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2014 Grateful 16

There’s a saying in Turkey that a cup of coffee commits you to 40 years of friendship. That’s some commitment.

I grew up with instant coffee, granules that you add to boiling water and then add milk (white coffee) or don’t (black coffee).  A simple choice – black or white. When I first went to America a couple of lifetimes ago, I was completely bemused by the differentiation between filtered coffee or instant coffee, and completely confused when I went a second time to find that ordering a coffee now took serious thought. The styles: latte, espresso, frappé, cappuccino. The substance: skinny, decaf, leaded.

Today, it is even more complicated. I can have a long or short espresso (depends on how much water I add). I can  add some steamed milk and upgrade to an  espresso macchiato. Or I can top with whipped cream for an espresso con panna. And if I add some booze (e.g. sambuca or cognac) I can have an espresso corretto. And that’s just an espresso…

tcI had my first Turkish coffee in Sarajevo. It’s definitely an acquired taste. I prefer mine with a little milk, which borders on sacrilegious, and is not so much frowned up as simply not understood. Why would anyone want to add milk to Turkish coffee? The apologetic, wheedling smile that accompanied my request worked most of the time in Istanbul, but not always. One chap simply refused point blank. Another turned a deaf ear and ignored the milk part. A third explained to me that it just wasn’t done. Fair enough. When in Rome and all that, I thought…but it didn’t stop me asking.

What I didn’t know though was that Turkish coffee (the culture of it rather than the actual stuff itself) is inscribed in 2013 (8.COM) on UNESCO’s  Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity:

Turkish coffee combines special preparation and brewing techniques with a rich communal traditional culture. The freshly roasted beans are ground to a fine powder; then the ground coffee, cold water and sugar are added to a coffee pot and brewed slowly on a stove to produce the desired foam. The beverage is served in small cups, accompanied by a glass of water, and is mainly drunk in coffee-houses where people meet to converse, share news and read books. The tradition itself is a symbol of hospitality, friendship, refinement and entertainment that permeates all walks of life. An invitation for coffee among friends provides an opportunity for intimate talk and the sharing of daily concerns. Turkish coffee also plays an important role on social occasions such as engagement ceremonies and holidays; its knowledge and rituals are transmitted informally by family members through observation and participation. The grounds left in the empty cup are often used to tell a person’s fortune. Turkish coffee is regarded as part of Turkish cultural heritage: it is celebrated in literature and songs, and is an indispensable part of ceremonial occasions.

Had I known that the grounds left in the empty cup could have been used to tell my fortune, I might be viewing the world in a whole different light today.

At the end of a week that had days I thought would never end and days that I thought ended far too soon, I’m in need of a Turkish coffee or three. I’m knackered. So much is going on that it’s hard to keep track of it all. I want to scream at the world to stop, so that I can get off for a while and disappear. But that ain’t going to happen. And while I know that it’s sleep and not stimulants that I need, this week I am grateful for the restorative power of coffee. For the rituals that it comes packaged in. And for the conversation it encourages.

To the Sufi monks in Yemen – you have my undying gratitude.

 

Converted to coffee

A mate of mine once told me that you know when you hit the Balkans: the coffee gets good. Finding myself in the old town market in Sarajevo last Sunday afternoon, I sat down beside this old woman at a table outside a café. I asked the lady of the house for a coffee with milk. She shook her head. I asked for a Nescafé – I knew I wasn’t in Serbia but I was close enough to hope that the Nescafé concept might have leaked over the border. She shook her head again. Wine? Shake. Beer? Shake. She said something and at a complete loss for something to say, I nodded. This was a one-item menu.

I got a traditional Turkish coffee served with two cubes of sugar and a square of Turkish Delight. The coffee looked like mud. Something that reminded me of pond scum floated on the top. It poured like treacle, and the word ‘oleaginous’  came to mind. I don’t take sugar – and I never have coffee without milk. But when in Rome – or Sarajevo – I did as the locals do. And, as years of conditioning condensed and melted away, I found myself enjoying the experience.

