warmed up with two cups to myself. There is something so special about holding a big cup of hot liquid on a cool day; whether you’re snuggled under a blanket in your home or sitting outside a cafe holding it close as your own little heater. There is nothing better or more nostalgic than that for me.
When I was studying in Havana, it made perfect sense to me as to why they would opt for a very sweet espresso or cafe Cubano instead of a big cup of hot coffee, it’s usually always really, really hot there. So drinking your coffee, while always enjoyable, is a little bit more of a get it in me, get moving on with my day sort of thing. Cubans drink these tiny coffees several times a day as a quick easy pick me up but nobody, and I mean nobody is walking around running errands in the streets of Havana with a to-go cup filled with hot coffee. It’s a stop at the little stall on the side of the street, drink your coffee in 2 or 3 sips, socialize for quite some time and then continue on with your day. I will always laugh imagining my large, slightly cantankerous, father when he came to visit me there getting so angry towards the end of the trip because all the wanted to do was “sit down and drink a big cup of f*****g coffee in peace.” and there wasn’t even a large enough cup to be found. I completely understood where his frustration was coming from. The best way I found to get a large cup of coffee was to order cafe con leche or coffee with milk, but it still wasn’t very big and my father takes his coffee black so that wasn’t doing it for him either. He loves his extra large gas station coffee and I do too. There’s something nice about grabbing a cup early in the morning on your way to work or school and having it with you for a little while. This brings back memories of my dad buying me some good old gas station coffee on the rare days he would drive me to high school and I’d be drinking it in my first class, so happy at the thought that my dad bought it for me and was probably holding his in his hand on his way to his job too.
At first, I thought how strange it is that Italians and Cubans would drink their coffee in such a quick manner, when virtually every other part of their culture in comparison with how things are done in the US, is much more relaxed and laid back. I’ve heard both the expressions of being on island time or the Europe clocks when referring to how easy going these cultures are. Then I started to realize that no, it is still my NYC go go go attitude and thinking that I always need to be doing something, even when I am relaxing that is prevailing here. Just because my friend finished her coffee in under 5 minutes, doesn't mean she got up a left after that. We still sat and talked for quite sometime after that. The difference is, that while I was sitting there all bundled up and totally in love with my big cup of joe for a good 15 minutes, she finished hers in under 5 minutes and just sat contently while we talked and when I was finally done, I was pretty much ready to go.
I haven’t been to Ethiopia (yet), where the Coffea genus was founded over 1,000 years ago, but I’ve heard that the coffee experience there can take up to an hour before the coffee is even served! The host completes the whole process of changing the ripe red beans to a hot drink called buna tableside in a traditional ritual for their guests. In Spain, I’ve heard that you can get coffee at any church and are welcomed to hang out outside with the likely group of elderly men doing the same but if you go to a coffee shop and expect to have a few cups and stay a while, it is generally frowned upon and you might even find yourself being asked to leave. As far as I can tell the US and Greece are the only countries boasting about their cold coffee. I, of course, love a good black iced coffee in the summertime and am walking around all season like Nancy Botwin, with a (reusable) straw hanging out of my mouth. I’ve also noticed that the US is one of the only places I’ve been where asking about milk and sugar and if you would like decaf in the evenings or not seems compulsory.
In Greece they are famous for their frappe, which is ice, sugar and, Nescafé blended into a frothy drink like a milkshake. They are also known for their extremely thick, sweet, and strong “Greek Coffee”, which is basically the same thing that is served in Turkey and the Republic of Georgia but there the drink is known as “Turkish Coffee” and “Georgian Coffee” respectively. It is drank all throughout the day, even as an after-dinner drink or nightcap in spite of its high caffeine content. It is so thick that in Greece and Turkey, once the drink is finished the cup is often placed upside down and the coffee silt that remains is used to tell your future. I am no expert but I know that a drip, resembling a chain on the outside on means travel in your future and that’s definitely happened to me more than a few times during these late night readings.
In conclusion, I’ve realized that just about everyone loves coffee, and just about everyone thinks that their country does it the best. It seems that it’s more about the process and traditions surrounding the drink, the company it’s shared with and, nostalgic memories tied to that than it is about the actual quality of the drink for most people. I can’t wait to continue to travel and to gain even more unique coffee experiences in different places, and even though I am currently in a country renowned for its coffee, I can’t wait to go home and have my dad buy me a big cup of gas station joe when he picks me up from the airport.
Bland, Alistair. "Coffee Here, and Coffee There: How Different People Serve the World’s Favorite Hot Drink." Smithsonian.com, 15 Mar. 2013, www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/
coffee-here-and-coffee-there-how-different-people-serve-the-worlds-favorite-hot-drink-3214272/. Accessed 14 Nov. 2018.