A Coffee Shop is Worth 1,000 Words

Every country has their signature “style” of coffee shop. In the US, we have a large variety of coffee shops, spanning from the commercial chains (Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, etc.), to the other end of the spectrum where baristas are serving up alcoholic coffee-cocktail concoctions, someone is performing slam poetry in a dark corner and the crowd is either immersed in snapping along in admiration or they have their nose buried in their lap top. The coffee shop in the US varies based on neighborhood, city, even region (you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Tim Hortons south of any Canadian border-state). Each coffee shop speaks to a region and its culture, however slight it may be. Many original cafes display local artists’ work, available for purchase, and even highlight bakery goods of a local patisserie. From the type of drinks, to the decor, to the costumers- one can get a very comprehensive snapshot of local flair and culture, just from spending a few moments in a coffee shop.

Starbucks has, of course, ruined this in a sense. Most major cities around the world have a Starbucks these days- all featuring the same frappucinos and venti dolce lattes. Their saving grace, however, is that they usually do feature some country-specific drinks and/or food. Starbucks in Spain, for example, is the only place I can get the Mango Frappucino, one of the few remedies to my habitual morning sore throat. I tried ordering this in Chile, and received a Mango Papaya Tea-based Frappucino, which was not only disappointingly different from the one served up in Spain, but also merited strange looks from the barista who took my order; questioning why I was ordering a frozen drink in July (the middle of their Winter).

Russia, however, has been uncharted by Starbucks, last I checked. This is probably due to the Capitalistic-American philosophical weight carried by the brand, though that hasn’t stopped McDonald’s from sneaking their way in. In fact, before the McCafe, Russian coffee shops may not even have existed. Russians put a great emphasis on tea. Every household is equipped with tea bags, loose tea and most likely a giant Samovar*  in the corner, which can attest to the tea-craze. If you ask for coffee in a Russian home, you will most likely be served instant Nescafe to stir into your cup of boiled water. Relying on instant-coffee has made for scarce “Coffee shops” in Russia, until McCafe came along. The Russian McCafe, is actually quite a sight to see: clean, gleaming and dare I say, “fancy”. Thre was one other place in St. Petersburg that was testing the cafe-waters. Шоколадны, the name in English, best translates to “Chocolatey”. They featured all things chocolate- ice cream, ice cream sundaes, cakes- including some “lattes” and mocha-type drinks.

In Amsterdam,  a“coffee shop” takes on a whole other illicit implication that does not really involve drinking a caffeinated beverage at all. These coffee shops say about one million words when you consider the political discourse that can arise from this topic these days. If you’re not familiar with the implications of an Amsterdam coffee shop, please kindly open your google-image browser now and have fun!

 In Spain, and I imagine elsewhere in Europe, the to-go-cup does not exist.  A coffee shop is a place meant to sit and enjoy your coffee, often in the company of others. Coffee, or cafe con leche, is not the only thing served in the coffee shop. You can also get a Colacoa (hot chocolate or hot chocolate milk), a beer, a cocktail, and often a free tapa if you go the alcohol-route (see my article about the amazing Tapa). But a to-go-cup, you will not find. This ties in heavily with Spanish culture, with an emphasis on sitting, relaxing and enjoying your food without any rush or hurry. They even have their own word to describe this, la sobremesa. La sobremesa is all-encompassing idea that you sit, and relax and enjoy your meal or beverage and the people you are dining with without any sense of obligation to time. The Spanish cafe fully embraces this and encourages it by offering all drinks to appease anyone in a group, and by following the norms of Spain’s other amazing custom “No Propina” (no tips!). Waiters are never in a rush to remove a plate or dish from you hand as you are taking your last bite. The Spanish cafe says, “sit and stay as long as you want and enjoy the food, drink and company you are with in this moment”. Perhaps it says more than 1,000 words.

Chile’s, or at least Santiago’s, coffee shops opened my eyes to a whole new idea of “The Coffee Shop”. Throughout the city, on most streets in the center of the city and in the business district, you can find at least one of these coffee shops. Next to my hotel were both “Cafe Caribe” and “Cafe Haiti”. Neither seemed to reflect the cultures of the Caribbean or Haiti except perhaps the coffee beans being ground and brewed, however, they both echoed a new perspective on Chilean culture.


Outside on the veranda, tall umbrella’s adorn tall skinny tables, where you can spot a lone sugar dispenser and bustling around these chair-less tables, a sea of suits. Man after business man, 2-pieces and loafers. Purely men standing around these tiny tables enjoying a cortado and each others’ company.

IMG_1172A quick glance across the sidewalk through the all-open glass doors to the inside, and the scene varies a bit. Shiny peach-colored marble floors, metallic ceilings with in-set lighting, swirling counters atop of a tiered platform. The uppermost tier has a grand espresso maker against an all-mirrored wall to really emphasize the sheen in the room. Again, no seats. Not a stool, chair, or comfy couch in sight. And at all hours of the day, all the customers still appear to be men in suits. Behind the swirling elegant counters are the main event: the women who make the coffee. Tall, slender women with legs for days and short skirts and heels to show them off. The secret of all the bustling businessmen-only crowd is revealed. One caveat to this unusual scene- they do have to-go cups, but I think I was the only one using them!

cafe 2
Interior of Cafe Caribe


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