In the US, there are various activities that go hand and hand with a cup of coffee. There’s the start to the day coffee, slowly enjoyed aside breakfast. Then there’s the don’t leave home without it coffee. Most of us have mastered the skill of precariously balancing a travel mug while driving a car, tucking in our shirt, and peering into the rearview mirror to fix our hair. There’s also the mid afternoon coffee break, a chance to stretch your legs and let your mind cool down right before shocking it back into attention with a dose of caffeine.
Coffee culture in Barcelona, however, is vastly different from that of the US. Back home, the process of making or ordering, sipping, enjoying, and lingering over everything from the first whiff to the last drop is no less than a ritual. In Barcelona, there seems to be two distinct coffee practices: the instant fix and the quick sip followed by a leisurely jaunt in an outdoor cafe. In the first, caffeine is more of a pure necessity, akin to filling up at the gas station. You place your order, hand over some cash, guzzle it down, and you’re on your way to the next errand.
Coffee is usually served in some variant of a single shot of espresso. So forget that extra-tall, big-friendly-giant sized coffee. Typically it takes only one, maybe two guzzles to finish off your order. If ordered to go, it is served in a dixie cup, the kind you leave for guests in your guest bathroom so they don’t need to bother with the inconvenience of leaning over the faucet to rinse. They even have silver dollar sized coffee lids for your carrying convenience.
Just as you don’t need your gas station to be fancy, you don’t need your café to have marble countertops, friendly baristas or bedazzled chandeliers. Your top, and sometimes only requirement, is that it is nearby in the off chance that you run out of fuel before you get there. In Barcelona, there are a few different types of cafes. There’s the neighborhood café, the outdoor, umbrella covered café, or increasingly the café chain with unwarranted extras like pastries and squeaky clean floors.
Yet, Barcelona’s coffee culture is dual faceted, the other side of which is the siesta effect. As you would order a coffee after a late evening meal to prepare for the drive home in the US, here you would order an espresso after a three course, two hour, late afternoon lunch. This is where the lingering comes in. Most times the café solo or cortado is finished off in a matter of minutes. This, however, is only the beginning.
Café goers sit under the shade of large umbrellas at length with empty cups, occasionally people watching during conversation lulls. Empty cups and last sips do not signal an end to the coffee or a wrapping up of the conversation. Nor is it a universal sign for the waiter to bring over the check. Empty cups stay empty cups, stationed firmly on the table for the duration of your stay.
Where’s the waiter, you ask? He’s in on the gig too. He knows to steer clear and let you enjoy lingering over these tiny empty cups. Even if you wanted to pay, you wouldn’t be able to track him down. So when does the exchange of the check and amount due occur? We’re still working on that one.