Converting into a coffee drinker and loosening Latin tongues

Today I love writing for the coffee industry, and I love coffee, but it’s not always been (bean?) like that. Like a good Catholic, it’s time to confess.

I had my first taste of coffee fourteen years ago. It was two in the morning during finals week, with twenty pages left to write. Like Ramen and Sriracha, coffee was one of those college-kid staples that didn’t click with me. My nebulous memory of that, and a handful of other desperate nights alone with a bulging coffeepot and blank screen, involved twitching fingers over the keyboard, a vow to never do that again, and a wow at the grade I pulled off. I owed it to coffee, but swore off caffeine and procrastination once I tossed my tasseled mortarboard.

Seven years passed calmly, without coffee, until I landed in Colombia, the land of coffee. I imbibed in the free-flowing firewater (aguardiente) that revelers poured into the shot glasses strung around my neck. I gnawed on gelatinous strips of deep-fried pork rind (chicharrón), pretending that the row of teeth looked more like a bear claw danish than an animal spine. I nibbled a razor-sharp Communion wafer (hostia) until I observed the true Catholics letting it dissolve on their tongue. This former teetotaler, vegetarian, and Christian was quickly, albeit temporarily, converting out of cultural respect and curiousity. But the very waft of coffee brought back a wave of nausea, tremors, and profound regret.

No soup for you, but two bowls for you

Colombians have an acutely accurate proverb to describe what was about to become my experience with coffee (ditto for loud partying, greasy meat, and Catholic churches): “Al que no le gusta el caldo, le dan dos tazas.” It’s the polar opposite of Seinfield’s Soup Nazi, where even if you love the soup, “no soup for you”: If you do not want any soup, you’re given two bowlfuls.

It was not a Colombian who introduced me to coffee done right; it was an Italian. I’m enamoured with Italy: the expressive language, the svelte fashion sense, the ten-course meals. The food and the wine, oh yes, but in all I’ve gleaned about Italy I somehow glossed over the essential role of the espresso.

I learned to take espresso because it was given to me by an Italian. Or rather, it was ordered. “Dos tintos,” barked my new boss over the phone to the office runner. I had no choice in the matter. Down in the kitchen the server had already offered me coffee a couple of times that week and I had politely declined, “Oh, I don’t drink coffee, but thank you.”

Now she stood in front of the executive desk with a silver platter and a glimmer in her dark eyes as she asked how many teaspoons of sugar I’d like. I followed the Italian’s lead and accepted it black. It appeared innocent in a dainty white porcelain cup, but I could catch the gleam of the heavy black liquid. The heady aroma reeked of past regrets.

Like dancing a tango, I followed the man’s lead. He sipped, in silence, savoring. Then it was my turn. It was unsavory, but I enjoyed the silence. The first swallow loosened the tongue. As he explained my role as the organization’s in-house translator between Spanish and English, I hoped my tongue would also navigate the explosive Zs and Chs of Italian.

Sipping and conversing, we were two foreigners united by Colombian coffee and a need for common ground: language. We did our best in Spanish, lapsing into mother tongues when necessary. Two cups clinked gently on saucers, two or three times and it was over. The discussion was done, the tinto was gone. I hadn’t even realized that I’d finished the entire espresso; time went by that fast. Entirely unlike the early dawn hours of caffeine-induced insomnia to meet deadlines.

My life lesson from Colombian coffee

Among the many factors that determine a pleasant gastronomic experience are the food or beverage itself–quality, portion, preparation–and the setting in which it’s consumed–company, occassion, ambience. My only experience with coffee had been drinking an entire pot of hastily-made, discount-priced drip grinds, all alone and under stressful circumstances. I had been doing it all wrong, on all counts.

Colombia taught me to enjoy tinteando, the art of solely savoring small portions of black coffee in pleasant company.

A couple of years after I learned to drink espresso, we also acquired a Nespresso Aeroccino and learned the art of making cappuccinos and the science of baking pastries, but that’s a whole nother story that involves a couple of pounds of over-indulged guilt (can you say, biscotti?).

Drinking American coffee after learning to tintear in Colombia

Would you like to supersize that?

Which brings me back to America. Exactly one year ago I returned to the United States, and knowing that we’d moved from abroad with nothing but heavy books and pounds of Colombian coffee, our landlady salvaged some perfectly good things the lazy former tenants had left to be tossed in the trash.

