Monday, October 12, 2009

Learning to Enjoy Leisure: The Way Different Countries Drink Their Coffee

By Damian Papworth

One of the best ways that travelers get acquainted with the local customs is by stopping into a cafe--any cafe, really--and sitting down for a coffee. It could be early in the morning, right as shops and markets are starting to open. It could be during a slow afternoon stretch where businessmen are having power lunches and ladies of leisure are gossiping. Or it could be late in the evening, when in a surprising number of countries, going out for coffee is a suitable alternative to boozing it up, or a great activity to sober you up at the end of the night.

The caf? lifestyle varies greatly from country to country. The Europeans of the world wouldn't think twice about spending a couple of hours sitting in a restaurant or cafe, drinking only coffee. You see, it's possible to even sip a single espresso for a long time, have a couple of cookies, and enjoy free time. And with some of the finest coffee in the world in Italy, why wouldn't you enjoy the fine art of beverage making? Most of the cafes will have an espresso machine that's older than the United States are, and that will make the drink taste that much better. But more than just the taste, it's about the idea that it's okay to relax, in public, drinking a coffee.

One spot in the United States where the caf? lifestyle is slightly more thriving that isn't New York or San Francisco is Portland, where the rain and dreary weather make it pretty much essential to cuddle up with a warm, caffeinated beverage. A lot of places in the world have coffee as a major part of keeping warm, including in The United Kingdom, where a cup of tea might be preferred, but coffee, especially Italian espresso, is finding its stronghold.

A couple of cities in The United States are a better look at what could have been, or rather, what was before Starbucks made carry-out to-go coffee the thing that everyone needed and wanted. At a couple of regal cafes in New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco, you'll get laughed out the door if you try to order a "tall" anything. Families who came to the States managed to order large machines from the old country that make seriously great drinks, so it's possible to sit for awhile and enjoy a decent coffee and a sandwich with the other people in the neighborhood who value such things.

The concept of snacks coming with a coffee isn't just something that happens in the Northern Hemisphere. Down south in Argentina, a country of immigrants, cafe culture is also alive and bustling. But in Argentina, especially in the capital city of Buenos Aires, it's about more than just sitting down and having an Italian-style coffee. There's usually a small glass of soda water, three or four cookies, and even in some bars, some chips or a small sandwich. It's a pretty great deal, and no wonder that it seems that from the hours of two until eight in the evening, cafes all over the city are packed with everyone from young soccer fans to elderly couples hanging out and enjoying their coffee and snacks.

The thing about the snacks in these other countries where the caf? lifestyle is important is that it's pretty much permission to stay as long as you want. There's no one trying to turn the tables over fast in the afternoon, and every extra item that comes with that coffee buys you at least ten more minutes to sit, relax, and hang out.

And there's just something more relaxing about the time to sit and talk for awhile. Even though that culture might not exist in your home country, or perhaps the pace of work is threatening it, but it's an important relic of a time where life was about more than just work, even when everyone was working. And work might actually save the caf? lifestyle. Because now, if you have a laptop, you pretty much have an excuse to sit as long as you like, in a public place, under the guise of work.

If you're traveling for business, visiting a different city for a little while, or relocating abroad, the best possible thing to do is to head to a popular local coffee spot. In just an afternoon, you'll learn more about a country by watching its citizens drink coffee and talk than you would from a whole stack of Lonely Planet guidebooks.

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