Let’s go for coffee?
Or “Vamos beber um café?” in Portuguese
As I enter my second year living abroad and far away from my dear country, I’m starting to miss certain Portuguese traditions. I do understand that living in a new country requires certain adjustments to my lifestyle, and I like to think of myself as a pretty open-minded person that is ready to experience new things. But there is just one aspect of the Portuguese culture that has been impossible to replace.
The coffee-drinking habit
In Portugal, we have a coffee-drinking habit that one could argue doesn’t really revolve around the drink itself. I know this sounds somewhat confusing but allow me to explain.
When it comes to coffee, Portugal isn’t necessarily the first place that comes to mind. The country is not even at the top of the coffee consumption list, in fact, we are not even close to the top ten. Now, don’t get me wrong, I do think we have pretty good coffee, but the habit that I’m talking about today it’s simply much more than that. I believe that the Portuguese coffee culture is all about allowing yourself a much necessary break to enjoy the moment, alone or with company. Coffee is the excuse that we use that defines our culture.
When we drink coffee
Like many other counties, drinking coffee is a part of our everyday lives. In Portugal, our lives revolve around coffee, and we drink it several times per day. With breakfast, mid-morning, in the afternoon, after dinner; coffee is always there to be served and drunk at every possible moment of the day. But I would say that mid-morning and after lunch are the traditional times for taking a much necessary coffee break. And during these breaks, the Portuguese people enjoy lingering at the table, talking and of course, drinking coffee.
In most countries, people usually drink coffee at home or at work. But in Portugal, coffee is generally drunk in cafés, since there is one of these places on nearly every street in the country. In fact, you can have coffee pretty much everywhere, and you don’t need to walk that far to find a place that sells coffee, trust me. Even supermarkets have a little coffee shop inside!
Café, an instituintion
Although it is very easy to find a place to drink coffee, nothing beats the café. Cafés in Portugal are literally everywhere, on every street, not just in shopping malls but in suburban neighbourhoods as well. Even in the most isolated places in the country, I guarantee there’s going to be a coffee shop at the end of the street. And because of this, the coffee house has became some sort of institution with a very distinct look and feel. Portuguese cafés are very different from big franchised places like Starbucks. For example, when you enter a café you usually don’t see a menu or a price list anywhere — maybe there’s a list with the specials of the day. This is because you tend to order the same everywhere by the same price, regardless of what coffee shop or brand it is.
The most popular type of order is just a coffee or “um café”, this is an espresso. It’s a short and rich coffee, usually served in a tiny white porcelain cup. You can drink it like a shot if you are brave enough. Fun fact: my grandmother still to this day drinks espresso in a hot mug like it’s nothing — and she is my god damn hero! Although the espresso is the typical drink, we do have a wide range of coffee drink options, and we also have our own coffee lingo — there’s no italiano in a café.
To drink here
Needless to say that the Portuguese coffee culture definitely clashes with now popular coffee chains like Starbucks, where the standard option is “coffee to go”. We usually drink coffee at the establishment, regardless of the place. Even if it’s a coffee shop without chairs or tables, it’s just assumed that you are going to drink your espresso at the counter. Try to ask for your coffee to go, and they will look at you confused. Doesn’t matter if you are alone or with company, you look busy or relaxed, even if you drink the espresso like my grandmother or take your sweet time, when you are drinking coffee you are taking a break and having a relaxing time before going out into the real world. You are drinking coffee because you want to put a pause in your day. And this is what drinking coffee in Portugal is all about.
More than coffee
I’ve now mentioned that drinking coffee can be seen as “taking a break” time in a Portuguese’s daily life. But there’s also another aspect, one that I would say it’s even more culture-defined: coffee is an excuse to bring people together. In Portugal, cafés double as a meeting point and serve almost as communal living rooms. If you say you are going out for coffee, most often it means that you are going to catch up with a friend than to just enjoy the delights of the caffeinated hot drink; although the combination of both is certainly appreciated.
Like any other Southern European country, coffee is Portugal’s social beverage of choice. Drinking coffee in Portugal comes with a significant social aspect attached. The drink only serves as the excuse to get together with friends and to have a place to sit at the café. Since Portugal has such a big sociable culture with a big emphasis in connection with friends, it’s only natural that the coffee habit has had such a significant role in it.
At my old job in Portugal, I used to hate the coffee from the crappy machine at the office. But I would still drink it almost every single day because that meant that not only could I take a break, I also could indulge myself in some office gossiping with some of my colleagues. It always seemed almost like a small detail in my day, but now looking back, being in a more socially closed country, it made me realise the importance the Portuguese coffee culture has in my life.