Useful item 1 is this ugly mug. Other than the garish green handle that clashes hideously with the red hide of some trophy hunter, what alarmed me was its size. Here it looms over a Café de Colombia pocillo, just big enough for a tinto.


When you fill a mug that large with a hot beverage, you have to drink it all in one sitting, otherwise it gets ruined in the reheat cycle. Chugging that much coffee does a number on your system. Drinking the same amount, spread out over a couple of hours at work or socializing, is more tolerable. Apply the same rules of thumb to caffeine as with alcohol–small doses, over a long period, lots of water in between, and never by yourself.

I see café customer behavior as a major difference between the United States and Latin American, and even European culture. In the U.S., customers commonly order coffee to-go and in a disposable cup, then scald themselves trying to swig it while rushing down the sidewalk (and promptly file a lawsuit). No wonder we’re stressed-out: the caffeine is not to blame so much as the hectic (and wasteful) form of consuming it.

Don’t walk with coffee; talk with coffee.

In Latin American cafés (and so I hear, European cafés, and please share if anywhere else), drinking coffe is an idle and enjoyable affair. It’s a time to sit down to consume, to observe, to converse, to socialize. Coffee is sipped, not gulped, amid dialogue. Or it’s a natural break in the work day, but office kitchens are stocked with ceramic mugs and not styrofoam cups. How can anything be slowly savored out of an artificial container designed for speedy disposal?

If you are decidely a tea person, or have bad flashbacks of cramming at term time with coffee, I challenge you to try the attitude behind tinteando. Sip a well-crafted espresso in pleasant company. For you to have a conversion moment like mine, the coffee doesn’t have to be Colombian, and the company doesn’t have to be Italian. Heck, try it with Folgers and your best friend. But you must follow the Colombian pocillo portion and the Italian philosophy behind Slow Food. Ah, la dolce vita.

Building bridges, not walls, over troubled waters through translation

As walls are erected between countries, translation builds bridges between cultures.

As human migrations are stymied, translation lifts linguistic barriers to ease the flow of communication.

As tensions rise with cultural misunderstandings, translation breaks down language boundaries to find common ground.


Whether you speak with an Andalusian or Argentinian accent, it is all Spanish.

Whether you are Colombian, Mexican, or Canadian, we are all Americans.

Whether you live in the east or west, south or north of the globe, we are all humans.


Author crossing river in Quindío, Colombia. La autora cruzando un río en Quindío, Colombia.

Mientras que se erigen muros entre los países, la traducción construye puentes entre las culturas.

Mientras que se obstaculizan las migraciones humanas, la traducción levanta las barreras lingüísticas para facilitar el flujo de la comunicación.

Mientras que aumentan las tensiones con malentendidos culturales, la traducción traspasa las fronteras del idioma para encontrar terreno común.


Ya sea que usted hable con acento andaluz o argentino, todo es español.

Ya sea que usted sea colombiano, mexicano o canadiense, todos somos americanos.

Ya sea que usted viva en el este u oeste, sur o norte del globo, todos somos seres humanos.

Keeping objects and trashing words

Objects pop up in our lives when we need them most. I’ve realized this in searching for articles to outfit our new house, in a new country. Lesson #1 was that you have to let things flow out of your life when you can no longer use them or take on the plane with you to a far-away land. The hoarding mentality blocks the magical emergence of needed items.

In the interest of sustainability and frugality, I’ve been going to garage sales and thrift stores that are so common in the United States, the land of material abundance, and altogether absent in Colombia, where sharing is limited to family members.

I’ve also discovered that, since I was last in the U.S. a decade ago, Facebook has displaced Craigslist for online second-hand shopping.

Craigslist requires an email verification. “Are you sure this looks okay? Last chance to make changes before it goes live!”

Facebook lets you post immediately. “Don’t think about it. Just hit enter!”

So folks have stopped thinking and just posting. Or maybe they think they’re posting in correct English, and truly don’t know how to spell any better. What shall we blame?

The decline of writing standards?

The rise in smart phone usage?

The dependency on autocorrect functions?

The low quality of public education?

The fast-paced lifestyle of 2016?

The “eh, they can figure it out” lazy attitude to typing?

