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.

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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.

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Biking to work not only on Earth Day or in May: Two cyclists go the distance for sustainable commuting

I have the shortest, quickest, cleanest work commute: from the bed to the desk. I work from home, and it’s wonderful. To attend an event or meet with a client here in Denton, Texas, I always try to ride my bike.

My Midwestern parents raised us to bike anywhere you needed to go, unless it’s snowing, sleeting, or hailing. My professor father wheels through slushy streets, and the neighboring college kids drive past yelling, “See you in class!” A wee bit competive, he pedals faster to holler back “I’ll be waiting for you!”

So I wasn’t surprised when my brother entered in a bike race in sunnier South Carolina. The city of Greenville held a commuting competition today to celebrate Earth Day 2017 by pitting car vs. bus vs. bike. My brother, Tim Hibbard, started the company EnGraph to make transportation routes more efficient through GPS. Of course Tim knew the fastest, smartest, cheapest way to get to the City Hall: on bike. And he didn’t have to cut any corners (or even wear spandex) to win the race fair and square. A win for the Earth, and for commuting cyclists everywhere.

My husband, Daniel Cifuentes, comes from “The City of Eternal Spring”, where weather is never an excuse not to bike. Even towering Andes mountains are no obstacle. Here in flat Texas, he hadn’t reckoned on the force of prairie winds whipping across open ranches, nor the whoosh of extra-wide trucks roaring down the highway. He took them on in full force smack in the middle of March winds for his inaugral bike commute of over twenty miles to the coffee roasting company Farmer Brothers. Daniel helps farmers sustainably grow coffee, and in the name of sustainability he pedal-powered himself to work on March 17, 2017.

I interviewed Tim Hibbard and Daniel Cifuentes on biking to work for Earth Day. Could it be done every day?

Tinto Tinta Translations (TTT): Where do you live, where do you work, and what’s the distance between them?

Tim Hibbard (TH): I live in downtown Greenville and I work in a neighborhood called the village of West Greenville in an old textile mill that’s been converted into a coworking space. That is about 3.5 miles each way.

Today’s race was from a Walgreens in a neighborhood called Silverbrook to City Hall in downtown, and that ended up being about 3.3 miles.

Daniel Cifuentes (DC): I live in Denton, which is in the north of Texas, within the DFW area. I work in Farmer Brothers, which is located in Northlake. It’s halfway between Denton and Ft. Worth on I-35W. Between my work and my home there are 22-23 miles.

TTT: How do you normally commute to work?

TH: I always go on bike. We only have one car. So I bike.

DC: I drive my own car to work most of the time. I have a coworker that lives in the same city and sometimes we carpool together. I just tried once to bike to my work.

TTT: Are there any other options available, like mass transit or carpooling?

TH: Yep, there a couple of bus stops close by to where I live, and I’ll take those sometimes if it’s really raining, but I have to transfer and so that takes a while. If it’s raining I’ll typically just wait and work from home for a little bit, because I have that as an option. I pretty much always bike.

DC: There is a new route that the Ft. Worth transportation company started October last year. It’s called the Express North route, number 64, that goes from downtown Ft. Worth to downtown Denton. But the price is a little bit expensive, and it stops at the Alliance airport, which is around 3 miles from my office. So I would need to walk or bike those 3 miles, but the road is on Interstate 35 and it’s not safe.

TTT: Why did you choose to bike to work that day? Had you biked there before or was this the first time? 

TH: I bike there every day.

DC: That was my first time. I wanted to know if I could do it more often. I wanted to test the route and the tolerance of Texas drivers. To see how easy it was, how long it would take me to get there, to see if it’s a viable option for my commute. It’s something I can do maybe once per month. It’s not a viable option to do on a daily basis.

TTT: Were you able to ride in bike lanes or sidewalks, or did you share the road?

TH: Race: This particular route started out on a 4-lane arterial route, but it was only that way for a block or two. Then it went to a 2-lane road with a sharrow, but as we got closer to downtown the last 2 miles was all bike lane.

Normal commute: I have an option of bike lanes 100% of the way. I usually go a way that is a little bit faster but without bike lanes.

DC: I took an alternative route 377, that goes parallel to I-35. I was sharing the road with cars, but the road had a big shoulder so I felt safe riding that way.

TTT: How did the motorized commuters treat you? Did they give you wide berth? Did they heckle you? How do you feel sharing the road with drivers?

TH: For the most part the drivers are respectful. I make sure that they see me, that I have my lights on, that I’m visible. I try not to surprise drivers. You’re always going to have the few that don’t like bikers and are going to honk, that don’t like you being there. For the most part the drivers are pretty good.

DC: I felt safe. A couple of cars waved at me and kind of encouraged me to keep going. But there are some big trucks that threatened me a little bit, not because they were driving close to me, but just because they’re big and they were driving fast. If one of them is distracted, like texting, then maybe because of the size of the car it could hit me, so that was a little scary.

TTT: Was there ever any moment when you feared for your life? You’re wearing a helmet, but other drivers have steel and more protective elements. How exposed do you feel?