Perhaps it was the market though – the ambiance? But no. The next day and the day after, I tried it again both at the hotel and at the conference room. I was in danger of becoming addicted – not to the coffee, but to that rush I got when the caffeine hit my veins and shocked me awake. And to the leisurely pace at which each tiny cup is sipped. I could live this life…

Coffee with culture

Way back in 1674, the Women’s Petition against Coffee sought to prohibit men under 30 drinking the drying, enfeebling liquor. Coffee led men to waste their time, spending their money on a little base, black, thick, nasty, bitter, stinking nauseous puddle water. A Prince of Spain once passed a law that men should not repeat the grand kindness to their wives, above nine times a night. Yes, nine times a night! But with the advent of coffee, men apparently were no longer capable of performing those devoirs which their duty and our expectations exact.Coffee, it would appear, far from being the stimulant it is today, actually hampered a man’s performance in bed.

Perhaps, though, it was men’s absence from the marital bed that hindered their performance. Perhaps it was because men chose to spend their time in coffee houses, which as well as places to drink and meet, were sites of political discussion, literary review, and late-night high-brow chat. The Spectator magazine was founded in a coffee house. Lloyds of London began life in one. They were cultural places to plot, discuss, and argue…

Hot gossip and grand designs

Coffee kick starts the day, focuses the mind, and readies the body for action. It witnesses the highs and lows of daily living. It’s party to hot gossip, innermost secrets, vengeful plans, and grand designs. It’s a perfect partner in solitude. The world is put to rights by someone, somewhere, every minute of the day as they take the time to sink into a comfy chair and sip their way to sanity. Is there a nicer way to start the day than with a classic Americano, its dark black sheen in stark contrast to the white ceramic cup? Is there a more relaxing mid-morning interlude than a frothy cappuccino that oozes opulence? Is there a better pick-me-up than the liquid gold of an afternoon espresso? And where better to enjoy this simple pleasure than in Budapest, with its tree-lined streets and pavement cafés.

Whether you prefer the old-world luxury of the Centrál kávéház or the retro feel of Ibolya on Ferenciek tere, both offer a refuge from the teeming masses. They are oases of calm in a city that is becoming increasingly westernised, with manic materialism and sterile sameness the order of the day. A little further up the road, Bali Café on Károly körút, contends with the heavyweights Costa Coffee and Coffee Heaven. These international chains are sucking the lifeblood from the city. Budapest’s laid-back café culture will soon be enjoyed only by tourists and those diehards who want to preserve the sanctity of a cup of coffee. The rest of the city, the harried workers and those too busy to stop and smell the coffee beans roasting are being slowly annihilated by ‘the enemy’-  a paper coffee cup, aka coffee-to-go.

Starry-eyed in Starbucks

All week, I’ve heard people talk about the new Starbucks in WestEnd; how exciting it is to have the world’s most famous coffee chain come to Budapest. In some people’s minds it seems to show that the city has arrived.  How short-sighted, I say. It is but the beginning of the end. In my mind, Starbucks and its ilk are responsible for the homogenisation of the world’s coffee culture, destroying individualism, wiping local joints off the table and replacing them with carbon-copy cut-outs. Those cardboard cups with their plastic lids hold within their simple design a force of destruction more powerful than any legislated social change. Like Tesco’s, McDonald’s and other mass-produced industrial landmarks, Starbucks is soulless, another extension of our fast food culture, which is completely counter-cultural to what coffee houses were founded to do.

I moved east because I wanted to get away from the mass consumerism that has engulfed the so-called western world. I wanted to disassociate myself from that throwaway culture, where everyone and everything is moving at an increasingly faster pace and the common chorus screams ‘I don’t have time’. I wanted to go some place where it was normal to sit and dissect the world over a cup of coffee, or simply smoke a cigarette and read a book or newspaper, while enjoying the bittersweet taste, senses undisturbed by bland uniformity. I wanted some place where I could drink in a little atmosphere along with a shot of caffeine, places like District V’s Csendes or District VIII’s Csiga.

Back in 1674, women were ready to ban coffee to preserve the grand kindness that men should do their wives. Me, I’d swap that grand kindness for the simple, pure taste of a dupla cappuccino from Café Alibi on Egyetem tér, with its caramel-and-chocolate-syrup butterfly painstakingly hand-drawn in the froth. This is feeding neither a physical dependency nor an addiction. It is a coffee unspoiled by commercialism; a coffee with culture.