4 sail
Graphic credit:

This digital onslaught against proper English needs to stop because:

a.) It hurts our brains to play Scramble with all of the possible misspelling iterations to figure out what you’re selling. A misspelled post won’t appear in the search results. Without an attached photo, we’d be clueless as to what’s for sale. Let’s not revert to picture-book levels of education.

b.) It spreads the miseducation. Each time you see something written the wrong way, it reinforces that spelling in your brain, until eventually you’ve seen bad orthography enough times to think it’s the right way.

This post (post spell-checking) would be a dull and depressing rant if I hadn’t found a sparkle of comedy in the 4-sell adds (that would be “for sale ads”).

I hope these spelling blunders give you a chuckle. If not, consult your friendly dictionary.

“Box of plates and bowels.”

Dishin’ up some guts!

(should be bowls)

“Iso a free play pin for my little man”

Momma, may I suggest better toys for an infant than a sharp pin? Ouchie!

(should be pen)

“Military rocksack

Sticks may break my bones, but the stones in this bag will just give you a sore shoulder.

(should be rucksack)

“Womens batbroom set, soap despense”

Dispense with the bats around your soap with this handy broom.

(should be bathroom and soap dispenser)

The errors aren’t limited to commerce. Unfortunately, spelling mistakes penetrate business-minded professionals and other interest groups.

In an entrepreneur group:

“What’s stopping you from growing your business? Have you already started or are you stalking?”

I’m a proofreader stalking your post instead of working.

(should be stalling)

On a gardening site:

“Id guess your soul is missing some nutrients.”

You could have gone to heaven if you’d only taken your vitamins.

(should be soil)

On a crafting site:

“If you cut off the clips you can use them for ceiling potato chip bags”

Bring me some snacks from the attic, will ya?

(should be sealing)

English is a complex language, full of homonyms and homophones that you must heed in order to succeed at communicating. If you tend to confuse trios like to/too/two, or you don’t know,where,to,insert,commas,or,periods, then let me unravel your writing for you.

I can do a quick proofread for common spelling and punctuation errors, or a deeper editing to suggest better word choice and structure. Send me an email or message through the contact form.

May treasured objects flow in and out of your lives when you most need to acquire or release them, and may all of your sale posts be readily understandable.

Coffee is liquid medicine

In Ethiopia, where coffee originated, their word for the drink (“bunna”) doesn’t follow the pattern of starting with ‘K’, ‘Q’, or ‘C’.

Another exception, also going back to origins, is in the indigenous language Ojibwe of the Anishinabek Native Americans from my native Minnesota.


Broken down into 3 parts, it means “black medicine water”.

makade = black

mashkiki = medicine

waaboo = water

So basically coffee is liquid medicine.

Drink up!

Coffee: the language spoken worldwide

What’s more important: to drink your daily cup of coffee or to make love?

For monolingual globetrotters, it may be a question of which is easier to pronounce.

‘Love’ in languages on each continent

amor               Spanish           America

Liebe               German           Europe

upendo           Swahili            Africa

ask                  Turkish             Middle East

pag-ibig           Filipino           Asia

You may have to set aside your carnal desires (or hire an interpreter, or gesticulate wildly, or crack open a phrase book, c’mon….or travel with your loved one), but at least you should be able to get your caffeine fix when the travel bug bites.

‘Coffee’ in languages on each continent

café                 Spanish           America

Kaffee             German           Europe

kahawa           Swahili            Africa

kahve              Turkish            Middle East

kape                Filipino            Asia

The word for coffee starts with the same sound made by 3 letters: K, Q, and C

kaffe menu
Copenhagen cafe. Photo by Martin Kaufmann


kaffe               Swedish

kahvi               Finnish

koffie              Dutch

kawa               Polish

ka-feh             Hebrew

kava                Ukrainian

kaféo               Greek

kophe             Russian

kope               Hawaiian

kia-fey           Chinese

koohii             Japanese


qahwah           Arabic

C (hard)

café                 Portuguese

caffè                Italian

ca phe             Vietnamese

coffee              English

Sea-faring merchants in the 1400s-1600s managed to bungle their way through their lovers’ names in every port and improperly pronounce or spell the source name for “coffee”.

Traders exchanged bags of coffee along with the name for their commodity, swapping Ks for Qs for Cs at the start of the word and Vs for Ws for Hs for Fs for Phs in the middle.

Pretty much except in the motherland of Ethiopia, where it’s still called Bunna. Home is where the heart is, and to thee we stay true.