A Relaxing Cup of Café con Leche

I try to avoid getting involved in these matters, but sometimes I just can’t resist.  Madrid’s mayor, Ana Botella, made some recent remarks about the city when campaigning for its candidacy to host the Olympics.  Madrid got bounced in the first round of the final selection, and Ana Botella became the brunt of countless jokes regarding her seemingly ragged use of English.

      The catch phrase is now “a relaxing cup of café con leche (coffee with milk)”, and it has become so famous that even my little 3rd-graders know about it, and so infamous that you can now buy coffee mugs online with the sentence stamped on them in different colors and fonts.

      It has been ridiculed and parodied beyond belief, with jokes and videos spreading like wildfire far and wide throughout the social networks .  Such was the uproarious laughter that I finally caved in and decided to check out on Youtube the video and endure the suffering for myself and by myself, in the comfort of my living room.

      I’ll be as brief as possible, and resort to my expertise as a teacher to provide a fairly balanced opinion.  To be honest, it wasn’t great but it was a far cry from the disaster that I expected given the backlash it received.  Ana spoke with a heavy accent, had several fairly serious pronunciation issues, and clearly hasn’t mastered the language.  That explains the forced diction and the artificial gestures.  Basically she looked as if she was trying to pull off the tough task of speaking in public in a foreign language and she did the best she could.  For the most part the speech was standard, not very inspired, promotional garble which was delivered with difficulty.  And the famous Spanglish that everyone is laughing at hardly exists.  The speech lasts 2.50 seconds and more than halfway through it, she spits out the now notorious “a relaxing cup of café con leche in the Plaza Mayor.”  She mentions the Madrid de los Austrias, and immediately adds what that all means in English. The rest of the talk was given in English.

      First of all, you can call a cup of coffee “relaxing”.  Several “experts” from Spain have expressed to me their utter disbelief that Botella would use such an adjective to describe a cup of joe, but the fact is you can.  Just to clarify that one.  As for the use of “café con leche”, that was just a little friendly use of local language.  Probably not the best choice, but still, even I could see that.  Plus, it’s not that easy to translate.

      Verdict: the speech wasn’t topnotch, and Botella’s English needs work, but it wasn’t horrible either and certainly not worthy of the thrashing it took.

      So, after listening to two weeks of relentless criticism and watching the clip myself, I have come to the conclusion that the event has accentuated two very grave and present facts: Spain’s English level is still wanting; and God help you if you make a mistake because if you do you’ll become the laughing stock of the nation.

      As for the first part, there is nothing surprising about that. Spain has for years suffered from an inferiority complex when it comes to speaking this language.  It’s the famous “asignatura pendiente”, as they say here.  Back in the 90s, most parents came to me saying that they couldn’t help their kids because they had learned French in school.  Then came the gradual switch to English, which, though taught throughout a student’s life, produced poor results.  Poor teaching and general disregard for the language.  On top of that, as many will tell you, Spain dubs all of its TV programs and movies.  The industry is one of the finest in the world, but it does have its downside.  It prevents youths from picking up the language naturally, and, what’s worse, it fosters an aversion toward the language.  Few people spoke it, and not very well at that.  And I am talking about the capital.  Once out in the smaller cities or in the country, forget it.

       The effects of the past faulty educational setup and social antipathy are still being felt today.  A recent report rated Spain in the middle ground when it comes to competence in English, 18th, to be exact, and behind some 15 other European nations. That’s not so hot.  But I am here to tell you that, despite the rejection and the mediocre teaching techniques, it is heads and tails above what it used to be.  With the arrival of bilingual education (Madrid is nearly at the forefront of this movement) things are turning around considerably.  We are still talking about a change that will require a generation or two to come into its fullest fruition, but it will happen. I am not concerned.

