A few years ago, walking in the lower plains of Kilimanjaro, I met my first Tanzanian coffee plants. I saw the small huts of the coffee planters, the children chasing any mechanical device that came trough the plantation. I saw the small banana trees grown among the coffee plants. I saw the families work together tending the trees. And then I found the answer: coffee is not so glamorous, but coffee is the drink which is the bridge of cultural separation; the social fabric that binds human beings from blood to strangers together. My first memory of coffee was sitting on my grandfather’s knee and him reading the small coffee cup (flitzani) looking for future windfalls or disasters which they would be befallen our family. Our coffee was Arabic, Turkish, Greek... you pick which one you want. The black coffee grounds always floated to the bottom, which after you drink and turn it upside down for a couple minutes then the streaks would make raging rivers and tall mountains, bridges and snakes, birds and the longest roads. My grandfather, he reads all of this, (I see a long trip for somebody close to us but I did not see the road to coming back, someone would pass on to the other side) of course all of us would laugh because his father was 100 years old and he was with one foot on a 6 foot hole and smelling dirt already. He always would see weddings, funerals, money coming, money going. I still remember after 49 years, his hands holding the cup very gingerly and being the new Greek oracle of Delphi. My coffee does not come in 8700 different varieties as one of the biggest coffee shops proclaim on their website. My coffee comes with 8700 varieties of emotions; from exhilarating happiness to deepest sorrows and with 8700 hours with pure conversation and friendly arguing about politics, religion and any other non polite idea. My Greek coffee came mavro (black), metrio (medium), or yleko (sweet).
It meant it was served when we had company with a little froth on it. It was no more than three ounces and it was meant to be drunk for the next 3 or 4 hours, or as long as the conversation lasts. Coffee has the same meaning as love in a marriage, as the blood of family, as the communion between two long lost friends, the peace pipe of the American Indians, the soothing of lost loves and relationships. What I am talking about is the coffee at the Syrian music hall at the hills overlooking the city of Damascus at 2 o’ clock in the morning. Strong coffee with a hint of cardamon and the visit from an old weather beaten man selling cardamon seeds and after he inquired where we were from, through a translator, we respond from America - he started kissing our hands and telling us all Syrians love America and he repeated something I had heard a few times before, “America is good - Bush boom boom boom not good.” And he proceeded to tell us about his life. What a giant man. To me, any latte experience is a bother compared to my new found acquaintance with his abandon free cardamon for us.
The coffee of a morning in Sicily with Sergio at the Central Highlands, as we tried for a couple hours to communicate with my five words of Italian, his five words of Greek and six words of English. The coffee brought out his generosity, friendliness, his spirit as big as all of Italy. Then I remember the coffee at Palermo. You walk up to the bar, you order coffee, you drink it in one gulp, put the coffee cup down and leave. It reminds me of a scene from the movie One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in which the nurse dispenses the medicine. I have never been a heroin addict, but I hope that if I was, I would take my methadone with a little more and gusto and conversation.
The coffee of Litohoro Greece after two days in the morning of climbing Mount Olympus with my friends looking over the Aegean Sea and at the same time the snow capped mythical Olympus which was the majestic home to ancient Greek gods as we discuss their affairs 2500 years before. Coffee was served on a snowy day on January 30, 1958 after the long walk from the cemetery to the village which even small kids drink coffee for the special day to become adults and learn the reality of death. The coffee was served only with sugar to sweeten the loss of one of the 250 inhabitants of the mountain village. The man who just left was my beloved Grandfather.
Coffee was served in an Istanbul bazaar from a shop owner of handmade shawls after I told him I was Greek. The coffee was the heal of the relationship of two citizens of countries which have been at war for close to 1000 years. I would say we became friends even if I had not bought anything. I know I have coffee waiting for me there as long as one of us lives.
The coffee at Konya in East Turkey served haggling over prices of antique copper and urns. The sharing a scrumptious family style meal from the same copper platters sitting on a ground level stool. Coffee was served after the meal and cemented our friendship in both of our cultures. Coffee was the drink which my Christian faith and upbringing and his Islamic devotion made us children of the same god at Konya, the citadel of Islam.
Coffee was served for years at 1983 at my old Fish Market from a Russian visiting advanced mathematic professor. He brought his own briki from his country in his suitcase. He told me he can make friends anywhere, like coffee. Coffee was served at my visit to the olive farms in Crete Greece. It made the old people with a rough life and equally callous hands and huge moustaches to reminisce to a new found friend their heroic fighting with the German paratroopers at the beaches of their beloved island.
Personally I don’t look for the perfect coffee I look for my lost friends. I can not share coffee with them, my grandmothers aging hands, my short time to spend with my dearest friends, my little coffee shop at Tsitalia Arcadia the center of my universe, the longing of the Aegean sea, the miracle of the infant sister and the crossing of the life’s river of my grandparents all celebrated with the bitter coffee of my taste and sweet memories they bring to my soul…