The very first lesson in my Greek Sign Language class was how to order coffee. My standard order at the time was “frappé, sweet with milk:” a frothy instant coffee beverage practically synonymous with Greek café life. The fact that coffee was our first lesson did not surprise me one bit – my coffee order may have been the sentence I said most often while living in Athens, and café culture is industriously important to Greek social life. In that first class, I learned how I would order in a deaf café in Athens:
Frappé: hold your thumb and forefinger about 4 inches apart, like a bouncer asking for ID at a loud nightclub. Shake furiously. (This references the foam).
Sweet: trace your esophagus on the front of your neck with your index finger.
With Milk: make a loose fist and hold it in front of you. Rotate your hand so your thumb is the finger closest to the ceiling, and mime milking udders by squeezing your fist three times.
Vasso, my Greek Sign Language classmate who was studying to be a barista, showed me how to make frappé: In a narrow drinking glass, add a splash of water to two scoops Nescafé (instant coffee) and three scoops of sugar. Using a Hamilton Beach milkshake maker, whizz and buzz it until the glass is half full of foam. Plop 3 big ice cubes onto the pillowy fluff, and add a hefty glug of Nounoú condensed milk. Pour in cold water until it reaches the top of the glass, and serve with a straw.
The straw is absolutely essential to drinking frappé, because the top half of the drink is foam, so it’s an unwieldy beverage to swig. But the straw is vital to the performance. It gives you, the drinker, a reason to fidget as you stir your drink, something to keep your hands busy so you can stay at the café for a full three hours (which, I would estimate, is an average visit).
Once you sip the luxurious, creamy part of the frappé (the lower half) through the straw, you’re left with a caffeinated foam that would be a shame to waste. To save it, use the carafe on the table to pour in water, and stir it at your leisure. Slowly, the foam will melt into the water, and you can easily slurp it up.
The foamy structure of the frappé is designed to fit within Athens’ café culture, where one drink stretches to fill an afternoon. Still in the throes of the financial crisis, Greece struggles through uncomfortably high un- and underemployment, and money is tight. A frappé costs between 1 and 5 Euros, and the foam lasts for hours, with conversation, cigarettes, and people-watching to entertain the drinker.
In Greece, people-watching could be an Olympic sport. Cafés line up outdoor seating along the storefront so that every patron is facing the sidewalk and the street. What most Americans would consider staring to the point of rudeness passes for mild curiosity in Greece; it’s simply not rude to stare. I quickly got used to this, and once home, my friends chastised me for doing it shamelessly. But at an Athens café, staring is the norm.
I made sure to spend plenty of time at Athens cafés. Stirring away the afternoon as the shadows unfurl into evening, I felt myself sinking into the rhythm of the city. But missing out on deaf café culture felt like my Greek Sign Language education was incomplete. Hearing people usually have few opportunities to go to deaf social clubs, but after I asked in my best Sign, my professor brought me to one in my last week in Athens and I finally got to put my first lesson to use. It was the sweetest frappé I ever tasted.
Thank you to Sheryl Julian, professor at Boston University’s Gastronomy Program, for feedback on this text.