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.

Spanish Meals: The Second Breakfast or the Coffee Break

At some time between 10 and 12 in the morning, the Spanish stop whatever they are doing and they go for a second breakfast or mid-morning snack somewhere.  They do this because they are hungry, and even when they are not.  This slot in the day, by the way, is the absolute worst time to enter a government agency expecting quick results.  About half of the country’s public servants are across the street ordering a coffee and those little electric signs in the offices that go beep and indicate who is next up and what desk they should go to suddenly come to a near standstill.  This is especially true of post offices.  You are better off taking along a nice book or joining work staff at the bar across the street and returning in an hour.  Unless of course you are at the American Embassy which has a TV screen and CNN running around the clock.  They do this because they want you to be entertained as well as help you integrate better into society by showing you how millions of Americans spend most of their day. 

        So around this time, there is a dip in national productivity, but since this forms a traditional part of the daily routine it is factored into the GNP, or whatever they call that indicator of growth.  Anyhow, the most popular choice is coffee, especially among those who enjoy the drink.  Otherwise they order something else.  In my case, this is the single most important drink of the day.  My first cup two hours earlier had served solely as a way of getting me out the door and to the streets without tripping down the stairs.  I function, but I am not really doing anything.  This second round gets me really going. 

           Other drinks include soda, chocolate milk, water and even beer or wine.  The last two are not commonplace but after I’d say eleven not frwoned upon either…as long as you haven’t had seven.   I avoid the habit because otherwise I start telling my students what I really think of their English and begin to reveal certain radical political views that are best kept to oneself.  Coffee doesn’t do that to me, thank God. 

       People often accompany the drinks with a snack of some kind, like a roll, toast (with the butter and jam), a doughnut, which is pronounced in Spanish as “doe-noose”, trust me, it’ll get you places.  Another classic is the croissant.  This classic French pastry which we so often associate with fine European continental morning fare is quite common in Spain.  The thing is, when left on its own, it’s often terrible when compared to the versions made north of the border (that’s France).  Spanish croissants, which incidentally means “crescent”, are often dry and insipid as if they were made with a mixture of some basic building materials and not enouth water.   The Spanish won’t admit to this but they prove this theory by almost never ordering one in its original state.  They have it done “a la plancha”, which means the cook cuts it in half, smothers melted butter on it, slaps it on the griddle and flattens it with a spatula and it is toasty broan.  Then he puts it on a plate and serves it with more butter and jam which you can apply according to your taste.  This procedure immensely improves the quality of the bun. 

        Other morsels include grilled ham & cheese sandwiches known as sandwich mixto, for your information, and the immortal tortilla española (or Spanish potato omelet) which is this country’s single greatest contribution to fast food, and quite possibly the item of gastronomy that sticks the longest in the memory of the foreigner who likes to eat. 

       Then people return to their workplaces and the nation’s productivity shoots up.  And everything is the way it should be in the best of all possible worlds. 

Spanish Meals: Breakfast

Unlike some other places in the world, the Spanish don’t waste a lot of time filling the tank in the morning to get a solid start to the day – after all they do have a lot of eating ahead of them in the next 18 hours, why spoil it.   While they do like breakfast, when left to making their own, they can’t be bothered.  Not even McDonald’s serves breakfast, if that is any indicator.  You can buy a beer but not an egg-McMuffin.  Many feel that is a good thing. 

       For the most part, though, it’s pretty simple fare: toast, jam, cereal, some kind of pastry, orange juice, coffee or milk.  The offer can be extensive, just the consumption isn’t.  It’s mainly a question of time.   And even if they did have time, they normally don’t spend it on sumptuous meals. 

        The orange juice issue is a big one here as many Spaniards insist on it being freshly squeezed or squozen, as some prefer.   To them, there is no alternative, and taking the time, and trust me it is time that you take, makes all the difference.  There is no denying that any glass of liquid extracted directly from the fruit minutes before is going to normally stand out for its superior taste to, say, something kept in a brick container for months, but it comes at a price.  Plus, once in the glass, you have something like seven minutes to drink it or all the vitamins begin to float away.  If you foresee that the drink cannot be imbibed within that time, then you can cover it up with saucer as a lid and cut off the vitamin escape route.   Then allow them to lick the bottom of the saucer afterwards…I was just kidding, so please don’t do that.

      For adults, coffee is essential and almost what breakfast is all about.  The rest is just an excuse for drinking it.  It can be freshly brewed, but as opposed to the orange juice issue, the Spanish are more practical when it comes to drinking coffee and they don’t mind substituting freshly-brewed java with a spoonful of instant stuff mixed in a cup of steaming milk.  100% milk.  So much for the quality above all else theory.  I have to admit, I like the combo.

        When it comes to eating…I will talk about that when it comes time to talking about eating!  Now I am back to talk about eating.  The Spanish go mainly for breaded food whose greatest virtue is that it can be dipped in the drink until soaked, sloppily removed and dragged into the mouth with plenty of drops and mushy blobs scattered on the table and around the region of the lips and chin.  I have become a fully converted member of this team.  It makes breakfast messier but no less tasty.  These include muffins and similar items known only to someone who knows Spain like Sobaos or Valencianas.  

          One of the big hits at any home is cookies.  Any type will do.  Some people back home find this unusual, and though they may be right because normally people there don’t eat them, but it all comes to cultural differences and customs.  I sometimes retort, “What’s wrong with that?” and they will reply incredulous.  “But they’re cookies?” as if there really is a proper time for eating one. 

         To which I reply, “You sometimes eat smoked pig’s meat which has been fried in melted butter.”  Then I drop the subject.  I don’t even bothering bringing up Pop Tarts and other weapons of mass destruction.

       Toast is another options.  That often gets a nice coating of butter or margarine, capped with a thick layer of jam.  Of late, the Andalusian-style toast has caught on.  Some Spaniards look to this as proof of the healthy benefits of the Mediterranean diet, but they tend to forget that no one ate that fifteen years ago.  Maybe in the south, I can’t say for sure, but the rest of the country didn’t.   This consists of toasted baquette bread on which you pour olive oil.  Then you cut a tomatoe in two and rub the inside on the bread.  Then a little salt and you’re rocking.   It’s alctually really good.  But as I say, at home and during the week, most people go for the quick route.  And you can forget the scrambled eggs stuff.  That’s only for hotel chefs.  Oh, well, their loss.