Northernheckler's Blog

A Yorkshireman's adventures in the big Smoke

Do you want milk in your black Americano ?

cappucino

... and what size would like your small black coffee ?

In the last two days I’ve found my self in two very different, but superficially strikingly similar, coffee bars.

The first, a branch of Costa, in a semi-rural middle-class market town within easy commuting distance of London.

I ordered a black Americano.

“What size would you like that ?”

“Small please !”

“Er, well we do medium & large”

“Well I’ll have the one that’s the smallest please”

I was starting to get a bit tetchy, and before I could reign myself in had already blurted out in my best “I know bloody everything” voice :

“You know, by definition, you can’t really have a medium size unless there’s at least one size smaller and at least one size larger !”

I regretted it before I’d finished saying it, my shortness due to similar conversations I’ve had in other coffee shops – including a particularly stroppy one in America – of which more later.

However the young woman behind the counter was made of pleasanter stuff – “Yes I see what you mean that is true”

“Actually I’m not sure that we do do medium and large, I think it might be small and medium”

Anxious to redeem myself, I quickly struck up a more friendly conversation, after glancing at the menu which showed the two sizes “Primo” and “Medio”

“You know in America some branches of Starbucks won’t take your order unless you use the words Tall, Grande, or Venti”

“Yeah, I know – they come in here asking for Tall – what’s it supposed to mean ? It’s supposed to be Italian – but my Dad’s Italian and he’s never heard of it. In Italy they’d ask for ‘piccolo’ if they wanted a small one – only they wouldn’t anyway, because Italian coffee tends to always come in the same size. I suppose Primo means ‘first’ and Medio is medium – but yeah it doesn’t mean anything unless there’s a large”

And with that she gave me my Primo Black Americano. (Which was pretty large by anyone’s standards)

It might be worth recounting the experience I had in America some two years earlier. I’d gone into Starbucks and ordered exactly the same drink – A small black Americano.

I learned many years ago that an English style black coffee is not easy to get in Italy, and after drinking a heck of a lot of Espresso, and Cappucino in my efforts to get the drink I wanted, I finally made the break through and asked for it “American Style” – Americano !  This of course is a black coffee – an Espresso topped up with hot water, to resemble the filter coffee drunk in America, Britain, Germany & Northern Europe.  There’s no white version – because there’s no problem ordering white coffee because English and American white coffee lovers really like the Italian milk versions. I’ve learned though that in the world of the modern coffee shop, it pays to specify “black Americano”

I digress.

“What size would you like that ?”

“I just said ‘Small’ “

“All our sizes are Italian sir – we do Tall, Grande or Venti – which would you like ?”

“I’d like the one which is the smallest”

“It’s part of Starbuck’s ethos – all of our sizes are in Italian”

“I don’t speak Italian – could I have a small black Americano – per piacere ?

He huffed around and slammed my change on the counter

“Grazie !”

It stuck in my mind.

The day after my Costa experience I visited Starbucks this morning – this time in central London -  Bloomsbury to be exact.

“I’d like a small black Americano please ?”

“I’m sorry” – the woman serving had a strong Eastern European accent – not Polish – I’d guess at Latvia or Lithuania, but it would be a fairly wild guess.

” A small black Americano please ?”

“black Americano – certainly sir – and what size would you like that ?”

Surely I wasn’t going to get a repeat performance of my American Starbucks experience

I kept my cool.

“A small one please” as politely as I could

“Would you like that to take away ?”

“No I’ll drink that here”

She grabbed a paper cup. “No – I’d like to drink it here please”

“You want to drink it here ? Sorry !”

She carried on writing on the paper cup. Ticked a box that said Americano and then asked

“Would you like any milk in your black Americano ?”

I stood there dumbfounded for a second or two – and she asked me again

“Would you like any milk in your black Americano ?”

“Er .. No !  …. I’d like it black !”

“Tall black Americano !” she shouted across to the “barista” – (I half expected to see Magic Johnson walking in the door – but no she was talking about the coffee.)

When I got the coffee it was in a paper cup. The rest of the customers had ceramic mugs. “Could I get this in a real cup please ?”

Blank Looks. I repeated my question

More blank looks, and then they handed the paper cup to me smiling and said “Tall Black Americano !”

I took it away and sat down.

Now I’m not really making any kind of point here – just expressing my frustration. If it’s so difficult to order a cup of coffee in your own capital city, or in a country that speaks the same language, then what chance do we have for eliminating world poverty, and promoting lasting international peace ? Much as I felt only anger towards the smart alec in the American Starbucks, I felt only admiration for the intelligent young woman in Costa in England – dealing effortlessly with a potentially difficult customer (me), and demonstrating a knowledge of English and Italian, whilst engaged in a relatively menial job.