      What does unsettle me is the vicious blasting over practically nothing.  I browsed through about the first 100 comments and couldn’t find a single one that had anything fair to say about it.  The chiding was merciless, but that behavior is as traditional here as watching soccer. The Spanish are often the first to admit that they don’t like to speak English because of their sense of embarrassment about saying the wrong thing.  This I find amusing because their love of swearing shows they don’t seem to have any qualms about blurting out in Spanish, “Holy shit! That motherfucker is really pissing me off,” in front of their grandmother.

      Then again, after the berating Ana Botella received, I don’t blame them for not wanting to utter a single word of English, because look what happens to you when you slip up.  I would shut my mouth too.

      So suddenly everyone is an expert in English.  In some cases even more so than the English themselves.  Take the Comunidad de Madrid’s standardized exam to check on the progress of its bilingual program.  The actually exam itself was Cambridge’s Young Learners of English tests which are recognized by the European Union as valid measurements of a child’s level of the language.  The exam has three parts – Speaking, Listening, and a combined part on Reading & Writing – which are graded from 1 (being the worst) to 5 shields.  That means a student can receive a total of 15 shields.

      Cambridge oddly asserts that there is no passing or failing in these exams.  However, if you receive ten or more shields, then you are ready to go on to the next level.  Hmm.  I’ll have to think about that one.

      In any event, if you can achieve that number, then you have what is considered to be an A1 level.  Cambridge does not specify a minimum in any one category, as long as you obtain ten.  This standard is admitted by the European Union.

      The Comunidad de Madrid has decided that it would use the Cambridge exams but assess students differently in two ways:

        1)    Evaluate just the Speaking and Listening, requiring a total of 7 shields to pass, and 4 have to be in speaking, and at least 3 have to be in listening.  So, in short, they require at least a 70% on a test, and, in some cases, that isn’t enough, since if the speaking is a three and the listening is a four, you don’t pass.  On one occasion, a student had a 5 on listening and a 3 on speaking (yes, that’s 80%), and failed.

        2)    They could also assess all three parts in which a pupil needed to obtain 11 shields (and at least 4 in speaking), to pass.  In theory, a child could get up to 13 out of 15 shields and still be turned down.  How’s that for motivating.

      Of course, none of this has anything to do with how Cambridge looks at it, and that’s considering it’s their test.  The Comunidad de Madrid simply decided that it was going to prove to the world that its standard was tougher than the rest without really justifying it at all.

      This kind of cockiness is known in Spanish as “chulería”, and in Madrid, it’s as common and typical as a relaxing cup of café con leche.


Images of Madrid: Coffee

This isn’t just an image of this country, it’s a reflection of my own soul, about halfway through the morning when I am still a few miles from fully joining the rest of the world.  There are really two cafés in my life each morning.  The first to get the motor running so that I can greet the day without punching the daylights out of anyone, and the second to allow the rest of me to join the civilized.

This is a picture of a café con leche, taken in the dusky environs of an old café in the center.  This is the standard cup of joe inSpain.  It’s not an espresso or a cappuccino, though it has espresso-style coffee as a base, and it can have a cappuccino style look to it.

Despite the surge of Starbucks in this town, most people stick to this kind of brew as their stimulant of choice.  In Madrid it costs on average somewhere between 1.20 and 1.50.  This place happened to stick me for two euros, but that’s because they give you an individually wrapped biscuit on the side, and charge for the charming atmosphere.  That’s what I’m guessing. This is the kind of haunt where you get a hot coffee and plan on sipping on it for a while.  That’s what cafés are there for.  Cafeterías, on the other hand, which are less sophisticated and less literary versions, specialize in just about everything quick to cook and serve.  At cafeterías, grabbing a cup of coffee can serve as a simple pit-stop.  You stand at the counter, shout out your order, wait a minute for it to be served, down the drink, toss a few coins on the table, and head for the door in the time it takes to play a Sex Pistols’ song.  It’s the mid-morning coffee break coffee.

Speaking of which, there are also different types of coffee:

Café solo – Your standard espresso. It’s small and dense and powerful, and is often heavily laced with sugar. It’s a quick picker upper, but a bit of a letdown for those used to those cups which accompany you throughout the morning.  A few drops of brandy make for a nice alternative, but probably not at  breakfast.

