Letter from Buenos Aires: Coffee versus café

Leah Klass ordered coffee to go and got much more than she asked for.

By Leah Klass (Anthropology, Latin American Studies '98)

Photo courtesy of Leah Klass.

Starbucks, Folgers, in a can, in a teabag, in a paper cup. When I think about coffee in relation to my life in the United States I think about time in the most limited sense. A cup hot in my hands, an amazing aroma, a special moment in between running out of the house and getting to the office. An afternoon break from my desk and computer screen or a well-spent three dollars on a trip to the bookstore. I couldn’t find anything I wanted to read anyway.

After I’ve lived in Argentina for eight months, the flavor of coffee has taken a new place in my life. Or maybe it would be better to say that my life has taken on a new flavor.

How did you drink yours this morning? Were you careful not to spill it on yourself or your keyboard? Lots of sugar and a splash of milk? Can you close your eyes and find the tab on the thin plastic lid that clings to the Styrofoam friend in your hand? By this time you’ve probably had more than a few sips.

For the first time since I moved to Buenos Aires in February, I did something that I used to do every week when I lived in Virginia: I ordered a cup of coffee to go. It only now occurs to me that To Go is not a term used for coffee in most of the U.S. At least not in places where you don’t even have the option to stay. There is usually limited seating space, and people don’t feel comfortable leaning against the elastic railing that guides them through the line from order to cashier to pick up and back out the door. There is time to dig for change in your purse, read the headlines on the pile of papers and stare into the glass refrigerator case at the poppy seed muffins.

In Argentina this is not common. In fact, when I went into the corner confiteria, the experience was totalmente al contrario. A confiteria is a café that serves lunch, dinner and any other type of food at any time you could wish for. You are served at small and solid square wooden tables by career waiters who far surpass smooth in their definition of service.

I walked up to a waiter and asked him for a café con leche to go. Was it even possible? He replied, “Of course!” I’ve found that most every order no matter how wacky is possible in this particular place. He then went to consult at the counter with some of the other waiters and the confiteria manager.

As they talked amongst themselves and the waiter smiled over at me, so awkward was the moment that after placing the order, the waiter returned, pulled a chair out from its place at one of the tables and asked me to sit down while I waited for the coffee.

He crossed the room to the magazine rack hanging on a wall and brought me that morning’s newspaper. Like all cafés in Buenos Aires, there are always several copies of that day’s major papers, all types of magazines as well, just waiting for you to read them. They are free of charge and you can take as long as like to read through the entire thing and no one will mind. When you are done, you simply leave the newspaper on the table for the next patron.

When the waiter handed me the newspaper, I asked him rather sarcastically if there was any good news to read. Without hesitating he pointed to a cover story about two 28-year-old identical twins who had found each other for the first time in a shopping mall in Cordoba. What service! There was even a fresh selection of good news!

The waiter asked me if there was anything else he could get me. As all of this was transpiring, I was laughing about how far from my own culture of order and run, stand and wait this was.

Behind the counter several men were trying to figure out what kind of cups they could give me To Go and finally decided on doubling up some plastic juice cups. They poured the coffee in, added the hot air-whipped milk on top and even found a lid! When the waiter brought the coffee over, he smiled and then sweetly started to explain what I was getting.

He had placed the cup in a paper bag, the kind used here for carrying out croissants. Inside the bag, he showed me, there were four packets of sugar, some napkins, a stirring spoon I could bring back later and some cookies to eat while I drank the coffee. It would cost me a dollar.

I could not stop smiling. I thanked the waiter, took the bag and gave him the three pesos for the coffee. Then I left a tip on the table, next to my newspaper.

When was the last time that you drank coffee from a cup that would have felt lonely without a saucer? There is truly something amazing about this café culture. Meeting with a friend in a confiteria for a cup of coffee to discuss something important or nothing at all. Taking a break from touring the city in order to recoup your energies while watching the most interesting haircuts and handbags walk by the window.  Making a conscious decision to put off your paper writing just a little longer in order to slowly sip in an afternoon.

What a privilege it is to have these moments in my life. When I am feeling homesick, there is always a caring waiter to ask where I am from, to compliment me on my accent. I can walk down the street without any particular place to go and stop into a confiteria for just a few minutes or until I stop counting them.

Perhaps the most important reason to put yourself in unfamiliar situations — in this case, to live in a foreign country — is so that you can have the chance to start seeing where you come from and what you are all about.

The meaning of To Go has changed for me. It now makes me feel rushed, stressed out and anxious. I am filled with shame about the endless number of paper cups, plastic lids and wax-covered sugar packets I have been responsible for turning into garbage. All in the name of saving time?

Other than maybe sharing a smile, have I ever developed any kind of civilized relationship with the person serving me coffee To Go? Is it possible to stop and think about the meaning that you want your life to have when you don’t have the time to stop and think? That is something to ponder while you drink your coffee.

Buenos Aires is a city of many flavors, and this is a wonderful way to drink them in. I encourage you to come and do the same.