Having lived for an extended period of time in three major cities, and having visited many more, I’ve found that the best way to really understand a city and its people is through its coffee culture—that is, how, where, and why people sit down to have a cup of coffee.
In Washington, D.C., you drink Starbucks, Saxby’s, or Corp Coffee (assuming you’re a Georgetown student), until that special Sunday when you decide to trek 20 minutes into the city for a $4 cup of the smallest, most delicious slow-drip or French press coffee you’ve ever had from a trendy café. You’ll place your order and quickly scout out a single, coveted seat near an outlet (if you happen to be so lucky) so you can write your theology paper on your 13-inch Macbook Air.
If you don’t believe me, check out Filter in DuPont on a Friday around 10 a.m.: all 12 or so seats will be filled by people trying to do work on some form of tablet or laptop, and every few minutes, a student with a full backpack will walk in and either turn around right away or disappointedly get a coffee to go when she realizes no one will be leaving anytime soon. In D.C., coffee drinking, much like internships on the Hill or student groups at Georgetown, is competitive.
Buenos Aires could not be any more different. Whether it’s the fancy French café in the upscale part of town or a little cart outside your history classroom, all you need to say is: “te pido un café con leche por favor.” Coffee with milk, please. I quickly learned to never bother to look at the menu in cafés. When ordering coffee in this city, you pretty much get the same thing no matter what you pick on the menu: relatively weak coffee with a ton of milk. There’s no such thing as a $4 espresso-sized cup of slow drip Intelligentsia. The only thing that changes between coffee options in Argentina is size and presentation. Coming to a South American country, I assumed I would be drinking Ecuador or Costa Rica’s best every morning, but it turns out that a solid cup of coffee—one that doesn’t necessarily need a ton of sugar and milk—is rare. Most Argentines still use a very old method of preserving coffee beans: coating the beans in sugar—a process which removes the humidity and flavor—rather than roasting the beans.
Here, it’s not the coffee itself that matters so much—people go to cafés and just sit for hours. A group of three other students and I sat and played a game of hearts for two and a half hours at a little outdoor café at the end of the San Telmo feria one Sunday. We stayed long after we had finished drinking our coffees. We weren’t competing for prime study spots and we didn’t bury ourselves in philosophy readings or problem sets the second we snagged a still-warm seat from the one person who decided to pack up their work and go. We enjoyed the company, the delicious café con leche, and the beautiful old Spanish building where the café was located. We weren’t in a rush, we weren’t studying, and no one was eyeing our seats, praying we would finish our drinks and leave as quickly as possible.
These differences between the coffee cultures of Buenos Aires and D.C. speak volumes about the cities and the ways in which people interact. In Buenos Aires, the people here value experiences and spending time with others far more than work and careers (working 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. four days a week is essentially a full-time job here).
D.C., as any Georgetown student knows well, is a working city. There, your job is essentially your identity, and just about everything revolves around work and rising up the ranks in your career. In Buenos Aires, what’s important is the process (of your career and of drinking your coffee), while in D.C. it’s all about the end goal (of promotions and of how much work you got done while sitting in that café).
I’m not saying we should all collectively begin to work part-time and stop valuing careers as a measure of success—we did choose to go to Georgetown and live in such a city, after all. But we can at least try to make sure the lifestyle of cutthroat competition doesn’t seep into every aspect of the city. Perhaps delicious (and semi-snobby) $4 slow-drip coffee was meant to simply be enjoyed as its own experience and not be used as a means of getting work done. Perhaps we can resurrect coffee shops as places to take a moment out of the day, to relax and recharge, or to enjoy someone’s company—a small oasis in a competitive city.