I was a twentysomething barista (and lived)
Bert Vandecasteele – 1.2 – 5th of October, 2010
Before moving to Berlin, I didn't even know what a barista was. I probably didn't even know the
difference between espresso and regular coffee. But fate had it planned out for me: for about half a
year, I'd go into the lion's den. Yes, I would be a twentysomething barista like so many others. I would serve coffee. And I would do so in the coffeeest district in all of Berlin: Prenzlauer Berg, home of that
new generation which does the exact opposite of the old generation – stuff like drinking coffee.
Now this might not sound very interesting. And you're right. Of course I'm not going to talk about
flipping coffee. But about the people who drink coffee. The person who makes your coffee. And that other one. The one that pays the person who makes your coffee.
Yes, let's start with her. I actually didn't meet my boss until my first shift. Maybe I would have
reconsidered if I had. Probably not. For the sake of anonymity, I'll call her the Hulk. The reason for
that is twofold: a) her body size in combination with the store's ten square meters caused her to be in the way wherever she stood; b) she scared the customers so much they steered clear of the shop when
they saw her red car parked in front. Sure, she was nice. But it was the kind of niceness you try to give someone so he would get up at five in the morning and open a coffee shop. Because let me tell you:
I started there with hopes and dreams. I was twenty three, had a master's degree and no intention of
doing anything with it, so making coffee seemed like a good idea. It was the typical perspectivelesness of my generation, which an author friend of mine once summarized perfectly by asking me how he
could ever be the next Nabokov and write his Lolita when there's so much football on Tv. That was my kind of situation: the world was a vast, scary place – coffee would help me feel safe. Unfortunately, I
served my first cappuccino to a loud-mouthed coffee snob and my hopes and dreams of becoming the very best were quickly shattered to a thousand little pieces.
But hey, I did become the nicest – the nicest man to work there. Also, the only man to work there. But
still – I was a pretty nice guy. You see, I'm a Belgian. Being nice is in my genes. It's why our country is
doing so great. We're nice people. But since this text is about coffee, I won’t bore you further with the awesomeness of waffle country.
I started working at the Dark Side of the Moon (yes, I just made that up for anonymity’s sake) in
October, barely two weeks after I arrived in Berlin. I didn't even have a place to live yet – but I sure as
hell had a place to work. The perfect immigrant!
Those first few weeks, I actually was very happy to see the Hulk. She would help me make some
coffees; sure, she would make a mess, but I'd gladly clean it up after her. The customers intimidated me they were always „on their way“ to someplace and were „in a hurry“. And I was slow. Boy, was I slow.
And it seemed so simple too! You grind your coffee beans into your sieve. You put your sieve into
your machine. You put a cup under it. You press a button. You foam milk. It's like Harry Potter: swish-
and-flick. A magic coffee making spell. But I wasn't a good magician. Nowhere near.
It was annoying. I wanted to get on the customer's good side – and to do that, I would have to learn
how to make better coffee. So I started eye of the tiger on my iPod and got to work. An hour later, I had made about fifty different caffeinated drinks, drank what felt like half of them and stood in front
of that espressic beast I had just tamed – shaking with happiness (and caffeine rush). On that day, I had learned how to make coffee. The magic had no more secrets for me. Swish-and-flick.
November came and slowly, the customers were getting used to me. I was getting used to them too –
the faces weren't just faces anymore, I actually learned to get to know some of them. You see, coffee is
like an alarm clock. Before the alarm, you're asleep; afterwards, you're wide awake and ready for the day. For a lot of people in Prenzlauer Berg, coffee seemed to be the same thing: they'd walk into the store
every day like clockwork (25 past eight was a popular time), still asleep and groggy (and usually nasty), I'd make them their coffee (bonus points if you remember what they drink) and -bam!- they were wide
awake and happy. Their moods would turn a 180 degrees.