TH: I feel safe because I pay really close attention, but I’ve been suprised before so I just try to remain very diligent. Yes I do feel safe when I’m biking. There’s a lot more that we can do and that we should be doing, because most people would not feel safe. There are options, like protected bike lanes. There are easy things cities can do, as far as moving how cars park along the street to create protected bike lanes without actually doing anything but repaint parking strips. Cities need to be paying attention to those things and doing those things so more bicyclists feel safe biking down the road.

DC: No. I’ve been biking all my life, and I feel safe when I do so. The drivers were not aggressive, but maybe are more so on I-35. This road has stoplights and the speed limit is less, so maybe they drive a little more cautiously.

TTT: What were the road conditions? Any challenges with obstructions, like parked cars, low tree branches, or broken glass?

TH: In the downtown area Greenville does a really good job of keeping the streets clean. A lot of time road debris ends up in the bike lanes, but Greenville does a good job of keeping those bike lanes clean. There’s never an issue with junk in the bike lanes.

DC: No, the condition of the road was very good. The only hard condition that I had to face was the wind. It slowed me down a lot.

TTT: How could your commuting route be made make more bike-friendly?

TH: The number one thing is protected bike lanes. All cities should be looking at that. Another thing that they could do that is easy is looking at how lights are timed, especially on routes that are uphill. I have one uphill climb in particular in the downtown core, and I’ll hit every red light. I have a way that’s 100% bike lane, but I choose to go another way because on that road the lights are timed slower. I’d rather share with cars and hit green lights then have my own bike lane and go slower stopping at every single red light (and be going uphill at the same time). Cities have computers that can run models to determine effects of traffic lights and what would happen to congestion if they changed the designed speed of that road in order to make it more friendly for bicyclists.

DC: I feel there’s enough space in the road to mark the shoulders with bike signs or put some signs on the road so that the cars know they’re sharing the road, so they’re more aware of us bikers. That would improve the road.

TTT: How could fellow commuters make it less intimidating to be out on the road on a bike?

TH: The onus is really on the bicyclists. There are a lot of bicyclists that do things that make drivers upset. They run stop lights, they run stop signs, they cut in and out, they ride three-people deep, they block people. One bad bike rider will really spoil the bunch. A lot of drivers don’t like bicyclists because they can be jerks and act entitled. We need to be respectful. Just as we want our space on the road, we need to give vehicles their space on the road, and we can both be happy. I really think it’s on the bicyclists to be good examples. And then the drivers will be more likely to be more respectul to us.

DC: If they are more aware of the bikers because there are signs and there are spaces where bikes have a priority, maybe they will drive a little more carefully, knowing they’re sharing the road with someone with less protection.

TTT: How could your work space make it more inviting to arrive on bike? More secure bike racks? Financial incentives similar to bus passes given to other commuters?

TH: They do a great job. As far as a bus pass, my company pays for public transit. The actual facility has indoor bike parking with locks, showers, lockers. They’re very bike-friendly. I could not be happier with where I bike to.

DC: I think it’s hard for my workplace to do so because we’re located on the side of an interstate road. I don’t see it as very feasible for my workplace to do activities that promote biking to work. We’re in front of the Texas Motor Speedway and it’s only used 4 to 5 times a year, so maybe they can encourage us to bike some loops around the speedway.

TTT: Are sweaty shirts and helmet hair a factor? How can you arrive to work on bike while keeping a professional appearance? 

TH: Nope, we have showers. Yeah, you don’t want to be that guy.

DC: No, because we have showers at my workplace. I can change my clothes.

TTT: What would you say to your coworkers who live close enough to ride but haven’t considered it an option yet?

TH: Yes, there are those people, but they are becoming less and less because more and more people are biking to work; it’s great. There are probably 10 of us that bike pretty much every day, out of the 70 people who work in the coworking facility; that’s a really good number. So, many people are biking to work. To the people who aren’t: give it a try once. If you hate it, then at least you tried.

DC: I would say that the people who live close can talk about it with others and form a group of 4-5 people. So if they’re afraid of the road and that a car can hit them, they’ll be in a group and more visible.

TTT: Do you plan to commute to work again?

TH: Yes ma’am, every day.

DC: Yes, I want to do it at least once a month.

TTT: Will you do anything differently next time?

TH: No, I’m happy with the route. The weather’s nice. I really like it.

DC: I think the only thing that was hard was the wind, and that’s something that’s beyond my control. Next time I will take the same route. Besides the wind, there’s nothing else I would change.

TTT: How do you think the city should interpret the results from today’s race, the fact that you won as a biker?

TH: I think in most situations the bike’s going to win, just because there are so many ways it’s more convenient. Today’s results show that we’re off to a good start. With continued investment in biking infrastructure, especially with protected lanes, we can make it even easier for more people to bike to work every day.

***

May is National Bike Month. May 19 is National Bike to Work Day. We can make biking not just an annual event, but a regular part of our lifestyle and work culture. Tim is committed to biking every day, and Daniel every month.

They are aware of their role in making cycling more prevalent. What can you do?

Bikers: Be visible, be alert, and have increased awareness that you’re sharing the road.

Drivers: Become accustomed to seeing cyclists respectfully following traffic laws, and reciprocate the respect.

Cities: Provide better signage and designated spaces to ride and park bicycles.

Workplaces: Provide safe places to park bikes and shower facilities.

Join Tim and Daniel in creating a healthy workforce that actively reduces our environmental impact on Earth Day and everyday.