(Part 4 of 4)
LISBON — It is nearing 5 o’clock on a hot summer Tuesday afternoon in Lisbon. After an all-morning Portuguese cooking class with a wine-sated three-course lunch, we joined Rui, a Tours by Locals® guide who’s been giving us a private walking tour and tutorial on Portugal’s role in the slave trade for the past two hours.
As we headed toward Baixa (as the heart of downtown Lisbon is known), Rui stopped and said with great resolve, “We have much more to see, but it is time to take a break.”
He led us to his favorite coffee shop, explaining that Portugal’s coffee tradition has an almost-sacramental air in his country. It’s a tradition that bespeaks a way of life that eludes many Americans — me included.
A quality experience
As we entered the unassuming shop that is a local favorite, it seemed unusually busy for so late in the afternoon. A line of patrons patiently awaited their turns to order “um café,” a double shot of espresso served in a quaint demitasse, along with a delectable cream-filled pastry or hefty wedge of generously frosted layer cake.
We joined the line.
Portuguese workers routinely take an afternoon coffee break. While one could argue that these breaks fuel the body for hours more of productive work (the evening meal may not take place until 9 p.m. or later), the café tradition is more than that. As we discovered, this daily ritual is part of a culture that values quality of life and relationships as much as — and maybe even more than — productivity at work.
Everything about this coffee break is intentional.
For “um café,” the barista placed 14 to 16 grams of finely-ground dark roast per two to three ounces of water in the espresso maker. Under pressure, the water is forced over the ground coffee, producing a small cup of the intensely flavorful beverage with a thicker layer of “crema” on the surface. The small cup packs a punch, with roughly 63 mgs. of caffeine per ounce. (By comparison, filter coffee in the U.S. typically has 12 to 16 mgs. of caffeine per ounce.) Those who don’t like coffee have other options, including a dense hot chocolate which is often accompanied by churros for dipping.
Tables of patrons enjoy their drinks and pastries with friends, a sip, a bite and a conversation at a time. It is a sharp contrast to us Americans, who mindlessly swallow endless mugs of coffee while glued to our computer screens, working frenetically at whatever task is at hand lest we fail to meet some constantly escalating goal.
Escaping the grind
As I people-watch, my mind wanders to a gifted CEO who talks about routinely sending emails to Direct Reports at 3 a.m., noting that some people actually respond at that time.
I think about how technology and the ability to work from home has expanded many jobs into 24/7 pressure-cookers, often at the expense of families. I think about exhausted people I know who brag they seldom take vacations. The standard full-time work-year in the United States already is a walloping 2,080 hours compared to less than 1,600 in most European countries.
I wonder: Have we totally lost it?
How long will we settle for being part of an overload culture where the smallest cup of coffee you can get at one of the nation’s most popular coffee chains is a tall? Where quantity trumps quality? Where exhaustion too often reduces us to little more than dispensable cogs in (philosopher Jacques Ellul’s) megamachine, too worn down to question the paradigm of excesses we are living?
Sipping my café, I am jolted not just by the caffeine but by the notion that maybe it is time to reevaluate the grind.
Martha Brune Rapp is a writer and spiritual director who has been reevaluating her coffee-drinking habit.
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