Café con Leche Taught Me How to Chill
To properly take part in this Spanish ritual, you have to stop and smell the coffee
When the faintest scent of coffee beans tickles my nose, I’m transported to another place. I close my eyes, my breathing slows, and I’m no longer in my hometown of Atlanta, Georgia, surrounded by red clay and all things Southern. Instead, I’m in Madrid. I’m walking on the cobblestone streets, the rancid smell of cured jamón serrano wafting through the air.
I’m racing to get my morning caffeine fix, while I’m on the way to somewhere else. I’m rushing to get café con leche—full-bodied shots of espresso topped with frothy, warmed milk—and a warmed jamón con queso croissant, tucked in a noisy paper sleeve. I’m requesting both in eagerness.
“Café con leche para llevar porfa.”
I’m ordering and at the same time I’m anxious and checking my watch. I’m calculating my walk to the Metro and whether I’ll have enough time to catch my two trains and a bus to the high school where I teach English to lively teenagers four times a week. I’m annoyed at how long it is taking. How the baristas behind the counter move lackadaisically in the typical no pasa nada Madrileño way.
Three years ago, I was enamored with coffee. It was my drink of choice as a full-time reporter bouncing around from local government meetings that ran late into the night and juggling interviews with too many sources at a time for the simultaneous stories I was writing. Coffee was how I stayed awake, alert, and focused. It was the crutch that enabled me to be productive and meet my deadlines.
Then my reporter dream died, and I leapt in a new, uncharted, scary-as-hell direction—moving abroad, immersing myself in Spanish (which I’d been studying since middle school) and trying teaching because writing full-time felt like a waste. I chose Madrid, the capital of Spain, after visiting it the year prior and falling intensely in like with the city and country.
When I moved, I left behind the tapestry of who I was: my hometown, my family, my friends, the same few restaurants I went to, the coffee shops where I bought large cups in the morning. Coffee was the one thing I held near and dear. My relationship with it—and to it—became transatlantic.
The other thing that shifted was how ceremonious the act of getting coffee became. It was a special dance to which only I knew the choreography. I felt honored to experience it every time. And I wasn’t the only one.
Each morning when I ordered my coffee—rushing somewhere at top speed—there were others who bowed in reverence. Over time, I noticed their adoration was slower, methodical, still, sacred. It wasn’t frenzied or calculated; it was precious, a dance of ease. It was the glittering sun reflecting off their sunglasses, buffed leather shoes, or a cell phone tucked in their front pocket. It was the joyous laughter radiating through the idle chatter and conversation at the beginning of another workday. It was taking a moment to relish in the present, unrushed, unmoved. It was admirable and in many ways out of reach for me.
Because I was always in a rush.
Why was I always in a rush? Why couldn’t I embrace the beauty in slowness? Of fully experiencing not only coffee, but life?
I was changing, and my concept of what it meant to live, to be fully alive, was shifting into something I didn’t recognize. I was afraid.
And slowness is unfettered truth. It’s intimate. It took me the full nine months I was in Madrid to embrace this.
Guzzling caffeine every morning is no more for me.
Coffee brings out the worst in me now. It makes me jittery, flustered, and hyper-frenzied. I drink one cup and after an hour I’m asleep.
Still, there are recollections I hold close about coffee and what it meant for the pace of my mornings and the pace of my life. This café con leche ritual taught me a grand lesson, one that is still present in my heart two years after my Spanish adventure. The froth from the milk used to touch my nose and make me laugh. The whir of the barista warming the milk on the espresso machine tested my patience. I hold the memory in fervor for what it taught me about presence. About not worrying, rushing to the next moment, or zooming toward the future.
There’s grace and beauty in stillness. And I no longer approach it with trepidation but instead with a willingness to be open and here. To be full, to be filled and to be quiet.
“Café con leche para llevar porfa.”
Nneka M. Okona is an Atlanta based writer and Madrileña at heart with café con leche, pan con tomate and tinto de verano always on her mind.