Good morning, what will you have today?
It’s another Tuesday morning, which I’ve decided to spend working from a coffee shop in North Greenwich. I arrived there a bit later than usual, so the good seats were already taken. I sat near the very busy and loud counter, which is alright; I can work well listening to the noises of the klinks and the klanks of the equipment that prepares my daily fuel, which also happens to be the gods’ liquid: coffee. I think of the machines in Dancer in the Dark.
Sitting so close to the counter, I couldn’t help but to overhear the orders of strangers. The latte, the flat white, the cortado with double cream, the frappuccino with… stuff. To go, almost always to go. ”Yes, with chocolate on top”. Out of 30 or 40 orders, only two brave souls were confident enough to order a simple, pure, espresso.
”Ah, the beauty and the simplicity of a black espresso.” — I thought.
I then looked down at my double macchiato and started to feel a strong sense of guilt. You see, a year and a half go when I left Portugal, I didn’t even know what a macchiato was. Nor a flat white, or any of the fancy words for 492 different combinations of things that seemed like very bad attempts of doing coffee. Coffee came only in one kind: the pure black shot of happiness in a small ceramic cup. No sugar. Coffee was coffee, and that was all there was to it.
The Portuguese have a very intimate and beautiful relationship with coffee. Anywhere in Portugal, simple words like ”um café, por favor” (gotta be respectful) are all you need. There are no sizes, no flavors, no sprinkles on top, and don’t you even dare asking for take away! You’ll get a blank stare of disapproval and confusion, followed by a ”we don’t have cups for that” reply. Once, in 2012, I asked at a café in Aveiro to take away coffee with milk and that was a huge mistake. Carrying coffee in a plastic cup with no lid on proved to be both painful and a waste, but they’ve tried to do their best with my request.
You see, coffee in Portugal is a mindful moment, to be enjoyed on its own.
It’s a beautiful and introspective point in your day when you’re in the moment, because all you can do is take your small ceramic cup, enjoy 1, 2 or 5 minutes of reading or street seeing, and then get on with your day. It’s a break from whatever you’re doing.
It’s a crime to do both at the same time: you either work or have a coffee moment. Those two worlds don’t mix, ever. I suddenly realise that I somehow lost the art of appreciating my pure black simple espresso. I am now guilty of spending 20 seconds deciding on how much milk I want, which size I should order, and if I can afford 120 seconds of my day to sit down and drink it.
The fine art of appreciating a black coffee isn’t so because there’s no other options in Portuguese caffes. It’s an art because there’s no need for anything else: an espresso is just enough for this moment.
A lesson in Zen, re-taught by coffee.
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