Ishita’s post and our comments inspired this post.
A bartender at my favorite hangout in Helsinki once dared me to go without coffee for three days. The deal was no coffee, no caffeinated anything, and no soft drinks. I accepted, because it seemed like an interesting challenge, and because she said the magic words, “I dare you,” which I’d never heard in Finland. I could have cheated, as the bartender ended up not being there, but I wanted to keep up my end of the bargain. And see how I’d fare. I drank a lot of Cranberry juice when I was at The Bar, and felt fine, no headaches, no withdrawal symptoms, no mood swings.
But something was missing, something essential, that small act of lifting your mug to your lips, of just having it there in front of you while either talking or writing. You can’t put your finger on it, yet it’s important. It’s that part in the ritual that feeds your soul.
My best memories center around coffee. Little things, seemingly insignificant. Sitting in the kitchen with my brother, talking, drinking coffee, smoking. People I hold dear, sitting with them, talking. Going to my favorite café (run by Hungarians) in Germany if I happened to miss my bus, which happened to be the case a lot. Funny, I don’t really have any memories involving Germans.
I love coffee, I’m actually drinking one now. I don’t need coffee to wake up, but once I was awake I’d start my daily ritual, coffee on the way to work or at work, depending if I liked the place or not. That’s how it’s always been, and that’s how it’ll always remain. There are a few places I worked at, where I’d never have coffee. Because coffee, to me, is a sacred ritual, one that can never be sullied by the presence of something I hate. Then again, if I really hate the place, I’ll wait until my job for the day is done there, and then treat myself.
If I’m meeting up with the people I love, coffee is essential. If our meeting is the body, coffee is its soul. You can survive, you can even function (watching some people in high places, you can even function very well, though you can tell that their eyes are dead), but the essence is gone. A few months ago there was a minor commotion when someone found a gay look-alike of the current American VP, in Florida, if I’m not mistaken. The resemblance really was uncanny. But there was still a difference, you could tell who was who even though you couldn’t pinpoint it. Until someone left a comment: yes, but this guy actually has a soul. For me (and my close friends), coffee is exactly like that, it provides that little extra to round out the experience.
But here’s the interesting thing. It only rarely works at home, only with certain people. People I’ve been to cafés with before. Where this was not the case, where we only ever had coffee at theirs, again there was something missing. It seemed contrived, most likely reminded me too much of Germany.
Growing up, where we lived when we happened to be in Germany, people would do “Kaffee und Kuchen.” Either inviting you over to their house, or going to the “Konditorei,” the cakery, usually on a Sunday afternoon around four, with typical, utmost German precision. The cakes and the coffee were always served with “Sahne” (any type of cream). The occasion was always super formal, showing off the best china, the best tablecloth, the best air freshener for when Dear Guests had to wash their hands. The sessions at the cakery didn’t fare any better. Customers sat in their Sunday best, minding their manners, consuming their coffee while eating their cake.
Finland is a bit similar in that there is a solemn formality around coffee. There’s always a pot brewing at every place of work, breaks are required by law (which usually means coffee), and guests are invited over for coffee with cardamom bread, known – to employ a frequently used cliche – fondly as pulla. Coffee is important to the Finns, so much so that they take the world lead in its consumption.
The internationally known coffee franchises are always full, coffee is served in even the most ramshackle bar. And yet, there’s something missing here as well. Coffee fulfills a function, becomes almost a necessity. People have gotten so used to it, they can’t live without it, even taking pride in Finnish coffee being an acquired taste. The coffee at one of my regular hangouts was so special, several Western European friends begged me to never take them there again unless it was for alcohol.
Which isn’t to say we are snobs (though really, we are). We (and this also includes Hungarians) just love our coffee a certain way, not as the framework around which we form our entire being, but as the little extras once the house has been built. Those colors, seemingly invisible in a quiet corner, which really light up the entire room.