During the first breakfast I had with my Serb, I was served a perfect espresso. Soon I would find out that what I thought was a treat made especially for me was actually his morning routine. See, I had grown up watching my parents brew full pots of Folgers in the morning, the residual coffee languishing in the carafe for hours, the smell permeating every inch of our suburban home. I myself adopted the coffee addiction during final exams in high school. I would sit at our kitchen table, brew a pot of coffee, and slowly drink cup after cup, while I pored over my physics and chemistry books for half the night, fueled by caffeine, and feeling very “adult” that I was drinking this stuff.
Even before that, my older brother, who took on the role of slowly nudging me into many ways of the adulthood, took me to a coffee shop as a 12 or 13-year-old and ordered me a steamed milk with almond flavoring. I drank it skeptically; it was my introduction to the world of coffee. Soon, coffee and I became fast friends and I, too, began to introduce others to coffee, convincing many a caffeine averse friend to enter my latte world. On a trip to Costa Rica, I brought home a simple wooden coffee maker with a cloth filter, through which you’d pour steaming water. Coffee would then stream through the grounds into a waiting cup directly below. Simple but ingenious.
When I was flying airplanes around the country, a lifestyle that led to culinary desperation, I found that I could actually serve myself coffee in flight without even leaving comfort of my cockpit seat. If I twisted around behind me, still fully harnessed in, I could just barely reach the coffee station in the galley, and with outstretched fingers, grasp a tiny Styrofoam cup, fill it with the bitter, diluted, brownish stuff that barely resembled coffee even on its freshest day. It came from a metal cube shaped container that was wired to an electric heating element. Not exactly luxurious, but it got me the fix I needed.
In Belgrade, I tried all the coffee I could. I had Turkish coffee made by a friend’s mom in their home, I had Nescafe made using an electric water heater in my language school lobby, and I had countless varieties of coffees at outdoor cafes. How refreshing it was to sit idly and chat the afternoon away, so far away from the ubiquitous Starbucks back home.
My relationship with coffee has been varied and we’ve had our ups and downs. And though it’s not always been good to me, I’ve always loved it. It’s always there for me in the morning to turn a grey day a little warmer. It’s always there as an excuse to meet a friend, or linger over a conversation, and lately, it’s there as a romantic ritual.
My Serb never stopped bringing me that morning espresso, except now it’s morphed into what he likes to call “AWESOME COFFEE.” These days he delivers it to me with a proud declaration of what he sees in the foam on top of the cup. Most days it’s a beautiful image, many times animals, like dolphins or dogs, or a soaring eagle. One day he declared, jubilantly, “Look! It’s a baby reindeer blowing bubbles!” Today he made me a mountain island in a sea of clouds. This is one cultural idiosyncrasy that I can really embrace. Especially when the coffee cup looks like it did on Christmas morning, like this:
I theorize that this enigmatic but endearing habit he has developed comes from the fortune-telling reading of the Turkish coffee grounds, a habit that Serbs adopted from the times under the Turkish Rule. Instead of reading the grounds at the bottom of the cup, he reads the foam on the top. Instead of interpreting it like a fortune, he reads it more like a Rorschach test.
Somehow this fortune-telling technique has been passed on – first from centuries of rule, then to traveling Gypsies, then on to present day Serbian kitchens as friends gaze inquisitively into each other’s coffee cups, dreaming of the future. Somehow after all those years, some modified version of this ritual has even found its own variation in my own home in Los Angeles.
“He was my cream, and I was his coffee – And when you poured us together, it was something.”