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How to Drink Coffee Like a European

One thing a lot of coffee-loving Americans learn when traveling in Europe is just how difficult it is to get an iced coffee, especially an iced coffee to go. Or any coffee to go. I’m starting to see it a little bit more here and there, but not really. The places where you do find it are probably offering it for the Americans. We love our coffee—iced or otherwise—just as they do, but the ways we each enjoy it tell us everything we need to know about our differences.


Sometimes on my way to work I’ll stop at Dunkin Donuts for my morning coffee, and if I time it wrong I might end up behind eight or nine high school kids ordering. One kid in front of me the other day ordered a large frozen coconut coffee with a caramel flavor swirl. Frozen. It can take me ten minutes to get through the line on mornings like this.


My first time abroad, studying in Montpellier, France in 2005, I one day took a walk downtown with one of the professors, a French writing teacher named Enzo. I didn’t know him very well but we chatted the duration of the two-mile walk, about thirty minutes, to meet up with other instructors at a restaurant. We talked about teaching and literature mostly, about his growing up in France, probably some football talk (not the American kind). A massive stone aqueduct, ancient and deteriorated in spots, ran the entire length of the road we walked, casting a dramatic shadow, the sun popping in and out of its arches.


As we neared downtown we passed a small café, and Enzo asked if I would like a coffee. “We have time, yes?” he said. I shrugged and agreed. We went in and sat and had two small ceramic cups of espresso, the size of which reminded me of a young girl’s doll set. Enzo crossed his legs and sat back, then lit a cigarette. We talked some more, even though we’d been talking the last thirty minutes, and were on our way to dinner, where we’d sit for a couple more hours and talk even more. I sipped my coffee and tried to go with the flow.


Later, after dinner, on my own this time, I found an ice cream shop and went in. I’d seen others walking the square with their cones capped with small orbs of ice cream, no bigger than a golf ball. I perused the flavors and then looked up at the sign for the sizes and prices. There were four sizes, I noticed: petit, moyen, grand, and Americano. I didn’t speak French but could figure it out. I thought of the hot-fudge sundaes I ate back home, banana splits, and those frozen, flavor-shot coffees crowned in drizzled whipped cream the high school kids indulged in. I looked around at the small cones the locals were enjoying, the little coffee cups everywhere. These small treats. Things here felt different.


* * *

I’ve led undergraduate study abroad groups to San Sebastián, Spain two consecutive summers, 2015 and ’16, a much more seasoned traveler than I was back in 2005. Like much of Europe, the Basques enjoy their coffee. I frequented the café directly downstairs from my apartment, Barrenetxe, and always ordered a café con leche, coffee with milk, not quite packing the punch of those espressos back in France. By now I knew the drill. I’d adapted. I spent my mornings at this café, or one of the others in the neighborhood, Café Arubi or Larrun, with my iPad/keyboard combo under my arm. I sat inside in the back, or, if there was space, outside on the sidewalk, sipping my coffee and eating a pastry, usually a flaky croissant with its ends dipped in chocolate. I’d work on my novel, people watch, spending a long hour or sometimes more. Later in the day I’d find my way to a different café and do it all again.


Many of the cafés in San Sebastián have outdoor seating, an opportunity to take in the rhythms of this lively city, the stone grid of its Old Town and pinxto bars, street markets, and of course the diamond-shimmer of the Bay of Biscay. Surfers walk by, their boards under their arms, hair wet, feet gritty with sand, bodies lean and tanned from a life on the waves. The city is bookended by two beaches, Zurriola and La Concha, where Hemingway’s Jake Barnes takes that final baptismal swim at the end of The Sun also Rises. It’s impossible not to fall under the city’s spell, for your own heartbeat to synch to its pulse: long summer days of beach life, of surf life, the reliable clinking of ceramic at the many cafés, even the Spanish sun taking the long way across the summer sky.


When we travel abroad, we often move at a frenetic pace. We have a set agenda and a limited time. We rush to make a train, rush to find a cab. Drop our bags in our room so we can head out with our guidebook and see what we came to see. This is especially true in the bigger cities. The Coliseum, the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, et cetera, et cetera. Lots to see, it’s true. But I’d argue that it is equally important to not only see the sites and snap the photos, but to acclimate yourself to the pace and attitude of your surroundings. This is also why you came. You won’t be missing out by sitting at a café on a sidewalk for an hour, or even just thirty minutes. In fact, it’s the one time it’s perfectly acceptable to let the world pass you by.


Coffee break. We’ve heard the phrase but it doesn’t really exist in the States anymore, does it? But here, in San Sebastián and across Europe, it surely does. Coffee is a sit-down beverage, something to be savored, something to talk over, possibly with a pastry on the side, legs crossed, the day’s pause button pushed. You’d get some pretty strange looks asking for a coffee “to go,” or, the way they say it over here, “take away.” Why? What would be the point? Where are you going?


I remember this old-fashioned term—coffee break—from once-upon-a-time. Before the extra-large-frozen-mocha-whipped-caramel-drizzle-raspberry-with-a-pumpkin-spice-flavor-shot. Before all that. As a young boy, I sometimes went into a Dunkin Donuts with my father, or even with a friend, each with a quarter in our pockets to buy a doughnut. In those days the shops had a long counter, sometimes bending around the corner, old-fashioned round stools that were bolted to the floor and spun. On any given visit I’d find this counter lined with men, older men, hair grayed-out and jowls sagged, reading glasses low on their noses, perusing newspapers, the length of the counter cluttered with coffee mugs and spoons, this coffee break a scheduled part of their day.


My second summer teaching in San Sebastián, I’d brought with me a printed copy of the rough draft of my novel, crumpled and coffee stained. I took it to the cafés, slid it out of my backpack, sipped my coffee and did some light editing. Then when I needed a stretch I’d walk the city, taking in the views of the bay and the churches, the old hotel still riddled with bullet holes from the war, and then eventually I’d pass another café and take a seat. I’d order my second café con leché, nurse it, sitting outdoors and in the shade. Sometimes my head down as I did a little more editing, sometimes my head up, looking around. But mostly, I’d just sit, and sip, and be.


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