Don’t be a **** about ratings and reviews

Anyone that knows me, knows I loooooove a coffee shop. I love the atmosphere, I love the smell, I love the people in it, I love the actual coffee too. I have a few favorite hangouts, most of them use an expensive machine (my rationale is that if a place is going to invest in an expensive machine, they are going to train their baristas well and source fresh coffee). Unlike most self proclaimed “coffee snobs” (not a term I ever use to describe myself, although the assumption is often made) I have actually seen a real coffee tree in my life, I can explain the process of washing, fermenting, washing, de-husking, sun drying, roasting and packaging to you. I know that “100% arabica” is one of the most obvious statements to make, robusta is bitter and more likely to be used in instant coffee. I know that a bad barista can mess up even the best and freshest beans if they get their method wrong. I believe fair trade is a market altering consumerist trap and that there are no rules about adding milk or sugar – if you like it, put it in, but hold the pretentious comment if you disapprove!!

Coffee is supposed to serve a social function and a chemical one. And then millennials happened. And their parents. And everyone had a smartphone and a sense of entitlement and it became a wild game of “one-upping” and pretentiousness, complaining and gluten free treats to accompany it.

A few things are obvious on social media at the moment. There is very little regard for other peoples feelings, the context surrounding a situation and what is appropriate to share and what is not. We are lazy and so for convenience sake, we have apps that use GPS and ratings to recommend coffee shops and other restaurants near us. I am most familiar with one specific app – unnamed, but very popular and perhaps easy to guess. The last time I scrolled through the reviews of a restaurant that I often go to I was disappointed. Not in the restaurant, but in humans. Is it our natural instinct to complain? Are we at a level of ungratefulness and entitlement where waiting 20 minutes for a pizza is worth a 3/5 rating and a rant about slow service? Lady complaining about the pizza, have you ever made a pizza yourself? The irony is, and this is what our consumerist culture really needs to remember, is that if you have the money to splash on over priced restaurant pizza, you probably have a relatively comfortable life. Especially if this was paired with a craft beer and you took the cauliflower base because “carbs”. Consider whether the first person you see begging at a traffic light would have minded the 20 minute wait. That person has a very real reason to complain about real unfairness in this world. The review warrior, however, needs to save the next one from waiting 10 minutes longer and so makes their stamp on this world via the foodie app and slashes their previous rating to a 3. What a champ.

On these rating apps, you can get a “foodie” level/status. The more you rate the higher your level or whatever moves up in the ranks of pretense. Think about this incentive. In the same way that likes on a photo encourages more and more self-centred posts, so does this system encourage more ratings and more entitlement. You may be a master rater on the app but are you fair? Did the fact that the waiter (who happens to be human too) overlooked your table really warrant a five sentence review about bad service? Did you look the waiter in the eye? Did you maybe notice that their day was long and that perhaps they also have things going on in their lives? When you decided not to tip well because of this, did you think about why this person who has just dealt with your rudeness and entitlement did not jump at the opportunity to appear at your table every 5 minutes? And why that 10% less tip you gave means more to them than the inconvenience did to you? Do you know what a spiteful rating on an app does to the business of a coffee shop? Did you call the manager and talk about your grievances before you used the coffee shops own wifi to write a bad review? Judging by the responses I have read on reviews, usually not.

So… let’s be honest. You probably don’t know coffee as well as you pretend to, you probably can’t taste the difference between 5 different blends and single origins, you probably expect people to treat you well in your own job and expect people to trust that you know what you are doing there. How about you give the same courtesy to the coffee shop owner, the barista and the waiter at the next place you decide to drop some cash on a medium, dark roast (insisting on arabica- of course) cappuccino with a gluten free muffin that is preferably organic (whatever that even means) and warmed to exactly YOUR liking, all served of course, within minutes because you are the only person in a rush today.

Enjoy coffee shops for what they are, restaurants for what they are and coffee for what it is … don’t be a **** about ratings and reviews!



I call them “safe” spaces

I spent my morning at a coffee shop that I fell in love with towards the end of my stay here in Bilbao. On my way out I took a picture of it to post to Instagram. At the time I had no real reason to do that. I just knew I wanted to share it. I thought about this all the way home (walking) and in between last minute gift-buying for family members. Why did I want to share this picture? (I have been practicing “conscious posting” recently and so the reason why I want to post a photo is something I insist on understanding before I do). It wasn’t to brag (If it feels like bragging I don’t share a picture), it wasn’t merely to keep my family in the loop of what my life 11 000km away from them is like (my primary reason for posting anything to social media), it isn’t even a place any of my Bilbao friends ever join me at. I started writing the caption and the reason why dawned on me. I feel “safe” here. It has become one of my mentally “safe spaces”. It also occurred to me that my “safe” spaces are more often than not also places or people I don’t like to “share” with others.