First published in the Budapest Times 5 July 2010

The sum of all our choices

Ok – so it’s not an American breakfast, but it’s all I had on film!

When I first went to the USA, choices in Ireland still came in pairs: tea or coffee, catholic or protestant, married or single, cash or cheque. Sitting down to my first all-American breakfast in New York, I was ill-prepared for the verbal onslaught. The harried waitress delivered my options like an AK-47 spewing bullets.  Coffee – black or white, regular or decaf, milk or creamer? Eggs – fried, poached, scrambled, over well, over easy, over medium, sunny side up? Toast – white, wheat, wholemeal, rye, sourdough, granary? It was too much then, yet 20 years later, these options seem quite limited. Have you read a coffee menu lately? Could it be any more complicated? As for bread…I can list 15 different types beginning with the letter B!

Making choices is hard work. The April 2008 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology cites research who found that were are more fatigued and less productive when faced with myriad choices. Life was a lot simpler then a cup of tea and a slice of toast were the order of the day.

Northside or Southside?

It stands to reason that the choices we made yesterday pretty much determine where we are today. And it seems like yesterday that, having decided to move to Hungary, I faced the potentially life-shaping choice between living in Buda or in Pest. Dublin is also a city of two parts, although the Northside and the Southside are colloquial geographical expressions rather than official administrative areas. Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, lived on the Northside; Bono and the lads from U2 went to school there; and that hunk of Irish attitude, Colin Farrell, was born there. The Southside boasts the literary greats James Joyce and Oscar Wilde and the fictional Ross O’Carroll Kelly. Rivalry abounds and the jokes fly both ways: What do you call a Northsider in a suit? The defendant. How does a Southsider get a week off work? He phones his mother!  We talk about having to get a visa to cross the Liffey and ironically, I feel the same way about crossing the Danube.

Eastside or Westside?

I’m a Northside girl who leans towards the west. So, when I first arrived in Budapest, it was only natural that I looked towards Buda. I asked around. I consulted those in the know (locals, estate agents, long-term expats) and the consensus was that if I could afford it, I’d be better off living in Buda. It was more salubrious, they said; a better investment.  It was leafier, greener, and the air was better. And there were fewer Roma (yes, shockingly, that was an actual sales pitch!). But I wanted grit, diversity, earthiness, and attitude. I wanted to live, not retire. So I settled on the Eastside, in Pest.

Begrudgingly, as I was flying in the face of conventional wisdom, they spoke to me of districts. They told me not to buy in district VIII (aka ‘the ghetto’), as that was where the majority of the minorities lived, along with the hookers and miscellaneous petty criminals. They said that V was lovely, but I probably couldn’t afford it. They said that XIII was nice, too, but that heirs apparent were camped on doorsteps waiting to move in once their elderly relatives moved on.  They said that VI was almost as good as V but less expensive. Ditto moving down the line to VII; even the pastel-painted IX ranked up there as having some potential. I should buy anywhere but district VIII. So 57 flat-views later, I bought…in district VIII.

Style or substance?

Baglyas Gyuri (Beyond Budapest Sightseeing) was quoted in the New York Times recently. He rightly described district VIII as ‘the city’s best part: a laboratory of diversity, art, music and architecture’. If it’s salubrious you want, check out Keleti pályaudvar and step back in time when you step into its gorgeous old ticket hall; visit the ‘little Basilica of Esztergom’ on Rezső tér; and sit a while in the Golden Salon of the Public Library on Szabó Ervin tér. For green and leafy, there’s the Botanical Gardens on Illés utca, Orczy kert (behind the old Ludovica Military Academy) or the wonderful Kerepesi cemetery. Diversity is the key to unlocking the hidden gems of district VIII…gems like the new African Buffet at Bérkocsis utca 21 or the beautifully bricked music mecca, Grund Hostel, on Nagytemplom utca 30.

Given the 23 districts I had to choose from, I picked well. District VIII is where it’s happening. It has both style and substance and a personality all of its own. If Albert Camus is to be believed, and life is the sum of all our choices, then living in the ghetto definitely adds up!

First published in the Budapest Times 7 June 2010