As a child, I loved to watch my mother’s face when she ordered coffee in a restaurant. When the steaming cup arrived, she’d frown, blow on it suspiciously. The suspense was unbearable. She’d take a first, dainty sip. Then she’d sigh, deeply, sensually. Dobra kava, she’d say – good coffee. I’d sigh too, with relief, to see Mama so happy. At the time, I had no idea why this bitter, unsweet substance was so crucial to her well-being. But these days, I have my mother’s same devotion to good coffee, and will search for it across cities and entire continents.
When I am travelling, coffee is the source of my greatest hope and greatest fear. I am dreadfully addicted to the substance, and cannot function without it. How will I assure that it will be available, in rich steamy abundance, immediately upon my awakening? Will it offend my hosts in Berlin, or Prague, or Kyiv, if I bring my tiny Italian stove-top espresso maker, or my Melitta filter?
At Carolyn and Katarina’s sunny, dishevelled apartment on Sorauer Strasse in Berlin, I am usually the first one up. I negotiate my way through last night’s dishes and little Noel’s picture books, trucks, and Peter Rabbit bowl, groping for the kettle, finding the Melitta filter lodged inside a saucepan. We drink the coffee with dense, brown German bread and Gouda cheese, before I head out to explore the carnival that is Kreuzberg, their neighbourhood on the border between what people there still refer to as east and west Berlin.
At Barb’s apartment in downtown Prague I can smell the coffee as I waken, made always in Barb’s king-size espresso pot that she brought with her from Montreal. Back in her Montreal bachelor days, warm milk was frothed with a handheld Braun blender, and we drank our coffee from bowls as we lounged on expansive couches like pashas. On this morning, I warm the milk myself, waiting for Barb to return from taking her daughter to school. Later, we will sit in a café on Stare Mesto Square, beneath the Old Town hall with its ornate astronomical clock, sipping frothy long espressos, eating croissants, talking dreamily, long and deep into the afternoon.
Once, I dated a woman who did not believe in coffee. She would not keep it in her house, would not tolerate me bringing my own stash. If I slept at her house I had to creep out of bed at an ungodly hour and go across the street to a croissanterie that opened early enough to accommodate me. I’d order a stiff espresso, followed by a langourous latte. And then I’d return to her bed and lie there in a blissful, warm, spaced-out coffee-haze. When she finally awoke, I’d pretend to wake up too, in a cheerful, wholesome, I-am-so-not-addicted-to-caffeine kind of way. No one was the wiser, or so it seemed.
A few months into our relationship, she led me into her kitchen with a secretive air, and there on her stove was a vintage, avocado-green percolator. It was the sweetest moment we ever had. It wasn’t just the coffee: it was her saying: I’m onto you.
These days, I take my coffee where I can get it: at Arabesque, a Middle-Eastern café on College Street, near my house, where the coffee is mischeviously spiced with cardamom, and, more often than not, comes accompanied by a tiny, honey-imbued flaky pastry studded with pistachio, on the house. Or at the Riviera Bakery, further east along College, where the tiniest nuances in your coffee order are noted by the kind of sold-as-a-rock Italian women you want on your side no matter what. Long espresso, macchiato, latte, cappuccino…they have your number. And they’ll give you a grilled chicken panini on the side, for a song.
How do you take coffee in the morning? Is it an elaborate ritual involving Italian implements or small Turkish carafes? Does coffee mark your work day – with coffee rings on a desk, or a peaceful break in a cafe? Has it ever led to romance? Is it as crucial to happiness as it is for me? Does it enter into relationships like precious baggage you’ll never discard?
-Excerpted in part from Comfort Food for Breakups: The Memoir of a Hungry Girl, forthcoming from Arsenal Pulp Press.