I don’t mean  the coffee shop is “safe” in the normal grammatical meaning of the word (“protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed or lost.” or “not likely to cause or lead to harm or injury; not involving danger or risk.”). Its Bilbao, everywhere is safe in that way! I mean mentally uncomplicated. Familiar. When it feels “like home”. Bilbao, in general, is a “safe” space for me. I leave next week in a better mental state than when I arrived. That’s a post for another day.

Back to the specific safe spaces I wanted to talk about. What is it about a place that makes it “safe” for me? I am a walking paradox. I am both a creature of habit and filled with a sense of adventure. I am traditional in my views on many things yet I actively seek situations that challenge these views. I love spending quality time with people but at the same time crave my own company and a solitary existence where I do what I do only because I want to do it. I crave the familiarity and stability of a loving long term relationship but at the same time run from the thought of settling down. I want to be challenged academically but at the same time just want an uncomplicated conversation without over thinking the different viewpoints and lenses through which the various actors might experience the situation or topic under discussion.

Why is El Tilo de Mami Lou a “safe” space for me? Is it because I don’t have one of my aunts close to me to go and get some motherly love from when my own mother is in a different country, as I do when at University? Is it because my mom makes the best cupcakes in the world and this place reminds me of her? Is it because I know the answer to the question “what would you like to order”? These facts probably play a role too. I don’t have any friends here with whom I share any significant history beyond the past 4 months and so when I am anxious about what’s happening in one of my home countries or to one of my family or friends, there is no one that just gets it. It’s a much more challenging conversation. I found a space where I can be all of these things for myself without any added pressure. I am selfish about the spaces where I feel secure. In a new environment and even in the old ones I am used to there are places I like to frequent for various reasons. Not necessarily because the coffee is the best or the service is great or because there is safe parking available or because it’s close to me. I like some of them because they represent the type of “safe” that I crave. A “safe” space is different to a “working” space for example. I write in coffee shops, I write in libraries, I write at my desk, I write on my yoga mat on my kitchen floor, I write on airplanes and then some days I waste 2 hours searching for a space where I feel like I can write. But that’s different. Another post perhaps.

I am an academic. I am writing a PhD and what I do with the majority of my day is read articles, over analyse every word, criticise or agree, justify, over-complicate the topic, feel like an imposter, feel like a champion, attack what I don’t agree with and over justify what I do agree with (in my mind) – regroup and find some sort of reason and objectivity and write. It’s exhausting. Some days I crave being able to switch it off. And so I have safe spaces where I can be the less analytical version of myself. Where I escape from myself. Places where, if I think about, it either one or all of these characteristics are present: Consistency. Unconditional understanding or love. No tough choices. Acceptance. Peace. Peace of mind. No internal debate. History. Silence.

El Tilo de Mami Lou is my safe space not only because the cupcakes are consistently nice, the barista is consistently friendly (all of them actually), the music in the background is consistently soothing and mostly in a language that I understand and because the choice of newspapers is consistent. A local one, a National one, and a “Hello” magazine. None in a language that I speak, but this is how I gauge how much Spanish I have learned. I read the paper. A newspaper anywhere in the world smells the same too. I don’t have to make a decision at Mami Lou. I take a cupcake flavor that I haven’t had yet every time. I order English Breakfast tea con leche and I know I will be happy on my way out. There is no hostility. There is no academic debate about whether the blueberries in the cupcake are organic and what organic really means in terms of accountability and market access and how this relates to the Millenium Development Goals in the context of law and development in a post-modern word. It’s busy up in my head. But I identify safe spaces as being spaces where I can just be “in the moment”. Cellphone on flight mode, a Spanish newspaper in hand and daydreaming about all sorts. Even if just for 30 minutes.

Sometimes my safe space is a person. Sometimes it’s a place. Sometimes I share it. Sometimes I don’t.

Even if you’re not looking for a “safe space” to regroup and gather all the ducks that perpetually step out of the row, I recommend El Tilo De Mami Lou near Arriaga Theatre in Bilbao. The cupcakes (and other actual cakes) are amazing. They do breakfast and lunch menus and coffee, tea, smoothies etc. The vibe is peaceful, you already know which newspapers are on offer, and you will leave feeling good.