Café con leche – Your standard café au lait.  Comes in different sizes, but nothing compared to what you find on the other side of the lake.  I guess a kind of latte, or whatever you call those things, but about a tenth of the size.  Many prefer to have it served in a “caña” glass.  The fancier the coffee shop often the frothier the milk.  In the frenzy of the mid-morning breakfast break, though, you are likely to get just the milky version.

Cortado – This is a café con leche but just with a splash of milk.  This is the popular choice for after lunch or dinner.  The Spanish almost never order a café con leche at these times.

Café Americano – This is the coffee with more coffee than the rest.  It’s an attempt to produce a drink that resembles the American version, except for that it falls short by about ten ounces per cup.

Café con Hielo – Or ice coffee. This is a popular choice when the weather is hot.  Its literal translation is “coffee with ice”, which more accurately describes the drink: you take a small cup of espresso café.  Stir in a bag of sugar.  Pour the coffee into a glass filled with ice, without having it spill out into the saucer of course…this is one of the more challenging eye-hand coordination feats of this country.  Then drink it, usually in one gulp.  This is not my favorite variation, I’ll have to admit, but it is a hit with the locals.

The flavor of choice for their coffee here?  Coffee flavor, of course.


Upon glancing at one of those evilly enticing Yahoo! headlines you wish you never looked at before, I picked up another piece of otherwise useless knowledge that the search engine somehow makes indispensible in my life, and learned that coffee as one of the big no-no’s in our healthy living diets.  But, get this: drinking a cup every day drastically reduces depression.  So, I can forego the drink in favor of a happier body until I slip into a deep emotional slump and kill myself.  Go figure.

            Coffee is just one of the national drinks here inSpain.  It’s mostly drunk in espresso form which is why Spaniards have trouble adjusting to lighter versions.  I still get flak as an American for being somehow partially responsible for all the watered-down crap they make back home.

            “But what about Starbucks?” I rebut.  “That should be proof enough thatAmericaknows a thing or two about a good brew.”  I can’t stand Starbucks and only go there when I have a need for a good clean toilet or want to feel reassured that I am cultured, but unfounded attacks on my country gets my blood boiling so high that if I spilled it one someone I would get sued for not having posted a label “Warning – Blood May Cause Severe Burns”.

            They say things like.  “Your coffee is so watery it doesn’t taste like anything.”

            “Yeah it does.”

            “Like what?”

            “Like water.  Plus you get a ton of it.  The way it should be.  Not one of those itty-bitty cups that you down in 30 seconds.  If I get a coffee I want it to last for about six days.”

            Plus, the fact is, American coffee does have some taste to it.  In fact, I would add it has flavor.  All kinds of flavor.  And it smells good.  And after about32 ouncesyou start to shake.  That’s the part that keeps you from putting a gun to your head.

            InSpain, you have several basic types that will help you from doing yourself in:

1)      Café solo – small black espresso

2)      Café con leche – coffee with milk or café au lait.  Not a cappuccino.

3)      Café cortado – coffee with just a splash of milk.

Café cortado is like a café con leche but with less milk and it is normally ordered after a meal like lunch or dinner.  Café con leche is more of a morning drink and also taken at the late afternoon merienda time.  I mention this inside tip so you can impress your friendly Spaniard by ordering the right coffee at the right time.  Asking for a café con leche after dessert is a dead giveaway that you’re a “newcomer”.  Unless, of course you like it.

            In summer it is common to change and get a café con hielo, or ice coffee.  The Spanish don’t get fancy about this one.  They mean what they say.  This consists of served a black espresso with an empty cup of ice.  Sugar is normally added to the hot drink so that it dissolves and then the whole think is poured into the glass of ice.  Voilá!  The result drink is dreadful.  It really is.  Interesting as an experimental study, but the final product could be dumped…but away from the clean water supply.

            The Spanish love it, which probably explains why they aren’t on Prozac.