How to Navigate a European Cafe

Written by Hank Martin in E. Europe, Travel Tips, W. Europe

Ahhh...the European cafe, a focal point of any great Europe adventure. With nice weather you can sit outside on the patio and watch people walk through the town square while sipping a foofy latte of some sort. Or, you can proceed inside and stumble your way through the tables scattered like land mines in front of the entrance. I am convinced this is done to see who is a tourist and who is a local. Tourists trip, blunder and crash through the entrance while locals already know the best route through this cafe land-mine.

European cafes embody everything that is notable about European culture: simple pleasures, portion controlled coffee, the company of others that you don't know, pleasant outdoors, crappy service and language barriers.

To help you blend in when visiting these worthwhile and veritable gems I've put together a guide for navigating the European cafe.

Choosing your Cafe

There is no real science to picking a cafe, but there is a wrong way. Don't be so American! Yes, the fancy, high flying banners of big name chain coffee will be within arm's reach.. Although they may look like a light at the end of a dark, foreign sounding, nasty looks from locals, scary, unfamiliar tunnel, don't let them suck you in.

In America, these coffee companies are crappy tasting, international coffee roasting companies.

There is no real science to picking a cafe, but there is a wrong way.
Abroad, they are crappy tasting, international coffee roasting companies. They will steal your soul and leave you with a "bitter" taste in your mouth.  So even though the buzz from these that shall not be named will send you flying high, stay away at all cost.
Certain coffee shops in Europe have been around for over 300 years. Look for the local cafe that is busy with the hum of a foreign language. They know what they are doing when it comes to coffee.

How do I order? Where do I pay?

If you think coffee shop service is hearing your name yelled out across the cafe and then being handed a paper cup with your name purposely misspelled on i, you are in the wrong place.

Obviously each European cafe is slightly different in how they operate, but generally speaking once you find a seat someone will come to you. You generally don't order at a bar, unless you find yourself in a specific espresso bar.

This also means you settle up with the waiter or waitress. This person can be found by locating the individual who is wearing his/her change around the waist in either a fanny pack or a more discrete apron.

Be careful when asking to pay with credit card for such a minimal cost item as a cup of coffee. They will more than likely have to go back to their waitress stand, retrieve the card reader, return to you with an annoyed smile, and then go through at least 2 more steps before the whole process is transacted.

This being Europe, you may be served by the friendliest or most angry person around. Service is still something new to Europeans, especially in places like Germany. While the rest of the world had metal, triremes and advanced forms of government Julius Ceaser noted that the Germans were still living out of trees.

They don't work for tips because they typically don't get any. If you want to make their day, show them some good American tradition of 10%. And, if you make them get the credit card reader you better go ahead and toss on 15% so that you can come back again.

Be a patio person

Sitting on an nice outdoor patio cafe is one of the most pleasant experiences in all of Europe. First, unlike the States, you won't be subjected to a small concrete patio blocked off by cheap, plastic fencing or a rusted metal railing that could require a visit to the doctor and a tetanus shot if you touch it.

In addition, you can enjoy your caffeinated beverage without fear of sucking down car exhaust from the interstate or busy road nearby or feeling like you are sitting halfway in to the mall parking lot. To top it all off, the waiters in Europe will actually serve you outside! In fact they enjoy coming outside.

Cafe Americano isn't an American size coffee

Let's face the facts now, so that you don't give that "face" of disbelief when you encounter this situation. Remember when I said portion control? Cafe Americano is a shot of espresso with SOME hot water.

While it does taste delicious, it is not a large size cup of coffee specifically made for American tourists. In fact, there is no sizing in Europe most of the time; it's a one size fits Europe kinda deal.

Don't dominate the cup

Drinking from an espresso cup makes you feel like an adult in the kiddie pool. Remember, you cannot palm the cup. It is too small. Stick your index finger through the handle. That's all the handle space anyways, and you don't need more than an index finger's worth of strength to lift the cup and its beverage.

If you want to drink espresso with a bit of European flair then grip the handle between your thumb and index finger. This style can be varied to meet your needs. A good hair flip if you are a dude with long hair goes a long way. So does one leg crossed over the other. Use an extended pinky with caution. This is Europe, but still...

It's ESSpresso not EXpresso

Accept it now. You are going to pronounce it wrong. But, here is your warning anyway. Try to pretend like you've had an espresso before and know what you are talking about by at least pronouncing it correctly.

Even McDonalds does not serve American size coffee

Haven't we been over this already? You just aren't going to find it here. Give up the search now. Even Mcdonald's coffee isn't super-sized like you are used to. If you really need a caffeine fix you are going to have to search elsewhere. (I suggest Red Bull Cola, a European made, "healthier" red bull that tastes like rum and coke)

Is it appropriate to speak above a hushed whisper?

Yes. No. It depends on the cafe. Some cafes have a library ambiance to them, while others stay true to the social atmosphere of the first coffeehouses in Europe. Gauge the atmosphere and act appropriately.

If you are lactose intolerant don't drink the iced coffee.

If you do, prepare for a day spent touring the insides of European bathrooms, not the city sights. In my experience, iced coffee is usually made with a dollop of ice cream. It's delicious if you like ice cream, but you better make sure your stomach is ready for such a treat.

Do I stay or do I go?

In traditional Italian espresso bars you get charged if you order a drink at the bar and then sit down in the cafe to enjoy it. Space sometimes cost money, so if you stand at the bar and swig down your espresso expect to pay less than if you sit. This isn't true in all countries though. Observe others in the bar, do they stand or sit, to avoid any sitting surcharge surprises.

Food for Thought: Do you have any advice for navigating the culture of European Cafes? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
About the Author

Hank Martin

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Traveling for a world education and writing about the life lessons learned.


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