The following is based from my journal from when I was visiting a friend in Santiago, Chile, on a June Friday in 2011. A version of this excerpt was emailed to my boyfriend Jon on Friday, June 24, 2011.
I searched for café con piernas today. Café con piernas, or “coffee with legs,” is a coffeehouse where patrons stand around a bar with no seats to order espressos made by baristas in push-up bras, skin-tight dresses that barely cover their tushes, and stiletto heels. Some of these cafes are skanky, say the guidebooks, but others are frequented by women as well as men — at least according to Anthony Bourdain. So this afternoon, between wondering about Chile’s surplus of hot dog vendors and visiting Santiago’s Memory and Human Rights Museum, I needed a coffee and ventured out to find one. And I did. I found the well-known café con piernas Cafe Haiti on the Paseo Ahumada near the Plaza de Armas. I stared at the entrance nervously for awhile (taking the picture above while I deliberated), weighing the general disadvantages of committing a social faux-pas while abroad (being socially insensitive, being laughed at and publicly ridiculed) with its benefits (not understanding enough Spanish to know if I was actually being laughed at and publicly ridiculed). The crowd emptied out of the building all at once, and I walked in before I could stop myself.
Inside was a small room completely walled with mirrors (for extra staring?). Dividing the baristas and the patrons curved a counter mounted on stainless steel poles, elevated so you could also see underneath it. On top of the counter were enormous, diner-strength canisters of pour-top sugar. On the patrons’ side of the room, there were freestanding ash trays and nothing else except an empty room and my reflection in six directions. Behind the counter were the espresso machines and two women who were not necessarily classy or pretty but who were effectively enhanced by their clothing.
I walked directly up to one of them, exuding confidence, not unlike a pre-teen boy at his first high school dance. (Okay, an international pre-teen boy who couldn’t speak the language at his first high school dance.) “Café, por favor?”
Rapidly, I was denied like a pre-teen boy at a high school dance and redirected to a woman in the corner of the room who sat at a small desk with a price list, ticket stubs, and cash register. Apparently in Chile, one does not simply pay/tip/order/flourish at any bar but does one’s underhanded dealings with a similar woman in the corner. That’s intelligent under some circumstances, but as I scanned my eye down the list of drinks, I felt somewhat like I was visiting the principal to explain my behavior at said high school dance. The woman scowled.
“Buenos tardes, senora…. espresso, por favor, gracias?” My voice rose at the end, and the woman’s frown deepened. I eyed the list again and pounced on the only drink I did not know. “No, no, frappa crema. Por favor.” The woman scribbled something on a pad and tapped a few numbers into her keyboard, giving me the total and handing me a ticket stub.
“Gracias,” I said firmly. I waltzed over to the espresso bar where the curvier, skankier, and somehow prettier barista snatched my stub away. She sighed as if to call me out — you found us on page 245 of the guide book, didn’t you. I met her eyes.
“Freo o caliente?” she asked — hot or cold.
“Um… freo,” I said.
“Con vainilla, chocolate, frambuesa...” she continued, and the second barista waved her hand as if to say, “Don’t bother, she doesn’t understand.” But I had already heard the word for “vanilla,” so I blurted it out in her pronunciation:
“Si. Por favor.”
She turned her back to me and began making my drink. I slid down the counter near the wall and realized I didn’t know what to do with my eyes. I always watch the barista make my drinks at the Midtown Scholar in Harrisburg, but if I watched my barista here, was it assumed I was checking her out? Or was that the point? In the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, I looked at my reflection: my sideways Grove mouth, the freckles intensified by Chile’s thin ozone layer, my warm scarf for the Chilean winter. I looked at the floor — cream-colored tile, like a diner from the 1960s. I looked at the woman: dark-haired, solidly built, generously curved. I looked at myself again: the antithesis of dark-haired, solidly built, and generously curved.
An old, well-dressed man and woman entered the room and ordered espressos, and suddenly my frappa crema was slammed down with a clatter before me. It was a frothy, milked, vanilla-hinted, cold (not iced) coffee with a mile of whipped cream on top, dusted with a blend of sugar and cocoa powder. It even came with a little glass of agua con gas (carbonated water). Finally, I thought, a sense of normalcy. I personally believe that water should be complimentary and served without question when you order a coffee — I get too dehydrated otherwise. In America, I’m always the only person I know who orders one espresso and ends up carrying two cups of liquid to my table. The Cafe Haiti got it right.
I drank the frappa crema slowly, standing by the wall and leaning on the elevated counter, playing with my whipped cream, and eying the patrons who eventually joined the old couple and me: a man with unwashed hair, a businessman in a suit, a worker wearing a hard hat who suspiciously eyed my auburn hair. By the time I pushed back the dregs of my coffee and left, calling out “gracias” without pronouncing the “s” because no Chilean does, the cafe was rather full with a sense of daily life, and the beautifully-clad women were tamping espressos at full speed.
I walked blindly into the bright street with the confidence of someone who hadn’t a clue what she was doing, but I realized I’d liked it. It had been damn good coffee, and I’d survived my Spanish. I’d do it again.
— Thursday, June 23, 2011