Tuesday, November 12, 2013

“They've Got an Awful Lot of Coffee in Brazil”

The day of a Brazilian is filled with coffee, figuratively of course. The beverage is not only drunk at breakfast but is also the literal word for breakfast in Portuguese: morning coffee. During the day, people have so many coffee breaks that offices and government departments have a thermal bottle of coffee available for their employees. Having a cup of coffee is not just a habit, it is a social occasion. So, with this cultural background, my first experience at a Californian Starbucks was quite shocking.

Before starting my story I have to say that, eight years ago, when I moved to California there was no Starbucks in Brazil. Our coffee shops are straightforward places where you simply drink a cup of coffee, or espresso, and relax. In Brazil, all the offices and government departments hire an old lady to be in charge of making fresh coffee throughout the day. Meetings, for example, won’t start till the coffee arrives. I remember very well having to wait patiently for the coffee, staring out the window. Everybody at the meeting room would be exchanging half smiles, clicking pens, crossing and uncrossing legs till the coffee arrived. Then, the mood suddenly changed: everybody enthusiastically getting up to go to the coffee tray, taking a cup to their seats, and happily chatting.

The first time I had coffee in the U.S. was on my third day living in California. I barely spoke English, but I was confident enough to order something simple such as a cup of coffee.

I went to a Starbucks and I asked the cashier, “May I have a cup of coffee?”

“Tall, original or short?” He replied.

I had no idea what he was talking about. Surely noticing that I didn’t speak English, he pointed at three different sizes of cups. Well, after all these years living here I still don’t see a “short” cup as a small size. In my opinion, the “short” cup at Starbucks looks like a medium size. So, I pointed to the short cup and paid for it.

When my name was called, I picked up my cup and opened to pour some milk. I immediately felt discouraged. I wasn’t even able to order a cup of coffee in English! Instead, he understood tea and gave it to me. But I felt that I should speak up for myself and fix that situation, even with my poor English. So I went back and said that he made a mistake, because I didn’t ordered tea. I had ordered coffee, of course. Tea sounds completely different, I was thinking. He made a mistake, not me.

The guy looked at my cup and said “That’s coffee.”

“It’s not,” I replied.

Well, we went back and forth a few times. He thought I wanted tea, after all, and showed me a tea bag. I kept repeating the word “coffee” until he showed me where my beverage had come from. Oh, oh… that was really coffee. I sat, took a deep breath and drank: it was disgusting. I felt I was having a tea with coffee flavor; or even worse; it tasted as warm water with something inside. There were no fruity or roasted flavors. There was not even the delicious smell of fresh dripped coffee. I didn’t finish that thing. I just returned the cup and left the place.

I laugh at the situation today, but eight years ago it felt like a big learning experience. My cultural shock involved not only learning a new language but also a new culture. I learned to order my coffee and I no longer miss Brazilian coffee. If you are wondering if I went back to Starbucks, I have to answer no. My favorite place is a coffee shop called “Chromatic” in Santa Clara. There, they serve real coffee.

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