What We Got Here

What we got here…is a failure to communicate.
Captain, Road Prison 36 in Cool Hand Luke

Another in a set of reflections on our recent trip to New Zealand and Australia.

We have lots of kinds of coffee.

He shouldn’t sound impatient, but he does, just a little. The ordering sequence has, evidently, not gone entirely to his expectation. Or to his liking, for that matter. I go back over it in my mind, to see where things went off the rails.

I’ll have a coffee. That’s the Big Guy. Me, I have sensibly ordered tea.

What kind of coffee? That’s the trainee, fingers hovering over his cash register’s keys, poised to make the selection.

Just a regular coffee. The Big Guy again, a little at a loss as to how to specify what he wants.

We have lots of kinds of coffee. The trainee doesn’t say it, but it’s clear that ‘regular’ is not one of those kinds.

Oh dear. Here we are, on only our second day in this not very foreign country, already annoying the locals by stumbling over the basics. I mean, we thought we spoke their language.  

We’re getting breakfast at a fast-food franchise we recognize from home, trying to save time and money. Yesterday we did the ‘full breakfast in a tapas bar located upstairs off a quaint alley’ thing, with a $15-plate of streaky bacon, scrambled eggs, and home-made toast with marmalade so bitter it tests my self-image as a marmalade user. This morning, as we head out for a full day of freelance sightseeing before our organized tour starts on the morrow, we figured we’d go simpler. So far, not so much.

A supervisor comes to the rescue, perhaps more familiar with hapless North American turistas than her wanna-be barista.

Do you want espresso? Do you want milk?

Two negative responses later, she turns to the trainee and puts it in terms he and his cash register will understand: Long black.

Chastened, we take our food-like substances, our beverages, and our new learning to our table. But this is the breakfast that keeps on giving: my learning is not done yet. I open my cup to dunk the teabag, only to find an unappetizing milky-white fluid. Huh?

Ah. Now I remember the trainee muttering something about ‘white tea.’ Not understanding the term, I had let it go. I sigh, and head back to the counter.

I know it’s true what they say about travel – that if I’d wanted things to be the same here as at home, I should have stayed at home. But with a lactose intolerance, going along with this particular kind of different is not an option.

Oh well. The morrow may not find us any cuter, but it will definitely find us smarter. Or at least smart enough to order our breakfast beverages.

Long black coffee and black tea.

Say it loud, say it proud.

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24 Comments

  1. Jim Robertson

    More memories from our own travels, Isabel. Sometimes the more I think English speaking countries are the same, the more things are different.

    I guess that’s partly what makes foreign lands interesting to visit, as frustrating as it can be to us foreigners.

      1. Isabel Gibson

        Barbara – Yes, we women on the tour were told (quite quietly by our otherwise unflappable group leader), never to use the expression “fanny pack” for those articles but, instead, to call them “bum bags.” As for why – look it up!

  2. Gail Saker

    I can remember being totally confused at the expression “flat white” being used to describe the way I needed to order my coffee in order to get what I wanted! Still don’t get it!

  3. Alison

    I remember our kids having a heated discussion with a friend’s kids in NovaScotia regarding the direction that the hotdog buns were cut. Vertically in the East, horizontally in the West! who knew? I also think of when they were asked if they wanted a “sack” for their purchases in the USA – they thought it hilarious! Funny, but those are often the things you remember about travelling, and hopefully what builds the tolerance for other ways of doing things that you are striving for.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Alison – Oh yes, the sack (not a bag), the soda (not a pop), and so on. I sometimes think we care more about the little things. It’s as if I can totally (totally) understand someone having another religion, but what the heck is wrong with them that they do their coffee differently?

  4. Alison

    I must add – I’m heading to France with Corvin, and 36 high school students in April. It will be MY first time in Europe, and the first time for many of the students. You can only IMAGINE the challenges we will face?? I’m sure it will be a humbling experience, but I sure hope I can get my coffee in the morning!

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Barbara – Ah, politeness (like helpfulness) are in the minds of the giver and the receiver – and not always the same! But for sure it’s happier to assume a good intention . . .

  5. Mike Saker

    Even at our local Tim’s I once made the mistake of ordering a “small regular coffee with milk” to differentiate it from the “small decaffeinated coffee with milk” that I had just ordered for Gail. How else to differentiate decaf from…, well… just plain (regular) coffee? Anyway, my first sip of my ” regular with milk” was definitely much sweeter than I’m used to …… yuk! Apparently regular means milk and sugar in Tim’s parlance — how come she didn’t question my double positive — regular with milk — what’s this guy asking for? Being Canadian, and a local to boot, I didn’t have the nerve to take it back. Live and learn? Sometimes. “One small coffee with milk please”.

    1. Isabel Gibson

      Gary – Hand signals can be quite helpful. I still get a bill in restaurants with a hand signal I learned from my father about 45 years ago. Whatever works.

  6. John Whitman

    Hi Isabel:
    Once again, an engineer’s slant on things.

    Given your problems dealing with ‘black’ versus ‘clear’ tea on a domestic airline flight not so long ago, and your more recent experience ordering tea in Australia, maybe it is time to give up on drinking tea when you are travelling?

    Just a thought.

    John W

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