The title, of course, refers to coffee in Valencia. Having said that, I have to admit, that this is also my perception of the lifestyle in this part of Spain. And I certainly don’t mean it in a bad way.
For me it always is an obvious holiday destination: not only do I speak the language, but I also have friends here, which allows me to save on the costs of accommodation; although so many people that I have met here – most of them Italian – assumed I must have been doing my Erasmus studies here. Valencia, the third biggest city in Spain, is an educational mecca with students flooding every year (adding up to a total of over 1600) to do their 4-to-10 month long international courses here. And it sure is foreigner-friendly, with bars and restaurants aimed specifically at the British, the Italian, the French, and so on.
Hospitality is unquestionably the fastest – if not the only – progressing sector in the difficult economic situation that Spain has found itself in, dangerously following in the footsteps of Italy and Greece; although, of course, the rotation of staff fluctuates over the University calendar, and it seems that the best earning employees in this sector are the venue owners themselves (ie: the self-employed). No matter how prosperous a business is, everyone recognises that times are hard, and are questioning their future in this part of Europe. It may be because of this that the customer service in these venues too often leaves a lot to wish for, especially when one is used to British hospitality, as fake and forced as it may be. You’re usually served without a smile, not even a hello or thank you at times. The waiters look bored, the bartenders look disgusted. But what one might take for disgust, can actually be depression; and what seems like boredom, can be tiredness; after all, the heat can be unbearable from early hours of the day, and it is these baristas and waiters who often work throughout the siesta, to provide cold cerveza to retirees to help them survive the afternoon.
The bad impressions one gets at first disappear without a trace when one gets a chance to know these people a bit better. Although struggling – physically, financially? – the Spanish are one of the most helpful and selfless people I have encountered so far – maybe just falling slightly behind the Italians (although the question of selflessness is debatable in that case). So many a time did I see a stranger help a stranger on the street: with shopping, with the door, with directions – out of their own initiative, and then walking away without expecting anything in return. I am not advocating for Spain here, claiming that it is only its citizens that have these virtues; actually I think that the openness and ease of contact with others derives from their Mediterranean blood. What I’m saying is that this country, pushed more and more to the ground in the course of the recession in the recent years is home to a very friendly and hospitable nation; whilst its vida cotidiana (daily life) – which is not all about fiestas, sangria and sunbathing – is a ideal proof that you can’t judge a book by its cover.
But why would I write about all this here, if I weren’t to talk about the coffee. Whether or not this is true about the Spanish people, Spanish coffee indeed is strong, bitter and unpredictable. A Spanish friend who I work with told me that Starbucks in her home country was making good money (and raising outrage) on selling extra shots for their coffees. The Spanish drink strong coffee, she told me; and indeed, whenever you visit a place branding itself as Cafeteria, when ordering a coffee you will usually be given a choice of two: cortado or con leche. They hardly differ in size: both slightly bigger than an average espresso cup, with the latter topped up with hot or cold milk; no cappuccinos or mochas (unless you go to a chain venue, that is).
Now, you might remember that I attempted to stop taking sugar with my coffee; in Spain, I had to go back to my old ways, as the coffee was simply too strong, and to my taste too bitter to savour it. In all fairness, in most cases (and although I was planning on taking a holiday not only off work but also off caffeine, I ended up having at least one cuppa daily), I struggled with drinking up, and aided the task by accompanying the coffee with a fresh pastry – typical holiday scenario. At times it was more drinkable, at others, it was absolutely unbearable; and that’s the unpredictability bit, although it’s not fair to attach a score to coffee in Spain, or coffee in Valencia, as a whole – after all, the unpredictability of mochas in Edinburgh alone has proved to be much greater.
Despite the variety of cafeterias neighbouring with each other on every street, the presence of coffee machines in every bar and the well established – as I understand it – coffee culture in Spain, I didn’t experience a lot of love for the beverage in Valencia; however, I caught myself a few times comparing these coffees with those I tried in Poland, which I dan’t been too impressed with either. Are we spoilt for choice and quality in the UK, or is it just the matter of getting one’s taste buds accustomed to the qualities of the region one finds oneself in? In this case, I know I will be giving Spain another chance (and another one after that), because of the great potential I know it holds within; and because first impressions can be misleading.