On Individualism, Work-Life Balance, and Coffee Culture in Madrid

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Photo from Windmill Dreams (her photography inspired this post!)

One afternoon during my first month in Madrid, I was walking through my new neighborhood with my laptop in search of a café where I could get cozy, caffeinate, and bust out some work. I had a spot in mind, a café on the corner of the next street over from my apartment that seemed busy and upbeat each time I walked past. The menu looked tasty and reasonably priced and the mugs (the main attraction, to me at least) were big and bulky, just how I like them. I arrived and stood at the door in the rain. I stared inside for a solid five minutes, then turned around and went home.

The café was bustling, as usual, but that wasn’t why I left. Each table was full of Spaniards, most with beverages and a few with a plate of tostas in front of them. They were all laughing and having animated conversations. The server was hurrying back and forth across the cramped dining area, skillfully dodging chairs, tables, bags, and limbs. There wasn’t an empty seat to be found, which was the first problem, but I also noted that no one at the café had a laptop, was reading a book silently, or was even sitting alone for that matter.

On my way home I messaged a friend to see if she knew of any cafés where people went with laptops and could sit and enjoy a cup of coffee or two while they work. To my confusion, there was only one that she was aware of: Starbucks.

Where we go when we need somewhere to go

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My favorite café on planet Earth

In my hometown, there’s exactly one café that everyone frequents: Jorgensen’s (Jorg’s for short). In high school and beyond, all of my friends had a favorite coffee flavor (mine was chocolate raspberry) and a favorite bagel/cream cheese combo (Asiago cheese with chive and onion for me). Everyone had a favorite seat; mine was one of the two heavily graffitied, wooden booths, though I’d settle for the raised window seats in the corner or the sunflower nook. Everyone knew the late local legend, Vern, who sat at his designated table every single day from open to close and chatted with the café-goers.

As a young person living in an isolated, rural area in Maine with little extra cash (I had a summer job that paid for gas and not much else), it was imperative to have a place to get away. Oftentimes, Jorgensen’s was that place. Jorg’s was where we went when we needed to get out of the house and had nowhere else to go. I studied for the SAT and submitted college applications in my favorite booth and that, along with a few refills of my favorite coffee, kept me sane. I spent countless hours there gossiping with friends, making nebulous plans for the future, and just taking a break from real life for a while. I make a point to go back every time I’m home, to taste the coffee that hasn’t changed in years and to see the names of old friends carved into the tabletops, even when I don’t need another cup or already ate lunch.

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The sunflower nook at Jorg’s (photo from the Kennebec Journal)

I didn’t know it at the time, but walking around in the rain that day I think I was searching for a chance to recreate the way I feel when I sit down at my favorite café in the world. I don’t mean the nostalgia and familiarity of Jorgensen’s specifically, of course. I mean the sense of purpose that I feel opening up my laptop with my faithful, frothy coffee companion at my side. I was looking for the unspoken agreement that buying a cup of coffee at a café also buys me a few square feet of table space where I can relax, get organized, do my work, or just scroll through Facebook for a few hours. Madrid has thousands of cafés, but I would soon learn that the rules, which I’d never thought twice about in the US, were very different here.

But why? What are the rules, where did they come from, and what do they mean?

A brief history of Satan’s drink

According to legend, the stimulative effects of coffee were discovered by a goatherd in southwestern Ethiopia named Kaldi. One day, Kaldi noticed that his goats would perk up and begin dancing after eating the fruit from an unknown bush. He tried the fruit himself and felt suddenly exhilarated. He brought the beans to a monk, who disapproved of them and threw them into a fire, filling the room with a delicious aroma. The rest is history.

Coffee beans spread from Ethiopia to Yemen in the 16th century, where the port city of Mocha would soon become an important trading post for the highly desirable product. From the Arabian peninsula, the beans traveled Westward through modern-day Turkey with the advances of the Ottoman Empire, where the earliest traces of today’s so-called “coffee culture” can be found. During the mid-16th century, the Turkish sultan Suleiman the Magnificent grew to love the drink and had a team of 40 professional coffee makers living in the palace and specializing in different aspects of preparation. But coffee wasn’t just a luxury for the very wealthy; it quickly spread from the palace to public coffeehouses. “Issues that couldn’t be addressed in mosques were discussed in public spaces– over coffee,” says Simran Sethi in her book Bread, Wine, Chocolate. “While Europeans were starting their days with beer, Ethiopians and citizens of the Arab world were fueling their lives with caffeine.”

