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Sunday, 13 May 2012

The madness of coffee in Maida Vale

Arriving commendably early at Maida Vale Tube station to meet a friend, I decided to go for coffee first. Popping into an independent coffee shop of the fast-disappearing sort that is much mourned by coffee's commentariat, I asked the counter-person whether the place had a loo. She looked at me as if I was mad. A lavatory, I further ventured, but my use of such complicated vocabulary only served to confuse matters even further. When, at school, one of us boys used to ask a particular teacher if he (the boy, not the teacher) could go to the toilet, the teacher used to ask if the boy in question was a woman. It was, quite seriously, drummed into us that it is not correct English usage to refer to a man going to the toilet. While some parents had to pay good money for their sons to be taught such nonsense, I was taught it for free, at a state comprehensive school, but taught it I nonetheless was.

One of my great pleasures in life is, therefore, to go out and ask for the whereabouts of the lavatory, the loo or the Gents, in the knowledge that the person that I am talking to will often not understand what I am talking about. I do this because it amuses me when I can then feel mildly indignant at having been served in England by someone who does not know what the word 'lavatory' means. Anyway, as I had got nowhere in Maida Vale with a query about the loo or the lavatory, I decided to skip a query about the Gents and simply ask if there might be a toilet, to which query I received a response in the affirmative. I could not then resist politely asking the counter-person whether she had really never heard the words 'loo' or 'lavatory' before; no, she said triumphantly, I am from Italy. I did not know that there was anything peculiar to the condition of being from Italy that would prevent a person from having heard the words 'loo' or 'lavatory' before.

As a guilt-ridden liberal, I could not, of course, simply go to this coffee shop's lavatory without first ordering something, for fear of creating the impression that I am the sort of cad who uses a place's loo without also buying something. So I glanced down at the menu and saw the word 'macchiato', with the option of having one that was either single or double, which prompted the following dialogue:

ME: A skinny macchiato, please.

HER: Latte.

ME: No, macchiato, please.

HER: Double or espresso?

ME: A single macchiato, please.

HER: It is very small.

ME: It's there on the menu, Single Macchiato, as one of the options written there, could I please have that?

HER: A Double Espresso? Or a latte?

ME: This is the craziest service ever.

At which point I left, and I promise that I was very polite and did not raise my voice. Other customers won't have noticed, and the counter-person will have been unfazed by an encounter with yet another Englishman who is so silly as to first ask for the lavatory and then attempt to order something that was, you know, there, in front of us, on a menu that was so permanent-seeming as to have actually been laminated, so it was not as if I was inventing the idea of a single macchiato, albeit with the added complexity of my having requested a skinny one. I knew something like this would happen if Mr Heath took us into the Common Market.

Having transferred my patronage to a branch of Starbucks across the road, I ordered a skinny flat white. The gentleman asked me my name, as Starbucks is currently engaged in a marketing campaign that involves writing customers' names on the paper cups in which the coffee is served. Day one of this campaign involved an exercise in which, if one revealed one's name, one was given a free cup of coffee. As we are now on what might well be day ninety-seven, the free coffee has gone out of the window, so this serves no discernible purpose other than to swell the profits of whichever company manufactures the felt-tipped pens that are used to write the names on the cups, but I co-operated sufficiently to tell the gentleman my name, only for him to then write it on a paper cup, when I didn't want a paper cup, as I had requested my coffee to drink 'in', on the premises, and so was expecting to be furnished with a mug or cup made of some material more permanent-seeming than paper.

This was sorted out to my great satisfaction, and I drank my coffee and left without further incident, only to then return after a few minutes with the friend that I had all along been due to meet at the station. Ha ha, I said, I'm back, with that tone of genial hilarity that is expected of one who leaves a branch of Starbucks and returns mere moments later. Once we had all finished laughing, I ordered another skinny flat white. I had assumed that we all now understood that drinks 'in' were not to be served in paper cups, but I saw that a member of Starbucks' staff had dispensed my coffee into precisely such a disposable receptacle.

I asked her if I could please have it in a cup, so she got an empty paper cup and placed it on the counter next to the paper cup that had my coffee in it. What I was expected to do with these two paper cups, beyond requesting a third cup and a coin and performing a Find The Lady routine, I am not entirely certain. No, no, I said, I'm drinking it in, please, so I don't need a paper cup. Ah, she said, removing my coffee as if it was Geoffrey Palmer's plate of sausages, and going off to serve not one other customer, but several. With the fixed grin that I use to ward off trouble assuming Des O'Connor proportions, I uttered an audible "excuse me". It eventually transpired that she was not simply pouring my coffee from a paper cup into one made of china or whatever material is used, but was instead making me another one from scratch, which is nothing if not well-intentioned, I suppose.

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