Some would stay and chat. Others sat and preferred to be left alone. The most interesting ones,
however, were the ones who just came and went – preferably multiple times during my eight hour shift. I remember one guy – a big cup of filter coffee, no spoon or complimentary chocolate; if filter coffee
= empty, then an americano, no spoon or complimentary chocolate. He rarely spoke, but that made him all the more interesting. Who are you, man, sipping your coffee, standing a meter away from me,
only separated by a counter? A construction worker once came in and seemed to know him. I figured he was an architect – but he was so mysterious he might have been the architect that created the Matrix,
Some people just came again and again. Two times in my shift, two times in the afternoon shift.
Earning my seven an hour (for those working at Starbucks – yes, I was a twentysomething barista mil ionaire
), I could not fathom it. Some guy spent nine euros a day on coffee. On coffee!
Did he eat? Did
he have money to eat? Did he have a house? And, if so, did he build it out of used coffee cups?
Christmas approached like a roller coaster and I was actually enjoying myself. Some things were
getting on my nerves though, like how a solitary shift from six in the morning to two in the afternoon with no real breaks causes you to skip breakfast and lunch. Nothing was growing worse than my
annoyance over the Hulk, however. She would come in, „help“ me make some „coffees“, and
she would make a mess and ask me to clean it up. Then she would talk to customers – especially those who
wanted to be left alone. Customers would run away faster than a mailman running from a pit bull or the vickar running from Hyacinth Bucket.
Christmas came. Like clockwork, my Dickens ghosts came a-knocking. First came the ghost of
Christmas past, who talked to me in my hometown dialect. He showed me my youth, my time spent at
the university, my need to get away from home. The ghost of Christmast present was overcoffeinated and twitchy, his ramblings didn't make much sense to me. But the Ghost of Christmas Future's one
So I did what I always do in occasions like these: I wrote long, boring texts, much like this one. I
always had a note book on me, which I would use frantically to start collecting ideas at my work place. It kept me distracted. When one of my customers came in, shivering with cold and looking as if she
had just been in a bad bar brawl and had her nose broken, I offered her a coffee and secretly – creepily – thought up a back story for her. When someone wanted to take a picture of my chest (look at the
thing, why would you ever
), I wrote a short story about a torso pornographer. I dropped ten croissants one morning, and am still writing the mini series about bakers that sprung from that. I would launch
„operation back on track“, making lists of things I should change in my life. Which actually should have had only thing on there, marked with a red bullet point, three exclamation marks and five
underscores: „get the hell out of this place!! “
But I couldn't. Somehow, I don't know if it was the coffee addiction or something else, I had become
invested in that job. If I weren't there anymore, who would make these poor people coffee? Or bagles? Where would they go? They'd flock around, those poor sheep, and get run over by the tram. Cause of
death? Lack of caffeine. I'd be a murderer.
In January, the stress made my right ear glow. Doctor prescribed blood thinners. I read the package,
looking at the espresso machine I'd come to love, wondering if it was heavy machinery or not. On top of that, a virus swept our store shortly afterwards and the baristas were multitasking making coffee and
disinfecting their hands after hanging over the toilet. I took a few sick days, and that's when things changed. On one afternoon, not one, but two things happened.
I think the Ghosts of Christmas past and future had something to do with it. One e-mail came from
my Belgian university. They had found a two-week internship for me, which would lead to a second
degree. I could start in two weeks. The other e-mail was an invitation: someone had stumbled upon a school that would be taking scriptwriting applicants. Deadline for the application? You guessed it. Two
The Hulk wasn't happy. She took a deep breath and told me I'd have to choose (yes, I would have to
between working a dead-end job and the prospect of making something of my life). So I took a deep, coffee-smelling breath and gave her my two week's notice. She left the store. I never saw her
Time went by – my last week, day, hour came. My last customer was one of my favourites: a slightly
social awkward girl with a flirty attitude. She'd order the same thing as ever: a latte macchiatto with caramel. I'd make the drink like a champ, then grab the caramel syrup and push the button. The funnel
exploded, spraying me with sweet, sticky syrup. I drop the cup out of fright, literally covered with a mixture of caramel and espresso. I jokingly told her I'll make her a new cup, this one was no good. She
looked at me shyly and said that, with all the caramel, I was now officially the sweetest guy on the planet.
Coffee and caramel. How was that for a bittersweet ending?
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