Coffee … and global cross-cultural interchange.

Following last week’s discussions on culture, I’ve had some thoughts on this topic since returning from Italy. They are easiest to illustrate by talking about coffee… which is what I intend to do here… so if discussion on coffee annoys you, check back for my next post.  Or read on to find out *why* it might annoy you so much.

I recently got home from Ragusa, Sicily where Tim and I partnered with a church for almost ten years. One of the main reasons I was easily convinced to begin this love affair with Italy was, I’m ashamed to say it, coffee. My mother drank copious cups while she was pregnant with me (6-8 cups a day, which I eventually worked out was one every daily appointment she took as a psychologist) and while I don’t reach her incredible levels of consumption, I enjoy coffee. I drink a cup every morning, and because I enjoy quality over quantity, I usually find a cafe in walking distance and stay pretty loyal to it. This first started when I lived in Newtown, Sydney. I had a great selection of walkable cafes, and I loved a good “skim milk latte take away”.

However, in Italy, the further south one travels, the smaller the coffees get. By the time you’re at the bottom of Sicily where we go, coffees are short espressos – the size of two teaspoons and black as mud. We’ve learned to drink them – the key is to throw them back quickly and savor the aftertaste. A ricotta canoli helps too. And, if you’re in an espresso bar, they offer mineral water free with your coffee, so it’s a win-win. But there are also cultural norms about which drink you drink when. In the morning for breakfast, you are allowed a latte, and somewhere mid-morning you switch to cappuccino, and by lunchtime you’re expected to drink the classic espresso, which are served well into the early hours of the night. They don’t offer them all at once, ever.

Back in Orange County, America where we live now, my cafe of choice is “Bliss”. It serves great salads, and is mainly organic, with a wide variety of options for vegetarians and those with problematic food allergies … Yesterday, I was standing waiting for my standard (nut-milk latte), and three men came in. They had a long discussion in a foreign language around the menu board, and then one asked…

“Can I have a macchiato with three espresso shots?”

The barrista looked up, and said “um… are you sure?”

“Yes!” the man retorted quickly.

Barista: Um… you know that’s *super* strong?

Man: Yes!

Barista: Uh… I don’t think you actually want three shots.

At that point, I had heard certain vowel sounds that made it clear to me that they were speaking Spanish, and their clothes were clearly not North American. What I was hearing in the order was “I’d like my coffee like mud from home but with a dash of milk”. So I had to step in.

Me: Uh – I’ll vouch for them. These men are European. They really do want three shots.

Man: YES! Thank you!!!!

Barista: They aren’t mistaking a macchiato for something else?

Me: At a guess, I’d say nope, they mean it.

The barista shrugged and agreed to their order. He and I had a friendly interchange about the prevalence of Starbucks in America, and how many people come in asking for a caramel macchiato, but actually mean a large amount of foam, sugar and hardly any espresso. I smiled because I knew that what he was saying was true. But, it’s interesting when Starbucks is the yardstick by which a European’s coffee order is measured in the States. Ironic? I think so, just a little bit.

Fast-forward to Saturday. As usual, I stood waiting for a coffee (an Americano, or “long black” in Australian coffee speak) while customers piled in and ordered brunch. A family of three picked up their coffees from the counter. The man took three steps towards the door, then doubled back and, as loudly as he could said:

“Uh… this coffee is really NOT hot enough”.

The lady at the counter was apologetic, and he was appeased only by the thought of a replacement coffee. He turned to his daughter, prompting her; “Darling, if yours isn’t hot enough, you can say too!”. She shrugged, and continued drinking.

At this point, the regulars in the room kind of lifted their eyes from their ipads/books/conversations with friends. The barista adjusted his other orders to address the issue immediately, and handed over a new, appropriately piping hot cup in its little recyclable paper cup.

I’m an admitted coffee snob, but I’ve never had a ‘cold’ coffee from this shop. It’s coffee law in Italy that overheating the milk ruins the taste… I wondered if this man had come to the wrong shop. Again, Starbucks is the production line of extra hot – more foam – three pumps caramel – latte twist – low caffeine options. And I LIKE that sometimes. In fact, a good Cinnamon Dolce Soy Cappucino is exactly what I feel like … sometimes. But I know which shop to turn up at in order to ask for this.

It made me feel sorry for everyone involved – the barista, this man, and the Europeans. We are living in a global world in which coffee has been co-opted, changed and adapted into so many cultural forms, that there’s no getting it back into one, unified picture.

The expectations we bring to that little cup of coffee are so vast, so differing, so profound that it’s almost ridiculous to expect what we do from the experience. And yet, a local barista has to negotiate the various visions of the one “perfect cup of coffee” from the general public. He is set up to either win or fail by his manager who chooses the beans and the “vibe” of the shop in which he works.

This metaphor applies easily to the church. The expectations we bring are so wide and varied that we almost have to put in a footnote each time we say ‘worship’, ‘gathering’, ‘pastoral care’, and ‘concern’.

So, before you raise your voice in exasperation in a cafe (or for that matter, a church office), bear a thought to the global context in which you’re in, and your own expectations. When it comes to coffee, it is, after all, only just a little bit of flavoured water. But we humans seem to care about it a LOT.

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