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Turkish coffeehouse (source here)

Coffee arrived in western Europe by way of the island of Malta. Given that the drink was largely associated with Islam, it was forbidden by the Catholic Church until roughly 1600 when Pope Clement VIII exclaimed: “Why, this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it and making it a truly Christian beverage.” With the Pope’s blessing, this newly anointed “Christian beverage” gained popularity in Italy and the first coffeehouse in Europe opened in Venice in 1645.

It’s impossible to measure the impact that coffee has subsequently had in the world both politically and economically. During the 1600’s, coffeehouses reached France and Britain and fueled intellectuals, academics, writers, and activists that would shape the course of Western society. The increased popularity of this bitter beverage (along with tea and chocolate) gave rise to the global sugar trade, which resulted in the ransacking of Africa and the enslavement of millions of native African people. In the 1700’s, drinking coffee instead of tea was colonial America’s first protest of British tea taxes (before the Boston Tea Party, of course). In the 1800’s, coffee fueled the Industrial Revolution as workers were able to put in longer hours on less sleep. Two centuries later, coffee continues to be an essential part of the morning ritual of millions of workers all over the world, to the point where it pains many of us to even think of starting a day without it.

“Cornerstones of Spanish social life”

Apart from its economic and political implications, coffee has also had an important social impact across the globe since the early days of its dissemination. Though “coffee culture” varies greatly from place to place, one feature remains quite consistent: people tend to come together around coffee. Whether it’s for a short encounter between meetings or a long and lazy afternoon at Jorgensen’s, coffee has become the centerpiece of social gatherings in many cultures.

I’ve found that this is especially true in Spain. From the very beginning of this experience, there were signs that suggested exactly how central coffee would be in social settings. The Spanish podcast I listened to in anticipation of arriving in Spain was called “Coffee Break Spanish.” During orientation for this program, the most frequent piece of advice I received from veteran English assistants was to go to the school’s coffee break. This would be the time and place to learn about the teachers on a personal level and get a better understanding of the inner workings of the school in a way that’s as informal as it is important.

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Terrace at a café in Plaza Mayor, Madrid (source here)

The use of coffee as a medium for social interaction extends far beyond school walls. Walking through the streets of Madrid on a sunny day, you’ll see nearly every café terrace filled with Spaniards (and tourists) greeting one another with a kiss on each cheek, talking, laughing, clapping each other on the shoulder, sharing cigarettes, occasionally making out, all the while sipping a café con leche or caña (tiny beer). In fact, one study showed that one in five Spaniards visit a cafe, bar, or restaurant every single day and that over 60% go at least once a week. The study considers these spaces, along with parks, the “cornerstones of Spanish social life.” It goes on to say that Spaniards are happy overall, as half of those surveyed would rate their happiness at 7 or 8 out of 10. “This ties to the fact that more than 56% never get bored and 68% never felt alone.”

I found this last statistic particularly striking, especially considering the fact that loneliness has been identified as an increasingly problematic phenomenon in the US and beyond. A study conducted in 2016 found that 72% of the 2,000 Americans surveyed experienced loneliness, and 31% felt lonely at least once a week (source). According to the study, “isolation is often an underlying factor in many of the most common health conditions, including chronic pain, substance abuse and depression.” Britain has gone so far as to appoint its first ever “minister of loneliness,” citing that loneliness and social isolation are “associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity” (source). 

There are many possible explanations for why so many people experience loneliness in the US and Britain, and I’m sure it varies greatly by country, region, and individual person. Technology in general and social media in particular could be to blame, as we spend so much time interacting with each other through our devices that we miss out on opportunities to socialize face-to-face. However, I think the most likely culprits are 1) a societal focus on individualism versus collectivism and 2) the balancing act of work and leisure activities in everyday life.

In the US, for example, we tend to be highly competitive, work-oriented, and individualistic. We work long hours and take little time off. In fact, in 2016 Americans gave up half of their vacation days, opting to work instead. Part of this, I believe, has to do with the (highly capitalistic) idea that our worth is somehow based on our productivity. Coming to Spain, many of us have struggled to figure out what to do with our free time (Q: Do I exercise? Read a book? Wander aimlessly around the city? Make an elaborate meal for everyone I know? Figure out grad school? Take on more private lessons? A: All of the above, plus start a blog). Furthermore, we spend much of our days commuting back and forth by bus, train, or car, sitting alone at our desks, and staring at computer screens. In other words, we spend much of our time, at least during the workday, alone.

