Post 89 / Hour 90: Double Tall Confusion

Remedial Italian for Caffeine Addicts

By Dave Fox

[This story first appeared on my original humor website in 2004.]

100hours-logo1The problem with Seattle is nobody here speaks Italian.

I don’t speak Italian either, which I realize makes the above sentence sound snooty, but there’s a difference between me and the rest of Seattle. Everyone else in this city is running around with over-priced cups of caffeine, tossing around faux-Italian names for their beverages as if they were fluent. And they’re messing everything up.

The instigators in this debacle are the coffee sellers, who we in Seattle like to call “baristas.” I suspect they’re using the language-learning technique linguists refer to as the “panic and make stuff up” method. I used this technique myself in eighth grade French class.

Struggling to complete my homework before “The Dukes of Hazard” came on at 8, I would pull random words out of the very limited glossary in my text book. For example, in response to the question, “Quel temps fait-il aujourd’hui?” (“How is the weather today?”), I would write, “Oui! Je suis un cochon vert de la neige!” which means, “Yes! I am a green pig of the snow!”

I didn’t do very well in 8th grade French class.

And the coffeemongers of Seattle are doing equally poorly with their Italian.

I went into my neighborhood Tully’s the other day in search of a cappuccino. “I would please like one cappuccino, please,” I said, proud of my nearly fluent English.

The barista smiled and pushed the button on the milk-foaming device that makes that fun swooshy noise. Then she said, “One single tall latte,” and handed me my cup.

“I didn’t order a latte,” I said. “I ordered a cappuccino.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well they’re the same thing.”

Okay. So here’s a quick coffee quiz. Feel free to play along at home:

Q: If a cappuccino is the same thing as a latte, why do they have different names?

A: Because they’re not the same thing.

In Italy, if you order a cappuccino, you get a shot of espresso with some foamy milk on top. “Latte” means “milk,” which is all you’ll get if you ask for a latte in Rome.

But here in Seattle, where people compensate for the lack of winter sun by sucking dangerous amounts of caffeine into their bodies, we have created our own unique dialect, which has spread rapidly across America. A latte is a cup of warm milk with a layer of foam on top and an espresso shot swimming around somewhere in the lower recesses of the milk. Even in English, a latte and a cappuccino are two different beverages.

So I explained to the Tully’s barista, as politely as I could, that a latte and a cappuccino aren’t the same.

“Yes they are,” she insisted.

There was no point in arguing. If she didn’t know the difference, asking her to make me another wasn’t going to fix things. So I’ve stopped going to Tully’s.

I found an independent coffee house a couple of extra blocks from where I live. I went into the Monkey Grind a few weeks ago and ordered a macchiato. In Italy, a macchiato is kind of like a “cappuccino lite” — a shot of espresso with just a splash of foam.

The barista eyed me skeptically. “Do you want a real macchiato or a Starbuck’s macchiato?” she asked.

It turns out this barista knew exactly what she was doing. But she’s been encountering surly customers who order a macchiato and then yell at her because it does not contain 12 ounces of milk and a giant glob of caramel at the bottom. It seems that Starbucks, the McCoffee of the caffeine scene, has supersized this usually dainty beverage, turning the macchiato into a sugar and dairy lovers’ orgy.

If Starbuck’s wants to concoct such a potion, fine, but could they not find a less confusing word in their Italian-English dictionary? I’m thinking they could call it a “porco verde della neve,” which means “green pig of the snow” in Italian. It’s less confusing than corrupting the macchiato. Besides, anyone who sucks down enough caramel sauce with their coffee will eventually look like a “porco verde,” so the name fits.

I used to avoid Starbucks, until one opened inside the supermarket across the street from me. Sometimes the location is just too convenient. One thing I’ll give them credit for is they speak excellent English. I know this because every time I order a cappuccino, they make me submit to a 30-minute questionnaire on what else they can sell me. The encounter goes something like this:

Barista: Would you like some flavoring in your coffee?

Me: Yes. I would like coffee flavoring.

Barista: Can I tempt you with a muffin or a scone today?

Me: No.

Barista (foaming my milk): Are you sure you wouldn’t like a little something to nibble on?

Me: Yes. I am sure.

Barista (still foaming my milk): How about just a little biscotti?

Me: No. And I do not want to supersize it. And I do not want fries. And will you please hurry and give me my coffee because you are making me miss “The Dukes of Hazard.”

If you visit Seattle from a foreign country, I suggest you order your coffee in your own language and hope they get it right. They won’t, but it’s less painful for you than trying to remember the difference between a single tall latte and a double short latte. If you want an extra big coffee, you can order a “grande,” and if you intend to share your coffee with 17 of your relatives, you can order what many coffee houses call a “viente.”

“Viente” is a special Italian word that means… ummm… well, it’s a secret. I can’t find it in my Italian-English dictionary. I think they mean “venti,” which means “twenty,” referring either to the number of ounces in your cup, or the number of hours you will be in caffeine-induced convulsions if you drink that much coffee. Or perhaps they mean “niente,” which means “nothing.” As in, “Nothing makes sense anymore.”

It’s tiresome keeping all of this lingo straight. I need some caffeine. I’m going to my kitchen to make a cup of tea.

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Published on Tuesday, March 5, 2013

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