Somewhat ironically, since yesterday was a holiday in the US, Gabe and I spent the entire day working. This actually came as something of a relief.

The nature of both our jobs means that we can spend a year in another country, or take a month off and travel home, but it also means that we never really take time off. So while we were home, we were both constantly stealing snippets of time to send an email or ten, update a web page or a stock trade, have a meeting on the way to dinner with the family or a conference call in between errands and the gym. In my case I was actually staying with my boss, so most days breakfast turned into a morning meeting even before I was done with my second cup of coffee!

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have that kind of flexibility. But after a month, it can also be somewhat exhausting. Sometimes it’s nice just to focus entirely on work for a day without worrying about losing out elsewhere. So yesterday Gabe went in to uni, I stayed at home in our newly rearranged office, and we both spent the day taking care of business. It felt great to have a really productive day, even though my lingering exhaustion from the trip back kept me from being at the top of my game.

The work I did do at home was often in a coffee shop, sneaking in an hour or even twenty minutes to take advantage of faster wireless than what was available at home. One of the last coffee shops I went in before I left was a Peet’s, and even though I was there for strictly recreational purposes, I still had to laugh at the difference between that coffee shop and the ones you find here in Portugal.

In California, a lot of people go to coffee shops (as I do) to work, to get themselves out of the house or office, maybe have some social interaction, use the internet, and have some good coffee to boot. Recreational users are often outnumbered, and it can be difficult to find a seat with all the laptoppers monopolizing the tables for hours at a time. (Guilty as charged, though I do try to buy enough drinks and food to compensate for my usage.)

In Lisbon, people go to coffee shops expressly NOT to work. They have their morning coffee break soon after they get to the office, then an hour or two later they have lunch, followed by — of course — more coffee. Then there’s the afternoon coffee break, then lanch (the pre-dinner meal, since they eat so late here.) Then dinner in the evening, and their after-dinner coffee. That’s a lot of caffeine. No wonder they stay up so late!

So the coffee break is almost a sacred thing here, and the concept of working while having your coffee would I think deeply disturb the average Portuguese person. Coffee is a social activity, and at almost any given time of the day, you can find myriad tiny little cafes with people laughing and talking raucously over their tiny cups of espresso. They never linger for very long — just like their coffee, their breaks here are short but intense.

It follows then that coffee shops themselves are a very different beast here than they are in California. Here they are loud, bustling, full of clattering plates and cups, conversation and laughter. The tables are crammed, and the coffees are tiny and very black, as milk is considered for sissies. If music is playing at all, it is generally inaudible over the ruckus.

Compare that to the Peet’s I was in last week:

People sitting quietly, either working at a table or reading the newspaper in deep, comfy armchairs. The loudest sound, other than the espresso machine, was the classical music playing over the speakers. Any conversation was quiet, subdued, and sporadic, as it seemed almost out of place in such a serene setting. The patrons all sat and lingered long over their large milky coffees, and generally there was no more than one person per table.

What a contrast! I think such a coffee shop would have violated some unwritten part of Portuguese law were it to exist here. Part of me wishes there were more Peet’s-like places in Lisbon, simply so I could have a place to work outside of the house. But most of me is glad that there is a sacred separation between work and coffee here, as it is symbolic of a larger difference in Portuguese priorities and pace of life.

To that end, it’s back to work for me this morning. But first… perhaps I’ll have some more coffee.