Friday, May 23, 2008

europe through coffee

headed to seattle for memorial day weekend to spend three days with some very dear friends. and since it's all cloudy here today, and supposed to be cloudy and rainy in seattle (naturally), and i'm drinking a warm cup of coffee before visiting my fellow travelers, i'm thinking a lot about my semester spent traveling through europe.

coffee has always been more than a wake-up thing for me - although it is certainly that. i started drinking it in high school, and every cup from that first to the one i have at my desk as i write this has reminded me of my father. many smells remind me of him, but none more than the smell of a strong cup of coffee. so coffee is a ritual for me, a time however brief of remembering and honoring and becoming more like the person i hope to be. it's not an escape, but it is an indulgence. and it is a way of connecting - with my dad, myself, with God.

we had lots of cloudy days in europe, and many of them were spent in the pursuit of a good cup of coffee - although that desire was rarely fulfilled by anything more than an americano in a plastic water cup or nescafe pellets sprinkled into tepid water.

in london - our first stop - sarah and i would stop into caffe amici during our 10-minute class breaks. our lattes were so good that they normally cost around 6,000 pounds. lucky for us, the guy behind the bar gave us a break. it was good coffee - and some of my most fun memories from early on are of fifteen american college students crowded around two small tables across the street from our classroom, trying to prolong our time out of the room for as long as possible. the second half of class always dragged on, but we with our coffee were like heroin addicts who had just gotten their fix. we also spent our fair share of time at cafe nero, which was almost exactly like starbucks except that everything was blue on the inside.

paris, our next stay, was a surprisingly inhospitable place for those of us who wanted a cup of coffee. espresso you could find everywhere - every street corner had some dingy cafe advertising on red posters their steaming demitasses of lavazza. and you always got a chocolate with your espresso, even at 9 in the morning, which i really appreciated. but for someone whose daily regular is a medium drip from peet's, espresso doesn't suffice. i can't curl my hands around the radiant paper cup, can't sip from it delicately at first and hungrily when it cools down a bit. it's three or four gulps at most, and it's gone. or it's lingered over for three hours at a cafe table and a slice of orange, but we rarely had the time to sit and read the morning paper. many of us resorted to daily trips to the deli/florist/purveyor of hot beverages conveniently located below our hotel and next to our classroom; indeed, it was here that i first encountered that bitter, angry, sharp thing known as the americano. the man behind the counter swore up and down that it would taste just like regular coffee. i beg to differ. it was in paris, in fact, that i broke down and went to my first starbucks (the first of many lapses in promises i had made to myself at the beginning of the trip, in hopes of experiencing local culture and cuisine. after almost nonexistent hotel breakfasts and mexican food in germany and russian hot dogs, i couldn't run fast enough to the nearest mcdonald's or sbarro's - which, interestingly enough, seem to thrive abroad while totally going under in the U.S. go figure.).

russia - oh, russia. the hotel okhtinskaya (don't be fooled by the website. it was baaad) was our home in st. petersburg, and served instant coffee in the morning. along with breakfast hot dogs, which looked like those spaghetti-o things you eat when you're little. they taste nothing alike.
our hotel was situated across the neva river from st. petersburg, so each time we went into the city proper we had to take a bus several death-defying miles in such a stop-and-go manner that people were constantly losing control of their bodies and sliding all around the vehicle. i don't remember a starbucks in st. petersburg, but there was a mcdonald's that served what seemed at the time like the best coffee in the world - in a styrofoam cup, piping hot, no little coffee crystals floating around - it was brewed. never mind that it still smelled of pickles and french fry grease. it was just what we needed.

poland, germany, and austria were comparable in their offerings - nothing spectacular, but nothing spectacularly awful, either. in munich, in fact, we stayed down the street from a quaint little coffee shop and bakery which, although extremely fly-infested, served delicious pastries and very good coffee. if this place was in a cartoon, the steam off the coffee would have crept out the front door, wound across the street, come into my hotel room and beckoned me with one long finger, leading me all the way as i floated in. krakow had another gem, an english-language used bookstore that we encountered walking down a street away from the main square on a cold and blustery day. the smell of used books exponentially increases the experience of drinking a cup of coffee, or any hot beverage, and the memory of that afternoon is one i'll keep for a long time, one that i can conjure up any time i close my eyes and inhale deeply.

the best coffee - the most pure, most protected, best-loved - was in italy. venice, probably, at the cafe del doges right before the bridge to the store i loved. it was always packed; the kind of a place where finding a table was as likely as winning the lottery. people were boisterous and full of life - it wasn't any good for studying or writing assignments, but it was as lively as any coffee shop i've ever seen. i mostly sipped espresso there, and learned to love it there. the little chocolate squares wrapped in gold foil, the genius of whoever decided to pair the bitter coffee with the sweet candy, the hours of people-watching and seeing how coffee really is a ritual to all those who partake. it looks different for everyone, but between the sugaring and the milk or cream or soy, the small-medium-large, the 'for here or to take away,' the blowing on it or burning your tongue, the talking in fifteen languages but understanding exactly what someone means . . . it was reverent and communal and confusing and funny. how life can be.

as time went on, we wound our way through turkey and greece, both of which landed on the espresso area of the coffee spectrum. those of us who needed our daily fix were always able, somehow, to get it - which is oddly comforting to me; knowing that even though you share so little in terms of culture or language with someone, you can almost always share a cup of coffee with them. the forms may vary, but the desire is the same. the experience is paramount - and that's one of the best lessons i learned while traveling in europe. coffee as a metaphor for life, something that ought to be savored deeply and never rushed, something that helps us prepare for the day ahead or gives us a break when we need one most. we relax, we talk, we gain energy through caffeine, yes, but also through community or through solitude. we have time of deep connection with others, and times of silent reflection, and morning papers and good books and terrible books that we're embarrassed to be seen with and run-ins with acquaintances. a day in a coffee shop captures the gamut of life - whether you're at a starbucks in california, a corner cafe in london, a bookstore in poland, or a mcdonald's in russia. i find comfort in that same-ness.

and i think about God, and how he is our advocate and comforter, and the giver of all good things, and i think about the people who first figured out that coffee could be useful when they saw their goats acting strangely after eating coffee beans, and i think about all the people who have come before me and all the people who will come after me, and that coffee will remain. that's pretty existentially dramatic, but mostly i mean that a cup of coffee makes me think and i'm glad for that. i'm glad that God didn't decide to make all meals in pill form, glad that we can experience and savor and relish the good things in life. and these things help us to learn.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

So glad you came to visit this weekend and we could drink some coffee together again!