I felt quite sorry though for the women in the London Starbucks. Clearly struggling with English – I suspected also that they struggled to communicate with each other because of different first languages, and in all likelihood were paid a very low wage, barely enough to pay the rent demanded in a city like London.  Their lives must be difficult.

And if that wasn’t hard enough, things are made even more difficult for them by asking them to do business in a mock Italian language, which neither they nor their customers (including the Italians) understand.

So I relate all this only because it made me think a little – I hope it makes you think too.

If you are interested in the size’s of coffee at Costa and Starbucks; Starbucks originally served “Short” and “Tall” coffees – as was the custom in English speaking Seattle – they then introduced the Italian “Grande” – which is large or grande, and eventually dropped the “short”, and introduced the Venti – which again is Italian -  but means 20 – referring to the number of fluid ounces in the cup. Bear in mind though that these are are US fLuid ounces – so a 20 ounce contains around 1.20 pints – 24 Imperial fluid ounces (It’s not there to make it easy for Latvian baristas is it ?). So in effect they have Large, Very Large, and Stupidly Enormous.

Costa have primo – which is “first” – and “medio” medium – but many of their stores also have “massimo” – maximum.

Oh and by the way – if you ask for a Latte in Italy, you will be served with Milk not coffee – you need to ask for Latte Macchiato.

If you ask for Lartay however they will know you are English – and you may or may not get the drink you were after.

September 8, 2010 - Posted by | idle banter | , , , , , , , , , ,

11 Comments »

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  3. I reckon if you did something particularly heinous, like mass murder, and you went to hell in the great hereafter, you might end up working in Starbucks in Milan having to explain to Italians – in English – what the different “Italian” sizes mean.

    Comment by Gareth Allen | September 9, 2010 | Reply

  4. [...] Do you want milk in your black Americano ? [...]

    Pingback by Do You Want Milk In Your Black Coffee? Huh? « Italiancoffeemaker's Blog | September 12, 2010 | Reply

  5. Wow? You had a big First world issue getting Your coffee beans just right! Speaking of world poverty, just imagine the turmoil you might face when the world’s water supply is sacrice..” I ask for Dasani! Not Aquafina! Sleep easy my friend.

    Comment by Firstworld | January 17, 2012 | Reply

    • Sorry it took a while to approve this.
      Well yeah, the first world is the one I live in so it’s the one I get to observe at first hand.

      It will be a long time before there’s a water shortage in England. It tends to rain quite a bit.

      Also you can’t buy Aquafina or Dasani in the UK

      Comment by northernheckler | January 30, 2012 | Reply

      • It rains a lot more in Singapore yet they had water shortages and had to resort to neighboring countries for help. Note: you don’t drink from rain water.

        Comment by Sharon | June 7, 2012

      • I’ve never been to Singapore.

        Drinking water tends to ultimately come from rain water. I remember doing it in Geography at school.

        Comment by northernheckler | June 7, 2012

  6. As an Eastern European – Lithuanian if to be precise, I would suggest you going to a real coffee shop when you want a coffee.

    Can’t really complaint here when you get your coffee from Starbucks or Costa – there can’t be anything worse than that.

    Also there are so many more countries in what is called Eastern Europe, so the girl in Starbucks could have been from Slovakia or even Romania. Lithuanian people tend to speak quite good English, especially the “younger” generation.

    Try and avoid all the commercialized coffee chain shops – there are so many places where you can get an amazing coffee in London.

    Oh and to finish it off, I work in a restaurant as I’m a student now and I always get customers asking for Black Americanos (which we only do in one size) and then asking whether I could bring some milk.

    Comment by Giedre | April 29, 2012 | Reply

    • They may well ask for Americano – but a black coffee is by definition “sans lait”.

      Comment by northernheckler | June 7, 2012 | Reply

  7. I love this post. I’ve been to America many times and unfortunately the world is a rigid black and white to most I have dealt with. They do not engage their brains or think about things (though the UK seems to be becoming the same) I still can’t believe you have to ask for black Americano, the whole point of which is that it is black. Language barriers can’t be helped but stupidity can. Whoever was talking about rainwater, reservoirs are filled from rainwater as well as it being filtrated through the earth as previously stated (GCSE Geography you dullard).

    Comment by Black Country Bear | January 7, 2013 | Reply


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