Double Tall Confusion
Remedial Italian for Caffeine Addicts
The problem with Seattle is nobody here speaks
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
"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 Starbuck's, 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
Barista (as she is 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
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
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