On Cafes and Just Sitting
Back in the States I never drink coffee. Maybe it’s the terrible coffee served in Val, maybe it’s the excessive price of a latte at Rao’s or Starbucks, but coffee has never been my thing. Within three days of getting here though, I was addicted to café con leche.
Café con leche is pretty similar to an American latte without the foam – espresso mixed with hot steamed milk. Typically it comes in a small ceramic mug, and the waiter pours the scalded milk into the espresso right in front of you. A café con leche is much smaller than an American cup of coffee, and at around 1.3 euro a glass, I don’t mind the frequent indulgence.
Because of both my newfound addiction and my increased free time (as I mentioned in my last post), I’ve been spending a lot of time in cafes. I take the metro someplace random (my favorite stops are Tribunal and Chueca), then wander until I find a café that looks appealing that day. I’ve mastered the basic phrase “un café con leche por favor.” I give my order to the waiter, feeling pleased that I can get the words out without stumbling, then pick out a chair or poof or spot at the bar.
And I’ll spend hours sipping that cup. I think many travelers know this experience, remember the time they nursed a cup of coffee for hours just watching the world go by. It’s a surreal experience, slowly sipping as the café con leche grows cold, watching as other customers traipse in and out.
Sometimes I journal. Sometimes I write postcards. Sometimes I pull out a book.
Time feels suspended.
Regardless of the activity I choose that day, I love the stillness that comes with the coffee. Often here in Madrid (and back home too), my thoughts are dedicated to planning – I have to book a hostel, map out a route to the museum, make sure I print out boarding passes for a weekend trip – constantly looking ahead. Getting trapped in planning is so easy; my brain automatically reaches to fill the new open spaces with maps and schedules and charts for the future. Theoretically, if I can have “it” planned out well enough, nothing will go wrong as I actually live “it”. But all that planning can get in the way of enjoying the daily experience of these months in Spain, and that is what makes the coffeeshop environment so ideal. When I’m in a café, I’m not going anywhere. Usually I don’t have wifi (I don’t pay for a data plan here), so I can’t do much to plan. Instead I get to just live the abroad life.
And the abroad life is sensory and bustling, full of rich coffee and oddball cafes with bicycles hanging from walls or Victorian flowery couches next to neon counters. Each corner seems to have a new café to try.
The abroad life is also full of pastries. Oh, the pastries! If I want something sweet along with my coffee (or any other time of day), I usually go for a napolitana de chocolate. These pastries are a Spanish version of a chocolate croissant, denser and less flakey than their French counterparts, and filled with a thick layer of melty chocolate. I’ve had my fair share of traditional croissants too, wonderfully buttery and filled with chocolate or almond paste.
A good croissant never detracts from the café experience. In my café excursions I’ve also sampled dense layer cakes, Portuguese egg tarts, torrijas (Spanish French toast), and plenty of lacy, delicate cookies.
And then, if I want something sweet enough to make my teeth ache, I go for churros con chocolate. Spanish hot chocolate is pudding-thick, not too creamy but intensely rich. The churros are crunchy on the outside, doughy and steaming within. I like them best drenched in powdered sugar or cinnamon, then dunked in the hot chocolate. Together, the churros and chocolate pair is decadent. Traditionally it’s eaten for breakfast (Spaniards are not known for healthy breakfasts), but I’ve found that it works equally well as an afternoon snack or late-night indulgence, and a glass of thick hot chocolate is an excellent excuse for café-sitting.
Regardless of the coffee or hot chocolate or pastry in front of me, the café environment reminds me to stop planning. My first few travel weekends have already taught me that even the best-made plans will run into problems (like that time I took us to Chamartin suburb not Chamartin station…). But I’ve made my way through those hitches intact, so I may as well stop stressing over each potential situation and accept that I’ll face them when I have to. In the cafes the other customers read the newspaper or chat in rapid Spanish about their unknown lives. I know they too have their stresses and worries, futures to plan. But, with coffee in hand, they seem to have all the time they need. And for the next few months here, I too have that time to linger for hours over a café con leche and watch my world go by.