It’s All in the Pits
Coffee and Cross-Cultural Communication

October 1st, 2013
by Eric Johnson

[private]    A young lady and her companion came up to the counter in our coffee shop on Utila, smiled and said “Single shot flat white please, for take away.” Her companion said, “I’d like a long black, take away as well.” Both had lovely Aussie accents, so I knew exactly what they were asking for. She wanted a small latte with no foam. He wanted a 16-ounce black French-pressed coffee. Australians can also order a red eye, black eye or a dead eye.

Vernacular for coffee, as for everything else, varies depending on where you live. If an Italian comes to the counter and asks for “coffee,” I know right away that they are expecting espresso. But if a person from the US asks for “coffee,” they are expecting something brewed from a drip machine.

Don’t worry, I dare not subject mountain grown, organic, fair-trade, hand-roasted coffee to a drip coffee maker! I’m a coffee snob. All proper coffee must be made either with an espresso machine, French press or pour-over. There are other methods, but you get my point. For someone from the UK, proper tea isn’t made with a bag you dunk in hot water. It must be steeped in a pot at just the right temperature and must be nurtured, picked and prepared in just the right way. Similarly, coffee has its rituals.

Photo by Eric Johnson

Conversation pit at Rico Coco coffee shop on Utila. (photo by Eric Johnson)

Once you have a good beverage in your hand, you can’t rush through it. You find the right location to either enjoy it undisturbed or sit in an area where people are most likely to engage in conversation. We call it the “conversation pit.” Every proper coffee or tea shop has to have one. It’s where we discovered the word “proper,” as in, “Now that’s a proper cake,” or “a proper bacon butty.” It’s where we discovered what a bacon butty was!  (It’s a sandwich made with fresh homemade bread, something similar to Heinz 57 sauce and a huge pile of bacon. But I digress.)

A conversation pit is a row of seating just opposite the serving counter that everyone who enters must pass in front of. It offers the opportunity to greet everyone who comes in for a beverage or just talk to the “coffee guy” or “coffee girl” behind the counter. We have seen everything from “stupid magic acts” to jugglers, to recitals of entire Monty Python skits take place in our conversation pit! It is where we learned how to say the Swiss words for “mashed potatoes” and “cabinet,” which are my only two Swiss words to date. I can’t wait to go to Switzerland so I can say, “The mashed potatoes are on top of the cabinet.”

I also learned in my conversation pit that in Scotland if you are impressed with something you might quip, “Why that’s pure dead brilliant!” and instead of “thanks,” “yes” or “bye” they say “cheers!”

The pit always gets people smiling and opens the door to conversation and hopefully to making new friends. Many relationships started right there in the pit while drinking coffee or tea and possibly trading idioms.

So if you are on one of the Bay Islands and are between dives, perhaps on your way to getting your DM or taking your snorkel test, take off your BCD, get a cup of Joe for here and find a seat in the pit. You never know what might happen!



Eric Johnson runs the Rio Coco coffee shop on Utila.


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