In contrast, Spain is well known for its work-life balance and its tendency towards collectivism. Long paid vacations and a 2-3 hour break (siesta) in the middle of the workday are just a few examples of how these values have been institutionalized in Spain. To us Americans, this mentality seems much more “laid back” (though some might be inclined to use the word “lazy”) because life is simply more relaxed and less earnest here. Apart from this, though, ask any Spaniard what’s most important to them in life and they’ll almost always have the same answer: family. Unlike Americans, who often travel far and wide to attend the best colleges or secure the best jobs, Spaniards are more likely to make big life decisions based on where their family is located. While work is important, it’s not always the most important. In general, enjoying the company of family and friends on a regular basis is seen as much more of a necessity here.

What does all of this have to do with coffee?

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Work café or “coffice” (cringe) in New York City (source here)

It may seem like a bit of a stretch to relate coffee to loneliness or individualism or work-life balance. I’m not suggesting that coffee will cure anyone of loneliness (while it’s great at stimulating a conversation, it’s not so great at holding one). However, the way Americans and Spaniards approach coffee is discernibly different, and I think part of this may be related to our approach to life more generally. Do we prioritize work or play? Do we focus on the individual or the collective? Perhaps our behavior at the local café can offer some clues.

Why did I feel too awkward to sit down with my laptop at the café that rainy day? I knew something was off. I could sense it somehow, but I didn’t know exactly what it was at the time.

Even today, when I go to cafés in Madrid I rarely see laptops. When I do, the café is usually full of English-speakers, not Spaniards. Yesterday, for example, I spent few hours at a café near my apartment to do a little more observing before finishing this post. There was a pair of older gentlemen sitting near my table who were talking urgently, possibly planning something, and jotting down notes in moleskine journals. Another man sat in the corner near the bathroom by himself and when I walked by I saw that he was doodling in a tiny notebook while he sipped his cortado. One girl came in wearing workout clothes and headphones, presumably after a run. She sat alone at a table and ate a slice of cake before hurrying out the door (respect). Everyone else who entered the café that afternoon sat down with at least one other person to chat over coffee and pastries. I was the only one using an electronic device.

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From yesterday at El Secuestrador de Besos (peep the waiter’s adorable tuxedo T-shirt)

Here’s what I think: Americans are more likely to drink coffee in order to work more. It helps us work longer and more efficiently and it makes work more enjoyable. I was wandering around in the rain that day because I wanted to find a place to zone out and get some work done. In general, I go to cafés for the atmosphere, the energy, and the people-watching, but ultimately I want to drink a hot beverage that I can’t make at home and do my work in peace.

While this might be true for Spanish people to an extent, cafés are much more likely to be associated with social life than work in Spain. Spaniards meet for coffee because cafés provide a space to relax and socialize. Every other person at the café that day was there for a totally different purpose. They didn’t come equipped with a to-do list. Here, sitting down at a café with a friend, partner, or family member and then putting a laptop on the table between you completely defeats the purpose of coming to the café at all. In doing so, I would quickly identify myself as a foreigner and earn a few confused glances and raised eyebrows.

Of course, these are only my observations, not rules written in stone. I still occasionally bring work or a book to cafés nearby to quietly enjoy my coffee and soak in my surroundings. It’s inherently enjoyable and calming for me, and has been ever since I fell in love with that cup of coffee at Jorgensen’s all those years ago. But recognizing these differences and using them as guideposts while out and about in Madrid has been one small step towards better understanding this new place. There’s a lot to learn, after all, that the books and travel blogs don’t mention. This has also put my own behavior and culture into perspective. Immersing yourself in another culture quickly teaches you that your way isn’t the only way.

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Coffee and churros, a match made in heaven (source here)

This post is brought to you by the Café con Leche playlist on Spotify.

For tips on how to order coffee in Madrid, check out Travel Away’s article “The Curious Case of Coffee in Spain.”

Categories: Food Musings

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6 replies »

  1. I find your observation intriguing, Danielle, and I think it is correct. Work and individualism are help up as ideals to strive for in the US without giving much thought to the cost of this approach to the individual and society. I hope you will be able to become part of the social web, rather than simply observe it from the outside.

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