Coffee As Cultural Barometer

When I first arrived here in Madrid, I immediately fell in love with the architecture, the warmth of the people, the food, the lifestyle. The only thing I found vexing was that there are no mini-kitchens here at the University where I work.

Let me explain. I work as a postdoc in experimental physics. I’ve gotten accustomed to the fact that there’s no such thing as “to-go” in much of the world, that one is forced to work at work, then take breaks for food consumption (a foreign notion to a U.S. native, to be sure, but one which I’ve accepted). The one thing, though, that has held in every academic setting in which I’ve worked is the presence of mini-kitchens, which are there really for one reason: the coffee maker. The notion that I would be forced to do work without a steady stream of the black elixir of mental life became almost oppressively odious to me. How in the sam hell did these bastards expect me to get anything done? Was water (sans bread, even) to be my brain’s only nourishment??? And, maybe most importantly, how would I form another chapter of our pun-ilicious-ly-named “High Energy Coffee Club” (since we work in high energy physics*) ?  How would the founders gain worldwide acclaim for their hilarity now?????

*insert rim shot here

In any case, it turned out this was all much ado about nothing, and that the reason there was no coffee machine was because it’s expected you take coffee breaks here. Fine. Understandable. The difference, however, between the Spanish coffee break and any other country’s (that I’ve taken) is the social Our greatest sociological resource aspect. It’s not that it surprises me that my office mates and I would head for coffee together; it’s the enormity of the process that still strikes me. Phone calls begin around 10:00 to various other departments to see who’s game; people are alerted, ferreted out, texted that it’s happening. Finally, an hour later, a group of no less than 5 and quite possibly more than 15 people wander en masse over to the cafeteria, where the conversation and caffeination will take at least an hour (before returning to work and beginning the phone tree again for a 2-3 o’clock lunch).

It’s extraordinary, the social networking here. Friends are not only the people you call for advice, they are really anybody around, and they are necessary if you are to leave your house to eat/drink/be merry without attracting stares. There is no such thing as someone going to a bar to unwind by themselves here, no such thing as one couple going on a date, and (perhaps most extraodinarily of all) no such thing even as being friendless.

As I just mentioned, I work in physics, so the geek factor is awfully high. I have spent many a lunch contemplating with colleagues whether some of us are honest-to-goodness Asperger’s Syndrome cases, or just assholes. (To be fair here, I think that, once you reach the level of terminal-degree-dom in any subject, you’re going to encounter insufferable bores, but still…the stereotype exists for a reason). I was recently telling a story about some geeky thing to a compañero here, and I asked how to translate “geek” or “nerd.” Ready for a kicker?

It can’t be done. There is no word for it. Sure, there are words for “bookworm” or “workaholic” or “brainiac” (or thereabouts), but there is no way to express that you think someone is any of those things, and also excommunicated from “polite” schoolyard society. It’s not that there don’t exist socially inept people here (one is sitting right behind me as I type this), but they are never excluded from the whole. Yup, here Rudolph played reindeer games with the other kids quite nicely, thank you.

So I get the bi-hourly massive exodus to seek sustenance, cafe-con-leche-based or otherwise. Part of me is still too used to my routine (which is why I have my mug by my side, ready for filling with *gasp* instant coffee in a pinch), but I join the ritual more and more, since immersion in this foreign land is half the point of living abroad, yes?

Plus, the cafe con leche is fucking great.


3 Responses to “Coffee As Cultural Barometer”

  1. February 5, 2009 at 19:32


    I really liked the story about the coffee get together routine.

    It must be a nice break from work, and the coffee should also be good in Spain

    Was it difficult learning Spanish?

    I was in Venezuela for 2 years, and it took me 3-6 months to be able to speak Spanish. I love the language. It is like music.


  2. 2 Paula
    February 7, 2009 at 22:17

    Nerd/geek = PRINGADO

  3. 3 jabberinwookie
    February 8, 2009 at 08:14

    Paula, thank you so much! Now I know what to call German next time he and the boys spend hours doing up our new office marker in Star Wars themes (but who should be Han Solo???).

    Oh, and, Sharon, I learned Spanish a multitude of ways (in school from a Puerto Rican teacher, practiced with Mexican friends in New York, then practiced at the Argentinean site of our collaboration’s experiment). Spain’s Castellano has by far been the toughest for me to understand, but I’m still giving it a go. And lisping all the way!

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