The best part of being a foreigner is the opportunity to connect with other foreigners. (Stranieri is the Italian word for us. Sounds like strangers, no? Without a doubt we seem strange to Italians.) Far from home, we gravitate toward each other for a sense of understanding and community. We offer each other empathy and support. And how fortunate I am to be a native speaker of a language that is so widely understood! I’m learning so much about other cultures in my time here.
I’ve joined a running group with ladies of several nationalities. Once a week we meet for a run then chat over coffee. Once two women discussed the Danish tradition of making a big production of having coffee: dressing the table with a cloth, setting out fine cups and a carafe of coffee, offering cake. It sounds quite lovely, really, and quite unlike having coffee in the U.S.
My childhood home was not infused with a coffee culture. My mom doesn’t like coffee, in fact preferring Diet Mt. Dew. My dad often left for work very early, or worked third shift through the night. I vaguely remember him brewing coffee, to put in a Thermos for work, but the act of “sitting down and having a coffee” didn’t happen in our house until I moved far away. Grandma’s house, however, has always been where one sat for a coffee.
Grandma’s house was a quarter mile from our house, which was down a gravel lane from a country road. My sister and I would walk to her house in the mornings to wait for the school bus, and we would stay at her house after school for a bit (because Grandma always had cookies, of course, and later she had cable and let us watch Nickelodeon). I can hear the sound of her drip coffee maker, sighing and gurgling, hinting that there was life in the house when we walked through the door without knocking. I can smell the Folger’s, or Maxwell House, I can’t remember which, the hot hints of coffee with a tinge of what I always thought of as cardboard. It’s difficult to imagine now, when we Americans associate COFFEE with the rich roasted smell of Starbucks, or whatever comes out of your K-cups. It was much more the comforting fare of a classic diner than an overpriced, big-city blend.
Grandma would sit with us at her round formica table, each of us in a pivoting chair cushioned with yellow vinyl. She drank her coffee from her rainbow mug, or another mug from her collection, as my sister and I blathered about our days. She gave me my first taste of coffee there. I did not like it. I later acquired a taste for it through peer pressure and the help of mounds of sugar at a 24-hour diner with friends. Then I graduated to late 90’s coffee shops with milky, chocolate-rich, whip-cream topped coffee drinks at 10pm. Then I discovered the deliciousness of a French roast with milk in a 7:30 am anthropology class. Then I didn’t like milk in my coffee any more. Then I got pregnant and couldn’t stand coffee. Then I started drinking tea. Then I moved to Italy and have upped my coffee consumption considerably, often while standing at a bar before braving my grocery shop or while sharing a brioche with the kids.
However I’ve taken my coffee outside of a coffee shop, it never came with special touches. No stopping, no biscuits, just a pour before wandering off to do something else. Just a moment to fill up my insulated mug for the drive to work. Grab and go. A refuel. Ain’t that America?
What is your experience with coffee?